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September 2, 2018

What Will I Do?
Pentecost 15 – Proper 17
Becky Robbins-Penniman

What will I do?

This question can involve anything from what we want to be when we grow up to deciding whether to go get a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Frankly, I think the first question is a lot simpler than the second. I’m one of those cranky holdouts who, the 2 times a year I HAVE to get my coffee at one of those fancy pants places, looks at the barista and says, maybe with a bit of a whine, “Please, all I want is a large cup of coffee.”

I’ve noticed they’ve trained them not to smirk at folks like me. I appreciate that.

What will I do? It’s Labor Day weekend, so let’s talk about our work, not coffee. Theologically, work, labor, is how we use the abilities and talents bestowed on us by our Creating God. Some it is done without compensation, notably at home and as volunteers. Sometimes we own the business, and we pay ourselves. However, from time immemorial to now, billions of people have been paid by somebody else to labor for them, those with more wealth and power finding others to do as they expect. As this system has always had the potential for abuse, Scripture tells us that God’s justice requires that workers be rewarded a decent, living wage, paid in a timely way.

Having valuable work to do is a precious thing, and often defines our lives. People absolutely dedicated to using their abilities are workers are what the reading from Sirach is about.

(By the way, when we have a reading from Sirach, someone always asks me, “Where is that book in the Bible? I can’t find it!” It’s in the Apocrypha. Books in the Apocrypha are ones the Episcopal Church teaches are “instructive but not doctrinal.” We use them occasionally, though, as today.)

Those hard workers, carvers and painters, smiths and potters, are people who work with their hands and lose sleep in order to get it all done. They make a city habitable. Modern parallels would include not only them, but construction and garbage workers, plumbers and electricians, and anyone who makes it so we can drive our cars wherever we want. But Sirach’s observation is that society NEEDS these workers, but doesn’t listen to them.

When problems come up in a society, those of wealth, status, and privilege are the ones chosen for a city’s councils. They don’t ask WORKERS to take part in the deliberations about what is best for the WORKERS. Those with wealth, status and privilege gather with other powerful people, and end up making decisions for everyone – even the workers – that seem usually to end up doing what’s best for the powerful.

The book of Sirach was written 2,000 years ago; it seems some things haven’t changed much.


Today’s Collect and Scripture readings are at the end of the sermon text.

Copyright notices: The Scripture text (except for the Psalm) is from the Common English Bible, CEB, Copyright 2010, 2011 by Common English Bible. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, all other content is original and copyrighted by Becky Robbins-Penniman, 2018. All rights reserved.

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But, still, our work, what we DO, shapes our lives in a very real way.

Who we are, what we care about, our values and priorities, are all directly to connected to what we do, and it is terribly important to us.

And here’s the hard part: it’s terribly important to us, and we work for decades, and then it’s . . . over.

The people who love us will miss us, yet the world will just move on. In 3 generations, no one will remember our personal hard work. This observation came from my sabbatical travels.
Since May 21st, conservatively speaking, I have traveled well over 20,000 miles in Cuba, Scotland, England, Greece, Florida, Texas, and the most foreign place of all, California.

In those miles I met all sorts of people, many very different from me. A good number did not speak English; others supposedly spoke English, but, well, the Glaswegian accent is . . . you have to pay close attention. In Glasgow, Scotland and all over Europe, people live, work and pray day in and day out, in cities, towns, offices, homes, and churches that were built centuries before Columbus came to our continent, let alone before the United States became a country.

America is a BABY as far as countries go!

On the other hand, Europe has ruins by the dozens. One of my favorites was the Doune Castle, built in the late 1300s, and in ruins by 1800.It’s claim to fame is a that it was the site
where Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed in 1974. If you haven’t already seen it by now, you probably don’t need to. Who actually built it, putting one stone atop another? No one knows.
Another of my favorites was in England: Stonehenge. That fascinating place was first used as a site for rituals over 5,000 years ago. People built more and more on it for 1,500 years, until 1600 BC, some 3500 years ago.

Gus and I both experienced it as a place of profound peace. Even though it was a very important religious place for a millennium and a half, it is now a place of tourists, buses, museums and speculation: no one really knows how those who built it used it, let alone who dragged those massive stones all over England to put them in this remarkable formation.

What we saw in Greece seems almost modern in comparison. One of the oldest sites we visited was the Parthenon, Hordes of workers – who, we don’t know – built this enormous Temple to Athena in just 10 years, finishing it in 438 BC. It was intact for 2125 years.

It began as a Temple to Athena; Christians converted it to a church in the 500s, the Turks turned it into a mosque in the late 1400s, and Italians turned it into a jigsaw puzzle in 1867 during a war with the Turks.

In 1975, nearly 300 years after the Italians blew it to bits, the Greeks began to put together the pieces of this massive puzzle. They’ve been working on that puzzle for longer than it took to build.

