Creation & Maintenance, Innovation & Upkeep
by Michael UseyLuke 5:1-11, NRSV
Our relationship with our work-life is topsy-turvy at the moment. We are of course in the midst of two counterbalanced work trends: job openings are plentiful but many workers have not yet returned. Why is this? Explanations include:
- A mismatch between the types of jobs that are available and the willingness of people to fill them. Few want to work low-paying retail jobs, and high-end tech jobs require specific training.
- Mothers of young children exiting the workforce amid continued disruptions to school and childcare. You can’t work if you can’t get childcare.
- Older workers withdrawing from the labor force.
Our relationship to our work is so funky right now.
Sarah Jeffe’s significant book has a clear argument, Work Won’t Love You Back, and it’s true. You’re told that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Whether it’s working for free in exchange for ‘experience’, enduring poor treatment in the name of being ‘part of the family’, or clocking serious overtime for a good cause, more and more of us are pushed to make sacrifices for the privilege of being able to do work we enjoy. If you’ve ever read Matt Cravey hilarious observations about his work in real time, then you know this: work doesn’t love us back. My father used to say that, if you want to know what hole you leave in your organization when you leave your job, simply put your hand in a bucket of water, then pull your hand out. That’s the hole you leave at your job when you leave.
Work Won’t Love You Back examines how we all bought into this ‘labor of love’ myth: the idea that certain work is not really work, and should be done for the sake of passion rather than pay. Through the lives and experiences of various workers—from the unpaid intern and the overworked teacher, to the nonprofit employee, the domestic worker and even the professional athlete—Jaffe reveals how we’ve all been tricked into a new tyranny of work. She argues that understanding the labor of love trap will empower us to work less and demand what our work is worth. Once freed, we can finally figure out what actually gives us joy, pleasure and satisfaction.
So the world has some questionable career advice for us: Find a job you’re passionate about. Whether you’re graduating from college or changing fields, this is the commonly shared “secret” to sidestepping a dull career or prevailing in a difficult industry. But is it really that easy?
In her book, The Trouble With Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality, sociologist Erin Cech says maybe not. She shares new research on what she calls the “passion principle” — the idea that you should pursue passion in your career, before fair compensation or job security.
There’s nothing wrong with finding fulfillment at work. But passion goes further than that. It’s loaded with the expectation that you’ll do whatever it takes for your career, which Cech says can lead to exploitation and inequality in the workplace.
We don’t have to nurture our passions through work. Historically, passion wasn’t always a priority for workers. If you don’t feel personally fulfilled by your job, it doesn’t mean you’re incapable of performing it well. And it doesn’t mean you can’t live a happy life, full of fulfillment beyond your career. Cech calls this “diversifying your meaning-making portfolio.” Instead of drawing all your passion from one place, ask yourself: What are the things that excite me outside of paid employment? How can I invest time, energy and attention in cultivating passion in that space? Such questions can help us see the divine in our lives and even our work. Jesus did the same with his friends once, in this morning’s familiar text.
When Jesus told his disciples that from then on they would be catching people, he did not envision how peculiar we preachers would sound when we try to explain how loving our neighbors is like fishing with a rod and reel. Part of the problem is that fishing is not an enjoyable experience for the fish. Fishing is a practical joke from which the fish never recovers. If you have read Moby Dick you know that being hooked and reeled in is not fun for the fish. If you have seen Finding Nemo you know it is upsetting to the fish’s father too.
Jesus could have chosen a more pleasant analogy. So let’s not think of this as a fish story. Maybe this is about what happens when God shows up at work. This story takes place at a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. In chapter four Jesus preaches in his home synagogue and the congregation tries to throw him off a cliff–we talked about this a couple of Sundays ago. Jesus decides not to preach a second sermon to that particular congregation. Now he is preaching on the beach. He preaches in other synagogues after this story, but a time comes when none of the religious institutions will let him speak. The crowds follow Jesus everywhere. He discusses whatever is on people’s minds—laughs, smiles, encourages the best comments in his sermon talkback, listens carefully, and sees through the questions meant to show the questioner’s intelligence.
