Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sacred Work

Genesis 11:1-9[1]

The 2005 film The World’s Fastest Indian is based on the true adventures of Burt Munro, a sixty-seven year old motorcyclist from New Zealand. Working in a cinder block garage in Invercargill spent 20 years modifying a 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle, which was originally designed to go about 50 miles an hour. In 1967 Burt travelled to the USA to compete at the Bonneville Salt Flats, setting an under-1000cc world record by reaching the speed of 183 mph! During his ten visits to the salt flats, he set three speed records, one of which still stands today.

I think one reason why Burt Munro achieved what many would have thought impossible was because he had a passion for what he was doing. He loved going fast! In fact, at one point, when asked if he’s afraid of being killed in a crash, he says, “You live more in five minutes on a bike like this going flat out than some people live in a lifetime.” Burt’s passion was also fired by his imagination—he could imagine what it looked like to set a land speed record—he could see it, he could taste it, he could feel it in his bones! His dream inspired him to the extent that he spent all his waking moments working on his beloved “old girl,” forging his own tools and parts in his shed. Not only that, but he also overcame a whole list of obstacles, from booking his passage aboard a ship (which included him working for part of the fare), to finding welding tools to repair his makeshift trailer, to talking the officials at Bonneville into letting him race even though they thought he was just a “crazy old coot”! Boy did he prove them wrong!

Our story from Genesis today tells us about a people who had another dream. The people of ancient Mesopotamia decide to build a great city and a tower “with its top in the heavens.” Now, if you think about it, there’s nothing wrong with having a passion for building great cities and impressive towers. But what was wrong was their motivation. They did it to “make a name” for themselves and to prevent them from being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4).[2] They were motivated by one of the oldest motivations of all time: pride.

Now, as we learned from the story of Cain and Abel, there’s nothing wrong with a healthy sense of satisfaction at “being good at what you’re good at.” But the kind of pride that motivated the builders of Babel was different. It’s the kind of pride that many theologians throughout the ages have called the “original” sin![3] Think about it: there’s a huge difference between the joy of finding fulfillment in what you do and the desire to “make a name” for yourself. One can inspire you with the kind of passion that enabled Burt Munro to achieve his dreams. The other will drain you of all imagination and energy, and leave you bitter and angry. Even if you achieve the goal of “making a name” for yourself, you have to guard it jealously because fame is so fleeting.

We are a people who suffer from a serious lack of imagination. The only reason we seem to be able to find for actually pursuing what we do for a living is to “make a name” for oneself or to make a lot of money. Talk about unimaginative! We keep spinning our wheels in the rat race thinking if we only get more fame or more money we’ll finally be “happy.” What’s the definition of insanity? Isn’t it doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results!

Thomas Moore reminds us that we all need to be able to see our work in the context of a larger story, a story that is concerned with what really matters in this world, a story where we make a significant contribution. [4] I would say that before we can do that, we need some idea of the larger story we’re in! This is where our Bible stories can help us. The story of Creation reminds us that we were made for the purpose of contributing to the life and beauty of God’s world. The story of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants reminds us that God’s purposes in this world don’t just “appear” out of thin air—they get done by people with flesh and bones. The story of Jesus impresses upon us the immense value God places on our being able to carry out our part in the larger story of God’s purpose.

That biblical view of God’s story might be overwhelming to you. It’s a pretty big story, after all. As my favorite Reformed Theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, reminds us, that’s the whole point of the story of God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is poured out on all people in order to us free from everything that keeps us from fulfilling our part in God’s story. The Spirit fills us all in order to energize us to accomplish things we could never even dream of![5]

When we can live our lives in harmony with the story God’s purpose, we can view all our work as God’s work.[6] If we can have the imagination to conceive our work in that way, then all work is sacred work, and we can do it with passion and enthusiasm. Then all work is a “vocation”—a calling from deep within; it is an “occupation”—something that chooses us from outside ourselves; it is “liturgy”—we are contributing toward the well-being of life, and thus participating to God’s ongoing creation.[7]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/12/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 242. Cf. also Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 99; and Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, “God Came Down … And Scattered: Acts of Punishment or Acts of Grace,” Review and Expositor 103 (Spring 2006): 403-417; they suggest that the scattering that God effected on them may be construed as a blessing rather than punishment!

[3] See Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics I:571, 600; cf. also Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, II:50, where he defines sin as “hubris” and says, “Hubris is not one form of sin besides others. It is sin in its total form, namely, the other side of unbelief or man’s turning away from the divine center to which he belongs. It is turning toward one’s self as the center of one’s self and one’s world.”

[4] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 185.

[5] See Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 114-122.

[6] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 199.

[7] Moore, Care of the Soul, 181-82.

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