Why Work?

This morning I aim to speak about work. Christians often talk about work as vocation,a “calling” from God. Whatever do we mean?

Most Saturdays from April through October, Ellis and I walk our dog Oscar over to the Tower Grove Farmer’s Market. It’s good practice for Oscar. We’re continually working on his manners when greeting new people and other dogs. We also go for the spectacle, the people watching, the coffee, and sometimes we even buy produce from the farmers.

Often one of us waits in line for tomatoes, salad greens, or really whatever is on sale from one particular farm. There are a dozen or so produce vendors at the Tower Grove farmers’ market, but one of the tents almost always has the longest line. Their produce is simply excellent. Orange and yellow heirloom tomatoes bigger than your fist sit next to the purplest of onions. Their cucumbers are crisp and sweet, and the prices are relatively reasonable. It is said that human beings often vote with their feet. If that’s true, then this stand wins every Saturday in a landslide.

Their produce speaks volumes. These farmers, at this place, in this time, I would argue, have found a calling, a vocation. The literal fruits of their labor tell us that the growing process involved both deep care and intrinsic talent. Vocation exists at the harmony between giftedness, dedication, and a real human need. When a human need is met with art, the results can be delicious. Good work, good art, well grown food, can satisfy more than our hunger, it can satisfy our soul. When that happens, we talk about God’s call.

The word of the Lord called to the prophet Jeremiah saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” God puts God’s own words in the young boy’s mouth. Jeremiah called the people to the justice and mercy of God’s laws. Jeremiah prophesied that Babylon would fall, and the people would return from exile to Jerusalem. Jeremiah was made for this moment, for this time, to speak these words of conviction and hope to these people.

The Quaker educator Parker Palmer encouraged those who are looking for their calling to “Let Your Life Speak.” Palmer is one of the foremost writers on vocation. He is an expert. Still, becoming a grandparent caught even the expert by surprise. Palmer wrote:

When my first grandchild was born, I saw something in her that I had missed in my own children some twenty-five years earlier, when I was too young and self-absorbed to see anyone, including myself, very well. What I saw was clear and simple: my granddaughter arrived on earth as this kind of person, rather than that, or that, or that.

We are often so caught up in our own pursuits in life that we fail to really see one another. Sometimes we even fail to see ourselves. But our God is the God who knew us before we were formed in the womb. Human beings are created with an intrinsic dignity, and that dignity is tied to a sense of purpose. Human beings are made for work, and, our tradition teaches us, we are each made uniquely. God makes us so that we might make a unique contribution through our life.

Much of the conflict and suffering in the human community could be alleviated if we found avenues for each person, regardless of gender, race, class, religion, orientation, or geography, to live into their calling. When people find meaning in their work, they are more able to find harmony within themselves and their community. When we are able to pause and see the potential in our fellow human beings, we are more likely to try and work together.

Now I know there’s a bit of a danger in raising questions about work from a pulpit. Work is not an abstract for most of us, it is concrete. I know some of you love your work, and others of you, less so. Some of us here are currently looking for work, and are frustrated just trying to make ends meet. Some of you are retired.

Retirement, as many of you regularly inform me, often does not mean freedom from work. Retired professional or “stay at home” parent, I know people who put in long hours each week providing childcare or taking care of an elderly family member. Somehow many of you formal and informal workers also find time to volunteer with the church, tend a garden, pursue a hobby. Not all work is compensated. Unpaid work can also be a calling. Work is a complicated subject.

I’m wading into these dangerous waters of work and vocation for two reasons. The first is simple. I think the Church has to talk about what we do with the rest of our week. Church should be a place where we come to reflect and find strength week in and week out. What we do here should have an impact beyond Sunday morning. The second reason is simple Jesus had a lot to say about work.

The main argument the Pharisees always made against Jesus was that he was working on the Sabbath. Today the story from the Gospel takes a decidedly misogynistic turn. The leader of this particular synagogue blames the victim. “Don’t come here on the Sabbath for healing” the leader says to the woman who was healed. Surprisingly this Pharisee doesn’t go after Jesus, directly. Usually Jesus gets in trouble for “working” on the Sabbath. Instead this leader scolds the woman. But Jesus still responds. “Should not this woman be set free?” Even on the sabbath?

It is easy to roll our eyes at the Synagogue authorities in the Gospels. But, friends, I’m here to tell you that our modern concepts of work are very similar to those of the Pharisees. We have an unhealthy relationship with our work as a society. The poet and philosopher David Whyte names this well when he advises:

“We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each.”

