This is the transcript of a sermon I preached on Labor Day of 2020. The audio of just the sermon and video and of the message and worship service can also be accessed here.
Good morning, Christ Church! It’s great to be with you today in worship and to get to share with you all on this Labor Day weekend.
It is in fact deliberate that I’m speaking to you on the Sunday of Labor Day. For those of you who I may not know — maybe you’re new to Christ Church in the last six months — my name is Bill Walker, and I’m the director of Vocation, and I’ve been in this role for a little over a year.
And of course, one of the things that probably comes to mind when you think of the word vocation is work, which is what I want to talk about today.
Now, vocation is more than simply our work. Sometimes our calling from God might have more to do with a primary relationship in our life —with our spouse, with our children, or even to church or some way that we are called to serve outside of work.
But work is still a major facet of our vocation and of what it means to be called, and most of us will spend about 1/3 of our lives working. So it’s very important to reflect on a theology of work and how our work is part of God’s mission in the world and the story that God is still writing with us in it.
Labor Day itself has its history in the commemoration of labor rights established in this country — laws and policies that protect workers from exploitation. It’s dedicated to the American labor movement and the social and economic achievements of American workers — particularly working class and blue collar folks in their collective efforts toward industrial progress and ingenuity, as well as efforts to hold their employers accountable for fair compensation.
And while Labor Day as a holiday does primarily have to do with actual paid labor and employed work, we also acknowledge that much of our most important and meaningful work that we do in life is often not work we get paid for! From parenting and homemaking to volunteering and serving in our communities in various ways.
And what a unique and challenging time to be talking about work in the year 2020 and in time of COVID-19! The sheer extent of disruption and complication of work for so many people is hard to quantify. Obviously, not everyone has been impacted in the same way, and some much more than others, but the effect overall has been an enormous one that is still be felt and countless ways — not least among the hospitality industry, commercial real estate, retail, transportation, all those working with younger children in the home, and the list could go on.
There are 11.5 million fewer jobs now than before the pandemic. 28 million workers — one in five — currently drawing unemployment benefits.
And for many people —not all, but for many — work has only gotten more tedious and burdensome, despite the fact that many of us having been working from home. Just ask a working parent with young children in the home, a young adult who lives alone and works from home, and there are others.
And even for those of us who maybe haven’t been as affected by COVID, and those who may believe strongly and feel very confident that you’re doing the work you were made for and that God has called you to — even you are by no means exempt from the frustrations and pains that come along with work.
And it’s in light of this reality of the toil of work in general and the destabilization by COVID in particular, that it seems appropriate to hear the words from the teacher in Ecclesiastes! Which can seem like such a gloomy passage, on the one hand, that despairs about the nature of work, but maybe it’s also comfort, on the other hand, to those for whom work has indeed been hard and you can hear the Bible’s acknowledgement of that!
Made to Work
But before diving into this issue of the toil of work, I think it’s important to state upfront some of the theological truths about that we hold to as Christians that are clear from the whole story of Scripture about work as well. And unsurprisingly, it begins with the beginning, and in Genesis 1:
- Made to be co-creators
- Given the responsibility of stewardship
- This was the original plan
- So our work has intrinsic value (this is what Dorothy Sayers meant, I think, in her famous essay, “Why Work,” when she said the best work is the kind that serves the work! The blessing to others is a byproduct, but the world itself is done for its own sake — for the love and devotion to the craft, art and skill of the work as such.)
We see right away in the creation story that God makes us in his image, in God’s likeness, that we may rule or have dominion— the “cultural mandate,” it’s sometimes called. And the main thing to recognize here I think is that just as God is a creator and an orderer, so too have we been made to create or order things. Not to create out of nothing, but to create, make, and organize/administrate things with the material that God has given us and in the times and places that we live.
Secondly, we are stewards of creation! We have responsibility to care for and productively participate in the cultivation of civilization and human flourishing through our labor (in everything from gardening to carpentry!)
Third, this work was given to us before the Fall. Work is part of the original plan!
And fourthly, therefore, assuming it contributes to the common good in some way —however small! — it has intrinsic value. It isn’t just a means to an end. It is worthwhile in and of itself — whatever it does or does not produce.
But sin enters the picture in Genesis 3, and this is what is coming through in much of the passage from Ecclesiastes today: the extent to which work is burdensome, tiring, tedious and even can feel meaningless!
22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.
24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? — Ecclesiastes 2:22-25
The teacher’s words echo a Genesis 3 world of “painful toil”, ”thorns and thistles,” that the ground will produce, and “by the sweat of your brow,” that you will eat, etc. No longer is it the Genesis 1-2 world of “working” and “keeping” the garden…
Consequences of the Fall
- Sin enters the picture, and we turn away from God. We worship the creation rather than the creator. We make other gods, or we try to become our own gods. We look to work rather than God to get things like pleasure, identity, significance and security — through wealth, power, influence, etc.
- One of the consequences of sin is not only broken relationships with God and each other, but also with our work.
- Sin distorts our understanding of the purpose of work. It becomes an idol, it becomes futile, tedious, discouraging, burdensome… unfulfilling.
A couple weeks ago for the Faith & Business lunch, we invited a guest who was only known to a few of us, and I didn’t know him. His name is Getu Bantayehu. And Getu is a real estate developer and lender in the D.C area.
Some of you were part of the meeting and have already heard the story, but most of you weren’t, and so I’m going to tell it to you. He was born in Ethiopia but came to the U.S. later in life for school.
In the interview we did with him, Getu shared that… Education and Money were the two great gods/idols he was tempted to put above everything else because he saw them as the key to his security.
