The Angelus (L'Angelus) by Jean-François Millet
Title: "Summer of Proverbs: Work"
Associated Readings: Proverbs 12:11,14,24 & John 4:31-38
Date: 23 July 2017
Place: Clinton Presbyterian Church (Clinton, NJ)
Theme: CPC delivered a summer sermon series exploring themes found in Proverbs. I delivered this sermon on the theme of work, with the primary message of articulating that we are charged with living our faith in our daily work - a contrast with today's mentality of having a time for faith and a time for work.
Click "Read More" to read the sermon. A recording of the sermon can be found by clicking here.
It’s the summer.
It’s the weekend.
It’s 10 o’clock in the morning.
The last thing any of you want to be thinking about right now is work. I get that.
So what topic did Tracey assign me this morning while she is away? You guessed it, work! I hope she is having a nice time on vacation!
You know, as the church, we have kind of a weird relationship with work. We speak a lot more about rest than we do work.
And that’s with good reason. If you spend some time engaging with Scripture you’ll see that the Sabbath is extremely important, so much so that failures to observe and keep the Sabbath are often met with harsh punishments.
If you joined me for my Numbers Bible Study last year you might even recall reading the story about a man who was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath – a small violation by any standard – and the Lord commands Moses to have the congregation of Israel stone this man to death, which they did. Yikes.
And that’s not the only time something like that happens. Throughout Scripture the importance of Sabbath rest is reiterated over and over again.
By virtue of us being here today I think we can all agree that the Sabbath is important. It’s an important time to disconnect from the rigors of everyday life and come together to worship, pray, sing, and reflect on God’s creating and saving work. But this focus on the Sabbath, in the modern world especially, has a bit of a dark side. For most of us, it means that we divide our life into two parts: the Christian part and the non-Christian part. The religious and the secular.
And for most of us, that religious part is right now – Sunday morning, in church. And that non-religious part is…well…the other six days of the week. So, for a lot of is, our work falls squarely into the non-religious part of our life.
However, it’s important to point out that this “two worlds” way of living is a fairly new thing. The world in which the Bible came out of drew no such distinction between the religious and the secular: all facets of life were deeply engrained with religious thought, whether it be commerce, family life, farming, fishing, government, or even social lives.
How did we get from then to now? How did we go from an all-encompassing faith to one which we practice only during small portions of the week?
Today’s sermon requires a little history and Bible lesson, because I think it’s important to contextualize where we came from and how we got to now. After all, if we are going to understand these ancient texts we need to understand what their writers meant when they wrote them, lest we make the mistake of reading them purely through the lens of modernity.
Let’s start with history.
We know that in the ancient world – the world in which Scripture was written – faith was comprehensive in life. There was no real distinction between the religious and the secular. In Scripture, we see God tightly intertwined with government and commerce and inheritances and family life. Worship was a spiritual activity….but so was farming and banking.
In the centuries since, this same logic basically held true – thought it became more structured along with the church. Churches in the Medieval world functioned as places of worship, but also as markets, hospitals, schools, places of justice. Clergy not only had influence, but they often had real civic power and authority. Kings and Queens often invoked divine right to lead.
The Reformation – which began 500 years ago this year – began to challenge the authority of the church in all these areas of life, believing it to be corrupt and worldly. This began to trigger a bit of an undoing between the church and the authorities. For the most part, the Reformers espoused a “two kingdoms” doctrine – the belief that God governed the worldly sphere through providence over worldly institutions, and a spiritual sphere governed by God’s mercy and grace. Both, in the mind of the Reformers, should be Christian – but, for the first time, we began to see two worlds start to emerge.
Then, in the 18th century, we saw the Enlightenment. As it relates to the religion, the Enlightenment didn’t simply seek to rail against a corrupt church but against the idea of religion itself, arguing that it was contrary to good logic and critical thought.
In this sense, the Enlightenment and its heirs have failed to eradicate religion from society, but they have succeeded in driving it largely out of our day-to-day lives. We live in a world now where we are prone to think of things as either being a time for God, or a time not for God. Often, we will hide our faith in those “non—religious” moments of life. That’s a legacy of this.
So that’s the historical context of our social evolution. We can see a big difference between how we view our faith life vs. how our ancestors viewed their faith life.
Now let’s look a little at Scripture. When our ancestors – especially the ancients – thought about God’s Word, what did they think about?
