Becoming an Inspiration: What You Do with What You Know (Sermon Notes)
This is the fifth sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on October 11, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.
We’re inviting several of you off and on this fall to tell us a bit about what you do outside of the church, so we can pray that we’ll be able to find God and the inspiration God brings in all of life, and participate in our own way in what Jesus calls his kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.
If you were here last week, you saw Jason Donnelly take a turn up here with me.
And today I’ve invited _______ to join us to answer a few questions…
- So tell us just a little bit about yourself. (name, how long you’ve been around this church, where you’re from, and another non-work fact or two)
- And what have you chosen to tell us that you do you outside of this community? (a bit about your work, or if your primary work these days is a volunteer passion, or at home, or looking for work, etc., then that)
- Follow-up question from Steve – what is the best thing about this work?
- What’s something that’s challenging for you about this?
- How can we pray for you?
I don’t know about you, but when I think of inspiring people, my mind drifts toward famous inspirations – makers of historical change, people like Nelson Mandela.
But this year, I had the chance to be a part of a cohort of 15 churches looking at work, faith, and economics, and that gave me the opportunity to meet quite a few more under the radar inspirations. People around the country who are finding purpose and passion in their daily work, and so are becoming an inspiration.
One of them was a public school educator named Nader Twal. Nader grew up in Saudi Arabia before moving to the States as a teen. And though he looked at a quite a few career options, he ended up becoming a teacher in the city of Long Beach, California. And as a high school English teacher, he learned some interesting things…
-US and functional illiteracy
-particularly high amongst students in large urban school systems
-particularly high amongst those who are incarcerated
-And so Nader thought, I’m not just teaching English, but changing the direction of people’s futures. I’m impacting whole family systems.
And so Nader taught in Long Beach, and he taught so well, he won a national teaching award. And he was so respected within his own school, that when a major accreditation project came along, he was asked to lead it. And that put him on a trajectory that led him out of the classroom and into broader responsibilities.
Now in this large urban public school district, Nader’s job is to make sure that all of the teachers of Long Beach have the tools and inclination to do excellent work in the classroom. Nader could continue to be a great classroom teacher – in some ways that is his greatest pleasure. Nader could also do a lot of other things too. He’s been to theological school, and he could be a pastor. He speaks Arabic, so probably the state department would take him. But what Nader knows most is excellent classroom teaching, and his passion is to equip and to inspire educators to do transformative work with young people. He thinks what Jesus wants him to do in the world, and he cares about doing that well.
I heard about another gentleman named Chef Mike who is a chef, as you may guess. He knows food – he can make an amazing deep dish pizza pie. But Mike also knows a lot of guys who’ve done some time in prison. And if you have a criminal record or have family or friends who do, you know that it can be really hard to gain access to certain types of employment when your CORI check doesn’t come out clear.
So Chef Mike was able to partner with a local church who had a passion for community well-being in a particular neighborhood. And together they launched a small business called 5000 Pies. They make great deep dish pizza pies and great dessert pies, and they train and employ folks from their neighborhood who have criminal records but want to get their employment and their lives going in a positive direction.
And again, Mike could be a chef somewhere else, and this church could spend its energy elsewhere, but they know this neighborhood, and this problem of CORIs and employability and they know pies. So their knowledge became care which became love and passion, and they’re doing this inspiring thing in their community.
There are everyday inspirations all around us, and I know they are all around this room as well. Today I want to ask how it is that every one of us can be an inspiration, or keep being an inspiration. And rather than pointing us toward big causes we don’t know about (which there’s a place for)… but rather than doing that today, I’m going to explore what we do with what we already know.
This is our fifth week in a series we’re sticking with all fall called “Inspired” The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” We’re looking around at various corners of real, everyday life and asking what difference it makes if we find God there. We’re reading these short little stories Jesus tells called parables that provoke us to imagine what life looks like with on the scene, and we’re reading an ancient but quite vivid biography of a refugee named Ruth, who finds herself trying to start over in life.
And it’s to Ruth and a new character in the story, Boaz, that we’ll turn next as we see what it means to live with purpose and passion and to be an everyday inspiration.
This excerpt is on the inside flap of your program, and we’ll meet Boaz here. Just to get you up to speed. Boaz is distant relative of Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi, and Boaz owns the farm that Ruth stumbles upon, when as a young widow, recently arrived in Bethlehem, she’s trying to find some work and some food.
Here’s what happens when Boaz sees her working in the field.
RUTH 2:5-16 (NLT)
Then Boaz asked his foreman, “Who is that young woman over there? Who does she belong to?”
And the foreman replied, “She is the young woman from Moab who came back with Naomi. She asked me this morning if she could gather grain behind the harvesters. She has been hard at work ever since, except for a few minutes’ rest in the shelter.”
