A few years ago, I was applying for jobs.
I had about twelve years of experience as a fundraiser. I had managed annual funds and asked for major gifts and run planned giving efforts. I was a Certified Fund Raising Executive. I was shiny and promising and looked good on paper.
So I sent out resumes. And I filled out those online applications that ask for exactly the same information that is on your resume. And I interviewed.
One of those interviews was a preliminary phone interview for a major gifts position at a hospital. We talked about the job: cultivating and asking and stewarding donors; getting those big gifts from important people. We talked about the pay, which involved a very large number. We talked about me; and we agreed that I am pretty awesome.
And after the interview, they sent me some essay questions. And one of them was something like, “Why are you PASSIONATE about working for…” this organization.
And I thought about the prestige of being a major gifts officer for a hospital. And I thought about that very large number. And I thought…
I’m not passionate about working for… this organization.
And there was this church in a small town in Iowa. And we had been talking a little bit. And they seemed pretty cool. And the truth is… I am much happier being your pastor than I would be with the prestigious job and the very large number.
And not just because I don’t have to wear a suit to work every day.
Today, we are ending our summer sermon series titled Be the Church. For the past couple of months, we’ve been talking about this list that the United Church of Christ has; this list that we put on banners and mugs and aprons and all sorts of swag; this list of ways that we can be the church. It’s not an exhaustive list. There are many more ways that we can be the church. But it’s a good start.
We’ve talked about protecting the environment. In little ways, like washing the mugs and making sure that we recycle. And in big ways, like putting solar panels on the church building and pressuring our representatives to do more about climate change.
We’ve talked about caring for the poor by sharing the extra that we have with the Christ who we meet in every pleading face and outstretched hand.
We’ve talked about forgiving often and the discipline that it takes to forgive someone—sometimes the same someone for the same offense—anew every day.
We’ve talked about rejecting racism. About working against the racism that we find in personal bigotry and unconscious—and sometimes, maybe, even in conscious—biases. And about working against the racism that is so embedded in the structures and systems of our society that it will keep going even if everyone agrees that racism, and stay with me here, is bad.
We’ve talked about fighting for the powerless, and about our responsibility to use the power and privilege that we have to stand up to those who would push others down.
We’ve talked about sharing our earthly and spiritual resources; that, despite the protestations of a world obsessed with scarcity, when we share our stuff and our love, there is enough and more than enough to go around.
We’ve talked about embracing diversity. We’ve talked about the eighty-twenty rule, and making room for each other, and discovering the ways that the things that someone else loves can enrich our lives, too.
We’ve talked about loving God with our words and our actions and our thoughts. Everywhere. All the time.
And I have ended those sermons with the same refrain. I have told you again and again that these are big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things to do. I have told you again and again that being the church is a big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled thing to do.
And it is. It is also a joy-filled thing to do… a joyous thing to do… and joyful thing to do.
Be the church; enjoy this life.
Our reading today is from the book of Ecclesiastes. It isn’t a book that we spend a lot of time with. It is a strange book. It’s the rambling thoughts of someone who looks at the world and sees…vanity. Chasing after the wind.
You can be the smartest person in the world. You can be the richest person on earth. You can be the most famous person ever. And it all ends the same. From dust we all came… and to dust we shall all return.
It’s not exactly a joyful book. But it resonates. Being the church is work. And it would be easy to look at all of the things that there are to do…
…from figuring out the finances to ending racism…
…and all of the steps that we—as a congregation and a community and nation and a world—have taken forward and taken backward…
…especially now, in the middle of a pandemic, when things are new and strange and hard…
…and throw up our hands… and say, “It’s all just vanity. It’s all just chasing after the wind. Let’s just… not.”
I know that temptation. I get that temptation. There are times when I am tempted by that temptation. There are times when I look at the work in front of me and wonder why I’m doing all of this stuff. There are times when I want to throw up my hands, or crawl back under the covers, or just give up.
I also know that in the midst of all of this, there is joy. And I know some of those joys:
The joy of the butterfly garden. The joy in seeing the face of someone who didn’t have enough, suddenly have enough. The joy in releasing anger and reuniting with someone I’ve missed. The joy in being introduced to a new and wonderful thing. The joy in eating and drinking with friends… and the joy in doing the work to which God has called me.
And there are joys that I hope still to discover. The joy of seeing systems of oppression overthrown. The joy of a world discovering that there is enough and more than enough. The joy of becoming who I am called to be… who I am, deep down, where I am the most me.
Because here’s the thing. The author of Ecclesiastes knew that real joy isn’t found in being the smartest or having the most or being the most popular. Real joy comes from finding our wholeness in the God who creates us, sustains us, provides for us, and loves us.
That is joy.
Of course, that is a countercultural joy.
I am sure that there are people—maybe even some people in this congregation—who would have looked at that job as a major gifts officer at a hospital, and the prestige that it offered, and the very large number, and said, “You should take that job.”
Because we live in a society that tells us to pursue prestige and wealth and all of those thing. We live in a society that tells us to seek out vanity and chase after the wind. And that we’ll be happy if we do that.
And don’t get me wrong. That can make us happy. That can bring us joy. But when we lose the prestige or the wealth or the whatever… we lose the happiness and the joy, too.
And so God does not call us to the joy of wisdom, or wealth, or fame. God does not call us to the joys of dust… the joys that can blow away in the wind. God calls us to the joy that we find… in God. The joy that we find when we are who we are, deep down, where we are the most us.
And that’s a joy that can look strange to people who are chasing after the wind. It is the joy that we find in protecting the environment, in caring the poor, in forgiving often, in rejecting racism, in fighting for the powerless, in sharing our earthly and spiritual resources, in embracing diversity, and in loving God.
And, yes, those are big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things to do. And, yes, I thank God that I know some people who can do big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things; I thank God that I know some people who can be leaders in doing big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things.
But when we are responding to the call that God has placed on our lives, they are also joy-filled things to do. So thank God I know some people who can do joy-filled things. Thank God I know some people who can be leaders in doing joy-filled things. Thank God I know some folks who can be the church.