Avodah: Work, Worship and Service
There is a spider who lives in our church building whom I admire very much. I do not know her name…it could be Charlotte…or not. I do not admire or appreciate her weaving handiwork as much as I probably should. I mostly admire her tenacious spirit.
If you leave the church through the double set of doors leading out from the Education wing…and you happen to look up as you are going through the outside doors, you could…very likely…see a spider web. And you might think, as I did, “How did our cleaning crew miss that?”
So, one day, I approached our cleaning crew…and my question brought a smile. They knock down the web regularly, but she rebuilds it. This dance of determination happens regularly. Again, I admire the tenaciousness of that little spider.
I’ve reflected upon her will…and these are the thoughts I’ve come up with. She has a prime piece of real estate. All I can think is that she is able to get her daily needs met there. And so she stays and engages in the daily work of a spider…playing her part in keeping the balance in nature from her wee corner. I think she is grateful…even though, for the sake of cleanliness, we knock down her handiwork…she is grateful for her corner and continues her work…a happy, contented little spider.
My little spider came to mind as I was listening to a Tedtalk by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a rather well-known Benedictine brother who has been a religious leader in interfaith dialogue and the interaction between spirituality and science. As you might guess, I was turning to him for something profound…and he delivered…though his profound teaching turned out to be rather simple. He was talking about the flow between happiness and gratitude. He said that happiness doesn’t lead to or generate gratitude…the flow goes the other way around. Gratitude generates happiness. He advises that those who are so hungry for happiness need only stop, let themselves get still for a moment…and then notice or recount what they are grateful for…and the happiness will follow. That is the flow…gratitude generates happiness. Happiness flows from gratitude.
I’ve probably read this kind of thing on a poster or a bumper sticker…it may have even been covered it in a spirituality class during seminary…but, when I heard him say it within his lecture, I finally heard it…really heard it. Too often we try make the flow change directions. We go crazy seeking happiness with every intention of saying thanks when and if we remember.
Now, I know I’m putting lots of human qualities on my little spider friend, but I think she understands the flow…and that is why she perseveres. In her little spidery way, she is grateful for that corner in the doorway. She can’t possibly be happy about we humans knocking down her web, but perhaps she is grateful that we open the door once in a while to let in a fly or two…and she is grateful for her corner…which generates enough spider happiness that she stays…working her magic week after week.
That little spider reminded me of a beautiful Hebrew word…avodah. Avodah means worship, work and serve all at the same time. One word…and I would argue, one meaning.
To illustrate the power of this word and its use in language, I want to compare it to an unrelated, yet familiar word, “snow.” According to legend, Eskimos have over 100 distinct words for snow. Why? Because language has a unique ability to create distinctions between things in our minds…and for Eskimos, there are many distinct kinds of snow.
But the opposite is also true. Our ancient Jewish brothers and sisters had a deep understanding of how faith and work and the living out of faith through worship, work and service came together in their lives. Because all of those are just one thing…one way of life through all things…they used just one word. Avodah. There was no need to distinguish work, worship and service…it is one within the life of the faithful.
Have you ever thought about those connections? Is worship work? Is work worship? Is service work? Is service worship? Is work service? Is worship service? Through the use of this one word, avodah, it is clear to see that our very way of life…everything we do…is connected. It is a way of life, 24/7.
Instead of offering a scripture reading this morning, I wanted to provide a few illustrations. The various usages of this Hebrew word, found first in Genesis 2:15 shows us that it was understood that God’s desire was that our work and our worship would be a seamless way of living.
In some verses, the word avodah means work, as in to work in the field and to do common labor. Here are examples:
“Moses renewing the covenant with God says, six days you shall work (avodah). -Exodus 34: 21
“Then a man goes out to his work (avodah), to his labor until evening. -Ps 104: 23
In other verses, avodah means worship, as in to worship or service to God.
This is what the LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship (avodah) me. –Exodus 8:1
But as for me and my household, we will serve (avodah) the Lord. –Joshua 25: 15
What a powerful image…the word for working in the fields is the same as that used for worshipping God. Too often we think of worship as something we do on Sunday and work as something we do on Monday. However, avodah suggests that our work is a form of worship. The way we serve one another is a form of worship. Avodah gives us a picture of an integrated faith. No matter what we are doing or where we are doing it, we are participating in the work of our Creator, creating.
