A Sermon for Labor Day

My favorite teacher – one of my favorite human beings – was the late Joseph Sittler, Lutheran pastor, first class scholar and, for years Professor of Theology at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. In the world of religious scholarship in the last decades of the 20th Century, Sittler was a major voice. He was remarkable. He had vision problems for years. At the end he was totally blind. By the time I was a student in the 1960’s his sight had deteriorated to the extent that he could no longer read or see his lecture notes. And so, he lectured – and preached – without notes. And out of his mind and his mouth came the most eloquent language, complete, complex sentences, and long passages of poetry – T. S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, ancient and modern theologians and sizable chunks of book reviews, essays and newspaper editorials. I never heard anything like it.

I think about Joe Sittler a lot, particularly when Labor Day rolls around, which it will next weekend. I think of him at this time of year because he loved the 90th Psalm. He said that as literature, poetry, Psalm 90 is almost perfect. And the content, he said, encompasses the entirety of our faith….

 

God and God’s eternity…”From everlasting to everlasting you are God.”

Life’s transience ….”Like grass it is renewed in the morning, in the evening it withers.”

God’s unconditional love ….”Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.”

Salvation, Joy, contentment….”Make us glad so that we rejoice all our days.”

And most essential, most important Sittler said, the last verse, the climax, the summation….”Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us and prosper the work of our hands. O, prosper the work of our hands.”

 

Work. The work of our hands. Psalm 90 concludes by asking us to think about what we do with the years allotted to us. From sublime theology the Psalmist turns to the mundane matter of daily work, the work of our hands.

It is an important topic for us who live in a retirement community particularly. Our work, the work we did for 40, 50 years is done. Not all of us but most of us are retired. But what fascinating work we used to do. Whenever new residents arrive, we receive a single page bio and picture. When I place the new arrivals in the three-ringed binder I make sure to observe not only where they lived and how many grandchildren they have, but also the work they did. It’s impressive: Health Care Workers and Physicians, Attorneys, University Professors, Homemakers, C.E.O.’s, Flight Attendants, Financial Managers, Accountants, Actuaries, Stockbrokers, Teachers, Architects, even a couple of clergy.

And most of us have this in common: We are not working at those professions and occupations any longer. We are no longer doing what we did for 40 or 50 or more years.

One time after he retired from the faculty of the University Divinity School, Professor Sittler sat for an interview on the topic of “Aging and Spirituality.” It can be a “crisis of identity” he said. “You know it’s characteristic socially that the first thing you say to someone after meeting is “And what do you do?” Well, when you don’t do anything in American society, who are you?”

A certain loss of identity goes along with retirement for most of us and I suspect that we all have experienced at least some of that. But Sittler concluded that it is something more than our jobs, our professions. “Prosper the work of our hands. O, prosper the work of our hands” is about more than our careers.

Our vocation, our true vocation is far more than our work. The Psalmist’s “work of hands” encompasses far more than the hours we put in and for which we were compensated. Sittler taught that your vocation is to live every precious day of your life fully, to love without reservation, to love and serve your neighbors and because we are Christians, because we believe that resurrection is a reality, to live – always in hope.

After he retired and was totally blind Sittler quietly lived out the final admonition of the Psalm he loved so much by planting trees around the University campus, trees he would never see in their maturity, but would grow and provide shade and give beauty because he planted them – a lovely fulfillment of his beloved Psalm.

“O, prosper the work of our hands.” Let’s think about work, even though ours is done. An entertaining thing to do on the subject of work is to remember and list all the jobs you have had in your life time. You might consider doing it in preparation for Labor Day. A friend of mine, Episcopal Priest and College Professor, Barbara Brown Taylor gave me the idea. She did it and came up with 17 jobs in all: “babysitter, Avon Lady, horseback riding instructor, cocktail waitress, Hospital Chaplin, pastor, college instructor” 17 jobs in all. She says she hasn’t given up on her secret job goal. – Cirque du Soleil – not as an acrobat she hastens to add. She’d be happy selling tickets.

When I read that, I put the book down and made my own list. You could do it next week, celebrate Labor Day by remembering all the work you have ever done, including what you may be doing now. On my list are 27 jobs for which I have been paid money. I won’t bore you with the entire list but it includes: delivering newspapers, bagging cookies at a small local bakery, along with two other adolescent boys in a way that would horrify the Federal Food Safety and Inspection Service, digging ditches and cleaning sewers for the City Water and Sewer Department, delivering the U.S. mail at Christmas, working on road construction, on the production line at the Ford Stamping Plant in Chicago Heights. Barbara Brown Taylor’s secret job goal is selling tickets for Cirque du Soleil. Mine is driving a city bus. I marvel at the skill of bus drivers maneuvering those behemoths in busy traffic.

The Work of Our Hands. Our faith tradition has always included the conviction that God has something to do with the matter of our work – vocation, calling which is what the word vocation means. But how? How does it happen? How do you know what you are meant to do and who God wants you to be? And, most relevant of all, does any of this have anything to do with us, who have completed our work? Could God possibly have anything more in mind for you and me?

Many people wait all their lives for a word from God, a moment of clear certainty about vocation. Barbara Brown Taylor says that she, like many people, used to think that there was one particular thing God wanted her to do with her life, that God had a singular and specific purpose for her and it was up to her to discern what it was. Like most of us, she wasn’t sure. She waited for a voice to tell her what to do. She went to seminary to discover the answer. She waited, meditated, prayed every night for God to speak. And then one night she said she heard a voice saying, “Do anything that pleases you….and belong to me.”

