Monday, July 4, 2016

Work and Pride

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate for Adult Formation
The Seventh Sunday after Pentectost: Year C, Proper 9, July 3, 2016

I’d like to tell you about my first non-restaurant, non-retail job. Just a year out of college, I became a playlist editor for a radio consulting company in Seattle. I won’t go into all the details of the job, though I will say that, for a pop music nut like me, it was a dream come true. But after about a year, it became apparent to my manager and my co-workers that something wasn’t right. I was doing sloppy work, making mistakes that were hard to justify to my co-workers and even harder to clean up without causing great inconvenience to our clients. At the same time, I was being vocally critical of some of the systems I had to follow, without yet fully understanding the purpose of these systems. I only wanted to do the things I enjoyed, and I only wanted to do them my way. As a result, I was in danger of being fired.

My manager was a young, quiet guy named Kris. When he spoke, he was always measured and thoughtful. He took me aside and said, “Be proud of the job you do … not the job you have.” Indeed, I had gotten so wrapped up in the glamour of having a real job in the radio industry—in my identity as a “radio guy” and as a grown-up—that I was acting as if I were entitled to it. My manager’s words stuck with me, and I became a valuable employee, with several consecutive job titles, for eight more years. Kris’s words also echoed through my ordination process, where I found myself still occasionally wrestling with the demons of arrogance and entitlement.

Valentin de Boulogne, Saint Paul Writing His EpistlesSource: Wikipedia
Jonathan spoke a couple weeks ago about the context of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, that there was a conflict going on within the church. Paul was trying to assert that those Gentiles who became Christians didn’t first have to become Jews—most especially, they didn’t have to be circumcised, because circumcision had nothing to do with their salvation or the work in store for them as Christians. In a way, Paul basically said what my manager Kris once told me: “Be proud of the job you do … not the job you have.”

Circumcision of Abraham's Son Isaac
from the Regensburg Pentateuch, c. 1300
Source: Wikipedia
Now, it’s crucial to note that centuries of Jewish identity had formed under the mark of circumcision. There was fierce pride here, pride to be of the people who had discovered monotheism, who had won the heart of Pharaoh, who had escaped from slavery through the Red Sea, who had been spoken to by God in the wilderness, who had conquered the Promised Land, who had built a kingdom, and who, after a millennium of subsequent misfortune, still existed! What an accomplishment it was to be God’s chosen people!

And yes, of course, there is a legitimate pride of belonging that comes through shared pain and legacy, whether you’re a Jew remembering Abraham, or an American remembering the Boston Tea Party, or an African American remembering the Civil Rights movement, or an LGBTQ person remembering Stonewall and turning that pain into a flamboyant parade. When you’ve been through hardship, it is natural and wonderful to share this kind of pride with the people who best understand.

But this kind of pride does have its limitations. For Paul, circumcision was evidence of this limitation, which has to do with relative power. Once a group of people has some power, no matter how little, it is possible to use it against others. Paul wrote that those who compelled Gentiles to be circumcised were not doing so for the good of the Gentiles, but to protect themselves from the danger of persecution.

The Roman Empire had all the political and military power, and the Empire granted protection under the law to those who paid their taxes and didn’t rock the boat. In Paul’s time, before the destruction of Jerusalem, Jews were still a protected minority religion in the Roman Empire. They wouldn’t bow to the Emperor, so they were an occupied people without the dignity of birthright citizenship. But they had relative power through their identity as Jews. Paul was well aware of this dynamic because he was a Jew who had somehow achieved Roman citizenship, an even greater degree of privilege.

Christians, on the other hand, were a strange, new, mysterious people who also didn’t bow to the Emperor. Were they Jews? We didn't know yet. Christians who had begun as Jews—male ones, anyway—had a demonstrable mark they could show to the authorities. (That puts an ancient spin on policing public restrooms, doesn’t it?) But Gentiles who converted to Christianity bore no such mark. Clearly, some of the Jewish Christians wished their Gentile brothers would get with the program, so as not to bring the wrath of the Romans down on the Christian community in Galatia.

But we have bigger concerns, Paul wrote, than safety. You may be proud of what you have sweated and bled for. You may well deserve to feel proud, and that’s great. But for a Christian, it cannot stop there. Through baptism, Christians are made into a new creation. This was an important enough point that Paul seems at this point to have taken the quill from his scribe and written some of the letter himself: “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!”

