Humble Work

Jeremiah 2:4-13 | Psalm 81:1, 10-16 | Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 | Luke 14:1, 7-14

This weekend, many enjoy the celebration of Labor Day, extending the time to re-create into Monday, offering a final farewell to summer with one more picnic, barbecue, or blow-out sale. Labor Day is another one of those holidays I take for granted, so I did a quick Wikipedia review of the origins of Labor Day. I was reminded that it is, indeed, a holiday for the working class, its origins in the early 1880s (about 1882) meant to benefit the labor unions and celebrate the labor laws. Unions aren’t what they could be around here, but we definitely benefit from federal labor laws they advocated for and achieved. Interestingly, there was an effort to make “Labor Sunday” a thing–a day to focus on spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. Obviously the effort didn’t work out, maybe because it lacked the more appealing parades and picnics. Fortunately for us, we have processionals, food, and fellowship, and we have the opportunity to think about our Christian work and labor from spiritual and educational perspectives.

In our readings today, we can think about our spiritual work from a “what-not-to-do” perspective. The prophet Jeremiah, who has accepted the call to share the Word of God even if it means sharing God’s judgment on the people, plainly states two evils the people have committed:

  1. They have forsaken God.
  2. They have dug out cisterns for themselves.

The people have abandoned God, deserted the Almighty. Despite all that God has done for them, despite God being the eternal, living water, the people have turned away from God. AND, they have sought to be self-sufficient. These people of the desert think they can create their own containers for the water that sustains them, but God says their cisterns are cracked and can hold no water. Do we as humans have anything that can contain all the life that God gives us? Even if we put someone on life support, can we restore the life that we know? To abandon God and to presume that we can hold what truly gives us life, these are evil acts, according to God through the prophet Jeremiah.

Similarly, in our gospel lesson, we get words of caution from Jesus, more what-not-to-do’s. Jesus offers a parable to illustrate what is a familiar quote from Proverbs: “for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (25:7). Jesus cautions against our arrogance and conceit, for he knows we are susceptible to pride. Jesus also warns us not to give expecting return. Don’t invite someone to your party or give someone a fancy gift and then expect the same invitation or “generosity” to be returned. True generosity is when what we give is a blessing, filled with grace, and absent any expectation except that it might glorify God.

Sometimes some of us need to be told, “Don’t do this or that!” Other times we need direction on what to do. This is what we get in the life of Jesus when we pay attention, as he did. He was invited to a meal, and he watched others scramble to get the best seats. His own power and authority didn’t come from wealth, but he had enough privilege to make the guest list. In his person, in his being, the Son of God lived humbly, with great humility. He knew that with his privilege there is great responsibility. For the Son of God this meant ultimately sacrificing his life, but while he lived it also meant walking every day with the intention to proclaim the love of God and to pursue peace, justice, and love. With every step, every story, every meal, and every prayer, Jesus perpetually reveals to us the presence of God in every moment AND shows us how we can, too, if we put God first.

In our psalm today, the voice of God says, “Oh, that my people would listen to me.” If they had been listening, they would have known God’s promise: “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” It wasn’t intended to be a one-time manna in the desert experience. God’s promise to provide nourishment, daily bread, living water, and all good things is continual. This promise continues today. There is enough. There is plenty for everyone. God will and does provide.

What do we do to show that we haven’t forsaken God, that we don’t rely on ourselves exclusively or seek our own glory?

The lesson in Hebrews offers guidance, even some helpful suggestions. “Let mutual love continue.” If we love God as much as we profess we do, then by extension, we love our neighbor, too. We love God, we believe in God, we are nourished by our God, and we show others that we are God-loving Christians in our work: work of showing hospitality to strangers, trusting that there truly is enough, even an abundance–again, not expecting anything in return; work of remembering those in prison or being tortured–spiritually, emotionally, or physically–having empathy and compassion for them so that their human dignity is maintained, that they are not forgotten, and that as a child of God they are entitled to repentance, reconciliation, and restoration. We do the work of upholding our relationships, our marriages and friendships, keeping God in our midst and as our greatest love so that we don’t lose ourselves or become too full of ourselves. We keep free from the love of money and work to be content with what we have. All this is summed up: “do good” and “share what you have.” This will be a sacrifice–we have to let go of something we think solely to be ours–but “such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Pleasing God is work toward which we can all aspire.

Our collect reminds us how we can remain focused in our work as Christians:

  • Have the love of God’s name in our heart–not superficially but permanently written;
  • Grow in true religion, religion that puts God first, not ourselves;
  • Let God provide us with all goodness and recognize the goodness we receive from God; and
  • Pay attention to the fruit of good works we accomplish in God’s name.

We certainly don’t go waving the Bible in people’s faces or putting a cross around everyone’s neck, but we can speak loudly for the love of God in the work that we do . . . if we understand what it means. Do we know the stories and lessons of our faith? Do we realize how they still manifest to this day?

The story of the loaves and fish feeding the multitudes speaks clearly to the abundance God provides. There were loaves and fish leftover, right? Last week there was an article released by the Episcopal News Service about a vicar in North Carolina who leads a small 20-member congregation in English and also meets in a home to celebrate Holy Eucharist in Spanish with about 9 people. The congregation wanted to help the under-served neighbors get health care they needed, so they facilitate a health access ministry where a nurse meets with neighbors to talk about diagnoses and facilitate resources for treatment. While people wait, the congregation decided to offer a free meal also. Over 40 people participate in the ministry, benefitting from the medical attention and a strong sense of community. It’s not about what the people provide or even what they can do: it’s about what God does through and for God’s people when they listen.

Our lives as faithful Christians will always be about putting God first and realizing that everything we think we have or think we’ve accomplished is really all thanks to God. When we’re doing really well and thinking we’re deserving of that front row seat, it’s probably a good time to step back and triple check our priorities–double check that to-do list from Hebrews–and ask ourselves if in our work we labor humbly for love of God and for the benefit of our neighbor, for the good of all. And if it seems like we’re trying to keep a cracked cistern full of water, if for all the work we’re busy doing we feel like we’re running ourselves ragged in a hamster wheel, maybe it’s time for us to pause and listen and reorient ourselves. A holiday, a holy day, can give us the moment we need to pause and do just that.

*For a podcast that deeply reflects about listening: https://onbeing.org/programs/gordon-hempton-silence-and-the-presence-of-everything/

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