September 2, 2018, Who’s Your Boss? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000096
This weekend is the “Old Fashioned Harvest Days” festival at the St. Lawrence Power and Equipment Museum. Our own Gary and Irene are some of the organizers and supporters of the museum, and it’s a really fascinating place to visit, if you’ve never been there before. Set on a 115-acre farm in Madrid, the museum is designed to re-create life in “the old days”.
I think one of the reasons this kind of “living museum” is so fascinating to us is that it was the work people did, and how they did it, that created the kind of community they lived in. It took the whole community to grow the crops and raise the animals for people to preserve and process to feed everyone through the year to come, or for fibers that people with special skills carded and spun and wove into cloth to keep the community warm. It took people with other special skills to keep all the machinery in working order: blacksmiths to forge tools and new parts from iron, as well as leatherworkers to mend harness, because in those days people depended on real horse-power as well as engines with horse-power.
And not only did everybody work to keep things running efficiently and productively, but they worked to create things of beauty as well as function. Women wove cloth in beautiful patterns and colors, and men built tractors that didn’t only run smoothly but were bright and shiny and nice to look at. And teachers helped children to grow and become creative adults that were able to work and to serve the community as their parents did. Every person in those old communities did work that benefitted the rest of the community. Each person had a skill that everyone else needed, and they in turn needed the skills of the rest of the community. It’s all a part of our being created in the image of God. Human beings are designed to work, with our hands as well as our minds and our imaginations. And we are also designed to live in community. So it is the God-given state of mankind to make, and to do, things that “serve the common good” as the Collect for Labor Day says.
Labor Day marks the beginning of a new school year, and that means that a whole new generation of young men and women are entering into courses of study that at least theoretically will prepare them for a career – the work that will define a lot of who they are and what their life will be like. And most of them are going out into a world that is nothing like the world of those “Old Fashioned Harvest Days”, not just because technology has changed the kinds of skills they need and the kind of work they will do, but because the meaning of work itself has changed.
Our children, with rare exceptions, I think, no longer grow up within a community in which people depend on one another. They very rarely inherit a craft or a skill from their parents, like a family business. Today, for most of our children or grandchildren, the world is wide open to do whatever they choose – theoretically, at least. And, in the eyes of the world at any rate, the basis for choosing a career has much less to do with doing work that is useful to others, and much more to do with job satisfaction and benefits and possibilities for advancement and a good retirement plan.
And that is not because the “modern generation” is lazy and spoiled and addicted to self-gratification. It is because our generation has handed down to them a world in which we are expected to work for our own benefit, and no longer for the benefit of the community. Every generation has its own besetting sins, so I want to be careful not to preach a sermon that’s all about the “good ol’ days” and how much better it was back when Grampa was a boy. But it is true that we have a very hard time recognizing the blind spots of our own time in history – which is the reason we call them blind spots. Whatever the blind spots of the “old-fashioned harvest days” might have been, ours are certainly somewhat different, because our situation is different – and they are our own to deal with. And I would say that one of the biggest crises of faith we and our children face today is what our work means to us.
“No one can serve two masters;” Jesus tells us, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Modern man has been deceived into believing that the value of our work is measured, not by the service it provides to the community, but by the wealth and independence we gain by it. Just think – for the most part, the people we know of who have the greatest wealth don’t even do anything we can identify as work. According to the wisdom of this age, it is people of wealth – the members of the 700 Club, the billionaires, the corporate CEO’s, who have attained what we call success. We know that, even if we don’t really know what they do. They don’t produce anything you can eat or hold in your hand or keep yourself warm with. And what they do is not for the benefit of the community. They might contribute some percentage of their wealth to some worthy cause. But they have no obligation in their work to benefit others, just as they have no need of the work of others. That is the definition of a successful career – or at least that is the story the world tells us, that is the bill of goods it sells us.
Our modern culture has chosen to devote itself to its wealth. And it is by no means easy for us to escape the mindset. Here’s how we have been raised, and how we have raised our children, to think: To be a responsible human being means to provide for our own needs. To be dependent on others is irresponsible. We ought to earn enough to support our family without needing the help of the state, or our family, or even the Church. That means, of course, that we have to have insurance – on our house, our car, our bodies, for our “golden years” – because we can’t foresee what needs might come up, and always remember, we don’t want to be dependent on anyone.
But of course, it’s more than that, we want to provide for ourselves and our families in a way that compares well with others. What if my neighbor’s son gets into a really good school and my daughter can only afford to go to community college? What if my neighbor buys a new car, and I have an old car with a hole in the bumper? Worst of all, what if I lose my job and have to apply for food stamps? Does that mean I am a failure? It is perilously easy to be sucked into serving this harsh master, wealth, when all any of us really intended was to do good, useful work for the love of our God and our neighbor. Sin doesn’t always wear a scary, ugly mask like greed. Sometimes it just dresses up in the guise of responsibility. But the truth, Jesus tells us, is that we cannot serve more than one master; we cannot serve both God and wealth.
Thirty-two years ago, Carroll and I tried to escape the traps and temptations of modern culture – what you might call the “rat race” – by trying to take our whole family back to the “good old days”. We moved from a big city in the Midwest to a farm in a little town in a region of New York so sparsely populated that a lot of people don’t really know it exists. We planted a garden and an orchard; we milked cows and sheared sheep and raised pigs and chickens. We baked our own bread and spun our own yarn and we made our own clothes and toys. And we read books and played our own music instead of watching TV. And in a lot of ways it was wonderful – though you can ask any of our kids, and they will tell you it wasn’t perfect by any means. But in the end, it didn’t do anything at all to make us more spiritual or less vulnerable to the lies of the modern world. Because the problem is not where we live, or what generation we were born into, or what kind of work we do. The whole problem is with our hearts.
Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The big lie of the world is that it has what we need. But Jesus tells us that everything in this world that we work so hard for, everything that gives us security and independence, everything we measure our success by – it all has an expiration date. Today or tomorrow, or twenty years from now – maybe sooner or maybe later, there will be nothing left. No house, no car, no 401K – what disaster doesn’t take away from us, death will certainly take care of in the end.
The only thing worth working for, the only thing worth setting our hearts on, is what will last. And we know what things are eternal. Our God is eternal. Our fellow human beings are eternal – think of that when you pass your neighbor on the street. Peace and justice, beauty and goodness, kindness and love, these things are eternal. On this Labor Day, remember – only the things that last are really worth working for. And then your work can be a joyful and beautiful thing no matter what it is – from planting seeds to washing dishes to balancing accounts to repairing someone’s car. Because any work that we do in service to God is not for the wealth of this world that is passing away, but for the treasure of the community of God’s kingdom that has no end.
Let us pray:
Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name and serve your beloved children, and finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.