One of the most talked-about shows on television today is called, The Office. The Office gives us a glimpse into the cubicles and consciousness of a dozen or so employees of Dunder-Mifflin, a fictional paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The show has an edgy feel to it, and has been called, a mockumentary;—part sitcom, part exposé. At times the characters will actually look into the camera and share their thoughts and feelings about their job or their co-workers.
The Office explores and exposes the realities of today's corporate environment—office politics, downsizing, inefficiency, sexual harassment, lame team-building exercises, office romances, and turf wars, etc. It's not an easy show to watch. It's awkward, embarrassing, infuriating, and occasionally inappropriate. I'm not recommending the show, but it tells us something about how people feel about their working lives.
Work is …
You don't have to work in an office to recognize the characters and issues we meet on the show. We all know what it's like to have an incompetent, demeaning boss, or to work next to someone who makes weird noises and locks up their phone so no one can use it. We all know what it's like to jockey for position, to face impossible deadlines, to sit through boring meetings, and to deal with difficult people. We all, at times, have been bored or stressed out by our work, and have wondered what in the world we're doing there.
I've only seen a handful of episodes of The Office, but enough to catch the existential drift of the series, which is that for many people today, work is absurd. It requires them to spend hours every day in a place they don't want to be, with people they don't really like, doing a job they really don't enjoy, for a paycheck that is never really enough. No one in The Office really wants to be there, but they keep showing up, day after day. It's absurd.
Some people, of course, would take an even darker view of work. Listen to this observation by a newspaper editor: "Work is brutal. Work is a four-letter word …. The problem for most people is that their work transforms them into something bad, something bitter and broken." According to him, work is brutal. Do you ever feel that way? that your work is so demeaning, so demanding, so unpleasant, that it's turning you into someone you don't want to be?
Others would take a more fatalistic view and say that work is simply necessary. It's a fact of life, that's all. It's something we have to accept as a consequence of the Fall. If you can find work that you enjoy and that pays well, good for you. But don't count on it, and don't expect too much from it.
Chances are we have all had feelings like this about our work from time to time—no matter what we do for a living. Even the best job can get old after a while, and feel absurd, brutal, or just necessary. Even those of us who enjoy our work will from time to time dream about walking away from it all—winning the lottery and retiring early. Of course, if you talk to any retired person, you'll find they still have a full calendar and a daily to-do list.
For the next three weeks, we would like to help you "ReImagine Work." We'd like you to imagine feeling good about the job you do every day, whatever it is. Imagine heading to work each day with a sense of expectancy instead of dread, and arriving home at the end of the day feeling satisfied, and not just weary. Imagine your work making you a better person instead of a bitter person. Imagine it deepening your faith instead of undermining your faith. Imagine the work you do making a real difference in the world, and having an eternal impact on people's lives. Imagine that work is good. That's the basic message of this series: work when properly understood and performed is good. To help us get started, let's take a look at Colossians 3:22-4:1.
There are a few things we should point out as we jump into this passage. First, Paul is not condoning slavery. In his other writings and throughout Scripture, we find priniciples that would lead ultimately to the abolition of slavery. He is simply recognizing slavery as a socio-economic reality of the world in which his readers lived and worked. Historians estimate that about a third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves, and we know that many of the early Christians were slaves. It wasn't just the super-rich that had slaves; it was quite common for upper and even middle class people to have household servants. Many in the Colossian congregation were probably masters.
Second, while slaves in the ancient world generally enjoyed better working and living conditions than slaves in the modern world, it was not an easy life. They were subject to the will and whim of their owners, had limited opportunity for advancement, and were generally regarded as property rather than persons. They certainly didn't enjoy the comfortable working environments that most of us enjoy today.
I was reading about the new Google office complex in New York City. The Internet giant provides its employees with a fully-equipped game room—ping pong, billiards, air hockey, and the latest video-craze, Guitar Hero. There's free food all day long, including a sushi bar. On Tuesday afternoons it's tea and crumpets, and Thursdays it's wine and beer for a "Thank God It's Almost Friday" party. Workers are encouraged to take breaks, socialize, and invite their friends over to play!
There was nothing like that for slaves in the ancient world. If anyone had reason to hate their jobs, resent their bosses, feel demeaned and harassed, overworked and underpaid, it was slaves. But Paul doesn't say to them, "I know you've got a bum deal, just do your job and stay out of trouble." He doesn't say to them, "Slavery's not fair, do everything you can to subvert the system." He doesn't even say, "Do the bare minimum and save your energy for church work." What he tells them is to be the best slaves they can possibly be.
