It used to be in the Seattle Sunday paper, there would be an article contrasting somebody’s first job experience with the job that individual currently has. I always like reading about people’s early experiences and where that ultimately led them. Do you remember your first job? (Elicit stories from congregation…)
What about the first time you realized your labor, your work, your sweat, your effort was deeply satisfying to you and brought you joy? I think that is a harder question to answer, but it ultimately points to that which brings us great joy and meaning.
I remember as a junior in college majoring in education, my brother Greg who is 10 years older offered this advice, “Don’t go into education. You’ll never get rich as a teacher. You need a major in college that will get your foot in the door so you can make lots of money.”
Ironically, a few years later, that same brother called me up and asked if he could borrow $1000 from his little sister. Loan was made and eventually he paid it back. Here is some advice other parents offer their children:
Years later, that advice came back to bite them. The kids complained, saying, “We were told, ‘Go out and find meaningful jobs that will fulfill your lives. Grow up to be happy!’ Can you imagine trying to live up to an expectation more difficult and unattainable? Why didn’t you make us aspire to something easier like becoming cynical millionaires?”
Labor Day weekend provides a good opportunity to reflect on work. I just discovered that the etymology of the word work comes from the word worship. Worship is the WORK of the people. Emily – TOMATO in Offering Plate. It is good to spend time thinking about our labor in the world and what a life of faith calls us to.
Work is so intrinsic to our whole lives that one of the first questions we ask a stranger is: What do you do, what is your work? Po Bronson – (who was raised in Seattle, attended Lakeside High School) wrote “What should I do with my life?” says this is a spiritual question. There can be a difference between a job which pays the bills, and our life’s work. The gift and often, the luxury, is when the two turn out to be one and the same – finding a job that has personal meaning.
Our theology of work goes back to the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures in Genesis 1: God is at work creating the universe and everything in it. God calls it ALL good and takes satisfaction in the results. In fact, Sabbath is a time for God to enjoy what God has created! Then God creates human beings and invites them to participate by caring for creation. Genesis 2:8, 15 shows us that work is a natural activity: “The Lord God placed the earthling in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
On the other hand, from reading Genesis 3:17-19 we may get the idea that work itself is punishment: “With labor you shall win your food … You shall gain your bread by the sweat of your brow.”
But when we look at Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, we have a continuation of the theology of work: This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of life God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom God enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil; this is a gift of God.
Is it possible to find enjoyment in our toil? If it is tempered with adequate pay, rest and recreational time, yes it’s possible. But in our current economic reality, there are millions of people without work, or working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. One of Bernie Sanders quotes:
“The benchmark of full-time work in America should be simple –
that no person working 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.”
How do we, as Christians, begin to develop a theological understanding of the meaning of work? One way is to have prophetic concern for justice for the hardworking, poor, and vulnerable. What people eat and where they live is a spiritual as well as economic and political issue. Disparity of income and power is a recurring biblical concern: there are more references to biblical economics and taking care of the widows, foreigners and orphans than just about any other topic in the Bible. I just found a quote on Facebook that could be the motto of both our individual households and especially our church. “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.”
One of the basic tenets of the Protestant Reformation was that all work had value. One could serve God as authentically as a farmer or merchant or a priest. Presiding over the meal you have cooked for your family was every bit as sacred as presiding over the communion table.
There is a story about a construction worker who was building a church. The priest came by to talk to him. “I just learned that you have a brother who is a bishop.”
“That I do.” Says the bricklayer. “And you are a bricklayer,” mused the priest. “It sure is a funny world. Things aren’t divided equally in life, are they?” “No, that they aren’t,” agreed the bricklayer, as he slapped the mortar along the line of bricks. “My poor brother couldn’t do this work to save his life.”
A story that well summarizes the power of finding meaningful work and a sense of vision is the story of three bricklayers. The story goes, that three bricklayers were working side by side. A stranger is passing through and asks each one the same question.
“What are you doing?” The first bricklayer replied: “I’m making $10 an hour to feed my family.” The second bricklayer answered, “I’m a craftsman. This is my career.” The third bricklayer responded, “I’m building a cathedral so that people can find a sense of the holy and draw closer to God.”
The three bricklayers are all doing the same work, but have a different perspective on what the work means – the first is a job, the second is a career, the third is a calling, a vocation.
Brother Lawrence, a contemplative monk in the 17th century wrote a small book
entitled, “Practicing the Presence of God.” In it he asserts that God can be found in all things, even in such menial tasks as washing the dishes. Perhaps this is at the heart of discovering meaningful work in all that we are doing, regardless of how menial or grandiose the task is. This is our true vocation: practicing the presence of God where ever we find ourselves, AND listening deeply to where God calls each of us. Biblically speaking, work is to be a vocation, a calling. The Latin word, vocare, means, the work a person is called to by God.
So, on this labor day weekend, let us reflect on being a prophetic voice in the world for fair labor standards and a living wage for all people, AND reflect on our work and passion in the world realizing that God continually invites us to work that is meaningful and to labor for the whole creation – calling it worship and proclaiming it good.