Text: Exodus 32:1-6
Theme Verse: "Aaron took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’”(Ex 32:4)
Someone noted that the number one response to the question, “How are you?” is “Busy.” Society seems to equate busy with important. This mentality plays itself out in our work by individuals pressing more and more to climb some imaginary ladder that is supposed to prove our worth. It’s subtler than stealing money or committing adultery where you can point to one moment or one act but making work priority one is sin no matter how we justify the reality. We shouldn’t make work an idol. Our ultimate value has to be grounded in Christ, not in our work.
reader: Giselle Chebny
preaching: Rev Mark Briley
Have you ever had a bad day at work? If you haven’t, I would love to meet you after worship today because your life must be awesome. Now – I’m a communion-glass-half-full, roll-with- things, make-the-best-out-of-the-situation sort of guy myself – but we all have off days, right? One gentleman, known on the social news networking site Reddit as TheOrangeDuke, had one of those days recently. Turns out it was the man’s first day on the job as an intern for a techie startup company. The light-hearted spirit of those working for the company stepped right in so as not to miss the opportunity the moment afforded. Here is TheOrangeDuke in all of his glory – day one of his new job – centered in the staff photo – totally asleep. The picture was posted on social media and a PhotoShop Battle ensued. Here are some of the creative battle results. Here’s the Duke on an episode of the Simpsons. Here he is offering an office concert as Sir Elton John. Here is the Duke sitting in a meeting with the Indonesian House of Representatives. The craze afforded TheOrangeDuke new historical status. You may not know he had a role in this Hollywood hit movie. And that role apparently elevated his celebrity status so much that he was a part of this A-list selfie. TheOrangeDuke has laughed about this with his colleagues noting it was just one of those days.1 Momma said there’d be days like this, right?
Here’s the thing we know about work. It’s hard sometimes. TheOrangeDuke gave us a light-hearted example as a way into a much more serious matter that we know to be true. Work is hard. And yet we’re often surprised by that. Jesus used a working example to describe the difficulty of following him faithfully. He said, “No one who puts their hand to the plow and then keeps looking back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Whoa. This is pretty intense and can be widely applied I suppose but it starts with this literal example of work. If you are plowing the ground, the ground will be hard. If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t need plowing. Jesus is saying, you won’t make it as a disciple without a little grit and determination. If you plow a few steps and then say, “Hey, this is hard, I think I’ll quit,” then nothing challenging would ever get accomplished. And the reality is, work is hard whether you’re volunteering to teach the kindergarten Sunday School class or playing mediator for a conflict at the office or dealing with cranky customers or coworkers or slow computers or faulty equipment. Expect challenges. Jesus says, “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Not just Monday’s or every other week, but each day. And here’s what is also true about each day: we live with the potential of partnering with the Spirit of God to bring the picture of the Kingdom of God into greater focus… OR… we have potential to abandon that effort for something less than that. High stakes if you ask me. Today, week two of our Faith@Work series, we take a look at the shadow side of life and the creep of sin in our work.
Sin falls into that second part of the larger narrative cycle that scripture shows us. The biblical narrative cycle is four-fold: creation, struggle (or sin), redemption, and restoration. We see this cycle throughout. Last week we considered work through the invitation to create which is the first part of the scriptural narrative cycle. We are created in God’s image. Thus, as God is Creator, a part of that creative image is reflected in our lives. The poetic narrative introduced in Genesis suggests that we have all of the tools and resources to work, to create, to bring about joy to God and in the world. It was a fun way to launch this series – to imagine the ways we were born to create and work and bring about the image of God in our everyday lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The second part of this cycle that shows up in our work is the struggle – the sin. It’s present and it can be painful. How does sin show up? For starters, we are fooling ourselves to think we don’t participate in this part of the cycle. There is no perfect office or corporation or non-for-profit or church or institution or five-year-old lemonade stand operator. I’ve seen it with my own eyes – just dilute that lemon powder a little bit more to boost profits. Is that sinful? Well…
For some the sin creeps up in our waning effort. I mentioned last week the Gallup poll that suggested 70% of people surveyed (250,000 participated in this) hated their jobs or felt totally disengaged. Gallup appropriated a military term to describe some who fell into this category calling them R.O.A.D. Warriors: Retired On Active Duty. Getting paid but not giving the effort. The organization said they worked often with the Internal Revenue Service and a common complaint from IRS employees was “I hate my job, but I only have 20 years left.” Have you ever thought that way? And I know… we all could say at some point, “But you don’t understand: I would be a better worker if I had a better boss or if I had a better job, or if I worked for that other grass-is-greener company or if my paycheck was bigger.”
