The Holiness of Work: Moses and Labor Day
Exodus 3:1-15 and Matt. 16:21-28
Proper 17A (Labor Day weekend) – 8/31/14
St. Paul’s Alexandria
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
God, give us work till our life shall end,
And life till our work is done. Amen.
That plea from the New Zealand Prayer Book may surprise you, especially on this Labor Day weekend as we enjoy freedom from work and study. Who wants to work until we drop dead? But I have always loved the prayer,
“Give us work till our life shall end, and life till our work is done,”
because when we’re doing the work GOD gives us to do,
we become deeply happy, and the world becomes a better place.
Work can certainly be a burden, especially for people treated unjustly and paid unfairly. It can be a burden if you are plodding away at labor that has no meaning for you, except as a means to pay the bills. Even work that you love as much as I love my job has its dull or darker moments.
But WORK can also be holy. And when we are working in partnership with God, everything changes.
That’s what happened for Moses in our first reading this morning. He was working a humdrum job, keeping the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro.
Wait a minute! Last week, he was a baby in a basket on the banks of the river Nile. Suddenly, today, he’s in Midian, the wilderness east of Egypt. Suddenly, he has a father-in-law, and therefore a wife, and a flock of sheep, and WORK to do. What happened? For some reason, the committee that chooses the readings most Christian churches hear each week left out a pretty juicy chunk. You see, one day, after Moses had grown up in the household of the Pharaoh whose daughter “drew him out” of the water, as we heard last week, he witnessed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. A Hebrew himself (though raised as an Egyptian), Moses was struck by the injustice and struck out, killing the man. In fear of his grandfather Pharaoh, in fear for his life, Moses fled into the wilderness, where we meet him on an ordinary workday.
An ordinary workday – until GOD interrupted, in the form of an attention-getting bush, burning and yet not consumed. “I must turn aside and look,” said Moses, for in his workday there was no train to catch, no time clock to punch.
He looked, and then he heard. Out of the bush came a voice: “Moses, Moses!” And Moses replied with the words that would change his work, and his life, forever: Hinay-nee, in the Hebrew: “Here I am.”
It’s a traditional, polite response, sprinkled throughout the Old Testament: Here I am. But it also means something like, “At your service.” So Moses was at God’s service, with his “Here I am,” before God — the great I AM – revealed how hard that service would be.
For when God told Moses, I have seen the suffering of his people, I have heard their cries, and I have decided to deliver them, what he really meant was, “YOU. You go.” The injustice that had sent Moses fleeing to Midian would now send him back, to save not one suffering slave but a whole people. His real life’s work began with his response: “Here I am.”
* * *
Nine years ago this weekend, I watched in awe as someone else’s life was changed by those words. Nine years ago this weekend, you might remember, we all turned aside to look as Hurricane Katrina swept into New Orleans. Whole neighborhoods became homeless, and the worst suffering – as always – was among those who were poor to begin with. Even those who had been comfortable and prosperous became sick and starving. Government systems failed in the face of overwhelming disaster, and everyone was angry. You remember.
The people of New Orleans and Mississippi cried out, and God heard. But God didn’t send Moses that time. God sent my friend Hope.
While most of us watched on TV the horrific scenes of devastation, Hope made plans to go down there. Long before people eager to help were allowed to enter the area, Hope began packing. As soon as travel opened up, she was there – at a time when you could not take off your shoes on New Orleans’ holy ground, but had to go in gloved and garbed in hazmat suits. Hope didn’t wait for the government and she didn’t wait for the national church. Instead, she forged a parish-to-parish partnership and took teams of people into the mess, not just at the beginning but over the years as work progressed. The thing that got her going, the thing that kept her going, was the simple phrase Moses speaks today, the words of a hymn we love to sing at St. Paul’s: “Here I am, Lord.”
Hope was energized by the work God was clearly giving her to do. Like Moses, she had put herself at God’s service and was given her work, helping save God’s people from suffering. It was not easy, but working in partnership with God made her deeply happy.
* * *
In today’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t say that partnership with God is easy. In fact, he says just the opposite: The work God gives you just might kill you. AND the work God gives you will give you life.
“Those who want to save their life will lose it,
but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
It’s a puzzling statement, a paradox, hard to understand. But here’s my interpretation:
Staying where it’s safe, cocooning ourselves in comfort, is a sure way to lose our lives, working that humdrum routine until we wonder where the time has gone and why we’re not more happy.
Turning aside to the thing burning before us, the voice calling us — risky as it is —that’s the way to LIFE and deep happiness.
God has work for each one of us to do, LIFE-GIVING work — even if you think your working life is over. God never heard of retirement!
We all have work to do. How would our lives change, how would the world change, if we turn aside in the midst of an ordinary workday, look at the thing burning before us, listen to the voice of God within us, and respond, like Moses, like Hope: HERE I AM.
Lord, give us work till our life shall end,
And life till our work is done. Amen.