Sunday’s sermon: Checking Email: Blessed to Be a Blessing

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Text used – Isaiah 42:1-9

 

  • Let me tell you a story this morning: Once upon a time, there were two sisters. Though they sometimes bickered when they didn’t see eye-to-eye, the sisters loved each other, and they enjoyed sharing a home together with their brother (who we’ll meet in another story some other day). One day, as the sisters were going about their daily routines, a traveler arrived on their doorstep for a visit. This was a famous traveler whose name was known throughout the region, and when the first sister saw him, she welcomed him into their home gladly. But this famous traveler did not travel alone. Far from it. With him into their home came all those who traveled with him – his friends, his admirers, and those who looked up to this traveler as a mentor. Suddenly, the sisters had a very busy and very full house and a great many things to do! But generous welcome was ingrained in them by their culture and their very nature, so the first sister went to work preparing a simple but abundant feast for their guests. As she bustled about, the first sister turned to say something to the second sister, assuming she was right there helping, but she was shocked to find her sister’s customary place in the kitchen empty. The first sister quickly scanned the kitchen, still not finding her sister, then looked out into the common room where all of her guests had gathered. And there was her sister, doing no work whatsoever. She was sitting at the feet of the famous traveler, gazing up at him, just sitting and listening and, from the look in her eyes, adoring. Infuriated, the first sister began to berate her sister for being so lazy and neglectful of their guests. In her frustration, she even appealed to their guest – to the famous traveler – because he was known to be wise and just. But his reply stopped the first sister in her tracks, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken from her.”[1] → Ahh, the story of Mary and Martha. A story of work and devotion. We’re not reading this Scripture this morning, but since the story is so central to our idea today, I wanted to introduce it in a different way. You see, throughout the summer, we’ve been working our way through Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices for Everyday Life[2], and today, we’re basically tackling the crux of the whole idea of this book: finding God in the midst of the busyness of our days.
    • Talking about the extreme side of workaholism (full-on Martha mode)
    • Talking about the other extreme side – what Warren calls “escapism into a contemplative ideal”[3] (full-on Mary mode)
    • Talking about finding a middle way between the two – making space for the sacred even in the tasks that feel as far from holy as they can get
    • Warren’s description of the issue: In our modern-day society, when we are blessed and sent to go do the work God has given us to do, we are sent into a culture where work can become all-consuming and boundless. Our frantic work lives are disconnected from the rhythms of the seasons or day and night. We can work constantly. … With these changes come an increased temptation to make work and productivity an idol to which we’ll sacrifice rest, health, and relationships. What might vocational holiness look like when technology can breed habits that feed an unhealthy and ungodly appetite for endless productivity?[4]
    • Exceedingly complex issue
      • Wrapped up in the way that society undeniably and relentlessly measures our worth by the amount that we get done in any given day
        • Related: wrapped up in the particularly difficult and draining complexities so many are facing in working from home during this pandemic → Where does work stop and home start?
      • Wrapped up in the injustice of income inequality in this country and the way some people need to work 3 jobs just to make ends meet (rent, food, transportation to those jobs, health insurance, etc.)
      • Wrapped up in the idea of call and vocation – favorite quote from Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” → “If this is where God is calling me to be and work, shouldn’t I want to be here as much as possible?” Where does vocation call for work and where does vocation call for rest and renewal?
  • So let’s dig in – start with Warren’s description at the beginning of this chapter (title: “Checking Email: Blessing and Sending”)

I open my inbox to a swirling mass of tasks I need to complete, people I need to respond to, and things that call for my time: a plea for volunteers from my daughter’s teacher, forms to complete for my supervisor, a smattering of people with whom I need to set up meetings, an Evite, a note from my mom, an old friend who’s traveling through and wants to sleep on my couch, an appointment reminder from our doctor’s office, and a few mass emails, mainly charities asking for donations or listservs I’m on for my job.

            My brain cannot take in the sheer volume of email, the number of people needing a response, the sorting, deciding, writing, and deleting that lies before me. My eyes glaze over. I want to escape – to go elsewhere online or to back away from the computer in relieved defeat – bested, once again, by my nemesis.

            I know people who empty their inbox every day. Those people have superpowers and exist on cheerfulness and productivity as food. They’ve given me books on how to be more efficient and organized with email, and I’ve read parts of them. But I still have unopened Groupon deals from four years ago.