He’s right. The idea of work-life balance often just makes us feel guilty. In all of my spiritual advising, I’ve never heard someone say: “I think I’ve got my work-life balance right.” But, take heart. Jesus never described a “work-life balance.” Jesus poured himself passionately into his work. He also took intentional time for reflection and refreshment, prayer and retreat. Jesus didn’t worry himself about not having enough time for both.

Whyte describes a different way to think of work as a

“constant conversation…[a] back and forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me; it is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world. Like the person to whom I am committed in a relationship, it is constantly changing and surprising me by its demands and needs but also by where it leads me, how much it teaches me, and especially, by how much tact, patience and maturity it demands of me.”

What if we saw work as a journey? What if we let go of the need to get it right moment to moment, and focused instead on what we were learning from our work, who are work was shaping us to be? The good news is that more and more people, and more and more businesses are beginning to describe work this way. We are letting go of the idea that work has to be a slog. We are looking for meaning, growth, and even adventure in our work. We are seeing weekends, vacation, and professional development as a time to reflect and change our rhythm so that we can come back to work with fresh eyes.

During the Second World War the novelist and Anglican church-warden Dorothy Sayers wrote an essay entitled “Why Work?” She worries about the “trash and waste” that comes with a consumer economy obsessed with the disposable and the cheap. Using the gendered language of her day Sayers offers that “The greatest insult which a commercial age has offered to the worker has been to rob him of all interest in the end product of the work and to force him to dedicate his life to making badly things which were not worth making.”

In response, she imagines a shareholders meeting at a brewing company. She hopes that investors would ask questions not just about worker’s wages or workplace conditions. She wants them to ask, “What goes into the beer?”

What goes into the beer? The question is salient. More and more, we are answering this question well. Artisan breweries are on the rise all across our country, even here in Anheuser-Busch country. Against the grain of our “cheaper is better” economy, we have learned that people will pay more for a higher quality beer.

And a higher quality product reflects well on the workers. There is a sense of pride and joy in our work when we know that what we produce matters. When we are part of making good beer, even if the part we played was to clean the floor of the brewery, when we know we are part of something artful, there is pride in that work.

The saxophone player John Coltrane once described his work this way:

To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge,my being… When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from it’s hangups.

Work, at its best, is like art. It is a medium of communication of love and of care. A great artist knows that the best art comes not from pandering to the crowd, but from serving the work. And doing the work we are given well can be service to God. It’s theological. To quote Dorothy Sayers again: humanity, “made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.”

Be careful in your attitude toward work. If you find yourself tired, frustrated, worn thin, ask questions of meaning. Why do you work? Are you doing your best, or simply going through the paces? Is your work helping you live into your potential? How would you describe your calling? If you supervise the work of others, and you find your workers frustrated, ask questions of meaning. Do the people I work with feel they are part of something bigger than themselves? Do they feel they are making a meaningful contribution? Is there work demanding their utmost talent?

Tasting those summer tomatoes from the farmers’ market, hearing the passion in voices of the people who grew them, gave me great hope. As a people I believe we are discovering again that work can feed not just our consumer economy. Good honest work, work we are made for, feeds our soul.


What is Faith? Part two: Keep the Faith.

This morning I’m continuing a series I started last week. I’m asking the question: What is faith?

As I said last week, the nature of the church seems to be changing, as is the nature of our question. Faith used to be a given. It’s changing some places faster than others. Down South, people still often ask you WHERE you go to church. They don’t ask IF you go to church. The question has been, and this used to be true across quite a bit of our country: “Where do you go to church?” It was roughly equivalent to the St. Louis question. “Where’d you go to High School.” Church was a given, and where you went to church said something about your social location. I grew up out West, and then I lived for a long time in California. Out there people don’t ask “Where do you go to church” Instead they ask, surprised, “Wait, you go to church?” Question mark.

Faith is not a given anymore. Questioning your faith doesn’t make you a pariah the way it used to. Now, as a professional preacher, I probably shouldn’t say this, but I think the decline of “given” faith might be a good thing. Questioning your faith, that can be a very good thing. If you have doubts, hold on to them. Don’t let go to quickly. Doubts are important. Doubts cause us to ask questions. I don’t think God wants us to simply swallow the faith we’ve been handed. God wants us to wrestle. We are created with the capacity for reason. If you have doubts, embrace them, work them over, ask why. The view of God and the world that emerges, the faith that comes, through wrestling doubts is often subtler, more durable, and more useful in a crisis.

