Date: February 25, 2009 (Ash Wednesday)
Texts: Genesis 3:17-19
Author: Isaac Villegas
Work. The alarm clock wakes you up on Monday morning. You lie there for a few minutes, getting ready to do it all over again this week. Or it’s Friday: you get home after the week of work, you are tired, it has been a tough week at work. Our passage from Genesis says it like it is: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This is the traditional passage for Ash Wednesday: “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are reminded of our mortality. In a world where we run from death, Ash Wednesday rubs our face in it. We will die. But there are worse things than death. That’s why this day and the season of Lent is a time for repentance. Sin is worse than death.
But Genesis also links our mortality to work: “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground.” Throughout our worship service tonight we are given plenty of chances to repent from our sins. And we should take advantage of such opportunities. Let us root out our sin.
But what about work? I want to think through work tonight. It’s important to our lives, it’s central to our passage from Genesis, and we don’t talk about it that much at church. So, here goes. I am not an expert on labor. I haven’t been doing it very long. Besides, can we really call being a pastor, “work”!? Many of you have worked longer than I have, and work harder than I do. So my thoughts will basically be notes for a conversation, something to prod our thinking about our work.
I used to work with Steve tearing stuff down and building it back up again. A few times we did the opposite: we had to tear down what we just spent the day building. Those were bad days. Who knew the difference of an inch could ruin everything. Anyhow, working with Steve was an education. I learned a ton—how to use various tools, why it’s important to wear long-sleeved shirts when installing insulation (it’s extremely itchy), how tar gets everywhere, and why Karl Marx gets a lot of stuff right about work.
In the morning before heading off at 7:30am to our construction site, instead of reading my Bible for a half hour, I read this book: Nicholas Lash, A Matter of Hope: A theologian’s reflections on the thought of Karl Marx (1984). I didn’t really start reading it because it was about Karl Marx. I was interested in the author. I read one of his books during seminary and loved it. So I thought I should read the others. And this was one of them.
But I soon discovered that Karl Marx nailed it; it was incredible how he described my daily experience at work. Here’s an example. One of the first projects I got to work on was this house in Watts-Hillendale. It was a total remodel. We tore out everything in the house, moved walls, changed part of the roof structure. After we were all done, the house looked beautiful. I still drive by it and can’t help but think it’s one of the best houses on the block.
But it’s strange. I put all that work into the house. In a very real sense, I left part of myself in that house, in the oak floors that I installed, in the shingles, in the walls, in the cabinets, everywhere. And when we completed our task, when we finished our work, I had to leave it all behind, I had to leave part of me behind. I was alienated from my labor, my work didn’t belong to me anymore; I was paid for what I did and had to move on. This is what Karl Marx calls, “alienation of labor.”
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the work, at least most days. I was grateful for the money. I liked the guys I worked with. And the people we built the house for were some of the best people in the world—extremely grateful, always kind. Still, despite being treated so well, I still felt strange about leaving the site after we were done. The house had become so personal, and now I was made alien to it, removed, sent on my way.
That stinks: alienation of labor; Marx got it right. We do work, it feels like part of us, and then we have to exchange it for money so we can provide for our own lives. It’s just the way it goes. There’s no way around it. You sit a desk all week, make phone calls, plan events, fill out paperwork, type on a computer, drive around, talk to people, go to meetings, build something, tear something else down, and the list goes on. But when the day is through, when the week is over, you go home and realize that your work doesn’t belong to you. Someone else owns it. And you get a paycheck in return.
Strange. But none of this is foreign to Genesis 3. Alienation runs through the creation story. There is one human (Adam) at the beginning who is separated from the earth, and then another human (Eve) is separated from the first. The first human is formed from the dust of the earth. Then another human is created from a piece of the first—a rib. Alienation comes at the beginning of the human story. It’s the way creatures take on a life of their own: production through separation.
And that’s the way it is for us today. The products of our creativity are separated from us and take on a life of their own. We are always learning how to work our way through a world of alienation. The work of our hands is taken from us. We are separated from friends and loved ones through death. “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken.”
It so interesting to me that in this passage death is seen as a reunion—alienation now reconciled. I wonder if that’s why it’s important to remember our mortality during Lent. Our death is also a return to our origins. This is in no way to say that death is a good thing. It’s not. It’s terrible.
But our death should remind us that we do not belong to ourselves. We came from somewhere—from our parents, from a city or town or farm, from a migration of people from one part of the globe to another, from the earth. And, ultimately, from the heart of God. And that’s where we are going, that’s where the many who came before us are going, and that’s where we shall be reunited, reconciled, returned to one another.
For now, we remember the reality of our alienation. For now, we remember where we came from and where we will return. A single voice spoke and speaks all things into being. And that voice is God’s love, a voice that calls us to return.
What does any of this have to do with work? Well, I think it might mean that our work doesn’t belong to us either. Nor does it belong to the people who pay us for it. Because all of it belongs to God. And that means our work is also how we worship God; our work is also our prayer to God—a prayer for God’s reconciling love to heal our alienation, to reunite all things through Love.
Our work becomes a prayer. With our lives we learn how to pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Thy kingdom come.” With our work, we pray for this kingdom where all things are returned as gifts, where the dead are returned as gifts, where Christ—the One who knows our death—will hold all things together in the embrace of the Father.
Thy kingdom come. Spirit of reconciliation, come.