This summer, I read a short essay by Toni Morrison, the prestigious African-American writer. She was writing about her first job. After school, she would clean a house in a neighbourhood where there were steaks in the fridge and a washing machine and a vacuum cleaner – items, as she says, that were common in this neighbourhood but absent in hers. As time went on, and as her cleaning skills improved, she was asked to do more and more chores for the same wage: to carry a bookcase, or move a piano. She knew these tasks were not something a young girl should safely do, but she was proud of the money she had to spend on herself, and even more so about the money she had to contribute to her family. Even though she was being taken advantage of, she didn’t want to get fired. But it was her father who really defined the job for her, when she finally complained to him about the job. She describes how he put down his coffee cup and said: “Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.” That is what he said, Morrison writes, but among the lessons she heard, one she tried to remember all her life, was this: You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.
But if that is how we understand work, we might wonder why at parties, or when meeting someone new, we are so often asked, or so often ourselves ask: What do you do? It’s a filler question, of course, to move the conversation, but we assume the answer - teacher, accountant, doctor, mason, engineer, etc – will reveal some truth about the person, define them in some way, so we can understand them better. If we are proud of our job, if it is prestigious or interesting, we offer it up so that we might be so defined.
And we put the same question even more pointedly to our children: What will you be when you grow up? Even when they are in grade school, we ask them to write essays about the profession or job they want to have. We ask them to pin themselves down into a work, into a place. How often do we ask them instead: What kind of person do you want to be? What is important to you? Isn’t that the real question for all us: Who will we be when we are grown up? Who are we now?
In our gospel, we find Jesus and Peter in a heated discussion. Jesus is explaining that the path they are on will lead to Jerusalem and his death, and Peter, understandably, wants a different outcome. “This can’t happen,” he says. Jesus insults him – calling him the devil – and chastises him for getting muddled up in human things and not divine. Let’s consider where Peter and Jesus part ways in the context of work. Jesus was raised to be a carpenter; he became a healer. Those are two worthy occupations that he might have done for a long life, bringing honour to himself and helping others: he would have been a contributor to society. But Jesus refused to be defined by the work he did; he was driven by the person he wanted to be, the person he was destined to be. And the more he spoke up, the more he taught, the more he used the status and talent he had to make a difference, the more trouble and danger came his way. Jesus did not walk passively to his fate; he taught and lived as though building homes and curing the sick were not acts enough to create a better society. It was who you were, the choices you made, the belief and value you held, that made the difference. Losing your life, as the gospel defines it, is about losing the things that trap us in that other mindset: where a person’s title and salary decide their worth, where we decide our own worth by those same standards. Indeed, we have a clear prescription in our second lesson, and does it ever conflict with our in-it-to-win-it world. We are told to bless those who wrong us, to take on the pain of those who suffer, to be noble, to live peaceably. To overcome evil, not with more evil, but with good. That is a very different kind of job title.
A few weeks ago, when Hurricane Harvey was still heading to Houston, a man named John Bridgers went into action. He had been there before, organizing volunteers with boats to help people trapped by flooding in Louisiana, and he knew what was coming. They called themselves the Cajun Navy on Facebook, and a group of them loaded up their boats and began driving to Houston to be prepared. Some made it before the waters got too high. Bridgers was caught on the outskirts of the city. But he got on Facebook and began using their page, with its 50,000 followers, to organize a rescue from afar. Posts were coming in about pregnant women trapped, or a person in a wheelchair in a flooded house, or seniors unable to get out of nursing home, with their locations to help focus rescuers. When this is done, Bridgers says, they will help rebuild Houston as well. Reading a story about him, you’d naturally wonder what John Bridgers does for living. What’s his occupation? His so-called real job? The story doesn’t say. Except of course, it does. John Bridgers is someone who acts in the face of tragedy, who offers his help and expertise to those who are in need. That is a real job. The kind that defines a person. Perhaps if someone like John Bridgers were asked, “What do you do?” he would say, I try to do my best to ease suffering where I can.
As we go forward into the busy season, may we all think about how we answer that question: What do you do? Think of how we want our children to answer it for themselves: Who – not what - will you be when you are grown up? Let us shape our answer not around human titles and ambitions, but by the divine, by the gospel, by the example of Jesus. Or as Toni Morrison puts it: “You are not the work you do. You are the person you are.”