(Colossians 3: 1-4, 8-17)
Irish novelist George Moore writes in one of his late 19th century works about Irish peasants building roads in the Great Depression. For a while everything was going great – the men worked heartily, glad to have jobs, singing their Irish songs as they went about their labor. The roads were progressing along nicely. That is, until some of the workers began noticing that the roads they were working so hard on led nowhere – literally running into bogs or simply ended abruptly. As word of this worked its way back to the masses, the truth gradually dawning on them, the men grew listless. They stopped singing. They worked, but not nearly as efficiently, and with little of the joy they had before.
In summary Moore offers up this poignant thought: “The roads to nowhere are difficult to build. For a man to work well and sing as he works, there must be an end in view.”
Makes sense, right? Whatever we do in life, whatever “roads” we build in the course of our days, we are, by design, creatures needing a purpose and a point to who we are and what we do.
Today marks the beginning of a new sermon series for five weeks titled, “Finding God In Everyday Places. In these sermons, Grace and Bill and I hope to delve into the mystery of faith and where we encounter faith in places other than church. We want to look through the lens of scripture to see where God can be found in at least five places:
In our work
In our play
In our stewardship
In our civic duty
And in our relationships with one another.
We start with work. Which is a loaded word, don’t you think? Merriam-Webster defines work like this – are you ready? An activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something; sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective; the labor, task, or duty that is one’s accustomed means of livelihood; and a specific task or assignment often being a part of some larger purpose.
Wow, that’s a mouthful! I wonder if we’d be better off, for today, to simply say that work is:
Our jobs Our school studies Our errand-running Our to-do lists
In other words, a significant portion of our waking hours! The statistics bear it out: according to a recent CNN report, most Americans employed full-time work on average 47 hours a week, or the equivalent of six work days. Four out of ten of us work north of 50 hours a week.
And what about school? Well, when you factor in preschool/T-K programs, and a study that suggests it takes on average six years for most to achieve their college degree, you’re talking between 18 and 20 solid years of schooling – and that’s not including possible graduate degrees. And when it comes to the actual hours, another study finds that most young kids, regardless of the school schedule, spend on average 943 hours a year in the classroom.
You want statistics on the hours we spend running errands and completing to-do-lists? Well, I can’t find any. My hunch is that we are so busy running errands and completing to-do lists that we don’t have time to conduct studies on them! I do know this – on any given workday, I have two or three errands I need to run either on a lunch break or on my way to or from work. Haircuts. The cleaners. Grocery store runs. Doctor’s appointments. Banking. And then when I get home, there’s grass that needs to be mowed, new plants that need watering, a dishwasher to empty, a toilet to fix, some middle-school math homework to attempt to decipher….
You get the picture, stats or no stats: we are busy people. We work a lot.
And it’s not just the time factor. According to a recent Gallup poll, 55% of American workers claim that they get a significant part of their self-identity and self-worth directly from their work. That of all the identities we have in life – parent, child, neighbor, church member, volunteer, you name it – our jobs often serve as the most significant identity. Which begs the question: what happens when we lose our job, or make a career change? Or what happens when the degree we’ve spent years and years pouring our life into is finally achieved – what next? When our identity is wrapped up so heavily in what we do, how do we ever figure out who we really are?
That’s why I think it’s important that we consider where we find God in our work – if for no other reason that our work, our “doings” take up significant chunks of our life and contribute in consequential ways to our sense of who we are.
And I realize something as I bring this up. I realize that, for the vast majority of my professional life – 23 years and counting, nearly half my life – I’ve known only church work, either as a pastor or studying to be one. Now I want to be clear when I say this that I’m not suggesting that church work isn’t work. Church work is work in the workiest way work can be! As I like to answer people when they ask how things are going at Trinity, I say, “Well, I’m not bored!” And then I tell them things are going great.
Still, I recognize that, in working in a church, a large part of my job is helping people make connections to God and their faith in daily life beyond just Sunday morning. And that’s where I’m at a bit of a disadvantage, y’all – because I have little idea what it’s like finding God in work as a lawyer. Or a teacher. Or a sales rep. Or a land developer, or a banker, or a self-employed business person, or retired. And it’s been a good while since I’ve been a student.
So where do we find God in our work and labor, regardless of what vocation we’ve been called to?
That is a fundamental question that I think, at our heart, we all long to ask and answer. Peter Bynum, a friend of mine and senior minister at First Presbyterian up in Concord, preached at the Dean’s Advisory Council of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte this past week. And at one point in his sermon he said this: People may spend most of their lives mired in the human things, but every one of us longs deep within for the divine.
It’s precisely what the writer of Colossians is trying to get across to the church there. And it’s important to understanding the context of his letter to them. Colossae was a trade-heavy, cosmopolitan city in the heart of modern-day Turkey. Like many of the letters we read in the New Testament, the church there was facing various challenges – mostly from a group of leaders who’d taken up residence, preaching an overly-legalistic version of faith that incorporated a heavy emphasis on ascetic practices, dietary laws, and other strict codes for living.
It seems to resonate with our fast-paced, work-obsessed society that defines us less by who we are and more by what we do.
The writer of Colossians wants to counter that. His message is clear: society and the culture at large seek to define us by our “doings. But God doesn’t do that. God seeks a deeper knowledge, way beneath the surface, one that gets to the heart of the matter, one’s literal heart, even.
And for the writer, the perfect way to capture this is with baptism. The language of baptism runs throughout his letter, both directly and implicitly. So if you have been raised with Christ – think full-immersion baptism here, raised out of the water – if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is. Above, out of the water, out the chaotic deep that threatens to engulf our very sense of self. We, through Christ, are above that. And there is no dietary law or set of codes or prescribed restriction that lifts us there. It is Jesus Christ himself, naming and claiming us in our baptized state.
