(Ecclesiastes 3:12-13; Matthew 6:27, 31, 33; 11:28-30)
Work can be really satisfying. Good work in a good way is a good thing. At its most basic, work is using our God-given abilities to build, to grow, to feed, to heal, to fix, to create, to invent, to tear down, to clean up, to haul, to learn, to teach, to trade … And good work is satisfying to do together, whether you’re constructing a home together or preparing a meal together or you’re getting folks to dance by making music together. It’s part of being human – working with one another and for one another, and taking satisfaction work well done.
What makes it satisfying? Work is good if we believe in its purpose and if it helps to fortify our lives – whether through our wages if we’re talking about paid work, or through esteem and respect or through the well-being of those who enjoy what we work to accomplish. This is true whether we’re talking about bricks that are well laid because of a skilled worker, or whether we’re talking about a child who is healthy because of good caregiving, or a family warmed in the winter because of a well-stocked woodpile.
This satisfaction can be a sacred satisfaction. Work can be sacred, it can uncover holy moments, it can teach us about our true purpose, it can focus this incredible vitality we’ve been given, this life-force ignited in us by the breath of the spirit, which is ours to use as we can throughout our lifetime.
But work easily becomes a burden. If we’re not well paid, not well respected, if we’re used for it and thrown away, if we gotta do work we don’t see any value in or work that’s actually against our values, or if our needs are so desperate that we gotta work and work and work to exhaustion … work becomes a burden. Folks can have incredible stamina – some folks can churn through year after year of even the toughest, most exploitative labor. But when work is too much of a burden, eventually, no matter how tough or how desperate you are it breaks you down.
“Come to me,” Jesus said, “all you who work and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
And as we heard from our first reading from Ecclesiastes, “It is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”
We have been created to need work and to need rest. We have been created to be active and to be passive. We need the proper balance, between work and rest, activity and passivity. Work without rest wastes us, and rest without work is just a waste.
This is part of who we are, as physical beings and spiritual beings. We must work and we must make in order to survive and thrive and come alive. But we also must rest and we must receive in order to survive and thrive and come alive.
According to the creation story in Genesis a rhythm of work and rest is part of the very fabric of creation. After all of God’s creative labor in fashioning the cosmos, God, we are told, rested, satisfied. God kicks back and looks around at what God had made and says, “Wow, this is great! If ain’t nice, I don’t know what is. For every pair of trees God makes, you could say, God strings a hammock between them to lay back and eat the peaches.
Work/rest, active/passive: this rhythm is in the rhythm of our world, the rhythm of night and day, the rhythm of the world’s creatures in their waking and sleeping, in their going out to roam and hunt and sweat and in their coming back home to eat and play and slumber.
It’s in the rhythm of our lives, and the rhythm of our life-cycles.
There are times in our lives when we can be more active, and there are times in our lives when we must be more passive and receptive.
We start out entirely passive and receptive, when we first arrive in life. And when we finally depart, we are again, entirely passive and receptive in the end … whether we’re ready to receive that receptivity or not. And whatever our life span is, however slowly or suddenly our ultimate passivity arrives, in between the points of birth and death we have this great surging of energy, the great bulk and tide of our life-force pulsing through our work and our rest, labor and delight, all toward the purpose that our Creator has ordained us.
But, oh, it can be a burden when that purpose gets crossed. What God intends for good work can get twisted and break us down. We can also grip so tightly to the value of the active side of life, that we can strangle the value of the passive side of life. When we don’t know when to let go, our gripping on can trap us.
So that is why it is good to have a day every week for Sabbath, a day to rest and to remember the sacred gifts we have to receive. That’s why we come back here every Sunday, to rest in the presence of God, to enjoy and take satisfaction, and to be restored for however it is God is calling us to be active in our lives and passive.
So let us remember this Sabbath:
“It is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”
And remember that Jesus said,
“Come to me, all you who work and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
So take some rest this morning, some sacred rest, and let us allow our gentle and humble teacher to take our burdens from us and show us the way of life in the spirit that is easy and light.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered July 31, 2016, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)