Well, it was a great moment. She realized that God gives each of us unique gifts, capabilities, competencies that suggest an overall purpose, but God leaves the particulars up to us, that God does not care whether she became an Episcopal Priest or a ticket seller for Cirque do Soleil, that it’s not what she did but how she did it and for whom. She was to belong to God, love God, love her neighbors. It seems to me that that is a very important idea for us who are retired but still have a lot of living to do.

In our tradition, everyone has a vocation, a calling. Everyone is called to love and glorify God, to love and serve neighbors. No job is more important, more essential in God’s economy, than any other job. God needs street sweepers, homemakers and factory workers. God needs pediatric surgeons, school teachers and plumbers, software designers, actuaries and seamstresses, clerks and lawyers and nuclear physicists. And, God needs clergy and God needs faithful, generous kind and loving retirees still living their lives, loving their lives as fully and passionately as possible.

Taylor is right on the money when she says that a mother who spends every waking hour changing diapers and wiping applesauce off chins needs to be reminded that she is engaged in the most absolutely essential job in the world – forming a human being. The school custodian is providing a clean and pleasant space for children to learn in the morning. The worker who turns the nuts on the bolts of the left front wheel of the car he is assembling is assuring that children will be driven to school in safety. And every one of us needs to know God needs people here who extend friendship, offer a caring word, listen and attend to the worries and joys and concerns of their neighbors.

I love something Presbyterian Minister and author Frederick Buechner said once. He said that “Your vocation is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

One day a young man was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. His name was Jesus. He was from Nazareth. He saw two men fishing. “Follow me” he said and they did just that. Simon and Andrew dropped their nets and followed. A little later he encountered two more fishermen sitting in their boat, working on their nets. “Follow me” and James and John stepped out of their boat and followed. There was no job description for following Jesus. There was just an invitation to walk with him. Notice that he did not ask them to stop being fishermen. In fact, they must have continued at their trade after they decided to follow him, earned a living for the rest of their lives, fishing and following, following while fishing. I love to think that Jesus didn’t stop working either, that he must have returned to Nazareth to help out in the family’s carpenter shop in between teaching and healing. I love to think that when his mother and family needed money for food he came home and built a table or a stool or dug a foundation and built a house for a customer.

The decision to follow him, then and now is to embrace your vocation – to belong to him, to live for him, to love him by loving the people God gives us to love, to be his woman, his man, for as long as we love.

 

O God, prosper the work of our hands.

O, prosper the work of our hands.

 
 

Comments

  1. I am grateful to God that the work of your hands continues to be writing, and that the work of your mind continues to be teaching about God’s word. Thank you very much.

  2. Donna Pemberton says:

    Perfect. Thank You SO Much! ~ Donna Pemberton

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. sharon mccarthy says:

    I remember a sermon you gave decades ago when I was living in Chicago. It was inspired from the passage in the New Testament about the invalid lying at the pool. Like the biblical passage, you concluded your sermon with the call to action: “pick up our mat and walk”. I never forgot it.  Stay well. Your work has not been forgotten.  Sharon  Sharon McCarthy202.906.9535 The 7 Pillars of a Modern Brand

  4. Carole Ogden says:

    Reading that brought back wonderful memories of sitting in a pew at Fourth for one of your inspiring Sunday sermons. How I miss those days and those sermons. Thank you for bringing back such treasured memories! Carole Ogden

  5. Barbara Fountain says:

    Wonderful John. I am passing this on to our retiring pastor.

  6. Karen McCracken says:

    Another beautiful and inspiring gift from you. Thank you, John.

  7. John, what a beautifully written, spiritually inspiring and emotionally helpful essay you wrote! When I traveled in Europe for an extended period of time, I observed that no one asked, “what do you do?” The questions had more to do with one’s passion . . . similar to Buechner’s quote. I refer to my work as an avocation because I have not earned an income for many years. Thus, attaining the age of retirement has not been a significant or difficult change for me. However I forwarded this essay to friends who are struggling with the transition. I immediately received responses back thanking me. I thank you in return for your insights. May you continue to share your thoughts with your many friends. God speaks to us through your vocation of writing.

  8. Mary Overman says:

    Absolutely beautiful and inspiring. This reminds me of a quote from Howard Thurman – something like, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Please keep writing and sharing your thoughts!

  9. bandhdmitchellbmm0226 says:

    Thanks John, love the Buechner quote. HD

  10. Among the things about Dr. Buchanan’s sermons I love and to which I have alluded in my third book, Unified Philosophy, are those in which he talks of how the kingdom of God is revealed.

  11. I’ve live with joy as I have found my purpose in life!!

  12. Evan Farrar says:

    Thank you John! I read this on the way to worship on Sunday morning. A reminder of how much I loved and treasured the times I heard you preach while on staff at 4th.

  13. Dear John Buchanan, It is beyond wonderful to be able to hear your words again. Thank you so much for sharing them on occasion! Your comment about wanting to drive a CTA bus really made me smile and has stuck with me. This article is about another wonderful man putting your desire into practice! Thank you for everything all these years. I quote your words “Hold to the Good”often, even to myself! Gratefully, Clare
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2021/10/18/fbi-bus-driver-virginia-mason/?utm_campaign=wp_the_optimist&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_optimist&carta-url=https%3A%2F%2Fs2.washingtonpost.com%2Fcar-ln-tr%2F3506d5e%2F617013209d2fda9d4119f68d%2F596c060bade4e24119c139f1%2F13%2F50%2F617013209d2fda9d4119f68d

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