Sermon, "Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Hands-On Labor," Genesis 2:15, Ecclesiastes 2:18-26
Genesis 2:15, Ecclesiastes 2:18-26
Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Hands-On Labor
A few years ago, I came across an article on CNN, “Meet Khe Hy, the Oprah for Millennials.” I’m not a huge Oprah fan or anything, and I’m not a millennial - I’m on the tail end of Gen Xer generation. But nonetheless, I was curious. Khe Hy was a successful Wall Street businessperson, but at 35, he quit his job, without a clear plan of what he wanted to do next. The article said that he “looked around his fancy New York office and realized something: More money wasn't making him happier. So many people he knew on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley believed if they could "just make" another $1 million or $10 million or $100 million, they would be set and life would be great.” He started writing an email newsletter called “Rad Reads,” and sent it to his friends. Over time, the newsletter has grown, and he has thousands of subscribers. A lot of the content is about productivity and optimization - organizing your life in the best possible way. But another major recurring focus in his newsletter is a movement called “F.I.R.E - Financial Independence - Retire Early.” I’d never heard of it before, but it seems to be growing in popularity.
According to Dave Ramsey, the F.I.R.E movement, “the goal is to save and invest very aggressively—somewhere between 50–75% of your income—so you can retire sometime in your 30s or 40s … How do people do it? In order to be able to sock away that much money toward investing, folks who are on F.I.R.E. are always looking to do two things: keep their expenses extremely low and raise their income. The general idea is that the higher your income is and the lower your expenses are, the faster you can reach financial independence.” (2) Of course, for most of us, this seems way out of reach. I don’t have 50% of my income that isn’t used on my monthly expenses! I have bills to pay, student loans and a car payment and so on. But for folks who are earning a high income, this is a movement. And why? Why the push to retire early, and to get out of the working world? Because, according to a Gallup poll, only 15% of workers worldwide feel “engaged” at work. In the US, 30% of workers feel “engaged” at work, but that’s still not a very good number, is it? (3) Many of us spend a lot of time working. A huge chunk of life is going to work. And apparently, for many, many people, that’s a chunk of life that people aren’t enjoying.
Of course, not finding work engaging isn’t a modern problem. We just have to turn to our reading from Ecclesiastes, where the author would be glad to tell us that there’s nothing new under the sun, not even grumbling about work. Ecclesiastes is part of what is called wisdom literature in the Bible, and the author - sometimes called the Preacher or the Teacher - is something of a philosopher. In our text for today, the Teacher is talking about work. He calls it toil, which means excessive and incessant work. Even the word he chooses for work tells us something about how he feels about it! Our text begins, “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun,” and it continues in the same vein for most of the passage. The Teacher regrets knowing that all the fruits of his hard work? Well, eventually he’ll die and the benefits will all go to someone else, who might be wise, or might be foolish. Knowing that all your hard work might be for nothing, might be given to someone foolish as a beneficiary someday is, for the author, “a great evil.” “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” he asks. “For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” Wow - this sounds achingly contemporary, doesn’t it?
What do we do, then? Work and toil and suffer and have no rest for our minds even at night, and just endure? That can’t be what God wants for us, can it? I hope we know that what God wants for us is life, joy, and abundance. God wants us to love life, because God loves us and life, our existence, is a gift to us. But God still intends for us to work. It’s right there in the second chapter of the whole Bible. When Adam is still in Eden, before he ate the fruit, before the serpent, before there’s even an Eve yet, God puts Adam to work. We read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Adam works as a gardener in Paradise. If there’s work in what’s meant to show us Creation as it was meant to be, perfect harmony between God and God’s creation, then work, as it’s meant to be, is meant to be a blessing, not a curse. After all, God works too. God’s work is creation, and the product of God’s work God deemed very good. God rests from work. Work isn’t all there is. But God’s work is done out of love, with joy, serving creation even as creation serves God. We know one of the best ways we can be disciples of Jesus is by imitating him, and Jesus worked too. Work is not meant to drag us down. It is meant to be a blessing, a rewarding part of life. Think of something hard to do that you’ve completed, accomplished, and the feeling you get when you’ve done a good job and finished a task. It could be for your “day job,” or part of volunteer work, or something you’ve done on your own time. I think that sense of reward and satisfaction we get in those moments is what God hopes for us to experience regularly, in much the same way that God looked on God’s own work in creation with a deep sense of rightness.
