Choose the Sermon: Why Do We Work So Much?

September 12, 2021
Mark 8:31-38; Proverbs 1:20-33

It seems really meta to have worked so much on a sermon about why we work so much. So I tried not to work “so much” on this sermon.

Life in the DMV is all about work. Perhaps those of you who come from away find this to be case where you are as well. Often the first question we ask when we meet someone new is “and what do you do?” Perhaps it is a challenge to the system, as well as a challenge to how we define ourselves, that one of you submitted for the sermon series “why do we work so ______ much?”

Many of us were raised to work hard. Knowing the value of hard work proves our worthiness. Except that it doesn’t. Working hard to prove our worth is a trick of capitalism, to make us work even harder. A friend told me last week that she realized what a racket this whole work thing is when her 85 year old mother said, “No, I don’t have time, I have to get this done, I will rest later.” And my friend wondered, “Really, you’re 85, when will you start to rest?”

– I wonder what it would be like to let go of our worth being tied to what we produce, no matter what kind of work we do.
– I wonder if we can learn to let go of the never ending cycle of work.

For many of us “Why do we work so much” is a rhetorical question. For people who work multiple jobs to keep food on the table and a place for their family to sleep, the answer is not rhetorical, it is matter-of fact: “We work to survive.”

There is a lot of talk in this pandemic season about
working from home,
losing work,
essential work.

We throw around the term “essential worker” as if we know which work really is essential for the survival of the country. The past eighteen months we have discovered that people who work in grocery stores and those who do child care are way more essential than stock brokers or lobbyists. You would not know that from the monetary compensation these essential workers receive. The injustice of our economic system is laid bare when we see that too many workers who are deemed essential are not paid a living wage. The injustice of our immigration system becomes obvious when essential workers remain undocumentable. The work and the workers are called essential but essential does not mean fair or just.

The list of what is considered essential is long. Some jobs take a great deal of schooling and training and others are just hard work.

– I wonder how the people who fill essential jobs see their own importance.
– I wonder if they feel essential.
– I wonder if they are treated with respect when they do their work.
– I wonder if they find their worth in working an essential job.

In our context as a faith community, what might we say about work? And is the question “Why do we work so much?” or are there some other questions like, “how can we stop working so much?” or “how much work is enough?”

This familiar passage from the gospels – you must deny your very self, take up your cross somehow relates to work in my mind. Not that being a pastor is a cross to bear, far from it. I love my work, it feels like a privilege to receive payment for my work with this congregation. That you! But because we do work so much, sometimes work can feel heavy, like we are denying a part of ourself. If we just work harder surely it will become easier?

Take up the cross, suffer with Jesus.
Too often we allow Jesus’ words to become a mandate for suffering.
What if instead Jesus gives us an invitation
to find the things we love enough that it doesn’t feel like suffering. Or that makes us willing to take on the suffering.

Jesus says: What would you gain if you were to win the whole world but lose yourself in the process? Or we might say “what do you gain if you work all the time but lose who you are?”

Jesus’ own work was being with people. The gospels create a pretty thin resume though Mark 6 gives a clue as to his previous work history. Jesus is teaching in his hometown synagogue and the response from some of the people is – “Where did he learn all this? What is this wisdom that has been granted, and these miracles that are performed by his hands? Isn’t this the carpenter?

It seems that Jesus left his work as a carpenter to travel the countryside inviting people to live more fully. He called people from the work they were accustomed to – fishing, collecting taxes, caring for the household – and invited them to find ways that lead to healing and community. And then those first few who left their work were to invite others to healing and community.

I wonder if that kind of work – bringing healing and creating community –
I wonder if that is essential work.

When we love our work – and it gives us life – that is a marvel. When we love our work and we think it makes a contribution to the world, that is a calling. That feels like essential work, whether or not it is labeled essential by the government. Who will say that the poet and musician, the woodworker and baker, are essential? Our spirits know they are.

This is where Woman Wisdom from Proverbs 1 comes in. She calls on the street corners. She knows what is essential, she knows what is wise and what is foolish. Her voice may seem harsh – but she has a lot of noise to compete with.

When you turn away from me, (from wisdom)
you are choosing death,
and your complacency will ruin you, you fool!
But you who listen to me will be at peace,
have quiet and fear no misfortune.”

It is hard to stop working so hard. It is hard to listen to wisdom even when we know we are working too hard and are choosing metaphorical (or perhaps literal) death. (There is a relatively new word in Japanese, karoshi, to describe working yourself to death.) It is hard to set down the cross we think we are told to carry. Jesus asks,

What would you gain if you were to win the whole world
but lose yourself in the process?
What can you offer in exchange for your soul?

Sometimes our work may seem mundane but that doesn’t mean it can’t be imbued with meaning. An example from the podcast Hidden Brain keeps rattling around in my head.

In an episode called “Finding Meaning At Work: How We Shape And Think About Our Jobs” researchers talk to people who clean in a hospital. Some of the people describe their work by listing the tasks they do: mopping and cleaning hallways. Other people list the mopping and hallways but also describe the extra things they do that make their work important to them – like checking to see what is on the ceiling since people lying in hospital beds all day notice that kind of thing. One person who cleaned also changed the artwork on the walls of a patient who was in a coma. Her hope was that it might make some kind of difference to the person or at least to their family. This was decidedly not in the job description and in fact might be seen as transgressive but it gave meaning to her work.

Not all of the people who cleaned found meaning in their work; some chose to make meaning there. I often think that it is a privilege to have a job that is meaningful but perhaps it is also a choice to make meaning in our work. For the first 10 years as a pastor I often said I hate preaching. It was not a helpful habit to talk that way about that part of my work. I finally decided that I would try to embrace that part of my role here.  When people would ask me about sermons, I began to say “I love preaching, I love preaching.” Over time, my thinking shifted. I began to think of preaching as an opportunity instead of a chore. Choosing to love preaching changed my experience. I am not sure if my preaching got any better but the process has become more life-giving.

It is definitely a countercultural choice to decide to work less or not to make work the center of your world.

What if you choose to put family at the center,
or church,
or some other calling
like writing or painting or feeding people on the street.

Some of us make the brave choice to center life on something that doesn’t pay – it is a whole other way of deciding what is essential. It is risky, it is a denial of sorts.

I wonder if a choice like that is life-giving.

Why do we work so much? It is a question that exposes the privilege of even having work. Some of the answers are systemic and some are personal. We work so much because capitalism is built on unending work and a supply of workers who are not fairly paid. Some work is motivated by guilt, or greed, or maybe just habit. Sometimes work substitutes for an empty place in ourselves that we are trying to fill.

And of course some of us love our work and it brings meaning – and it is still a good question to ask. Why do we work so much? Do we want our children to love work, to learn to work hard?

What if we also ask: What does it look like to rest? to take a sabbath?
What does it look like to have enough?
What does it look like to be enough?
Some of us might even be able to wonder what it feels like to say “no” or “wait a week.”

Perhaps we can also ask with Jesus,
What can you offer in exchange for your soul?
What would you gain if you were to
win the whole world
but lose yourself in the process?