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A Theology of Work

A Christian theology of work includes everyone’s daily life. Our view of work is not

limited to people who have jobs? The word “job” has an English origin and was only

introduced around the 17th century. For most of history people did not have “jobs”

strictly speaking. However, I think it is safe to say that people have always worked and

people today continue to work whether or not they have a paid job. To work is to work at

the task of living.

Is that what you imagine when you hear the word work. Or when you the word are

actually thinking about your concept of hard work or “real” work? What does it tell us

that we use about work that we have expressions like “I enjoy what I do so much I

wouldn’t even call it work.” Or conversely that we talk about the “daily grind.” What

are our values when a stay at home parent feels like he or she does not . . . “work?” Why

do we feel awkward talking about “certain” jobs that we may work at? Do we feel like

we can still offer meaningful work when we have been unemployed for a long period of

time or when we are retired?

Our experience of “work” can define our social and economic status and can often define

our identity. There is something about work that comes close to the heart of what it is to

be alive and to be human. And so like any intimate relationship our relationship with

work is complex. We can’t live with it and we can’t live out it. There are always times

when we would rather be doing something other than what we have to. However, we

know that we need to continue to “work at things.” Mortgages and bills tend not to lend

a sympathetic ear to our feelings of dissatisfaction. Babies tend not to take care of

themselves when we want to slip away for a few days. Gardens will not fight the weeds

for you when you want to rest in the shade. And our own personal issues will not get
resolved when we just shove them deep down inside of us. We are bound to work at any

number of levels or suffer the consequences.

Perhaps your immediate dynamics of work are actually pretty satisfying then think also

of the increasing social and environmental implications of our work. Think of the

businesses we work for that outsource contracts in countries with questionable labour

laws leaving fewer jobs available here. Think of the continued discrimination that still

plagues the workforce whether it is sexual, racial or social. I think most of us have

experienced that our notion of the polite, politically correct Canadians has not found its

way into many work settings. Think of the increasingly dehumanizing types of labour

that exist in factories and assembly lines. Think of ecological impact that various

corporations have on our soil, water and air qualities.

You think you are happy with your work? I am glad you came here this Sunday so that I

could save you from the error of your ways.

This is a reality of work and it runs deep. Our theology of work cannot side step it. We

have to work at surviving and improving our life and yet it seems that the work we do can

often makes things worse.

God says,

"Cursed is the ground because of you;

through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you,

and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow

you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return."
We hear this refrain echoing throughout history in the songs we sing,

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt.

When I was in high school Beck wrote a song about working in fast food restaurant and
refrain was,

I ain’t gonna work for no soul suckin’ jerk.

However, good our work may be we have understood implicitly that there remains
something broken, some curse that continues to roam beneath the surface cropping up
when we least expect it.

How have we approached or acknowledged this curse? We should be clear that work did

not begin with Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden. Both God and Adam and

Eve were at work before they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What

happened was that our relationships were redefined. We became afraid to be vulnerable

or naked before God and each other. The parent-child relationship was marked with pain

and our relationship to the ground which represented our ability to make a living became

the setting for struggle and great effort. God made the entire world and called it good but

it was in the Garden that all these relationships were in order. Being outside the garden

did not negate the goodness of God but it did signify the brokenness of creation.

And so for thousands of years society has raged against our cursed ground hoping that

one day we would gain the upper hand over it. But the ground still offers no guarantees,

it has not been worked into submission. As the farmer has no assurance of the crop’s

return so we also have no promise of permanent job security or that our children will

grow up strong and healthy or that our loved ones will not hurt us. The world around us

still bears the scars of the curse, of broken relationships and leaving us at times in the

midst of deep waters.

In order to offer competitive prices for miniature roses the Greenhouse I worked for was

set up as a factory for efficiency with all the standard monotony of the assembly line. To

keep wages low recent immigrants and students were hired. One lady that I car pooled

with was beginning to suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome from sitting at a table making

cuttings for 10 hours a day. For some reason she found herself ineligible for

compensation to allow her time for healing and physiotherapy. At the same time her

husband also became hospitalized and could not work leaving her income as the soul

source of provision for their two kids. This is deep water.

