O Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.
The comedian and wise woman, Lily Tomlin, said that the problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.
The most essential spiritual question of life is this: How to be truly and fully human. How to have a right relationship with God, our neighbor, and peace with ourselves.
It is the question that is at the core of our first lesson today, from the Jewish wisdom book of Ecclesiastes. As all wisdom literature, it seeks primarily through philosophical adage, to give advice about how we ought to live. And in this lesson today we are taught about the importance of labor and work as a spiritual quality. And although we know that this writer, himself a scribe, a scholar, believes that the highest calling is one who has the leisure to study Scripture and tradition, in his own time, the bases for law, for government and for religious leadership. But he also understands and believes and advocates that there is virtue in the work of others. Wisdom, he believes, is in respecting the work that others do, not only out of politeness, but because what they do is essential for human community, for its maintenance, for its edification, but also in what they do if they do it faithfully, their work is prayer.
The author writes these words, saying that all these persons skilled with their hands, each one an expert in their task, without them no city can be lived in. Such a demand for their skills, that they will never need to be hungry.
No, they do not occupy the judges’ bench, nor are they called on for advice and wisdom in the prominent assembly. But indeed, they maintain God’s ancient handiwork. An act of prayer, and their concern is for the exercise of their skill.
In the experience of these trades he sees an example of a witness to all who would be workers, whatever their profession. And he selects four–the farmer, the artisan, the metal smith and the potter. For he believes that well-being lies in respecting the critical role that they play. For he sees in the tradesmen around him those who have impressed him by their skill and dedication, by their contribution. He seems in them the pride of work, the larger message of both doing work that one cares about and caring about the work that one does. This, the writer of Ecclesiastes believes, is the mark of any true professional, and it is most exemplified in those he sees about him who work with their hands as well as their mind.
I wonder how many people you and I know who really care about the work they do, and have the privilege of doing the work they care about. Not just how much one is paid, or what the benefits are–though that is very, very important–but the rat race is often more about work rather than profession.
Now the word profession in its earliest use meant how do I, through my work, profess my faith in God? How is my character represented in what I do, whether it is landscaping or launching a rocket or making law? The theology of profession or vocation, that sense of a God-given occupation, is this: God has given each of us some work to do, and in that work we contribute to a good community, and we find satisfaction for our soul. Work cannot just be a means to an end. Too often the means not only control the end but the means of work can sometimes control us.
Do you remember the story that Jesus told the story in Luke, the twelfth chapter, about the rich fool? He was the one who had worked and finally with all of his workers, experienced a bumper crop, more of a harvest than they had ever imagined, and he pondered, “What shall I do with all of this wonderful wealth and gain?” Then he decided, “I know what I’ll do. I will build bigger barns to store all of my wealth.” There was no thought of sharing, of the needs of the world. There was no thought of thanking the workers who had helped him prepare the ground and sow and harvest. There was no thought of thanking God, who was always the partner in the success of our endeavors. But he had a dream that night, even before he could draw up the plans for his new barns. And in that dream God spoke to him and said, “You fool, this night is your, your life being demanded of you.” Some translations have it this way, and I favor it. “This night, the things you have exact your soul from you. Who will be in charge of the things you have?”
As a pastor, I have never experienced anyone lying on their deathbed, who has said to me or to their loved ones, “If I had just cut one more lawn. If I could have just gotten one more hour of overtime. If I could have created just one more computer program, or won just one more legal case. If only I just could have cut one more big deal. If I could have made one more touchdown. Or even preached one more sermon.”
Oh yes, those of us who are in religious professions are as vulnerable as anyone else. My father who was a pastor for forty-some years used to say to me, “Boy”–he didn’t call me Dean or Dr.–he said “Boy, remember this: You can be so busy with God’s work that you can lose God; that you can lose God.”
But if I have heard regrets, or if family members or loved ones have heard regrets, it has sounded more like this: “If I had only had more time for my children. If I could have thrown the football to my son, or gone hiking with my daughter. If I could have told my spouse that I loved her, and this time with feeling. If I had spent more time reflecting, sitting in silence, perhaps on the top of a mountain, tasting creation with my eyes and my soul. If I could have just found some way to make a contribution so that the world around me I could say was just a little bit better because of something that I did.”
These are deathbed laments. The question is, what’s keeping us from doing them now? What’s keeping us from being fully human in the everyday choices of our lives? I wonder how many here today feel prisoners to their work and their lifestyle. We have an entire culture which lives for the way and the time we can get away from work and from work environment, and those of us who somehow love the work we do with all of its headaches and the environment in which we work, must understand that we are privileged. It is a rare blessing. We live in a culture in which the advertisers who understand us better than we understand ourselves appeal to that dissatisfaction we have in our work.
Just think about car advertisement. They tell us that you know you work hard, and there’s no reward no matter how much you get in your work. But this luxury car because you deserve this reward. Or get this SUV because you’re unhappy with the week, but on weekends, as the song says, “I want to get away; I want to get away.”
What is our life’s work professing? What is the work that you, the work that I do? What is it saying about us? What is it saying to God? Are we, through our work, committed to our calling of humaneness, or are we committed only to material survival? Are we committed only, and driven only, by professional ego and social expectation? I sometimes wonder if we are like, from the Greek mythology, Sisyphus? A marvelous human specimen with incredible stamina and strength. But he knows that his life’s commitment is futile and barren as he pushes the ball it, and it rolls back again. I sometimes wonder even to myself, what are we trying to prove? What are you trying to prove, Nathan?
But the writer of Ecclesiastes wanted us to understand that there is something deeper than simply the work that we do, but the Spirit in which we work, and the relationship that we have with God. For we all need time for the Spirit to find some way in our life that we are building and strengthening our humaneness. Jesus advised us, in the Gospel lesson today saying, “Do not store up treasures on earth where moth and rust can consume, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” It did not say, “There will you be also,” but “there will your heart be.”
And so, how do we bring together the existence of our daily life and the passions of our heart? We do it by first of all being open to the Spirit of God, that it gives us grace and courage to make the hard choices and decisions, and to find a way through our vocations, or our avocations, ways to fulfill our humaneness, to contribute to the world around us, and to find peace for ourselves.
For no one can serve two masters. One will either hate the one master and love the other. We will find ourselves either caught with the thought of success or the passion of our heart.
So today, as we exist in a challenging and demanding world, trying to make sense of what it means to be, to know peace, to know fulfillment, let us hear the words of our Lord. Let us hear the words of Jesus who loved us so much that he died for us. He cared for us in the midst of life’s rat race, and he says to each of us that will hear it, “Come unto me, all you that are weary, who are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Be yoked to me. Find a place for me in your life, and learn from me. For I am gentle, and I am humble in heart. And if you do this, you will find rest for your soul.”
In just a moment we will come to these railings and standing or kneeling we will join with others from all different walks of life and experiences, but one common need, to be human, to find peace in our daily lives. We will come and we will receive the gifts and grace of God, coming seeking that which will strengthen us for the days and the hours ahead. And when we have received and been refreshed, we will pray this prayer together, thanking God, because God has fed us with spiritual food, in the Sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood. So we ask him, send us now out into the world, and send us in peace. And grant us, God, strength and courage, to love you and to serve you with gladness and singleness of heart, through Jesus Christ our Lord. May that be our prayer, and it also be the gift we receive today, and carry out into our week.