Jim Zazzera, Faith Presbyterian Church
My dad loved his work. Or at least that’s the impression I got. Most of his life he worked as a warehouseman and a waiter. He stacked boxes and filled up freezers on the night shift, and he served Reuben sandwiches at a country club café during the day. His work was not glamorous and it could be grueling, and many of us might find it rather mundane and boring. But Nick Zazzera gave himself to his work. And from all I could see he found it fulfilling and meaningful.
Often these days when I go to Target or Bel-Air, I will ask the cashier how her or his day is going. Most times, I get one of two responses: The first is: “Great! My shift is almost over!” The second is: “Its okaaaay…I’ve still got seven more hours to go!” Either way, the message is that work is something to be endured, that work is a burden we must all bear, that work is a kind of curse we all live with.
If I am honest, I often find myself identifying more with the grumbling clerks
than with my humble and satisfied father.
So which is it, blessing or curse? Does work give us meaning or is it something painful we just need to suffer through to get to the good stuff of life? Last week, Jeff made a wonderful case that work is one of God’s original blessings. And I fully agree with that affirmation. Yet still we all know well that work is not always easy, not always meaningful, not always problem free. So how could God give us work as a blessing—and still have it be so difficult?
Again, as we seek wisdom—the early pages of Genesis, the foundational stories of the Bible—are a great place to start. Genesis 3—the story of the fall, the story of what comes after paradise, the story of how human sin has its start—describes the result of human disobedience in lurid detail. What was intended to be—is now distorted. Though the humans didn’t literally die (as was promised) the workings of their world began to fall apart.
And things fall apart in response to human disobedience and sin. “Because you have done this,” starts God’s comment to the serpent. “Because you have listened to the woman” and “eaten of the tree that I commanded you not to,” God says to the man…
Because you have done this—things will begin to change, to disintegrate, and to die. Brokenness appears, disharmony reigns, and relationships break.
Nowhere is it more prevalent than in the good gift of work. God’s words to the man describe this well; “cursed is the ground” (so your farming will become difficult), you shall eat what you grow only after much “toil,” “thorns and thistles” will stand in your way and you shall only harvest by the “sweat of your face.” In short, life gets incredibly harder, and work gets increasing more difficult.
As we read this – I hope we are thinking beyond what is obvious here. What God is saying here is not just a comment on ancient farming life, but applies every bit as much to IT managers, lobbyists, and teachers. What God is saying to the man and the woman is a description of the results of our sin in ALL the many ways we work. This story is a reminder that every human endeavor is tainted by our sin and brokenness. This reality of the human condition stands as the background to all we do.
In short, though work was given as a blessing of God, human sin makes it infinitely harder to enjoy this blessing than it may have had to be.
Again, work is a blessing, not a curse in itself. But at some level, because of sin, our work will feel as if it is cursed. Studs Terkel puts it this way in describing his book entitled Working:
This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.
Pastor & Author Ben Patterson adds this comment:
Clearly something has gone wrong with work. God made us to be workers, not “walking wounded.” From the beginning [God] gave us work as a gift and a blessing, and essential ingredient of our humanness. It was [God’s] original intent that we live to work, not work to live. But for many the opposite is true; work is something they do to live, period—if you can call it living. What went wrong with work?
Like so many things in life, sin distorts a good gift. Our own self-centeredness robs us of a blessing.
So let me continue with a little more bad news (and I promise I won’t stay here). Let me offer thoughts on four “problems” that we often experience with work. These ideas are not original to me, but come from a pastor/author named Tim Keller. I think his thoughts here are spot on.
Keller sees four ways that work becomes a problem for us. For him the problems are:
- Work can be fruitless.
- Work can seem pointless.
- Work can be selfish.
- Work can reveal our idols.
Work is often experienced as fruitless. We have already listened to the story of the fall in Genesis, where the descriptions of the fate of humanity point to the results of disobedience. Toil, thorns, thistles, conflict, pain, and control. And even though the word “sin” is never mentioned in this story, we can easily see the disintegration that comes from sin in our own lives. Think about it, how often are your hopes for your work more than you can accomplish? How frequently does it seem like you are working in a system that is stacked against you? How often does it seem that nothing works as it should? We believe we are creating conditions for good things in our work, but so often the fruit doesn’t come.
You write your portion of the report – but someone else fails to complete theirs. You intend to show up at the meeting on time – but life gets in the way. You reach out to someone who is supposed to be part of your team – but she has better things to do. You serve the customer’s every need – but he is unhappy anyway. You do everything you know to do — but your work remains fruitless.
Work can also be experienced as pointless, without purpose. The philosopher of the Hebrew Bible, puts it this way in the Book of Ecclesiastes:
So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
Or as another translation puts it:
I hate life. As far as I can see, what happens on earth is a bad business. It’s smoke—and spitting into the wind.
Pretty brutal! But isn’t that what we feel some times? (I love the Bible’s honesty here.)
To be fair, it is possible that some work does not make a responsible contribution to our world—and really is pointless. But what about most responsible work activities? What is the point of being a toll collector at a bridge? Or a teacher to children who never seem willing to learn? Or a factory worker who inserts the same circuit board in the same box every day? Or a salesperson who only gets rejection for hour after hour? You once believed you would make a contribution to the world. And you still try to seek meaning in everything, including your work—but so often it seems pointless.
And in a way, that is what brings us to the next problem that work creates. If we see little fruit, and things seem meaningless, then why not just take refuge in our own needs and desires? Why not just “take the money and run?”
We can see this vividly illustrated midway through the book of Genesis. Genesis 11 tells the story that we call the “Tower of Babel,” a kind of parable of how human beings want to relate to God. All of humanity was gathered into one place as one people. Then someone has the idea to build a city, and a “tower with its top in the heavens”—as if to imagine they could reach to where God was. Now listen to what these people say next:
…let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
Let us make a name for ourselves. Let’s make sure all creation is centered on us. Or to be more personal —“it’s all about me!” Isn’t this true in our work?
It’s my job. My salary. My vacation. My raise. My office. My stapler. My hours. My ideas. My pension. My success. My failure.
I am sure that what gets many of us through some days is simply knowing that we are getting a paycheck on the first and the 15th of every month. But I wonder whether that extreme self-focus leaves us empty? You look to your job to “make a name for yourself,” but in the end find that it is not enough to sustain life.
There is one final problem with work. One of those things that happens to us that we are reluctant to admit. And we get a hint about this from the first commandment…
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol… 
We often skip over these words, because for the most part we don’t have little ceramic idols that we worship in our homes. We generally don’t offer formal prayers to other Gods.
But as I look at my work, don’t I see idols all around? Do I enjoy the power my work gives me over other human beings? Do I thrill in the money and toys my job buys me? Do I treasure my job above all else because it is the only place I find meaning?
Does my job value loyalty over fairness? Does my work value stability over transformational change? Does my job affirm our culture without any critique of its weaknesses? Our jobs turn can turn into idols those things that are not God (power, privilege, wealth, etc.), and so take the wrong role in our lives.
About ten years ago, before I became one of your pastors, I had a job for an educational testing company. Though I am not proud of this, it is something that when I talk about it I generally reflect on with disdain. The job was, essentially, groups of college graduates, working for $10 an hour gathered in cubicles for 8 hours a day grading elementary, junior high, high school standardized tests and papers. Sadly, I usually speak about this job as if I am embarrassed to have done it.
Yet it was good work, meaningful work, responsible work. And oddly, when I was working on this sermon, that job came to mind. I found myself wondering why I had such a negative attitude about that work. I suspect maybe part of it was that I was experiencing parts of these same four problems I just described.
You see, to me, the work appeared fruitless, because I never saw the results in the lives of the young people. To me, the work appeared pointless, because I was suspicious of the whole process of standardized educational testing. For me, the work was selfish, because I mostly held the attitude that I was just in it for the money, for survival. And in the end, the work unmasked my idols (especially status), because I was doing this work as if I considered it beneath me.
You see, there was nothing wrong with the work itself, but sin, particularly my own sin, got it the way of it being satisfying, meaningful, and fulfilling.
So how do we get out of this dilemma? How is it we get beyond our own distorted view of work? What is the Good News that trumps all this bad news? Without preempting what Jeff will say next week, I would like to offer you one simple direction. (Though I do think there is far more to say than this.)
Most of us think that when our work experience is broken, that the next step is to look for a new job. No doubt, in some cases this is true. But in many cases new work is neither not possible nor necessary. Perhaps what we need is to stay in the same place, but with a new mind, a new attitude.
In the book of Romans, Paul the apostle is speaking to a church about the changes that can take place in our lives when we are in Christ. These are not just changes that take place after we die, but changes that can take place in our lives right now. These are not just changes that have to do with what we might call “spiritual life,”
but include every aspect of our lives, including our work.
Listen to these words from Romans 12:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Stay with that phrase “do not be conformed, but be transformed.” Because this is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Do not be conformed to believing your work is fruitless, because even in a broken world, God will produce good fruit. Be transformed. Do not be conformed to thinking your work is pointless, because God can supply purpose in every situation. Be transformed. Do not be conformed to focusing only on yourself, because God cares of about the good of all. Be transformed. Do not be conformed to trusting the idols that your work presents, because God is the only one worthy of real worship. In fact (and this is the key to it all) God is the only one in whom we find out true identity. Be transformed.
Work is a good and sacred act, even when it does not seem like it. Our mind, and work itself, can be transformed by the presence of the living God. Work fits into God’s plan and God wants to fit into our plans. One writer puts it this way:
The function of the spiritual life is not to escape into the next world; it is to live well in this one…Work and prayer are the opposite sides of the great coin of life that is both holy and useful, immersed in God and dedicated to the transcendent in the human.
Friends, though you may see problems, God is in your work. Though it may seem impossible, God wants to transform both your work and you. The only thing that’s left for us is to simply recognize it.
Next Step Questions
1. Read Genesis 3:8-19 again. What stands out to you, raises questions,
or makes you wonder?
2. Have you ever considered your work (or any part of it) a “curse?”
What is the difference (as Jim mentioned in the sermon) between work
being a “curse” and work being “cursed?”
3. What is the biggest problem your work ever created for you?
How did you resolve it?
4. Can you think of a time where your attitude toward your work changed
in a dramatic way? What caused that? Did it mark a permanent shift for you?
5. Jim spoke about four “problems” we can have with work:
Work can be Fruitless (without results) – see Genesis 3:17-19
Work can seem Pointless (without purpose) – see Ecclesiastes 2:17
Work can be Selfish (only seeking good for ourselves) – see Genesis 11:2-4
Work can Reveal our Idols (like wealth, power, security, etc.) – see Exodus 34:17
Do these make sense to you? Which one of these is most real for you?
Can you think of a situation where you struggled with one of these problems?
6. Think of one person you know of (other than yourself) who seemed to rise above
the problems associated with her/his work. What about that person made gave them fulfillment in his or her work?
7. Studs Terkel, in his book Working, said this:
Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.
Does this fit with thoughts from the Bible about work?
If so, how so? If not, why not?
8. Read Romans 12:1-2. What guidance and good news is here that might help us
in our approach to work?
 Studs Terkel, Working, from the introduction.
 Ben Patterson, The Grand Essentials, p. 28.
 Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor, pp. 83-152.
 New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), p. 15.
 Ecclesiastes 2:17, NRSV.
 Ecclesiastes 2:17, The Message.
 Genesis 11:4, NRSV.
 Exodus 20:2-4, NRSV.
 Romans 12:1-2, NRSV.
 Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict, p. 132.