We work hard to make a good life, we go to bed tired and still we can wake up to find

that someone has planted thorns in our fields. Even if things are good right now there

remains that lingering anxiety of what may come around the corner or the bitterness of

what appears to have come to others on a silver platter.

So how is that we can move from Genesis 3 to Isaiah 65?

See, I will create

new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.

My people will build houses and dwell in them;

they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

No longer will they build houses and others live in them,

or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.

They will not labor in vain,

nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;

The wolf and the lamb will feed together.

They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.
Ah, the prophesied Last Days, the light at the end of the tunnel, a hope in the midst of

despair. This is the culmination of history where the cursed relationships will be made

right again and peace restored. We long for the day when we will be permanently

anointed to with the oil of joy and peace. So in our bodily vessels we carry the chaotic

waters of the curse and the future hope of God’s anointing oil and as a result many of us

see these two realities as, well, oil and water. If this is the case it will be hard to view our

daily work as part of God’s plan and God’s Kingdom.

Separating our work from the reality of God’s Kingdom is ingrained in our culture. This

can be seen in the writings of Adam Smith who is considered the father of western

economic theory and capitalism in general. Smith proposes that work functions in

capitalism simply as a means of obtaining wealth and ease. We work so that the rest of

our life can be better. And this is certainly a not uncommon view of our career choices.

We work often not because of its inherent value but because it provides us with our wants

and needs. This is of course a necessity of work but it is not the whole picture. Here

work is something to be endured so that if possible at some point in life you do not have

to work. Our attempt to avoid work is reflected in the increasing automation of the

means of production in factories and also in the lottery or get rich quick opportunities that

equates wealth and not work with happiness. This type of culture runs counter to the

theme we are addressing this morning. This is work without faith. This views work as

mired irredeemably by the curse. Heaven to our culture is a place without work.

In response to this view Jesus said that Heaven and Earth are not a matter of oil and

water. Jesus frustrated our attempts to leave work separate from our faith. Jesus taught

us that it is possible to begin to experience the Kingdom of Heaven here among us.
In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov we read about Alyosha Karamazov and the

monk Father Zossima. Alyosha comes from a rather depraved family in which his father

and brothers are all caught up in various vices such as drinking, gambling and

promiscuity. Alyosha’s life is filled with the brokenness of the curse. In response

Alyosha is drawn to the monk Zossima. Alyosha moves into the monastery desiring to

commit his life’s work to a righteous path. However his time in the monastery is short.

The old monk knows of the brokenness that surrounds Alyosha’s family and sends him

out of the monastery and back into the world to live and work among them. What

becomes significant is the way that Zossima and the other monks council Alyosha.

Whether we view monks in a positive or negative light we often see them as people who

have somehow found a loophole in our understanding of the world and of work. They

have fled the difficulties and brokenness of the world in order to live a more godly life.

However, if you spend any time reading monastic literature or talking to monks you will

find that they too have encountered the curse wherever they have gone. Monks do not

avoid dealing with the curse but they have worked at integrating faith into all aspects of

life including their daily work. Zossima, however, is under no illusion that the monastery

is the only place for holy living and so he and the other monks commissions Alyosha to

“live in the world like a monk.”

The monks can do this because despite the wound of the curse they see a deeper abiding

presence of God throughout the whole world and not just in their cloistered community.

There is no place where the holy work of God cannot be done in daily lives of people.

One monk named Father Paissy offers this advice to Alyosha saying that,

Secular science, having become a great force in the world has . . . investigated everything
divine handed down to us in sacred books. After a ruthless analysis the scholars of this
world have left nothing of what is sacred before. But they have only investigated the parts
and overlooked the whole, so much so that one cannot help being astonished at their
blindness. And so the whole remains standing before their eyes firm as ever and the
gates of hell shall not prevail against it. . . . Why it is living in the hearts of the atheists
who have destroyed everything, and is firmly rooted there as ever! For even those who
have renounced Christianity and are rebelling against it, are essentially of the same
semblance of Christ.

