"Perceiving Our Labors With Joy"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 5, 2004

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Jeremiah 18:1-11

     In this morning’s Scripture lesson, Jeremiah used a very descriptive image that was familiar to his readers.  He wrote about the thoughts of a potter. If a particular product turned out differently from what the potter had in mind, the clay could be reconfigured and made into something else.  

     This illustration surfaced while the prophet was having a discussion with God.  God asked Jeremiah, “Don’t I have the right to do with you what the potter does with his clay?  You are in my hands just like clay is in the potter’s hands.”  The prophet had God say, “Tell the people who live in Judah and Jerusalem that I am making plans against them; I am getting ready to punish them.  Tell them to stop living sinful lives.”  

     When these statements attributed to God are distilled and communicated in a way we may find helpful and useful, Jeremiah was stating a very matter-of-fact truth.  His words did not portray God as a Being who had become hurt by people’s behavior nor did his words mean that God desired to punish people when they were failing to live according to God’s expectations.  That would not be free will.  God knows precisely who we are and what we are capable of doing.   

     What God was saying through Jeremiah is this, “When you fail to live according to the way I have designed you to function, you will experience the results.”  In other words, when we miss the mark with our lives, there will always be challenging and often painful consequences.   When we do not exercise or feed our bodies properly, for example, the results are fairly predictable.  If we no longer nourish our minds with stimulating ideas, they cease expanding. We are never punished for our sins, we are punished by them.  

     This understanding of how God’s spiritual laws work can be applied to any area of life.  This morning, however, we will be examining our text in light of a Labor Day theme.  How can we perceive what we do professionally or in our voluntary service in such a way that it produces fulfillment in our lives?  Our unique lump of clay has a purpose and a design.  There can be little joy when we find ourselves, for one reason or another, abandoning what would make our spirits thrive.     

     Years ago a young woman had accepted guidance from her parents and many of her friends to enter the legal profession.  The logic was simple:  Once she had passed the Bar Examination, she could work for any agency in the Federal Government.  She followed through and secured an excellent job just as others had predicted. 

     Janet eventually wrote a lengthy letter telling me that something was wrong with her life.  She wrote about putting on 20 pounds and how she could no longer deal with the stress of her job.  She mentioned that she had nothing in common with her peers.  She had an excellent salary, but had lost her identity.  It was as though her life was not working no matter how hard she tried.  She wondered if she had made a mistake by listening to the goals others had set for her rather than following the desires of her heart. 

     I wrote back and asked, “When you fantasize about an environment that would be compatible with your spirit, where do you go?”  Her response was immediate.  She described her dreams, loves and desires.  She wrote about being outside in nature, about her love for animals and about dealing with people in a different environment from one filled with cubicles and legal briefs.  Every verbal symbol she communicated told me that she had missed her mark.  Everything she said pointed to the National Park Service.  

     The last time I heard from her, she had married, had two daughters and was living in Wyoming.  She wrote of being happy again and “thrilled to be alive in her skin.”  I had to smile as I read her words because Janet had married a Park Ranger named Pete.  

     God has so creatively wired us as one-of-a-kind beings.  When we fail to pursue our dreams, it is as though the potter is communicating to us that the product being created by us will not serve the purpose we came to the earth to fulfill.  There will be consequences.  We tire easily and become stressed when we are doing tasks that are not connected to what would fulfill us and would provide us with a sense of accomplishment.            

     60 Minutes did a piece over the summer about retired people who had gone back to work.  Each appeared highly motivated even though his or her tasks were fairly menial.  One group of women had been schoolteachers, nurses, bankers, and office managers but now they were on an assembly line boxing various products for shipment.          

     They were asked why they came out of retirement.  They said, “We are having fun!  This isn’t work. We are like family.  We eat lunch together.  We know each other’s business.  Work gives us a cause to get out of bed in the morning. We feel needed and enjoy being productive.  Working here has given all of us a new lease on life. Our working isn’t about the wages; it is about being with people who have become our friends while doing something we enjoy. We find ourselves looking forward to each new day.”   

      In his book, The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote: 

And what is it to work with love?  It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, as though your beloved were to wear that cloth.  It is to build a house with affection, as though your beloved were to dwell in that house.  It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, as though your beloved will soon eat the fruit.  It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.  Work is love made visible. 

     The seniors featured on 60 Minutes had found the secret of working with joy.  It does not take very long for us to realize when pain and frustration have become our teachers, i.e., a source for our guidance.  The lack of fulfillment does not come as a form of punishment; our spirits and bodies are telling us that we either have to change what we do or learn how to enjoy it.   

     God wired us to be the leaven for the loaf, the light in darkness or the salt that seasons the food in every setting where we find ourselves.  But also like with the potter and the lump of clay, when we have made choices based only on our perceived material needs and desires, we have decided to produce a vessel that may be different from the one we came here to be. 

     When we miss the mark, judgment is often swift and unrelenting just as God promised Jeremiah.  When we are so unfulfilled in what we do, we need to pay attention to the results they are evoking within us.  What we may be experiencing is a different voice calling us to grow in a direction we were too distracted to recognize.  

     We were created by God to produce with a spirit that is eager to create.  Are all of us doing that?  Work can be our love made visible.  When we create without counting the cost, fulfillment inspires us to do even more.     


    Gracious and loving God, we thank you for all our discovered talents and abilities.  The more we extend our gifts, the more we find.  Thank you for teaching us that it is in our giving that we receive. Enable us to move beyond discouragement, worries and distorted values.  Enable us to consider our vocation as a vehicle for communicating who we are.  May we find no task beneath us.  May we understand that the foundation for a church is as important as the stained glass windows.  Nurture us into believing in ourselves so that we find purpose and meaning in all our contributions.  Remind us that when we give of ourselves, we create a community.  Thank you for being at the center of our community.  Amen.


    Merciful God, this Labor Day weekend has been filled with so much tragedy.  We cannot begin to imagine men and women using weapons on fleeing, terrified children to dramatize some cause in which they believe. Sometimes, O God, we confess that it is very difficult to understand the depths to which we human beings can plunge in our cruelty in order to satisfy an unmet need.  As so many families experience the dark night of the soul, and once again experience the results of smoldering hatred, may these distraught people come to know your love as it comes through your spirit and those who support their unforgettable walk through the valley of the shadows. 

    Once again we are concerned for the people of Florida as hurricane Frances churns away critical elements of the infrastructure on which so many people depend.  Bring patience, kindness and mercy to the many support teams which will be coming from insurance companies, FEMA, the medical community, utility and communication specialists, indeed, all those who will bring valuable goods and services to those whose living patterns have been disrupted, if not destroyed.

    Sometimes it takes a disaster to remind us of the value of being in community. Sometimes, O God, we only grow spiritually when we are in the valleys.  In all our challenging moments, may we never lose sight of the hope that comes from knowing that you are in charge of every eventual outcome.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .