Sermon September 2, 2012

“Why Work?”


The Reverend Harold E. Masback, III

September 2, 2012


Genesis 1:1-5, 26-28; 2:4-15 

Genesis 1:1-5

1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Genesis 1:26-28

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth,and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Genesis 2:4-15

4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground;6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—7 then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

John 4:31-34

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.

Revelation 22:12-13

12 “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”


Why do we work? Every one of us works at one set of tasks or another. But did you ever ask yourself why? Why do you work?

Now, perhaps the question strikes you as just plain silly – it’s silly because the answer seems so obvious. “Why do I work? I’ll tell you why I work. I work because I’ve got two kids in college at $57,000 a pop.” “I work because if I waited until somebody else in this family fixed dinner we’d all starve.” “I work because no matter how many lamps I rub, no genie shows up to clean my apartment for me.” The answer seems so obvious, doesn’t it? We work because we have to.

The obvious answer is simple necessity – we work because we have to, and this answer points to both a commonly held definition of work and a commonly held aspiration. Our common definition of work is that which we have to do. As Mark Twain put it, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” And since most of us value freedom more than obligation and play more than work, our common aspiration is to be free from work. Perhaps you’ve heard it put this way: “I figure we need four more good years in the business before Janie and I can quit working, sell the house and head off to Vero. Golf, tennis, a little fishing. That would be paradise.” If work is that which we have to do, then paradise is not having to do any work at all.

If you view work as a burden and a curse, then you’ll find plenty of support running all the way back to the religions of ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. As theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us, the Greek gods were utterly free from work – only earth-bound humans suffered the burden of work.[1]

Exhausted by their labors, humans could only dream of a future paradise where, as the Greek poet Hesiod insisted, they would live like the Gods, “free from work and toil.”

In Mesopotamia the imagery was even sharper. In the beginning, the higher Gods, the Annunaki, did no work at all, leaving the burdens of work and creation to the minor deities, the Igigi. But the Igigi went on strike, protesting their work load. The solution? The Annunaki negotiated peace by creating humans to do all the work. Sealing the deal, the Annunaki Goddess Mami proclaimed to the Igigi: “I have removed your heavy work, I have imposed your toil on man.”

The lesson of the story? It’s really good to be an Annunaki. And if you can’t be an Annunaki, it’s still pretty sweet to be an Igigi. Just try to be sure you don’t get cast as a human. Because humans have to work.

There’s just one problem with this ancient body of thought, just one problem with viewing work as burden and curse, just one problem with defining work as lamentable necessity, just one problem with aspiring to escape from all work – and that problem is this: from the first page of Genesis to the last page of Revelation our God and Bible reject that ancient view. God reveals to Israel what he will confirm through Jesus: work is a blessing rather than a curse, a divine privilege rather than a human burden, an essential part of what it means to be God, and hence an essential part of what it means to be made in the image of God – an essential part of realizing and living out our full humanity.

In fact, it’s the very first thing we learn about God in Scripture: God is a worker. “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth. . .” [Genesis 1:1.] Day by day Genesis recounts God’s labors until finally “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” [Genesis 2:3.] And having brought heaven and earth into being, the Creator God just keeps right on working as the sustainer God, supporting and nurturing God’s creation. As the psalmist sings, “From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.” [Psalm 104:13.] And when creation falls, our God stands by his creation as redeemer, coming among us as the Christ to work towards reconciliation. As Jesus prays to his father in John, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” [John 17:4.]

Just as the very first thing the Bible wants us to know about God is that God is a worker, so the very first thing the Bible wants us to know about humanity is that humans are workers too. Why? Because God shares God’s divine dignity of work with us. In Genesis 1 God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” and the very first characteristic of that likeness is the delegation of dominion. Made in God’s image, humanity is to work as stewards of God’s creation. Genesis 2 is even more direct. God no sooner gives life to Adam than he puts him in the Garden of Eden “to till it and keep it.” [2:15]

To be sure. it is God who is the ultimate creator, sustainer and redeemer, and it is we who are from first to last God’s creatures, but the God who creates us is also the God who makes us in God’s image, the God who leaves room for us to till and keep God’s creation, the God who blesses us with the dignity of cooperating in God’s work.  As Genesis pictures the partnership: God will create the gardens and God will send the rain and cause the seed to sprout, but humanity will cultivate the fields.

Theologian John Stott tells a story to illustrate the collaboration: “a cockney gardener was showing a parson the beauty of his garden, with its herbaceous borders in full summer bloom. Duly impressed, the parson broke out into spontaneous praise of God. The gardener, however was not at all pleased that God should get all the credit. “You should ‘ave seen ‘ere garden,’ he said, ‘when God ‘ad it all to ‘isself.”[2]

“He was right,” continues Stott. “His theology was entirely correct. Without a human cultivator, every garden quickly degenerates into wilderness.”

As some theologians put it, God blesses to us the privilege of being created co-creators – and fully embracing our participation in creation leads to our greatest flourish and happiness. Cooperating with God’s work in creation brings us into relationship with God. Working side by side with our fellow creatures draws us into the relationships of community. Developing our God-given talents nudges us closer to the full human potential we were created to realize. And fruitful labor yields sustenance both for us and for our neighbors in need.

In short, the Bible’s great insight utterly reverses ancient understandings of work. The Biblical understanding calls for a radically different definition of work, a radically different understanding of why we work, and a radically different aspiration for our work.

First, the Bible calls for a radically different definition of work. Work can no longer be defined simply as what God or humans are obliged to do. Rather, as Volf has argued, work is better defined as any purposeful activity we choose to undertake to support human needs, activity in support of creation or in service of neighbor.[3]

Similarly, the Bible radically reframes why we work. We work to participate with God in the dignity of creation. We work to live out our charge as created co-creators. We work to make our contributions, however flawed and imperfect, to God’s great plan to redeem creation.

Our congregation wasn’t obliged to volunteer by the hundreds to respond to 9/11, but we chose to serve God by addressing the suffering caused by an evil attack. We weren’t obliged to volunteer to respond to Hurricane Katrina, but we raised over $280,000 and have sent off eight mission trips to help rebuild homes for the homeless.

And finally, the Bible radically redirects our aspirations for our work. Paradise never was and never will be a place of enforced uselessness. None of us can remember a time in the past or dream of one in the future when being truly useless was or will be a cause of joy or fulfillment. The child scampers gleefully home to present the potholder she wove at nursery school. She loves being useful. The grandparent beams at the chance to read a beloved story to a grandchild. He loves being useful. The retiree asks how can I find a fulfilling challenge?  We all want to be useful. Isaiah foresaw that even when Christ returns at the end of time we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Why in the world will we need plowshares and pruning hooks after the second coming? Of course, so we can work, so we can be useful.

Now perhaps as you listen you’re thinking, “well, if work is such a God given blessing, such an expression of my full humanity, such a vehicle for meaning and fulfillment, how come my own work is so sour? Why are my efforts so draining and the results so ambiguous. If work is such a blessing how come it so often feels like such a curse? Perhaps it seems to you that the great Psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, was on to something when he wrote, “Those who rhapsodize about the joy of labor are likely to be persons who are not obliged to do much of it.” [Menninger, “Work as Sublimation.”]

And here our ambivalence is anticipated by the Bible’s story of the fall. For in a fallen world the blessing of work in the Garden can be experienced as curse after Adam and Eve get their eviction notice. God curses not work itself, but the ground which we work, telling Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you, in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.” [Genesis 3:18.]

Our human work may still yield its blessing, but our efforts are beset by the consequences of human sin. When we exploit or are exploited, when we discriminate or are discriminated against, when we oppress or are oppressed, when we idolize work and seek to work too much or when we demonize work and seek to escape it all together, when we work for human selfishness rather than the good of God’s creation – for hoarded wealth rather than the joy of contribution, the blessing of work can go sour.[4] Work that can bring us closer to God instead drives us further away. Work that can bring us closer to neighbor instead sets us in conflict. Work that can realize our humanity instead degrades us.

My friends, in a fallen world, work can be a blessing or a curse – a foretaste of paradise or a sampler of anxious futility. Which will it be for us? That will depend on how we answer the question I started with: “Why do we work?”

When we come to understand that we work to participate with God in the dignity of creation; when we come to understand that in working we claim our exalted, God-given status as God’s created co-creators; when we come to understand that when we labor at tasks – really at any tasks – in God’s name, we become channels of God’s creative power and love into the world – when we come to understand these truths, we will realize we have been blessed, even as we have been a blessing. As Luther put it, human work is “God’s mask behind which he hides himself and rules everything magnificently in the world.”  Amen.

[1] Miroslav Volf has written a number of insightful books and articles on a theology of work, including Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work. (1991) and “Work” in Elements of a Christian Worldview, Michael D. Palmer, ed. (1998). Volf’s work provides an invaluable starting point for this sermon.

[2] John Stott. “Work and Unemployment.” In Issues Facing Christians Today (1984) quoted in Miroslav Volf, “Work.”

[3] “We need a broad definition of work, one that will include both work that is enjoyed and work that is suffered, work that is paid and work that is voluntary. A very simple definition of work would be “an activity that serves to satisfy human needs”; You cook a meal in order to have something to eat; you type manuscripts in order to get a paycheck. In contrast the purpose of play is play: You play tennis because you like playing tennis; you read a book because you like reading books. Of course, cooking can be your hobby; then you cook because you like cooking, and filling empty stomachs is then a useful side benefit. Similarly, playing tennis (if you are a professional player) or reading books (if you are a student or a professor) can be your work; then you play because you need money or recognition, and you read books because you need to pass an exam or prepare a lecture; the sheer fun of playing or reading is then a happy coincidence. Work, then, is an instrumental activity: It is done not for its own sake but to satisfy human needs.” Miroslav Volf, “Work” at 222.

[4] “Overly concerned with adapting himself to others, to marketing himself, the careerist constantly betrays himself, since he must ignore idealistic, compassionate, and courageous impulses that might jeopardize his career. As a result, he never develops an inner center, a strong, independent sense of self, and eventually loses touch with his deepest strivings.” Michael Maccoby, The Gamesman: Winning and Losing the Career Game (1976) quoted in, Volf, “Work” at 238/

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