Odd Jobs 2011

Epiphany 5

Matt. 5:13-20

I want to tell you a story. My mother-in-law, Mary, was a constant joy and revelation in my life. When she was ninety-one years old, and although failing in some regards, certain things remained constant. She was the Queen of non-sequiteurs. She held the Stanley Cup for malapropisms and was a black belt in sentence stoppers. On our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Mary surveyed Faye and my marriage, looked at me and signed, “Well, I guess it’s going to last!” Of course it lasted for another 15 years of her life, and she became more and more important in my life. Often I would stop to see her on my way home after I have made my hospital calls. Usually she had had dinner and was tucked in bed, “resting her eyes.”

One day, as we chatted, Mary looked at me and said, “Now what is it you do?” I was wearing my clerical collar. “Well, Mary, what do you think I do?” “Let’s see. Mike graduated from college and is a house painter.” “Yep, Mary, you got that right.” “And Chris works as an editor in New York.” “Very good. I’m impressed.” “Faye works in Greenwich for the Board of Education.” “Wow, you’ve got them all right!.” Mary looked at me for a long time; then, she pointed her finger at me and said, “I know what you do. You do odd jobs!” She had me. I was speechless. All I could do was to say, “You know, Mary, I think you are right.”

Much of what I do is “odd jobs,” and I expect the same is true for you. I write. I make phone calls. I talk to people. I have lunch. I chat for a while with someone in a store. I sit in a meeting. I conduct a service. I wait. I think. I pray. I read. I go to the hospital. I listen. I move furniture. I carry cartons. I run the Xerox. I laugh. I cry. I look out the window. I would stop and see Mary. Odd jobs. My annual report and my resume gussied things up a bit. I can write objective and vision statements and list goals and accomplishments. But Mary is right. To be a priest is to do “odd jobs.”

Mary, of course, had a unique perspective on my “odd jobs.” I thought at first that she was being condescending, implying that my work was “catch-as-catch-can,” erratic and quirky. But no, Mary was deadly serious about my work and about life. Two weeks later I stopped to see her and she asked, “And how is wifey?” I replied that Faye was in a swivet because she was trying to keep teachers and administrators from doing some really misleading and dumb things. Mary commented, “She’s very smart, you know. Even as a little girl and in college she was very, very smart.” “Yes, I figured that out.” I replied. “She has always been very smart.” Mary repeated. “You know, Mary, what I can’t figure out, is if she is so darn smart, why did she marry me?” Mary looked me square in the eye, pointed her finger and said, ” Because you are going to get her into heaven!” Mary did it again. I was dumbfounded. Finally I said, “Well, what about you?” “Oh, you’re going to get me into heaven, too!” “What if I die before you do?’ “Oh, my gosh,” she said, “then I’d be in big trouble!” “Don’t worry, Mary, I’ll pull you through.” “Oh, good.” I said a prayer for her, anointed her, and kissed the top of her head. That night, I sat in my chair with Ben, my dog, at my feet, smoked my pipe, and thought about Mary and today’s gospel.

“You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world….let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven….Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill…. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven….” Jesus admonished his disciples to get serious about their lives, to have integrity, and to be aware of the fact that their lives affected others. Their lives counted and meant something to themselves and to others. As followers of Jesus Christ, salvation was before them. Jesus represented the righteousness of God, a righteousness that they could receive only by grace. Nonetheless, because they were followers of the Son of God they, in their righteousness, were to uphold God’s commandments and witness to others.

Mary had two things right. The number one job of a priest, a Christian and of the Church, is the salvation of souls. All the “odd jobs” are but the “ways and means” towards the care and tending of souls. Like so many when faced with a critical illness or in a life-threatening situation, Mary was concerned about the basics. She was worried about her own soul and those of her children. Her question was, “am I going to make it into heaven, and is my daughter going to make it into heaven?” As far as she was concerned, my central task was to help her and her daughter get into heaven. My central concern should be the welfare of her soul and Faye’s. Mary pointed out that the function of the Church is the “cure” of souls.

Now this is downright scary. I’ve got all sorts of “odd jobs” that have to be done. I just spent an hour planning the next diocesan clergy conference. I wrote notes asking parishioners to please send in a pledge card so we could get an accurate tally of our pledges. We have just had our annual meeting and elected new officers. We have paid attention to our “odd jobs.” You and I seek to make worship inspiring, edifying and glorifying. Individually and corporately we reach out and do acts of hospitality, compassion and charity. Why? Perhaps for a lot of reasons. But at the center is the idea that it is good for that which is at the core of our and someone else’s existence, the soul - our individual souls and the parish’s soul.

Secondly, Mary was right in reminding me, as Jesus reminded His disciples, that our lives count. They affect others. We take our lives for granted. Those who are self-absorbed often are affected, so we don’t like to look at how we affect other people. But we are like salt, or like light on a hill. How we live, move and have our being affects others. That means if you are poised, kind, compassionate and friendly, you can have a positive influence on your neighbor and those around you. For example, Faye’s old secretary in Greenwich (a truly “odd job”) was “a breath of fresh air.” You felt good after talking to her. She affected your soul. Contrariwise, a parent (a full-time “odd job”) who is constantly upset, exhausted and sour - regardless of all the high sounding theories of child rearing he/she might spout - is teaching the child that life is hard, disappointing, frustrating, ugly and hopeless. That parent negatively affects the soul of the child.

My mother-in-law, a good parent, in her 90’s had distilled the teachings of Jesus. She knew the importance of our soul; of eternal life (heaven) and of the influence we have on others. Perhaps when I saw her I should have asked, “How is your soul today? Is it easy?” If her soul was troubled, then perhaps I should have suggested we pray together and ask for God’s righteous peace to sustain us. Perhaps, too, when you greet your neighbor, or your spouse today, you should say, “Friend, how is your soul? Is it vital and healthy and growing?”
Of course we don’t say things like that. We are Episcopalians. It is the Pentecostals, the Evangelicals, and the charismatics that talk like that. We are cultured; highly prize our anonymity and our private life. So perhaps our journey of faith, our Christian formation, is a little “odder” than others. We have to be salt in a dish or a light in a Waterford globe. We have to give glory to God with a classical melody. Our job as Christians is a little “odd.”

Even so, Jesus Christ assures you and me that the kingdom of heaven awaits us. He reminds us, as did my mother-in-law Mary, to get on with our “odd job” of the cure of our soul, and to be diligent in the “odd jobs” of influence and care of our family, neighbors and even those whom we do not know. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” May God greet you and me at heaven’s gate with “I know you. You are the one who did ‘odd jobs.’ You helped others into heaven. Jesus Christ awaits you. You were the salt of the earth. You were a light to the world! You took care of your soul and the souls of others. ” May God bless us, and may God bless Mary. Amen.