ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 8, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Genesis 3: 17 – 19; Philippians 1: 22 – 26; Matthew 25: 14 – 30
The parents of a teenager were worried about their son’s career choice, so they met with a career counsellor. The counsellor said he had a test that would predict their son’s vocation. He’d put three objects on a table: A Bible, a wallet, and a bottle of scotch, and let the boy choose the one he wanted. If the boy chose the Bible, he’d be a Bishop; if he chose the wallet, he’d be a banker; but if he chose the bottle, he’d amount to nothing. The next visit the parents brought their son. The counsellor told him he could have any object he wished. The boy promptly picked up all three items. The councillor said, “I’m sorry, he’s going to be a Presbyterian minister.”
Today we’re talking about work. That may seem odd given many of you are set in a career, some are too young to earn a living and others are retired. Work is a relevant topic for everyone. If you have a career, then flourishing in it is important. If you’re a child, you’re work is to develop life skills and gifts. If you’re a student, you’re in the process of preparing for and choosing a career. If you no longer work for pay, you contribute in other ways. Paul was in a reflective mode when he wrote to the Philippians. He was mulling over whether it’s better to die and be with Jesus or to live, continuing his ministry. He states, “As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do” (1: 22). God has you on this earth for a reason. Each of us has a vocation – a calling from God. To begin, all of us have a priestly function. What does a priest do? He represents God to the world and the world to God. In all we do, we are to show the nature of God to others, and to bless others and hold them up to God. We can do that in whatever role we’re. Sometimes, a bus driver, an executive, a homemaker or a nurse does that better than a minister. Secondly, all of us contribute to the health of Christ’s Kingdom. Whether you’re a first responder, an accountant, a garbage collector or a call centre agent, you’re improving life for someone. Even retirees in a seniors’ home can organize events, show kindness, volunteer, play the piano, put up a shelf or pray. As long as you’re alive in your body, there’s good work for you to do.
The scriptures tell us work is not a new creation. Isaac was a real estate developer. Jacob was a rancher. Paul was a tentmaker. Sarah was a mother who managed a large household. Queen Esther began as a super-model. Ruth worked in a granary. Lydia was in the textile industry. What they did mattered to God. Joseph didn’t leave his job as PM of a foreign country to work for a non-profit, faith-based mission. After an out-standing military career, David didn’t go to seminary, he became King. Yet they all served God. They all had a vocation. Work is part of God’s plan for each of us. When we read the 4th of the 10 Commandments, we hear it as being a command to keep the Sabbath, yet it speaks about work as well as rest. “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do” (Exodus 20: 8 – 9). We focus on the one day (a very important day) and fail to register it also as a command to work. Work is part of God’s plan.
In Genesis we read that after “The Fall” God’s curse for Adam was, “The ground will sprout thorns and weeds, you’ll get your food the hard way, planting and tilling and harvesting, sweating in the fields from dawn to dusk” (Genesis 3: 17 – 19). For many people work is…well, work. The average person spends 1/2 of their life working and commuting. Business Insider tells us 87% of people have no passion for their work, 60% say work is a source of insomnia, 1/3 of managers say they’ve lost their sense of humour, and ¼ say its their major cause of stress. Work takes it’s toll on our health. It contributes to everything from weight gain to what the Japanese call “karoshi” – “death by work” from suicide or dropping dead at your desk. For many, work is a boring, draining, life-sucking experience. We’ve got to ask: Is work God’s punishment or have we got it wrong? No surprise, I’m going with the latter. At the beginning of creation, before Adam’s disobedience, “God took the Man and set him down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order” (1:15). Work is and always has been, part of God’s plan, and if it’s part of God’s plan, the Spirit is willing to work with us. When our work is done in the flow of the Spirit, blessing the world God loves, we participate in Christ’s redemptive purpose. Instead of a curse, work once again becomes a blessing.