Scripture really draws no distinction between different parts of life as it relates to faith. So, if we were to go back in time and say to the ancients, “hey, we here in 2017 have a time for God, and then we have a separate time for work”, they’d be really confused.
They might cite Genesis 1:28. Immediately after making humankind in the image of God, God blesses humanity and gives it a purpose: to fill the earth and subdue it. In other words, it is God who assigns to humanity the gift of holy work. The things that humanity does on earth have a holy purpose.
Or, our ancient friends might go back to the Ten Commandments, particularly the fifth one. You probably remember it as something like “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”. But, they’d remind you that in Scripture this commandment actually has a few more sentences after it. It actually reads, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.”
Whoa. That changes things doesn’t it? The fifth commandment isn’t just to keep the Sabbath, but it is also saying “you shall labor”, a command. In other words, the commandment is really about how we use our time. We are commanded by God to rest…but we are also commanded to work. Both are holy obligations.
Now why did I just spend so much time going through historical and Biblical context? Here’s why: the Proverbs are short and punchy, infused with meaning. That means that readers have a lot of scope to insert their own meaning into them. And that’s great. But it’s also risky. Without a contextual understanding, we moderns might be tempted to impart so much of a modern meaning that we really rob these words of their true intent.
For instance, a superficial, modern, reading of these work proverbs has led some to proclaim that people who aren’t rich don’t deserve help. It’s led some to say that God wants you to be happy, healthy, and wealthy – believe me, Barnes and Noble is full of “Christian” books by authors who are reading these texts like that, never mind that such an interpretation is totally contrary to the Gospel.
So we need to be careful. We need to think through the proverbs carefully and try to put ourselves in the shoes of the original writers and hearers.
We read today three short proverbs from the 12th chapter of the Book of Proverbs. Each of them related to work. And they were all quite earthy – as you might expect from a more agrarian society than our own.
Two of the proverbs that we read, 12:11 and 12:24, draw a distinction between hard workers and lazy folks. They encourage people to work hard so that their needs might be met and so they might have a sense of freedom and control over their life. The other proverb – 11:14 – reminds us that our hard work comes back to us, or as you mother probably told you once, “you get out of it what you put into it.”
I want you to think about these proverbs in the context of a world where work was deeply influenced by faith, and workers saw their work as a spiritual witness and response to God’s word.
In that light, work and devotion are counted as one. Thus, one who works hard is one who is devoted strongly to their faith – a strong adherent of the 5th Commandment. Work isn’t just about making money, it’s about doing God’s will in the world. Scripture often rails against spiritual laxity, and so in this sense these proverbs speaks that same language: we are to be strong and consistent in faith.
Just like how we are commanded to keep the Sabbath well, it would appear that we also have a Godly calling to work well.
After all, as our proverb tells us, we get out of it what we put into it. By keeping the Sabbath well and by working well we grow in our relationship with God.
We glorify God in both, and we become the people God wants us to be – the people we were created to be. We can either be lazy people of faith, or hard workers for God.
How do we make sure that we are hard workers for God, especially given that we all have very different vocations and life situations?
Here, as usual, Jesus Christ helps us. Our reading from John’s Gospel picks up immediately after Christ’s familiar encounter with the Samarian woman at the well.
Christ’s disciples come to him after that encounter and he must look completely parched. We know he was thirsty since he had asked the Samarian woman for a drink, and the disciples are saying to him “Rabbi, eat”. But Jesus answers that he is nourished in another way: by doing the work of God.
Christ then goes on to say that God has provided all things for us. God has planted, and our task now is to reap what has been sown.
Thus, we find our answer to how we bring glory to God through our work.
Firstly, we are to remember that we do nothing alone. Whatever we do – whether it is fixing cars or investing in stocks – we do only through the grace and provision of God. And so everything we get from our work is really not ours, it belongs to the God who made it first. Our task, then, is simply to reap what has been sown, and to fill and subdue creation.
Whatever form that your week takes. However you spend your time. However you earn a living. Remember this: you were created for a purpose. And that purpose is to glorify God through the things you do. That takes the form of worship and rest, of course. But it also takes the form of labor. So as you go out into the six non-Sabbath days of the week, continue to make your life a living prayer and consider yourself a vessel of the Holy Spirit, bringing God’s Word and work into your unique place in the world. This, after all, is God’s commandment for you.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.