Wendell Berry likes to write about his family’s long relationship to the landscape of Kentucky. In one of his early works he talks about looking out over the “worn and abandoned fields” of his youth. He describes them as one of the hidden sources of his life like a nourishing underground spring.
He goes on to write: “I first came into these places following the men to work when I was a child. I knew the men who took their lives from such fields as these, and their lives to a considerable extent made my life what it is. In what came to me from them, there was both wealth and poverty. And I have been a long time discovering which was which.”
I love how he captures this idea that our lives have the capacity to give to and to receive from the lives of others: “[T]heir lives to a considerable extent made my life what it is.”
I want to share with you a little bit about someone whose life to a considerable extent made my life what it is.
What I am about to say is probably going to sound a little strange while standing here in church, but bear with me. I did not learn how to be a Christian at church. That’s not in any way a criticism of the church. I learned many good things in church. I became a Christian at church, but it’s not where I learned HOW to BE a Christian in this world.
I learned how to practice my faith in this world while working in a little upholstery shop down on Seventh Avenue when I was in high school and college. In the 1980s Whitmire Upholstery was where White Duck Taco is now—literally just across the railroad tracks from where I work now at the Rescue Mission. Bill and Edna Whitmire were the owners.
Bill was a quiet, soft spoken, hard working person. He never felt the need to go around telling everyone he was a Christian. I don’t remember any sort of religious signs up on the walls or anything like that, but he was a person of deep and sincere faith. As far as I know Bill never taught a class, preached a sermon or even spoke in church, but his life spoke with quiet eloquence. His manner of life as his homily.
As a 17-year-old who had recently reconnected with his childhood faith, I was eager to learn about following Jesus, but there was only so much one could receive from listening to sermons or reading books. So day after day I watched Bill Whitmire. I watched him when he was with customers. I watched him when no one else was around. I paid attention to how he generously took care of people without ever being concerned about getting credit or applause. I paid attention to how he refused to cut corners or cheat people when he could have easily gotten away with it. I paid attention to how he dealt with difficult situations by bowing his head and silently praying for a few seconds. Whether he knew it or not, I was like a sponge soaking it all up. I needed to see faith put into practice. I needed to see the Gospel with some skin on it.
Bill Whitmire passed away a long time ago, but for me there’s so much of what I heard and saw in him that lives on. I carry it with me and I use it every day. His life to a considerable extent helped make my life what it is today.
Every day so many of us get up and go to work or school without probably ever realizing the potential impact our lives can have on another life.
St. Paul understood this. In our reading today from his letter to the Philippians we hear him say: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Call it whatever you like: discipleship, mentoring, apprenticing—there’s so much about Christianity that is caught, not taught. This goes all the way back to Jesus. Jesus didn’t give his first disciples an instruction manual. He gave them himself. He offered his life and gave them his time. They learned by being with him. Then they gave it away by doing the same thing. That’s been going on for 2000 years.
That’s what St. Paul was talking about in his letter to the Philippians. He knows it’s impossible to come up with enough words to adequately address every situation they might encounter as followers of Jesus. So instead, he asks to draw on what they had already received from just being with him. He asks them to keep trying to put into practice the things he had tried to practice around them. His manner of life gave away what had been given to him by people who received it from Jesus.
My sisters and brothers, our faith is a shared incarnational faith. It’s been that way from the very beginning. There is no such thing as a private, personal Christian faith. It’s always transmitted in community with others. That’s how it works.
“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me...”
I don't know about you, but most of the time I don’t feel worthy to be an example to anyone. I don’t feel qualified to be some sort of mentor to someone else. The truth is, if we waited until we could somehow practice it perfectly, the Christian faith would almost certainly never get passed on to anyone. Bill Whitmire wasn’t perfect. St. Paul wasn’t perfect. None of us are.
I want you to think back and remember the people whose lives to a considerable extent made your life what it is. I suspect they weren’t perfect. I doubt they always got it right, but think of the impact they had on your journey simply by being there for you.
My sisters and brothers, Christianity doesn't need perfect people. It needs faithful people who are just willing to offer their time to someone else.
If you are ever tempted to think that you have no ministry or vital role in this world, remember the people whose lives showed you what being a follower of Jesus actually looks like out in the real world and know this: It was never meant to end with me or you. What’s been received is supposed to be passed on and on and on, just like it has been for 2000 years.
Today I give thanks for Bill Whitmire and all the wonderfully imperfect, but willing people whose lives to a considerable extent made our lives what they are today.and I simply ask this question: Are we willing to be that for someone else? Are we willing to take the time to hand on to others what has been handed down to us? Wendell Berry says, “In what came to me...there was both wealth and poverty.” May God grant us open hearts to pass on the wealth of God’s kingdom by letting the example of our lives enrich those who own the future of our faith!