Measuring Our Worth
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Tomorrow is a strange day in our American culture – Labor Day. On this day dedicated to the social and economic achievements of the worker, many of us will spend it doing anything but working. On the flip side, many of those for whom the day was created will find themselves - out of necessity - at work. Created by the labor movement in the 1880s as a holiday for workers and their families, Labor Day was designed to honor the people who contribute to our wellbeing just by working well – and at the same time, to promote justice for those aren’t being treated with the dignity we all deserve.
It’s not an official church celebration, but maybe it should be. It’s remarkably Sabbath-like in its intent. Besides, we’re not God’s children just on Sundays. If God worked six days out of seven on creation, then surely God honors what we do Monday to Saturday. Our work lives matter to God, because we matter to God. We are what we do, to some extent. Or are we?
Today’s Scriptures assume a radically different economy than the one we’re used to. Looking at today’s passage from Hebrews, productivity seems to be the last thing on the author’s mind. The most relevant advice seems to be this: “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’” Personally, I’m not sure I’d call our relationship with money love; it’s more like hostile dependency. In our society, we need it like we need water. When we have it, we take it for granted. When we don’t, our need for it can feel a lot like thirst. And we act accordingly.
Perhaps the point is this: While what we do matters to God, our worth is not equal to it. Nor is our worth measured by appearances. According to Hebrews, strangers in our midst might just be angels. We are to remember those in prison and those being tortured as though we were in their place; the text here is directly intertwining our fates with those who cannot be measured by their earning potential. Our worth is somehow bound up in their worth. In the eyes of the Gospel, we’re worth what they’re worth.
Also lifted up are those perhaps most directly affected by our work lives – our spouses. It’s amazing how fragile relationships become when our work lives are skewed, when we’re either working too much or not enough. Living as a Christian, we’re told, means upholding marriage – not just the long-term marriages we’re celebrating today, but in what we demand of ourselves at work and what we ask of others.
So how do we manage this miraculous balancing act when so little of it feels under our control? How do we value what we do without letting it mean too much? The following mantra is recommended: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” You can try repeating it with me if you like: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Do what works for you, but I’m not sure I can think of a better way to make it through my day.
Then there are those lifted up in today’s Gospel – those who are poor, crippled, blind, lame – those who may not wish to be made visible in this way. Their everyday needs make their reliance on others obvious enough; why does Jesus shine the spotlight on them? And what’s with the apparent assumption that they have nothing to give? Jesus knows better. Here the point seems to be: Don’t give with any expectation of return. Invite to your party those who cannot necessarily repay in kind. Invite those whose needs, whose thirsts, remind you of your own. Excuse me, but what’s the point of working so hard then? If our worth is not dependent on how self-sufficient we are, then on what exactly does it depend?
Today’s passage from Jeremiah gives us a hint – once we wade through some misleading language first. In indicting Israel for its infidelity to the Lord, the prophet Jeremiah offers these words: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things…and became worthless themselves?” I’m sorry – but that can’t be right. No one is worthless in God’s eyes.
I mean, look at what God did for them. They couldn’t have been worthless, or God wouldn’t have wasted the time. The Lord brought them up out of slavery, led them to a land of promise. And for what? Did they ask too many questions once they got there? No. Questions, even doubt, would have been welcome. The problem is that they didn’t ask, “Where is God?” Instead of depending on God to be their source, their fountain of worth, they insisted on digging their own cisterns – on providing their own water, on living off their own strength. Note that there’s no shame in needing water; it’s just that there are more and less helpful ways of getting it. Compared to a fountain of living water, let’s face it, a cracked cistern is less effective. It fills with stagnant water that leaks out and ultimately disappears; more importantly, in the end it doesn’t quench our very real thirst.
That’s what happens, I think, when we focus too much on our own efforts and strength, when we equate who we are with what we do. We don’t know how to leave room for God to move through our brokenness, to lead us through the places we would never choose to go. We can end up forsaking water in the desert because we didn’t collect it ourselves, because we thought we had to earn it first – dying of thirst when all the while we could be drinking living water. We’re worth far more than that. We are, each and every one of us, created in the image of God. Jesus lived, died and rose for us. The Spirit of God lives in us in pricelessly unique ways. In other words, the fountain of living water is already within us – and all before we got out of bed this morning, before we had a thought of doing anything productive.
So how do we celebrate Labor Day, this secular Sabbath, in our work-obsessed culture? How do we find our fountain of worth – and recognize it in others? Here are a few suggestions I invite you to consider in the silence that follows:
Enjoy your Sabbath time, whenever and wherever you find it. Spend time with your loved ones; let yourself enjoy it. And then honor other people’s family lives by knowing when not to ask more of them.
Show hospitality to a stranger. Invite someone you don’t know well to your Labor Day picnic. Give freely without expectation of return, but don’t make easy assumptions about who can give and who can’t. Be open to the embodied grace of God standing in front of you and the gifts that only they can bring.
Remember those who are in prison or are being tortured as though you yourselves were with them. Remember – in the eyes of the Gospel, we’re worth what they’re worth.
Ask God the tough questions you’ve been afraid to ask until now; keep asking.
If you do nothing else, pay attention to how many people you see working tomorrow. Thank them.
Finally, when you wake up Tuesday morning, try the following mantra: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Repeat as needed. Amen.