St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (July 5, 2015)

Liturgical Color: Green

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Worship, Work, and Play

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We gather to worship today, after a week of work, during a weekend often devoted to play. It strikes me that most of our lives are spent, properly, pursuing these three endeavors—worship, work, and play. If we add the time we spend eating and sleeping to the time we spend at worship, work, and play, there would likely be precious few hours left.

Today's readings point to at least two of these three key human activities. In Mark, Jesus is called the carpenter. He is identified by the work that he did. Despite resistance, he moves forward with a new purpose, calling his disciples to carry on that new work. Ezekiel too is given a special job—speaking God's word to a people unwilling to hear.

In Second Corinthians, Paul is unwilling to put himself and his work before worship. Christians don't boast about our own accomplishments. Rather, our boasting brings attention to the power of God in Christ present in our lives. Regardless of circumstances, God's grace is sufficient for us.

Many of those who consider carefully what is happening in the church today note huge shifts in the institutions we hold dear. Talk of a movement away from institutions and towards authentic experience abounds, especially as concerns younger people. Increasingly, people claim to be spiritual, but not religious. And religious institutions have too often acted in ways that contradict the values they claim.

In our conversation about the Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment last Wednesday evening, we talked a lot about how important it is that what we say squares with what we do, that our words match our actions, that we embody our proclamation. We work hard at this. And yet most ordinary folk, while aware of the manifold challenges facing the church, tend to be too consumed with the pressures of work and family or the distractions of media, technology, and play to pay enough attention.

Today's scriptures call us to be re-rooted in our vocations, and to put our lives in a wholesome perspective and context, including worship, work, and play. Psalm 123 gives voice to this context:

To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens.

As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to you, O Lord our God...

It is in our Lord alone that our identity lies. It is to God alone that all gratitude and honor are due. It is God alone who is worthy of praise.

A former campus pastor made a relevant observation about worship, work, and play as we tend to treat them in our culture. He writes that "our problem today is that we worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship." Let me repeat that: "Our problem today is that we worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship." (from "Work, Play and Worship" by Gordon Dahl)

It seems an apt summary of what is wrong with our common approach to life.

We worship our work.

This hardly needs comment. Once said, it is almost intuitively obvious. We live in a culture that worships work. Signs of status and wealth are, so the media would have us believe, the end-all and be-all of existence. This attitude has pervaded so much of our psyches so extensively that I despair of our ever ridding ourselves of its influence.

We imagine our personal worth to be based on how much money we earn. Whether we like it or not, most of us believe that deep down. We have an obsession with success. It's borne out in our pastimes, the movies and television programs we watch, and our behavior in the workplace. We regularly pay homage in one way or another to the god of work. Consider our fascination with Donald Trump and with the show he has until recently hosted, "The Apprentice." Or the morbid curiosity many hold for the lives of celebrities.

In America, we are what we do. We are worth as much as we make. And we are worthless unless we collect a wage. Those who are homemakers know these truths well. And occasionally there are movements to include the value of the labor performed by those who work in the home in the Gross National Product.

We worship our work, at least our work for which there is remuneration. We also work at our play.

In my estimation, exercise ought to be fun. A walk in Brown County State Park or one of the many city parks here in Bloomington is fun, as it ought to be. Playing games, of the video or board or card kind, is intended to be enjoyable. It's why we call it "playing" games.

But often the competitive spirit enters in too strongly. Not that this ever happens to me, of course. But I've heard tell that it does to some folks. And the game turns into a competition. And then a struggle focused on winning. And then, sometimes, an all out war for all the marbles, or score, or whatever the measure of the endeavor may be.

Exercise and play can turn into a striving for perfection. Coupled with a culture that makes us hyper-critical of our bodies, some people even turn to re-constructive surgery. As if that is a path to being acceptable or popular or successful or loveable.

What to some is play has become work, and there has grown a worship of the work of play, a worship—in some quarters—of the body. It is a confusion of worth with perfection. It is the work ethic turned inward with a vengeance. The obsession with success has extended into a preoccupation with being successful at being beautiful, as though beauty is an achievement or simply something that is external. And it is in the light of such a struggle to succeed that all else is often judged.

Even love becomes not a gift freely given, but a goal which can be met if one is willing to pay the price that success demands. To be perfect so that one may be loved. What a profound misunderstanding of the human condition and of the nature of love. The pursuit of perfection is a sham, and love can never be earned.

Of course, striving for physical beauty is only one example of play become work. I am reminded of a story that some friends in Scotland told about their vacation with a couple from Germany. They described the attitude of the German couple to their time together in a humorous, but also sad, way. It was, they said, as though the couple were saying: "Now, ve vill have some fun. We are on vacation, and ve vill enjoy it!"

The tendency to work at our play has apparently infected the whole of western society.

We worship our work. We work at our play. And we play at our worship.

n this context, I still think of that old movie, "Places in the Heart". If you haven't seen it, look it up. It's a beautiful story depicting the struggles of farm life, the strife within families, and the tension between races as it centered on a woman's efforts to keep her farm following the death of her husband. He had been shot accidentally by a Black teenager who had too much to drink.

I still remember vividly the ending. After showing all the troubles that had befallen these mostly well-meaning people, the film ends with an extraordinary scene. All of the people who took part in the story are seated in church. And each passes to another the bread and the wine of Holy Communion. The Blacks and the Whites together. The dead and the living together. The whole of the community.

And those who have been at odds during the film pass the elements of this common meal most solemnly, one to the other, saying the words that are so familiar to us. It's a touching scene, and we are left asking questions about whether this happened before the story began or whether it is merely a vision in the mind of the author.

Regardless, the film offers a moving vision of the great power of what we do in the sharing of communion and the forgiveness that sharing implies. We are brought face to face with how often we merely play at worship, not realizing or even giving thought to how profoundly what we do in worship might affect us if we took it more seriously, if we embodied and enacted what we proclaim to be true.

We perhaps tend to be perfunctory about what is intended to be treated with great sincerity. We often play at our worship.

And yet, I must ask myself what I am doing today. I'm leading a service of worship. I'm doing my job, and on a weekend intended and used by many for play. Tell me. Am I worshipping or working or playing? Likely all three.

And, of course, I would say that they can all be done together. There is an element of worship in our work. There is an element of work in our play. And there are elements of play, at least as I experience it, in worship. We have a good time here—I hope. A bit of playfulness, I think, is highly appropriate in worship. But it is not right to be superficial or inauthentic or flippant about what happens here. (pause)

So why have I gone through this series of observations? Why are we considering that statement—"our problem today is that we worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship."? The fundamental problem, as viewed through scripture, is misplaced priorities. We too easily shift our ethical priorities to fit those that our culture tends to impose upon us. We may too easily give in to the idea that there are no absolutes, no hierarchy of values.

It has been said that it sometimes appears that Americans are enjoying the highest standard of low living in history. That says in a clever way something of what I want to say. We are confused because our cultural values make no coherent sense. And those values conflict dramatically with what we hold in faith to be true.

The imperative for those of us who claim to be a part of the body of Christ is to make choices among conflicting sets of values. Instead, we live lives of shifting values and priorities which are dependent not on ethical demands but on circumstance, on where and with whom we find ourselves. And our scriptures today ask us to search the conscience, not simply to note the circumstance.

As we seek to live as Christ lived, we enjoy the blessings of what makes us human, including worship, work, and play. May these activities be informed by our faith and honor the one to whom all praise is due. And may what we say square with what we do, our words match our actions, and our proclamation take flesh in us. Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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