The voice of God comes out of the burning bush, and says, "I've heard the cries of my people in slavery, and I'm going to liberate them. And guess who's going to help me?"
Moses protests, "I flunked Public Speaking 101."
The voice says, "Be quiet. I'll tell you what to say."
"Here am I, Lord."
Does it surprise you that the great God Almighty needs lowly, ordinary human beings to help him do what he wants to do? Maybe you thought, If he's God, he can do anything he wants to. He doesn't need us. But as John Calvin says, "This God is so great that he is able to condescend to accomplish his good." He is able to condescend to use even lowly, ordinary human people like us for his work. On this Labor Day weekend, I want to think with you about a Christian view of work.
The myth of glorified work.
The so-called Protestant work ethic has become legendary. Martin Luther, the source of this Protestant work ethic, attacked medieval monasticism by saying that all work is divinely ordained. You don't have to be a monk or a nun to serve God. The servant in the rich man's house mops floors for the glory of God. God didn't simply create the world, then quit. God keeps creating, and invites us to join in that continuing work of creativity. In this way, Luther's thought on work is not so much a glorification of our human activity but rather a celebration of the continuing creativity of God.
When Luther uses the word "vocation," he uses it more often to refer to things like marriage or family, rather than to jobs. Vocation comes from the Latin vocari, meaning "we are called." We are called by God—not just in our jobs, but in everything we do—to glorify God in all things. Our vocation, therefore, is not so much work, as it is worship. We do on Monday at the office what we do in church on Sunday—glorify God.
Some time ago I saw a book for Christian college students. The book asked, "How can you serve Jesus Christ on your campus?" The answer was, First, by studying hard. You have been called to the vocation of student. You have gifts and graces that came from God. Your study is not just for yourself, but so that you can better contribute to others through your learning. Now study. That's vocation.
The potentially degrading nature of work.
Unfortunately, the fabled Protestant work ethic tended to elevate even the meanest job to the status of divinely ordained. Work became so elevated that, today, "vocation" and "job" are nearly synonymous in conversation. This, we've seen, is not exactly what Luther had in mind. The Protestant work ethic sometimes defended the indefensible. If you were in a demeaning, degrading job, it was thought, Well, God meant you to be there. Don't try to better your lot. Be content.
Contemporary life poses severe challenges to that way of thinking. Students, for instance, can expect to make seven job changes in their lifetime of work. Most of these changes will be the result of things out of their control, perhaps forced on them by the external market environment. How can forced changes, the product of external factors, be called the call of God? And some of you, despite your good education, will find yourselves underemployed, in jobs unworthy of your ability. How can all jobs, regardless of their nature, be called a call from God? Is there some work which, while honest, is so degrading and so poorly rewarded that it can no way be called "vocation"?
George McCleod, the founder of Scotland's lona community, used to say that every week he volunteered to be part of the crew that cleaned the toilets. As he said, "Thereby, I am preserved from preaching sermons about the dignity of all work." Protestantism, in its attempt to honor all work as vocation from God, may have contributed to some of the abuses of capitalism and other systems. However, the Christian and Jewish traditions bear within themselves a kind of prophetic critique of work.
God's invitation to join the work.
Beginning in Genesis, humanity is graciously invited by God to get in on the work. God says, in effect, "I've had so much fun creating this garden, I want you to come in and help me tend it; work with me on it." Just like Moses and the burning bush, you see. God lets us help. And yet, Genesis also admits to the potentially degrading, dehumanizing aspects of work. Work, that gracious gift from God, is transformed into a curse by the end of the Genesis story. That's the result when work is abused and used in sinful ways. Adam and Eve, in the end, are cursed to spend all their days fighting with the once benevolent world, fighting in work, kicked out of the garden.
We've also got no record in the Bible that Jesus ever worked. Well, he was a preacher, you might say. But he didn't ever seem to work, and, furthermore, he never seemed to urge anybody else to work. In fact, the call of Jesus seemed to be a call for people to leave what they were doing, and then follow him all around Galilee.
Work as a form of idolatry.
In God's continuing creativity, our present structures of work may not be divinely ordained. Work, like any human endeavor—sex, money, art—can be tainted by human sin. Work may be a gracious gift, glorifying to God, but we also need to ask ourselves, Am I giving to my job that which I ought to give only to God?
I think for a lot of us that sin takes the form of idolatry to work; we give honor and energy that ought only to be given to God, to our jobs. When work becomes the end toward which all human creativity is directed, work becomes an idol—just another means of avoiding God, rather than serving God. We Christians believe that our love for God comes as a gift—not as some human achievement. We're taught that we're saved by God's grace, not by human works.
