Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7, Matthew 5:13-16
The beginning of the school year always makes me reflect on my own school experience. Walking across campus, going to class, working int he lab, going to football games. I hear students talking about classes they are taking, and unless it’s physical chemistry it makes me want to be back in class. Well, until I really think about it.
Because when I reflect on it, I think of things like a paper I was typing in seminary--it was about 40 pages, with footnotes and all of that fun stuff. I had been researching it for weeks and now was typing it on a computer, which was something new to me, and new to most people. It was amazing – you could make corrections, change paragraphs, rearrange sentences, it would even check your spelling and help with footnotes.
I had bought my computer used from a guy named Kirk, a student in our campus ministry group at Virginia Tech when I worked there doing a campus ministry internship. Kirk was ahead of the curve as far as computers went. At Tech, students could buy the new IBM PCs at a big discount, and when he bought one, he sold me his old computer for $500, which was a pretty big investment at the time.
It was an amazing machine, but it didn’t do everything, and as I worked on that paper I learned a very valuable lesson: it is possible to lose information that you put into a computer. Now that wouldn’t happen with a typewriter, but it did with computers, and especially this one. It was a Radio Shack Model TRS-80, but everybody called it a trash-80. I saw one just like it several years ago at the Smithsonian Institution.
Computers are exponentially more powerful today than they were in the 1980’s, but it can still happen: you can lose your work. Perhaps you have worked for hours meticulously writing a term paper and then suddenly it’s gone and you have to start all over. All that work for nothing. It’s enough to make a person cry.
It’s not just computers. You spend an afternoon or more putting together some new toy you’ve bought. A bicycle or a gas grill or a yard barn. You are almost done when you realize you left out an important part and you can’t fix it without taking the entire thing apart. There is this terrible feeling of having done all this work and taken all of this time--for nothing. Or maybe you have spent hours baking a culinary masterpiece that burns or falls apart or won’t rise like it’s supposed to. You feel like you have labored in vain.
We find these words in our text from Isaiah. This comes from the second of what are called the four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah. This servant of the Lord had been called and equipped – and fell flat on his face, felt like his work had been all for nothing, his efforts a waste of time.
Labor Day weekend is a good time to think about the work we do in relation to our faith. Your work may be whatever it is you do to earn a paycheck. But maybe not. If you are a student, think of that as your occupation. But in a broader sense, think about the things you do that matter to you and others. Your work might be parenting, or neighboring, or volunteering, or caring for loved ones. Some of the most important work we do continues throughout our lives.
My dad worked his entire career at Whirlpool, making refrigerators. He was a repairman and inspector on the assembly line. Sometimes I envy those whose job involves making things and fixing things, because you can actually see the results of your work. At the end of the line, you have this nice, finished appliance. The same is true of farmers--you plant, fertilize, cultivate, and finally harvest--you get to see the results of your work.
Those of you who work with people rarely get that luxury. Many of you are involved in both teaching and research, and in a sense these are completely different fields. In research, you may see concrete results of your efforts, but in teaching, you may never know the results.
A pastor told about a church member who was an alcoholic. For years, she and her family had suffered because of her disease. Finally she got up the courage to do something about her illness. She would go to an alcohol treatment center, if she could find the money and get help with her family while she was away for the month of treatment.
The church mobilized. Sunday School classes got involved and brought over meals. Three generous people in the church paid for the whole month of treatment. For a month the whole church pulled together.
It seemed like a miracle, and for 2 or 3 months, her recovery did seem miraculous. But then she stopped going to her AA meetings. In another month, she was drinking again.
When we read these words of Isaiah, our ears latch on to the prophet’s honest but despairing cry: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
The fact is, most everybody who has really tried to do something worthwhile has known this feeling. If you’ve ever tried to teach a class so that everybody understands the material and is excited about the subject, or if you’ve tried to mentor young people and make a difference in their lives, or ever tried to reach out to someone going through a hard time and help them, or if you’ve tried to live out your faith in the workplace and be a positive witness for Christ to your co-workers, or if you have tried to stand up for what you believe is right when it isn’t necessarily the popular thing, then deep down you have probably said with the prophet, “I have labored in vain.”
There was a pastor who tried to measure the effect of preaching on people’s racial attitudes. He designed a questionnaire intended to measure his congregation’s opinions on race. Then he preached a series of six sermons which in some way attempted to apply the gospel to the issue of race in America. A very worthy undertaking. After the sermon series, he gave the same questionnaire. He found that his congregation was 2.5% more racist after the series of sermons. Laboring in vain.
Sometimes, we feel like our labors have been for naught, but it is really too early to know. At the time, I would have told you that Miss Lilly, my 4th grade teacher, was the worst teacher ever. The absolute worst. Nobody wanted to be in Miss Lilly’s class. She was legendary at Oak Hill School because her class was so hard and she was so mean.
