September 1, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WORK, WORK, WORK, FOR WHAT, WHAT, WHAT?
I John 3:11-18
I’m sure you were watching the “Teen Choice Awards” on August 11. I never miss it. But in case you did, and actually I did too, I want to begin today by showing you the acceptance speech that has gone viral. You may have heard of this acceptance speech even if you didn’t even know there was such a thing as the “Teen Choice Awards”. Ashton Kutcher was given an award. Apparently he is considered pretty hot stuff by our younger female population. He and Justin Bieber. But Ashton Kutcher surprised everyone by actually saying something in his acceptance speech. Let’s listen.
(YouTube video: Ashton Kutcher acceptance speech.)
That’s a better sermon than I’m planning to preach today! Have you ever heard a Hollywood celebrity say common sense things like that? He was actually saying what the parents and the teachers of these young people keep trying to tell them until they are blue in the face. But when Ashton Kutcher says it, maybe they were listening. Let’s hope. Opportunity looks like hard work, smart is sexy, and life is something you can build.
This is Labor Day weekend. I’ve always thought this is a good time to reflect on a very basic question. Why we do what we do in life? We work, work, work, but for what, what, what?
I’m going to suggest three answers. The first one is obvious. We work to make money. So work becomes kind of a necessary evil. We work not because we love our work but because we love the money we get paid for our work. And we use that money to measure our worth. There’s that term that is really offensive if you think about it. Net worth. As if someone with a lot of money is worth more than someone without a lot of money.
We work because we don’t want to be poor. In America especially. To be poor is not just inconvenient and unpleasant. It is shameful. And nothing is worse than dying penniless.
A group was touring Chicago and came to the alley beside the Biograph Theater where John Dillinger was gunned down by the FBI in 1934. The tour guide had his speech memorized. He gave it with a dramatic flair. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the place where public enemy # 1 John Dillinger finally met his match. This notorious gangster who robbed over $300,000 from the banks of the Midwest had squandered it all — $300,000! In fact, on the day he died, John Dillinger had only 32¢ to his name.” In the back of the tour group, a voice was heard: “What great timing!”
Where did we ever get this kooky idea that the worth of a person is to be measured by the net worth of their financial assets on the day they die? We got it from a man named John Calvin who lived about 500 years ago. He is the father of something called the Protestant work ethic. He taught that you work to make money and the more money you make the more you can know that God loves you.
Jesus didn’t teach this. He warned someone who was about to follow him: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). We’ve heard preachers say, “Follow Jesus and Jesus will make you rich.” What Jesus actually said was, “Follow me and be prepared to sleep outside.”
We don’t need to jump to the opposite conclusion and say that poverty is a sure sign of God’s blessing. I don’t think God wants us poor. God wants us to work hard and God wants us to earn the money that comes to those who aren’t afraid of hard work. But I’m pretty sure God doesn’t want money to be our only or even our main reason to go to work. There are other reasons besides money.
The second reason is this. We work for personal fulfillment.
Moses was born at a time when all male Hebrew babies were being killed. Not a good time to be born if you were male and Hebrew. And so the mother of Moses hid her newborn son in a basket by the river. Pharaoh’s daughter found him there, she fell in love with him, and she decided she would raise him as her own. But she needed to hire some help. No Pharaoh’s daughter was going to do the hard work of raising a child all by herself. And guess who was first in line eager to be hired? Moses’ mother. It’s been said that a good job is like being Moses’ mother. You do the thing nearest to your heart and you get paid for it!
Those who get paid a lot of money for what they do are fortunate, but far more fortunate are those who get to do what they love to do, regardless of how much or how little they get paid to do it. Personal fulfillment. Coming home from work feeling good about what you accomplished that day. Exhausted, yet energized and alive with the energy and the life that comes from doing what you love, loving what you do, and knowing you did it well. You cannot measure in dollars the value of that kind of work. The most important thing you bring home from work is not your paycheck. It is yourself.
I read that 83% of Americans hate their jobs. That’s five out of every six going to work because they have to, not because they want to. They put in the time, stretch their coffee breaks, and can’t wait to go home because their job is absurd. And then when they go home they are so spent physically and emotionally, they have nothing left to give to their family. How much money is that kind of job worth?
We are happiest and healthiest and functioning at our optimum when we are working hard to create something significant. God is the creator. God created us to also create. And we are at our best when we are free to express our creativity.
One great thing about our children’s church is it gives our children the opportunity to create things. They do amazing work. Often I will be given something one of our children just created. Just last Sunday I was asked by one of the children if I still had what she gave me several weeks ago. I told her I did. It was on my bulletin board in my office. Then I checked and it wasn’t there. Next time I’ll be more careful.
One thing about children is that they like to have things repeated. If they find some game or some joke they especially like, they will say. “Do it again.” And they never tire of the repetition. G.K. Chesterton said that God creates with childlike joy and spontaneity. So maybe God says to the sun every morning, “Do it again!” He says to the moon every night, “Do it again!” Maybe God creates daisies no all at once but one daisy at a time, admires the creation of something so delicate and so beautiful, and then says, “Do it again . . . Do it again!” God never gets tired of creating. Neither will we if we can allow ourselves to freely express our God-given creativity as we work.
So to review, we work for money. That is a very practical reason. We need money. We need it for survival. We need it to enjoy life. We need it to share what we have with others. You can’t give what you don’t have. So working for money is OK.
And we work for personal fulfillment. Eventually we learn that money alone is not sufficient reward, especially if it comes at the expense of our health and our sanity. Without joy in what we create at work, we become bored, angry, tired, and not much fun to be around. So working to fulfill ourselves is OK, too.
But there’s one more reason. If you aren’t yet a Christian, you can forget about his reason. It doesn’t make sense until Christ becomes the center of your life. Until then, money and fulfillment are sufficient reasons to go to work each day. But once you’ve given yourself to Christ, there is a third reason which becomes the main reason. We work in order that the unfinished work of Jesus might be accomplished through us. So for the Christian, work is more than producing, more than creating. Work is giving.
Jesus had a lot to say about this. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38). “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit us if we gain the whole world and lose our own soul?” (Mark 8:35-36)
God’s work in creation is the work of giving. The daisies aren’t for God to pick and take home and enjoy so God will feel good about himself. No, God’s act of creation is an act of giving away so that others can share and enjoy and benefit from what God has made.
We tend to get that backwards. We tend to put the getting first. Giving is nice, but we’ll get around to that after we’ve gotten all that we want and need and maybe an little more. We are told to get a good education so we can get a lot of money so we can get all these wonderful things so we can get personal fulfillment. The Bible says it doesn’t work that way. The Bible says the more we give ourselves away the more fulfilled we will be. The Bible says, “If any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother or sister in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (I John 3:17)
Some of us have job descriptions that call for giving and for serving. Some of us don’t. Some here today are no doubt part of the 83% who don’t like their jobs. And maybe quitting and going into the mission field isn’t quite something you’re able to do right now. Still our work can be an expression of God’s work — giving of ourselves, of our creativity, or our resources for others. It may take some creativity to figure out how best to do that given your circumstances. Maybe you’re retired and you’ve been wondering if I would ever get around to acknowledging that not everyone here is still working for a paycheck. And maybe you’re ahead of me. You’ve already taken what I’ve said to apply to your circumstances as well. Retired people can still work. Retired people can still give. We all have this basic need to work and to give. And we’re all living in a world that desperately needs our very best.
Willie Loman was a worker. He was a hard worker. We remember him from Death of a Salesman. He unfortunately missed all three of the goals we’ve been talking about this morning. He didn’t make much money. He didn’t find much personal fulfillment. And maybe he could have accepted those too failures except for the fact that his life was so wrapped around himself. His life was all about getting, not giving.
Life became so intolerable for Willie Loman that he took his own life. As his grieving family was trying to come to grips with his tragic life and his tragic death, his wife cried out to their son, Biff, “Why did he do it?” And Biff answered, “Ah shucks Mom, he had all the wrong dreams.”
All the wrong dreams. Why do you work? What are your dreams that you are working so hard to make come true? Through your work, are you opening your heart to others, or is your work causing your heart to close and shrink and harden? “If any one has the world’s goods and see his brother or sister in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”
Lord God, open our hearts that we might hear what you have for us to hear this morning. If you are dealing with us this morning in a way that makes us uncomfortable, that’s OK. That’s good. We thank you for that. We just pray that we won’t resist, that we won’t walk away and return to the old and the familiar, that we will live in any discomfort we might be feeling right now and open ourselves to you as you speak to our hearts. And God, we don’t want to just go through the motions as we feast now at your communion table. We pray that we might receive what you have to give us and that having received we in turn might give. In Jesus’ name, Amen.