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Besides letting you know some of the places I visited on the amazing sabbatical that this incredible parish so wonderfully supported, I hope you can see why I made the observation I did: As we ask what we will do with, as Mary Oliver calls it, our one wild and precious life, 1 as we work and labor, we must also ask whether our labor is a waste of that life.

Our hard work, no matter how wonderful it is, what we each do individually, or even as a culture, just doesn’t last very long, because WE don’t last very long.

Only God and God’s work is eternal. God’s creation will be here long after our mightiest structures have become ruins. The man building those barns for his abundant harvest forgot that. He assumed there would always be a tomorrow for him. Apparently, he felt just fine, and had no plans to die just now.

So, thinking only of what he thought he needed and wanted for himself, now and in the future, he hoards the harvest in new barns, never giving a thought to anyone but himself, because he is, apparently, not connected to anyone else. His friends, his only friends, were his barns, his grain, his money, his stuff. His stuff will pass to someone else, and the stuff doesn’t care, does it?
As we’ve seen, stuff disappears, too – sometimes before our eyes, as with the wildfires this summer in California and Greece, and sometimes over the millennia. Stuff just doesn’t last.

When God says to the man, This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God. the point is not that God is angry, but that the man will have chosen to give his very life to stuff, stuff that will be given to others, who will then probably argue over it, as those brothers did in the beginning of today’s gospel lesson.

Not only that, the man has given his very life to stuff that just doesn’t last.

As God invites him to look back at his life, I can imagine that man gasping, “What a colossal waste of time.”

Only that which is eternal, which lasts, is worth our lives. God’s eternal work isn’t getting stuff, though, it is giving, bestowing grace on all Creation in order to reclaim it for the kingdom.

Jesus embodied God’s grace in his work of healing, respecting, welcoming, listening, loving, all summed up in laws of loving our neighbors as ourselves, and doing to others as we would have them do to us – seeking justice for all, even when those others are very different from us.

Jesus’ work of grace, of doing the Father’s will on earth as it is in heaven, is the foundation of the Good News that in giving his life for the life of the world, Christ is saving all people, including you, and me, and those who are oh, so different from us.

Jesus’ work of grace was difficult for him, too. In fact, it cost him his life. But it mattered, it made a difference, it changed the world. Even so, Paul tells us that the best way to spend our lives is to do our level best to live a life that builds on this foundation of Jesus’ work of grace.

Our Creator has already given us everything: the earth for food and drink, individual gifts, talents, abilities, and his very life, to do our work.


1 Mary Oliver, The Summer Day, Poem 133, New and Selected Poems. Beacon Press, 1992

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What, then, will we do? Will we be fools and build barns for someone else? Or will we be rewarded by our eternal God by doing the work of grace?

I have it on good authority that our reward for joining Jesus Christ in giving our lives will not be wealth, status or privilege, but looking back to see we have not wasted our lives, hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter the joy of your master.”

The hard work of building up the kingdom of God may not make us rich, but I hear the retirement benefits are out of this world!


COLLECT OF THE DAY

O God, our strength, without you we are weak and wayward creatures. Protect us from all dangers that attack us from the outside, and cleanse us from all evil that arises from within ourselves, that we may be preserved through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

SIRACH 38:27–32

So it is also with every craftsperson and master artisan who carries over the day’s work into the night, who carves figures on seals and works diligently to make diverse ornamentations. They will devote themselves to producing a lifelike painting, and they lose sleep in order to finish their work.

So it is with smiths who sit near an anvil and who closely examine works of iron. The blast of the fire will melt their flesh, and they will struggle with the heat of the furnace. The sound of the hammer will strike their ears again and again, and their eyes are focused on the pattern of the object. They will devote themselves to finishing the work, and they lose sleep in order to complete its decoration.

So it is with potters sitting at their work, turning the wheel at their feet. They lie down always feeling anxiety about their work, and every product of theirs is valued. They will mold the clay with their hands and work the wheel with their feet. They will devote themselves to finishing the glazing, and they lose sleep in order to clean the kiln.

All of these have relied on their hands, and each one is skilled in their work. Without them a city cannot be inhabited, and they neither go abroad to live as immigrants nor travel about. However, they aren’t sought out when people hold a council..

PSALM 90:1–2, 16–17

Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God.
Show your servants your works and your splendor to their children.
May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.

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1 CORINTHIANS 3:10–14

I laid a foundation like a wise master builder according to God’s grace that was given to me, but someone else is building on top of it. Each person needs to pay attention to the way they build on it. No one can lay any other foundation besides the one that is already laid, which is Jesus Christ. So, whether someone builds on top of the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, or hay, each one’s work will be clearly shown. The day will make it clear, because it will be revealed with fire—the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work survives, they’ll get a reward.

LUKE 12:13–21

Someone from the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus said to him, “Man, who appointed me as judge or referee between you and your brother?”

Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.” Then he told them a parable: “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. He said to himself, ‘What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest!’ Then he thought, ‘Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. I’ll say to myself,’ “You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”

But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’

This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.”

SERMON HYMN: God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending