Much of our lives are spent working. We are gathered at church to do the work of worship. Part of that work is to remind each other that the nightly news and the newspaper headlines fit within the world of the Bible. This week Turkish police recovered the body of a three year old boy from the beech near the town of Bodrum. This is on the eastern shore of the Agean Sea. Some two thousand years before just north of the Agean in a town called Philippi, in what is now Greece, Paul met a woman named Lydia. Shortly after Paul and his traveling companion were illegally apprehended, stripped naked in public, severely beaten and imprisoned.
The Boy in Blue Shorts
The picture of the child flashed around the world. Through fiber optic cables and over wireless networks it got our attention. The cyber pulse of that photo re-set many of our hearts. Pictures move us in ways words barely can. Pictures don’t need translators: they confront us. This one haunted us. Without a word it asked us whether we were doing our best to help the world’s most vulnerable. The boy was wearing blue shorts, a red t-shirt and the sort of sneakers little kids tackle the world in. If things were different he could have been a child asleep in a church during a dull sermon.
I confess that the photo brought tears to my eyes. What is it like to flee a home, to leave all that you’ve worked for? What is it like to trust the sea with your family? What is it like to be overcome by the waves? What is it like to have one you love die in your arms? Some of you know the answer to these questions. I do not.
The world saw the child lying in the sand on the beach and then in the arms of a policeman. We all wanted to be that policeman. In an instant we were thankful for the peace of our own country, for good governance and for those who work to maintain those things. But after that, if our hearts were not callous from overexposure, we began to wonder what we could do.
How do we respond to a picture like this, and to the political realities that lie behind it? How do we respond to the fact that each of those millions of displaced persons is in fact a life, not a number somewhere between one and four million?
We respond with tears and prayer. Our prayers of anguish are the movements of God’s Spirit within us. As God prompts our prayers they echo the divine voice in opposition to the powers of death. But we wonder, “How long must we wait for your judgment Oh Lord?” How long will the wicked prosper? And not just the wicked, but the incompetent and the self-interested and those who participate in the machinery of death—how long will they prosper? Or, how long will the wickedness within our own hearts prosper?
We weep and we pray . . . . We do that and we use our privilege as citizens to press our government to use its power to care for these vulnerable people. Some of our communities have welcomed families fleeing violence in the past; we wonder how we can extend the welcome again. In the twenty-third chapter of Leviticus ancient Israel was told to set aside a portion of their fields, fields they had worked hard to tend. They were told to set aside a portion of these fields for the poor and the alien. In the gospels Jesus tells us that the center of the Torah is the simple requirement to love God and to love our neighbor. And so we ask God how we are called to work that out in now.
The Woman Selling Purple
Discerning how to help is work and so is worship. ‘Work’ was what we had planned to reflect on here. In some ways the story of this family devastated in the Agean is a story of the failure of good work. We cannot help but wonder if there is not a failure of the work of good governance underlying this crises. Is there not a failure of immigration policy? Is there not even a failure in transportation? A boat operator exercised poor judgement. Might there not be a failure too in the work of design? The boy’s father claimed the life preservers they were given were useless.
Of course even good work can’t prevent every tragic loss of life. But if the work we do isn’t in some way contributing to the common good, keeping in check in some distant way, these sorts of things—if our work doesn’t do that, it’s no wonder it frustrates us so much. The beginning of the creation story in Genesis gives us the impression that work is a good thing. The preacher of Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work” (3:22) This seems to be the ideal. I’m sure, however, that we have each heard someone or other say that “work sucks.” It’s a sentiment laid down more often than bus fare. It’s probably been our own sentiment at some point.
Work, whether it’s at home or away, can be one of the most frustrating, infuriating, degrading parts of life. When your alarm clock goes off and your bed is still warm and your manager is still annoying, work seems worse than having the flu. “Oh God not another meeting, let me please get an infection.” Work can be something we do just because we have to pay the rent and keep the fridge stocked. And we see this too in the third chapter of Genesis, where work becomes “toil” and is marked by sweat and thorns and thistles.
In Acts 16:11-15,40 and Exodus 35:30-35 we read about two kinds of work. In Acts we learn that Lydia sold purple cloth. In Exodus we read about a craftsman named Bezalel who could work soft metals, shape stone and carve wood. There are more kinds of work than these of course: there is landscaping and finance, teaching, administration, various kinds of research, there is the work of creating, analyzing and executing government policy, piloting boats and airplanes, creating music is work too, so is studying, and caring for children or the elderly.
When we say that “work sucks” we probably mean is a certain type of work seems pointless and painful. We probably mean that we don’t like the activity itself and the thing it produces, a bit of cash, isn’t that splendid either. We don’t say bad things about work when it’s hard to come by and when our families desperately need food and clothes and a place to live. Then we remember that work is a gift.
Lydia’s work was a gift. We don’t know if she liked the textile business or if she had some particular affection for purple. Her story slips in and out of the account of Paul’s second missionary journey. Lydia was probably a gentile convert to Judaism. We know that she was a businesswoman. The purple cloth she sold was made with a very expensive dye. The dye was expensive because it didn’t come from plants or from the ground; it was created by adding salt to the mucus of predatory sea snails. As you can imagine milking sea snails is a labor-intensive slow process.