            There are days when I try to catch up, when I seem to gain a little ground on the hamster wheel, but I’ve never been able to master this task. Mostly because I don’t like it and therefore I avoid it. I’m fairly certain that one day there will be three numbers engraved on my tombstone as a legacy and a warning: my birth date, my death date, and the number of unopened emails still awaiting a response in my inbox. (Warren, 88-89)

  • Sound familiar to anyone? I think this – the incessant, inescapable nature of emails – speaks loudly and profoundly to the issue of balancing work and rest time, especially during this pandemic. With tablets and smartphones and internet access available nearly anywhere and everywhere we go, we can remain connected to our work 24/7. We can always take just a minute to check in … to catch up … to write just this one email, just this one reply, to check in on just this one issue. To use our story example, we can be Martha all day every day with no breaks and no escape – holidays, birthdays, vacations, even simple “days off” (which, as soon as we open that email, become anything but a day off).
    • Becomes particularly complicated when we start thinking about the idea of vocation – of the sacred work that God calls us to in this world – and how that work integrates with our worship integrates with our workaday jobs
      • Theology of work that Warren introduces: The Christian faith teaches that all work that is not immoral or unethical is part of God’s kingdom mission. The kingdom of God comes both through our gathered worship each week and our “scattered” worship in our work each day. Thus all work, even a simple, small task, matters eternally.[5]
  • Good place to bring in our Scripture reading from Isaiah this morning
    • First portion talks about the work of the person that the prophet Isaiah calls “The Servant” (i.e. – Jesus): But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations. He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public. He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice. He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land. The coastlands await his teaching.[6] → establishes Jesus as an example for our work
      • Work for the good of the world
      • Work that is life-giving and sustaining
      • Uphold the Micah work ideal: He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.[7]Sounds like pretty good parameters for work, right?
    • Second portion talks about God calling us: I, the LORD, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon. I am the LORD; that is my name; I don’t hand out my glory to others or my praise to idols. The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened, but I’m declaring new things. Before they even appear, I tell you about them.[8]
      • Reassures us that God calls us to good work
      • Reassures us that God is with us in the midst of that good work
      • Reassures us that in the midst of that good work, we find holiness
        • Warren speaks to this: As we seek to do our work well and hone our craft, we are developed and honed in our work. Our task is not to somehow inject God into our work but to join God in the work [God] is already doing in and through our vocational lives.[9] → It doesn’t matter what kind of work you’re doing – if you’re a doctor, if you’re a salesperson, if you’re a teacher, if you’re a nurse, if you’re a manager, if you’re a pastor, if you’re a clerk, if you’re an accountant, if you’re a garbage collector, if you’re a writer, if you’re a librarian, if you’re a receptionist, if you’re a janitor, if you’re a food server, or any other job. God is working out there in the world in a million different ways, and we get to be a part of that work through the work we do. God needs us to be a part of that work through the work we do.
  • That being said, as we already mentioned, it can be far too easy today to let that work consume us – to let it become the be-all-end-all in our lives; to let it, in fact, become the thing that we worship, the thing that we place even above God. We can become so ingrained in our Martha ways of busyness and importance and being needed that we forget the ultimate purpose and source of that work in the first place: God. And yet we know that neither can we simply give up all of that work and sit forever at the feet of Christ listening and adoring. We have bills to pay. We have families to raise. We have commitments to fulfill. We do, indeed, have work to do. So where’s the middle way? Where’s the happy medium?
    • Warren: I need a third way – neither frantic activity nor escape from the workaday world, a way of working that is shaped by being blessed and sent. This third way is marked by freedom from compulsion and anxiety because it is rooted in benediction – God’s blessing and love. But it also actively embraces God’s mission in the world into which we are sent.[10] → In terms of our worship together, this is how we end each service, right?
      • From the Book of Common Worship: We are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. The charge calls the church to go forth as agents of God’s mission in the world.[11] → “The charge & benediction,” also known as the work to do and the blessing to do it. The blessing to do the work … to enact the work … to embody the work of God in this world … not to let that work embody you.
      • Warren drives this home with The Point (capital T, capital P): I want to learn how to spend time over my inbox, laundry, and tax forms, yet, mysteriously, always on my knees, offering up my work as a prayer to the God who blesses and sends. Living a third way of work – where we seek vocational holiness in and through our work even as we resist the idolatry of work and accomplishment – allows us to live with work as a form of prayer.[12] Amen.

[1] Lk 10:41-42.

[2] Tish Harrison Warren. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2016.

[3] Warren, 99.

[4] Warren, 98, 99.

[5] Warren, 92.

[6] Is 42:1-4.

[7] Mic 6:8.

[8] Is 42:6-9.

[9] Warren, 94.

[10] Warren, 99.

[11] Office of Theology and Worship for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “Sending: Blessing and Charge” from Book of Common Worship. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 12.

[12] Warren, 100-101.

One response to “Sunday’s sermon: Checking Email: Blessed to Be a Blessing

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Sleeping: Holiness in Rest | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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