A Word for Worriers and Workaholics

Sunday, September 3, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner

Psalm 127

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, amen.

It’s Labor Day weekend! It’s the last breath of summer before school schedules dictate the rhythms of households with kids. Maybe you have plans to catch a good deal at a Labor Day Sale or brave the crowds and the heat at the State Fair one last time.

But, you probably know that Labor Day didn’t start out as just a way to mark the end of the summer or find a good deal. It was a reaction to too much work, and a call for the recognition of the laborers who were literally building an industrialized America. The labor movement was in its early days, and workers were looking for fairer hours so they wouldn’t have to “rise up early and go to bed late” and eat the “bread of anxious toil”, as the psalmist says.

Back in the 1880s when this movement began, it wasn’t uncommon for factory workers and laborers to work six days a week, twelve, even fourteen hours a day. People were living to work, rather than working to live. It wasn’t a good life for children or families, and this class of folks had no free time to contribute to the civic life of their communities either.

Some of those same pressures exist today for a lot of working people. It might not be in the same industries, but workaholism and worry about our jobs seems to be baked into our cultural DNA. In 2017, 60% of the American employees were working between 50 and 70 hours a week, some because they had to in order to make ends meet, and others because the responsibilities of their jobs demanded it. The digital age makes access to a lot of jobs universal. And the trend to work-from-home has made it harder for a lot of people to keep work and the rest of life in proper perspective. There is always more work to do than hours in the day. It’s easy to worry and live a workaholic life. But at the same time, we’re conditioned to shape a lot of our identity and self-worth around what we do.

It may be an occupational hazard as a pastor, but I’ve always loved to work – ever since I got my first paper route when I was 9 years old. My neighbor, Mark, was five years older than me, and I wanted to do everything he did. When he got a paper route, I wanted a paper route. The problem was I was six years old. My parents told me I couldn’t have a route until I was able to prove that I could consistently get myself up in the morning. It took a few years. When that first bundle of papers arrived on my doorstep with a crisp new canvas bag with “Mankato Free Press” printed on the side, I felt like I had made something of myself. I wasn’t just a boy anymore. I was a paperboy!

Eventually, the whimsy of being a paperboy wore off – probably about the time I had to trudge through snow drifts taller than I was to deliver papers right after the Halloween Blizzard of 1991. But I had tasted the freedom of a regular paycheck, and I have almost always had some kind of job ever since. The reality is God sees our labor as more than a paycheck. Our work, whatever it is, is intended to also bring purpose and connection to God’s work in the world.

Today’s psalm is sage advice for all who labor. The psalmist provides some perspective on how we view our work and families in light of our relationship with God. The psalm gives us freedom to see that we are called to work to live, rather than live to work. “for [the Lord] gives sleep to his beloved.” One of my most frequently uttered prayers comes from Pope John XXIII. At the end of a long and trying day leading one of the largest institutions in the world, he would pray, “Lord, this is your Church. I’m tired. I’m going to bed. Amen.” It’s a kind of funny, but honest reminder that everything we have and all that we do, no matter how big and important, is already in God’s hands. We aren’t to unnecessarily worry or work ourselves to the bone, as if everything depends on us. We are to steward the work we’re given, but never forget that it all belongs to God.

How we use our time, and where we place our focus is not just an economic issue. It’s a spiritual one. God cares about how we live our lives and God has given order to the world in such a way that all creation can and should flourish. But in so many places this simply isn’t the case. We fret about whether we do enough. Many struggle to have enough, even when they work endless hours. We only commit to God’s vision of flourishing half-heartedly. We get wrapped in systems that provide advantages to those who already have plenty and disadvantages to those who don’t have enough. We forget that unless the Lord is at the heart of our daily work and relationships, we work in vain, no matter how much we gain materially. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build, labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.” The psalmist calls us to look at our work, our families, and our civic life in a way that recenters us on God’s guidance and provision.

God cares about how we order our days, about the work we do, and the vocations we steward – as the gifts from God they are. Vocations or callings are not just for religious professionals, like pastors and deacons. They’re for all of us. Our calling is not just the thing we do to make money, callings give order and purpose to work and relationships, whether paid or not. When we see the daily things we do as part of the unfolding of God’s vision for the world, God works through us to provide the flourishing of life for all of creation. God does this in the simple rhythms of our lives, through our work, our families, our relationships. You may be a teacher, or a banker, or an IT specialist, or you may be retired from full-time work. You also are likely a spouse, or a parent or grandparent, or an aunt or uncle, a friend, a learner, a hunter, a knitter, or a traveler. Each of these callings provide a way for us to glimpse the work of God in our lives and join God in the vision of a society that flourishes.

As you rest on this Labor Day weekend, doing all the things that bring summer to a close in Minnesota, may you hear God’s call to the rhythms of work and rest. May you discover new ways God is calling you to do your work. May you be released from the demands of worry and workaholism. May you find joy in the relationships God has given you. And may we all work for a world where our decisions and actions lead to flourishing for all God’s beloved. Amen.

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