The Gospel this morning is heavy for a summer morning. Really all the readings are quite tough, but the Gospel is particularly hard. Jesus is angry. “Do you think I have come to bring peace? No, I tell you, but rather division! (Exclamation point). It’s a strong statement. I think Jesus is trying to wake people up. Do you think this is simple? Do you think God, in your lifetime, is just going to clean up all of the messes? Jesus needs you to doubt that kind of simplistic faith.

The Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker coined the phrase that Dr. King often quoted and refined while he worked for Civil Rights:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

God’s work can sometimes feel painstakingly slow. The work of liberation often takes much longer than it should. Faith is for the difficult times. Faith is for the hard slogs. There’s a reason our Presiding Bishop’s favorite tag line is “keep the faith.” Often we need reminding.

Then there are moments of breakthrough. Moments after climbing out of the pool this week, Simone Manuel looked at a camera and said, “All glory to God.” She is the first African-American woman ever to win an Individual Gold medal in swimming. Now, when athletes express religion on TV, I always get a little nervous. Tim Tebow used to make my eyes cross. Faith in athletics usually seems to come when the touchdown is scored or the game is one. Faith, it seems, is for the victors. The kind of religion that is most often displayed during professional sports doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt.

But Simone Manuel both praised God and questioned the status quo. She later went on to say that her medal meant a lot, “with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.” See, a few years ago, Simone wouldn’t have been allowed in a public pool in St. Louis. She wouldn’t have been allowed to train. There’s an old stereotype that African Americans can’t swim. Well, it’s hard to learn when you’re not allowed in the pool.

But little black girls in swim classes today have a role model, a now multiple medalist.  You know what, it’s not just little black girls who can look up to her. She’s a champion for all God’s children to admire. To swim that well, given what she’s faced took faith. It took guts.

Now, stay with me. I’m going to turn now. I want to spend some time this morning talking about the faith of another woman of color. Tomorrow is the Feast Day of St. Mary the Virgin. (It also happens to be Ellis and my anniversary of our legal wedding, on the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, which always makes me giggle.) St. Mary the Virgin, the mother of Jesus.

Now don’t worry. I used to preach about Mary in a historic Episcopal Church in Washington DC. On the outside of our early American building were six inch tall letters that proclaimed that we were “PROTESTANT.” I know that some of you believe yourselves to be an a Protestant Episcopal Church. I still preach about Mary. I love Mary. She is an amazing example of faith.

Somehow in the aftermath of the Reformation, the Romans ended up with Mary. Catholics are supposed to adore Mary, and Protestants are supposed to be suspicious about her. Have you seen the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun?” The scene where Diane Lane’s character talks about Mary? She buys this big villa in Tuscany, and in the master bedroom, the headboard of her bed includes a giant icon of the Virgin Mary. At first she’s not thrilled about Mary standing watch over her bed. She’s newly single. Who needs a judgy Mary in your headboard? But then one night Lane’s character is woken by a violent thunderstorm, and finds herself grateful for Mary standing with her, “knowing full well I’m not a Catholic.”

So, if you find yourself drawn to Mary that is okay. Really.  You don’t have to start praying the rosary if you don’t want to.   But if you want to, let’s talk. I think Mary is one of the most helpful images of what it means to have faith. Mary helps us understand that real faith takes risks. Somehow a pregnant teenage girl, a girl who could have been stoned to death because she was not yet married and was pregnant, somehow this young girl kept the faith. In the midst of it all, Mary found a way to proclaim the greatness of the Lord, to allow her spirit to rejoice. Mary had a faith that wasn’t easy, it wasn’t simple.  Her faith was deep enough that she knew, she knew that the socially unacceptable child she would birth would knock the mighty from their thrones and lift up the humble and the poor.

Laurie Gudim, a lay Episcopalian from Fort Collins, Colorado wrote a few years ago on a blog I sometimes follow, the Daily Episcopalian, about Mary. She wrote out of frustration about the passive, submissive vision of Mary we so often hear.  We don’t need that fake Mary, she wrote:

We need the real Mary. We need her guts, her willingness to turn aside from everything her family had planned for her….We need the Mary who went on to live a multidimensional life: being a wife and raising children in the home of her spouse, a man who also listened well to God. We need to envision her having bad days and screaming at the kids, being terrified and mortified, feeling powerless and enraged. And then we need to envision her moments of wild, exuberant joy… how she hummed as she baked bread early in the morning, how she laughed with her girlfriends and cousins – and how she raised Jesus and his siblings in a boisterous Jewish household, teaching Jesus what she could about love.

