Last week, my main point was that doing good work—no matter what that work may be—is an important part of discipleship. We love our neighbor—and God loves our neighbor—through our good work. In today’s sermon, I say more about our jobs as a “calling”: No matter who our boss is, we work for the Lord. No matter who our customer or client is, we serve the Lord. The Lord has a purpose in our having the jobs we have. If our work is motivated by anything other than pleasing the Lord, then we’re bound to be disappointed and unsatisfied.
Sermon Text: Colossians 3:23-24
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Many of you have seen this picture of an Applebee’s receipt that went viral on Facebook and other social media last week. A customer, who is a pastor, was eating with a group of people. She disagreed that the service she received was worth the automatic 18 percent gratuity that the restaurant charged, so she crossed through it and wrote these words: “I give God 10 percent. Why do you get 18?” The waitress showed the receipt to another waitress, who took a picture of it and posted it on the internet. When this pastor got wind of it, she called Applebee’s to complain about this violation of her privacy, and the waitress who posted the picture was fired.
I know… It was an ugly, ugly episode. All I will say in this pastor’s defense is that at least she tithes! A lot of pastors I known don’t do that! More importantly, maybe she was having a really bad day. I’ve certainly done many worse things in my life—and, fortunately, my sins weren’t paraded on the internet for all the world to see.
The tone of much of the commentary surrounding this receipt sounded something like this: “Doesn’t this pastor know what a horrible, thankless job waiting tables is—that waiters and waitresses have to stand on their feet for hours on end, serving a bunch of stingy, ungrateful people like this pastor, working for a small hourly wage and tips that they then have to divide between bussers, bartenders, and hosts.” Much of this commentary suggested that there was something undignified and demeaning about serving the public like this.
But that can’t be right. I’ve met waiters and waitresses who love their jobs, consider it a calling, and take great professional pride in their work. And given how often most of us eat out these days, waiters and waitresses play an increasingly important role in our lives.
A member of our church was telling me that she manages a fast-food sandwich shop. She said that of course nearly anyone can do the work itself, but she said it’s about so much more than the physical work of making sandwiches. She said, “I’ve got three minutes to make a difference in someone’s life”—three minutes is how long it takes to serve a customer from start to finish. But she has three minutes to make someone’s life a little better, three minutes to help someone who might be going through a tough time, three minutes to be a blessing to someone. What an opportunity to love and serve other people.
And not only that: what an opportunity to love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ! As Paul writes in today’s scripture, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Think about that!
I should point out here that these words from Colossians are written in the context of Paul’s advice to Christian slaves. It’s hard for us to hear words about slavery without thinking of America’s own tragic history with African slavery. There were, however, some important differences that are worth mentioning. First, slavery in the Greco-Roman world wasn’t race-based. It seldom lasted for the lifetime of a person. And people weren’t kidnapped into slavery. It was often a way of working off a debt that someone owed. Slaves were usually more like what we’d think of as indentured servants. Regardless, the Bible doesn’t condone slavery; it merely accepts it as a fact of life that wasn’t going to change any time soon. And Paul’s own words here in Colossians, in Ephesians, and in Philemon—words that directed Christian slaveowners to treat their slaves as equals in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the master of us all—had the effect of destroying the institution from within, until this thing that was an accepted fact of life for millennia was illegal in the Christian West by the Middle Ages. It reemerged centuries later, obviously, with the African slave trade, but even then the loudest voices in opposition were Christian voices—including our own John Wesley.
But the fact that Paul directs these words in Colossians 3 to slaves makes his point even more emphatic: If even slaves are told that through Christ they can find satisfaction and meaning in their work, no matter how menial that work may be, then how much more can those of us who are just regular employees in America—whether we’re waiting tables or serving as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies?
Think about the implications of this scripture: when my friend is serving customers at her sandwich shop, she is doing nothing less than making sandwiches for our Lord himself.
I think we understand this concept already when it comes to doing mission work, right? If we’re volunteering our time, energy, and resources to dig a latrine in Honduras, or hang drywall on the storm-damaged Gulf Coast, or feed the homeless in downtown Atlanta, we know that we’re doing it for the Lord. Jesus says as much in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” But please notice that Paul is applying this idea to our regular work as well—the same work that pays our bills and puts food on our tables and takes care of our kids and helps us to enjoy hobbies and vacation and leisure time. Back in the ’70’s when I was kid, I used to always see bumper stickers that said, “My boss is a Jewish carpenter.” I don’t see those anymore, but it’s almost literally true: For us Christians, Paul says, Jesus is our boss. Ultimately, we’re working for him.
Years ago, when I took the introductory electrical engineering class at Georgia Tech, I had a professor named Dr. Whit Smith. He was brilliant, of course, but he was also an unusually kind man, a patient man, a compassionate man, a humble man; he genuinely seemed to care about his students. There was just something about him. It was noticeable. A few years ago, I was talking to a colleague in ministry who, upon learning that I was a Georgia Tech alum, said, “Oh, I have a parishioner at my church who’s a Tech prof. Maybe you know him.” And I’m thinking, “There are a lot of professors at Georgia Tech.” He said, “His name is Whit Smith. He teaches EE.” And it all fell into place. Of course he’s a Christian! And my colleague went on to say, ‘Yeah, he considers his work a ministry. He feels called by God to do this work.”
Of course he does! His work is ministry. My work is ministry. If you’re a Christian, your work is ministry. Your work is calling!
Do you still not believe me? In 1 Corinthians chapter 7, Paul tells the Christians at the church at Corinth that it’s “unnecessary to change what they’re currently doing in life—their marital state, job, or social station”—in order to live a life that pleases God. In verse 17, he goes on to say: “[L]et each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches.” Did you hear that? Paul uses two words that are freighted with religious significance to describe the life and work of Christians in the their ordinary lives. Called and assigned. He’s not talking to people like me—who are ordained clergy, who spend a lot of time talking about being “called” into ministry. No, he’s talking to people like most of you, who have jobs in the “secular” world.
