Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, January 24, 2022
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Work and Rest

Exodus 20:8-11 and Genesis 2:1-5 and 8-15

 As we continue into the story of creation, we find the twin ideas of work and rest in chapter two.  These things have a tendency to trip us up because we tend to over or under-value one or the other.  Let’s start with work.  

 As someone famously said, “Work is a four letter word,” and of course that’s not about spelling, but about the opinion many of us have about work!  We tend to view work as a necessary evil.  We do it because we have to do it.  If we won the lottery or inherited a fortune, oh, we’d drop work in a heartbeat!  

 But is that a biblical idea of work?  No.  Work is not a four letter word or a necessary evil.  Work was part of this world before sin entered the world, before paradise was lost.  So work is part of the world that God called “very good.”  

 In fact, the creation was not even finished before human work began, because we see in verse 5 that nothing was growing because “there were no people to cultivate the ground.”  That tells us something important about work:  When we work, we become partners with God in his work of creation.  A few verses later, the Bible says God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden to work and care for it.  By working, we become part of God’s creative activity.  

 Work is good for us.  It gives us a sense of meaning, a purpose, a place in the world.  By working, we contribute to the well-being of humanity and the world.  It also helps to keep us in good working order.  It’s pretty well attested that people who do not or cannot work tend to have more mental and physical problems than those who do.

 After the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, Joe Paterno was fired.  And I remember Sharon saying that “He won’t last six months,” because he’d lost the work he loved and that helped him to have a place in the world.  That was even before it was revealed he was sick with cancer.  I agreed with her, and sure enough, he didn’t last six months.  I think because he lost his sense of purpose.

 Speaking of “retirement,” be it forced or voluntary:  Someone once said that there’s no such thing as “retirement in the Bible.”  True, but I do think we could find examples of people in Scripture who stepped aside from things to allow the next generation to take over.  But I don’t believe in “retirement,” in the sense of “I’m retired.  I’m not going to do a darn thing.”  I don’t think that’s good for us to be completely unproductive or to fail to make a meaningful contribution to society as a whole.  But if we are blessed with not having to work for pay, then I

think that’s an opportunity for our work to change, for us to find other ways to contribute to society, maybe especially by volunteering.  My wife’s grandparents have been “retired” for 20 years now, but they still “work” at the local equivalent of a “Goodwill” store so that they can make a contribution to their community, and I think that’s a very good thing.   

 The problem with work in our society is that we have a tendency to over or undervalue it. 

 Many of us are workaholics, driven to be more and more productive.  We can’t not work.  I know because I struggle with this, too!  I have a hard time not being productive.  Somebody once said that life is divided up into worship, work, and play.  But the problem for many Americans is that we worship our work, and work at our play, but we only play at our worship.  Our priorities are mixed up!  But we’ll talk more about workaholism in a few minutes.

 On the other hand, there are some in our society who don’t want to work.  The abundance of “get rich quick schemes” and mega-millions lotteries should prove that.  I’ve read that labor force participation right now is about as low as it’s ever been.  Obviously a bad economy doesn’t help with that, but I really do think there are some people out there who just aren’t looking to work.  

 The truth is in between the extremes.  Work is good, not something to be avoided.  But if we only find our value in work, then we are worshipping an idol instead of God, the idol of productivity or greed.  We were also created for rest.

 If work is not a four letter work, then neither is rest.  We were made for rest.  The story of creation tells us we were made for rest.

 Bible scholars point out that the story of creation is, like many pieces of Hebrew literature, full of parallels.  On the first day, God creates light.  On the fourth day, he creates light sources, the sun, moon, and stars.  On the second day, he separates the waters.  On the fifth day, he fills the oceans with living things.  On the third day, he creates dry ground, and on the sixth day he makes living things to live on the ground.  The first three days are paralleled by the last three days of creation.  

 But the seventh day stands alone.  God does not work.  Instead, he blesses and sanctifies.  The seventh day becomes unique.

