Labor Day isn’t a religious holiday, but then neither is Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, nor Memorial Day. Still, as with those other days, it’s appropriate to stop and consider the meaning of the day. In this case, we want to consider our labor and our work from a theological and spiritual perspective. Indeed, this is a good opportunity to remember our missional calling to bear witness to God’s presence in the world in which we live and work.
I decided to use this brief passage from Acts, because it reminds us that Paul supported himself in ministry by engaging in a trade, at least while he was in Corinth. Most translations suggest that he was a “tent-maker,” like his partners, Priscilla and Aquila, Jewish Christians who had recently migrated to Corinth from Rome. But, perhaps a better and broader translation would be “leather-worker.” Whatever they were doing, they were supporting their ministry through what we might call secular work. Indeed, we often use the term “tent-maker” to describe bi-vocational pastors or missionaries, who support themselves with a “secular” job so they can preach on Sunday. That is what Paul was doing – When he wasn’t making tents, he was preaching in the synagogues. The question is – Was he engaging in ministry, even as he was working with his hands?
This morning, as we reflect on the meaning of our labor, I’d like us to consider how this work of ours, whatever its nature, can be an expression of God’s mission in the world.
1. The Meaning and Value of Work
Today many people derive their sense of worth from their work or employment. When we meet someone new, we often ask: What do you do? By which we mean – How are you employed? Things were different in the ancient world, you didn’t derive a sense of purpose in life from your employment – indeed, work or labor was generally done by slaves; although there were free tradesmen, like Paul. The goal in life wasn’t to get a job; it was to be free of work so you could enjoy conversation and leisure.
Now, the biblical texts place a higher value on work than did the Greeks, in part because God is portrayed as one who worked. For six days God created the universe and its inhabitants, and then God rested from this work on the seventh day. This pattern was promoted and celebrated in Hebrew society, so that one worked six days, and then took off the seventh day as a Sabbath, a day of rest.
Jesus took things even further. He lifted up the servant and the slave, even portraying himself as a servant. He then called on his followers to be servants of God and humanity. In doing this, he turned the world’s expectations upside down. He lifted up those who had been brought down by society.
While many of us long for “days off,” for vacations, or for early retirement, our lives still seem defined by our work. Many of us will work sixty and seventy hour weeks; and to be unemployed in our society is to be without value. As for retirees, I’m reminded of the image developed so vividly in the movie About Schmidt. In this wonderful movie, Jack Nicholson’s character retires after a career as an extremely successful insurance salesman. He’d poured his life into his work, so much so that he didn’t have a relationship with his wife or with his daughter. Once the thing that had given him meaning was gone, he didn’t know what to do with his life. Then his wife, who had been looking forward to the day when she could share life with him again, died suddenly, he was truly lost and alone. Now, life lacked any sense of meaning and purpose.
As we celebrate Labor Day, we must ask the question – is there more to life than our jobs? But, more than that, can this work of ours not only provide food for the table, but also be an arena of ministry? And if so, how might this be expressed? In the coming weeks, we’ll be focusing on our congregational core values. I wonder, how might we live out these core values not only as a church, but in our day-to-day lives?
There was a time, back in the middle ages, when Christians distinguished between spiritual work and secular work. If you really wanted to serve God, then you became a monk, a priest, or a nun. The greatest work of all was to spend one’s day in prayer, cloistered and separated from society. Then came the Reformation, and Martin Luther and John Calvin insisted that we are all priests before God. They broke down the distinction between spiritual and secular. Or, as theologian Jürgen Moltmann put it, the
“Reformation was understood not only as the reformation of the church, but at the same time, as reformation of the world, that is, as reform of the working conditions of Christians” (Moltmann, On Human Dignity, Fortress, 1984, p. 45).
Unfortunately we can too easily fall into the trap of separating our worlds into spiritual and secular spheres. What we do at church is spiritual work. What we do outside the church is secular work. At the risk of excusing you from volunteering at the church, I believe it’s important for us to understand that God is at work outside the church walls, and that what we do outside the church walls is service to God and is an expression of God’s mission. We’ve been talking about that 5-mile radius for the past year. Well, even as this congregation has a 5-mile radius, do we, might we, as individuals have our own “5-mile” radius, so that the places we live, work, and volunteer, become our own spheres of mission.
2. Missioned for Labor
We have sensed a calling to be a missional church. Since before I even got here, this congregation was exploring what it means to be missional, and we’re still trying to figure out what that means for us. But, as we observe Labor Day, may we reflect upon the connections between our labor and our mission. Indeed, it might be helpful to remember that the Latin root for the word we use for work, the word vocation, means “calling.” So, the question is, in what way are we, as individuals, called to be missional? In other words, being missional is more than a church thing. It’s a total-life thing. It’s not just about Sunday. It’s also about what we do from Monday to Saturday as well.
What if there wasn’t a distinction between Sunday and Monday, between clergy and laity? What if God had called each of us to ministries of witness and service in the very places we work and volunteer and even play. We don’t have to preach or even proselytize. But, we can bear witness to God’s grace and love and mercy in everything we do, even as we show compassion, acceptance, service and live lives of honesty and integrity. Indeed, we bear witness to God’s grace in the way we treat the people we work with, play with, and live with.
This aspect of being missional hit home as I was reading Gary Nelson’s book Borderland Churches (Chalice Press, 2008). He pointed out that churches regularly commission/ordain/acknowledge people for their church work, whether it’s being an elder, Sunday school teacher, or church officer. But rarely, if ever, do we “mission” people for service in the world. Rarely do we affirm and recognize people’s “secular” vocations as a calling and ministry of God – whether one is a teacher, an attorney, an engineer, or a volunteer in a non-church related area of life.
Nelson writes that maybe the reason we don’t “mission” people is that we “ultimately need them to serve the structures inside the church” (Nelson, p. 112). I think he’s right, because I regularly hear complaints that it’s hard to find volunteers to do church work. There is truth to this. We need lots of volunteers, and there seem to be fewer of them to be found. But, that doesn’t mean that we should devalue what people do outside church as being less than spiritual. It is in this daily work that we bear witness to the reign of God in the World. Gary Nelson writes:
The church becomes both an instrument and a sign of what God wants to do in his kingdom that Jesus brought to earth. The purpose of the church and its mission is to incarnationally point to what it might look like when a community of people becomes alive under God’s reign. By “missioning,” the church is making visible to each member, to the church community, and to the world that God’s people are at work. (Nelson, Borderland Churches, p. 113).
Inspired by this call to mission, not only in the church, but also in the world of everyday life, I invite you to share in a litany of missioning, which you’ll find printed in the bulletin.
Litany of Missioning
This mission occurs wherever we live and work and play.
This mission occurs because God is at work in the world, not just in the church.
This mission occurs because we are all priests before God.
Empowered for service to God’s kingdom in the worship, study, and fellowship of the Christian community.
We are missioned by God to be God’s ministers in our work and community volunteer activities.
Sales, Medicine, Business, Law, Information Technology, Education, Engineering, Manufacturing, as Students, Finances and Banking, Government Services, Service Industries, Management, Homemaking, Community volunteers, or wherever God places us.
God missions us to bear witness in our words and in our deeds, to the grace and love of God for the World.
God, send us into our work with new resolves.
Help us to work out the problems that have perplexed us, and to serve the people we meet.
*Prayer taken from Chalice Worship, (Chalice Press, 1997), p. 176.