A Labor of Love
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Mark 1:29-39
When I was in the fourth grade, I recall my teacher grumbling to a small group of us students during recess one day about the meager salaries that teachers receive. Now, I don’t recall the context for her remark and I’m not sure why a grown adult would complain to a group of 10 year olds about her salary. But, being a preacher’s kid, I responded that ministers, also, didn’t make much money; to which my teacher replied: “Yes. But ministry is a job of dedication.” Now, as the years have passed, I’ve thought about that response which seemed to imply that teaching is not a job that requires dedication. If you are – or have ever been a teacher – you know better. Teachers who do their job well are most certainly engaged in a labor of love.
This weekend is Labor Day weekend – which for some Americans may mean little more than getting an extra day off work. But, here’s some trivia for you. Fifteen years after Congress made Labor Day a national holiday, the American Federation of Labor, at their 1909 convention, passed a resolution that the Sunday of Labor Day weekend be designated Labor Sunday as “a day for churches to pray for workers and to raise congregations' awareness of issues of injustice surrounding workers' rights and wages.” For several years thereafter, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America would even issue an annual Labor Day sermon to be used in churches on Labor Sunday.[i] So, although we don’t generally consider Labor Day a “religious holiday,” perhaps it would be wise to reconsider our perspective.
Our universe began with God establishing a sacred rhythm of work and rest. Genesis, chapter 2, verses 2-3 tell us that:
On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
Creation, the Book of Genesis tells us, is “work” – work which brings about life – the life of our entire universe. And work which requires rest. So, this Genesis story teaches us something about the cycle and purpose of work and rest.
In our gospels, Jesus also works. In fact, in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “My Father is still working and I also am working.”[ii] Frequently, Jesus works on the Sabbath. And that doesn’t sit very well with the religious leaders who were real sticklers for those Old Testament “blue laws.” Yet, over and over again, Jesus counters their criticism with the affirmation that Sabbath is a time for doing good; a time for restoring life. The healing Jesus provides people is about more than simply removing physical symptoms. Sickness in Jesus’ culture separated people from one another and sickness – both then and now – interferes with people’s ability to carry out their work, to perform important tasks in service to others. So, when Jesus heals people, they’re also brought back into relationship with others and they’re able, once again, to perform a meaningful function, or do meaningful work for their community.
That’s what happens in the scripture we heard this morning from the gospel of Mark. Jesus is at Simon’s home. His mother-in-law is the matriarch of that household and, as such, has the honor and the privilege of providing hospitality for guests. And you could hardly have a more impressive guest than a rabbi like Jesus. But, she’s sick and her sickness interferes with her ability to honorably serve her guest. So, while we 21st century women might find it offensive that a woman who’s been sick in bed all day now has to prepare dinner for a house full of people, that’s not the way people would have interpreted this event in Jesus’ day. Jesus restores this woman to her honorable position and she is able to serve and minister to her guests.
Furthermore, this woman’s healing – the work that Jesus has done in her life – is confirmed by her service. Verse 31 tells us that “the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Now that word “serve” will become a key word in Mark’s gospel. Later in the gospel, just before Jesus is ready to enter Jerusalem where he’ll be put to death, two of his disciples – James and John – are vying for position. They ask Jesus to seat them on his right hand and his left hand when he comes into his glory. When the other ten disciples hear about it, they’re really steamed. That’s when Jesus says these words: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For,” says Jesus, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” To serve is to sacrifice ourselves for the well-being of others.
People of God, although we may not always think of it this way, work is more than a chore; work is more than arduous tasks we must perform in order to get a paycheck to secure our futures and supply our individual needs. Work, if we are followers of Jesus, is a visible expression of our discipleship. Work is a sacrifice of praise for what Jesus has done for us. How should we respond to what Jesus has done within our lives? We should respond by serving others as Peter’s mother-in-law does because service, particularly the demonstration of hospitality, serves to perpetuate the on-going cycle, the ongoing movement, of God’s grace in the world. When we serve others, whether we get paid for it or not, it is a visible expression of our identity as disciples of Jesus. Jesus restores us – Jesus ministers to us – so that we might minister to one another. In fact, the Greek word that is used in this passage can be translated either “serve” or “minister.” To minister is to serve others; to serve is to minister to the needs of others.
