Sunday, September 6, 2009

God's work and our work

Genesis 2:1-3; Psalm 8; Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

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The thing that sticks in my mind about work,
that I seem to have learned growing up in the church,
is that there were two kinds of work—
the Lord’s work, and regular work.

We often had guest speakers at church—missionaries and the like—
who spoke in reverent tones about “the work of the Lord”
to which they had been called,
and to which they had devoted their lives.
I thought, wow, that must really be something special,
to have God call you, personally,
to give your life over to “the work of the Lord.”

My dad was a house painter. Had his own business.
Before I was born he drove a bread delivery truck.
He did regular work, not “the Lord’s work.”
Until I was in the third grade,
and the Lord called him—
or precisely, a Lancaster conference bishop called him—
to devote his life to “the Lord’s work.”
He became a pastor of a small church in Sarasota, Florida.
Unfortunately for our family,
the Lord’s work didn’t pay anything.
And that was on principle, not because the church couldn’t afford it.
The occasional “love offering” that was given
didn’t make ends meet for his growing family.
So he did some regular work on the side,
helping out another house painter.
Once, when the church needed to make arrangements
for mowing the 2-acre property,
Dad offered to the church council that his sons—
me and my brother Fred—
might be willing to mow the yard for a few dollars.
But one of the Council members strenuously objected,
because it was too much like paying the pastor.
Fred and I got the job anyway,
and of course, gave our earnings to our parents.

In the church of my youth,
doing the “Lord’s work” was not about having a paid job.
It was about doing a specific kind
of church-based or church-focused ministry.
It was being a pastor, it was being a missionary,
or even, it was being a devoted lay worker in the local church.
So . . . being the church treasurer: Lord’s work.
Being a CPA and doing someone’s taxes: regular work.
Helping remodel the Sunday School wing: Lord’s work.
Building houses for a living: regular work.
Teaching a children’s Sunday School class: Lord’s work.
Teaching in the local elementary school: regular work.
Being the nurse at the church summer camp: Lord’s work.
Being a nurse in a hospital: regular work.

In the last couple generations,
Mennonites have warmed to the idea of ministers as staff.
Churches hire pastors who are full-time, paid, trained professionals.
Many also hire church musicians, educators,
health ministers, counselors, financial staff or others.
Depending on your perspective,
that could be good, bad, or neutral.
But I wonder if that’s only heightened this distinction we make
between those engaged in the work of the Lord,
and those engaged in regular, secular work.

And I wonder what the God revealed in scripture
thinks about this distinction we make?

From the very first chapters of Genesis,
to the book of Revelation,
we find a God who works—
who works diligently, steadfastly in this world,
and who expects all God’s people
to be engaged in exactly the same work.
From a biblical point of view,
what part of our work is not the work of Lord?
If we are engaged in honorable work,
why would it not all be the Lord’s work?

Let’s take a look in Genesis, to begin with.
The moment God breathed life into humankind,
they were also given a job.
Chapter 1, vv. 27-28:
“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them,
‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it;
and have dominion over the fish of the sea
and over the birds of the air
and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”
God worked to create everything in this universe,
and then created humankind and said,
“Your job is to take care of this for me.
That is your work.
Care for what I have made.
It is very good. Keep it that way.
Make it even better.
Help it grow and thrive and fill the earth.”

And then, on the seventh day, God could really rest.
Because the work of creation was complete.
And it was now in capable hands.

But sadly, it didn’t take but one more chapter in Genesis,
for these capable hands to drop the ball.
For humankind to fall down on the job,
to shirk the duties of the one job God gave us.

Instead of working in a way that collaborated with God,
that enhanced God’s creative work,
we rebelled.
We thought we could do one better!

The result of which is we inherited a wounded creation—
a creation that struggles against forces of destruction,
of violence, of self-centeredness.
We ourselves are wounded and in need of healing.
The systems of our world are broken
and in need of restoration.

God is still at work in the world,
working toward life, toward beauty, toward truth,
toward the wholeness God created to begin with.
But God has not gone back on that first decision God made in Genesis 1.
To put this essential work in our hands.
It remains our divine mandate
to care for all that God made,
even that which is now fallen.
To now take all that is ugly, or evil, or false,
and co-labor with God in bringing it back to its state
of being beautiful, good, and true—
just as God created it.

In the psalm we heard this morning,
it is assumed that our work is, to do God’s work.
The psalmist sings about the goodness of what God did in creation—
“When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?”

In light of God’s great work,
who are we? what are we here for?
The psalmist asks this rhetorical question, and then answers it.
“You have made [us just] a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned [us] with glory and honor.
You made [us] rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under [our] feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea.”
[Amazing! You put us in charge of your work!]

And . . . on this side of the Great Fall,
God’s work is what?
to sustain creation,
to give life . . .
to make beauty,
to do good,
to speak truth . . .
to save that which has been lost to its created purpose . . .
to heal that which is wounded . . .
to make whole what is broken . . .
to reconcile what is alienated.

Right there is the sole criteria we should use when we judge
whether we are doing the Lord’s work or regular work.
The sole criteria.
It has nothing whatsoever to do
with whether you’re drawing a paycheck from the church,
or if you’re volunteering anywhere in the church structure.
It has only to do with whether you commit your waking hours
to pursuing what God is pursuing.
It has to do with whether you see yourself—
not between 8 and 5, Mon-Fri,
or whenever your work week begins and ends—
but whether you see yourself day in and day out
as God’s partner in labor.
Does the work you are doing—
as an employee, a volunteer, a business owner,
or as a neighbor, or as a member of a household—
contribute to God’s agenda in this world?
Or does it not?

