Big Ed Armstrong was one of a kind. Six feet tall and nearly as wide, with a Santa Claus white beard. No moustache – just the beard around the chin, in an Amish style. The force of gravity and time being what it is, that seemed to be where the hair on the top of his head had migrated to over the years. He was an imposing guy with a booming voice and a can-do attitude, and he had been a fixture most of his life in the church where I raised my children. He loved the church and he loved his garden, and anytime we drove by his house, we could see him outside, tending the flowerbeds from a seated position – he couldn’t get down on his knees anymore – or raking leaves. He also had another love: mathematics. He had taught at one of the private schools in the area for decades, until he retired.
That turned out to be a good thing for us, because my boys were math-challenged. And you know how it goes when you try and help your own children with their homework…it’s not pretty. So Big Ed was their tutor. He coached M and B and C and S through algebra and geometry, C through trig and calculus as well, and they did well in their exams. The skills he taught them served them well in their studies beyond high school and in their work. They continue to use the math that Big Ed taught them.
But the best of the lessons that Big Ed imparted had very little to do with math, or school, or anything like that. It had to do with work.
You see, Big Ed never charged for his tutoring sessions. He cut a deal with the boys that he would help them with their math if they helped him in the garden, usually raking leaves, but also mulching after the raking was done, and shoveling the walk when it snowed. They got an hour of tutoring for each hour of garden work. And they learned their math and they learned that their work had value. They still talk fondly of Big Ed, who has gone on to his reward in heaven. I know Big Ed would be proud of the men they have become, of the lessons they learned beyond the equations and the formulae.
That was a precious gift, that lesson. They got their hands dirty, and of course Ed did, too, moving some dirt around, handing them a rake or a hoe or a spade. He never simply sent them outside to do the work, he did it alongside them, as much as he could.
I found myself thinking of Big Ed when I was meditating on today’s passage from 2 Thessalonians the other night. We used it as our Bible Study in our Vestry meeting, and I think at first the Vestry members were taken aback by it. I could see on their faces what I thought as I first read it: “There’s St Paul being Mr CrankyPants again. He’s berating the Thessalonians for hanging out with people who don’t work hard. He’s saying ‘I didn’t sit around on my hindquarters when I came to visit you and set up the church in Thessalonika – I worked right alongside you!’ And he’s making it sound like they’re a bunch of lazy slobs. Doesn’t sound like good evangelism to me!”
And at first glance, that is what he was saying. But as the Vestry wrestled with this text, something very interesting began to happen. The tone of the message from Paul took a backseat to the message itself, which is a very straightforward one: We all are supposed to get together and do the work that Christ sets before us. No one gets a free ride. No one gets a bye because he’s more important. Everyone gets their hands dirty.
Now Paul framed his message as he did, because in those very early days of the church, people thought that Jesus was coming back any minute. They thought they didn’t really have to work. In the next moment – zap! – Jesus would be back and earthly responsibilities would be irrelevant. But Paul was telling them that none of us know when Jesus might return, and while we’re waiting for that blessed day, we have work to do, every single one of us.
And the Vestry and I, we had our “aha!” moment – yes, the work continues. Even when we pass a milestone toward which we’ve worked, the work continues. And every one of us is supposed to do that. You and me and every one who is a part of this church family.
That work takes different shapes, because, as Paul told us elsewhere in Scripture, we all have different gifts to offer. It’s a good thing. It would be pretty boring if all of us were good at numbers, or all of us were terrific dancers, or all of us were awesome gardeners…that variety is one of the great gifts of God’s creation.
And that is the message I share with you today, on this Commitment Sunday when we bring our pledges of financial support to the altar and say “thank you” to God for his gifts to us. That is a part of what we do to carry on the work of this parish, and of the larger church, and of Christ in this place and time. But it is not all.
We need to remember to get our hands dirty, in whatever way God calls us to do that. Three people have been nominated to serve on Vestry. Should you choose to elect them to that service, they will get their hands dirty in the management of the day-to-day operations of the parish. This may be their call at this time in their lives. And in another time, it may be yours. But they do not do this alone.
There is other work to do, and there are other ministries that help carry out Christ’s command to love and to preach and to serve. In a few minutes, after we have been fed at this table with Christ’s body and blood, we will go into the Parish Hall for a delicious lunch before the congregational meeting. And that lunch will happen because J and many others made it happen. In the same way, this service of Holy Eucharist happened because D and the Altar Guild, T our Sexton, the Usher Teams, C and the Acolytes, A and the Choir, the folks caring for the little ones in the Nursery, G and K and A teaching down in Sunday School, L in the office, and even me – we all got our hands dirty or at least busy, doing Christ’s work.
How do you get your hands dirty, doing Christ’s work? It’s easy. You don’t wait for an invitation. You volunteer to help. You experiment to figure out what God is telling us to do at this time and this place. You try something, and if it is not the right fit, you say “Thanks for letting me try this out, but I need to try something else.” If it is the right fit, you thank God and you do the work joyfully.
In our Eucharistic Prayer at Communion, we pray, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” We come here today and every Sunday to be fed and to be built up so that we can do the work God sets before us. There is so much wonderful work for us to do together. And we’ll get our hands dirty together, all of us, not just the same folks who get asked to do things over and over again because they’ve said yes before. That’s what Paul is talking about.
That’s the lesson that Big Ed taught my boys, in his own inimitable way. We’re going to work together for Christ’s kingdom, and we may get a backache and a blister or two, and we may laugh over silly jokes, and we may shed a tear when one of us can no longer be with us, and we may even have an “aha!” moment when we feel Christ’s presence among us. These lessons, this work, are what Christ expects of us until he comes again…and when he comes, won’t he be proud of what we’ve done? Let’s get our hands dirty – together!