For a while he thought Education would get him there, but then he realized the people who cared most about education already had enough money, and the people who didn’t have enough money yet were only pursuing their education in order to get more money. So he thought he’d better do the same, and he wasn’t in the right major!
He chased these things until he grew exhausted and then met Christ. And then he thought, now I guess I’ll go into the “ministry.” This lasted about a year 🙂 Then he realized that wasn’t his calling at all! And a mentor said to him around that time, why don’t you just go back to what you were doing, since you were good at it, and do it differently? And so he did.
But Getu admitted that while he wanted to believe his work would be clearly more Christ-honoring now, it didn’t always feel that way. Sometimes it feels pretty lonely, and not very meaningful. In fact, much of it is morally ambiguous, he explained. The development ventures he backs tend to be in historically under-resourced areas that are gentrifying, much like the East Side of Austin. It’s complicated, good in some ways but arguably harmful in other respects. It’s a mixed bag to say the least.
But what he does try to do now is…Love everyone around him, his family and not work too much/too hard! To show more grace, patience and understanding. He’s not necessarily driven to maximize profit at every turn. He isn’t governed by his natural instinct. By God’s grace, he pursues a higher order, striving to live on earth as it is in heaven.
Getu’s testimony and experience highlights the tension many of us live in as well when it comes to work, between doing what we have to do to make ends meet and take care of those we love, on the one hand, and finding the cracks and the opportunities to be generous and sacrificially caring for others, on the other hand.
When I was an undergraduate student at Baylor, I worked as a supplemental instructor for a History of Economics class. This was the class where we read the great moral philosophers and modern political theorists of the Enlightenment and beyond. We studied people like Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill.
And Smith is most known for being the father of modern economics and capitalism. He talked about the extent to which self-interest and competition function like an invisible hand that guides the economy into growth and innovation with limited government interference.
But something Smith is less known for that he also wrote about is moral philosophy. He says this is another one of his great works, The Theory of Moral Sentiment:
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” ― Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments
This is where we get a glimpse of Smith’s own theology, where he shows an awareness that, because we’re made in God’s image, and even though we’re selfish and sinful, there’s a divine spark in us that hasn’t grown entirely dim. It may be dormant, but the light of the gospel can reignite it.
Smith never imagines that capitalism would work without the influence of virtuous and rightly morally sentient beings guiding and correcting it.
Think about those of us who might need some kind of medication on a regular basis. Now, for the corporations, doctors and researchers who worked to develop this particular prescription and medication, I doubt any of us are under the illusion that they all do it entirely for altruistic motives and reasons. No! But I also don’t think that they don’t care about helping people at all! It’s both/and, and that’s ok. We’re grateful for their work.
Paul speaks to this somewhat in several places where he talks about the effort he made not to be a burden to anyone support his ministry, explaining that he worked with his hands to support himself. He also states in 2 Thessalonians 3 that the person who can work but refuses to should not eat! So the Bible acknowledges that practical level and essential need of work as well.
But as Christians, our ability to live in the kingdom as if it’s a present reality here and now goes beyond mere moral sentiment. Our mission is an explicit one that has to do with redemption and restoration, not just good influence. We read in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians the following:
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:17-21
So what does this gospel truth enable us to do when it comes to our work? Well, at a minimum, it empowers us. And it empowers us to do something that most people are unable to in our culture right now. And this is just one way of putting it, but I like howSteven Garber put it last year when he spoke to our church at the parish retreat, talking about vocation.
He talked about how we as Christian are specifically called and given the grace to both fully know the world, and fully love the world. And this is not easy to do. In fact, most of the time, we don’t fully know the world. We only see it how we want to. How we’re inclined to. And if we do fully know it — see it for what it truly is — we tend to grow cynical, bitter and resentful, making us unable to love.
A couple of weeks ago, I lost a mentor and teacher who was very dear to me. Dr. Min was someone who was able to fully know the world while also loving the world (Steve Garber). He loved his work, and he had an amazing job in some respects as a professor, but he also served and supported his students far beyond what was ever expected of him. This is what he’s remembered for. It was the unexpected work that he did for others, and the way he put students even before his own scholarship and writing projects that made such an impression on me and others.
I had the chance to share virtually at his memorial service yesterday, and that’s what I said about him. And I mention Dr. Min, because I think he reminds me of the potential we have in our work to be what Steve Garber has called “sacramental signposts” of the Kingdom and the way the world will someday be — of the future we have in God that our work anticipates.
Dallas Willard has said that “the glory of our future is the continuing creativity of our work in the life of God.”
The call in our work is to respond to the creative impulse God gives us toward that moral sentiment, to perform work that like God we hope to be able to “call good.” (Creation). And beyond this, even in the frustration and vexation of COVID and many other challenges and difficulties that we might face, the Spirit empowers us to act as ambassadors of Christ, the righteousness of God, and of ministers of reconciliation in the world, knowing that this good work will continue in a glorious future in the coming kingdom. Amen.
Here is a Labor Day Prayer I came across recently as well:
Prayer for the Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
Lord God, Master of the Vineyard,
How wonderful that you have invited us
who labor by the sweat of our brow
to be workers in the vineyard
and assist your work
to shape the world around us.
As we seek to respond to this call,
make us attentive to those who seek work
but cannot find it.
Help us listen to the struggles of those
who work hard to provide for their families
but still have trouble making ends meet.
Open our eyes to the struggles of those exploited
and help us speak for just wages and safe conditions,
the freedom to organize, and time for renewal.
For work was made for humankind
and not humankind for work.
Let it not be a vehicle for exploitation
but a radiant expression of our human dignity.
Give all who labor listening hearts
that we may pause from our work
to receive your gift of rest.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit
that you might work through us to let your justice reign.
(United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)