Some people speak of being raised on a farm. Others, in a city. I grew up in a grocery store. My father managed it, and my mother worked in it. My brother did as well, for a time; and my sister, in her turn. Of course we had a family home; we children went to school; and our life as a family was more than work. Still, the store was always there, a shining place of wonder to my little eyes: aisles full of brightly colored boxes and cans; piles of fruits and vegetables, which my parents trimmed and changed each day; the rotating rack of comic books, which I could take home and read, provided that I kept them fresh, like the stacks of brown paper bags, ready for use at the checkout counters. There was also the intimidating meat department, which we weren’t supposed to enter, because it had to be kept clean, like an operating room. And I didn’t want to! The butcher didn’t smile.
Slightly before the legal age of fourteen, I started working, part-time, at the store. I liked it: catching the heavy cardboard boxes that came down the rollers from the delivery trucks; cutting open the boxes and labeling each item with a price; arranging groceries in paper bags, keeping in mind what had to go on top and how heavy the bag could not become. Even today, with my recycle bags in tow, I’m secretly delighted if no one is available to help me at the counter. I get to do my own bagging!
I learned a lot, working at the store, including a great lesson. It happened like this. A delivery truck had come in, so there were boxes to cut and items to be priced. Of course, one always had to be ready for the sound of one long, and one short, buzzer. It meant that a bag boy was needed in the front. I was doing all of this and, in my haste, had rather loudly slammed some empty grocery carts back into their stand. Ruth, a checker who had been at the store long before I was born, whispered something to my Dad. He came over to talk with me.
“Son, what are you doing?”
“I’m trying to work pop bottles, but the truck has come in, and we haven’t done the dairy case yet.”
“But why are you racing around?”
“How else are we going to get all of this done today?”
“Son, we’re not going to get this done, today. They don’t pay us to get it done today. They pay us to come here and to work, well and steady, while we’re here. What we don’t do today, we will do tomorrow, or even the day after that. The work will never be finished. That’s not something we can achieve.”
Life’s lessons sound simple, but that doesn’t mean that they are self-evident, or that mastering them comes easily. My Dad wasn’t recommending laxity or laziness, but he was showing me where my labor fit into the larger scheme. The work came before I did, and it would remain after I was gone.
Moving from grocery to Gospel, what’s to be learned? First, remember that all of us have been called into the church to labor. Yes, to labor. To be saved is to be sent.
Secondly, we didn’t create the church. Christ did. We don’t give the church its mission. Christ does. The work of the church doesn’t necessarily align with our goals, which isn’t to say that those goals aren’t grand and worthy. Some probably are; others, perhaps not. Yet the vision we serve predates us; the vision summons us; we don’t adjudicate the vision; we are judged by it.
Sometimes a loss, or a weakness, of faith doesn’t lead people out of the church. It leads them into an evangelical lethargy. Lacking confidence and patience in God’s vision, they substitute their own. They’re upset with church leaders, church teaching, church congregations. All their talk is of future church, future bishops and priests, future congregations. Our God is the God of Is. The devil deals in what might be.
The church always stands in need of reform, because it is not the Kingdom of God. It serves the Kingdom. It attends the vision. But we must always guard against impatience with the vision, or lack of confidence in it. Then we’re tempted to replace the church, to which Christ has called us, with one, which we create, and which exists nowhere, save in our minds. Saints reform the church by serving Christ in the church. The weak in faith are often seduced into becoming pundits.
Here is one of those Gospel verses, which we don’t often quote. It sticks a bit in the contemporary caw.
Surrender is scary, but it allows confident rest. St. John XXIII used to say to himself, at the end of each of his days as pope, “Lord. It’s your church. I’m going to bed.”
There was an earlier, very important lesson for me in the grocery store. Like the first, it involved Ruth the checker and one of my parents. As a “toddler,” I was following my mother through the grocery store. We passed the candy display. I took a Tootsie Roll. I didn’t know that why it was wrong, yet I did know that I needed to do it in secret. Ruth saw what I had done and whispered to my mom. My mom was more embarrassed than angry, as she taught me my first lesson in stealing: dad and Mom worked at the store, but it wasn’t ours for the taking.
Some Gospel truths are so foundational, so oft repeated, that we risk forgetting them. Here’s one: “as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.” God’s vision. Not ours.
Habakkuk 1: 2-4, 2: 2-4 2 Timothy 1, 6-8, 13-14 Luke 17: 5-10