In my last congregation, what was driving a lot of people to an early grave: Drugs? Alcohol? No. It was work. I asked people, "Why are you sacrificing your health, your wellbeing? Why are you spending all of those nights down at the office, all of those days on the road?" They were always quick to tell me, "Oh, I'm doing it for my family, so they can have a better life." But I wonder if a prophet might name it idolatry—giving to a job that which ought to be given to God; attempting to create a secure world so we don't need God.
Work and materialism.
Furthermore, work's relationship to materialism and acquisition provides yet another possible source of Christian suspicion about work. The Bible is relentless in its attack on the rich. In the Bible, the poor are never blamed for their poverty. It's the rich that have got big problems—those who work and those who accumulate. Jesus consistently teaches that one's life does not consist in one's possessions. "What does it profit to gain whole worlds and lose a soul?"
The Old Testament shows a remarkable concern for minute details of economic justice, giving attention to issues like wages and contracts and fairness. Leviticus says, "You shall not keep back a worker's wages until the next day." To be poor, to be unemployed is clearly a tragedy in Scripture. Economics, when it's spoken of in the Bible, is clearly a sphere of sin rather than blessing.
Work may be a gift of God, yes. But it is a frequently perverted gift, according to the Bible. So, as we begin a journey to prepare ourselves for our work, we ask: Am I giving to my job that which I ought to give only to God? What are the limits I set for myself and my work? Because these present structures of work were not ordained by God at creation, they can—and they perhaps ought to—be changed. The philosopher Albert Camus said, "Life goes rotten without work." But, Camus added, "And yet, life stifles and dies when work becomes soulless."
Some of you are thinking that I've come a long way from Moses and the burning bush to this dissertation about work. But as I said, the Bible doesn't have many good things to say about work. Nowhere does God call somebody to be a fisherman or a farmer or a computer programmer. Paul says we're called by God, not to various occupations, but rather to belong to Jesus Christ. Although Acts does say that Paul was a tentmaker, it never says God called him to be one. His vocation was to be an apostle of Jesus, not a tentmaker. Your vocation is not your job. Rather, your vocation is your call to serve God in all that you do.
We have people who spend their week working at a job, but their vocation may be to show up here on Sunday and sing in the choir to use the gifts they've been given to enrich somebody else's life. Vocation is more like that. Our vocation is, in the words of the old Westminster Confession, "to glorify God and to enjoy God forever." The offertory anthem today speaks of our whole life being caught up in one great song to God. When work is directed toward that end, it is good. When it is a hindrance, it is sin.
Right expectations of work.
Most of us spend a majority of our waking hours at work. We're right to seek meaningful work, since work is a major task given by God to humanity. But we're also right to criticize present economic structures, expecting them to be sinful and always in need of reform. Our work, says the Christian faith, is a source of great joy but also much pain. Making a life is more significant than making a living.
We ought to be cautious about claiming too much for work. Let's admit it. Most of work's rewards are mundane. For one thing, most of our friends are related to where we work. I've noted that one of the most dehumanizing aspects of unemployment is loneliness. When Thomas Moore, author of The Care of the Soul, was speaking to Duke students last year, the first question they asked was: When I'm filling out my resume and going to job interviews, what do you think I should ask the company after interviewing? Thomas Moore said, "Your last question ought to be, 'What are my chances for making really good friends here at this company?' That will be the main place you'll be able to make friends, and maybe the goal of work ought to be friendship."
From a Christian perspective, your work has value—not because it contributes to your well-being—but because it contributes to somebody else. A mechanic said to me recently, "People need me more than they need a brain surgeon." He continued, "When I put somebody's car back on the road, they're grateful; I'm happy. They need me." Work is the way we discover our major dependency on other people. We are dependent every day on the kindness of strangers to help us get through life. We're in a connected web through our work with other people. And let's not forget that work contributes to the mundane, but utterly necessary, activity of earning a living.
Work puts bread on the table. Rather than get into some high-flying debate about which forms of work contribute to your basic humanity and which do not, we probably ought to focus on which work fairly compensates a worker and which work doesn't. Let's admit it—most of us work for pay. While we're working for pay, we can achieve many other noble human values. But none of those noble human values should deter us from the most basic value—everybody ought to have work and be justly compensated for their work. A fair-living wage is probably more to the point than all of my theological platitudes about work.
I pray that you will learn early that your life is not just your work and that you will find the sort of work whereby it is possible to say, "This is a big part of my call from God. This is one way that I'm busy praising and glorifying God forever." And I pray you will be brought to that point where, through your work, you will be able to say, "Here I am. Lord."
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
William Willimon is bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He also is editor of Pulpit Resource and the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Westminster John Knox) and author of Undone by Easter (Abingdon).