How do we get to that, though? How do we let work make us feel deeply satisfied instead of deeply discontented and exhausted? First, I think we reclaim a sense of vocation. Vocation is from the Latin word meaning “to call.” We’re meant to do the work, to have the vocation to which God calls us. Theologian Frederick Buechner said in his work Wishful Thinking, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” That’s vocation. I think, though, we’ve done a disservice to our people - pastors and other church leaders - when we’ve let people get the impression that being called into church work, into ministry, or even into some sort of social services field are the only “real” vocations. I think sometimes we leave folks feeling like if they are doing some “regular” job - whatever that is - that it doesn’t count, isn’t enough, and isn’t a way to serve God. My Grandpa worked at Rome Cable for many years, and then he was a gas station attendant in retirement. I don’t think he felt called to those jobs. I don’t think those jobs were his vocation. But I think he did feel deeply called to make sure people knew that Jesus loved them, and so did he. People who interacted with my Grandpa in turn felt that deeply - that love. That was his vocation. And he could fulfill that work at Rome Cable or at the gas station or when he went grocery shopping or wherever he was. Vocation isn’t a job. It’s whatever path allows us to serve God and neighbor and to do so with joy in our hearts. There are countless paths that bring us opportunities to do that, whether we’re preaching, or working in social services, or doing one of the countless jobs we undervalue in society, or whether we’re retired, or raising children, or volunteering.
Even our cynical Teacher in Ecclesiastes? That’s what he concludes too. “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.” He means that - we’re meant to live life and find joy in what we do. This, he says, is from “the hand of God,” because joy comes from God. Our aim, the Teacher says, should be pleasing God. When we aim to please God in all we do, what could be toiling can become wisdom, knowledge, and joy.
Sometimes, embracing the gift of work will mean we have to rethink how we’re spending our time, and look for a way to work that better helps us respond to God’s call. Sometimes, it will mean that we advocate for better, more just conditions for those who work in jobs that are thankless, or oppressive and abusive. Sometimes, it will mean adjusting our own attitudes, so that we don’t look down on others who do work we don’t want to do. Sometimes, embracing the gift of work means discovering how to respond to God’s call when we’re retired, or staying at home, or dealing with a condition that keeps us from traditional employment. Sometimes, it means working a paid job that gives us the resources we need to do the unpaid work that is our true vocation. Sometimes, embracing God’s gift of work means realizing how many opportunities to serve God and serve others we have right where we are. Sometimes, it means remembering that God does hard work, and considers work part of our world at its very best. Sometimes, it means remembering to rest from work too, so we can stay passionate about what God calls us to do. If you need help figuring it out - how to find meaning in your work, whatever that is, please know I’d love to talk to you about that, and help you find and answer God’s call, the place where you deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
Some days, I know whatever tasks are before us, it will feel like we’re toiling in vain under the sun. But when we make pleasing God and shaping our lives after God’s own pattern our aim, we can trust that God will help us find joy and purpose in the work we do. Amen.
- Long, Heather, “Meet Khe Hy, the Oprah for Millennials,” cnn.com, https://money.cnn.com/2016/12/30/news/economy/khemaridh-hy-rad-reads-oprah-for-millennials/, December 31, 2016. Accessed on 1/18/2020.
- Ramsey, Dave, “What is the FIRE movement?”, DaveRamsey.com,
https://www.daveramsey.com/blog/what-is-the-fire-movement. Accessed on 1/18/2020.
- Clifton, Jim, “The World's Broken Workplace,” Gallup,
https://news.gallup.com/opinion/chairman/212045/world-broken-workplace.aspx?g_source=position1&g_medium=related&g_campaign=tiles, 6/13/2017. Accessed on 1/18/2020.