Working 9 to 5…For What?

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights have been spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it. On Labor Day weekend, we heard the witness of Abraham Kuyper, a 19th-century Dutchman who helped us explore the meaning and purpose of our work.  Our scriptures included Psalm 90 and Mark 6:2-4

Given the fact that tomorrow is Labor Day, I’d like to start our time this morning listing some of the ways that popular American culture has referred to work.  Can you help me list some songs, TV shows, movies, or whatever that make a commentary on the work that we do and how we do it?  Do you remember Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It?”  Have you ever seen an episode of “The Office”?  Or read “Dilbert” in the comics?  Dire Straits and “Money for Nothing”?  You might think that we have a negative view of work…

To be fair, there are a lot of unpleasant jobs out there.

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The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (detail), Michelangelo, 1509-1510

The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (detail), Michelangelo, 1509-1510

Most of us have grown up with some bad theology – we’ve come to think of work as a curse.  Maybe because you sang “Dem Bones” at Cross Trainers, maybe for another reason – but a lot of folk believe that work is a punishment sent by God.  In this myth, people say that God placed humanity in a garden and everything was effortless…until Sin came along and changed the whole picture, and humans were compelled to work and toil…because we screwed up.

That’s a lie.  Genesis 2 clearly states that Adam had a job before the serpent ever showed up.  Genesis 1 tells us that God works, creating and laboring for 6 days and then resting on the 7th.

jm_200_NT1.pd-P7.tiffAnd we know, of course, that Jesus was a workingman.  When I ask you what his job was, you might say “carpenter”, because that’s how our bibles translate the Greek word tekton in Mark 6:3.  “Isn’t this man the carpenter?”  A better translation, though, might be “builder”.  Some of you know that a few years ago my daughter Ariel and I had the chance to visit the place where Jesus grew up.  We wandered through the ruins of the town of Capernaum, where he spent a lot of time, and we saw the homes that were there.  They were all made of stone.  It would follow, then, that if Jesus was a “builder”, then he probably spent most of his time fitting heavy stones into place.  He had rough hands and strong arms.  Like his heavenly Father, Jesus was a worker.

The ruins of Capernaum as seen on my Sabbatical in 2010.

The ruins of Capernaum as seen on my Sabbatical in 2010.

In fact, our reading from Mark points out that when Jesus started to sound so messianic, people couldn’t believe it.  “Jesus? The builder?  Him?  Oh, no, I doubt it could be him…” As if the Messiah wouldn’t have a job.

This morning we continue in a series of messages I’m calling “Faces at the Reunion”.  We’re meeting sisters and brothers from other places and times in the life of the church in the hopes that some of their story might be instructive to us.  This morning, I’d like to introduce you to one of the most important people you’ve probably heard of.

Abraham_Kuyper_-_GriffisAbraham Kuyper was born in 1837 in a remote fishing village in the Netherlands.  The son of a pastor, he grew up torn between two worlds.  The old way of thinking, characterized by the church in the Middle Ages, was that the Church was supreme in all things.  Whether you had a question about science or education or law or family life, the Church would give you the right answer.  But a new philosophy, developed during the time we call the Enlightenment, taught that human reason and logic was the ultimate measure.  The institution that was to rule over all else was the State, not the Church.  In fact, at this time we began to create a dividing line in the world, saying that some things were “sacred” and other things were “secular”.  Stuff that’s “sacred” is the stuff that God cares about, like church music and theology and the Bible; and the “secular” is everything else in our day to day life, such as what you ate for dinner last night, or how a business leader treats subordinates, or how much you paid for those shoes you have on.

Abraham Kuyper helped the church to see that there is no boundary between things God cares about and things that don’t really matter all that much to God.  He said,

Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ [1]

God continually re-creates the universe through acts of grace. God’s acts are necessary to ensure the continued existence of creation. Without his direct activity creation would self-destruct.[2]

And Kuyper not only taught that God was active in and concerned about every aspect of our lives, he lived it out.  In his 57-year career, he was a journalist, a pastor, a Member of Parliament, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, a theologian, and an author.  He also helped to start a political party and a university.

