Sunday, September 6, 2015

Graceworks

Labor Day: “Work and Grace”
Matthew 11:28-30; Ecclesiastes 1:2-6, 9; 5:18-20; Psalms 127:1-2

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Tomorrow some of you are “taking off work” so to speak.
    For a holiday, we call it.
    “Holidays” began with the church, with religion.
        The word comes from “Holy Day,”
            a day in the church calendar set aside as a sacred feast day.
        So the original intent of giving workers a day off for a holiday,
            was so they could go to their place of worship that day,
                to perform their religious duties.

    Needless to say, that meaning of holiday is gone by the wayside.
    Different cultures, at different times,
        have many different reasons for establishing a holiday.

    Labor Day began 125 years ago,
        to celebrate the social and economic achievements
        of American workers.
    It’s not a day in the church calendar.

But maybe it ought to be.
    Read scripture, and you’ll find God cares a lot about work.
    Start at the beginning of the Bible.
        The very first thing we learn about God,
            is that God is a worker.
        The Creation story makes clear that God worked on the world,
            with patience, with loving attention, with delight,
            and God took great pleasure—not only in the end result,
                but in the whole process.
        God’s labors brought order out of chaos,
            and brought life where there was no life.
        Then God turned to one of the created living beings,
            to human beings,
            and placed into them God’s own image and likeness,
            and appointed them partners in labor.

    So, in the first two chapters in the Bible, we learn
        that God is a worker,
        and that human beings are to mirror God’s work.
    Like God, our work is to be life-giving.
    We are God’s collaborators, God’s co-laborers.
        Thus, our work is holy work.

So Labor Day is rich with possibilities
    for the church and for worship.
    So it really ought to be a holy day.

Well and good, but do we Mennonites really need a holy day
    to convince ourselves that work is a good thing?
    We got that part.
    We didn’t invent the Protestant work ethic,
        but we took it to new glorious heights.
    We are renowned for our hard work.
    Catherine the Great invited Mennonites to Russia 200 years ago
        because she knew they were hard-working farmers,
            who could take just about any kind of land,
            and by the sweat of their brow, make it productive.
        In some areas, if people only know one thing about us,
            it’s that we are hard-working people,
            who don’t flinch at a big dirty job,
                like cleaning up after a hurricane.
    At this tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,
        there’s been some reminiscing of all the work
        Mennonite Disaster Service did in the New Orleans area.
            Mennonites made a significant mark on that huge effort.
                We at Park View were part of that.

        David Myers, himself a Mennonite,
            now employed by the White House,
            heading up an office within the
                Federal Emergency Management Agency,
            admitted there’s an inside joke around the FEMA offices,
                that what FEMA really stands for, is
                “Find Every Mennonite Available.”
            Work is one of our good gifts to the world.

So we don’t really need to take a Sunday to elevate work.
    However, today I invite us to take our understanding of work,
        and hold it together with another deeply biblical concept—
            grace.
    These are two unlikely partners: work and grace.
    They are often considered polar opposites.
        In Romans, Paul emphatically makes the point
            that it’s by God’s grace alone that we are saved,
            and not on the basis of our work.
        And that is the Gospel Truth.

But when we put work and grace on opposite ends of a spectrum,
    we have a conflict.
    Christians like us who emphasize obedience, discipline,
        and following Jesus in life,
        are accused by some other Christians of believing in
            some terrible thing called “works righteousness.”
    And Christians who go on and on
        about the free, unmerited grace of God,
        are labeled by our brand of Christians
            as preaching “cheap grace.”
    And so we have this tug-of-war between work and grace,
        some pull this way, some that way.

This morning, I am going to suggest
    that is a completely unnecessary conflict.
    It’s not a matter of taking this conflict,
        and finding the right middle ground.
    There’s not some sweet spot in the middle of the spectrum,
        where we find perfect balance between grace and work.
    No, we need to toss the whole spectrum out the window.
        It’s a false dichotomy.
        Work is grace, and grace is work.

Yes, it’s possible, if you really try, to isolate one from the other.
    But then it becomes a gross distortion, and a falsehood.
    That’s what bothered Paul.
        It was those who preached good works, and diminished grace,
            making work a distortion,
            not the gift and grace of God that it is.
        And those who preach grace, and diminish works,
            make grace a distortion, a falsehood,
            and not the life-transforming power that it is.

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.
        In fact, why don’t we just make them one word?
        Let’s call it “graceworks.”

