Thursday, February 15, 2024

"A Lunch-Pail Job"

 John Stewart, the comedian who became famous for hard-hitting political satire while hosting The Daily Show for 16 years, has recently returned to the show on Mondays as part of a rotating slate of guest hosts. Stewart is, to me, almost always funny and occasionally insightful. Especially so this past Monday, as he reflected on the upcoming Presidential election and the choice between, in his view, two not-so-great candidates. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, it was what came next that I think most everyone would have to agree with. 

     He talked about how who wins the Presidency, while important in our government, is not the only thing we should be thinking about. His words really resonated with me, since I think sometimes we put far too much of the weight of our own happiness and well-being on which millionaire or billionaire spends enough money to win an election, and far too little on the everyday things we can do — or not do — to make our world better. Stewart said: 

“The work of making this world resemble one that you would prefer to live in is a lunch pail…job day in and day out, where thousands of committed, anonymous, smart and dedicated people bang on closed doors and pick up those that are fallen and grind on issues ’til they get a positive result and even then have to stay on to make sure that result holds. So the good news is: I’m not saying you don’t have to worry about who wins the election. I’m saying you have to worry about every day before it and every day after. Forever.”

     I have a cousin who, in the name of Jesus, ministers to inmates in prison. Week after week, he shows up, I suppose sometimes literally banging on closed doors so that, through prayer and love, he can help pick up the fallen. A “lunch pail…job.” He has no authority to reform prisons or change any broken systems. He just shows up and prays and worships and talks with prisoners. He’s served death row inmates who one week were there and the next…weren’t. If he stopped showing up, many of the gains he’s made in the lives of some of those men would likely be lost. Our world tends to discount the value of contributions like that. Politicians prefer high-dollar, high-visibility projects that produce easily-trackable results and translate well to votes. Administrators always think the answer is more funding.

     Just a few weeks ago, I tried to get in touch with some of those politicians about what we’d need to do to use our building to house a family of migrants who have been sent to our city by other politicians looking for splashy headlines. I was told if we couldn’t house 20 or 30 people they had no use for us. Bigger is better. 

      I’m saying those attitudes are wrong. What my cousin Tom does matters. What small churches and individuals and organizations do in a neighborhood matters. What “thousands of committed, anonymous, smart and dedicated people” do to “grind on issues ’til they get a positive result” matters. They do help to make our world somewhere you would prefer to live. Especially when they’re done in the name of Jesus.

     One of Jesus’ best-known miracles is the feeding of the five thousand. He multiplies five loaves of bread and two fish to feed this huge crowd of people. When everyone’s full, there are twelve basketfuls of leftovers.  

     And how does this miracle happen? 

     A little boy shares his lunch. He, literally, shows up with a lunch pail.

     Jesus tells the disciples that it’s up to them to get this enormous mob of people fed. They have no idea how they’re going to do that. But they tell him, “Well, we have this kid’s lunch here. That’s a start.”

     It takes some courage, desperation, faith, or all of the above, to throw five pitas and two fish at more than five thousand people and call that a solution, doesn’t it?

     Yet believers in Jesus do that every day at shelters, food pantries, schools, hospitals, orphanages. They’re underfunded and undersupplied, and they know it, but they give what they have to Jesus and they put on a brave face and they get to work. They show love, they pray, they encourage and offer grace, they get creative and thrifty, and in the churn of all of that Jesus multiplies what they have and makes it more than enough.

     Churches do the same in their neighborhoods. Missionaries on the field. They serve and give and share what they have. They see themselves as the body of Christ, his presence in the world, and they pray and start passing out what God has given them, and God increases it exponentially. He meets needs. He shows his love. He spreads the good news of Jesus with the words, actions, talents, and resources of his people.

     Jesus told a story to help change the perspective of his disciples on the things he would leave them to do in the world, and the resources he’d provide them to do it. In the story, a wealthy man goes away on business, and Jesus says “entrusted his wealth” to three servants, who he expects to multiply his holdings. 

     That’s a different perspective than we sometimes have right there. God entrusts his wealth to us. We’re not as underfunded and undersupplied as we think. We don’t always see the worth of what God has left us because it isn’t always in currency that the world around us values, but that’s just a problem of vision. We have resources of skill, spiritual gifts, potential co-workers, and God’s power that we don’t even know about.  

     In the story, the estate owner only asks for results in proportion to what he’s left. Maybe sometimes we expect more of ourselves than God does. He sees our efforts. He knows how hard we work to do his business in the world with what he’s given us. He doesn’t expect perfection, and he doesn’t demand unreasonable results. And he promotes from within: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”

     And then sometimes we expect less of ourselves than God does. And he’ll make that clear to us as well, if we’ll listen.

     Paul told the church in Corinth, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” It’s interesting; that comes at the end of a chapter that’s all about the hope of resurrection. That’s his conclusion; if Jesus rose from the dead, so will we. And if we rise from the dead, then what we do for God here and now has ripples that we won’t even see until “the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” and “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

     So keep at it. Keep praying and working and sweating and giving what you have to the Lord, knowing that he has already given all he has to you. Keep going until you hear “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

     And then you’ll see, finally, what all your hard work has accomplished. And it’ll be glorious.

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