SMC – Easter 3 2019
It’s a well-known fact, of course, that priests only work on Sundays - you’re meant to laugh at that, knowing it’s not true! But it is undoubtedly what a lot of people think. And I want to think about work this morning and first of all to define what work is. In the terms of this sermon and theology more generally work is not just what we are employed to do. Even if you are unemployed or retired you will have work in this sense to do: be it chores or housework or errands or contacting people or some task or other to be done: reading, writing, thinking, talking and a whole host other of things can be considered then to be work. So when I talk about work this morning, that’s what I mean.
As always, it’s best to start with what we learn with the creation of man and woman in the beginning. And here in Genesis 1 - 3 we see humanity being given work as a gift: God says let humanity “have dominion” (1:26), we are to “fill the earth and subdue it,” 1:28), Adam is placed in Eden “to till it and keep it” (2:15) and so God brings the animals to Adam to name them (2:19). Work is therefore an intended and original part of God’s plan for us, part of our sharing in the image of God who lovingly creates the world and reflects on what He has done and sees it is very good.
But work is then corrupted by sin entering the world. So we hear, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it … by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:17-19). One of the difficulties with work and tasks we undertake when they go wrong is the sense of powerlessness we often have, feeling unable to improve things, like a surge of forces are working against us. It is good, surely, for us to remember that work is a good thing corrupted by sin and therefore if we approach it in a holier way it will be easier to bear because it is indisputably part of the economy of life on earth.
We might have been surprised to hear of St Peter in our Gospel today returning to his old work of being a fishermen, after all, our Lord had called him and Peter had left everything and followed Him (Luke 5:1-11) and, as Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). St Augustine of Hippo, writing on this passage, notes that if it had been recorded between the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we might have imagined that St Peter had returned to work in despair, because he’d thought all was lost (Tractates on the Gospel of St John 122). But no, it’s an important reminder that there was nothing incompatible with the life of work and the life of apostleship, of being sent out. St Paul is another important reminder of this combining of the commitments of work and tasks and things to do with the life of the Christian. St Paul was a tentmaker, he who wrote so much of the New Testament, and travelled round converting and winning souls for Jesus. He kept up this work so that he was not a financial drain on the Church (I Thessalonians 2:9).
When Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum, Of New Things, in 1891 he proposed that work was at heart about acquiring things and that there was nothing wrong with that. He wrote primarily about employed work, I think, but it is nonetheless a helpful reminder that there is nothing wrong with us acquiring things: God’s promise to Abraham is to possess a land (Genesis 15:18-21). God blesses human beings with possessions not in the sense that what we have is a reward from God, but in the sense that by the very fact that we can possess things God is saying something positive about our relationship with Him to whom all honour and glory belongs. Cats and dogs might try and take over a home but they cannot own things in the same way. Whereas our ability to possess things, shows how wonderfully made we are by God who bears us in His heart.
Remembering that work leads so often to possessing things informs us of one of the dangers of work, namely the spirit of jealousy or envy. The Tenth Commandment is to be before us always: “Do not covet your neighbour’s house.” (Exodus 20:17). It’s a sin we can record when we fall into it, ready to admit to it when we make a Confession. Jealousy is fear of losing something we have already and acting out of that fear: What if I lose my home because of this or that? What if I cannot afford Sky TV? Whereas envy is to long for something of someone’s else: I want to be go on that big, expensive holiday like so-and-so. I wish I got all those amazing results in my exam papers. These are sinful thoughts and can lead us to hardness of heart and refusing to share what we have and refusing to recognise it is ultimately from God.
Perhaps because of this danger, our Saviour works on the assumption that there will be an agreed amount that we will be paid when we work. It’s an analogy deep with the teachings on the kingdom and final judgement. Think, for example, of the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard where the workers begin begin by agreeing with the landowner the usual daily rate (Matthew 20:1-16). That the amounts are set in advance instructs us not to be greedy.
Our second reading, from the Apocalypse of St John, was a wonderful reminder that the angels in Heaven have their jobs too. I love some of those baroque churches where you see angels scrabbling around with little tasks, like propping up Mary ascending into Heaven. You see these roles in our own Chancel too, where angels are blowing trumpets. and clanging cymbals. Angels are spirits and they become angels specifically when they are sent with a message. In our Study Group on Tuesday evenings, we’ve seen angelic messengers sent to receive hospitality from Abraham and then to pronounce judgement on Sodom and to rescue Lot from its destruction (Genesis 18). And most recently we saw an angel sent to comfort Hagar as she escaped from the wrath of Sarah (Genesis 16). In that second reading we saw another of the great labours of those spirits who before the throne of God, praise Him: this is their all-encompassing task. At the Mass, when we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord” we are joining in with that song of adoration, the work of angels.
There is much wisdom in seeing our prayer life as work, our offering of this and every Mass, our efforts to care for the sick and to draw others closer to Christ. I fear the danger is that we see religion as a hobby and so something comes along and blows the commitments of our faith away. We’re taught this by the fact that the Church refers to Morning and Evening Prayer, the Office of Readings, Midday Prayer, Night Prayer as the Divine Office. This word office has the sense of a duty, something that we do to fulfil the obligations of an office or a post we have, just like postmen and women deliver letters, or teachers teach. Priests and monks and nuns are bound to say these Offices; they are part of what they are obliged to do as their work. But it is a work all God’s people can partake of. Last Sunday in my annual report, of which there are copies at the back of Church, I lamented that fewer people on average came to the 10am Mass on a Sunday in 2018 than in 2017. That’s in part because members of our congregation come less frequently and because some have stopped coming all together. But I was able to be glad in that report to celebrate that a better number come each day and come each Sunday to Morning Prayer, to say together the Office. I love that about our life together here at St Mary’s.
A friend of mine, with whom I sometimes travel, when we’re out and about sometimes says something like, oh well, we’d better keep God happy and say Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer or whatever it might be. He could be accused of being a bit irreligious with this notion of doing something to keep God happy, but I find it helpful to remember that our obligations as Christians will sometimes feel exactly like that and that’s not a bad thing. It will be like a job we have to do, something we have to suffer. But, as St Paul reminded us on the Feast of the Martyr St George this past week, “sufferings bring patience, patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope and this hope is not deceptive” (Romans 5). May our labours, our efforts, our chores, our worship, our work bring us hope. Amen.