A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 4, 2016
Genesis 29:15-30 CEB
As I thought about a sermon for this, another Labor Day weekend, I decided I wanted to depart from the usual, traditional readings I have chosen in the past from the book of Ecclesiastes and such. The book of Ecclesiastes is full of comments and advice about work, and it is the old “standby” when it comes to sermon texts on the topic of labor. But I also wanted to speak to work as it applies to each of our lives.
So as I thought about the idea of labor in the Bible, I remembered this delightful story in the book of Genesis about Jacob and his sister-wives. (As a side note, had there been television back in Jacob’s day, he could have hosted the original tv reality show called “Sister Wives.”)
But the pertinent point for today’s story has to do with Jacob and his work and the fact that he was willing to work seven long years in order to gain the hand in marriage of the beautiful young woman Rachel with whom he had fallen madly in love. The story says that even though Jacob worked for his future father-in-law Laban for seven full years, “it seemed like a few days” because Jacob loved Rachel so.
But wait—there is more! When Laban tricked Jacob on their wedding night and sent the older daughter Leah to the honeymoon suite, he asked Jacob to promise to work another seven years, and he would give him Rachel to be his wife as well. Now, there is a lot going on between the lines in this story, and some of it causes us to question.
For instance, one thing that is going on in the mind of the storyteller is the fact that all his life Jacob had been the trickster—the deceiver. He had been the one to trick his brother Esau, taking from him his birthright and their father’s final blessing. So strained had the relationship become between Jacob and his twin brother Esau, that Esau was ready to kill him. So their mother sent Jacob away to dwell with relatives to avoid his brother’s wrath. And it was in the company of their relatives that Jacob the trickster met and fell in love with Rachel. But in an ironic turn of events, the trickster—the deceiver—now becomes the one who gets tricked, deceived, by his father-in-law, who takes advantage of him the way Jacob had always taken advantage of his brother Esau.
And then we ask, “Well, how could Jacob have not known that it was Leah in his honeymoon suite instead of Rachel?” Well, wedding customs in that day helped conceal the deception, including the use of heavy veils worn by the brides and possibly heavy drinking before and during the wedding festivities. Such may have contributed to Jacob not really knowing who he was marrying or honeymooning with.
But the primary point of today’s sermon has to do with work. And the fact that Jacob was willing to work seven years for the one he loved, and then an additional seven years when his father-in-law took advantage of him. In short, Jacob’s work was work with a purpose. And in that regard it was not a burden at all for him.
Work can become quite monotonous and burdensome when there is no perceived purpose involved. It is sort of like being in a detention camp or on a military base where you are forced to dig holes in the dirt every day, only to fill them back in and do the same thing the next day. What purpose is there in such activities?
But most of us have probably been there at some point in our lives—not digging literal holes, but feeling like we were working with no perceived purpose in view. And sadly, there are too many people in our world today who do such day in and day out.
When there is no purpose attached to our work, one of the dangers is burnout. I remember reading a book that a friend loaned me several years ago by Harold Kushner who observes that a person can work long hours each week if there is a sense of enjoyment, accomplishment, or some positive reward or purpose involved. But burnout can occur when we work and we don’t have the feeling that our work is making any difference.
A few years ago there was a lot written on the subject of clergy burnout and how a lot of ministers were experiencing burnout by working and being on call long hours each week and feeling that what they were doing wasn’t really making a difference. You could go into a Christian bookstore and find any number of titles on clergy burnout. But burnout certainly isn’t limited to clergy. Whatever one’s job or profession, if one feels that all the long hours and hard work aren’t really making a difference, then the propensity to burnout is much greater.
In his book titled When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, Kushner observes, “the key to our happiness, to our being able to find pleasure in our work, is the sense that we are using our abilities, not wasting them, and that we are being appreciated for it.”1
So then, when one is engaged in work with a clear purpose attached, and the feeling that our work is making a difference, the work becomes much more enjoyable, rewarding, and worthwhile. So the father or single mother who not only works one but possibly two jobs with the purpose of supporting a spouse and/or sending children to college so they can have a better life than they had may have a real sense of satisfaction in their hard work because they have a noble purpose in view. We have all read of the single mother who may spend her days mopping floors in order to send her children to college, and is happy to do so. One who can see work as a labor of love—as the Prophet Gibran noted—will find much greater satisfaction in it.
But yet another by-product of work, in addition to providing satisfaction because of the greater purpose attached to it, is providing meaning. Kushner goes on to say in that chapter I quoted from earlier, “We work so that our days will not be empty of meaning.”2 There is the key, isn’t it? We may gripe and grumble about going to work day in and day out, but the truth is work gives our lives meaning as well as purpose. One of the basic human needs is to feel like our life matters. And one big way that our lives matter is through the work we do, whether that work be a paid job or profession, volunteering, or taking care of a family or other loved ones.
And many people, when they retire, have a difficult time and may even fall into depression because that thing that they often grumbled about and sometimes loathed was actually what gave their life meaning. And without that work and life’s meaning, they feel lost. I could name people who worked for 40 years at the same job, and when they retired fell into mild depression because they didn’t know what to do with themselves. A good way to address that problem is finding a way to do some part-time consulting work or volunteering and utilizing those work skills to help others, as several members of our congregation have learned to do.
Naturalist John Burroughs observed, “The wealth that comes to a man through his efforts in furthering the work of the world and promoting the good of all is the only worthy wealth.”3
And so, Labor Day weekend gives us the opportunity to think about and possibly ask some questions about the work we do, whether that work be to earn a living, take care of a family, or volunteer for some charitable organization that seeks to meet human need.
Is there a worthy or noble purpose in the work that I am doing?
Can I view my work as a labor of love for others?
Does my work (or consulting or volunteering) provide my life with a sense of meaning and purpose?
If we can answer in the affirmative to these questions, then maybe those answers will provide a different—and more positive—lens for viewing the work we do week in and week out. Work with a purpose—may it be so. Amen.
1Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. New York: Pocket Books, 1986, p. 149. 2Ibid, p. 150.
3John Burroughs, Leaf And Tendril. Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1908, p. 258.