And what are the real-life implications of our baptized state? Our writer lays it out beautifully:
Dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other. Let the Word of Christ have the run of the house – give it plenty of room. Let every detail —words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God every step of the way.
There’s an old story about the early days of the Ford Motor Company. One of the machinists in the company had a habit of “borrowing” various tools and automobile parts over the years, despite the fact that it was against company policy and management did nothing about it.
Well, one day, as the story goes, the machinist experienced a religious conversion of sorts and was baptized in his new church. And from that point on, he chose to take his baptism seriously. The very next day, he gathered up all the tools he’d collected over the years, loaded them in his pickup, took them to the plant and presented them to the foreman with his confession and request for forgiveness.
The foreman was so overcome by his honesty that he cabled Henry Ford himself, who was visiting a European plant. After recounting all that happened, Ford immediately cabled back with this response: “Dam up the Detroit River and baptize the entire plant!”
That’s what baptism does to you, if you let it. It’s like getting a whole new wardrobe of not fancy clothes but clothes that fit you well and reveal your true self. Baptism – and not our “doings” – defines who and whose we are. And when that identity is defined for us, the living-it-out comes as easily as water from the font flowing off our fingertips.
Okay – maybe not that easily. Whatever work our lives entail – jobs, schools, errands, to-do-lists – it’s not always easy finding God in them and living as baptized people. Precisely because, I think, not everyone around us has experienced the same. Like Peter Bynum preached, we are people mired in human things – but we long, absolutely long for the divine. We are thirsty for it.
And baptism quenches that thirst in the most profound way: we are named and claimed by God. As we go throughout our day, in our work and our labors, in everything life can possibly throw at us, nothing – not a thing – can or will ever change the fact that we are named and claimed by God. No deadline, no brokered deal, no final exam, no endless list of tasks can ever change that. We are, at our very heart, baptized children of God.
We just forget it from time to time.
Most of us have no memory of our baptism, anyway – baptized as babies. Do you know why we baptize babies in the Presbyterian church? It’s not just because it’s cute. I’ll always remember what my pastor growing up told me. He said we baptize babies because it’s a way of acknowledging that we are welcomed into the embrace of the community of faith, and into the embrace of Almighty God, long before we are even aware those things exist. Think about how powerful that is. Think about what it means to be named and claimed before you’ve done a thing other than eat and sleep and….you know what else.
I mean, really! That’s what baptism does. We just need to be reminded of it. Reminded of how God loves and embraces us as we go to work, as we go to school, as we run errands and scratch things off the to-do list. God loves us before we’ve done any of those things. God loves.
Which is why I want to finish today’s sermon, in lieu of our Affirmation of Faith, with a Reaffirmation of our Baptismal Vows. A reminder of what God did for us long ago, and still does for us every day. In a minute I’m going to move down to the baptismal font, and I want to invite you to turn to page 21 in your pew hymnal. I’ll say a few words to open up and will cue you when your time comes to join in.
Baptism is an incredible thing.
In baptism, we proclaim: You are a child of the covenant. God’s promises are for you.
We do it because Jesus tells us to –
“Go and make disciples,” he says, “baptizing them
in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
And we do it because we need it.
In a world where life is hard,
where relationships struggle,
where people let us down,
where we let ourselves down,
we need to be reminded that God is faithful always.
In that sense, baptism is actually more about God than it is about us.
So here is what happened.
Whether you were a baby or a teenager or an adult,
whether you answered questions yourself
or someone answered them for you,
whether you remember it or not,
what happened is this:
You were surrounded by people who care about you.
And water washed down on your head and into your heart,
and someone said that they wanted you to be part of God’s love.
And God looked at you and said:
“You always have been.
You always will be.”
That promise is what we remember and celebrate today.
I invite you now to follow along with me on pg. 21 of your hymnal as we reaffirm our baptismal vows together:
Trusting in the gracious mercy of God,
Do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
If so, please say, “I renounce them.”
(I renounce them).
Who is your Lord and Savior?
(Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior)
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple,
Obeying his word and showing his love?
(I will, with God’s help)
Will you devote yourself
To the church’s teaching and fellowship,
To the breaking of bread and the prayers?
(I will, with God’s help)
Let us pray: Gracious God, by water and Spirit
You claim us as your own,
Cleansing us from sin and giving us new life.
You made us members of your body, the church,
Calling us to be your servants in the world.
Renew in all of us here the covenant you made in our baptism.
Continue the good work you have begun in us.
Send us forth in the power of your Spirit
To love and serve you with joy,
And to strive for justice and peace in all the earth
In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 John Haughey, S.J., The Conspiracy of God (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973), 35.
 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/work?utm_campaign=sd&utm_medium=serp&utm_source=jsonld, visited on 10.3.2016.
 http://money.cnn.com/2015/07/09/news/economy/americans-work-bush/, visited on 10.4.2016.
 http://www.franklin.edu/blog/how-long-will-it-take-to-earn-my-college-degree/ and http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/american-kids-will-spend-an-average-of-943-hours-in-elementary-school-this-year/, visited on 10.4.2016.
 http://www.gallup.com/poll/175400/workers-sense-identity-job.aspx, visited on 10.5.2016.
 Selected verses from Colossians 3, The Message version.
 http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?item_topic_id=1013, visited on 10.3.2016.
 Adapted from liturgy created by Village Presbyterian Church Associate Pastor and fellow By The Vine member Jenny McDevitt.