Sunday, September 2, 2007

Work Is Grace; Grace Is Work

(Labor Day 2007)
Matthew 11:28-30; Ecclesiastes 1:2-6, 9; 5:18-20; Psalms 127:1-2

(Click on "play" to hear audio)


Tomorrow is a holiday for some of you, though not all.
It began 125 years ago,
as a day dedicated to the social and economic
achievements of American workers.
At that time, of course, “workers” meant
those who labored with their hands to produce things,
in factories, mines, shops, or fields.
Now, most production is automated.
Workers are more likely to be sitting at a desk
looking at words or numbers,
than using any of their major muscle groups.
But tomorrow, our country takes a national holiday to honor workers.

It’s certainly not a day in the church year.
And we’re not celebrating Labor Day itself in our worship.
But since the country will take a day off tomorrow to honor workers,
it seems appropriate to take one Sunday in worship,
to reflect on work, and how God feels about work.
Read scripture, and you can see that God cares a lot about work.
God wants us to work,
and wants us to join God in his own work.
God wants us to be collaborators, co-laborers, with him.
God wants our work to be holy.

Okay, but as Mennonites, do we really need to take a whole Sunday,
just to convince ourselves that work is a good thing?
We already have that idea down pat.
We have taken the old Protestant work ethic
and pushed it to new heights.
We are known, around the world, for our hard work.
That’s why Catherine the Great
invited Mennonites to come to Russia 200 years ago.
She knew they were hard-working industrious farmers,
who could take just about any kind of land,
and by the sweat of their brow, make it fruitful.
In some areas, if people only know one thing about Mennonites,
it’s that they are hard-working people,
who don’t flinch at a big dirty job,
like cleaning up after a hurricane.
They just come out in droves, and get it done.

So do we really need to take a Sunday to elevate work?
No, not if that’s all we did.
But I want to look at work
from an angle Mennonites might need to hear.
I’m going to pair up two unlikely partners: work and grace.
Christians often think of work and grace as polar opposites.
We think of Paul’s writings, especially Romans,
where he emphatically makes the point
that it is by God’s grace alone that we are saved,
and not on the basis of our work.
That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and we rightly believe it.

But when we put work and grace on opposite ends of a spectrum,
we, somewhat predictably, end up with a conflict.
Christians like Mennonites, who emphasize the necessity of obedience,
discipline, and following Jesus in life,
are accused by some other Christians of believing in
an awful thing called “works righteousness.”
And Christians who go on and on
about the free, unmerited grace of God,
are labeled by other Christians as preaching “cheap grace.”
And so we have this ongoing tug-of-war between work and grace,
with some pulling this way, and some that way.

I wonder if, by setting up work and grace as opposites,
we have created a completely unnecessary conflict.
So what I’m going to do this morning,
is not just find the right middle ground,
not try to split the difference on this pole between grace and work.
I’m going to make the claim that work is grace, and grace is work.

I understand the concern that we don’t want to say
that we can earn our salvation, by doing good deeds.
And that’s not what I want to say.
And I understand the concern that if everything is under grace,
then we are not called to a higher ethic of living.
And that’s not what I want to say.

I want to say that when we talk about the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
we cannot separate work and grace,
because they’re woven into the same cloth.
Together, they are the Gospel.

When I say that work is grace,
I’m saying that it is only by God’s free and unmerited grace
that we are given the ability to serve God with our work.
It is the reality of God’s grace that gives our work meaning.
It is by grace alone that God invites us to work for God’s kingdom.
Working for peace, for justice, for healing, for reconciliation,
and yes, working for the salvation of ourselves and the world,
is a high privilege to which God has called us by his grace.
We are able to do this work only by the grace of God.
It is God’s amazing gift
that we have been invited to work alongside God,
to co-labor with God,
to carry out the purposes of our Creator God.
How could our earthly participation in that high and holy work,
be anything other than the unmerited grace of God?