Boaz went over and said to Ruth, “Listen, my daughter. Stay right here with us when you gather grain; don’t go to any other fields. Stay right behind the young women working in my field. See which part of the field they are harvesting, and then follow them. I have warned the young men not to treat you roughly. And when you are thirsty, help yourself to the water they have drawn from the well.”
Ruth fell at his feet and thanked him warmly. “What have I done to deserve such kindness?” she asked. “I am only a foreigner.”
“Yes, I know,” Boaz replied. “But I also know about everything you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband. I have heard how you left your father and mother and your own land to live here among complete strangers. May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.”
“I hope I continue to please you, sir,” she replied. “You have comforted me by speaking so kindly to me, even though I am not one of your workers.”
At mealtime Boaz called to her, “Come over here, and help yourself to some food. You can dip your bread in the sour wine.” So she sat with his harvesters, and Boaz gave her some roasted grain to eat. She ate all she wanted and still had some left over.
When Ruth went back to work again, Boaz ordered his young men, “Let her gather grain right among the sheaves without stopping her. And pull out some heads of barley from the bundles and drop them on purpose for her. Let her pick them up, and don’t give her a hard time!”
This is an interesting scene. It sounds like Boaz has a bit of an eye for Ruth… but I don’t think that’s the main thing going on in this story. Not yet. I actually think we meet Boaz first as an excellent employer.
See, Boaz notices who’s out harvesting his fields. His foreman is in charge of this part of the operation, but Boaz still takes an interest in the work and still takes an interest in the workers. And he finds out about this new person on his land.
Turns out she’s not a worker, technically. She’s a gleaner. We talked last week about how this society had a provision for access to work and to food for all people, so Ruth is legally out there picking up the scraps left behind by the paid harvesters.
But rather than resent this or even just ignore her, Boaz takes what he knows really seriously. He institutes a sexual harassment policy. He doesn’t want any of his employees bothering this foreign, single, young woman. And he makes sure they know that. This is a remarkable move in his time and place in history.
And then he finds out about Ruth and goes way beyond letting her glean. He’s extraordinarily generous. He tells her not just to pick scraps but to get right in amongst his harvesters and pick good grain. And he makes sure that she’s going to get enough. He treats her like one of his longtime employees, making sure she has access to clean water and to lunch on the job.
I think in the end, though, this isn’t out of pity, it’s out of honor. He’s impressed by Ruth’s loyalty and character and work ethic, and he gives honor where honor is due. Ultimately, this isn’t charity either. It’s empowerment. Ruth has work and safety and dignity. She’s starting to find her place in this new town.
Boaz is no superhero. He’s a farmer and a business owner. He knows agriculture, he knows management, and he knows a good person when he sees one. And in this, he takes what he knows, and he cares, and then he acts.
And to me at least, it’s inspiring.
Who else is doing this kind of thing today?
Well, one person I read about this summer is Hamdi Ulukaya. Hamdi is the founder of Chobani, the yogurt company. And he’s got quite a story. He’s not much older than me, and in his early twenties, he was living in Eastern Turkey, working with his dad on a dairy farm. He came to the states to take some business classes, stuck around, and found a niche as a small-time feta cheese producer.
But one day he saw a flier that an abandoned yogurt production facility was for sale. And he thought, this thing Americans are eating and calling yogurt – this watery, sugary stuff is awful. I can do better, I can give America the real thing. So against the advice of a lawyer and a business consultant, he launched his yogurt company.
And it popped. He made some really interesting, turns out brilliant strategic decisions, found a market no one knew existed, and in less than a decade, his team grew this business from nothing to a company whose products are in every major grocery store.
Ulukaya has done well for himself. He’s worth over a billion dollars.
What does Hamdi Ulukaya know? Well, he knows business, and he knows money now, and he knows dairy, and he knows generosity. Since Chobani’s inception, they’ve tithed off their profits – given 10% of their income to good people doing good work in the world. It’s an awesome financial model – one my family practices as well – to give 10% or more of your income to good people doing good work you care about. We do this by giving substantially to this church and by finding other people and places we know about to give to on top of that.
And that’s been Chobani’s practice.
But their founder doesn’t just know dairy and business and generosity. Hamdi Ulukaya is a Kurd born in Eastern Turkey and an immigrant to America. So he knows about Central Asia, and he knows about Kurds, many of whom live in Iraq, and he knows about being far from your home. And so in the midst of our current world refugee crisis, Ulukaya decided to be another one of those extraordinarily wealthy individuals to make the Giving pledge, sometimes also called the Buffett pledge. To give the majority of his wealth away, during his lifetime, to transform people and communities for good.
And Ulukaya pledged to give at least $700 million dollars to help Kurdish refugees, and other individuals impacted by the crisis in Syria.