Then, even as Paul suggested that one’s own actions constitute a worthier source of pride than someone else’s, he used the circumcision argument to go broad: a hard-won legacy is one thing, but even our own individual works are nothing to boast about. And he delivered one of his most famous lines: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Another way he might have put it is this: Not one of us chose the circumstances of our lives, and not one of us is free from sin. And the Good News is that none of that matters, because of what Jesus has done. Through Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection, all the lines that divide human beings from one another can be transcended. Certainly God sees the lines we draw, the lines that divide skin colors and religions and nations and genders and sexual identities, the lines we draw to protect ourselves from what legitimately threatens us and from what we merely don’t understand. And certainly God is with us in our pride of accomplishment, in our pride of survival, and God honors the pride of those who have suffered. But when those who have more power use their pride to control those who have less power, then we’re in the territory of what Paul calls “sowing to your own flesh.”

Now, always remember, when Paul contrasts Flesh and Spirit, he does not mean “body bad, spirit good.” We’re not talking about mistrust of all things sexual. Rather, it is a question of where you place your trust. For Paul, “Flesh” refers to whatever gratifies yourself—your body, your ego, your needs—apart from any consideration of the needs of others, or of any higher purpose. “Sowing to your own flesh” means setting your sights very low and close to home. It represents the needs that we all must meet first in order to survive, but if, given the chance, we refuse to grow beyond these needs, we are taking the selfish or cowardly way. It indicates that we only trust ourselves to help ourselves, and that we don’t trust God to help us help others.

But “sowing to the Spirit” means going broad, loving not only your beloved ones, but also those to whom you are indifferent, and even those who despise you. “Whenever we have an opportunity,” says Paul, “let us work for the good of all”—all humanity—“and especially for those of the family of faith”—not because the family of faith is superior to the rest of the world, but because by nurturing the family of faith, it can stand as a sign of God’s love to the entire world. And it’s not our own power that makes this possible, but God’s power through Jesus.

This is the larger context of Paul’s phrase, “God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” It is not a bludgeon to use against people who we think are making bad decisions. Rather, it is a phrase to hold ourselves up against. In what ways do we “sow to our own flesh”? In what ways do we fail to let our imaginations expand to include God’s grace for everyone—not just those who are like us?

Personally, I think I “sow to my own flesh” whenever I knowingly take advantage of my power and privilege. When I try to control others in order to make myself feel better, or when I refuse to allow other people to be imperfect, I am “sowing to my own flesh.” When I make demands of others that I wouldn’t make of myself, or when I get caught up in getting what I think I deserve, I am “sowing to my own flesh.” But Paul writes, “If you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.”

“Sowing to the Spirit” is what we in the church call stewardship: assessing what we need, and then sharing the rest. It applies not just to our money but to every aspect of our lives. When Jesus says that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” he implies that we ourselves are the laborers we must ask God to send. And we are not to stay stuck in our identity groups, but always reach beyond them with every opportunity we have. This is a more difficult challenge for those to whom society grants more power and privilege. It’s easier for such people to keep “sowing to our own Flesh,” rather than “sowing to the Spirit.”

So, do good work, both Paul and Jesus instruct us. “Be proud of the job you do … not the job you have.” But don’t stop there. Assume that it is not your work, but God’s. This humility can prevent us from getting in our own way. And it’s also a reminder that there’s no excuse for not doing God’s work in the world. Indeed, it’s what we must do as Christians, because stewardship blooms from the soil of baptism. We are laborers at harvest time, and God shines even through our failures and redeems them. Or as Mother Teresa once put it: “God doesn’t call me to be successful … only faithful.”

And so the words of my radio consulting manager get flipped on their head. Years after my time in radio, when I was working full-time as a layperson in the church, my rector helped me take the next step. He said, “Don’t just be proud of the job you do; praise God for the job you have. Feel privileged to be a witness to God’s work through you.” When things are going well—and they will—we must share the honor with God. When things are going badly—and they will—it may be time to step back and try to imagine God’s larger view.

We can’t do it all. But we will do much. What great works have we enabled? What great works has God privileged us to witness? And what more is in store? I can’t wait to find out. Let’s get to work—with pride in the work of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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