Father Paissy concludes by saying,

Remember this especially, young man, for you are being sent into the world.
Father Paissy tells us that we extinguish the sacred only when we fail to see our life and
creation as a whole. When we sever our work from the presence of God’s Kingdom we
are left with only drawing on the world’s resources. But when seen as a whole the truth
of God remains even in the humanness of the atheist. There is no secular work when all
of creation is intended to be part of God’s Kingdom.

It is Zossima himself who describes this world that is both broken and holy. Zossima
There are many things on earth hidden from us, but in return for that we have been given
a mysterious, inward sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher,
heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other
worlds. . . . God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and made
his garden grow, and everything that could come up came up, but what grows lives and is
alive only through the feeling of its contact with other mysterious worlds; if that feeling
grows weak or is destroyed in you, then what has grown up in you will also die. Then
you will become indifferent to life and even grow to hate it. That is what I think.

Zossima does not believe that Isaiah’s vision is some distant future but rather that the

reality of God’s kingdom is already planted as seeds in our often cursed soil. Work in the

Kingdom and work in the world is not a matter of oil and water but the organic

relationship of seed and soil. We may have many jobs and occupations in life but we are

called to one work.

So we must ask ourselves how have we tended the heavenly seeds in our daily lives?

How has God’s Kingdom grown in the midst of what we would consider “secular” work?

Is it true that when the heavenly seeds grow weak and die then so too does our love and

passion for our work? To believe in Isaiah’s vision for the future of work a future in

which we would no longer labour in vain is to allow those seeds to be planted in the

ground we are already toiling in. Perhaps the plants that grow will call you to question or

challenge the type of work you are doing. Or perhaps it will allow you to thrive in a new

way at your work. We can’t always determine that until we allow those seeds to grow.

And so if you have not done so then you must invite God’s future into your present work.

Theologian James Cone demonstrates how slaves in the American South invited God’s

heavenly future into the present through their spirituals.

One particular song goes,

I am poor pilgrim of sorrow.
I’m in this world alone.
No hope in this world for tomorrow.
I’m trying to make heaven my home.

Sometimes I am tossed and driven.

Sometimes I don’t know where to roam.
I’ve heard of a city called heaven.
I’ve started to make it my home.

“I’ve started to make heaven my home.” Many slaves believed that they could already

make Heaven their home. They did not use an image of Heaven to pacify them in their

sorrow rather their image of heaven was an active embrace of God’s future. Cone writes

that “to be a child of God had present implications. It meant that God’s future had

broken into the slave’s historical present.” To accept God’s future was to be assured of

God’s promises and discontent with any part of the present that did not fit that vision.

Now in some ways a slave’s ability to accept God’s future was more understandable as

they would have heaven to gain. Many of us, however, when confronted with God’s

future in our work may feel like we only have the world to lose. But this is where we

must begin. The seed of faith must enter the soil of daily lives whatever type of work

that may be. There is no redemption in our work, no reception of Isaiah’s new earth

unless we acknowledge our barren and broken ground. Here the new earth becomes

more than a one time event at the end of history. The new earth or the Kingdom of God

comes as Jesus tells us, whenever a grain of wheat dies and falls to the ground.

These are the last words Zossima tells ALyosha as he leaves the monastery.

“Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it
bringeth forth much fruit.” Remember that. This is what I think of you: you will go forth
from these walls, but you will live in the world like a monk. You will have many
adversaries, but even your enemies will love you. Life will bring many misfortunes to
you, but it in them that you will find happiness sand you will bless life and make others
bless – which is what matters most.”

The seed of faith was not hidden and kept safe from the hardships of the curse. The seed

of faith rather was planted directly into mud and the mire in the midst of adversity and

brokenness that new life may grow and be a blessing to the world. This Monday may we

remember that no matter where we toil there is no soil that will not receive the seed of

faith. The seed of faith is the trust that God is present is your daily work. And the seed

of faith is the promise that God’s Kingdom will begin to grow whenever it is given space.

Go forth from these walls and live like a monk in the world and start today to make

heaven your home.

May it be so. Amen.