Mary lived what was in many ways a very ordinary, very difficult life. In the midst of that life, her faith allowed her to see God’s hand at work. For Mary, Jesus was not some benign smiling shepherd. Jesus was gritty. She knew. She changed his diapers.  She was there when they executed him. I think we need the faith of Mary, gritty faith. Real faith. Faith that sees you through the difficult and ugly moments of life.

The letter to the Hebrews this morning finishes a long section on the faith of our ancestors. It includes that great phrase, “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.”  Our faith is the faith of Mary, the gritty faith of a young unwed mother. Our faith is the faith of Simone Manuel, who overcame history and the odds and won gold. Our faith is the faith of Oscar Romero, the faith of Desmond Tutu, the faith of Dorothy Stang, a nun murdered by Brazilian ranchers for her activism to save the Amazon. Our faith has been shared by countless saints and sinners, remembered and hidden, who have kept faith in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Our faith is shared by countless women and men who have changed the course of history, who left behind a world that was a little more loving, more peaceful, more just.

When he described faith as “the opiate of the masses” Karl Marx was not describing these folks. The saints of God are gritty.  Their faith is real. As St. Augustine said, it should not seem small that we consider ourselves part of one body with people of faith like these. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson wrote, “their adventure of faith opens a way for us.”  We are surrounded by the faithful lives of so many who gave not less than everything.

Jesus’ words this morning are not simply the grumpy words of a beleaguered prophet. Jesus words remind us that faith is not only about peace and comfort. Faith often comes with doubts. God can handle your doubts. And faith sees you though the difficult times. Faith is for those who, with God, are bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. Jesus’ words remind us that faith is gritty, that faith is real. Keep the faith.


What is Faith? part one

What does it mean to be a “person of faith?” I’ve been struck lately by how often I consider this question. We live in a time of change, maybe even crisis, in the church. There’s no doubt. Pews that were once full are a little more spacious on Sunday morning. Some of our sisters and brothers are looking at their church finances only to discover they may need to leave a beloved historic building behind if the congregation is going to stay open. There’s anxiety in the system.

We are very fortunate at Holy Communion. We are not in danger of closing. Our congregation is growing, not quickly, but sustainably. Still, the wider question continues to come up for me, even as your pastor here. What does it mean to be a “person of faith” in this changing landscape?

The question usually occurs on the edges of the community of faith, and indirectly, like when I’m working through pre-marital counseling with a couple, when one person is an active member in a congregation and their partner stays away from church. How do we talk about faith? The question arises when I work with family members plan to a burial for a member who has died. More often than not active members of a Christian community are in the minority in a family. What is faith? The question came up this week at Theology on Tap. A group of about 30 of us gathered to talk about gun violence. I stayed after and talked with our bartender who called himself “an atheist,” but “I really liked what you guys were saying.” I find myself wondering in all of these encounters: What does it mean to be a “person of faith?”

In some ways I’m not really anxious. I’m hopeful. I know the church will change. And let’s be real. The church NEEDS to change. Most church’s wouldn’t start their mission statement like we start ours: “Holy Communion is a welcoming and diverse community” So many people have been told they are not welcome by the church because they asked questions about whether the earth was just 6000 years old or the authority of a leader. People have been for told they aren’t welcome because of their gender, their sexual orientation, their class, their race or their political positions. When church spends so much time excluding people, when the church offers bad news, can we really wonder why Sunday attendance is down? The church needs to change, and the church is changing.

I am confident that there will be followers of Jesus in the years, and centuries, to come, because I think our world is in need of what Jesus has to offer. More than they know, our society is hungry for good news. That is what “Gospel” means after all, “Good News.” We are hungry for good news. I think that deep down, without naming it, people are hungry for faith.

So what is this faith? What does it mean to be a person of faith? The Book of Hebrews answers the question at length in our reading this morning. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The writer of Hebrews goes on. By faith Abraham set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he reached the promised land. By faith Abraham and Sarah had children in their old age.

Now, don’t start sneaking to the door. I know some of you are very grateful to have made it beyond child-bearing years. You’re not interested in God rewarding your faith by giving you children when you are “as good as dead” (Sometimes the writers of the Bible don’t make the best word choices). Still, don’t get too nervous. God probably won’t choose to bless you with children in your wiser years because you have faith. Probably. There are other blessings that come from faith.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob blessed the sons of Joseph. By faith Joseph warned his people of their coming exodus. By faith Moses was hidden from Pharaoh and grew up to lead his people out of Egypt. The author goes on “time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice…shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire.” Faith has consequences.

