Finding Joy in Work
Eleventh Sunday After Trinity
August 31, 2014
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
It’s Labor Day Weekend, one of my favorite long weekends of the year. I went fly fishing on Friday, to the Michigan Game yesterday, and don’t have to get up early for work tomorrow. It’s one last taste of summer before the school and church calendars get really busy. Of course, even when the calendar gets crazy, there’s still the weekend. For many, weekends in the fall will mean trips to the cider mill, hay rides, and corn mazes. They mean Friday Night Lights and College Football Saturdays and NFL Sundays. So much of our lives feel like we’re living weekend to weekend. The atmosphere in the school hallways on Fridays is noticeably different than it is on Mondays. On Fridays, the students and parents alike walk down the hall just a little quicker, excited at the prospect of a few days off. Mondays, on the other hand, generally find the students dragging their backpacks instead of carrying them, tired days where the students and parents alike are a little worn out from the weekend’s activities. But I don’t think that experience is confined to the hallways of a school – I bet you see the same dynamic in your workplace, and in office buildings across the country.
For me, it makes me contemplate the nature of work, a topic especially appropriate this Labor Day Weekend. As we know, Labor Day is not just an excuse to barbecue one last time before summer ends, it is a holiday set aside to honor the contributions of the American work force in the development and ongoing support of this nation. It is a holiday to honor all that is accomplished by those who work. But reality seems to be that we are living for the weekends, for the vacations, for the times where we are not at work. If that’s really what we think of work, then why honor it? Aristotle believed that “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” He believed that we work in order not to work. He believed that happiness was to be found not in the tasks we accomplish, but in the time we spend relaxing. For Aristotle, and I think, if we’re beinghonest, for most of us, work is a means to an end. We work for money so that we can buy food, home, clothing, and the other necessities of life. We work so that we can afford to go on vacation. We work so that we can retire in comfort. We treat work as a necessary evil, working primarily so that we don’t have to work anymore. And many of us, if we had our own way, would stop working altogether if we could afford it.
But the more I see this attitude in myself and in our culture, the more I think it robs us of the joy that our Lord would give us in our work. The more I study what our Lord’s Word has to say about work, the more I see this necessary evil mentality is really a gross perversion of what our Lord intended our work to be. If working is truly a necessary evil, then it must somehow be an obstacle to who we truly are. But that contradicts what our Lord says about work in the Scriptures. Remember the story of creation as recorded for us in the book of Genesis: “Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. [. . .] The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” God created Adam for work. God told Adam to work in the garden before sin corrupted the creation. Work can’t be just a necessary evil that is yet another burden we must bear as a consequence of sin’s corruption. God instituted work before the fall, so it is part of his design for who we are as humans.
God’s attitude toward work is exactly opposite that of Aristotle. In the words of Luther, “Man was created not for leisure, but for work, even in the state of innocence.” Work was created before the fall, before corruption, which means it was created to give us joy. Certainly work has been corrupted by sin, just like everything else in creation. Again from Genesis: “And to Adam [God] said, “Because you have . . . eaten of the tree . . . cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground.” Work was not tiresome or frustrating until after sin corrupted it, but it was there. Adam and Eve were put in a perfect creation, and part of that perfection included working.
This has tremendous significance for how we approach the tasks that face us each day. It is encouraging and uplifting to remember that work is part of our Lord’s design for us. It’s not just a burden we bear so that we can have money for food or clothing or shelter. Those things are important and necessary, but there’s more significance to our life of work than that. It’s not intended to be something we must tolerate just so that we can go on vacation. It’s not merely something we do just so that we can retire. Work is an essential part of being human, a basic part of who we are. The attitudes toward work that permeate our culture are a perversion of a once perfect gift, and they rob us of the joy found in a job well done. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote that He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income, for these things are vanity. Perhaps this is why so many people in our world find their work unsatisfying. Solomon makes the problem clear. If we work only for the money and live only for the weekend, we will never find fulfillment. We will never be satisfied, for we’re chasing after vanity. As another pastor put it, “Chasing after vanity [will give you] no rest. The soul grows weary and uncertainty increases because in the depths of our hearts we know that temporal things have a habit of disappearing. Stock markets crash. Cars break down. Banks go under. Economies suffer recession and depression. Jobs are lost. With them goes the certainty we once hoped for. Despair overcomes us.”
So what are we to do? How do we find joy in our work? The answer is to remember first and foremost that our identity is rooted not in our life’s work or accomplishments, but in God’s completed work for us. The work he completed for us, when he cried out on the cross, “It is finished” supplies us with perfect righteousness, pays off all our debts to God, and opens up the door to everlasting life, where we will enjoy perfect health with glorified bodies in a restored creation. But if that creation is really a restoration of this creation as it was before the fall, we won’t be sitting around playing harps all day. We will be praising God through work, through using the talents and abilities he has given us in service of him and those around us. That’s the way to find joy in our work today. The work our Lord did in us when he gave us new life in the water of holy baptism, giving us a new creation to live and work before him in righteousness and blessedness, the work he will do in us yet again in a few moments when he will feed us with the body and blood of Jesus Christ to strengthen our souls not only gives us the promise of joyful work in a paradise of the future, it also redeems our work for today, tomorrow, and every day on this earth.
