09/05/21 “Sacred Work”

Exodus 35:4, 10a, 22-34

It’s time for a pop quiz! In your bulletin, there was a blank piece of paper. Grab a pen or pencil. Get ready. Here’s the question: How many different occupations can you think of that are mentioned in the Bible? I’ll give you about a minute to see how many you can come up with.

All through the Bible, we find people at work. They worked in the palace, like the cupbearer and baker Joseph met in prison. They worked as hunters, fishermen, and farmers, and shepherds, of course. There were people who worked in government, in the temple, and in the military. People worked as doctors and apothecaries and midwives, lawyers and teachers.  There were jobs in service industries like laundries, hotels, banking, and in sales like Lydia who dealt in purple cloth. There were people in the trades like carpentry and metalworking in bronze, silver, gold. Craftsmen and -women made pots, tanned leather, sewed clothing and made tents (like Paul and his friends). There were artists—singers, instrumentalists, weavers, and woodcarvers.

There are at least three dozen occupations named in the Bible. We could add more who aren’t specifically mentioned but surely were at work in the background, like the winemakers who made the wine that ran out at the wedding in Cana, and the poets who wrote the psalms we still cherish today. Clearly, the Scripture writers thought work was important enough to include in the Biblical record.

Our work is important to us—whether they’re the jobs we’re paid to do now, the positions we retired from, or the unpaid work we engage in as homemakers, baby-sitters, or volunteers. The work we are employed in, whether paid or unpaid, is so important that, typically, one of the first questions we ask or answer when we meet someone new is “Where do you work? What do you do?”

Like those of our ancient counterparts, our jobs do more than simply provide us with a living. They say something about us. They may reveal something about our interests or abilities. To a large extent, they determine what rung of the social and economic ladders we occupy. They give us a sense of self-worth and the feeling that we matter in the community. They may give us a chance to use our gifts and our talents. Most jobs, at least pre-COVID, gave us a social setting where we could interact with coworkers and friends. But there’s something else important about our work. Our work is a sacred activity, or should be.

We often use the word “sacred” in a casual way, about things that are not to be tampered with. “Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house is sacred.” But the primary meaning of sacredness is a special connection to God. A sacred thing is set apart and dedicated to God. Our work is meant to be a sacred thing, made possible by God and valued by God.

Our passage for today highlights just how much attention God pays to our work. Moses has returned from a second trip up Mount Sinai to meet with God. Now, Moses passes along the very specific instructions God had given him for how the Hebrew people were to build a tabernacle for God.  On Moses’ first trip up the mountain, God had explained in detail how the tabernacle and its furnishings were to be made, who should create them, and how it would be paid for. God calls for an offering of all the materials that would be required—gold, silver, bronze, and wood; yarns and fabrics of blue or purple or crimson; leather and precious stones; lamp oil, anointing oil, and incense.

This offering isn’t mandatory. A minimum isn’t set. No, this gift is to come from the heart. These gifts, produced by the work of the Israelites’ hands, will be sacred things, set apart for God.

On the mountain, God had said to Moses, “You’ll make all of this according to the pattern I’m now going to show you.” God literally rolled out the plans for how these things were to be fashioned! It takes four more chapters in our Bibles to cover all the specifics about everything from the tabernacle walls to the vestments for the priests.

This project would demand the gifts and skills of the entire community. But God knew that skillful leadership was required. We don’t know if Moses had any construction skills. He had grown up in the palace as Pharoah’s daughter’s adopted son. So, God chose two men who did have the necessary skills. Both Bezalel and Oholiab knew how to do the work. But, they had other important qualifications as well. Filled with God’s spirit, Bezalel was a a capable craftsman—skilled, intelligent, and knowledgeable. But, he was also a creative visionary. Both he and Oholiab had also been given the gift of teaching. They would be able to share their vision and teach others how to make God’s plans a reality.

This story gives us some insight into just how much God values our work. God’s people were invited to use their gifts and talents to create something for God. God filled them with the ability to do this undertaking—whether they were managers like Bezalel and Oholiab, or whether they were weavers, stonemasons, carpenters, embroiderers, or any of the myriad other workers that were needed. Everyone’s work counted. And, the work they did for God would be sacred work.

In fact, work is inherently sacred. Work is what God does. We read in Genesis that the act of creation was work—work that God rested from on the seventh day. We praised God’s work in our Call to Worship: “For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work.” Many of the stories Jesus told were about people at work. And, he described his own activities, not as his ministry, not as his mission, but as his work. Work is a sacred activity because it is something God does.