On this occasion the crowd is so big that the people in the front row are getting wet, like with Shamu at SeaWorld. As Jesus talks, two boats come in empty after a frustrating night—more seaweeds than fish to fry. The fishermen begin washing the leaves, algae, and tiny Dorys out of their nets. Jesus thinks it will be easier to teach while sitting in one of the boats, so he asks Simon to push out a little from the bank and anchor there. Simon keeps working. Every now and then he tries to look like he is listening, but he is tired and wants his boat back.
When Jesus finishes speaking, he decides to thank his corporate sponsor: “Take your boat out into the deep water and let down your nets again.” Simon is dumb-founded. Jesus, a carpenter, is telling Simon Peter, a big-time fisherman, where the fish are biting. When Simon fishes, other fishermen line up to watch. Peter is a scientist. He tastes the water, scans the sky, and peers into the lake. He knows how the fish run. He knows how stupid it is to try in broad daylight what has failed all night. Jesus is a carpenter. He should stick to hammering nails. Simon answers, “We’ve worked hard all night without catching anything,” but Jesus is already rowing. All night long, Peter had rowed from place to place. All night long, he had let down the nets. All night long, he had caught nothing. Now this carpenter is insisting they try again.
You know the tone that teenagers use when responding to what they consider a dumb request by their parents. Peter rolls his eyes and thinks: “We’ve fished all night long, without a minnow, guppy, or goldfish to show for it, but by all means, if you, master and commander of the sea, Mighty Poseidon, Captain Ahab, Aquaman, Popeye the Sailor Man say so, we’ll try again.” Simon Peter knows this is not going to work, but because Jesus asked, the nets go over the side.
Something strange happens. Something is wrong. The muscles of their arms tighten under the weight of the fish. The nets are not budging. This is the mother of fish stories. It is as if all the fish in the sea come to the surface at once. Fish leap into the boat in a mass suicide. This is such a catch that they yell for their partners in the other boat. They catch such a slew of fish that they swamp both boats. They are sinking under the weight of the fish. Maybe Jesus created this huge catch of fish or maybe it is just that Jesus pays more attention and sees this phenomenal school.
Either way, Peter suddenly realizes that Jesus is different. Peter was there when Jesus preached sermons, attracted huge crowds, and healed Peter’s own mother-in-law, but this—knowing where the fish are—is what gets to Peter. Weird flex, right? He falls to his knees, “Go away. I can’t handle this.” Peter trusts himself and nobody else, and now he has met someone whose instincts are better than his. Jesus knows more than Peter knows about what Peter does every day. Peter asks Jesus to leave, but Jesus has no intention of going, “Don’t be afraid.” God will make Peter more of the person Peter should be. Jesus invites these fishermen to become disciples. They give up everything to follow. They leave their boats and start living like Jesus.
Most people who come to church on Sunday recognize that Jesus is an expert in his field. Jesus’ parables are wonderful. The Sermon on the Mount is fascinating. Jesus is a top-notch debater. But Jesus does not appear to be an expert on twenty-first century life in Greensboro. It is hard to picture Jesus at our office, our home, or our school. We understand our situation. We do not look for advice on how to do what we do from a poor non-English speaking brown-skinned Jewish rabbi who lived on the other side of the world 2000 years ago.
Some days we do not think much about God. We keep what we do and what God might want us to do at a comfortable distance from one another. Connections between our faith and our work are few and far-between. Maybe we do not think much about God, because we suspect that we could do better. Giving our days to God might make our lives more complicated, but giving our days to God would make our lives better.
When we understand that we live in God’s presence, our days matter more. We are less likely to ask, “How do I get through my list of things to do?” and more likely to ask, “How can I do what I do with more love?” Our lives could be better.
Simon, James, and John are in the middle of an ordinary work day. This story is about how every day is an opportunity to recognize that God is at work. Every day we do the work of creation and maintenance, innovation and upkeep. In the frustration of never-ending paperwork and in the fulfillment of new projects, our faith can impact our work, even if we are in a profession that does not attract many saints.