We will find no fulfillment in our world’s understanding of work because this is not work as our Lord designed it. We need to repent of viewing work as a means to an end and return instead to Eden, and to the proper understanding of vocation. God gave us talents and abilities not so that we can make money to buy stuff for ourselves, but to love and serve our neighbors. Think back to Eden once again. Not only did our Lord create work before the Fall, he created it before he created Eve. He put Adam to work the garden by himself, but then looked and saw that it was not good for man to be alone. It wasn’t good for man to be alone because then there was no one for Adam to love and serve with his work. If Adam was in the garden by himself, then all his work would be for himself. But this is not who our Lord created us to be, so he gave Adam Eve. So also we tend to feel frustrated in our work when we are overly concerned with our own personal fulfillment or recognition. We feel frustrated because there is no end to that journey. There is always another promotion to chase, always another raise to pursue, and always another challenger nipping at our heels. However, when we realize that we are not truly working for ourselves, but for the people around us, we will begin to experience the fulfillment of life as our Lord designed it, a life of community and mutual concern.
Our readings today emphasize our inability to save ourselves. Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable because it was not offered in faith, trusting in God’s promise. The Pharisee trumpeted his own accomplishments to God, who was unimpressed, while the tax collector who humbled himself in repentance went away justified. Paul does not mince words when he tells us we were saved by grace through faith, apart from works, so that no one can boast. But don’t forget verse 10 at the end of that reading: “We are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” What does it mean that God prepared good works in advance for us to walk in them? Does that make us like characters in a cosmic video game who are being controlled and moved to the places God programmed us to be? Does God have some master checklist of divinely orchestrated opportunities to perform good deeds he expects us to do each day? No. Paul is talking about vocation here. He is talking about our everyday life. He is talking about our work. For as insignificant as our efforts are when it comes to accomplishing our own salvation, our Lord has placed us in a startlingly high position when it comes to our practical, everyday life.
Think about it. God upholds this creation from generation to generation, but he has chosen to give people a large role to play in that process. Children aren’t spawned from the dust of the ground, they’re born from parents whose vocation it is to raise those children who will one day become parents themselves. No man is an island; we live in a community of interdependence, and that’s exactly the way God designed it to be. Those are the good works he has created in advance – the work that needs to happen for life to continue, and not only our personal lives, but also the life of the community. He created a world that needs parents and farmers and doctors and engineers and mechanics and garbage collectors and politicians and a whole host of other people to function. He prepared those good works in advance, and then created people like you and me to fill those needs. It works the same in the body of Christ. Our Lord has created his church to be a place that needs pastors and music directors, but that also needs ushers and acolytes and trustees and elders and evangelism boards and stewardship boards and assimilation teams and treasurers. He prepared those good works in advance, and now he has created you in Christ Jesus as his workmanship to do them! He has created us to be a community not of mutually independent people, but of mutually dependent people who rely on each other to get things done. We rely on those people sitting in around us as the members of this congregation with us today. We rely on the people we never met who kept St. John open and running for the last 150 years so that it could be here for us today. And we do our work humbly acknowledging that, Lord willing, there will be people here in another 50 years who are reaping the fruit of what we sow today.
Each of us can find joy in whatever work we contribute to the whole, for “God ordained that human beings be bound together in love, in relationships and communities existing in a state of interdependence. In this context, God is providentially at work caring for his people, each of whom contributes according to his or her God-given talents, gifts, opportunities, and stations.” Each of us becomes a mask of God, for behind our work God is hidden, upholding and sustaining his church, indeed, his entire creation. We find no joy in our work when our primary concern is whether or not we have received enough recognition. We find no joy in our work when we are only concerned with the immediate results here and now. We find joy in your work when we realize that because we are now redeemed and set right with God, because we are his workmanship, He is now using our efforts not only to sustain our lives and the lives of the people around us, he is sustaining those in the future who will one day benefit from our efforts without our ever knowing.
Embracing this work won’t get you a better seat in heaven, but it is the life God intended for you on earth. It is the path to joy in your work because you’re not primarily concerned with how much money you can make, but rather you embrace using your talents and abilities, the ones God himself personally gave you. They are yours on purpose; they are no accident. Find joy in accomplishing the tasks that need to get done daily in order for life to continue – in cutting the lawn or washing the dishes. Find joy in putting effort into other things that needs to happen, like family picnics or trips to the park. Find joy in doing what needs to be done for future generations, rejoicing in all that was done for you by generations since past. Find joy in all your work, for in all your work, God is at work in you, using you to bless those around you. Our work may not be for our salvation, but it is still important, and that fills our work with joy. May God grant such joy in your work this Labor Day, and for all the days ahead.
 Genesis 2:7-8,15
 Commentary on Genesis 2:15 (AE 1.103)
 Genesis 3:17-19
 Ecclesiastes 5:10
 Genesis 4:4-5; Hebrews 11:4
 Luke 18:9-14
 Ephesians 2:10
 Veith, Gene. Spirituality of the Cross p. 72
 Veith, 74