As people created in the image of God, we have a God-given capacity to work. God gave humanity this gift of work to do at the beginning of creation. Adam and Eve were given the work of managing all of creation’s animal life. They were to till and protect the earth. They were given the gift of food to eat, so harvesting was part of their work. Work is one aspect of God’s image in human beings. God has implanted in us a desire to create and produce—a desire that stems from God’s own creativity. That probably explains why all the retired people I know are so busy! Work is sacred because it is an expression of God’s image—the image in which we are created.

The problem arises when we forget the sacredness of our work. We start to think of our “every-day lives” and our faith lives as separate things. We set aside Sunday morning worship and maybe Thursday evening Bible Study as “God-time.” Maybe we also set aside some time each day for prayer and devotions. But then we move into our “regular” lives, as though we’re off the clock when it comes to God.

Our faith lives aren’t a portion of our lives. Our faith life is our entire life. That means our work is part of our faith life, not separate from it. When we approach all that we do, including our work, as our offering to God and as an expression of God’s image in us, all that we do becomes sacred—something received from and dedicated to God.

Now, you might be thinking, “I thought God punished Adam and Eve by making them work after they were evicted from the Garden of Eden.” Life did become more difficult after the relationship with God was ruptured. But, work wasn’t the punishment. Work was collateral damage in the wreckage of the relationship between God and people. As long as Adam and Eve did their work within their relationship with God, all was well. But, when that relationship was damaged, things changed. The earth itself became estranged from God because of human sin, and so it no longer easily yielded a living as it had before. Wresting food from the soil became difficult, and work became a burden. That was the natural outcome of human sin, not a punishment for it.

Work can also be misused. I mentioned that Moses spoke to the people after returning from his second trip up Mt. Sinai. He had received God’s instructions during the first trip. But, while he was gone, the people had gotten impatient. They demanded new gods, since they had become doubtful about the God who had led them out of Egypt. Aaron misused his work as a leader to misdirect his people. He told them to bring all their gold and used it to fashion a golden calf. The people misused the things they had made or worked to obtain as they brought offerings to the idol, and they misused the fruits of others’ labor as they ate and drank and danced around te calf. This is what happens when we forget that our work is a sacred thing. We use it in sinful ways and for sinful purposes.

After the calf incident, Moses makes his second trip up Mt Sinai to intercede for his sinful people. When the Lord sends him back down, he is finally able to give the Israelites their instructions. Now, their offerings and their labor recover their sacredness. With stirred hearts and willing spirits, they bring their offerings of metals and textiles, wood and gemstones. They bring hands willing to work—to carve and to weave, to build and to sew, to create jewelry and perfumes. They come, willing to be taught how to use their work for God’s glory. They come, prepared to offer their work as a sacred thing, devoted to the Lord.

We, too, can get so wrapped up in what we’re doing that we forget the One we’re doing it for. We may not misuse our work the way the Israelites did. But, we can let its sacredness drift away through inattention. Keeping our work sacred requires that we intentionally devote it to God, being mindful throughout the day to do our work as though we are working for God.

Richard Foster has written a number of books on Christian spirituality. One of them is called Streams of Living Water. In it, he describes various ways that we express our faith. One is called “the incarnational tradition.” It focuses on making the realm of the invisible spirit present and visible in our daily lives. Jesus is the supreme example of incarnation—where God became present and visible to us in a human body.

But, God is present and can be visible to us and through us in our work as well. When we work as though for the Lord, we live out our belief that God is truly with us in every minute—not just in the moments we consider high and holy, but in the minutia of our days—at our jobsite and at the kitchen sink, at our desk or workbench, at the grocery store or the Food Pantry, in the field or in the garden. Intentionally offering our work to God and doing our work in God’s name reminds that our work—whatever it is—matters to God. We matter to God.

Understanding our work as sacred makes our lives more whole. We reconnect our “faith lives” and our “everyday lives.” Setting our work apart for God gives new meaning to our work. No longer is it merely a task to be done but an opportunity to glorify God and to know God better. As the Israelites became co-laborers with God in building the tabernacle, we become co-laborers with God, building the kingdom wherever we are. Our bodies—the hands and feet and minds that carry out our work—become “portable sanctuaries” where we can experience God’s presence at any time.

Since 1894, the United States has honored working people on Labor Day. But for Christians, every day is Labor Day. Every day is a day to celebrate the gift of work that God first gave human beings at the dawn of creation—a gift that bears the very image of the God who created us. Every day is a day to experience God’s presence as we devote that work to God. Every day is a day to remember that our work is sacred work, whatever that work may be. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young