September 6, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THAT’S JUST HOW I ROLL
I Corinthians 15:51-58
I would like to introduce you to a man named Sisyphus. Sisyphus lived a long time ago. I’ll take that back. Sisyphus didn’t live a long time ago. Sisyphus didn’t live at all. He’s a fictional character who was brought to life in Greek mythology. We find his story in Homer’s Iliad.
Sisyphus was the king of Corinth. He was a crafty king who was always plotting and scheming and who was able to outsmart even the gods. The gods didn’t like that. The god of death was sent to punish Sisyphus, but Sisyphus turned the tables and bound him with chains. What that meant was that no one could die as long as the god of death was bound. Death had been cheated.
It took another god, the god of war to free the god of death so people could start dying again. Sisyphus knew what that meant. It meant he would be one of the first to die. With the god of death on the loose and angrier than ever, his life was as good as over.
So again he plotted and he schemed and he came up with a plan. He told his wife that when he died she must throw his body into the middle of the public square. There must be no funeral. He died and his wife honored his request. He woke up in the underworld and went straight to the god of death to file a complaint. He had not been given a proper burial. That meant he was entitled to return to earth just long enough to punish his wife. And of course once Sisyphus returned to earth he changed his mind about punishing his wife and he refused to go back.
Eventually Sisyphus died a second time. This time there was no escape. This time the gods did the plotting and the scheming. They got their revenge on this mere mortal who had dared to make them look foolish. They brought Sisyphus to the base of a mountain. They gave him a huge rock. And they gave him a task. He was to roll this rock to the top of the mountain. That wasn’t all. When he had rolled the rock to the top of the mountain he was to step aside and the rock would roll all the way back down. Then it would be his task to roll the rock back up the mountain again. Again and again and again.
I don’t think it’s in Homers’ Iliad. I’m not sure where I heard it, but one day someone came up to Sisyphus and asked him why he was doing what he was doing. He said, “That’s just how I roll.”
Sisyphus was condemned to the worst fate the gods could dream up. Futile, hopeless, endless labor. And this Labor Day Sunday, I thought I’d ask you a question. Have you ever felt like Sisyphus? Your work is a heavy burden. You’re always pushing uphill. And what you’re pushing uphill is always rolling back downhill. So all your hard work is resulting in nothing of lasting value. It all gets undone. So what’s the use? You’re getting tired of your futile, hopeless, endless labor. You need more than Monday off to feel any excitement about rolling that rock back up the hill again starting Tuesday morning.
Jesus had a lot to say about our work. He told a parable about a servant who worked all day long out in the hot sun laboring in the fields. And then when his work was finally done out there, there wasn’t even time for him to sit down. It was time for to start preparing the evening meal for his master. When he finally gets done with that, the dishes are clean, the leftovers are all in those little tupperware containers and stacked neatly in the fridge, he doesn’t get so much as a thank you from his master. Jesus said he shouldn’t have expected one. And the same with us. “So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'” (Luke 17:10).
Have you ever felt like this servant? You work long, you work hard, you do a good job. But no one even notices what you have done. No one even bothers to say, “thank you”. Everyone just takes you for granted and assumes that whatever you do will always be done. No one will ever say a word to you. Unless you do something that wasn’t up to your usual standards. Then you’ll hear about it!
So much of our work is like that. You drive by a home with a beautifully manicured yard and you barely notice. That’s the way you expect it to look. You drive by a home with a yard that has been badly neglected. That’s the one you’ll notice.
Or the janitor’s job. I did some janitorial work back in high school. If you do a super, incredible job as a janitor, things will just look the way everyone expects them to look. Your greatest compliment is to hear no complaints.
Or an umpire in baseball. An umpire is like a pickpocket. Notice him and his career is over. Like Jim Joyce.
This goes back to 2010. There were two outs in the ninth inning. Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers was pitching a perfect game. 26 batters up, 26 batters out. One more to go. It would have been only the 21st perfect game in major league history. Except Jim Joyce the umpire did something that got him noticed. He missed a call at first base. He called the runner safe. The runner clearly was out. Jim Joyce is one reason we now have video replay review in baseball.
Sisyphus had his work undone. The servant in Jesus’ parable had his work unnoticed. Unappreciated. Either way it’s mighty discouraging.
And it gets worse. Everything we do is under the judgment of death. Someone was commenting on the stock market and said that in the long term, things will come back and we’ll be OK. Someone else said, in the long term, we’ll all be dead. “Time like an ever rolling stream bears all who breathe away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” So will all our work be not only undone and unnoticed but also forgotten? Is all our work in vain?
There just happens to be a Bible verse that says exactly the opposite. “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain” (I Corinthians 15:58).
And that’s what I want to say to you this morning. Even on those days when you feel like Sisyphus, your labor is not in vain. Even on those days when you feel like that servant who doesn’t get so much as a thank you, your labor is not in vain. Even as that great eraser called death draws near, your labor is not in vain.
How can we know this? How can we believe this? How can we therefore find new meaning and purpose and, yes, joy in our work? The key is the first part of the verse. “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”
If there is no God, nobody’s work really matters in the long run. If there is a God, but our work has nothing to do with God, our work still has limited value. But since there is a God and when our work is done “in the Lord”, everything changes. “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain.” Everything changes for three reasons.
First, God is the conserver of value. Nothing is lost with God. God is like a packrat. He saves everything. Even things we assume are wasted or worthless, God holds onto them. There’s a beautiful verse in Revelation that speaks of the prayers of the saints being preserved like incense in great bowls (5:8). Think of that! All the prayers that have ever been prayed are being carefully preserved by God. They are not wasted. God keeps them. God cherishes them.
One of my first funerals was for a two-month-old boy. He was a twin. Both Kevin and Kris seemed fine at first, but then Kevin started showing signs that something was wrong. What can be worse than losing your baby? But at least they still had Kris.
The funeral was in November. In February I got word that Kris had died. Both boys had inherited the same genetic defect. Kevin’s symptoms had just appeared earlier than Kris’s. So I had a second funeral. And these parents had a second grief to bear.
I am not able to find any redeeming value in what happened to that family. But I do know and I do believe that God is the conserver of value. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is lost. These tiny lives and their unrealized potential will somehow be realized in heaven. I believe that. It is safe in the hands of God. And everything these parents and their friends and their doctors and their babies did in that awful time — the patience, the heroism, the endurance, the self-sacrifice, the kindness, the prayers — that’s not lost either. It’s safe in the hands of God.
Death does not erase it all. “Time like an ever rolling stream” may sweep us all away, but the greater truth is found elsewhere in that same hymn. “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.” There is hope when we labor in the Lord.
Second, God empowers excess goodness. Not just goodness, but excess goodness.
Let’s go back to that parable Jesus told. That servant had worked so hard. He had done everything that was asked of him and did it well. He had done nothing wrong. He had done everything right. He was a good servant. But Jesus said he shouldn’t expect any thanks. Why not? Because he had only done his duty.
The point Jesus is making is that we don’t earn our salvation. It’s not by being good that we earn favor with God. God does not reward us based on our performance. Being good is just what we do. It’s just how we roll. And it’s not a competitive game. When we get to heaven, we’re all equal. We’re all sinners saved by grace, not by works. We’re all “unworthy servants” who God says are worth so much Jesus died for us.
But even though we don’t earn our salvation, the way it works is that with salvation comes a second blessing. We die to our sins. It is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. And it is Christ living in us that makes possible in our lives not just goodness but excess goodness! Not just enough to get by, but way more than we could ever dream possible. The power at work in us is able to do exceeding abundantly more than we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20).
Again, not so we can earn more jewels in our heavenly crowns. We earn nothing. We have only done our duty. It’s all grace. But grace makes our duty our privilege. Grace makes our burden our joy. Grace means we can keep going even if we aren’t noticed. Even if we aren’t appreciated. Because our worth comes from God, not from other people.
And grace means we don’t need to keep track of what we are expected to do so once we get to the end of the list we can stop and do no more. We’re done. It’s quitting time. Grace makes us want to do more. Grace makes us want to go the second mile. Grace makes us reach for excess goodness. Just doing barely enough to be good is hard work. Doing way more than enough in Christ to exceed goodness is no work at all. When we are doing what God put us on this earth to do, there is nothing we would rather be doing!
Third, God gives meaning to the tedious. Some of the work we need to do, it would have to be that way! There’s not a lot of meaning we can see in many of the things we do each day. We don’t do them because they’re glamorous or exciting. We do them because they need to be done. Truth is much of what we do is pretty boring. It’s repetitious. It’s tedious. It’s meaningless.
But no, not meaningless. Because God gives meaning to the tedious. “My work is my prayer.” Catholics say that. We should, too. Simple things, ordinary things, even mindless things can bring us closer to God.
I think of parents with small children. I was one once. All the feedings and the diapers and the messes and the getting up in the middle of the night to get the baby to stop screaming and sometimes you can’t no matter what you do. I asked Helen where we ever found the energy to do all that. She said, “You didn’t.”
Robert Capon tells the story of a typical dinner with his family of eight:
Everything is a chaos, a frenzy of noise and movement. I shout, “Quiet!”, and there comes a shuffling stillness, a hint that order is going to come again. I remind the children that they are civilized, they aren’t wild animals, and there are manners that are expected. The oldest one agrees. I am encouraged. And then the youngest one knocks over a glass of milk. Down toward me it races like a flood across the land. I jump back but over the edge it pours and I am hit, the right trouser leg just below the knee, the third time this meal. She has upset glasses with her head, her feet, her shoulders, her knees, her rump, her belly, and with an endless variety of time and circumstances. Upon thick tablecloths yielding a white flood that spreads ominously toward us all and upon plastic tablecloths for a high velocity attack. I nearly broke a chair one time when I was trying to escape from milk on plastic.
I can understand why stay-at-home moms or stay-or-home dads don’t appreciate it when people say things like, “It must be nice to not have to work!” Say that and you might get punched in the face. Raising children is hard, tedious work. But if you’re doing it because God is calling you to do it, it’s meaningful. It’s still hard and tedious. But God gives meaning to the tedious.
Albert Camus wrote a book called The Myth of Sisyphus. I have struggled through other things written by Albert Camus, so I have no intention of reading this book. All I know about the book is the final sentence: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Even though he has been sentenced to spend all eternity in futile, hopeless, exhausting labor, he’s happy?
I’m not sure I understand Albert Camus, but I’m pretty sure I understand us. When we truly believe that what we are doing is what God wants us to do, no matter how long or hard or unpleasant that work might be, we can be happy doing it. Because God gives meaning to the tedious. Because in the Lord, our labor is not in vain.
Lord, we offer you our work. We take you at your word that it is not in vain. We pray that our work might draw us closer to you. That our work might be our prayer. That our work might be your work. So help us to do it as best as we can, and even better because you are at work in us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.