THE GRACE OF WORK
Last week we had a special visitor: the Larsen's dog Molly. I was tempted to make equal time for cats this week by bringing our cat today, especially since his name is particularly fitting for Reformation Day. Our cat's name is Luther.
But I decided that bringing Luther would be a bad idea. Cat's are different than dogs around crowds of people. The can easily get spooked, jump out of your arms, and then run all around. I figured we have enough excitement today.
Last week Pastor Mary made a real good point in talking about caring for dogs. Do you remember? Lead discussion about all the rules of taking care of a dog being reduced to one rule: love.
Cats are different in many ways, but I think that same rule applies.
Today is Reformation Day and the reading we read from Jeremiah takes this rule about love a step further. It says that some day God will write that rule on our hearts. Martin Luther reminded us that that can happen through faith in the cross of Jesus.
Take a moment to distinguish Luther from Martin Luther King, Jr., and tell how Luther helped us get things straight about faith, giving our hearts to God, and work, using visual aids of a Martin Luther banner with the Lutheran seal on it (the heart with a cross in it) and a projected slide of the back entrance way of children's hands and the caption "Hands to Work, Hearts to God."
Work. The Reformation, which we celebrate today, was about the proper relationship between work and faith. Like we just said with the kids, faith is about turning our hearts to God, and when we do that, the right kind of work follows: "Hearts to God, Hands to Work." Faith, work.
This day is also a day of celebration for you, our confirmands, another good reason, I think, to talk about the proper relationship between work and faith. You've just finished the work of the confirmation program: going to class, doing sermon reports, achieving service points. It is our hope that this has helped prepare you, not for retirement from church work, but for entry into it as adults. Some of you, for example, will continue to volunteer at the REST shelter on Fridays. And I think all of you are seriously considering going to Mexico this coming summer ... to do what? To work. To serve people in need. You affirm your faith in Jesus before today, and that sets you to working to help others. "Hearts to God, hands to work." I think that's great!
This is also a good time to talk about work and faith because you're
in that time of transition in your life, from child to adult, from the
time of play to the time of work. Work is getting to be a more serious
factor in your lives. Your dreams about work are less in terms of play.
I asked you about work, and here's a couple of your responses: [read]
Again, I think that's great!
Your dreams are sure a lot better than those ones on the Monster.com
commercial. Have you seen those? There's a bunch of little kids who tell
you their dreams about work, that go like this: "When I grow up, I want
to be a brown-noser.
...I want to be a "yes" man.
...I want to be downsized out of my job.
...I want to be forced into early retirement before my time.
And there's a girl who says, "I want less pay for doing the same work." Yes, it's a clever way to communicate that often times our dreams for work don't measure up to reality. And I'm sure they want you to conclude that Monster.com can help you make sure your dreams for work do come true.
Well, I'm here to tell you this morning that the most important key to fulfilling work isn't Monster.com. It's faith. Turning our hearts to God before we set our hands to work.
And a key insight for me is to see what happens to our work under the thing we've talked about a lot in the last year, this thing called Affluenza, the reality that our wealth is causing us to do crazy things these days. Nancy Smith is going to talk about it some more this morning in the Adult Forum. I hope you'll stay for that. It's Affluenza that is causing companies to do many things they didn't do in the past, like massive layoffs for downsizing, or forcing folks into early retirement. But more crucial for most of us who are employees, I think that Affluenza is distorting our priorities for work. We spend longer hours consumed by our work so that we tend to neglect our other work: our work as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers; our work of being good friends and neighbors, of being good citizens; and even when we grow up there continues to be the work of being daughters and sons. Our parents may someday reach a time in their lives when they need our help. There's so much work to be done. It can seem like such a burden. We work and we work and we work to please bosses and spouses and children and so many others. We feel trapped, boxed in. We feel like slaves.
Well, there is a truth about work that can set us free. That was the key theme rung out by Luther at the Reformation. We are liberated from the burden of work when we turn our hearts to God first in faith. When our work springs from the love of God in Jesus Christ, it takes on a whole new character. When that law of love is written on our hearts, then the work of love just naturally follows. When we begin first in faith, then all that other work -- our work as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, as friends, neighbors, citizens, employees -- all that other work can be transformed as labors of love. This is the truth that sets us free.
I'd like to finish, then, with two quick stories about Jesus that will help us understand what God is confirming for you on this Confirmation Day. They are stories from the Gospel of John on either side of this morning's reading.
The first is the story of Jesus on a Sabbath, when he encounters a lame man in need of healing. As a Jew, there were strict rules about working on the Sabbath. But God's main rule about love was written on Jesus' heart, and so he reached out his hand to do the work of healing this man anyway. The religious leaders didn't like it and scolded Jesus. This was his reply: "My Father is still working, and I also am working."
My Father is still working. Isn't that a surprise? If we think of God's work as the work of Creation, then don't we often think in terms of Creation having long ago been finished? But Jesus challenges this idea. "My Father is still working, and I also am working." Not only is God still working, but by healing that lame man, Jesus was joining in. The work of creating is ongoing, and Jesus joined in when he healed the man.
The second story is similar. Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind from birth. Right away, the disciples assume that this man, or his parents must have done something wrong to deserve such a fate. But here's Jesus' reply: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." God's works revealed. And then Jesus again reached out his hand to do the work of healing.
In a few moments, you will affirm your faith. But for me there's something even more important happening: God is affirming God's promises made to you at baptism. They are promises that can set you free in your work when you hear them in faith. These stories from Jesus, along with the words you are about to hear can help us hear that liberating truth.
There's an old poster that was popular in the 70's that began "God doesn't make no junk...." This is true for each one of us. It was true even for someone that man born blind from birth.
The second part of that old poster was: "...God isn't finished with me yet." Each one of us is a work in progress.
Not only that. We are made in God's image so that we can join in the work of creation. That means each of us can be part of finishing that work of creation which is ourselves. Each of us is called discover what your gifts God has given us to work in the vineyard. What are your gifts? God calls you to discover them, and God promises the Holy Spirit to help -- as we prayed over each of you at your baptisms: "the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence."
Most amazingly, when our work on this earth is done, God promises us eternal life. Someday we will all be finished works. Perfect. No more suffering and pain. Our work and God's work will come to fulfillment.
Until that day, a good motto, a good prayer to pray everyday is, Hearts to God, Hands to work. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, October 30-31, 1999
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