Many people experience work as a curse because they’re motivation is off. In his book, Habits of the Heart Robert Bellah describes 3 orientations people have around work. Some people work to live. They work to pay the bills. They volunteer because they should. If that’s your focus, you’ll likely come to resent your work. Others work or volunteer to advance themselves – they seek prestige and accolades. If this is what drives you and you succeed, work may be satisfying – or it could leave a “so what” emptiness in our soul. If you don’t succeed, it will feed a self-image of worthlessness – the very thing you were working against. Still others see their work as a vocation, a calling. And the one who calls us is God. When we work for God, we give it our all. You may recall the story of Abraham sending out his servant to find a wife for Isaac. The servant took 10 camels with him. He came to a well and asked for God’s guidance. He said he’d ask the women for a drink and the one who offers to water the camels would become Isaac’s wife. It turned out to be Rebekah. 1 gallon of water weighs 8 pounds; a camel can drink 30 gallons; there were 10 camels. 2400 gallons in numerous trips. That’s a lot of work. Rebekah didn’t do it to snag Isaac; she did it because she loved God – it was an act of service flowing from her heart. Contrast this with journalist William Zinssser, whose first job was writing obituaries. After a while he went to his boss and asked for a “real” career building assignment. His boss told him, “nothing you write will ever be as carefully read and treasured as what you’re writing now. Do it well and people will keep it forever.” Things changed. Zinsser started to go the extra mile. He worked to bless others. Not every calling is our dream job. We all start at the bottom and find our path. Even a talented author pays their dues before winning a Pulitzer. To grow into a tree, a sapling needs to be cultivated. God may call us to a certain position for a time to help us grow as people and disciples. When we work for God, we work from the heart, mind, body and spirit. Whatever the task, we give it our all.
In the parable of the talents, a financial speculator asks 3 agents to invest money on his behalf. The first man, Mr. Bay St, got 5 shares of stock. He re-invested them and got a 100% return. He gave it his all. He had skill, initiative and drive. The next was given 2 shares of stock. He bought low and sold high and made a 100% return as well. His commendation was just as big as Mr. Bay Street’s. In God’s kingdom, the measure of compensation isn’t based on visible outcomes alone. God considers and values our attitudes and efforts. The third guy was given one share. He had his financial investor pull it out of the market and set it aside, just in case the economy went south. This guy was a clock puncher; a time watcher, a scrape by kind of guy. He took all his sick days just because he could. When his boss came back, he proudly showed him his one share, still intact. His job review didn’t go well. Looking back, he desperately wished he’d spent more time at the office.
So, what does working in the flow of the Spirit look like? When we’re “in the flow”, our work energizes us and gives us strength. It feels natural. It fits who we are. We enjoy the challenge and thrill of what we’re doing. We work well with people. We bring out the best in others. We lovingly encourage them, and we grow with them. Ideas and inspiration pour out. We’re productive and what we produce is excellent. Our motto is TGIM! Our joy and satisfaction at work, spills over into our family and other relationships. We sense God’s presence. We feel God smiling. We bear fruit and bless others. Wouldn’t that feel great?
The more challenging question is how do we work in the flow of the Spirit? God gives us each skills and abilities. God never asks a rabbit to swim, a snail to race or a moose to fly. There’s no point trying to be an Engineer if you can’t do math; a singer if you can’t sing; a salesperson if you’re an extreme introvert. Your calling will resonate with your gifts. When the Spirit is flowing, way leads on to way. Like the first two men in the parable, if you do a small job well, you’re entrusted with increasingly important work. After I finished my course to be a Spiritual Director, I hung out my shingle. A writing opportunity came up and then an editing job. I began to do workshops in churches, before long I was doing them at conferences. I was then asked to teach in the course I had graduated from. The kingdom of heaven starts out small and grows. It’s our job to fertilize what’s planted, to be discerning about the Spirit’s leading and to trust enough to take the next step when the right opportunities present themselves. When we’re in the Spirit’s flow, our abilities are equal to our challenges, as we saw with the first two men in the parable. The degree of challenge needs to meet our ability. When it doesn’t, we’re bored. When we’re not up to the challenge, we’re exasperated. Either way we’re unhappy. But when the challenge fits our abilities, and our abilities rise to the challenge, it flows. The Spirit also flows when we’re not seeking to be acknowledged. A husband came home one day to find the house a mess – dirty clothes were piled up, crusty dishes in the sink, beds unmade, bathrooms smelling, bits of lunch were on the floor. He asked his wife what was happening. She said, “You always ask me what I did all day and look at me as if it wasn’t much. Well, today I didn’t do it.” The thing is: work doesn’t make us significant; we make work significant. Finally, we flow in the Spirit when we seek the Spirit’s help. We pray for the Spirit to be alive and moving within us. We ask for ideas and wisdom. We give thanks for solutions to problems. We’re open to feedback. We work honestly, with integrity; we don’t manipulate, take credit for someone else’s work, or push people out to get ahead. We wait for the Spirit’s guidance. We remember God’s calling and review that in the Spirit’s light. We give our best because we work for God, we work to bless, to build God’s kingdom, and to bring God glory.
Whatever our calling, we all hope that one day God will say to us, “Well done”. In the meantime, cultivate a servant’s heart, work in the Spirit’s flow and for heaven’s sake – do your best.