You don’t have the job you have simply because you followed this particular course of study in college, or because you saw a job opening and applied for it, or because you made a networking contact with an employer on LinkedIn. All that may be true, but at the same time, you have this job because the Lord has assigned you to it and called you to it. It doesn’t mean that God wants you to have this job for the rest of your life, but it does mean that God has a reason for you to do the job that you’re doing right now.
Recently, a Christian friend of mine was contemplating an important career decision: Should he leave the company at which he had spent most of his career, or should he go to work for a new company, which promised a higher salary and more rewarding work—but with less job security? When asked where he saw God in all of this, he said, “As long as I’m ethical and try to be a witness for Christ where I work, why would God care which job I take? It’s not like I’m being called into ministry. God cares about spiritual things.”
While I’m sure that my friend’s belief is widespread, I hope you now see how badly mistaken it is. And isn’t it a relief to know that our jobs and our work have this kind of deeper meaning? After all, we spend so much of our lives working at our jobs. Our work—all our work—matters to God. Our jobs matter for eternity. It should go without saying that we’re working for so much more than just a paycheck.
I don’t think I’m guilty of working mostly for a paycheck—if that were my motivation, I would never have left my previous career to go into ministry. But I am totally guilty at times of working for another unchristian form of compensation: I work to prop up my sense of self-worth. I feel good about myself so long as I’m doing what I consider good work. “If I do this good work, then I’ll be the person of worth that I so desperately want to be. I know I’m valuable and loved because I accomplish these things through my work.” See, I totally want my work to count for something in the eyes of the world, you know? Forget the Lord saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” I really want other people to take notice of me and say, “Well done!” The problem I face when I crave the approval and praise and recognition of others is the same problem I face when I crave hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I can never get enough to satisfy me!
This is the problem all of us face when our work is motivated by the reward of money, of recognition and praise, of honors and awards, of fame and popularity. We can never get enough to satisfy us! So we work harder and harder and harder. It’s no wonder so many of us struggle with workaholism. It’s no wonder our jobs are killing us in slow motion through stress. It’s no wonder so many of us get addicted to alcohol and drugs. It’s no wonder that so many of us need prescription drugs for high blood pressure or high cholesterol or anxiety. It’s no wonder we have so little time to take care of ourselves.
No… The only reward that can truly satisfy us in our work, the only compensation that makes it all worthwhile, is the reward that Paul refers to in today’s scripture: our “inheritance from the Lord.”
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a short story—a parable—called “A Leaf by Niggle.” I can totally relate to this man, Niggle. He so desperately wants to be noticed and appreciated and loved for his work, even though he is only a rather average painter. His neighbors and acquaintances complain that he should stop wasting time on canvases that few will ever see, and fewer still will appreciate, and get on with doing something useful with his life. Even Niggle himself doubts his calling. He’s been working with passion for a long time on a large landscape of a tree with birds nesting in it, with a forest in the background. He has this vision of the most beautiful picture he’s ever painted, if only he could put it across on canvas!
But he knows he’s not a great painter, and he can’t finish the picture anyway, because he’s constantly being interrupted by people making demands on his time—like his ill-tempered and infirm neighbor, Mr. Parish, who’s always complaining about Niggle’s garden, who never notices the beauty of Niggle’s paintings, and who’s always asking him to run errands for him and his wife. Everything’s always an emergency with him. Niggle says he wishes he were more strong-minded and less soft-hearted. He wishes he could say no to Mr. Parish. That way he could get more work done. To make matters worse, Niggle will have to leave soon on a long journey, which he’s dreading, and he can’t take the painting with him.
And sure enough, the time comes for Niggle to leave on his journey and leave behind his beloved, unfinished painting.
Eventually, on the other side of the journey, he finds a bicycle with his name on it. Since it’s a sunny spring day, he decides to ride down a path through a meadow. And guess what he sees when he gets to the bottom of a hill? He sees a Tree—not just any old tree, but the tree—the Tree that he dreamed about, the tree that he saw in his mind’s eye, the tree he spent so much of his time trying to paint. Tolkien writes: “All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time. Nothing was written on them, they were just exquisite leaves, yet they were dated as clear as a calendar. Some of the most beautiful—and the most characteristic, the most perfect examples of the Niggle-style—were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parish [that grumpy neighbor that Niggle was always doing things for].”
You get the idea: Tolkien is writing about heaven. Is it possible that, in ways we can’t imagine, the good work that we do now will somehow be preserved, perfected, and completed for eternity? I hope so—and I believe so.
Paul offers a tantalizing clue to this reality at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. At the conclusion of his lengthiest discussion of resurrection—both Christ’s and our own—he writes: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Your labor is not in vain.
The work that we do on this side of resurrection—which can often seem fruitless, insignificant, and unappreciated now—will come to fruition on the other side. Like Niggle, we will behold the Tree that we dreamed about and started to paint but could never quite finish to our satisfaction. And those Christians like Dr. Whit Smith, whom I mentioned earlier, who quietly went about their good work, serving the Lord through their normal jobs—working each day “as if for the Lord”—will one day see all the people whose lives they touched and changed for the better, will one day see the all ways in which they made the world a better place, will one day see all the ways they made a positive difference. And they will one day receive the payoff for their good work.
And one day, when Dr. Smith and you and me and so many others hear our Lord say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” all our sacrifices, all our suffering, all our pain will be totally worth it. That’s a reward worth working for.
Lord, make us faithful in the good work that you’ve given us to do, that you’ve called us to do, that you’ve assigned for us to do. Amen?