A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 13, 2011
Psalm 128:1-4; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3
You, no doubt, are familiar with the term “labor of love.” But were you aware of the origin of that phrase? That it comes from the Bible, Paul’s letter to the church of the Thessalonians? I wasn’t sure myself, until I researched it a little this past week. But sure enough, it would appear that this is where the phrase “labor of love” comes from.
It is interesting to analyze a bit what Paul was saying so as to understand the context when he used the phrase “labor of love.” The Thessalonians, in embracing the Christian faith as it had been delivered to them, had not had an easy go of it. Paul had visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey and had established a house church there, with probably no more than forty or so members. But he was only able to stay a short time, as he encountered difficulties and was forced to leave. But during his short time there, he had established strong bonds with the Thessalonian Christians, whom he refers to several times as “brothers and sisters.” After Paul’s departure, the fledging new Christian congregation managed to survive. But not without great difficulty.
For, you see, in that day and time, and in that part of the world, it was not always easy to embrace this new Christian faith that Paul preached. It often was seen to be a cult. The Christians often were persecuted, sometimes killed because of this new religion they professed. So it sort of was with the Thessalonian Christians. It was not easy to adopt this new Christian religion in a city that boasted a plethora of religions and idols. These believers faced alienation from their neighbors and the larger society, hostility, and sometimes downright persecution.
And so, Paul, as he continued on his missionary travels, wrote a letter to this new, fledging congregation back in Thessalonica, seeking to encourage them to stay strong in the face of the alienation, hostility and persecution they faced. (As a sidenote commentary, biblical scholars agree that this letter is the oldest piece of literature we have in our New Testament.) In this letter, Paul refers to their commitment to the Christian faith and the new church they had founded as a “labor of love.” It is interesting to note the origin of the words Paul uses in that phrase. The word used for labor in the original Greek means “laborious toil.” Something that is not too glamorous. And the Greek word he uses for love is “agape,” self-giving, sacrificial, God-like love. He celebrates their “work of faith,” their “labor of love,” and their “steadfastness of hope.”
You know, some of the most important things we do in life are labors of love. Often in life it is not that high-paying job that provides one a living that brings life’s satisfaction. It is that thing we do out of love and often involving personal sacrifice that can bring us the greatest sense of satisfaction and reward. When we give of ourselves or our resources to someone or some cause greater than ourselves. When we give several hours volunteering so as to touch in a positive way the lives of others. When we go out of our way to do something totally altruistic that makes a positive difference in the world. Such might be seen as labors of love, and these things often bring the most satisfaction in life.
And then there are the creative arts, being a musician, artist, writer, potter, or engaging in some other form of the arts. Not many people are able to make a living with their artistic endeavors, but their artistic passion becomes a labor of love and blesses the world and also becomes a source of great personal satisfaction.
Regarding labors of love and giving of ourselves to a cause greater than ourselves, I think of someone like humanitarian Albert Schweitzer who dedicated most of his life as a labor of love. Schweitzer was a successful minister, University professor, an accomplished concert organist, and published author. Yet, at the young age of 30, he kept a promise he had made to himself to give up preaching, a musical career and teaching in order to spend the rest of his life in service to others. So for the next seven years he studied medicine, and then set off for the jungles of Africa to establish a hospital for the natives. It is said that during the last 52 years of his life, Schweitzer fed, housed, and treated an average of 1,000 natives a day in his hospital. What an extraordinary labor of love. Well, obviously we can’t all be Albert Schweitzers. And we shouldn’t expect to be. But we can all engage in labors of love on a smaller scale.
You probably have guessed where all of this is going—the United Church Nursery School has from the beginning, I believe, been a labor of love. Today we celebrate the fact that 50 years ago some visionary members of this United Church stepped out on faith to establish a nursery school of a different order. A nursery school founded on positive principles, encouraging creativity, independence, competence, self-confidence, communication skills, respect for self and others, and the giving and receiving of love. The United Church Nursery School has consistently received the DHS Rating of 3 stars. It is known for welcoming and celebrating diversity, and it has exerted a positive influence in the greater Oak Ridge area for 50 years. As I encounter people in the Oak Ridge community through the Chamber of Commerce and other venues, when they learn of my position here I often have someone say to me, “Oh yes! I attended the United Church Nursery School.” And they are proud of that fact.
But as I think about our Nursery School and those who teach and volunteer on its behalf, I am convinced it is nothing short of a great labor of love. When I think about the number of teachers and resources it takes to care for and educate the 50 or so children that come here, and the small, shoe-string budget our Nursery School operates on it, it amazes me. Just in case some of you didn’t already know, our Nursery School Director and teachers are not getting rich on the salaries they make here. It is a true labor of love. Our Nursery School directors and teachers have taught here, not because of the financial rewards it has brought them. But because they have a passion for it, they believe in its program, they feel in their hearts that what they do here matters, makes a difference in the lives of children. I hope you will take time to read the comments that were shared by some of our past and current Nursery School teachers. They are indicative of the passion they all feel for what happens here. As one of our Nursery School teachers put it so eloquently, “Working at Chapel on the Hill Nursery School for the last six years has been the most fulfilling career I have ever had, because I am constantly rewarded by smiles, hugs, and laughter, and I know that I am making a difference in future generations.” Well said.
And so today, as we celebrate 50 years of service of the Nursery School to the greater Oak Ridge community, we realize that we can only do so because of support of this congregation, but also because of the dedication, commitment, love, and in some cases, perhaps, personal sacrifice of the directors and teachers who have helped make it what it is. Today we salute our Nursery School teachers for their true labor of love. Amen.