Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Some Thoughts for our Laboring Lives

Our lectionary texts this week are Jeremiah 18:1-12, Philemon 1-21 (that would be verses 1-21--Philemon has only one chapter, so do not fear!), and Luke 14:25-33. To read through the texts, click here.

One of the most beautiful sentences I heard out of the Broadneck Worship Ministry Group in my first days as pastor went something like this: "Our worship is based on the liturgical calendar, not the secular one." If the church year--a beautiful cycle of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, followed by the long green season of Ordinary Time in which we now find ourselves--was the basis for our worship life as a congregation, I was freed from any obligation to preach a Mother's Day sermon or a Fourth of July Sermon or anything of that sort. I could certainly preach with them in mind if I felt so led and the lectionary texts tied into them, but I didn't have to.

But Labor Day, it seems, holds some poignant theological possibilities for preaching. I'm not sure if this will be the year to preach any of them...but I love the idea that Labor Day was founded as a shot at reconciliation between warring parties (see this account of the history of Labor Day if you're a history buff interested by such things!). I can't get past the fact that God seems really concerned with human labor--God did make the need to work and till the soil a consequence of the Fall (see Genesis 3), but God spent many of the following years of the people's histories helping them to figure out how to live faithfully even in their labor. Many of Leviticus' laws had to deal with regulations around work; one of the Ten Commandments (that of Sabbath observance) was intended to carve out space for all people to be free from labor at least one day a week; and many of Jesus' parables had to deal with people engaging various venues of work--those tending vineyards, farmers, merchants, real estate transactions, etc.

A recent article I read cited a survey saying 90 percent of churchgoers interviewed had never heard a sermon relating scripture to work. This is an insane number to me, and an indication that maybe they've never been in a church on this Sunday in Year C, when all three of the texts speak to labor issues in some way(I do wonder, sometimes, what calendar those folks who put the lectionary together were paying attention to) and use the imagery of various occupations to help us gain a deeper understanding of God's work and our work in the world.

Philemon's connection to labor is obvious--here, a man who has owned a slave to assist with his labor is asked to rethink his relationship with the slave, Onesimus, in light of each of their relationships with Christ. God's work in Christ has so reshaped things that they cannot continue to relate to each other professionally or personally in the hierarchical way they had before.

In Luke, discipleship is depicted as a sort of job, and compared to the jobs of a builder and being one leading troops into is not a job one can take on part time or without thinking of one's commitment to this particular labor. And it's a job that, rather than making money, will require you to give up all your possessions. That posting would get lots of replies on Craigslist, I am sure!

Then, interestingly, in Jeremiah God chooses to draw a vivid parallel between God's self and a particular type of laborer common in biblical days--a potter. This is the kind of labor God engages in--the work of one trying to shape clay into pots, but finding some pretty tremendous obstacles along the way. What can we glean from God's example?

Labor Day may not be a church holiday; but it is a subject that should concern us as people of faith. Let's join together this week and consider the kind of labor God has chosen to undertake, and how God's words about and examples of faithful labor can help us know how to be at work with God in the world when we head back to the real world of work on Tuesday.

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