Sunday, September 6, 2015

Why Do You Labor? (Psalm 127:1)

Unless it is the Lord who builds the house,
    the builders’ work is pointless.

One of the defining movies of my generation was Office Space.  It takes place in the corporate setting of a software company in the late 1990s, and it represents the worst stereotypes of that sort of work environment – cubicle farms, office politics, redundant systems, quirky co-workers, and unfulfilling work.  If you could imagine the most boring, uninspiring, menial work environment, Office Space was it.

One of the plot lines in the movie centers around two outside consultants – both named Bob – who have been hired by the company as “efficiency experts.”  They are trying to identify “redundant and ineffective personnel,” in other words, who is going to be laid off.  One by one, the Bobs call the employees in for an interview in which each describes their job and how they contribute to the company.  During one interview that is going particularly poorly, one of the Bobs leans across the table and asks the flustered employee, “What would you say you do here?”

What would you say you do?  Have you ever noticed how quick we are to identify people by their job?  Meet someone at a party or on an airplane, and one of the first questions we ask is, “What do you do?  What sort of work are you in?”  When we were young and asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, we responded with a certain profession.

Where did we get this idea that a job defines us?

On this Labor Day weekend, maybe you’ve got work on your mind.  Large portions of our lives are spent at work. Some go to an office each day while others labor outdoors. Some work in 12-hour shifts to provide our food, keep us safe, and heal our wounds. Others travel near and far to sell, build, consult, and transport products and people. Still others teach children, cook meals, clean, and provide other services for our communities.

Indeed, work is a good thing – just ask anyone who is looking for work – it allows us to contribute to the world at large as we put our skills and gifts and training in service, while providing a means for us to provide for our families.

But, there comes a point where even too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing.  Such is the case with work.  Our society is, in many ways, addicted to work for the sake of work.  Hard-working people like ourselves can be fooled into an over-inflated sense of our own self-importance – have you ever looked around at your workplace, your family, your church, and thought, “If it weren’t for me, nothing would get done around here – If it weren’t for me, this place would just fall apart” – ever had those thoughts?

Friends, we already have a savior.  His name is Jesus!  We already have a savior; none of us need apply for that position.

Whenever you start to think that it all hinges on us, keep today’s Scripture reading in mind - Unless it is the Lord who builds the house, the builders’ work is pointless.  This is one of those verses that everyone should memorize, cross-stitch, and hang over your door.

We are a society addicted to work.  We find too much of our meaning and identity and self-worth in the work we do.  Psalm 127 speaks directly to the one who cannot seem to stop working, who constantly burns the midnight oil, who is obsessed with trying to get ahead, who thinks that a few more hours at the office or turning out a few more widgets will somehow lead to happiness, security, or self-validation.  This Psalm deals with the one who has no innate sense of their own self-worth, and somehow has to prove and secure their identity in their productivity.

I got to wondering if there is patron saint for workaholics.  Turns out it’s a two-man team.  St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, worked hard as a carpenter, so he is the patron saint of workers.  Joseph is a busy saint – not only was he a hard-working man on earth, he still has a lot of responsibilities and is working his little halo off in heaven, too.

For workaholics, St. Joseph teams up with St. Dymphna, the patron saint of crazy people, because too much work will make you crazy.

For people of faith, our value, our worth, our identity is not defined by what we do.  We are defined by who we are, or more to the point, whose we are.  We belong to God! Unless it is the Lord who builds the house, the builders’ work is pointless.  What sort of house is God building?   The Biblical writers are almost playful in their use of the word, “house.”  In the Old Testament, house is often used as a metaphor for family, and that’s what God is building – a family of faith.  We are named and claimed as part of God’s family – friends, God is trying to build us.

We are children of God!  We are part of God’s family!  What we do flows out of who we are.  The work we do necessarily flows out of the work God is doing in us. 

What work does God do in us?  God offers us opportunities to grow in grace.  To become more like Christ.  To grow in our love of God and neighbor.  To be filled with the Holy Spirit, such that our lives reflect the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, self-control.

That’s God’s desire for God’s children.  For the family of God, that’s who we are called to be.  That’s the foundational work that God does within us, without which, all of the tasks we might perform, even if they’re for the church, even if they’re in God’s name, are meaningless.  Unless it is the Lord who builds the house, the work of those who build it is pointless.

For our part, in order for God to do that most important of work within us, we show up in the places where God has promised to do that work.  We not only attend worship, we do so with an expectation that we will encounter and hear from God.  We participate in Sunday School or Bible studies or prayer groups.  We study the Scriptures and we pray.  We learn about who Jesus is and what he did and what was important to him, and commit to making his priorities our priorities. We build friendships with Christians who are more mature than ourselves, and we ask them to mentor us and teach us.  And we come to the table of our Lord in a sense of awe and wonder, confident in the promise of Jesus himself that he would meet us and commune with us every time we gather in faith to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

These are all ways we orient our lives toward what is most important, and place ourselves in a place to receive all the goodness God desires to give us.  To be sure, simply going through the motions on these things is no guarantee that God is working in us.

No, the condition of our heart, our openness to God’s leading, will determine whether God is able to work within us or not.  God wants to pour love and grace into each of us and shape us as members of his family, but God needs us to be open and ready to receive.  Without that work that God does within us, whatever tasks we perform, are done in vain.

We are quick to ask others what they do.  We are quick to find our worth and identity in terms of the work we perform.  We even do that with work in and on behalf of the church.  But rather than asking, “What do you do?” perhaps a more determinative question is “What is God doing?”

Martin Luther, the German church reformer, invited many people to help him in his work of the Reformation.  He was known to retire to his garden in the afternoon, and invite all those working with him to join him in a pint of beer following the day’s work.  One of his helpers, Phillip Melanchthon, was very zealous for the cause of reformation, and he thought this was an unwise use of time.  He said, “Dr. Luther, how can we relax when there is still so much important work to do in Reforming the Church?”  Luther set his drink down and said, “Phillip, surely God is still at work, even while we are drinking beer.”

Friends, God is at work even when we’re not.  The God who neither slumbers nor sleeps is keeping us in our waking and in our sleeping, in our coming out and our going in, in our work and in our rest.

Shifting our focus there has the potential to change the whole game.  Recognizing that the work that God does in us is far more important than any work we do, even work we do for God, is an incredibly liberating thing.  It can free us from thinking of ourselves as the center of the universe, from patterns of workaholism, from being too impressed by our own opinions and thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought.  It can free us to take a breath, get our bearings, treat ourselves with grace and kindness, and hopefully, to extend that to others, as well.

Do we still have work to do?  Absolutely.  But more importantly, God has work to do within us.  For hard-working, self-sufficient, independent people like ourselves, the challenge is to rely on God more than we rely on ourselves.

But that’s exactly what it will take.

God, unless you build the house, those who build it labor in vain.  So, build your house, Lord.  You’ve claimed as us your children, now shape us and build us as your family, that we might grow up to be more like you.  God, take the life of each one here and use it, do with it what you will.  Let it be consecrated to you and for your purpose.  We don’t belong to ourselves, Lord – you have bought us with a price and we belong to you.  So put our lives to labor in the service of your love, for we know such work is never in vain.  We pray all these things in the name of Jesus Christ, who embodied your love on earth, Amen.

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