"Work, Worth and Worship"

"Work, Worth and Worship"

Rev. Gusti Linnea Newquist

September 26, 2021


Based on Genesis 2:1-3 and Exodus 20:1-11. God’s Work and The Sabbath for Everyone

If there is anything we can all agree upon in this era of increasing divisiveness, it is that the global COVID pandemic has precipitated a dramatic reappraisal of what it means to work.

Throughout this ongoing pandemic, workers around the world have been working from home, working longer hours from home, working through COVID even with substantial health risks, anxious to find more work when work was lost or clients quit because of COVID, choosing not to go back to backbreaking work that pays abysmally, or insisting on this concept of ‘remote and flexible work’ to continue even when the pandemic ends … whenever that may be.

While you and I have been celebrating and seeking to support ‘essential workers,’ – and redefining what ‘essential work’ really is – none other than The World Economic Forum has called this ‘new world of work’ driven by the pandemic “The Great Re-Set.” Which sounds similar to “The Divine Realignment” we just launched through the Sabbatical Year beginning earlier this month.

“The Great Re-Set” of our work. “The Divine Realignment” of our work. What would that look like for us, beyond the hastily designed home office or the rush to re-write the resume or the insistence to be paid a living wage for dignified work or the decision to resign altogether from the rat race and focus instead on homemaking and child-rearing, as so many women have done this past year and a half – by choice or by necessity?

The Sabbatical Year we have entered this month has some things to say about work. And not, as you might assume, that work itself would cease. In the Sabbatical Year, the Shmita, the year of release, work is instead reformed.

It is an agricultural society, of course, that developed the Sabbatical Year, which makes the reformation of work somewhat challenging for our post-industrial, high tech, mostly service oriented economy. But the bottom line is this: for six years, we rightfully work to build up the wealth of the land; and in the seventh year we work to distribute that wealth equally.

Which is our invitation, too, in this COVID-enforced re-set, in this Divine Realignment of Shmita, in this year of releasing our misguided and downright blasphemous worship of work as the basis for our worth. Our invitation in this Sabbatical Year is to re-align our common work with our God-given common worth as an act of communal worship.

In our Lesson today, beginning with Genesis, we learn of God’s work: the work of Creation, the work of cultivating the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them. Including the work of creating the humans.

Lost to the Twenty-first Century reader of Genesis – but absolutely essential for our “Divine Realignment” as it relates to our work – is the context which produces this particular vision of God’s work in our Scriptures. That context is slavery.

These early verses of Genesis are composed by a people who are enslaved in Babylon five hundred years before the time of Jesus. Remember, there are two experiences of slavery in the Old Testament: the well-known slavery in Egypt with Moses as the liberator and the lesser known later slavery in Babylon beyond the glory days of Kings David and Solomon.

Again, these early verses of Genesis describing the work of God, while they form the beginning of the Bible as we know it, are not actually written until the much later Babylonian captivity. These early verses of Genesis are a direct response to the oppressive Babylonian theology of the time, which insists the purpose of human creation is enslavement to the gods. A corollary to this oppressive Babylonian theology, of course, includes a strict hierarchy of elite humans who supposedly have direct access to the gods and then gets to lord it over everyone else.

There is no such thing in Babylonian theology as the divine imprint stamped on the spirit – much less the body – of the one held captive in this hierarchy. There is no such thing as a day off. Work as servitude, work as punishment, work as drudgery is the name of the game in Babylon, with theological sanction for all of it.

But in a powerful and profound act of resistance, the ancient captives who end up composing this first chapter of what we now know as the Book of Genesis say, NO! They go on strike, in a sense, which is another meaning of the Hebrew shabbat, translated into sabbath. We have been here before, our ancient forebears exclaim, liberated by God from slavery in Egypt, brought forth by God into freedom in a land of promise and plenty. We know a different divine intention for humanity. We know a different divine intention within humanity.

The God of our understanding, these ancient resisters of the Babylonian rat race insist, creates humanity to join with God in the work of co-creation. To bear fruit. To live in joy. And to set aside a day of rest – for everybody! – to seal the deal – which is kind of like a marriage – with God, with one another, and with all of creation, including the immigrants and the animals, who bear the divine imprint as well.

The work of humanity, reclaimed by this other Divine Realignment five hundred years before the time of Jesus, is to tend the garden for the good of the whole, not to slave for the gods and the humans who like to pretend they are gods. The work of humanity, in this other Divine Realignment five hundred years before the time of Jesus, is also to ‘keep’ the garden. Which in the biblical Hebrew means something like guarding the garden and protecting the garden from those humans who like to pretend they are the gods.

Fast forward to today, and we must admit very few of us literally spend our days tending and keeping the literal gardens of our lives for the good of the whole. Okay, maybe here in Shepherdstown the percentage of gardeners is higher than the average, and I know my husband is always handing out the excess of our garden, but few of us consider it our actual work in the world, the way we earn our living.

But what if we did? Meaning, what if we committed ourselves in this Sabbatical Year of divine realignment, in this COVID inspired great re-set of our work, to take stock of our work in the world and assess how that work contributes to tending and keeping the garden of this earth?

We might use this Sabbatical year to cultivate different ways of doing the same work, considered in the light of our common divine vocation. We might cultivate a birds’ eye view to help us navigate the rough patches that come with any job, keeping our common divine vocation as the focus throughout.

What about the work we ask of others? We might use this Sabbatical Year of divine realignment, in this COVID inspired great re-set of our work, to consider how the work we ask of others contributes to tending and keeping the garden of this earth for the good of the whole.

We might realize there are things we are asking of those who work for us that really are not necessary for our common vocation. We might shore up requests regarding those things that are necessary. We might cultivate a birds’ eye view toward their work, helping us release resentments toward works who do not live up to our unrealistic expectations, many of which have nothing to do with our common vocation to tend and keep the garden for the good of the whole.

Or, in a potentially more dramatic Divine Realignment, we might use this Sabbatical Year to confess the way we earn our living or the work we ask others to do for us does more harm than good for this garden we have been gifted to tend and to keep for the good of the whole. We might find the courage to adjust, guided by the wisdom of the divine imprint within us all.

The bottom line in our tradition is that our work is a gift, and a communal gift, at that. As soon as our work becomes an imposition, or a force for maintaining a hierarchical elite, or our sole source of worth, or a detriment to the garden, or the thing we worship to the point that it keeps us from the true worship of the God whose work includes resting with us, we have missed the point.

This is why we honor the Sabbath. The day and the year. Not through all the rules and regulations that even Jesus deplored. But through a Spirit of rest and renewal, a spirit of joy-filled celebration in our inherent worth as co-creators with God, through a way of working and resting and working and rest that has the potential to save us all.

So let’s celebrate The Great Re-Set of work in this global pandemic, friends, this Divine Realignment of work and worth and worship. Because truly, if God can point to the entire creation of heaven and earth and say “my work here is done,” and take a day off to enjoy it and to share it, then we can do the same, when our work is so much less.

Let the church say, Amen!