While none of us are slaves or masters today, there are principles here to apply to our working lives today. Let's look again at his instructions, but as we do I want you to be thinking about your daily work&madsh;whatever it is—and I want you to think about the people you work with and for. I realize that not everyone has a "boss" in the classic sense of the word, but we all have people to whom we are accountable for our work—if not supervisors or foremen, then customers or clients, or teachers, or commanding officers, or even family members. We'll examine Paul's exhortation phrase-by-phrase:
"Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything … "Paul did not write:, "Obey your earthly masters when they're being fair and reasonable." Obey your earthly masters in everything. We can assume that Paul isn't expecting us to compromise our faith or to break the law, but he is expecting us to respect and cooperate with the people we work with, no matter what they're like or what they ask of us.
"and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor …." The respect and hard work Paul expects has nothing to do with whether we are being watched or not, or whether we will get credit or not. It's simply the way Christians are to work all the time, even when no one is watching.
"but with sincerity of heart …" Our respect and cooperation aren't simply to be superficial, but genuine. There's more to work than just doing the job we're paid to do. We're to do it with a positive attitude and industrious spirit.
"and reverence for the Lord." This an interesting twist. Reverence? I thought we were talking about work, not church. Why is Paul dragging God into the picture? I thought we were talking about about earthly masters. It seems like Paul is making a pretty big leap here. How do you run a copy machine, or design software or drive a carpool "with reverence for the Lord?"
"Whatever you do …" That's pretty comprehensive. Remember, Paul was talking to slaves. Their masters could ask them to do anything from working the fields to caring for children to shoveling manure to managing money or property. Apparently there is no work that is not good, except work that is immoral or illegal.
"work at it with all your heart …" With all your heart? Isn't that the way we're supposed to love God—with all our heart, and soul and mind and strength? Isn't that the language of worship? Are we supposed to serve our bosses and customers with the same intensity and devotion with which we serve God?
"as working for the Lord, not for men." There he goes again!, Paul writes, as if God is the one we're actually working for,—as if God is our boss, or our customer. Turns out God is!. That's exactly what Paul is saying, God is the boss and beneficiary of our work. No matter what we do, no matter where we do it, no matter whom we do it for or with, ultimately, we work for God. Just to be sure we don't miss the point, Paul makes it quite plain in verse 24:, "It is the Lord Christ you are serving." It's true even for those who are bosses themselves:, "Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven." No matter what we do for work, no matter how many people we have over us or under us, ultimately, we work for God.
Thinking theologically about hamburgers
Right about now some of you are probably saying, "Pastor, you don't know what I do every day—how tedious, or menial, or worldly it is." Maybe your work seems boring, insignificant, and occasionally ridiculous. It doesn't matter. The Scripture couldn't be clearer:. "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord." All work is good, when you do it to the best of your ability, as if you were working for God himself, because you are. Your work matters to God. He is not only interested in your work, he is honored, when you do it as an act of service to him.
You see, God himself is a worker. He's been working since the beginning of creation. (A 6-day work week!) He's been working right up until this very day, as Jesus himself said of his Heavenly Father. He's working to sustain and redeem this fallen universe. He's working to make you into the person he created you to be. He's working to spread his good news to all people everywhere. Everyday you and I have the opportunity to join him in his work. When we do, and when we do it well, it honors him. Work is good for God.
A month or so ago, a few of us working on this sermon series had an opportunity to participate in a roundtable discussion on faith and work at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. It was facilitated by Steve Garber, director of a think-tank called the Washington Institute. He told us about an acquaintance of his, an entrepeneur in the food business. He was opening a new restaurant, and when he came to understand some of these principles we've been talking about this morning, he realized that he needed to start thinking theologically about making hamburgers. He came to believe that there was a way to make and sell hamburgers that was honoring to God. That insight affected everything about his new restaurant. From what kind of cattle would he get his beef? What would be the environmental impact of his kitchen and his trash? How would the items on his menu affect the health of his customers? Who could afford to eat in his restaurant? What kind of atmosphere would he provide for his customers, and his employees? How would he steward the profits from his business? He came to realize that every aspect of his work mattered to God, and that it was possible to honor God by making and selling hamburgers.
That's what we want to do in this series—to help you think theologically about whatever it is you do every day for work. There's no one in this room who doesn't work; who doesn't wake up in the morning with a list of things to do. We're not used to thinking theologically about making hamburgers, or selling widgets, or building houses, or designing software, or crunching numbers, or doing laundry. But when you do those things to the best of your ability, as if you were doing it for God himself, it's good. It's good for the world, it's good for you, it's good for the gospel, and it's good for God.
World's best boss
When you come to realize that you work for God, it changes everything. I got to thinking about that fictional paper company, Dunder-Mifflin. There's a reason that office is so dysfunctional. There's a reason the employees are so de-motivated. There's a reason for the inter-office squabbling, the jockeying for position and titles, and the awkward and humiliating moments. The reason, is Michael, the boss. He's awful. He's incompetent. He's indecisive. He makes promises he can't keep. He hides in his office when things are going poorly. He calls women, "sir," he demeans his employees, and he buys himself a mug that says "World's Best Boss." It's hard to watch the show without wanting to strangle him, or to run out of the room screaming! The Office is the way it is because of the boss.
Have you ever had a bad boss? One summer in college I took a job painting houses with a local contractor. He was a rough and tumble guy swore like a sailor, smoked like a chimney, and drank like a fish. I could put up with that for eight or ten hours a day. I even got used to being yelled at for spending too much time on parts of the house no one would ever see. But the day he fired a .38 pistol into the ground to get our attention, I decided it was time to look for a new job.
We all have boss stories we could tell, I'm sure. A good boss can make a lousy job satisfying, and a bad boss can make a good job, miserable. When you have a boss that you respect and trust and appreciate, you'll do just about anything he or she asks, and you'll do it to the best of your ability. Which is why the first step in ReImagining your Work is to realize that no matter what you do, no matter where you do it, no matter who you do it for or with, ultimately, you work for God. When you understand that, your daily work becomes an act of worship.
It's no accident that Paul uses the language of worship in regard to our work. He uses phrases like, "with reverence for the Lord," and "with all your heart." In fact, if you follow Paul's train of thought backwards to the preceding paragraph, you realize that this teaching on daily work and relationships flows right out of a passage on worship, "Let the message of Christ dwell among richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And 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."
There's that phrase again, "Whatever you do … do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus." Worship isn't just something we do on Sunday; it's something we do on Monday. Worship isn't just something we do in a sanctuary; it's something we do in office suites and factories and classrooms and studios and military bases and in our very own kitchens. God is honored when we sing with all our hearts, but he's also honored when we work with all our hearts. Whatever your daily work looks like, you have an opportunity to turn that work into an act of worship, by doing it for God.
Some of the most soulful worship songs ever sung were composed in the cotton fields of the American south, as African-American slaves lifted their voices in adoration and surrender to God. They were reminding themselves and their masters that their true Master was in heaven, and that someday he would give to each worker their proper due. By the quality, and spirit of their work, they honored God, and turned those oppressive plantations into sanctuaries of praise. We can do the same thing, when we work to the best of our ability, as if we were working for God himself.
Your true vocation
We sometimes use the word "vocation" to describe our work. It comes from the Latin word for "calling," and is used to describe a person who feels called to a particular occupation or profession for which they are especially suited—teaching or medicine or carpentry or parenting. It's a wonderful thing—to be able to work at something that you feel drawn to and equipped for. But it doesn't always work out that way, does it?
In the first episode of The Office, Pam, the receptionist, speaks to the camera and acknowledges that when she was a little girl, she didn't dream of growing up to be a receptionist. She'd really like to be is an illustrator of children's books. But we don't always get to do the work we dreamed of doing, do we? Sometimes you have to work at something you don't feel called to and have a hard time getting excited about. Many immigrants come to America highly qualified professionally, but are unable to work in their field here in the States, and have to settle for something far less satisfying. Many people today find themselves underemployed, working at jobs that don't utilize their skills. Sometimes it's just for a season; sometimes it's for the long haul. Here's the good news:. if you're a follower of Christ, your true vocation is found right here in Colossians 3:23. It isn't just pastors and missionaries who are called. We all are—called to honor God by working hard and working well, as if we were doing it for God himself, because we are.
The man who taught me more about worship than anyone I know was the minister of music at the church I grew up in. I sang in his choirs for years as a teenager. After college I served on pastoral staff with him for a few years. Dave was, and still is, a master at putting together worship services. He would find out weeks in advance what the pastor was preaching on, and then set out to find just the right songs and anthems and Scripture readings to fit the theme. He would compare hymnals and translations to get just the right wording,; carefully choosing which verses to sing and why. In choir rehearsal we would go over lines again and again and again, till we got it just right. He'd make a dozen phone calls on a Saturday night just to get one more tenor to round out the choir. From prelude to postlude everything flowed and held together and was done with excellence.
It wasn't till I came on staff and worked alongside him that I came to appreciate how much work went into each service, and how well crafted everything was. I asked him about it once, and suggested that those of us who were leading worship point these things out to the people as we went along, so they could appreciate all that went into it. But he wouldn't hear of it. He explained that he didn't go to all that trouble for the people's sake, but for his own sake and for the Lord's sake. His work was to design and lead worship services, and he wanted to do it well, whether people noticed it or not. Planning and executing that service was as act of worship, not just because it involved hymns and took place in a sanctuary, but because he did it with all his heart, as unto the Lord.
You don't have to be a minister of music to turn work into worship. No matter what you do for work, no matter where you do it, or whom you do it with or for, ultimately you work for God. When you do it well, it's good. Imagine how exciting it will feel to wake up tomorrow morning knowing that you get to join God in his work. Imagine how motivating it will be when you remember in the middle of the working day that what you're doing matters to God. Imagine how good it will feel when you punch out at the end of the day, and be able to say to God, "I did it for you, Lord, to the best of my ability."
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.