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.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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