Some of the most regretted words in the Bible are “Here I am, Lord”.
Often they’re said in moments of transcendent awe; Isaiah, cleansed from his sin through a purifying fire, being brought before the throne of God, with 6 winged seraphim surrounding the throne chanting holy holy holy. Yet his prophetic mission, the task given to him by God is not an easy or kind one; it’s that Isaiah’s society is so ruinous, so corrupt, so out of touch with God’s will that from this rotten tree, be allowed to stand is a stump, a holy seed.
Simon Peter, James and John sons of Zebedee invite a wandering rabbi onto their boat after a hard night of prodigious work and little reward. This man tells them to try one more time, and although they have their doubts, they obey. These men, tired, hungry, overworked, and underpaid, see a miraculous haul of fish so great, blessings so astounding that the boats themselves start to sink. They give up all they own- including the two fishing boats, to follow Jesus.
Being called by God is no easy thing; the sacrifices are many, and the rewards are often meager. Yet I believe that this is a call that we all feel at some point, even if it is expressed in different way. It could be in the conversation of a high school or college student about what they want to do that will make a difference in the world. It may be in a midlife crisis about the meaning of work, career, or even higher minded churchy words, like vocation or calling.
I think it’s worth it for us to have those conversations here in church; economists tell us that we’re amid “the great resignation”- nearly 4 million Americans quit their jobs in December. This is one of the highest numbers in decades. Although some of that is due to economic conditions, I think a large part of it has been a reconsideration due to the pandemic and other factors about what it means to have a meaningful life, to work for the common good, for us Christians, how do we say “Here am I, Lord” with integrity?
Part of what we’re coming to realize is a truth that although Jesus never said it explicitly, is implicit in many of his parables and teachings; things that we might unfairly call economic issues, issues around work and wages, should be thought of first and foremost as moral issues. Not that being wealthy is a sign of righteousness any more than poverty is a sign of immorality, but that the way we interact with our money is central to issues of right and wrong.
After all, what is the root of all evil? Not money itself, but rather the love of money, especially when it supplants or supersedes the love we ought to have for our neighbors, friends, and family, and the love we ought to have for our God and God’s creation.
But what does our Bible have to say about work? The first we should consider is John the Baptist’s advice to tax collectors and soldiers who came to be baptized alongside Jesus. John the Baptist told them that they were not to bully, intimidate or steal from the people. They were to do their jobs fairly, not taking as they might, lining their own pockets with money from the poor that they could bully or intimidate, but instead live quiet and peaceful lives.
This particular theme of stealing from those who are due their just wages continues throughout the new testament; James, Jesus brother or cousin, has some of the harshest words in the bible for employers and bosses who steal wages from their employees and workers, accusing them of taking part in the murder of Jesus, telling them “that the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure, you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.“
Dang James, tell us how you really feel.
But what about for most of us that aren’t bosses, who aren’t managers? What about those of us who are trying to discern if we should stay in backbreaking restaurant work or move to an easier but boring office job?
Well, the Bible actually isn’t as helpful as you might think on this; or well, it doesn’t actually seem to regard choice of work as a moral issue. Indeed, in Jesus’ ministry, he interacts with everyone from the religious elite to the houseless, and pretty much every one in between on an equal moral footing. It reinforces the simple fact that, contrary to what our culture wants to tell us, our dignity does not come from our work. We are moral beings, vessels of love made in the image of God no matter if we’re a doctor, a pastor, a fast food worker, a barista, a construction worker or even a lawyer.
That’s because our dignity comes from the fact that out of the dust of the earth we were made, created in the image of God, and one day we will return to our common destiny, to the earth, to the awaiting arms of God. Yes, Simon Peter, James and John leave to follow Jesus, leaving behind their boats and families to become full time disciples and apostles, but being a part of the twelve does not set them above anyone. Frankly, they spend most of their time following Jesus confused and a little bumbling.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, two of the three disciples who follow Jesus in today’s Gospel, Peter is crucified in Rome, and James dies in prison. Even Isaiah’s mission is not one of gentle and easy preaching, even in a time of great prosperity; indeed, the seed of hope for Israel is not found in the flourishing of the tree, but in its stump.
Whatever you are thinking about work and its place in your life, remember this: always be fair and honest; pay others what they are due and ask for no more than what you are due. And always always, always, remember, that your dignity and humanity come not from your work, but from God’s love for you, from our common origin in the dust, and in our common destiny in the arms of God.