In 3rd grade, I made a smattering of grades--some A’s and B’s, some C’s, D’s in writing. But in 4th grade, with Miss Lilly, I made straight A’s. Looking back, I’m sure that Miss Lilly scared me into being a good student. And in eighth grade, you could still tell which students had Miss Lilly in 4th grade, because they were better in math.
I’m not necessarily recommending her methods, which would get a teacher in serious trouble nowadays, but she really made a difference for her students. I never told Miss Lilly that, and I doubt that many students ever did.
William Willimon, longtime chaplain at Duke and now a Methodist bishop, told about someone who was a great Sunday School teacher--the best he remembered from his teenage years. He treated the teenagers like adults, talked about problems in his business. Willimon remembered loving his class.
So when he saw this man at a gathering a few years back, Willimon went up to him and mentioned his memories of that class. “Yeah, I remember that class too,” said the man. “Worst class I ever taught. Dull students, surly, behavior problems. Yeah, I remember that class. I told the Sunday School superintendent after two years, ‘Please don’t ask me again.’ The whole thing was a failure as far as I was concerned.”
Sometimes our failures are not really failures. Sometimes we have to look for something greater than immediate, quantifiable results.
I think of Ann and Adoniram Judson, the first Baptist foreign missionaries, working in Burma for years without a single convert. Nothing to show for all their work. Their labor, it seemed, had been in vain. Yet today, because of their efforts, there are millions of Christians in Burma, now known as Myanmar. Because of the brutal repression of the military regime, thousands of refugees from the hill tribes are coming to our country. They are mostly Christian and largely Baptist, and these immigrants are starting many new ABC churches as well as joining and bringing new life to existing churches.
We cannot always see the results immediately. I pray that someone thinks of me the way I think of Miss Lilly. (Not as mean old lady, but as someone who made a difference in their life.)
The servant in Isaiah cried out that his labor has been for nothing. But God saw things differently. God does not ask for success, God asks for faithfulness. And the servant had been faithful. The servant had sown the seeds. And the servant’s cry of lament leads to an affirmation of God: “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with God.”
Tomorrow is Labor Day, and few things affect us as much as our work. Some of us here are looking ahead, thinking about how to use our gifts and talents and abilities, how to invest our lives, dreaming about the kind of career we might want. Some are happily working in an occupation, others not so happily, others just counting the days until retirement. Some are looking for work, or for meaningful work. And others in retirement may look back on a career, maybe with satisfaction, maybe with mixed feelings.
But the work to which we are called is more than a paying job. We are called to be disciples. We are called to be parents, friends, neighbors, caregivers, coaches. We are called to compassion, called to justice, called to faithfulness. And again, we can feel like our labors have perhaps been in vain, but so often it is too soon to know. I have a friend whose daughter is in a kind of rebellion, and it is hard for him - after years of parenting, it really hurts. But I have a feeling that the love and care that he and his wife have put into raising their daughter has not been in vain.
I have observed people working in jobs that were very routine, that would not seem to careers where you can really make much of a difference. But through the joy and compassion and life a person shared with customers and clients and co-workers, they made a huge difference.
In our scripture, the servant feels like a failure, but God instead sees faithfulness. And the servant’s apparent failure, the laboring in vain, led to a promotion. “It is too light a thing,” God says, that you should serve God by restoring the “survivors of Israel.” “I will give you as a light to the nations,” to all the peoples of the earth, says the Lord.
This past Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and we especially remembered Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King did not start out by speaking to a quarter of a million people in Washington. It all began with the Montgomery bus boycott. King was a 26 year old pastor, the new guy in town, and wound up a leader of the movement partly because others weren’t willing. There was a time when King felt like a failure, felt he couldn’t go on. But then came a powerful, tangible sense of God’s presence and God’s call. And a local concern became a regional issue and a national issue and led to historic changes in our country.
Martin Luther King in time understood his calling not simply as working for equality for African-Americans in the South, but as working for God’s justice for all people everywhere. At the time of his death, he was in Memphis working for the rights of poor people.
We may sell ourselves short. What we may see as laboring in vain may be very valuable. It may be just the kind of work God needs. And it may lead to something greater.
Our New Testament lesson comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is speaking to his disciples, to a small band of followers. These were not people of means or influence. These were not the leaders of society. And they lived in an occupied nation, a kind of backwater place.
Jesus says to them. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” It is audacious. It is almost shocking when you think about it. He doesn’t say, “You can make somewhat of a difference in this particular area of Galilee.” He doesn’t say, “I’m counting on you to influence your friends and family in a positive way.” Under the circumstances, if Jesus said that, it might have been ambitious. But he says, to his followers then and to you and me right now, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Our calling is a lot bigger than we could have imagined.
Well you know, the world has to start somewhere. The world begins right where we live and work, and as we labor, we need to know that we are part of something much bigger. All work that increases knowledge and hope and goodness, all work that builds up, all work that provides for human need, all work that can bring joy and happiness, all work that alleviates suffering is God’s work. Through that work we are salt and light to the world.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Remember that. Amen.