Doug Norris – March 11/18
Parker Palmer, a Quaker, a wise and very fine teacher – made this comment on working in a job he knew was not where he should be.
‘I pay a steep price when I live a divided life. Feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that I am now denying my own selfhood. The people around me pay a price as well, for now they walk on ground made unstable by my dividedness. A fault line runs down the middle of my life, and wherever it cracks open, divorcing my words and actions from the truth I hold within, things around me get shaky and begin to fall apart.’
Hold that thought. Let me say a few things here about Lent.
In the usual tradition of the church Lent is viewed in one of two ways. Following the very dramatic story of Jesus being tempted by the devil – offered great power and safety and wealth, which he resists heroically, this is seen as a time for confronting our own temptations, so we are invited to go without some of those things that are a challenge for us. There’s one of the usual and very noble paths. Here’s another – the six weeks of Lent draw us inexorably to the horrible narrative of Holy Week, arrest, trial, suffering, crucifixion. So we are asked to enter into a time of penitence and lament. Our Good Friday service is an exquisite exploration of the unjust death.
In the flow of the Biblical story, however, this period Jesus spent in the wilderness was at the very start of his public life, not the end, in fact it can be understood as an inquiry into work, Jesus struggling to know what he needed to do. Which is how I want to look at it today, along with our work. Two questions about work : What is it for? What else could I be doing?
I need to speculate for a moment about Jesus. I’m going off the marked path here.
Jesus was about 30 when he began the activities we know about through the gospels. We don’t know what he was doing before that. To the gospel writers it doesn’t matter. The story only matters when he gets rolling as a provocative religious teacher, which is right at the time he connects with the extreme Jewish renewal movement of John. Everything rolls out from there. But here’s a possibility. The slim record we have tells us that Jesus was a ‘builder’ and the son of a builder. We typically say he was a carpenter but we don’t know that. The word that’s used means ‘builder’, could be in wood or in stone. In the years around when was in his teens and then a young adult, a massive building project was going on just a few miles from Nazareth. Sepphoris. Details don’t matter. Other than this – I suspect Jesus, for many years, had a job as a builder, and at some point he asked the two questions asked by almost any thoughtful person in a job: What is this for? This day in day out labour? and what else could I be doing?
A song – reflect on your work. All day long been working my heart out…
In the book of Ecclesiastes the writer, who is traditionally given the name Quoeleth, expresses a cynical and sad comment on what our life of labour and effort amounts to. He says, more or less, you work all your life and then when you are gone everything you worked for is in the hands of someone who didn’t work for it! So what’s the point? (now, he did go on to say that perhaps the point is to simply enjoy life, to eat and drink and find pleasure in our labour…)
I asked a few people in the congregation, about a week ago, to tell me a bit about their work. Some had just made changes, left a job or retired, one has been looking for work for a long time, one is starting up an entirely different path. So my thoughts here are also shaped by their ideas.
One who left a long time job, left with no rancour, in fact, grateful for decades of meaningful work, contributing to important public conversations, but saw the possibility of attending to a sibling who is terminally ill. All day long still working our hearts out…
One who has just retired did so realizing that we are not strong and healthy forever, and there is work we can do beyond our ‘job’ work. In the community, the neighborhood, and when needed was able to be entirely available for family. Leaving ‘job’ was not leaving ‘work’, so much as blowing open the possibilities of what week could be like. All day long still working our hearts out…
One who has been without a job for a long time now is feeling the emotional ache of this, the work of not working. All day long still working our hearts out…
In all cases what is clear is how deeply we are defined by how our life-energy is being spent, in what direction, for what purpose.
Matthew Fox is a theologian, Catholic, though some decades ago he was expelled by the Dominican order for his radical ideas. He wrote a book called The Reinvention of Work, to uncover the mystical and profound side of our labour. And the thing I want to take from him, and I think it is the thing that connects us to a Jesus who was one day hauling stones and wondering about the urge that was on fire in him to be a blessing to his people, this idea Fox calls the ‘Great Work of the Universe’. That through all of time and every culture and in each one of us there is a current moving that wants to employ our strength and our creativity and our love in the service of humanity, inside and outside of whatever else we happen to be doing.
“There is an ancient affinity between the great work and our daily lives. The great work is the work of the universe, it is the unfolding of creation. Somehow, our work, our daily life, should contribute to that. We should feel that we are connected to the great work of the universe. Without that, we lose meaning in our work and the only meaning is a paycheck. Work is no longer work, it is a job.” (Matthew Fox)
All day long, still working our hearts out. For the healing of the nations.