In my opinion, Poet Kahil Gibran was expressing avodah when he said, “Work is love made visible.”
In my opinion, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of avodah when he said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
In my opinion, Rev. Tony Compolo tells a good story about a man who claimed avodah as a way of life. An English professor walked into his dean’s office and quit one day. Walked off the job. His dean told him if he quit, he would never be hired again by any other college or university. The man quit anyway. He was a member of Compolo’s congregation and when Pastor Tony caught up to the man to inquire about what had happened, the man said, “I quit. That’s all there is to it. I couldn’t stand it anymore. Every time I walked into the classroom I died a little bit.” Early on, Pastor Tony realized he was not going to help the man change his mind…so he asked, “How are you going to make a living?” “Oh, I’m already working. I’m a mailman,” he replied, “a PHD mailman.” In his most pastorally supportive voice, Pastor Tony said, “Well if you’re going to be a mailman, be the best mailman you can be.” The man replied “I’m actually a lousy mailman. Everybody else gets their routes done by 2:30, but I can never get done until 5:00 or after.” Puzzled, Pastor Tony asked, “What takes you so long?” “Oh, well I visit. You can’t imagine how many people on my route never got visitors until I became a mailman. And you know what’s interesting? There are curious people on my route who want to know about literature. There are hurting people who need comfort that comes from great poets. There are people who read and want to share what they’ve learned. I can’t go to sleep at night because it is hard to sleep after you have had about 20 cups of coffee.”
Avodah: work, worship and service. Happiness flowing from gratitude. It is all one. And it is made visible every time we come together. We are a congregation who understands avodah. Our choir comes together most Tuesday evenings for at least an hour to rehearse. They show up at least 30 minutes before worship begins to do a quick run-through. And we are the beneficiaries…their music serves us as we worship. And, I’m guessing if I interviewed any one of them, they would say that avodah sums it up. Singing is a form of work and worship. They are grateful for the opportunity to sing choral music together…it brings them happiness. They offer it in worship, and we are grateful and happy….all the while we are showing gratitude and praise to God for giving us gifts to share and receive.
The same could be said for our work, worship and service related to our children and youth programs. The same could be said for our art program that is so enthusiastically and tenderly organized and implemented for us. Whether working inside the church or outside the church, our work, worship and service are one.
Leadership Council has come up with a way for us to live this out right here in our church. We are going to have our first ever Avodah Sunday. Let me explain. We usually have a church clean-up day in late spring or early summer, but this year, we will make our combined work our worship on Sunday, June 12th. You have a flyer in your bulletin announcing and inviting you to Avodah Sunday.
We will begin our time together at 10:30 in the sanctuary with liturgy to shape our morning. We will call each other into a time of worship, we will sing, and we will pray. And then we will go about the business of cleaning the church…an act of work, worship and service. You are invited to wear your grubby cleaning clothes. Bring gloves, if you like to work in gloves. Wear comfortable shoes. Come ready to do it all: sing, pray, clean, engage in conversation, get to know people you haven’t met yet, laugh, sing some more, pray again and then have coffee together.
Deana is taking the lead in organizing this event. She is thinking broadly…work for those who need to sit…work for those who are willing to get on ladders…work indoors…work outdoors. We will be washing windows, wiping out cupboards, doing a thorough move-the-chairs vacuuming in here, pulling weeds outside, washing down toys…possibly knocking down a few cobwebs…
Deana is thinking of work that our oldest can engage in…and work our children and youth can do. Which I think is important. Bring your kids. They need to see you engaging as a community in taking ownership for and caring for this building, our church home…and they need to be actively invited into and avodah way of life.
For the littlest among us, we will have childcare. Their work, worship and service is simply being cute.
I’m estimating that, with 10 minutes of worship on either end, we will have about 45 minutes to clean. If we experience our regular worship attendance, the 45 minutes will represent 90 hours of attention being given to our church home. I hope you will plan to participate.
My friends, on this last day of the regular church year, my heart is filled with gratitude for you and for this wonderful building where we gather to explore what it means to adopt and live out a Jesus way of life in this time and this place. I am grateful for the ways in which we share our gifts so freely and receive one another’s gifts so graciously. We offer an important and particular witness to what it means to be a Christian….one that is welcoming, inclusive and honoring of all people and their questions. May we strive for an integrated faith so that our lives truly reflect God’s love in all ways. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.