Now the author of Hebrews wrote these words thousands of years after the events occurred. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to see faith in God at work when the people are already saved. It’s a little more difficult when you’re facing the lions and you can see them licking their lips. But that’s just it. Faith, in the tradition of Hebrew’s is about the long view.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but foresight is pretty good too. We do well at taking the long view at certain times, like the beginning of the school year. Before the homework starts. Before we’re in the middle of grading and the long hours of soccer practice, school, homework, musical rehearsal. When we take back to school pictures, it’s easy to be filled with ideas of college and career. The trick is to hold on to that long view. How do we keep the faith?

The writer goes on to say that many of the Biblical heroes “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” Here the letter to the Hebrew’s invokes Moses specifically. In the book of Numbers we learn that Moses died before the people make it to the promised land. But he dies up on a mountain, where he can see the long view. He has faith that they will make it there. Dr. King famously used this image in his last sermon. I have been to the mountaintop. He said, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” That’s faith.

There’s a poem that has come to mean a lot to me. It’s called the “Prayer of Oscar Romero” which is partly why I paid attention to it in the first place. There’s a mystery to the title, because it’s not really a prayer. And, more importantly, it wasn’t written by Archbishop Romero, the martyr of El Salvador who stood with the poor. It was written by another Catholic bishop around the time of Romero’s death. But the poem speaks to the tense situations that Dr. King and Archbishop Romero faced.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying that
the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

That is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

What does it mean to be a person of faith? I want to posit today that it means taking the long view. The Gospel has it’s own way of putting it: “Keep your lamps lit.” I think these warnings from Jesus are meant to help us keep the main thing the main thing. Know what it is you hope for. Keep that in perspective.

For me, the center of the Gospel is the promise of Jesus that the Reign of God is coming. In the end God wins, love wins. We will make it to that promised land. We will live in a world where justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an overflowing stream. We will learn to treat our sisters and brothers with dignity. We will pound swords into plowshares. The challenge, in the words of Jesus, is to seek first the Kingdom of God. And maintaining the long view can be difficult. We can get distracted. It can be hard to keep awake.

I’ve told you before, I’m struggling this season with watching the news. I’m so glad the Olympics started this week, because the paper and the radio will have more to talk about that the Election cycle. This has been a brutal political season so far. Now, I believe in the separation of church and state. I will never endorse a candidate from this pulpit. The church can’t even endorse if the candidate is sitting in our pews and running unopposed. But I can talk about the general sense of the political landscape.

I find myself tired and irritable after reading news about the election. It seems so often this year, we’re not being asked to vote FOR a candidate but to vote for to keep someone else, someone awful, from office. The overall tone is so negative.

There was an interview on NPR this week that was balm for my soul. Khizr Khan was interviewed by Kelly McEvers on All Things Considered. Khan is the father of the US Army Captain Humayun Khan, a war hero killed in Iraq who happened to be a Muslim and from an immigrant family. The father famously offered Donald Trump his pocket Constitution.

What moved me wasn’t his rhetoric at the convention, but the passion in his voice when McEvers asked him about the Constitution. Khan immigrated to this country, eventually attending Harvard Law School. The constitution wasn’t a prop for the night. He often carries it with him in his jacket pocket. His copy is worn from use, and filled with underlines and highlights.

McEvers asked him to read something that was particularly meaningful to him. He picked the 14th Amendment. You could hear the emotion in his voice as he read the guarantee for equal protection under the law to all citizens “born or naturalized.” You could hear the faith this man had, the faith of an immigrant who chose to come to these United States because he hoped for equal protection. He hoped for safety, security, and the chance to make a new life in a place where he did not have to fear his country’s own army or police force. He holds on to that hope, literally.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” In the midst of such a negative climate, keeping our eyes on the ideals we all share. In the midst of all the muck, to lift up our eyes and to focus on our common values. When the going is rough, and slow, and frustrating, to take the long view. To keep our eyes on the prize, and to trust that God is doing better for us than we can do for ourselves. That is faith.

As the world changes around us, can we be a community that helps people lift up their eyes? Can we rise above the frustrating humdrum and offer hope? Can we take the long view? Together, can we be people of faith?