Deuteronomy passage can be found here; Ephesians, here....
So, what was your first job? Let’s make it a rule that it has to be something for which you were paid by someone other than your parents—unless you had a family farm or business. Would anyone like to share?
I started babysitting when I was eleven. After that, I spent a summer working at the City Tennis Courts. A few years ago I was trading stories of first jobs with some Presbytery colleagues, other teaching elders. There was someone who worked at an amusement park, someone who worked at a ski resort, and, by far the most interesting, a guy who worked on a poultry farm, trussing up the limbs of dead chickens and turkeys.
Why talk about our first jobs? It’s pretty simple. For many people, I believe, the work we do has a profound impact on our self-understanding, the people we believe ourselves to be. For better or for worse, our work can define us, even those quirky first jobs we had while still in our teens.
And that makes sense, when we consider the amount of time we spend in our work, whatever that work may be. This morning’s passage from Deuteronomy gives us a sense of how the ancients understood the balance between work and rest: it is God’s commandment on keeping Sabbath. According to the commandment, we spend six days at work for each day we spend at rest.
So, why do we work? And, more importantly, what does God think of work? How does work fit into God’s design for life in this world?
I think we can divide the reasons for working into at least four categories:
Those who work because they love to work.
Those who work because they need to work, to pay the bills—but who are relatively free to choose the type of work they do.
Those who work in order to get rich.
Those who work because they are forced to work—slaves.
And, clearly, there is some overlap in these categories. But let’s take them one at a time.
Those who work because they love to work: If there’s anything I’ve learned in my almost nine years as an ordained teaching elder, it is this: It is a rare privilege to be able to do work that you find truly fulfilling, to be able to wake up every morning and say, “I love my job.” For much of the population, work is a necessity—not slavery, but not much of a joy either. There is one school of thought that, if we do something referred to as “following our bliss”—in other words, if we do the thing we love to do—we will find success, and joy, and complete fulfillment. Sadly, this isn’t always true, and it reminds me of a joke I heard when I was a philosophy major in college: “Q: What is the question most frequently asked by philosophy majors? A: Do you want fries with that?” Philosophy is all well and good, they warned us, But are you sure it will put food on the table? Those of us who love the work we do, whether that is engineering software or writing sermons or caring for our own or others’ children, need to be reminded: it is a rare privilege, and one for which we ought to be continually thanking God.
Which brings me to: Those who work because they need to work, to pay the bills—and who are relatively free to choose the type of work they do. This is a huge category, I think the one most of us fall into. Even those of us who love our jobs, unless our last name happens to be Rockefeller or Gates or Zuckerberg, need to work, in order to eat, to clothe ourselves, and to be able sleep in a safe place. And I say, “relatively free,” because, of course, the kind of work available to us is limited by lots of things: by education, by geography, by ability, by family situation. Sometimes it is limited by prejudice—the most recent and insidious and just plain crazy form of this to come to light was created by our recent economic downturn: the prejudice against those who have been out of work too long. That is an injustice that is mind boggling. But aside from these limitations, many folks we run into in the course of our ordinary lives are able, within reason, to do something they want to do.
Then there are those who work in order to gain great wealth. In the classic Disney version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” we are introduced to the dwarfs by means of a song:
We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig in a mine the whole day through.
To dig dig dig dig dig dig dig is what we like to do!
It ain’t no trick to get rich quick when you dig dig dig with a shovel or a pick in a mine.
Where a million diamonds shine…
The pretty clear message about the dwarfs is that they are greedy, interested in only material gain. In fact, they are so greedy, they only do the work that is likely to get them rich—they don’t bother to care for their home, which is in such a dreadful state that Snow White sees the mess, plus all the tiny little beds, and arrives at the conclusion that the house is inhabited by motherless children. It is a great moral advancement for the dwarfs when they come to care more for Snow White than for their own schemes and safety.
And finally, those who work because they are forced to do so: Many of us learned, as children, that slavery was abolished in this country with 1863’s Emancipation Proclamation, a presidential executive order whose promise was delivered in 1865 with the end of the Civil War. It is an uncomfortable truth that slavery still exists, both in this country and elsewhere, though not in the old familiar forms. People are more likely to be defrauded into slavery: tricked by ads to come to this country expecting legitimate jobs, passports confiscated by their new employers, forced to live in squalor while working for nothing or next to nothing, all the while enduring intimidation and violence—for women and children, sexual violence. It’s estimated that between 12 and 27 million people worldwide are affected by this modern day slavery, at least 17,000 of whom are in the United States.
It bears mentioning: God doesn’t like slavery. In the passage we read this morning from Deuteronomy the balance of work and Sabbath are justified by the communal memory of enslavement “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). No one who is not a slave should have to work seven days a week. Those who must are usually a part of a system that is out of whack, inherently unbalanced, or just plain unjust. I am sorry to say that we are living in such a system. Bill Moyers reported on his website in April that a person earning minimum wage in New York, that’s $7.25 an hour, has to work 136 hours per week to afford to rent an average two-bedroom apartment. There are 168 hours in a week, so that minimum wage worker is left with exactly seven hours per day in which to do all the rest of his or her living, sleeping, grocery shopping, caring for children.[i] The greed of those at the top is killing the working people of this country.
So where does God fit into all this? What’s God’s idea of work?
Scripture has lots of passages in which work is spoken of as a high calling, something truly good and holy. In the first chapters of Genesis—the very beginning of the great story of scripture—God creates the world and then rests, and that pattern is offered elsewhere (Exodus 20:8-11) as yet another rationale for a six-day work week. But something else happens in those chapters as well. After the long and beautiful liturgy of creation—the creation of the day and the night, the sun and moon, the seas and the dry land and the birds, the plants, the animals, the fish and the people to populate them, there is a single verse, so unassuming, you might miss it: “The Lord God took the man” (really, the human, the earth-creature) and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). In this short sentence, God, who has been engaged in this creative activity decides to bring in a partner: human beings. It is our job to be keepers of the world. It is our job to join with God in the great liturgy of creation, to keep co-creating all that is beautiful and necessary for the world to be a habitable place.
In our passage from Ephesians, the writer implores the readers to “lead a life worthy of our callings,” and this includes our calling to be workers on behalf of God, equipping one another, all of us, for ministry, for service to this hurting world. Work is a holy activity. Saint Benedict of Nursia tells the monks and sisters, straight out, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the community members should have specified periods for manual labor…” Elsewhere, Paul is more brutal: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” he grumbles (2 Thessalonians 3:10). But he doesn’t stop there. And neither does the writer to the Ephesians stop there. We are looking at the number six this week, and what we learned about the number “seven” last week is relevant to what we learn today about “six.” Seven was the number of fullness, completion, perfection. It is a number that tells us something holy is going on. So, it’s not a far stretch to imagine that six is the number that tells us, something human is going on. Remember the creation story? Both human beings and the serpent were created on the sixth day; six is the number of both humanity and imperfection and even rebellion. It is the number, in scripture, of incompleteness, of the lack of God. That is why the sixth commandment is the commandment not to commit murder, and why the sixth petition in the Lord’s Prayer, which we will pray together in a few minutes, is “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” That is why the mark of the beast in Revelation (13:18) is 666, a Hebrew numerical equivalent for the Emperor Nero, that early brutal persecutor of the church.
So, Benedict tells his monks and sisters, “the community members should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading…” He includes a provision for those who are too weak to do manual labor, that they be given something useful to do, so that they don't lose heart. In fact, the ancient way of monastics is a balance between work, prayer, study, and leisure. As balanced lives go, you could do far worse. And the writer to the Ephesians, while listing the various modes of ministry we could participate in, begins with instructions on leading our lives with “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2-3).
Work is noble and good and holy—even when we don’t love it. Work is what we spend, most of us, one sixth of our days pursuing, and work is a gift from God for our growth and enrichment and the tilling and keeping of this planet. But work is not enough. The work we do has a profound impact on our self-understanding, the people we believe ourselves to be. But work alone leaves us incomplete, partial, un-full, because work alone leaves no space for loving relationships with others, no space for caring for ourselves through nurturing activities, no space for God, who is “the one hope of our calling”—in other words, the One in whom it all make sense, comes together.
And so, in that intriguing way of numbers, six leads us again to seven. Work is good and noble and holy, but work cannot be the totality of who we are as human beings. And the country we live in is a place where, today, those who fall into that category of folks who work to pay the bills but don’t have a lot of choices available to them as to where and how they work, are at the mercy of a system that doesn’t much care if they have time to take a day off to take their kids to the park or to go to church or to synagogue or to the mosque to worship God and to be in community. As we seek to find out how we can lead lives worthy of our calling, we are called, not only to seek balance for ourselves, but to seek justice and the hope of balance for those whose work is very close to slavery. In ourselves we are partial, incomplete, and never full. In God, in our service to one another, in the tangible reality of the body of Christ that binds us together, we can hope to find that which, not only blesses our work, but spills out to bless the whole world. Thanks be to God. Amen.