We do not usually notice the way God is at work in the daily details. What do the meetings, emails and deadlines have to do with God? But God is with us when we act with kindness, when we share credit and did not have to, when we are grateful for the paycheck that helps us care for those we love, and when our work matters. God inspires deeper thoughts. God speaks in our conversations. God is at work when we feel energized about what we do.
Our work will not always be exciting, but God helps us see it with more understanding. There are moments when something holy happens, or maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe it was both. Someone has a problem and we solve it, because God has given us the gifts to solve problems. We are in a meeting that is going long and going poorly and we tell God what we are feeling. We are praying for better results. We are talking to a coworker who is going through a hard time. She thanks us for our concern. God helps us care for her.
Seeing where we experience joy is seeing where God is at work. We make a difficult decision and know we made the right decision. We say something thoughtful to someone who is not thoughtful. Someone says a gracious word about what we are doing and it feels like a gift.
Many of you know that I am mourning the passing of Fred Jappe, who was 89. Fred was father to my childhood best friend (Mark), a model of thoughtful Christian devotion, and an outstanding human. He was an original thinker, a fantastic teacher, and a lovely person to be around. He influenced me greatly growing up at Del Cerro as a teen. I shared his great love of books, of quick ribard wit, and of unconventional theological discussions. This Mesa College Chemistry professor taught me to be radically open to every argument, book, and speaker. He was so impressed that Mark and I went to hear Rev. Ike in person. He paid for our gas (and a milkshake afterwards) for his son and me to attend Bible Study Fellowship in Oceanside every week for one entire school year, a 40 min drive each way.
As I’ve told you my father, Jay Usey, was a good man and an alcoholic, who drank himself to sleep every night. He wasn’t mean; far from it, but he was absent from his family most every night after 6 pm. Consequently I cobbled together a frankenstein father figure from men I knew whom I admired: Sam my pastor, Bill my Campus Life director, Mike one of my girlfriend’s father, and Fred Jappe. He wasn’t the last person in my life to encourage me to think with deep curiosity and intellectual courage, but he was likely the first. Fred was not afraid to question any theology and to listen carefully. Along with my brother and sister, Fred was always shoving books into my hands that he thought I should read, and then he’d want to discuss it with me. He was hungry for discussion and knowledge, and this in the context of a deeply held faith in Jesus Christ. As I said Fred was a chemistry professor at Mesa Community College, and he taught a NT course that was open to all comers and always packed. I met many of his former students at my church, several of which had become Christians because of Fred’s wide open class.
Every Sunday night my church had an informal bible study from 6-7; there was no youth group. With my BFFs Jeff and Mark (Fred’s son), we always went out to the movies afterwards. Mark often invited his father Fred to join us (Fred was the only one of our fathers to be at church), and Fred consistently declined, saying, “No thanks, son, I’m going to go home and sleep with your mother.” He was quite clear that no movie could ever win out over having sex with his wife, Kay. One time when I was home from Baylor I preached a sermon on the importance of failure–I actually preached it again here my second Sunday ever at College Park in 1994. It was a different type of sermon for me, more allusive and indirect, different from the psychological sermons that my mentor Sam preached. Fred found me afterwards and said, “This is exactly the type of sermons you should be preaching.” He blessed my unique voice. Of all the many people Ann has met of my friends in San Diego, Fred was Ann’s all time favorite.
We also shared a birthday–he would have been 90 in three weeks, and I was planning to be there for it. His East Coast funeral is Feb 19 in Washington D.C., and I’m hoping to attend. Fred’s work was imbued with God’s presence, and all who knew him felt it.
The things we do, the people we meet, and the work we create are chances to share our life with God. A lawyer pushes for justice. A teacher sees the light go on. A manager helps workers get along. A CPA makes the numbers less intimidating. An architect creates something beautiful. When we pay attention to God at work we see what our lives could be.