This is what today’s scripture readings are getting at.
The reading from Ecclesiastes is particularly striking.
As the two passages from Ecclesiastes, ch. 1 and ch. 5,
were read by two different people,
I wonder if you noticed how different those readings were.
In chapter 1, the preacher in Ecclesiastes despairs at
how useless is human labor.
“What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun? [ch. 1, v. 3]
A generation goes, and a generation comes...
The sun rises and the sun goes down...
The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north...
What has been is what will be...
There is nothing new under the sun.”
People work hard, he says,
but they don’t gain anything lasting from their toil.
Someone else ends up benefitting from it.
All is vanity. Vanity of vanities.

But somewhere, the preacher has a change of heart.
By chapter 5, he sings a new song.
“This is a good thing [quoting ch. 5, v. 18]
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 the life God gives us...
[And all who] accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—
this is the gift of God.
For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives,
because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.”

Even this once-cynical writer of Ecclesiastes, has to admit,
work is a gift of God.
To be able to be occupied with the joy of our hearts,
to have meaningful toil,
is the gift of a gracious God.
Work is grace.

This notion of work as grace
is underscored in the psalms.
Remember the verses from Psalm 127
read just before our confession?
“Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.”
Now, we often quote that verse
in connection with the work of the church, and it fits.
Unless we recognize that God builds the church,
our efforts to do it will be in vain.
But the context here is not the church,
it’s just talking about work in general.
Listen again,
“Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city,
the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.”

If you build houses for a living,
if you work as a security guard,
if you get up early to work in the field,
if you pull long days at the office,
if you care for children in your home—
if you are doing this work, or any work,
and don’t realize that it’s God’s work,
don’t recognize God’s gift and grace in that work,
then you’re wasting your time.
You’re “eating the bread of anxious toil.”
But on the other hand,
if you accept your work as grace,
and look to God as the giver of that grace,
you can sleep the “sleep of God’s beloved.”

So, we’re on solid biblical ground to say that work is grace.

But can we say it the other way around?
“Grace is work?”
I’m saying we can.
This might be hard to swallow,
for those who celebrate the free, unmerited,
lavish, and abundant grace of God.
Do we really have to work, to obtain God’s grace?
Wouldn’t the apostle Paul throw a fit to hear us say that?
But let’s be clear.
The grace of God is offered freely.
We do not earn God’s favor.
God’s grace is lavish, abundant, and unsparing.
But it is not, strictly speaking, unilateral.
Receiving the grace of God is part of a two-way transaction.
God’s grace is not an unstoppable flood
that just washes over every evil in the world
and heals it and saves it unilaterally, universally,
and indiscriminately.
To say God’s grace is lavish and free
does not mean there are no expectations of us,
no discipline, no hard work, no repentance,
no change required of us.
Receiving God’s grace involves a thoughtful, deliberate,
and sometimes difficult move on our part.
We need to place ourselves in a position
to receive the grace being offered.
God doesn’t dump grace on unsuspecting victims.
God invites us to receive the gift of grace God offers.

The scripture we heard at the opening of the service
is a favorite of many.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.
Take my yoke upon you...
I am gentle...you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Wonderful words of grace and comfort
that Jesus speaks to the weary.
But you’ll notice: Jesus still invites us to take on the yoke,
and to carry the burden.
There is still a work response on our part,
that completes this grace-filled transaction.
Take on. Carry.
Still good news. Still comforting.
Because the yoke is easy, and the burden light.
It is made light by the grace of God,
and by the love and compassion of God’s people.
But still, this grace is work.

The offering of grace is God’s move, God’s initiative.
requires nothing at all from us.
God’s grace simply is.
And it is freely available to us, and to all.
But receiving it is our part of the transaction.
Receiving it is our work.
And it can be difficult work.
It can even be painful work.
But without this work, the gift of grace
is only a partially completed transaction.
Without our choice to recognize our need,
and gratefully receive the gift of grace,
the transformed life that God wants to give us,
is stopped in its tracks.
Just a surely as a dam stops a river.
The flowing river of grace is free.
But there is a dam with a floodgate holding it back.
And we’re the keeper of the gate.
If we open the gate, the river can keep flowing,
and keep giving life.

