The Joy of Labor 13th Pentecost
Psalm 105:1-6 August 30, 2020 Romans 12:9-21
Most of you know the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and how they disobeyed God and basically got kicked out of the Garden. Eve was told that her punishment would be that her pains in childbirth were going to be increased, and Adam was now going to have to earn his food with hard labor. His punishment is described like this:
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.”
Labor is here being described as a punishment.
Now compare this with a 17th Century monk named Brother Lawrence. He discovered that he could experience God’s presence while washing pots and pans and cooking for others in the monastery. The work he did was done for God, and was every bit as prayerful and worshipful as any time he spent in prayer or worship! You can read all about his insights in a book called Practicing the Presence of God.
Labor is here being described as an opportunity to 1. Serve God, and to 2. Experience God’s presence! (Notice the difference from Genesis 3!)
I know that many of you are familiar with the name, Booker T. Washington. He was an important figure in the years following the Civil War. His autobiography, Up from Slavery, is a wonderful and inspiring read. In it, he describes his earliest memories: playing on a dirt floor in a slave cabin; experiencing the thrill of emancipation after the war. This thrill was quickly tempered by the sudden need for employment and housing and food, and people who were never allowed to make important decisions now had to use all their resourcefulness just to survive! At a young age, Booker went to work in the salt mines with his father, but in his spare time he pursued an education. There came a “watershed moment” in his life when a woman taught him how to thoroughly clean a room. Booker took great satisfaction in learning this skill, and it came in handy when he had a chance to continue his education. To “try out” for a custodial position at a college, he was given a classroom to clean—and he did it so perfectly that he got the job—and got on with his education! But for Booker T. Washington, labor was not something one did until one was able to forsake it altogether. In fact, when he was called to be the first President of a new school for black students in Alabama, he built into the curriculum a requirement that every student must be actively involved in some area of labor on campus! They
- Built the buildings of this new Tuskegee Institute;
- Planted gardens and grew much of their own food;
- Cooked in the kitchens, and washed up;
- Cleaned the buildings and kept the grounds;
- Fixed machinery used at the Institute;
- Built the desks and chairs and beds—almost everything needed at the school;
- Developed a strong work ethic, especially among those of higher privilege who initially balked at the idea of having to do manual labor!
You see, Booker T. Washington understood a fundamental reality: Being industrious builds a solid foundation for a person—a foundation that will serve for a lifetime instead of simply “building on the sand.” This vision of the value of labor, the joy of labor, is diametrically opposed to the one expressed in Genesis 3—that of labor being a punishment! Some of you have heard me tell the story about the day when Booker (the new President of the newly-established Tuskegee Institute) when Booker was walking down a street in town, and a white woman called him over and instructed him to chop some wood for her. Instead of swelling with righteous indignation, and protesting this subservient treatment, he gladly went to the woodpile, picked up an axe, and chopped a load of wood for her. When she later found out who he was, she went to his office at Tuskegee and profusely apologized. Booker told her that he had been delighted to have been able to do a service for her. (Just remember his vision regarding the joy of labor!)
[Just a sidenote regarding this woman: She became an ardent supporter of the Tuskegee Institute, and, when she passed on, she left her entire estate to them!]
Now, a week from tomorrow is Labor Day, and the holiday is usually associated with images of end-of-summer camping and travel and trying to get as much fun in as possible before we settle down into fall. I hope you will remember that the day is set aside to celebrate those who labor. I see it as an opportunity to recapture a healthy vision of what it means to labor—all forms of labor. So what I would like to do today is to, first of all, imagine what kind of labor God has in mind for you, at this stage of your life. Then we can explore our attitudes regarding labor and our life-long endeavor to live an abundant life. Our Epistle reading for today has some strong wording, almost a series of commands in the way that they are related. Let’s see how they might throw a little light on us.
Let’s start by reminding ourselves that every person is different—that each of us has been uniquely gifted with talents and abilities. We only do ourselves a disservice when we compare ourselves with anyone else—but it is important that we take a look at what God has given us and then ask a question: “What is it that I am able to do? What is my purpose in life?
I think it helps to start by looking at the world around us. A fruit tree is designed to bear fruit, and to produce leaves (which give shade and clean the air and put oxygen into the atmosphere.) In the same way, the Bible tells us that you and I are supposed to “bear fruit” in our lives. (Simply being a consumer doesn’t cut it.) No matter our unique niche in the world, we will know we are serving our purpose if we eventually begin to see some fruit from our labors.
Please keep in mind that some work that God calls us to do takes a LONG time to show significant fruit. For example, missionaries in Asia who labored for more than 20 years before they had the joyful fruit of a single “convert.” Of course, along the way, God sent them encouragement as they developed relationships and deepened their understanding of the new culture in which they were serving. Maybe those “little fruits” kept them confident that God was active in their work?
God designed us to fulfill some function in God’s Kingdom. There is some LABOR God wants us to do.
Now, labor, industry, whatever you want to call it (the word “work” has so many nuances!) is not all physical. It is important that we honor the work of minds and creativity as well. But all our work benefits from a certain context, an attitude that is well-described in a short line from Colossians 3: “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Whatever we say or do, says Paul, we can do it in the name of Jesus.
That means that all our labor counts as Service to Christ, just as Brother Lawrence discovered. You could even say that Living the Christian life is WORK. Is it drudgery? NO! Does it require discipline? YES!
Here’s where our Scripture verses really come alive. Listen to these very active words in our passage from Romans:
Hold fast Love Outdo Be ardent
Serve Rejoice Be Patient Persevere
Contribute Bless Live in Harmony
Take thought Live peaceably Feed enemies
And, finally, my favorite: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with GOOD. All of these words come from Paul in the form of a loving command—not the kind of command like “pick up that garbage” or “do as you’re told”—but a command that says, “If you want to live life to its fullest, discipline yourself to do these things.”
Don’t try to do them all on your own, but partner with God. Join God’s “labor force,” open your eyes to the wonderful works God is doing all around us!