Curse or blessing? (Labor Day)

Good morning, Friends!

I hope you’re all enjoying the holiday weekend! It’s nice to have this last short break at the end of the summer, before the big rush of fall activity begins.

Labor Day isn’t really a church holiday. It was first recognized as a federal holiday way back in 1894. It was a time of tremendous unrest in the United States. Millions of people in this country were out of work, and many of them got involved with industrial strikes and riots.

A lot of folks mourn for the days when help was easier to get. But being a cook or a maid or a servant wasn’t an easy life. Domestic servants usually got just one day off a week, sometimes just a half-day on Thursday. Most had no vacations.

It was a time when hundreds of thousands of people in this country were still alive who had been born in slavery. It was a time when children went to work in factories as young as 12 or 14 years old.

It was a time when most of the wealth of the country – stocks and bonds, factories, transportation networks, newspapers and media – were already concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority of the population.

Natural resources that belonged to the whole nation – air and water, minerals and land, fisheries and forests – were being snapped up for next to nothing by people who had the right connections, and were being destroyed and polluted. Sound a lot like today?

The idea of Labor Day was to recognize the value and dignity of labor, and to give working people a day off to be with their families.

Anyway, that was how Labor Day got started. I wish we could get back to something like the original meaning of the holiday again – a national sabbath, and an honorable recognition of working people.

This morning’s reading is a familiar one. Most of the time, we read this chapter and we get all giggly about Adam and Eve being naked in the garden. Or we walk about the knowledge of good and evil, like we did a couple of weeks ago.

This morning let’s look at something different. I want to look at the place of work in our lives. Is work good or bad? Let’s read the story together.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. The serpent said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

The man answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And the Lord God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman the Lord said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After the Lord drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

- Genesis 3:1-24

So, there they are, Adam and Eve in the garden, and God tells them not to eat the fruit of a certain tree. Actually, the Bible never says it was an apple; a lot of early Jewish scholars say it was a pomegranate.

They eat it. God finds out. God gets all upset. Adam and Eve blame the snake. Then what happens?

If you read the story, there are three curses, or three bad consequences. These are things which Adam and Eve and the serpent brought upon themselves.

The first curse falls on the snake. The snake was sly and crafty. The snake got others to do what it couldn’t do itself. The snake was a tempter, a maker of excuses, who wouldn’t take God’s no for an answer.

God said that the snake would now and forever be the enemy of all animals, especially human beings. The snake would be hated, and people would try to stomp on it and kill it.

The second curse falls on the woman. God said that bearing children would be painful from now on, and that the husband would rule over her, and yet she would still desire him.

We could talk a lot about this point of view, and how wrong it is. In the beginning, men and women were created equally in the image of God. In the New Testament, Jesus honored women. Even the apostle Paul, who many people see as putting women down, said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

What I want you all to notice right now is that pain and inequality and oppression aren’t the way things are supposed to be. They’re a mistake, a huge mistake, a kind of a world-shattering brokenness which the story says goes back to our earliest history.

Any time we try to undo this inequality and injustice, we’re restoring the way women and men were meant to be and created to be. People who say that “the man has to be the head of the family” and that “women should be subject to their husbands” are totally missing the point.

God didn’t make us this way. Domination and inequality are unnatural – they are a curse, they’re against the way God wanted us to be. God created us to be helpers for each other. God created us to be loving partners, gladly giving in to each other out of love, loving each other as we love ourselves. That’s the way it was meant to be.

And then there’s the third curse, the one God lays on the man in the story. That’s the one I really want us to focus on this morning.

God says, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

What’s all that mean for us? How do we interpret those words?

Is work good, or bad? Is work something we should enjoy, is it a blessing? Or is work a curse to be avoided?

I think that’s an important question. I think it’s one of the most important questions we can ask.

For many people in the world, their daily work is a curse. The conditions of their working lives are intolerable. There are people – and they number in the millions – who work in dangerous jobs, filled every day with physical risks or conditions that could take their lives away.

There are still plenty of girls and women who are basically sold as slaves. There are men who work in mines that could collapse and bury them. There are people who breathe smoke and poisonous or unhealthy air that chokes them.