This is our Long Beach educator Nader Twal, and our pie-man Chef Mike and his local church partners, just at another scale. It’s an ordinary person taking what he knows, and seeing that to know is to care is to love.
This is a definition of knowledge that a public intellectual I know named Steve Garber says is actually what that word knowledge in the Hebrew Bible means.
We hear knowledge and we think of our remarkable brains. That can absorb and make sense out of so much information, and use that information in so many interesting ways. But Garber says this Hebrew word for knowledge – yada – is a word that in the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament, has such a wide range of uses, everything from knowing factual information to relational and other very intimate forms of knowing.
And Garber says the sense of this word, in the Hebrew scriptures, is that to know, is to care, is to love. To know is to be implicated. To know is to have responsibility for what we know. To know is for that knowledge to form the highway of relationship, of caring and loving in our areas of knowledge.
And this produces an inspiration. None of the people I’ve talked about so far – Chef Mike, Nader Twal, Hamdi Ulukaya, Boaz of the book of Ruth – none of them had to go find out about human needs they weren’t aware of. None of them had to try to be superheroes outside of their areas of interest and skill and knowledge. They all knew stuff, and knew people.
And they all decided, or maybe it came intuitively to some of them, but they all wedded knowledge and curiosity with care and love. They felt with what they knew. And the acted on what they knew.
And they inspire me. And if you talked with any of them – well, Boaz not being available for conversation any more – but if you talked with any of the others, than you’d find that they are inspired by what they’re doing. The passion and purpose they get from caring and loving with what they know feels great. It makes them alive.
And I expect that’s been true at some level for anyone that any of us has deeply admired for their work in the world. The knew and cared and loved in some way. And they made them both inspired and inspiring. They get to breathe in joy and purpose even as they’re producing that for others.
Why don’t we all live this way, all the time? Know and care and love, with boldness and purpose.
Well, a big reason that this same author I mentioned, Steve Garber suggests, is that we’re all infected to one degree or another by two other old ways of interacting with our knowledge, which are stoicism, and cynicism. Stoicism and cynicism are ancient Greek schools of philosophy, and I have neither the time nor the skill to do them justice. But a contemporary stoic is someone who doesn’t care. And a cynic is someone who doesn’t bother.
The virtue in fact, that a stoic would cultivate is the Greek word from which we draw our word apathy. Because we all know that life is hard and that we can barely manage our own problems, if at all, let alone the rest of world’s challenges we know about. And a stoic learns to tame one’s passions, to cultivate acceptance, to get less worked up, to cease to care.
What is Hamdi Ulukaya thinking with this whole Syrian refugee crisis? Does he not realize that throwing money at this problem isn’t enough? And Chef Mike and his little 5000 pies? He, what, maybe employs 5 or 6 folks with CORIs. Scale that business up, make it 500, and it’s still just a drop in the bucket.
This is the stoic in all of us, grown up who learns to stop caring in what we know.
But we’re not just stoics, Garber says, we’re cynics. We see people’s flaws when we know them, we don’t trust institutions. We’re too smart to be idealists. Thin of Nader Twal’s mission to equip and to inspire. Does he not realize that most teachers think their professional development is a joke? That old dogs can’t learn new tricks. And speaking of dogs, think about Boaz and his cute little harassment policy. Does he not realize men are dogs, and will do what they’re going to do what they like when he’s not around?
It sounds kind of awful when I put it to words, but that’s what I think a lot of the time about people with big dreams. That’s what I think a lot of the time about my own hopes and dreams. Are you with me on this?
They cynic in us grows up and learns to stop trying to act on what we know. Because it’s not good enough, and because we don’t trust anyone involved, ourselves included?
[Now for the younger people in the room, you might hear me talking about grown ups and think, Come on. Of course if you know about a problem, you’re going to care, and you’re going to do something about it! But kids, sometimes grown ups forget this. We get less hopeful when we’re older. And we don’t always have enough courage. So we need you to help us believe, and to help us remember how we care and we want to try to help. Can you remind us of that, kids?]
But you know who misses out most when we let our inner stoic and our inner cynic rule us? Well, the world around us misses out, but we do as well.
Last week I mentioned a famous quotation from the 4th century North African writer and theologian Augustine of Hippo. Augustine wrote:
Hope has two beautiful daughters;
Their names are Anger and Courage.
Anger at the way things are, and
Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.
Our inner stoic keeps us from anger, the good kind. Stoicism keeps us from caring. And our inner cynic keeps us from courage. He keeps us from acting, it keeps us from any risk. Cynicism stops us from doing something with our knowledge.
And whether we’re stoics or cynics because we’re managing our image – naivite, passion, care and love don’t always look very cool. Or whether we’re stoics and cynics because we’ve failed, or because the odds seem to steep, or because we’re just so very afraid, we still miss out.
