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Labor Day

September 2, 2001

Romans 12:1-8


Tony Grant



Did you know that record numbers of students are training to be professional golfers. At least 1,400 college students are majoring in "golf" at eight universities, and, according to a March Wall Street Journal report, more schools are about to start such programs, One school just completed a $1.1 million student "learning laboratory" (that is, a model golf clubhouse). The colleges say that golf graduates are needed to meet the demand for pros as new or expanded U.S. courses open at the rate of about one a day. Curricula include business classes, turf science, and many, many rounds of golf. Sounds like a tough job but somebody’s got to do it. -From the Wall Street Journal, cited in "News of the Weird,"

Speaking of Jobs, Michelle Passoff decided at age forty that she needed a career change. After twenty years in public relations, she was finding the work to be thankless and uninteresting.

So, she says, "I did a lot of thinking about what kind of business the world needs right now, and what it means to be a human being and a woman right now. I looked at the kind of problems we face around all those things. And I kept getting the same message in each area of inquiry, which was: Clean your clutter!"

"I'm serious," she says. "In all areas of your life there is just too much clutter - mental, physical, emotional, spiritual. Think about it."

Michelle is now a "Clutter Consultant." She has a business that helps people deal with papers, clothes, furniture, memorabilia, and other stuff through the exercise of "clutter-cleaning." Michelle sees private clients, grants interviews, and speaks nationally, working six days a week, 12 hours a day. She has a book on the market called Lighten Up! Free Yourself From Clutter, and an audiotape. "I'm doing great," she insists. "I've never been happier in my life."

Michelle Passoff joins about 120 other Americans in reflecting on their work in a new book called Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium. Compiled from columns that appeared in a Web magazine, these essays reveal the hopes, goals and disappointments of 21st-century laborers. Clutter-consulting is not the most surprising job in the book by far: There are also essays by buffalo ranchers, dog trainers, palm readers, orthopedic surgeons, telephone psychics, video game designers, Elvis Presley "interpreters," and art movers. I do not know what an "art mover" is. I suppose they move your Rembrandt's or something.

In any case, it is Labor Day weekend - a time to rest from our labors. But this is also an opportunity to reflect on our daily work, and discern whether our effort is thankless and uninteresting, or something that gives us deep and lasting satisfaction.

Work often gets a bad name. In the old country song the Big Rock Candy Mountain, the singer rejoices that at the mountain "they hung the jerk who invented work." At times in our lives most of us would say Amen to that. We often think of work as something disagreeable. Work is something you have to do, day after day, whether you want to or not. That is why we call it the "daily grind."

Yet God intends for our work to be much more than just another job. It should be, instead, a vocation - which means, quite literally, a "calling." In today's lesson from Romans, Paul challenges us to regard our work as a call from God.

Romans 12:1-8

Paul's letter to the Romans is comprised of two major sections, a theological argument in chapters 1-11, and the ethical ramifications of that argument, chapters 12-15. Today's lesson opens the second half of the letter; it is an appeal by Paul for the new Christians at Rome to live and work in a way that reflects their new creation in Christ.

There is an interesting connection here with Buddhist thought. The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path taught that someone on the true path to enlightenment must engage in the right pursuits, including Right Livelihood. According to the Buddha, Right Livelihood means that one will not work in any profession that will directly or indirectly cause harm to any living being. Christians can certainly approve of that Buddhist injunction.

In our text today, Paul begins his exhortation with a favorite expression: "I appeal to you (therefore), brothers and sisters," Note the "therefore." What Paul says is that because of what I have told you in the first eleven chapters, therefore your behavior will be changed.

Our spiritual attitude is related to our physical behavior. Paul says that we are to "present our bodies." It possible instead of "bodies" to translate the Greek as "your entire selves." Present your entire self as a sacrifice. Nevertheless, I prefer bodies because Paul is making the point that the transformation of life that comes from Christ includes the material as well as the immaterial and that the decisions we make with regard to our physical body are not without effect on our spiritual existence.

