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Our Job

Written by Pastor Dan Wilfrid. Posted in Sermons

Pentecost 13 (A)  Matthew 16:21-28

 

On this Labor Day weekend, when our nation pauses to celebrate meaningful work and those who do it, it might help us to hear God’s word for us in today’s Bible readings more clearly, if we listen to them as a job description for the baptized, the labor that amounts to a fitting response to the love God has poured out on the world and into us in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

 

Listen to how Jesus describes it. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Without being very specific, Jesus surely is offering a job that he wants us to know won’t be easy. It will require self-denial, sacrifice and obedience. The labor of a Christian life in this world is hard, sometimes painful, perhaps sometimes so costly that you might wonder if it’s worth it, but it’s also and above all an invitation to live your life close to Jesus, to follow him, walk beside him through this world on the way to the new world he promises.

 

On Labor Day Sunday, Jesus’ words remind us that we who have been baptized into his church have work to do, challenging, meaningful, hard yet holy work.

 

For the specifics of that job description, we turn to the Apostle Paul and the twelfth chapter of his Letter to the Romans. Last Sunday, we listened to the first 8 verses. Today we get verses 9-21, but really the whole chapter is a detailed job description for the baptized. In fact, it would be a valuable spiritual exercise to sometime this Labor Day weekend sit down and read this 12th chapter of Romans yourself and ponder the holy work it describes, work that Paul says will make us into transformational change agents in our world, instead of complacent conformists to its prevailing values and powers.

 

 

For now, just listen again to the list in today’s portion. You might want to work through it with me by following along on page 3 of your bulletin. Jesus has hired us, called us, baptized us into a job that includes practicing genuine love, hating what is evil and holding fast to what is good. And since we’re each only one part of a large group with the same calling, as we work together, we are also expected to love one another with mutual affection and invited as we do that to engage in some good-spirited competition: trying to outdo one another when it comes to showing honor.

 

In this holy job, we are asked to work hard and expected to not goof off, to not lag in zeal, to be ardent in spirit, to be patient in suffering and to persevere in prayer. As en employee of Jesus, our job is also to be generous with both our resources and our welcoming spirit, contributing when we see needs and hospitable to strangers. Blessed by Jesus, we are expected to spread blessing, even to those who make our job harder by responding to our generosity with ridicule or thwarting our hospitality with rejection and hatred.Our job is to live in harmony with others, especially by avoiding the temptation to think of ourselves too highly or others as too lowly, both attitudes being such powerful harmony hinderers.

 

Employees of the Jesus who himself responded to evil with a cry from the cross for God to forgive those who had done this to him, must also clear all tools of revenge from their workplaces. Evil received is not to be repaid in kind. Vengeance is not in our job description. God has simply not delegated that dangerous work to us. The way to respond to evil is with noble thoughts and to the extent that it’s in anyway in your control, you are charged with living peaceably with all.

 

In short, our job from Jesus in this life and in this world, is to not be overcome by evil, real and powerful though it may be, …to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good. Because Christ is risen, and because in that Easter victory we’ve seen that life IS stronger than death, and good IS stronger than evil, our job in this world is, in any way we’re presented with the opportunity, to enact that victory: to overcome evil with good.

 

All of that is our job description as Christians, our labor under Christ, the calling of our baptism…our daily work.

 

As good Lutherans, of course, this Labor Day analogy also needs the disclaimer that this work is not the way we earn God’s favor, or heaven, or any special status among the baptized. God’s love, the blessings of salvation and new and eternal life in Christ are not compensation but gift, already given freely and fully, including today at this holy table. The labor is partly our thanks for the gift, partly our way to be useful to the God who gave it, and partly the way to live close to the Christ who is himself the gift. In that sense, I guess it’s nothing less than what we usually call our dream job: a job you’d do even if they didn’t pay you to do it, a job so meaningful and rewarding that you can’t wait for Monday so that you can get started, a job filled with purpose and meaning and most of all, a job that made a real difference in the world, maybe even overcoming evil with good!

 

So don’t think of this job description as the requirements of a Christian life but rather as the possibilities it puts before you, and the vision God had for you and confidence God had in you when you were baptized into Christ. Just imagine how transformational our witness would be if we simply did our job of working to overcome evil with good. Again, as good Lutherans we’d want to confess that as a mix of saint and sinner, we’ll never get a perfect performance rating, but in our world, real transformation doesn’t require perfection, just a bunch of baptized people willing to do the job Christ has given them.

 

This past week, as tensions between our country and North Korea again escalated, and the evil of nuclear conflict is being seriously pondered on both sides, I read in Time magazine an article about the little known fact that there are about 200 Americans living and working in North Korea right now, and who have been for years, and who want very much to stay. Carefully monitored by the North Korean government, they have come and gone from that mostly isolated and closed country for years, as the article says “doing educational, medical or infrastructure work, and sometimes raising families” there.

 

Most of them are there under the sponsorship of Christian organizations or agencies, though they must follow very carefully the clear rules that prohibit preaching or proselytizing or politics. In Christian faith, as what they understand to be the labor of their faith, they live the job description of Romans 12, despite the criticism that their work, even if aimed at relieving illness and suffering among the North Korean people, still indirectly helps sustain the country’s evil regime.

 

Their answer to that criticism is that they also provide some human contact between two countries with almost none, and provide a potential bridge or pathway that could perhaps become an alternative to warfare. In short, they are laboring to overcome evil with good.

 

Can it work? Can it transform an ugly and evil threat to our entire world into something beautiful and good? It’s hard to see how, or to believe it will, but if we’re people who believe that Christ is risen, it really shouldn’t be that much of a stretch for us, and a kind of labor force we can be a part of right here in our own communities and workplaces.

 

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers,” (and employ their lives and talents and resources to fulfill this job description), “let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” Let them hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good. Let them not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Evil may be powerful and have sharp and effective tools, but you mustn’t use them yourselves. You have better, stronger tools in your toolbox, like feeding hungry enemies, giving thirsty enemies something to drink. Doing good, real tough, hard, powerful good whenever and wherever you can.

 

As people baptized into Christ, we can celebrate Labor Day by remembering that our most important and urgent job is to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good. AMEN