 The whole story of creation in the Bible is unique compared to other creation myths from the ancient Near East.  In those myths, the gods need to rest.  So they create human

beings to be their slaves so they don’t have to work.  But in Scripture, we learn of a God who, while he does not need to rest, he chooses to rest.  God is not insecure.  He does not need to be more in control, to be more productive.  He chooses to rest, and he builds into the fabric of creation a pattern of work and rest.  

 And as part of creation, we need to rest, and we suffer when we fail to rest.  If we don’t rest, we suffer physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  We get worn out, and we fail to have abundant life as God desires us to have.

 Last fall I went to continuing education event about Sabbath-keeping.  I won’t lie to you. It wasn’t very good!  But even in a “bad” event, you always walk away with a few good nuggets.  And a few things stuck with me.

 The first was the analogy of water and dirt.  What do you get it you put dirt into water and stir it up?  Muddy water.  And I think many of us see our lives like muddy water.  Nothing’s clear.  We’re not sure where we are or where we’re going.  And what happens if you keep stirring muddy water?  It stays muddy.  You can never stir it till it’s clear.  The water only becomes clear when it rests.  And our lives only become clear when we rest.  

 We live with an illusion that if we can just “get it all done, get it all in order, get our ducks in a row,” then things will clear up.  Sometimes people tell me things like “I’ve been meaning to get back to church, but things are just so busy now.”  Or “I’d like to start reading the Bible, but now’s not a good time.”  I’ve given up on those people ever “getting back to church” or reading the Bible.  Hear me now:  You can’t get it all done.  Whatever it is, you can’t get it all done!  So what are you going to do now?  

 Will you bow at the altar of the idol of productivity?  Or will you rest?  

 Productivity can be an idol for us.  Along with greed, it might be one of the biggest idols in our society.  

 But resting from productivity is an act of worship.  The essence of Sabbath is to enjoy things for what they are, rather than striving for what they could be.  To Sabbath is to say, “God’s creation is good,” without adding to it, “I can make it better.”  

 Sabbath is an act of faith, an act of trusting God.  It’s saying, “Six days are enough.  God will take care of me on the seventh.”  

 Sabbath is also an act of obedience.  It is after all, the fourth Commandment.  Why is it that we act like the rest of the commandments are moral laws, commandments of God, but we act like the Sabbath is just a “nice idea, but not very practical?”  

 By the way, notice that the fourth commandment requires rest for everyone, not just for the privileged few.  It’s not just for the master of the house, but even for the slaves.  Even for the animals!  There’s a movement right now in Pennsylvania to legalize hunting on Sundays.  I’m opposed to it.  After six days of being shot at, the deer deserve a Sabbath rest.  

 This is counter-cultural.  Sabbath-keeping is opposed to the ways of our culture.  But it was also counter-cultural in the ancient Near East.  Only Israel observed a Sabbath.  Babylonians, Egyptians, and Assyrians didn’t take a day off.  It was counter-cultural in Roman times.  It’s counter-cultural today.  In our society, Sunday is most often seen as “another day for shopping,” another day for accumulating, another day for “making our lives better” instead of enjoying what is.  

 To Sabbath means to stop; to stop our regular pattern of life.  It’s living differently one day a week.  It’s resting; refraining from the urge to be more productive, to make things better, to have more money or more stuff.  When we Sabbath, we appreciate what is, not what we think should be.

 In case, you haven’t noticed, our society no longer observes a Sunday Sabbath.  That’s unfortunate, since we could all use it.  But it’s up to us to be counter-cultural, to be different.  It’s up to us to carve out a Sabbath time in a world that doesn’t stop.  The hard part is how we do that.  What does it look like for us to Sabbath?  

 I’m afraid I don’t have the answer.  But I think I have the questions:  What will you do, or should I say, stop doing, to allow the mud to settle in your life?  How will you enjoy what God has given you instead of striving for more?  You can’t get it all done, so how will you stop trying?  

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