ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 4, 2016
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
FROM CURSE TO CALLING
Genesis 3: 17 – 19; Colossians 3: 23 & 24; Matthew 21: 28 – 31a
It’s always fun to ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Often we hear standard answers: a teacher, a doctor, a hockey player, a fire fighter, a mother, a hairdresser, etc. When asked, some grade one kids came up with more creative occupations such as: a break dancer, a Blogger, a Lego Master, and a Dog Walker. A few will be hard pressed to actually make a living since they hope to be: a fisherman but not on a boat, only from the shore, a Princess, The Hulk and my favorite: a mermaid. Another said, “A dairy farmer” so hopefully he’s up to the task because, as one farmer observed, “The hardest thing about milking cows is they never stay milked.” Then there was the girl who answered, “When I grow up, I want to be like Elsa.”
Working is so much a part of life we assume everyone will work and contribute to the well-being of society in some way. Often we work to pay the bills as expressed by the bumper sticker, “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.” For a vast portion of the workforce, that’s the best reason they can muster for going to their job each day. According to one poll, 57 percent of American office workers are dissatisfied with their jobs. In Japan, the figure dips to 83 percent. For these people, and others like them, work is a curse. For others who find deep meaning and satisfaction in their labour, work is a source of joy. Today’s question is “How do we as Christians understand work? Is it a curse or a calling?”
The idea of work as a curse goes back to Genesis 3: 17 – 19 where Adam is punished for being disobedient. Adam is told “in toil and by the sweat of your brow you shall eat” until you return to the dust. Life is hard, then you die. Prior to this Adam had an easy time picking fruit from trees and naming animals. Yet if we read Genesis carefully we notice a number of things related to work. First, the world begins because God works. God creates the whole thing. God speaks and stuff happens. Maybe creating a massive, intricate cosmos teaming with such varied life was easy for God but we’d all agree it’s no small task. To be made in the image of God is to work. We also notice that “Adam” worked from the moment he was created. According to Genesis 1, humankind, male and female, had two jobs. One was to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Some people may not think of that as work, until of course the little rug rats start showing up and needing care. Their second task was to “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.” (Genesis 1: 28) Animal husbandry is hard work. Those cows never stay milked and you can’t herd cats. Not to mention handling Rhinos, bears, lizards, scorpions, donkeys or monkeys. God made people to be stewards of his creation. To free them up to do this, God provided for humanity: “God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” The purpose of work wasn’t to get rich or even to earn a living. God freely fed and provided for the needs of his human creation not to re-pay them for their work, but so they’d be free to fulfill their purpose.Finally after the fall God didn’t curse Adam or work, he cursed the land. The ground went from being easy to work and harvest to being weedy; it needed tilling, sowing and reaping. No longer would God hand humanity everything we need to survive. Having taken God’s provisions for granted, we now work to eat. But work itself is good and it was part of God’s plan from the get go.
However, like everything else God created, work is no longer what God originally intended. Work was never meant to be something we do in isolation from God – it was something we’d do with and for God. Things went awry when Adam and Eve sinned and were exiled from God’s presence. But like everything else, work is also redeemed by Christ. In Christ we’re brought back into relationship with God and invited again to be God’s co-workers. We’re called to participate in creating God’s Kingdom on earth. The Church refers to this calling as a vocation. While we’re all called to work with God, we each have particular vocations which may change as life unfolds. In the seasons of life, we’re called to work, volunteer, retire and even rest; we may be called to remain single, to marry or to have children; we’re called to share the gospel, to create justice, and to mature into the image of Christ. Many Christians have the mistaken impression that only clergy have a vocation, or that being a minister is a higher calling than any other. Everyone has a vocation. God calls each of us according to our gifts, our life experiences, our passions and our temperament to a variety of roles which help him to achieve his purposes. Not every job is a vocation, because some things people choose to do are destructive; sometimes our discernment is off and we miss our true calling; sometimes we miss opportunities because we want a different calling or dislike what we’re doing. In the eleventh century, King Henry III of Bavaria grew tired of court life and the pressures of being a monarch. He applied to be a monk at a local monastery. “Your Majesty,” said the Prior, “do you understand that the pledge here is one of obedience? That will be hard because you have been a king.” “I understand,” said Henry, “The rest of my life I will be obedient to you, as Christ leads you.” “Then I will tell you what to do,” said the Prior. “Go back to your throne and serve faithfully in the place where God has put you.” When King Henry died, a statement was written: “The King learned to rule by being obedient.” Being faithful to our calling, whether to be an accountant, teacher, computer geek, grandparent or church usher allows God to include each of us in bringing about his purposes.
Some jobs aren’t very glamourous. Very few people get to be King. St. Therese of Lisieux advocated “the little way” or being faithful in our service to God in in our everyday tasks. Martin Luther understood this, “The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God as much as the monk who prays — not because she may sing a hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” I would add that beyond clean floors and good craftsmanship, those vocations are valuable because they serve humanity and make life better for others.
In several places in the New Testament we’re called to fulfill our role in life with devotion to Christ. In Colossians Paul advices, “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord you servethe Lord Christ.” In Ephesians 6:7 he writes, “Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women…” In Titus 2:10 Paul gave Christian slaves a way to grasp a glimpse of glory amid the grind. He wanted them to “adorn the doctrine of God,” that is, to show the beauty of their faith in Christ by how they work. What does this mean in concrete terms? Working for Jesus has many facets: it is to work with enthusiasm, giving our whole self to whatever we do and striving for excellence. A retired man became interested in a local construction project. He was especially impressed by a conscientious operator of a large crane. After watching daily for a couple weeks, the man spoke to the operator about how much he’d enjoyed watching him work. Looking astonished, the operator replied, “You’re not the supervisor?” As Christians we work as if Jesus were our supervisor. Being made in the image of God, we don’t approach work with resentment or boredom, but with creativity. Creativity may mean artistry or beauty, it may also mean ingenuity, finding ways to improve things or finding new ways to present old things. We also work with integrity, living out our values. The first governor-general of Australia Lord Hopetoun owned a 300 year old ledger he’d inherited from an ancestor who had owned a business in Edinburgh. Inscribed on its front page was a prayer, “O Lord, keep me and this book honest!” That’s a prayer we can pray every day. When we work we see each job we do as an opportunity to serve Christ by serving others. We look for openings throughout the day to do things to help others, to make their day more pleasant, to alleviate their burdens and to make them look good. We work with humility. There’s no job that’s beneath us or too small for us. We work cheerfully at whatever we’re given to accomplish. Finally we work with love. When my daughter was 2 I was at home being a mom. At one point I asked a friend, “What is the connection between toilet training my daughter and preaching the word of God?” She replied, “Maybe its love.” In that moment I heard God say to me, “I really don’t care what you work at. I care that whatever you do, you do with love.” From that day on, love became my deepest calling.
We are all called to serve Christ in whatever we do. Our work provides an opportunity to show others the love of Christ and to contribute to the kingdom of God. Even more than a calling, work is a great honour which adorns God, gives dignity to the worker and blesses the world God created and loves.