And so we live without passion, and without courage, and without hope. And when that happens, the world never sees our inspiration, and neither do we. And that’s a crying shame.
Jesus too thought that what we do with our lives is more important than what we say. What we do with our knowledge is way more valuable than how we look at first, in our knowing.
Jesus once told a little story that’s been interpreted in all kinds of interesting and complicated ways, as it should be. That Jesus. Is. Deep. But if nothing else, it’s a story about this.
It’s another little workplace tale, but this time it’s a family business, and we have a father and his two sons, out in his vineyard.
It’s the second excerpt on your program:
Matthew 21:28-32 (NLT)
“But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go.
“Which of the two obeyed his father?”
They replied, “The first.”
Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.
My dad was a contractor when I was growing up. Instead of tending a vineyard, he laid roof, and painted houses, and built small additions for homeowners north of the city. It never turned into a father and son business, though, because my brothers and I were never much help. We were all the second son, telling my dad begrudgingly that we would help when he asked us, but then finding any excuse to stay away from the job. Baseball and video games always looked better to me than cleaning up old roofing materials or digging post holes.
One son in this story is like us. He says he’ll act on his fathers’ request, but then disappears when it’s time to do something. The other one is a pill. He says, No, Dad. I’m busy. I don’t want to. You’re annoying. Stop being so mean.
(Can you tell I’ve heard this once or twice? Kids, have you ever talked this way to your parents?)
Well, in the end, though, the obnoxious kid with the lip goes out to the vineyard and puts in the work, and Jesus’ point is that is the good kid.
Jesus says that it’s not the words we say, or the image we project, that gets us access to God’s country. We find God in the picture, we find God’s love and power and joy, we start to access heaven on earth, as we act on what we know. As, in our actions, we say yes to Jesus, regardless of who we are or what our first response is.
Jesus goes on to apply this to a controversy in his setting, that he spent so much time around people who’s lives had looked like they were saying no to God. Violent, extorting collaborators with the Roman occupying force. People of embarrassing morality and reputations. Jesus made them his friends, and many said yes to Jesus’ invitations in their lives.
Other people who spoke better and looked better did nothing with what they knew, and they’re not finding God in the picture. They’re not getting God’s kingdom heaven on earth.
God says ultimately it’s not about how we use what we know to work our image, and it’s not about what we first say or do when Jesus invites us to act. It’s what we do in the end with what we know. Jesus uses the word “repent” which means make a change in direction, change your way of thinking.
And we might hear today Jesus inviting us to change our stoic and cynic ways of thinking, how we get bogged down in apathy and fail to care. How we can stuck in distrust or fear and fail to act in courage. How we can say yes to God and to what’s most important, but then fail to act.
And Jesus, I believe would say to us, today, change your way of thinking. Get to work in the Vineyard. And step into my land, the spaces where I’m in the picture in all things. And enjoy the life for you there.
Let’s get practical with this.
Our first next step is:
- Listen for and respond to invitations from Jesus.
This is actually a line straight out of our membership agreement. We’re a very open church and so membership isn’t very formal and doesn’t involve votes and meetings. But we like to be able to give people an opportunity to say, “This is my church.” So we offer a members’ class called 101 a few times a year, and there are actually very few things we ask of our members. But this is one. We say, listen for and respond to invitations from Jesus.
Because our sense of things is that like the father in today’s story, Jesus is often inviting people to do something important, to try something new, to open up in some way to be more fully alive and more fully connected to ourselves and others and God and the world. So we say be on the lookout, and be ready to respond.
Here’s the thing, though:
- These invitations will most often relate to the people and things you know most.
Boaz in the field is invited to see, to act, to honor, and so to be a difference maker in Ruth’s life. Just as I saw last week, the thing that isn’t good enough, this is how God starts to make more of it, through Boaz responding to God’s invitation to see and act.
We can think that if God shows up in our lives, it’ll mean quitting our job, becoming some kind of other-worldly heroic person. But as we’ve seen today, God’s invitations to us most often come in the context of the people and things we already know.
How will we do our jobs? How will we use our skills and talents? What will we do with our money? How will we respond to that unexpected need we see in our colleague or relative or that person who lives two floors up from us?
- To know is to care is to love – pour into this knowledge flow.
This is what knowledge really means. It’s to care and to love. By pouring into this kind of knowledge, we know not just with our minds, but our hearts and our actions.
But this is hard, so we need to:
- Confess and disrupt your inner stoic and cynic – wherever you lack care or courage.
The natural flow of life is that we’ll return to stoicism and cynicism. We’ll go back to not caring, not trying. Disrupt that cycle – through confession, prayer, and action.
- Take one risk each day to live with greater purpose and passion.
Just once, each day, do something that makes you an inspiration, or that fill you with inspiration. This is how we were meant to live. This is what God is inviting us to.