SphereSovOne of his most important teachings, and the one I’d like to consider today, is that of Sphere Sovereignty.  By this, Kuyper meant that there are different aspects of our lives – family, business, church, community, and so on, and each of them have their own principles and core realities.  The family is not established like a business, for instance; the government is not run like the church. Each of these spheres has its own set of operating procedures and values. That is to say, no one of these spheres can rule over another one – the family cannot replace the church, nor can the business world tell the government how to run.  Each of these areas of life is distinct.

However, God claims each of these for himself.  God cares about the way that we govern, teach, live in community, and operate our businesses.  There are spiritual principles that are operative in each of these areas of life, and we as Christians need to think Christianly in every area of our lives, not just that part that we think of as “sacred”.

Here’s the deal: for many of us, Labor Day is a great day off, a chance to sneak in another little break at the end of the summer and maybe spend a little time complaining about the boss or the job that you have.  Great.  Take a day and enjoy it.

For others of us, Labor Day is an occasion to celebrate the progress of the workingman and woman, and to note that we have weekends and eight-hour days and child labor laws.  Great.  Make sure you are grateful for the fact that most days, your job won’t kill you.

But this year, I’d like to dare you to spend a portion of Labor Day reflecting on yourself, your faith, and the occupation you have right now.

I realize that our vocations are different.  Some of us are engaged in professions in which we get paid to teach, nurse, hang drywall, cook, or a hundred other things.  And others of us might describe ourselves in different ways: we are students, or retired.  We are caregivers for aging parents or ailing spouses or the world’s most incredible grandchildren – many of us work like crazy, but we’re not actually paid to do these labors.

It doesn’t matter.  Let me ask you, how can you do what you do Christianly?  You are a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker.  Wonderful.  Does God care what you do – or how you do it?  If Abraham Kuyper was right, and I’m pretty sure that he was – then yes!  God does care.

…there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ [3]

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (detail), 1511-12

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (detail), 1511-12

But when push comes to shove, those of us living in Pittsburgh in the 21st century might be tempted to believe that there is a part of our world that is sacred – a part that matters more to God than the rest of the world.  If you squeezed us as thin as a dime, many of us might be tempted to say that well, maybe God does care more about what Pastor Dave does than about what you do.

Nope.  That’s a lie.  Plain and simple.  God is present in every sphere of life, and it is possible for any one of us to delight God in the way that we do the work that is before us.  Can you work in that way?

Now listen: I’m not saying that God is going to like you better if you start leaving religious tracts on other people’s desks at work, or if you turn to people in the elevator or on the school bus and say, “I feel the need to pray for you right now…”

But I am reminding you that you, my friend, are the you that God has made.  Fearfully and wonderfully, in fact.  And God, the creator, God the worker, tells us in Ephesians that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (2:10).

So let me ask you again: how do you do what you do – no matter what that is – in light of God’s sovereignty over all of life?  How do you act Christianly in your profession?

I know a teacher who remembers to invite children into the awe and wonder of creation; who challenges young people to live into the fullness of the gifts they’ve received.

I know a man who makes his living using tools.  While he’s at work, he remembers that he is a part of something huge…his job is not just to get his specific aspect of the job done, but to remember that he is a part of something that will change the world.  He knows that he deserves a fair wage; he is willing to work hard; he treats his co-workers well and is respected and trusted for all these reasons.

I know a student who is more concerned with learning how the world works, and why it works that way than she is with guessing the answers to the next quiz.  She is willing to ask big questions, and to wonder.

I could go on and on, and eventually get to the ways that you spend your time every day, but let’s cut to the chase:  as we engage in a Labor Day holiday, can you pray Psalm 90:17 while you do what you do?

Maybe you learned this in the traditional language:  “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” (RSV)

Or maybe you’ve never heard it before, but it makes more sense in an updated translation: “let the loveliness of our Lord, our God, rest on us, confirming the work that we do. Oh, yes. Affirm the work that we do!” (The Message)

It doesn’t matter which translation you use or which job you have: can you pray that prayer while you work?