Does your labor in some way sustain creation?
or give life?
Does it create beauty,
or do good,
or speak truth?
Does it save that which has been lost to its created purpose?
Does is heal that which is wounded?
Does it make whole what is broken?
Does it reconcile what is alienated?

Now please hear me,
I am not saying every paid job you get in life,
needs to have you profoundly and directly engaged
in the lofty work of reconciliation and healing and salvation.
It may be hard to see that happening when you are
waiting on tables at Jess’
or crunching numbers at Wachovia,
or doing laundry at RMH,
or teaching math at Thomas Harrison,
or even, sometimes, sitting in a pastor’s office at Park View.
But, more than we might expect,
I do believe every act we engage in—at work, at play, at rest—
can be measured in light of whether it corresponds,
even in some small way,
to God’s saving and healing agenda in the world.
Or whether it pushes against it.

There’s hardly a job out there, I think,
that doesn’t give a person regular opportunities to represent God,
and God’s work in the world.
It can be simply striving for excellence in whatever task you do.
It might be nothing more than offering a warm smile
or reassuring touch, to a co-worker under stress.
Or . . . finding a way to use less non-renewable energy,
without sacrificing your productivity.
Or . . . offering your services free of charge
to someone out of work.
Or . . . spending several unscheduled minutes
listening to a unhappy customer,
or a worried patient.
Or . . . throwing in an extra ear of corn
with every dozen you sell.
Or . . . having a 5-minute conversation
with your boss at the water cooler.
Or . . . staying late to help a struggling student.
Or . . . happily cleaning up someone else’s accidental mess,
without saying a word.

I know that many of you already see your job as a mission.
I’ve talked with you about these things.
I know how seriously and joyfully Tom Barner takes his job
as a part-time driver for a handicap school bus.
I know the kind of long hours Merle Mast puts in at JMU
to run a department that trains competent, compassionate nurses.
I know how deeply Edgar Miller feels about serving his employees,
and helping them feel valued, even in hard economic times,
in his work as a manager at Truck Enterprises.
I know the love and care for beauty and excellence
that Elaine Warfel Stauffer puts into candy-making.
(Her work has blessed me many times.)
I know Ron Yoder’s dedication in finding the delicate balance
between needs of employees, residents, and the public, at VMRC.
I know how much joy Bonnie Stutzman gets from being available
as a chaplain to patients in distress at Rockingham Memorial.
And some of you retirees who volunteer at Gift and Thrift—
your all-out dedication to your job, is amazing.
More than once, I know some of you showed up to work there,
the same day you got out of the hospital.
Whether you sell insurance, build houses, plant trees,
teach students, play music, or balance books,
many of you are people with a clear mission.
And I applaud you on this Labor Day.

Some of you might have yet to fully see your job as a mission.
I encourage you to start being attentive. You will find it.
And as I said, it doesn’t have to do with drawing a paycheck.
So even those of you with the very real and very present
struggle and pain of unemployment, or underemployment,
have opportunity to find purpose and meaning in your labor,
as you look for ways to engage in the saving, healing,
recreating, and reconciling mission of God in this world.

Not every job, of course, is easily reconciled with God’s mission.
We may be treating employees or customers with kindness,
we may be getting high performance marks from our boss.
But if the work we actually produce is in tension with God’s mission,
if it encourages our society to be more violent,
more materialistic, more self-obsessed . . .
if our work is diminishing our capacity to be
healthy, life-giving, compassionate human beings,
then maybe another kind of work is called for.

Good work, honorable work, life-giving work,
in whatever form it takes,
is the Lord’s work.
And it is a gift and grace of God to be able to do it.

The preacher, in Ecclesiastes chapter 5,
had this to say about work:
“This is a good thing
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.”

When our work is a collaboration with—a “co-laboring” with—
the work of God,
we are being occupied with the “joy of our hearts.”
What more could we ask for?

This is what we celebrate today:
The work of the Lord in which we are engaged,
whether in a paying job,
or simply in our daily living.

And now we celebrate that in a tangible way.
We have a two-part offering this morning.
Before we offer our tithes and financial offerings,
we will bring the offering of our work.

You were invited to come to worship in your normal work clothes.
That’s what I’m wearing today,
and many of you are, as well.
And you were invited to bring with you some symbol of your work,
a tangible symbol of what you give to God daily in your work.
If you didn’t know about this in advance, it’s no problem.
You might even have something in your wallet or pocket or purse,
that could be a symbol of the work you do—
a business card, a pen, a smart phone, a needle and thread,
a student I.D. card.
If you can’t find anything,
you can tear off a corner of the bulletin
and write down what your gift of work is.
Either your paid job,
or however you are engaged in “the Lord’s work.”

We invite you to bring that forward,
and as a statement to God and to this community,
lay it on the altar as an offering,
that we might give thanks for it, pray for it,
and dedicate it to God’s work in the world.
If walking forward is difficult,
you can send your gift up with someone near you.

And if your symbol is something essential,
that you will need again to continue your work,
feel free to come and retrieve it after the service.

You may now come, whenever you are ready,
in no particular order.

—Phil Kniss, September 6, 2009

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