Graceworks is God’s free and unmerited grace
    giving us the ability to join up with God in our work.
Graceworks is God’s abundant grace giving our work meaning.
Graceworks is God’s gracious invitation to us
    to work for the good of God’s kingdom.
Graceworks is our work for peace, for justice,
    for healing, for reconciliation,
    and yes, work for the salvation of ourselves and the world,
        as a high privilege to which God has called us by his grace.
Graceworks is knowing we are able to do this work
    only by the grace of God.

It is God’s amazing gift of grace
    that we have been invited to work alongside God,
        as true co-laborers.
This graceworks is introduced to us in the Creation story,
    in the opening pages of scripture.
    And it keeps showing up throughout scripture.

I see it Ecclesiastes, in the two passages we heard this morning.
    The difference between the two is striking.

In chapter 1, the preacher in Ecclesiastes seems to despair 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 . . .
         nothing new under the sun.”
    In other words, people work hard
        but don’t gain anything lasting from their toil.
        Someone else ends up benefitting.
        All is meaningless.

But then somewhere between chapter 1 and chapter 5,
    his tune changes.
    Did he have a change of heart?
    Or is he simply poetically highlighting
        this mysterious both/and of work and grace?
    In chapter 5, around verse 18, we hear this 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
            in the few days of life God gives us . . .
        [All who] accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—
            this is the gift [or grace] of God.
    They will hardly think about the shortness of their lives,
        because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.”

So even this often-cynical writer of Ecclesiastes, freely admits,
    work is a grace 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.
    It’s graceworks.

And Jesus spoke of graceworks.
    In his famous words, which we used in our call to worship,
    “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.”
    Words of grace and comfort for the weary.
    But see, Jesus still invites us to take on his yoke,
        to carry the burden.
    Work is still involved.
        Work completes this grace-filled transaction.
        We are invited to take on, to carry.
    But the yoke is easy, and the burden light.
        Made light by the grace of God,
            and by the love and compassion of God’s people.
        But this grace is still work, and the work is grace.
            Graceworks.

God’s grace is lavish, abundant, and unsparing.
    Make no mistake about it.
        But it is not, strictly speaking, unilateral.
        Receiving God’s grace is essential to this 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 offering of grace is God’s move.
        And God offers it, freely, 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.
_____________________

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 digging up soil,
    or building houses,
    or teaching students,
    or generating capital,
    or selling merchandise,
    or mowing grass,
    or pricing used books,
    or visiting the sick,
    or taking someone shopping,
    or preaching sermons,
        our work is a response to God’s grace,
        done in the service of God’s kingdom.

If we don’t 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.

Yes, society values some jobs more than others,
    and that’s reflected in the amount of pay for the work,
        or the prestige that comes with it.
But God doesn’t look at it that way.
    Every job we do—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.

Work is a gift to God, and work is worship.
So celebrating work
    is a good thing to do on a Sunday morning.
    And that is what we are about to do,
        in our morning offering ritual.
Some of you found out by email earlier this week.
    But no worries, if you’re hearing about it now for the first time.
    We will all be able to participate.

Some of you have come dressed in your work clothes,
    as we often do on this Labor Day Sunday.
But you are all also invited to offer some tangible token of your work,
    a symbol of what you give to God daily in your work.
If you didn’t know this in advance, no problem.
    You probably have something on you that represents your work.
        Some might have a business card,
            or a pen, or a smart phone, or a needle and thread,
            or a student I.D. card.
        Something in your wallet or pocket or purse,
            might be 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 “My Coins Count” offering for your loose change.

We’ll file forward starting with the back row,
    and working our way front.
    The ushers will dismiss you by row.
Those in the center sections, come forward down the center aisle,
    those on the sides, come down these side aisles.
    Place your symbol anywhere on the tables or floor or steps.
Then everyone goes back to their seats by these angled aisles,
    where you will find a large offering basket on a stand,
        for your regular offering,
    and a jug or bucket on the floor,
        for your “My Coins Count” offering.
If you’d rather not walk forward, for any reason,
    please feel free to stay seated,
    and send your gift up with someone near you.
    But everyone, including the children,
        please feel encouraged to participate.
    All of us work. In some way.

And of course, if your symbol is something you need back
    to continue your work,
    just come and retrieve it after the service.

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.
So just wait for the ushers to dismiss you,
    and file forward, and circle back.

Now, let’s pray God’s blessing on what we are about to offer.

[Prayer of dedication]
Lord, today we release what we have, and what we do,
    and place 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 gracework of your kingdom on earth.
We dedicate them to your service.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.

—Phil Kniss, September 6, 2015

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