There’s a story that has been around for a long time about a guy who becomes CEO of a certain company. He’s stoked… always dreamed of the opportunity. The outgoing CEO is kind enough to meet with him before departing and he says to the incumbent, “Congrats on the new role. I hope it goes well for you. I really do. If you find yourself in a bit of a bind, however, I have prepared three envelopes for you. If something comes up, start with the first one and perhaps they will help.” “Thanks,” the eager CEO says but he was thinking, “That’s weird.” He puts the envelopes in his desk drawer and forgets about them until the first crisis hits about six months in. He grabs the first envelope, opens it and reads the simple phrase, “Blame your predecessor.” “How gracious!” he thinks. He calls a press conference and tactfully blames the issue on his predecessor and everyone is satisfied with that. Back at it until several months down the road when trouble hits again and he opens the second envelope with a note that reads, “Blame the Board.” He says, “Look, we have a structural problem – the organization is dysfunctional and that’s what has caused this issue.” Everybody buys that and they go on for a while until a third major issue arises and the CEO’s glad that he’s got that third envelope to fall back on. He opens it and it simply reads, “Prepare three envelopes.”2
Eventually the envelopes run out. And we all know that there are things that happen to us that are well beyond our control. There are so many dynamics that go on where we work that we can’t control all of them. But we can control our attitude. We can control our effort. I remind my son before every one of his baseball games. “You can’t always control what happens when the ball is hit. You cannot control what other players are going to do. But you can always control your effort.” When it comes to our work, we can determine that we will operate with integrity. We can make the ethical choice. We can choose good effort and good character. After all, the most important thing you bring home from work is not your paycheck or your achievement. The most important thing you bring home is you – your spirit, your integrity, your heart. Nobody else gets to be in charge of that.
You can’t authentically participate in the Kingdom of God with a crummy attitude. You just can’t. It’s interesting… there is only one time in the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures – the First Testament, where it is said of someone that “He/she was filled with the Spirit of God.” Just once. Not Esther or Abraham or Moses or King David. The Lord is chatting it up with Moses and says, “See, I have chosen Bezalel.” “Which Bezalel?” Moses must have asked because God goes on, “Oh you know, Bezalel, son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah…” “Oh Sure, that Bezalel,” Moses responds. The Lord says, “Yes, that’s the one. I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills…” “What for?” Moses asks. “He’s going to be King?” No… the text says, “to make artistic designs and to cut stones and work with wood and engage in all kinds crafts.”
God values this work so much that he calls on the Spirit to fill him. Excellent work matters to God. Do whatever you do for God and take pride in it. We were flying out of Tulsa International Airport one time and our flight was early, early, early. We arrived at the airport at like 3:30 in the morning. It was ridiculous. Not many chipper folks at the airport at 3:30 in the morning; except for the gentlemen who was working the check-in area for this particular airline. He was smiling and laughing and even singing to cheer up the up-to-early passengers. I couldn’t help but think: “Go get ‘em Mr. “I love my job at 3:30 in the morning.” Or… if you ever hang out in South Tulsa, you surely noticed the guy that held the sign out along Memorial selling mattresses for the longest time. He was an air drummer extraordinaire and could flip that mattress board like nobody’s business. I think he lost 30 lbs one summer just giving it his all. I lost a couple of pounds just watching him. What is that trigger that makes it click? God must love that passion. God loves a beautifully designed building. God must love a sparkling floor and a well written email. If you’re running wire or running a meeting or baking bread or doing mold remediation… do it with great love. It will lower our tendency to fall into the struggle of apathy or sense of uselessness.
