Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
-Colossians 3:23-24 (NIV)
I don’t remember the commencement speaker at my high school graduation. That’s not necessarily a reflection on, well, whoever it was. It’s just that the commencement speaker is honestly not the highlight of most high school seniors’ graduation exercises. It’s the end of twelve years of hard work, after all. Most graduates are thinking about old friends and new experiences, remembering the past and thinking about their futures. The person who says a few (too many) words in the middle of the ceremony just doesn’t stand out in their minds.
Quinton Anderson will remember.
He’ll remember partially because the speaker mentioned him by name. Quinton graduated May 21st from Joplin (Missouri) High School, a year after a tornado devastated the town and killed 161 people. Among the dead were Quinton’s parents, members of the 26th and Connecticut Church of Christ in Joplin. The speaker had this to say:
In a city with countless stories of unthinkable courage and resilience over the last year, there are some that still stand out – especially on this day. By now, most of you know Joplin High senior Quinton Anderson, who’s probably embarrassed that someone’s talking about him again. But I’m going to talk about him anyways, because in a lot of ways, Quinton’s journey has been Joplin’s journey.
When the tornado struck, Quinton was thrown across the street from his house. The young man who found him couldn’t imagine that Quinton would survive such injuries. Quinton woke up in a hospital bed three days later. It was then that his sister Grace told him that both their parents had been lost to the storm.
Quinton went on to face over five weeks of treatment, including emergency surgery. But he left that hospital determined to carry on; to live his life, and to be there for his sister. Over the past year, he’s been a football captain who cheered from the sidelines when he wasn’t able to play. He worked that much harder so he could be ready for baseball in the spring. He won a national scholarship as a finalist for the High School Football Rudy Awards, and he plans to study molecular biology at Harding University this fall.
Quinton has said that his motto in life is “Always take that extra step.” Today, after a long and improbable journey for Quinton, for Joplin, and for the entire class of 2012, that extra step is about to take you towards whatever future you hope for; toward whatever dreams you hold in your hearts.
Quinton will likely remember his commencement speaker, President Barack Obama, for the rest of his life. Hopefully, he’ll also remember what President Obama said: “that extra step is about to take you towards whatever future you hope for; toward whatever dreams you hold in your hearts.”
Human beings tend to make one mistake or the other when considering the way that God works in our lives. On the one hand, sometimes we don’t give God enough credit. We start to think that what we want to accomplish, what we dream about and hope for, whatever success we might have, depends entirely on us. And so we make decisions, set value, and take action without his participation, or even without considering the possibility that he might want to participate.
On the other hand, sometimes we sit back passively and wait for God to act, as though God’s will is fatalistically sealed and our effort has no bearing on the events of our lives whatsoever. But often - it’s probably best to say usually - God acts through human effort. He accomplishes his will, brings about good, cares for the hurting, opposes evil and injustice, through the work and prayers of men and women like us. Springsteen puts it this way:
“Freedom, son’s a dirty shirt
The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt
Shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone...”
Often, God does his best work when human beings take that “extra step” President Obama referred to. When people “are determined to carry on; to live [their] li[ves], and to be there for” others - to keep their shovels in the dirt - God sometimes changes the world.
So it only makes sense, doesn’t it, that Paul would tell the church that formed the original audience for the letter we call Colossians to work at whatever they found themselves doing “with all [their] heart[s], as working for the Lord, not human masters.” It has to be pointed out that this particular piece of instruction was originally aimed at slaves. If even so immoral and unjust an institution as slavery couldn’t get in the way of the energy released when human beings work hard in an effort to please the Lord Who works in them, with them, and through them, then what can he accomplish with the work he gives us to do?
Paul told another church that he saw himself as God’s “co-worker.” While God’s work of salvation and redemption comes first, and gives meaning to our own, he’s chosen human work as his preferred method for intervening in the world. He’s chosen to make us his co-workers, and through us to reveal himself.
As his people through Jesus, then, we try to bring our hopes for the future and the dreams we hold in our hearts into line with his own heart. Then we pursue those hopes and dreams - work for them and pray about them - with everything that’s in us. God will take our efforts, along with our desire to please him and honor him, and do something in the world that wouldn’t exist without our willingness to work hard and please him.
Remember, a life spent like this is never lived in vain. When human beings finish spilling sweat and blood in working for him, God goes to work. And he weaves our work together with his into something that’s world-changing.
And when we’re done, and we can rest, God has something for us that will outshine our hopes for the future and the dreams of our hearts as the dawn outshines midnight.
May we start today - whether our lives are just beginning or moving toward their end - to take the extra step.