So the cloth was pricey, and because of that Lydia had connections to the wealthy. She was probably fairly wealthy herself. She had a large home and was responsible for a whole household. Lydia wasn’t a native of Philippi, but that’s where she was living when she met Paul. There were so few Jews there that Paul couldn’t find them in a synagogue; instead, he found Lydia and the others praying on the Sabbath outside the city gate near the river. Lydia was convinced by Paul’s claims about Jesus; then she and her whole household were baptized. As an aside, that bit about her whole household is one of the reasons the church has often baptized infants.
One of the reasons Lydia is important is because most of the time when we read Acts we read about heroic apostles like Peter and Paul. But many of us are probably more like Lydia. We haven’t been called to specialized ministry in the same way as Peter and Paul. But we have been called to faithfully follow Jesus. For that too Lydia’s work was a gift. We’ve noted earlier that tending and cultivating creation is a part of bearing God’s image. Lydia’s work allowed her to support a household. It allowed her to support Paul. Modern churches are not the first Christian communities to require the financial support of patrons. Lydia’s work allowed her to be a leader in the local church.
We don’t know how Lydia treated her employees or whether or not she was concerned about the impact of her trade on the population of sea snails. We do know that Paul instructed another wealthy figure in the New Testament to treat his slave like a brother. Lydia may well have been part of that same revolutionary way. The 16th century Anabaptist Pilgrim Marpeck was both the leader of an Anabaptist network and a civil engineer. His background was in mining. He was contracted by a number of cities to build waterways and procure lumber. For Marpeck, as may well have been true for Lydia, working for the good of the larger community was worthwhile. It was something to give one’s skill and effort to. It was something to lose sleep over. But for Marpeck, and I imagine for Lydia, commitment to a job was always provisional. Success was never worth compromising commitment to the ethic of Jesus. Four centuries after Marpeck a radical Catholic named Dorothy Day suggested that if our jobs do not contribute to the well-being of others we should ask God for the grace to give them up (Callings, 418).
The Man Worked in Gold
As I understand it, the family devastated in the Agean last week was headed to Cos, which is in Greece. Paul visited that ancient port. Exodus 35 recounts an event that took place thousands of years earlier and south-east of the family’s Syrian home, probably somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula.
This little account is an excerpt from the larger story of God’s redemptive work where Moses and the Israelite tribes had not long before been freed from slavery in Egypt. In the inhospitable wilderness of Sinai, God intended to form them into a people capable of exemplifying shalom. For that they were given moral instruction and a way of worship. When we worship we use the stuff of earth to speak of God, to praise God and to mark God’s presence. Ancient Israel did this too. This is where Bezalel comes into the story. He made this happen.
Israel’s worship required a sacred space where God would dwell or tabernacle with them. Moses relayed God’s instructions. Moses said, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel son of Uri . . . .” Notice that Bezalel was specifically called by God, and called by God to create things and to fashion spaces. Notice what comes next as well: Scripture tells us that God “filled [Bezalel] with the divine spirit, with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft.” Think of that! We talk of God’s anointing for leadership or for some kind of spiritual ministry but Bezalel was filled with the spirit to “devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.” That’s what Scripture tells us. He was called and filled with God’s spirit to work as a craftsman. Bezalel is the first person in Scripture described as being anointed with God’s Spirit in this way.
We don’t know that Bezalel enjoyed the work, but I would think he did. What craftsman doesn’t like working with good material for a good purpose with skilled assistants? Work is a gift when it lets us contribute to something important, supporting others in Lydia’s case. Work is a gift too when we love what we’re doing and when it feels like we were made precisely to do that thing.
In my observation, though, this doesn’t happen very often though. Maybe in a ‘perfect’ world we would all work at things we were passionate about and make a living selling our handcrafted creations on the internet. Many of us work jobs we’re less enthused about, and the things we love to do and feel called to do are things we do “on the side.” If you are one of those people who feels like you have “never worked a day in your life”—never ‘worked’ because you love what you do so much, be thankful. Be thankful if you feel, with Bezalel, like you have been called by name and if you can give that task your full attention. And let us be thankful with you.
If that’s not you, I urge you not to worry. Nowhere that I’m aware of does Scripture suggest that we will all feel called to a specific job. We will all work, though, in one way or another. And this is a gift. We want to be pushed and challenged. We want our work to be appreciated by others. We want to participate in something bigger and feel like we make a difference. If we have even these opportunities let’s be thankful too. Let’s be thankful and let’s think carefully about the things we invest our time and energy into. Let’s ask ourselves if these things allow us to participate in the work that God is doing in the world. Let’s ask ourselves if they give and nurture life.
We could almost end on that note, but not quite. To end there would risk thinking too much of ourselves. It would risk cynicism. I’m afraid that much of our well-intended talk of “making the world a better place” has turned back on itself. Where an earlier generation was intent on changing the world, many young people are now skeptical of this triumphalism.
We know, for instance, that for every one crises we attend to, others go unnoticed. For every child we weep over, others are ignored. Our best efforts too often lead to harm. I have spoken to more disillusioned international volunteers and ministers than I can keep track of. It feels almost shallow to be rallied to action by a photograph, when we knew all along, and when we know helping some means we don’t help others. What’s the antidote? How do we think in these positive ways about work and about extending the love of God without risking cynicism when the world doesn’t become a better place?
I don’t know the answer for others, but I know that for Christians the answer is to return to the center of the faith: it isn’t we who change the world, it is God. In fact the world has already been changed. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the kingdom of God has broken in and the powers of death have been unmasked. We draft behind Jesus. Our work, if we can call it that, is to be pulled along in that grace, pulled along in that joy, pulled along in that peace. As we work, let us be pulled with the poet of the Psalms who praises God saying, “You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples” (77:14).