Blessed is Work Dave Rogalsky Sept 3 2017
Scriptures: Not Lectionary – Psalm 128, Genesis 2:1-15, Genesis 3:17-19, Deuteronomy 5:13, 24:4, 1 Timothy 5:15-17, Luke 10:7, 2 Timothy 2:6
Theme: To celebrate work, and workers, and to look at what kind of work we celebrate.
The first week of Annemarie and my holiday was spent in Mexico at a ‘destination wedding.’ Friends of ours, our son-in-law’s sister and her boyfriend, were getting married. We looked forward to many chances to visit, to eat Mexican food, to do some birdwatching, to go to the wedding, and to go to a Mayan archeological site. We got to do all of them.
On the Thursday we got on a bus with our daughter and her husband and headed off to Chichén Itzá – a major temple site about 2 and a half hours by bus away from Playa del Carmen where we were staying. The name means “the mouth of the cenote (natural well) belonging to Itza.” Both of our guides were mixed blood Mexican and Mayan. Viktor, who also owned the tour company, asked us to reflect, “Who cleans your rooms or serves your tables? Who is at the front desk of your hotel? If they are short and dark, they are Mayan. If they are tall and light, they might be Mexican.” At our resort it was very true – lower paying jobs were done by Mayans. In between jobs – like security and bar tending – were done by Mexicans. And the front desk was staffed almost entirely by Europeans – Laura was very helpful for the wedding. She came from the Netherlands.
I had researched before we went about tipping.1 The resort was ‘all-inclusive’ meaning we never paid for food or drink or anything while there. The website I found said that most of the workers earned $5 USD/day. Tips for cleaning staff and buffets should be around $20 Pesos the site suggested – around $1.40 Cad. At a la carte restaurants $50 pesos was suggested - $3.50 Cad. A maid cleaning 20 rooms a day would earn about $30/day or $900/month putting her into the middle class in Mexico.2
We talked with Marco, the other guide, about this after the tour at the site was over and there was time to wander. Was this enough to live on? He thought yes and his, and Viktor’s hope, were that in time the Mayans would be at the front desk. Some resorts had schools on the premises for children of workers. “Ah,” I said, “then if those children get high school, they might get better jobs and send their children to university. Those children then might get the front desk or behind the scenes jobs.” “Exactly,” he said.
The women and men who were serving us, working very hard - we saw them working 12 hour days, seven days a week, carrying heavy loads, chatting and making guests at home – they had hope. Their work was making thing better for their families and creating a future where they would not have to work so hard. They were friendly, helpful, and relatively happy – from our observations. They worked at something with meaning.
In the scripture that Elsie read for us we hear that God had worked. That’s the whole premise behind God’s rest – God had laboured, had worked. There are a couple of words used in Hebrew that can be translated as work. The one used here means things like “deputyship, i.e. ministry; generally employment (never servile) or work (abstract or concrete); also property (as the result of labor):- business, + cattle, + industrious, occupation. This is the work of taking charge, of having a responsibility and doing it. God decided to do something and did the work to accomplish it.
This kind of work is ‘never servile.’ Servile means doing something for someone else, as if you don’t have a lot of self-worth. You are ready to demean yourself in order to have another appreciate you. God does not work like that. God, in a sense, stands tall, doing what God wants to do, knowing God’s own worth, and works in that manner.
Just a few verses later we have the second creation story in the book of Genesis. When the Bible was put together in the 400s BC the editors didn’t have the same way of thinking as we do. Everyone knew the basic stories of the creation so to just put two, one after the other, was understood as two separate stories – first the seven day creation story in chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, and then the Adam and Eve story in chapters 2 and following. In this second story instead of humanity being created, “male and female created God them,” (Genesis 1:27), God created only one being Adam. This name means “the one made of dirt,” which is what God did, make a being out of dirt. This fits with what the editors and story tellers knew about human beings. If you let a human being lie around long enough all you have is dirt from the decomposition, so, of course, people are made of dirt.
God took this Adam and put them in the mythological Garden of Eden to “till and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) The word for ‘till’ here could also be translated as ‘work,’ as in “work the land.” In Deuteronomy the law of the Sabbath reads, “5:13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” Here the word work is the same as what Adam did, and the word labour is the same word as what God did. In other words, they mean more or less the same thing. The word for what Adam did can mean being a servant, working for others. This fits, God made Adam to till the garden. This was a kind of stewardship to the highest power in the universe. The Adam was directly responsible to the owner. The Adam was the steward, the manager, the second in command, God’s right hand servant. Work was not something bad. It had meaning. It was worthwhile. Work was good. You were not demeaning yourself when you worked.
But work got a bad name in chapter three of Genesis. When the man and woman, the result of God splitting the Adam in two, refused to be stewards and decided to be their own bosses, God sent them out of the Garden of Eden. Makes sense – if an employee says, “No, I don’t want to do the work you want me to, instead I want to do my own thing,” then you let them Go. As they left God said to the man,
17 And to the man God said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3:17-19 (NRSV)
This passage is often referred to as a ‘curse.’ Many infer from it that before the man and woman ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil that work was easy, no sweat. But it doesn’t have to mean that. Before they ate the fruit the man and woman had the knowledge of good. They knew God. They knew each other, including sexually. They knew the work they had to do. When they ate the fruit at the insistence of desires in opposition to what God had asked of them they came to know evil. Now they didn’t find the work good. They wanted it easy. They wanted it their way and not God’s way. Their land seemed cursed, even though it was the same. Work became a burden because they wanted to be like God whom they assumed did not work. They didn’t have the benefit of the first creation story to tell them that God had worked and continued to work, and that they were co-workers with God. Because they decided to do what they wanted work lost its meaning.
By the way, the verse says “because you have listened to voice of the woman,” seemingly blaming her for the disobedience. The story actually tells us that “the woman ate the fruit, and gave some to her husband who was with her” at the insistence of an evil creature which had taken the form of a snake (see Genesis 3:1-7). This shows us the mythological character of the story – talking animals. And it also shows us the patriarchal nature of the scriptures, tending to put down women. In the New Testament when Paul tells this story he claims women are more sinful then men (see 1 Timothy 2:8-14). But in the actual Genesis story both are held responsible for their actions.
But, back to work. When God came among us as Jesus, God worked. Jesus was a carpenter (see Mark 6:3). He worked with his hands to earn his bread. I expect he sweated. But we don’t find him cursing work. In fact he sent out his disciples as “workers in the field” (see Luke 10:1-2). His disciple Paul encouraged all to work honestly and earn a living (see 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13) and himself worked as a tent maker to support himself (see Acts 18:1-3), refusing to be paid by the church in some instances. He did it so that he could “provide God’s good news for free” (see 2 Corinthians 11:7). It was not work which was cursed, but humanity’s attitude toward the work. Just like in Mexico, some people think themselves above certain kinds of work. And of course, some people put down some people in some kinds of work because they see the work as servile or menial.
Work is good when it has meaning and when the one who is working feels like they are accomplishing something for themselves and their employer. Work is bad when it is seen as meaningless and when the one who is working feels demeaned, and loses self-worth through the work.
This fall we plan to work together as a congregation. The work is for the future of Church of the Good Shepherd. Things are not working now in the congregation so we have to work to make changes. More about this next week.
People in our society work. I believe that work, as the Bible teaches it, needs to provide people with enough to live, and with meaning. If a person works but does not earn enough to live, then there is something out of line. I support efforts like the rise in minimum wage, and the many places of work in the Waterloo Region which are paying ‘a living wage’ of $16/hour. It still takes two people working full time at that wage to rise above the poverty line, but it is a big step forward.
Sometimes there is little meaning in a job. I worked the assembly line at General Motors in St. Catharines one summer. Take two grommets, dip them in soapy water, put them on a shaft. Take two . . . The job was repetitive, mindless, and seemingly meaningless. But it did allow me to do things that had meaning for me so I found meaning in life anyway. I earned our rent, tuition and books in eleven weeks for the rest of the year. We could live and I could study on that money. It had meaning for me. Fortunately it was only two weeks of the assembly line and the other nine weeks were more interesting.
But the bottom line is this, people are not the work they do. We are not less or more because of our jobs or our rate of pay. In God’s sight, every person is a creation of God, invited into creating together with God.
Tomorrow is Labour Day. Thank someone who works! Celebrate your work!