Sunday, September 3, 2023

Phil Kniss: Work is grace, and grace is work

Matthew 11:28-30; Ecclesiastes 1:2-6, 9; 5:18-20

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As you know, tomorrow is a holiday.
You know what a holiday is, don’t you?
A holy day. It has religious origins.
A holiday was intended to give workers a day off
so they could go to their place of worship
to perform their religious duties.
Obviously, that meaning is all but forgotten.
The Labor Day holiday began 140 years ago,
to highlight contributions of American workers.
It’s not a holy day in the church calendar.

But maybe it ought to be.
God cares a lot about work.
The first thing we learn about God in scripture
is that God is a worker.
In Genesis 1-2, God worked on the world,
with patience, attention, delight,
and took great pleasure in the end result.
God’s labor brought order out of chaos,
and brought life where there was no life.
Then God created human beings
gave them God’s own image and likeness,
and made them partners in labor.

We aren’t even two chapters into the Bible, before we know
God is a worker,
and human beings are called to mirror God’s work.
We are God’s collaborators, God’s co-laborers.
Our work is holy work.

So the church is late to the game on Labor Day.
We should have started it,
to celebrate the sacredness of labor,
before labor union leaders had to do it themselves.

Now . . . Mennonites don’t really need a special holy day
to preach that it’s good to work.
We got that.
We didn’t invent the Protestant work ethic,
but we sure embraced it.
In some places, if people know only one thing about Mennonites,
it’s that they work hard,
they don’t flinch at a big dirty job,
like cleaning up after a disaster.

So . . . my goal today is not just to elevate work.
What I would like us to do,
is to think about the relationship between work and grace.
You might think these are unlikely partners.
For thousands of years,
Christians have debated the relative importance
of grace and works,
when it comes to our spiritual lives and salvation.
The New Testament kind of debates it, as well,
with Paul’s writings, and the book of James, for instance,
seeming to emphasize one over the other.

What I want us to think about this morning,
is whether these two concepts—work and grace—
actually belong on two opposite ends of a spectrum.
Or whether they are deeply intertwined with each other,
and impossible to separate.

Christians, over the years, have accused each other
of emphasizing one or the other too heavily.
Some groups get branded for believing in “works righteousness.”
We Mennonites have been accused of that,
not infrequently.
Other groups get criticized for preaching a “cheap grace.”

I suspect both critiques have some merit.
One can get out of balance, if we aren’t careful.

But really, a tug-of-war between work and grace,
is a completely unnecessary conflict.
We need a different metaphor.
There’s not some sweet spot in the middle of a spectrum,
where we find perfect balance between grace and work.
This is a false separation.

We cannot separate work and grace,
Work is grace, and grace is work.
because they’re woven into the same cloth.
One is the warp. The other woof.
Together, they are the Gospel.
In fact, why don’t we just make them one word?
Let’s call it “graceworks.”

Graceworks is God’s free and unmerited grace
that makes is possible to join with God in our work.
Graceworks is God’s abundant grace that gives work meaning.
Graceworks is God’s invitation
to work for the good of God’s kingdom.
Graceworks is working for peace, for justice,
for healing, for reconciliation,
and for the salvation of ourselves and the world,
which is a high privilege
to which God has called us by grace.

It is God’s gift of grace that we are invited to work alongside God,
as actual co-laborers.
We learn about graceworks in the opening pages of scripture—
the Creation story.
And it keeps showing up all the way through scripture.

Did you hear it this morning in Ecclesiastes?

In chapter 1, at first hearing,
you might think Ecclesiastes is despairing about
the uselessness of human labor.
“What do people gain from all the toil
     at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes . . .
The sun rises and the sun goes down . . .
there is nothing new under the sun.”
People work hard, but someone else benefits.

But then something changes in chapter 5.
Is it a change of heart?
Or is the poet playing with us, playing with language,
giving us the both/and of work and grace?
Ecclesiastes 5:18, hear this . . .
“This is a good thing . . .
it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment
in all the toil with which one toils under the sun
in the few days of life God gives us . . .
[All who] accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—
this is the gift [or grace] of God.
They will hardly think about the shortness of their lives,
because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.”

Even this famously cynical poet, freely admits,
work is a grace of God.
To be able to be occupied with the joy of our hearts,
to have meaningful toil,
is the gift of a gracious God.
It’s graceworks.

And Jesus spoke of graceworks.
In his immortal words,
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.
Take my yoke upon you . . .
I am gentle . . . you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
An easy yoke.
A light burden.

Walking with Jesus is still work.
There is a burden involved.
But this is an undertaking of grace.
The burden is lightened by the lavish grace of God.

God’s grace is abundant and unsparing.
But it is not, strictly speaking, a one-way transaction.
Receiving God’s grace is essential to complete it.
To say God’s grace is lavish and free
does not mean there are no expectations of us,
no discipline, no hard work, no repentance,
no painful transformation required.
Receiving God’s grace includes
a deliberate and sometimes difficult move on our part.
We place ourselves in a position
to receive the grace being offered.

The offering of grace is God’s move.
But receiving it is our work to do.
And it can be difficult work.
Even arduous.

But we are not alone in this work.
Graceworks is not private.
It’s personal, yes.
Each of us must receive it.
But it is not private.
Grace draws us into community.
We are a community of people living by God’s grace.
The grace we receive is a gift we share for the blessing of all.

Our work—digging soil,
building houses,
teaching students,
generating capital,
selling merchandise,
advancing science,
mowing grass,
visiting the sick,
preaching sermons,
our work is a response to God’s grace,
done in the service of God.

If we don’t see the work that we do—
whether paid or unpaid—
as contributing, in some small way,
to the reign of God on this earth,
then we ought to stop what we’re doing,
and find work that does.

Society may value some jobs more than others,
but God doesn’t look at it that way.
Every job—from ditch-digging to corporate decision-making—
is an opportunity to offer a gift to God.
We do it in the way we carry out our work,
in the manner we relate to our co-workers,
or even in what our work produces.

At its best, work is a worship-filled gift to God.
And gracework is a continual, everlasting cycle
of God’s grace enabling our work,
and our work returning to God as gift.

So let’s celebrate that!
First, with singing.
The hymn number is 526, but for now, just follow on the screen.
Because I want us to ponder the words we’re about to sing.

You are the God within life, present wheree’er we live,
closer than all our sighing, sustaining pow’r you give.
Inside our very bodies, you pump the blood of life;
rhythm in ev’ry heartbeat drums out the pulse of life.

There with us in the office; there when we’re tilling soil;
city, or town, or country, God joins us in our toil.
Hear how the ringing hammer joins with the keyboard’s clack—
echoes of God’s good labor, giving our answer back!

With us in joy and sorrow, you raise us when we fall;
you join us in our struggles, seeking the good of all.
With us as child and elder, through all of life’s brief course,
your love gives us our being, our center, and our source.

O God of earth and heaven, we serve you where we are.
We love you in all people, we praise you in your world!

Let’s sing together!

—Phil Kniss, September 3, 2023

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