Text: Isaiah 49:1-7
The beginning of a school year always takes me back to my own school experience. Moving in, being a part of campus life, going to football games. I hear students talking about their classes, and unless its physical chemistry it can make me wish I were taking a class. Well, until I really think about it.
I remember things like typing a paper in seminary--it was about 30 pages or so, with footnotes and everything. 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 Kirk Schulz, a student at Virginia Tech when I worked there doing a campus ministry internship. His dad was an engineering professor and he 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 on 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. It originally came with 16K of RAM memory. After a lightning strike fried our old computer, I just bought a new one with 16 GB of RAM memory. If you are counting, my new computer has literally a million time more memory than the first computer I owned.
While it may not happen as often on newer computers, it still happens: you can lose your work. Anybody ever had that happen? It’s enough to make a person cry.
It’s not just computers. You spend an afternoon putting together some new toy you’ve bought. A bicycle or a gas grill or a baby bed. And you are about done when you realize you left out an important part and you can’t fix it without taking the entire thing apart. Or maybe you have spent hours baking a culinary masterpiece that comes out flat as a pancake. You have worked for nothing.
Or worse than that, and more to the point: you invest your life, your blood and sweat and tears, and you wonder if all of your effort has made any difference, if it has really amounted to anything. You may feel as though you have labored in vain.
If you have ever felt that way, you are in good company. We find these words in our text from Isaiah, which comes from the second of four so-called “Servant Songs.” The servant at times is an individual and at times is identified as the nation of Israel. Here the servant has received a call from God and been prepared by God for the work. “You are my servant,” God says. “Now get out there and show me something. Make me proud.” The Servant goes. And falls flat on his face. “I have labored in vain,” he says. “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
My dad worked his entire career at Whirlpool, making refrigerators. He was a repairman and inspector on an 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 farming - you plant, fertilize, cultivate, and finally harvest - you get to see the results of your work. Of course, you are at the whim of the weather and the markets, there is lot you can’t control, but still – you get to see the results of your labor.
Many of those who work with people don’t have that luxury. If you are a teacher or a social worker or a librarian or a counselor or a child care worker or a police officer, you may never know the results of your efforts. It is like being a farmer except that so often you plant seeds without being able to actually see the harvest.
Sometimes, we may feel like we have labored in vain, 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. She was certainly the meanest. Nobody wanted Miss Lilly.
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. 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 today, but she really made a difference for her students. I never told Miss Lilly that; I doubt that many students ever did. I wonder if she knew.
William Willimon, the chaplain at Duke and later 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 to them 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.”
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 follow Jesus has known this feeling. If you’ve ever tried to teach a Sunday School class so that everybody gets the point and is excited about the Bible, or if you’ve 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 others, or if you have tried to stand up for what you believe is right when it isn’t necessarily the popular thing, or sought to influence those around you and generally tried to work so that we might live in a more kind and caring and generous world, then deep down you have probably said with the prophet, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
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 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 sermons than before! Laboring in vain.
But 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 minority groups, thousands of refugees from the hill tribes have come to our country from Burma. They are majority Christian and largely Baptist.
Ten of the last 11 new congregations in our Iowa-Minnesota region are churches of immigrants, mostly refugees from Burma. One of our newer churches is in the little town of Columbus Junction, south of Iowa City. The Carson Chin Baptist Church there dedicated their new building two weeks ago. They have over 400 members. Our regional gathering in October will be at First Baptist in St. Paul, a downtown church that has been reenergized and transformed by an influx of Karen people from Burma. Close to two hundred years later, I would say that the Judson’s work was not in vain.
We cannot always see the results immediately. I pray that someone thinks of me as I do Miss Lilly. (Not as mean old lady, but as someone who made a difference in their life.) Sometimes we are fortunate enough to know the results of our efforts, but often we are not.
I visited with Howard Johnson earlier this week. Howard got going, sharing stories, and told me about former graduate students who were doing well and who kept in touch with him. It really is a blessing to know that your work has made a difference, but we don’t always get that.
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, 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. 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, community members, citizens. And again, we may feel like our labors have been in vain, but so often it is too soon to know. I have a friend whose daughter was in a kind of wild rebellion. He had a lot of anxiety about the trajectory of her life and after years of parenting, it really hurt. But in time it became apparent that the love and care that he and his wife put into raising their daughter were not in vain.
The servant cried out that his labor has been for nothing. But God saw things differently. The servant had been faithful. The servant had sown seeds. And the cry of lament leads to an affirmation of God: “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with God.”
The amazing thing is that the servant’s apparent failure, the laboring in vain, actually led to a promotion. Isaiah’s call – and now it seems as though the servant is Isaiah himself - wasn’t big enough. “It is too light a thing,” God says, that Isaiah 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.”
God offers a correction of Israel’s self-understanding as a holy tribe living unto itself. God wanted more for Israel. God cares for all of humanity, not just the chosen tribe. Israel’s purpose was not to stand apart from the nations as an exemplar of holiness, but to engage the nations, serve the peoples, make creation better.
This past week was the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington and 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 – it was a local and then a regional issue and became a national concern and led to changes in our laws. Martin Luther King in time understood his calling not simply as working for equality 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 a larger calling.
So often, if we have any sense of call at all, it is to something small. A larger sense of call is often missing in so much of what we see around us. We divide into tribes and are concerned only for our own. I was touched by John McCain’s funeral yesterday. What people from all over the political and social spectrum appreciated about Senator McCain was this sense of a bigger picture, of a calling and a solidarity with others beyond the divide of tribalism. And in the big picture of things, we are all in the same tribe. We are all on the same team. We are all God’s children.
God calls us to something more, something greater, to a concern beyond our own narrow self-interest. Like Isaiah, we are called to be “A light to the nations.”
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob...I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth.” The servant who felt a failure was given an even bigger task.
Here’s the thing: if the qualification for a greater calling is failure, then I’ve got good news for you! We are all getting a promotion.
God has called you to use your gifts to serve God and humanity. Any work that creates and builds up and supports and helps and that in some way serves others and makes the world a better place is God’s work. And we can serve God by living out Jesus’ values in most any work.
But we are called to more than a job. We are called to be disciples. We are all called to the work of love and compassion and justice and reconciliation. And we are all up for a promotion.
You have been chosen by God. You have been called by God. Know that your labor is not in vain. And know that God is faithful. Amen.