There is a lot of discussion these days about balance in people’s lives and healthy boundaries. Lots of books are written on the topic. But we really don’t need to look any further than this first chapter of the gospel of Mark to see the universal rhythm that God has established revealed through his son, Jesus. Some bible scholars note that this section of Mark presents a “day in the life” of Jesus. So notice the rhythm: the day, Sabbath day, actually begins with Jesus in the synagogue. Worship, friends, is always a good way to start our day. By that, I don’t mean you need to attend a church service every day. But taking time early in your day for praise and thanksgiving to God is always a wise start. From the synagogue, Jesus heads to the home of Simon Peter. The sickness of Simon’s mother-in-law disrupts the rhythm of the day. Her sickness will result in isolation and prevent her from practicing hospitality toward her honored guest and family. Jesus restoring her to health allows her to serve and to exercise hospitality. But notice, too: it provides a respite for Jesus; a time to recharge. At sundown people will walk to Simon’s home and gather at the door seeking healing from Jesus. It’s going to be a late night. Mark tells us the whole city was gathered around the door. Good thing Jesus has this time in the afternoon to sit with his disciples at table and be served and ministered to; strengthened by food and by fellowship. After the long night of working miracles and healing people, Jesus rises early the next morning, even while it’s still dark, and goes off to a deserted, quiet place, alone, for the purpose of prayer. His disciples hunt him down. He must have missed the day’s itinerary posted by the coffee pot. Doesn’t he realize there’s a fresh line of people waiting to get what he has to offer? But Jesus clarifies: those disciples are not the ones who establish his mission; God is who directs Jesus’ day. Through prayer, through quiet time with his heavenly father, Jesus discerns what the work, the service, of this new day should be.
Friends, far too often, we view work like my 4th grade teacher did: as a necessary evil; as something that short-changes us or frustrates us. And certainly I know that employment can be difficult. We still live in a society where many employees are not paid equitably or appreciated adequately. We still live in a society where some are underemployed and others are exploited with unreasonable demands. And we should not ignore those injustices; we should do all we can to institute social change.
But we can never afford – spiritually – to exclusively define “work” as the thing we do for our paycheck. Work is much more than that. Work is an opportunity, a holy privilege, to serve others in ways that provide an opening for the grace of Jesus to be at work in their lives. Let me say that again. Work, rightfully understood, provides an opportunity for us to serve others in ways that open the door for God’s grace. Work, when we understand it as service to others, is our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for what God has done for us. That is not a job; that is a lifestyle and one that we will affirm this morning when we prepare to receive Holy Communion. We will affirm the words, “we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us…”[iii] Our work, is an offering of thanksgiving for God’s grace in our lives, expressed as service to others so that they, too, can experience the grace of Jesus in their lives.
If you have a job, you probably have a job description and, to get your paycheck, you’re probably going to need to adhere to your job description. But that is your job; it may or may not be your work. Perhaps your work is something for which you are not given a pay check. Or, hopefully, your work is what you do that goes beyond that job description. Your work – our work – means pouring out our lives in service to others as Jesus poured out his life for us. And when we serve others – in humility, through gestures of hospitality and welcome – we widen the opening for God’s grace to work in the lives of others.
So I invite you to enter in to the rhythm of grace. To structure within your life times of worship and quiet prayer so you can rest and be still and better discern the work God is calling you to do. You might get a paycheck for it or you might not. It might be part of your job description or it might not be. But God calls us to be about the work of serving others. It is a promise we make when we join the church. We promise to participate in the ministries of the church through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our witness and our service. Jesus’ grace transforms our lives so that we might serve others. That is the work to which we are called. That is to be our labor of love.
[i] See https://sojo.net/articles/labor-sunday-what-can-we-do-honor-workers
[ii] John 5:17
[iii] The United Methodist Hymnal; 1989; Nashville, TN. page 10.
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