So grace is work.
At least, keeping grace flowing is work.
But the work doesn’t stop with that first “yes” to God,
that initial choice to receive it.
God’s lavish grace, when it flows into and through our lives,
calls for a continuing response.
This two-way transaction is more like a continuing cycle,
of God’s lavish gift, our choice to receive,
our response of gratitude,
and God’s continuing gifts of grace.
In this sense, the work each of us do
is a direct response to the gift of God’s grace,
or if it’s not, it should be.

So, you see how work is intertwined with grace,
and grace intertwined with work.
They are not opposites.
They are partners wedded together in this thing called life.

Life itself is a gift that we don’t deserve.
Life comes from the gracious hand of God.
So the work we do is acting out our “thank you” to God.
The ability to work is God’s gift of grace.
So the work itself is our act of gratitude.

And the other thing that needs to be said clearly,
is that this transaction of grace is not a private thing.
It is personal, because each of us needs to choose to receive it.
But it is not private.
Grace draws us into community.
We are a community of people living by God’s grace.
And the grace we receive is not a gift for our private benefit.
It is a gift that comes to us, that we might share it,
for the blessing of all,
and for the building up of God’s kingdom.

Our work, whether it’s tilling soil,
or teaching students,
or constructing buildings,
or generating capital,
or serving food,
or mowing grass,
or pricing used clothing and books,
or visiting the sick,
or taking someone to the dentist,
or balancing books,
or preaching sermons,
our work is a response to God’s grace,
done in the service of God’s kingdom.

If we cannot see the work that we do—
whether paid or unpaid—
as contributing, in some small way,
to the reign of God on this earth,
then we ought to stop what we’re doing,
and choose work that does.

Society values some jobs more than others,
and it shows up in the amount of pay for the work,
or the prestige that comes with it.
God doesn’t look at it that way.
Every job we do—paid or unpaid,
ditch-digging or corporate decision-making—
is an opportunity to offer a gift to God,
in the way we carry out our work,
in the way we relate to our co-workers,
or even in what our work produces.
Every job we do should be offered to God as a gift,
in gratitude for the grace of God given to us.
When we see our work as a gift to God,
our work is worship.
So celebrating work
is certainly a worthwhile way to spend time together
worshiping God on a Sunday morning.

And celebrating work is what we are now about to do in a tangible way,
through our morning offering ritual.
Our offering this morning,
is a more wholistic offering than usual.
We will bring not only our financial gifts of our tithe.
We will bring the gift of our work.

Many of you found out by email, or by word of mouth,
that you were invited, first of all,
to come to worship dressed in your work clothes,
but secondly, to bring some tangible token of your work,
a symbol of what you give to God daily in your work.
If you didn’t find out, that’s no problem.
You might even have something on you that represents your work.
Some might have a business card.
Or a pen, or Palm Pilot, or a needle and thread,
or your student I.D. card.
Something in your wallet or pocket or purse,
that could serve as a symbol of the work that you do.
If you can’t think of anything,
tear off a corner of the bulletin
and write down what your gift of work is.
Either your paid job,
or whatever you do to work for God at this point in your life.

We invite you to bring that forward as part of your offering today.
So that we might pray for it, and dedicate it to God’s service.
At the same time, worship God with your gifts of money.
Offering baskets will be here to drop your money in,
as well as the Penny Power offering for your loose change.

So let us celebrate the gift and grace of God in our work,
and dedicate our work and our money as gifts to God
for the glory of God.

[Prayer of dedication]
Lord, today we have released what we have, and what we do,
and have placed them in your hands as an act of gratitude,
for the free and lavish grace that you give to us every day.
Take all these gifts,
and use them for the work of your kingdom on earth.
We dedicate them to your service.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.

—Phil Kniss, September 2, 2007

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