Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Sermon for fifth mid-week Lent service - Table of Duties: To Workers and Employers

                                                                           Mid-Lent 5
                                                                           To Workers and To Employers                              
At the seminary there are synodical route guys and second career guys. Like James Peterson, I was a synodical route guy. I had attended Concordia College as a pre-seminary student and then went on to the seminary. Second career guys are what Joshua Schiff will be – someone who has had a career and done something else before deciding to enter the seminary. And lest I overlook them, there are also some students who have come directly from some college or university other than a Concordia.

While I was a synodical route guy, I wasn’t a typical example because I had not gone directly from a Concordia to the seminary. In fact two years separated them. During my junior year at Concordia, Ann Arbor I fell in love with a great girl. I expected that I would marry her. But as I have learned, finding “the one” is a matter of right person, right place, and right time. And while she is indeed now a wonderful wife and mother, it was definitely not the right place and time for me. I was simply not ready.

My senior year I was racked by profound doubts about the relationship, and finally broke up with her. That sent me into a tail spin in which, having doubted and rejected the relationship that had seemed certain … I apparently decided to doubt and question everything else. I didn’t go to the seminary immediately, but instead returned to Bloomington, IN where I worked on the shipping and receiving dock at a department store.

My hours got cut back, and so I also ended up doing janitorial work at the store. Now none of us like to go into a public restroom and find it dirty. We want to use a clean one. And in order for it to be clean, someone has to clean it. Well, for a time, that person was I. I will spare you the details, but let’s just say that I saw and cleaned up some really gross circumstances.

That experience forever changed the way I view many jobs and the people who do them. It was also great preparation for when I went on to the seminary and learned about the teaching of vocation. I had learned how essential many unpleasant or hard jobs really are. And that equipped me to better understand how each Christians serves in the vocation – the calling – of work.

The texts that are listed by the Small Catechism under “To Workers of All Kinds” and “To Employers and Supervisors” come from Ephesians 6:5-9. The first thing that probably surprises us is that these are words addressed to slaves and their masters. Now we may sometimes feel like our job is slavery, but we certainly aren’t really slaves. It probably seems puzzling that the New Testament tells slaves how to act, and that we then take these words and apply them to our lives today as Christians.

It is necessary to recognize that slavery was an established part of life in the Greco-Roman world. It was a basic cog in the economic system of the Roman Empire. And it is critically important to understand that the slavery of Paul’s day differed in significant ways from what probably comes to mind when you hear the word “slavery.”

When we think of slavery, we think of what existed in the United States prior to the Civil War. However, the slavery of Paul’s days was very different in important ways. For starters, slavery in the first century had nothing to do with race. It was not a necessarily a permanent status. Becoming a freedman was a very real possibility. While there were slaves who worked in agricultural settings, the majority of slaves were in urban settings. Slaves managed business affairs for their master and could even have their own money. Frankly, the quality of life for a slave in a household was often better than it was for a poor free man. Being a slave could provide the opportunities for advancement in life that were not as readily available to a free man.

Paul’s words do in fact fit very well the situation in which we find ourselves as we work in a job. The key point that should immediately strike us is that when Paul talks about working in a job, he tells Christians to view what they do in relation to Jesus Christ. He writes, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.”

Paul says that when you work you are to do it as if it is done for Christ. The reality is that it is done for Christ, because he is the One using you to care for others and provide for their needs. Martin Luther said that as we serve in our vocations we become the “masks of God.” God has ordered the world in such a way that we become the means by which our Lord cares for others.

Now there are two sides to this. On the one hand, this understanding takes our job – like all of our vocations – and lifts it out of the mundane. Oh don’t get me wrong, the work itself may be mundane. But we recognize that as we serve in our vocation God has adorned it with a dignity, worth and value because he is the One who is working through us.

On the other hand, it also makes it clear that when we don’t put forward our best effort, it is God whom we are cheating. As Paul indicates, it’s when the boss is not around that we see who is really running the show – the new man or the old man. Being lazy; choosing not to do a good and thorough job - these things are sinful. They are sins against God.

The Small Catechism goes on to list Ephesians 6:9 under the heading of “To Employers and Supervisors.” There Paul writes, “Masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and your is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”

Literally, Paul begins by saying, “Do the same things toward them.” Paul is telling people in authority over workers that they are to deal with their workers as if they are working for Christ. Now when we talk about positions of authority , the Fourth Commandment is in view. Working for Christ in this case will mean restraining sin. It will mean telling people what they need to do. It will mean admonishment and discipline when sin prevents a worker from performing their duties.

But Paul says this needs to be done out of concern. It is not to be done in a way that threatens or provokes just because the boss is on a power trip. And it must be done fairly. Paul says this is so because you have Master in heaven, and he shows no partiality. You have a boss who is evaluating how you act as boss.

There are times when we fail to do this as workers. There are times when we fail to do this as employers. As we arrive at the end of Lent and are about to enter into Holy Week we draw near to that time of the Church year that urgently reminds us of how Jesus worked to serve our good. This coming Sunday we will watch Jesus enter into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But on Good Friday we will see Jesus numbered with the transgressors as he hangs on the cross for you. He will hang there dying for all the times you are lazy and don’t give your best effort. He will hand there dying for all of the times you abuse your power and don’t treat workers fairly. But by his death he will win the forgiveness for all of those sins. And then on Easter he will rise from the dead. In his resurrection Jesus has begun the restoration of life as it was intended to be when God created Adam, and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. Through the work of the Spirit who has given us new life in baptism we now seek to fulfill our vocation. Just as Christ served us, so we serve others because as we work we are indeed serving Christ. Our service to the Lord becomes the means that he uses to care for others and supply their needs. Living in Christ as a baptized child of God, we become Christ to our neighbor. And there is nothing mundane about that.

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