So avoid the sin of a crummy attitude. Avoid the sin of envying the work of others but do what it yours to do. Don’t sabotage another’s work. Treat everyone as a valued part of the kingdom work of God. And get after it. Now – here’s the catch – and this seems to be true about so many things. The greatest piece of this can also lead to the greatest sin in it all. We are especially prone to this western mentality. And that sin is this: Work is the number one priority in my life. It is where I derive the greatest since of value and worth. This is the sin of work idolatry which I know is painful because we’re easily wrapped up in it – workaholism makes our world go round. And it is this press – I’ve just said to value effort and hard work and then I tell you, “But not too much.” I have to check myself on this too… you’d think, “Hey, it’s ministry… it’s all for the Lord.” That’s my intention of course. But sometimes I have to ask, “Is this to connect a people more closely with the kingdom of God or is this so that people will like me more or what???” The old rap line, “You betta check yo-self before you wreck yo-self” is some of the best advice ever given. This is so subtle in our culture. Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff3 observes that modern culture defines the happy life as a life that is “going well.” “How are things?” We ask. “Things are going well,” we say. What we mean when we say that is typically that things are succeeding and we are achieving. We are full of experiential pleasure due to our success. The ancient world would have valued a happy life as one that is “lived well”, with character, courage, humility, love, and justice. It’s subtle but the next time someone asks you how things are going, think about how you answer. Do you say “Things are busy” which has been determined to be the number one answer to that question by some random online poll – underlying this sense that busy = important, valued, successful. Or if we answer, “Things are going well” do we mean that “I’m succeeding… moving up the ladder, etc” or are we saying “All is well” meaning that my priorities are straight, my character is solid, my witness to my faith is authentic. See where your mind goes when you’re asked “How are things?”
Our priorities are really wrapped up in the first commandment. “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3). There are always theories behind the things of God. The text doesn’t say, “Now here are the Ten Commandments in no particular order.” Many have said, “No, idolatry is first for a reason.” Martin Luther was among those who counted this perhaps our easiest slip into sin. Luther argued that we never break the other commandments without breaking the first. All of our other missteps occur when God is knocked out of our top focus. Luther defined idolatry as looking to some created thing to give you what only God can give you. When we can’t imagine that God accepts us fully in Christ, we look for other ways to prove ourselves and we could arguably, yet easily, label those idols: “success” and “achievement.”
The tangible idol is easier to see. Moses heads up to confer with God. Moses delegates to his brother Aaron the responsibility of keeping the people on track corporately and spiritually while he’s away. That’s Aaron’s job. Mo returns, however, and things have gone mad – there’s this golden calf that the people have begun to worship. Moses is floored. “What up, bro?” And Aaron’s all, “What had happened was…” And Aaron commits that sin that we all are capable of doing. He passes the buck. “Boss, you know how these people are prone to evil.” “It’s not my fault,” right? “The people were getting impatient so we melted down our gold stuff and sort of managed this calf and the people bought it!” This idol seems more obvious to us because it’s such a foreign thing in our reality to think about worshipping a statue.
God speaks a warning through the prophet Ezekiel that may hit us more closely to home. Making an image of something is not necessarily a physical process but is certainly a spiritual and psychological one. God says through the prophet: “These people have installed idols in their hearts. This will ruin them.” You see, trusting anything to deliver the control, security, significance, satisfaction, and beauty that only the real God can give will leave us empty. This sort of creeping idolatry means turning a good thing into an ultimate thing. Work is a good thing. It’s very important. It’s part of our created being. But it is not God. And I’ll tell you a secret that you may already know. Work wants to be God. Work really wants to get up on top of our priority pyramid. The sin of idolatry is always harder to see in ourselves than in others. If you want to know if you’re struggling with this, ask someone you trust who is close to your daily walk and ask them honestly, “Is work my idol? Am I too attached? Is work the only thing I feel gives me value?” And then just listen. Don’t make excuses or come backs. Just listen and see what the Spirit may say.
Where is God saying, “My daughter, you need to change this.” “Son, you need to confess that?” Where do you need to go to a co-worker or someone else and set stuff right? If you find you have a pile of regrets around any one of these issues or experiences, remember the most important work in history is that of forgiveness – and Jesus is still working for us to know that forgiveness is ours to live in and share with others. In whatever way sin finds you at work, we’ve got a whole new tomorrow to say, “Not today.” And when you’re feeling consumed know that the Spirit says this: “You are more than your job. Your worth is not your work. Your life is not your resume.” You may have to remind yourself of this everyday – especially on those days momma said would come – but engaging your faith in this way is indeed your faith at work.
1There are several places that have written about this experience. Here is one of them: http://www.boredpanda.com/guy-falls-asleep-at-work-sleeping-office-prank-photoshop/
2This story is also found in countless places on the internet. It is an age old tale. I connected to it through the work of John Ortberg in his series called “Thank God It’s Monday.” His work deeply influenced this message as well. Ortberg is the Senior Pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church: www.mppc.org.
3The reference to Wolterstorff’s observations were shared in Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller. Riverhead Books. New York. 2012. Keller’s chapter “Work Reveals our Idols” aided this sermon a great deal as well.