"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
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
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:
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
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.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
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.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
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 . . .