For other people, not having work is a curse. They have no job, no matter how much they study, no matter how hard they try.

I don’t know how many people I’ve talked with and tried to help, who’ve told me that because they don’t have a job, they can’t get a job. No one will even look at their application.

Employers say, “If you don’t already have a job, there must be something wrong with you. You must be lazy, or you’re lying on your resume. You don’t have any experience, and we’re not going to take a risk and hire you.”

I also meet people who are retired, who tell me that now that they’re not working, they don’t know what to do anymore. Work was their whole life. If they’re not working, why should they go on living?

So work can be a curse, and no work can be a curse, too. Some jobs are intolerable, and being excluded from working is also intolerable. What are we going to do?

I think we have to look at the story, and try to figure out the way things are supposed to be. I don’t think we can just blame it all on the snake. I think we need to go back, and try to figure out a different a different way to live.

I think there are a lot of questions we can ask ourselves. For example, sometimes it’s worth stopping to ask, “What am I working for?”

If the answer is, “it’s just for the money,” that’s not a totally wrong answer. We all need to support ourselves and our families. But in the long term, it’s not satisfying.

Am I working for something good? Am I working for something I’m proud of? Does my work have dignity to it? Am I helping anyone, beside myself?

Is the world a better place because of what I’m doing? Does my work bring joy to anyone, or good health? Is there any beauty in the work that I do?

Is anyone being educated or helped by what I do? Does anyone bless God because of the work I do?

Do I force anyone to do a job that I wouldn’t do myself, or that I wouldn’t want one of my children to do? Does my way of life require that other people go hungry?

There’s no end to the kind of questions we can ask along this line. And the point isn’t to feel anxious or guilty. The point is that we have the ability to change. Work doesn’t have to be a curse. Our lives don’t have to be built on wrong or suffering or boredom. We could be different.

According to the story, even though Adam and Eve had to leave the garden, God didn’t stop loving them. Their innocence was gone. Their unquestioning obedience was gone. But God still loved them.

There are many places in the Bible where God blesses the work that we do. God blesses our homes. God blesses our fields. God blesses the work of our hands. God blesses all of the good deeds that we do every day, what the Jews call the mitzvahs, the big and little things which help to repair the world.

Work can be a great blessing. Our work can bring repeated blessings, for generations to come.

In the book of Deuteronomy, in the Old Testament, God says that if we obey his commandments, “You will be blessed in the cities. You will be blessed out in the country. Your children will be blessed. Your crops will be blessed. The young animals among your livestock will be blessed. That includes your calves and lambs. Your baskets and your bread pans will be blessed. You will be blessed no matter where you go.” (Deuteronomy 28:3-6)

Work is not meant to be a curse. Jesus recognized that some people are burdened and broken down by their work. And he said that he could help. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

God can change our daily work, and our attitude towards it. God can change us, and God can change the people around us, through our witness and our prayers and the way we treat other people. It doesn’t have to stay bad forever!

God can lead us into a new career, or a new vocation. God can open doorways and give us friends who can listen to us and pray with us and help us. God can give us a fresh heart when we’re discouraged.

God can help us to help other people who are down and out and unemployed. One of the greatest ministries in our generation is to help people to find meaningful work with dignity, with fair pay and decent benefits and healthy working conditions.

People who are part of that ministry deserve to be in the Beatitudes. Along with people who comfort those who mourn, who are pure in heart and show mercy, along with the peacemakers and the faithful witnesses, there’s a special blessing for people who work well and who help other people to find good work.

If you are involved in that kind of ministry, God bless you! You are giving other people hope, and they will bless God because of you.

And if you can help other people, on the job, every day, you’re doing something good. If you can help them work better, or make their job a little lighter, if you can help them succeed and improve, then your are a blessing.

The work we do can lift us up or break us down. When we employ other people, or when we work with them every day, they can curse us, or bless us. There are certainly things about the workplace which need to be changed, and Christians should help to change them.

I know I haven’t said everything which could be said about this. I hope you take all this home and think about it. Always remember that God loves you! God wants to bless you, and God wants you to be a blessing.

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