We are called to a spiritual destiny, but that destiny is linked to what we do in this world. We are not to conform to this world. Let us talk about what it means to be conformed to the world. I have here a globe and a piece of playdough. If I take this piece of playdough and smack it down on the side of the globe and flatten it out then the side of the playdough against the globe is conformed to the world. It is like the world. What Paul is saying is do not be that way. "Do not be conformed to this world" (Romans 12:2). Rather God wants us to "be transformed" - to be changed by God into people who know "what is good and acceptable and perfect."

Paul turns next to the ethical portion of his argument, specifically, how the Roman Christians are to live out their transformed lives in the fellowship of the Roman church. He introduces his directives with another favorite expression, "by the grace given to me" (v. 3), indicating that his natural understanding has been informed by supernatural enlightenment.

In vs 4-5, Paul's use of the metaphor of the members of the body as indicating the relationship of individual Christians to one another and to Christ is one of his most effective rhetorical devices and is used a number of times in his writings. The image is intended to convey the organic unity of all Christians. It conveys our mutual dependence and our value to each other.

The grace to which Paul earlier referred is also the source of the variety of gifts he lists as belonging to the members (vv. 6-8): prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, displaying compassion. The list is not intended to be exhaustive. These are just samples. The point is that God gives us gifts, God gives us power through his Holy Spirit and commands and commands that we use the gifts and the power to do his work in the world.

Your Vocation

God calls us and ordains us to a vocation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, ordained ministry is not the only work that can be considered a true vocation. In fact, based on what Michelle Passoff offers in Gig, it sounds like clutter-consulting can be a calling as well. Michelle looked at what the world needed, at what it meant to be a human being, and at what kinds of problems people faced. All of this reflection led her to becoming a Clutter Consultant - a line of work that gives her tremendous satisfaction.

That's a calling. That's vocation. The call of God is where the world's needs and your own joys, gifts and interests intersect. Not that clutter-consulting is going to be right for everyone. Some may feel called to work at Kinko's, making copies and laminating and dry-mounting things onto poster board. Natasha Werther used to teach at a community college in Boston, then moved to eastern Massachusetts and began to work the night shift at Kinko's. She says Kinko’s is the best job she has ever had.

"It's really not that hard, so you can be very helpful to customers," she explains. Customers come in feeling panicked in the middle of the night, shouting that they need a job done immediately. "I'll go up and help them," says Natasha. "It's kind of nice, because I can actually help them, and they really do need help."

So you see, even copying at Kinko's, or being a clutter consultant, can be the will of God for you. But having said that we must also say that just because you like a job, does not mean that job is your vocation. For example, I like to read science fiction, but I doubt seriously that God has called me into this world to read science fiction as a vocation. Your vocation is not just doing something that you like. It is as I have already said, that point where the world's needs and your own joys, gifts and interests intersect.

Natasha and Michelle's vocation appears to be the gift of helping and care-giving. Copying contracts, and consulting on clutter is how these women fulfill their vocation.

Vocation Not Job

But your vocation may not be your job at all. In fact, you may work at a job to pay the bills so that you can be free to follow your true vocation.

For example, Max DePree, CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., describes an incident that happened to his father.

"In the furniture industry of the 1920's the machines of most factories were not run by electric motors, but by pulleys from a central drive shaft. The central drive shaft was run by the steam engine. The steam engine got its steam from the boiler. The boiler, in our case, got its fuel from the sawdust and other waste coming out of the machine room - a beautiful cycle. The millwright was the person who oversaw that cycle and on whom the entire activity of the operation depended. He was a key person. One day the millwright died."

Max DePree says that at that time his father was young manager. He went to the millwright’s house to express his regrets and was invited to join the family in the living room. Then DePree says, "The widow asked my father if it would be all right if she read aloud some poetry. Naturally, he agreed. She went into another room, came back with a bound book, and for many minutes read selected pieces of beautiful poetry. When she finished, my father commented on how beautiful the poetry was and asked who wrote it. She replied that her husband, the millwright, was the poet."

DuPree then goes on to reflect upon this experience. He says, "It is now nearly 60 years since the millwright died, and my father and many of us at Herman Miller continue to wonder: Was he a poet who did millwright's work, or was he a millwright who wrote poetry?"

[Max DePree, Leadership is an Art, quoted by Peter Grazier in "Work and Spirituality,"]

Or perhaps we should put it this way. His work as a millwright supported his vocation—which was poetry.


Paul makes very clear that we each have "gifts that differ according to the grace given to us." That means that with regard to our call from God we are all experts. That is why the word layperson is such a bad word when used in the context of ministry. Usually we think of a layperson as an amateur. When we ask the doctor to express her medicalese in terms a "layperson can understand," we are acknowledging that when it comes to medicine, we are idiots. Also, that is the way we often read the apostle Paul, as though Romans is the theological equivalent of "An Idiot's Guide to Ministry" or "Ministry for Dummies." Not so. The word "laity" comes from the Greek laos which simply means "people." That's who we are: the people of God doing the work of God. Paul calls us "transformed." We are transformers.

To be a transformer in the world of electrical engineering is to transfer electric energy from one circuit to another, and often that transfer involves a change in voltage, current, phase - whatever. The very same is true for laypeople who think of themselves as Christian transformers. As people transformed by Christ, they go into the workplace to transfer Christ's energy to the world. The turbo-charging power of the Risen Christ flows into the world through transformers who are busy consulting, fishing, flower-arranging, soap-selling, politicking, or maybe even - preaching.

Actually I have always thought that the word "layperson." is sort of demeaning. After all, think of how we use the word "lay" in common conversation. If someone is a "lay electrician," he might be able to change a light switch, but you don't want him anywhere near the high voltage. If a person is labeled a "lay plumber," you're not going to let her do much more than clean a drain.

This is not the biblical approach to vocation. For Christians, ministry is baked into the discipleship program. There is absolutely nothing amateurish about the role you are called to play when you "present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God" (Romans 12:1).

For you, the will of God may be commercial fishing, along the lines of what Ian Bruce does in Kodiak, Alaska - the town that serves as a major source of America's seafood, particularly salmon and crab. "It's risky," Bruce reports. "Actually, it's more than risky - it's a brutal, archaic life. But I like it. When I go out fishing, I'm slipping into a role that humans have always played. It's the eternal hunting party."

Or maybe the Lord wills you to be a florist, like Lora Harding of San Francisco. She says, "People come in, I help them - give advice, do a little arranging, and I run the register. It's simple. It's great. ... People come to me at the important occasions in their lives - from birth to death."

Perhaps God is calling you to be a cleaning product salesman. No, it's not glamorous work, but it's necessary. "People are dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty," observes salesman Desmond Grant. "You can walk into any kind of store and see dirt all over the place. I was in a flower shop this morning. There were stains all over their carpets, their tile floors, their windows. Mold on the stainless steel around the windows. I'm a clean person myself. I enjoyed cleaning that place!"

But while these gigs may be the will of God for us, they're not necessarily our vocation. Let me say again what I have said already. Vocation is not necessarily your job. Vocation is linked to that ministry that empowers and builds up the Body of Christ, or reaches the world with the love of God and the good news of the gospel.

Does this mean that any career can be a calling? Almost anything. As long as your own joys and gifts are making connections with legitimate human needs, you are living out your vocation. Now this is not to say that the meeting of every human need qualifies. We rule out things like dealing drugs and prostitution as jobs that can be considered sanctified services to the community. Buddha was correct. Right livelihood does no harm to people.

But the time has come for the laos, the people of God, to cherish and to celebrate their labors, and to see their work as essential to the health of both the Body of Christ and the larger community. You are called to be an agent of the Kingdom of God. That is your our true vocation, your ministry. You are called be a transformer. That's a pretty good gig. Amen.


Bowe, John, ed. Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium. New York: Crown Publishers, 2000.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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