Part 2 of the Sermon Series “It’s Just Like Facebook, Only You Know… Real”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
February 8, 2009
Isaiah 2:5-8; Ephesians 2:1-10
Isaiah 2:5-8 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD! For you have forsaken the ways of your people, O house of Jacob. Indeed they are full of diviners from the east and of soothsayers like the Philistines, and they clasp hands with foreigners. Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots. Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.
Ephesians 2:1-10 You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Not long after I had lived here in Washington, I began to notice a peculiar thing. I kept getting asked the same question over and over again. I’d get it at parties. I’d get it out at dinner. I’d get it pretty much any time I met someone new. It was usually the second thing they would say to me after asking my name.
“So, what do you do?”
What do you do? For those of you who have not yet experienced this phenomenon, don’t worry–you will. It is the quintessential Washington question. They ask different questions in different cities. In New York City, they ask, “So, where do you live?” Different cities assign different values to different things. In smaller towns, they’ll ask how you know the host, or something more relational.
But here in the nation’s capital, it’s about what you do. And believe me, your answer will be evaluated for what it can do for the other person. Lawyer is an okay answer. The closer you are to K Street, the better. Hill staffer is a great answer–depending on who you’re a staffer for.
I used to get so tired of that question that my friends and I used to joke about answers we’d like to give just to see people’s reactions, like: “I sell poisoned milk to schoolchildren” or something like that. One friend wanted to say, “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” Alas, we never did that and just answered things like, “I’m a lawyer. Where? Oh a small firm you’ve never heard of.”
And that usually ended the line of inquiry because once it became clear that I wasn’t in a position to advance someone else’s career, there was no point in pursuing it.
In Washington, our status is directly tied to what it is we do. For that reason, I think it’s interesting that Facebook calls those little updates about our activities “Status updates.” It intrinsically ties our “status” to our activities. For those of us who live in a town like this one, such a simple little statement says more than it knows.
And yet, tying our worth to what we do is nothing new. And nothing limited to Washington, D.C. This is something that we’ve been dealing with for a long time.
It is perhaps a great irony that it was among the Protestants that the obsession with work got started. The Protestant Reformation was launched as a protest against the idea that favor in God’s eyes was earned in any way through the deeds we did , the works of the law that we performed. And yet, it was out of that very strain that came a school of thought that emphasized activity.
The Puritans, like other Calvinists, accepted a doctrine of predestination. They believed that one was saved or damned from before birth. At the beginning of time, God determined who were elected to salvation and who would be damned. There was nothing anyone could do about it. Whether you were bound for heaven or hell was completely out of your hands. It was determined by God alone. Calvin himself taught that you could not know who was saved and who was not , and so you had to give people the benefit of the doubt.
But the Puritans came to believe that they could tell. Puritan elders believed that a person’s salvation could be determined by how much God had blessed them. That is, you could tell who was bound for salvation by how successful someone was, this showed God’s favor upon the individual.
And so, Puritans worked hard. They worked hard so as to demonstrate the salvation they believed they already had. And as a result of working, they often prospered and did quite well for themselves. And out of that was born something that has shaped the western Protestant world ever since: the Protestant Work Ethic. Work is not something we do to earn a living, it is something we do to demonstrate our goodness, our worth.
The tendency to demonstrate one’s goodness with one’s work is often even more pronounced in men. Men very often self-identify with their work. For many men, our work is who we are, not simply what we do. We derive meaning from what it is we do, to such an extent that the loss of a job can often be tantamount to the loss of identity. It’s something that we men need to keep an eye on, to keep from getting out of balance.
III. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
But there is something else at work as well. It seems that the idea that we are what we do, or that we are defined by our activities, is more common than ever.
For me, my experience with it all started with Instant Messenger away messages. I only started using IM when I came to campus and began to notice that there was an inordinate amount of information that you could learn about a person just from their away messages. Sometimes you could get a person’s entire schedule for the day by looking at an away message. You could learn where a person was, who they were with, and what they were doing. Everything from “In class” to “Showering”. I will confess, I don’t think I needed to know all that information.
But that trend of advertising to the world what we’re doing has only gotten more pronounced since the advent of Facebook. Now you can let the entire planet know what you’re up to. If you’re not near a computer, you can do so from your phone.
I am sure that the factors that prompt this are many , but it seems that more and more we are feeling compelled to advertise what it is we do. We live in a culture of self-promotion , in a city driven by accomplishment and activity. Together that creates a society where we cannot help but focus on what we do.
We judge people on what they do. And we judge people for what they do not do. We promote ourselves, adding important lines to our resumes to demonstrate our accomplishments. We talk about people who are “lazy” and “unproductive” as if they were undeserving of our compassion. We want everyone to know what it is that we do. So that they may properly gauge our “status”.
And that’s why we so often get our religion wrong.
There is real peril to getting so focused on what we do, and making sure everyone knows what we do. Isaiah writes satirically about the practice of idolatry among the peoples, saying :
Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.
“ They bow down to the work of their hands ”–that is, they fashion idols themselves, then they pray to them, as if they had not made them themselves. It is a biting criticism of idolatry. But do we not run the risk of doing the same thing ourselves? Do we not give much weight and value to the things we make, the things we do? Are we not in danger of creating idols out of our accomplishments , imagining that our salvation is something we make for ourselves.
But there is another way that focusing on our work can be destructive spiritually. Because we become so convinced that our relationship to God has something to do with what we do. That our “status” in God’s eyes is dependent upon our accomplishments , our actions, our worth.
Now, as a community steeped in Wesleyan tradition, we place a high value on faith in action. We believe that our sanctification results in our growth in personal and social holiness, and that social holiness is known through our works of justice and mercy. But all of that is how we live out a faith as we reflect on a relationship with God that we already have. A relationship that is not in the slightest way dependent upon our accomplishments.
Listen again to some of the words we heard read earlier from Ephesians:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
God loved us “even when we were dead through our trespasses.” That is, even when we were in such a state of sin that we were spiritually dead, cut off from life, God loved us. As the lines of the ancient communion liturgy say, “ When we turned away and our love failed, your love remained steadfast.” God loved us when we were in rebellion. God loves us in all our brokenness.
As the author of Ephesians points out, God saves us not because we merited it. Not because we earned it. Not because of anything we did . God saves us because of who God is .
We are saved by God’s grace , not the result of works. Our status is “child of God”– a status conferred on us by a loving and gracious God.
We can get so caught up in the way that our broader culture moves us. We can live in cities that promote status through job. We can use technologies that encourage us to identify our activities 24 hours a day. We live in a broader protestant culture that embraces the value of hard work. And we can hear these messages over and over again–“ What do you do?” “What are you up to?” “How’s your work coming?”–that it can begin to affect the way we view ourselves and our relationship with God.
But God does not afford us status based on our accomplishments. In reality, what could you or I do that would impress God? “Hey God, look at this amazing PowerPoint I put together!” “Look at this internship I got!” “Yeah, that’s nice. Have you seen the Grand Canyon?” But our relationship with God, our status before God is not dependent on what we do. It is dependent on whose we are. And God has claimed us as God’s own. We are God’s children and that is all we need to be. Feel free to set your Facebook status to say “So-and-so is a child of God.”
In the end, that is the only status that matters.