If you can’t, then maybe you are in the wrong place.  If you can’t pray God’s blessing on the ways that you are earning your money or spending your time, then maybe it’s time to change.  Each Labor Day I think of one of my heroes, a friend of mine who was a top-flight physicist.  In the early days of World War II, he was contacted by Robert Oppenheimer to do some top-secret work on what was called the Manhattan Project.  My friend was given research to do and problems to solve, but not told of the nature of the entire job.  Eventually, he figured out that his research was being used to create an atomic bomb.  He went to Oppenheimer and asked him what they were building.  Oppenheimer refused to answer the question.  My friend said, “You are making the worst weapon that has ever been devised!”  Oppenheimer said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”  The longer my friend worked on this, the harder it was for him to see the invention of the Atomic Bomb as consistent with him following the Prince of Peace, and so eventually he quit the job and was forced to leave the country to find work.  But he couldn’t pray Psalm 90 when he went to work every day building that bomb.

Can you pray Psalm 90 when you go to work on Tuesday?

The choice is before us.  Every day, most of us get up to do something.  Do you, in the words of the old Dolly Parton song, Tumble outta bed / And stumble to the kitchen Pour myself a cup of ambition…Workin’ 9 to 5 / What a way to make a livin’ / Barely gettin’ by / It’s all takin’ and no givin’”[5]?

Or can you see a world in which God’s ownership of every area is proclaimed and celebrated?  Do you see yourself as a person of faith, doing work that matters, in a way that delights your Lord and blesses your neighbor?

I believe you came to worship this morning because you want to take part in the amazing thing that God is doing in the world.  You are here because you want to offer your gifts, to praise, to listen, to encourage.  I dare you to get up on Tuesday morning and try the same thing, wherever you go.  The Spirit is there, too.  Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.


[1]   1880 Inaugural Lecture, Free University of Amsterdam

[2] Kuyper, Abraham (1998). “Sphere Sovereignty”. In Bratt, James D. Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. p. 488

[3] 1880 Inaugural Lecture, Free University of Amsterdam

[4]  9 To 5, by Dolly Parton (1980), RCA Studios.

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The following was a handout made available to the congregation on Sunday:

Faces at the Reunion: Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920)

During the summer of 2013, we will be looking at the Christian Faith through the eyes of some of the servants of God who have preceded us in this walk.  These men and women left behind a witness that has formed us, whether we know it or not, and in our worship we will have a “family reunion” this summer as we engage in their stories and gain from their experience.

Have you ever heard of a theologian being so well known that his birthday was a national holiday? The 19th-century Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper had such a great impact in the Netherlands that the entire nation celebrated his 70th birthday in 1907.

Kuyper was a man of many hats: statesman, politician, educator, preacher, churchman, theologian, and philosopher. He was a modern-day Renaissance man who participated in the cultural conversation of his day.

While Kuyper’s influence has been felt throughout the 20th century in the Dutch Calvinist branch of the Reformed church, his influence has been expanding as scholars continue to mine his writings for resources to deal with the challenges of a public theology for the contemporary world. (from the blog of the Mars Hill Church)

Quotes from Abraham Kuyper:

“Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”

“Whatever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand – in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science – he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of God. He is employed in the service of his God. He has strictly to obey his God. And above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God.”

God built into the creation a variety of cultural spheres, such as the family, economics, politics, art, and intellectual inquiry. Each of these spheres has its own proper “business” and needs its own unique pattern of authority. When we confuse spheres, by violating the proper boundaries of church and state, for instance, or reducing the academic life to a business enterprise, we transgress the patterns that God has set.

“But as the gift of grace is freely bestowed by the sovereign God, so is also the gift of genius. When the people pray, let them not forget to ask the Lord to raise up among them men of talent, heroes of art and of office.

Where our Father in heaven wills with divine generosity that an abundance of food grows from the ground, we are without excuse if, through our fault, this rich bounty is divided so unequally that one is surfeited with bread while another goes with an empty stomach to his pallet, and sometimes must even go without a pallet.

For more information about Abraham Kuyper, read this excellent article.

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