The Labor of Love

A sermon, based on Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2018

Tomorrow is Labor Day. Since 1882, our annual national recognition of workers and their contributions to our wellbeing.

I think of Jesus, not as prophet, teacher, miracle worker, or even Messiah, but as carpenter, worker; as universal an identification with humankind as any.

I think about our various vocations. For those of us who are retired, I offer this life’s rubric, which, now, for many years, I have valued and believed: As long as there is breath and strength, there is life and labor. Therefore, I invite all of us to contemplate our callings.

Writer-theologian Frederick Buechner defines calling as “(that) place where (our) gladness meets the world’s need.”(1) What is your, my gladness, our passion? What is the world’s need we “answer” through our callings?

Today, I share with you a bit of my story as a priest; beginning many years ago when I heard God’s call through a dream.

I entered college as a political science major. The ideal of law and justice stirred my soul; it was as a fire in my belly. And through the lens of that passion, I began to see more clearly the world’s injustices. And my vision widened to behold and to understand the expansive and endless breadth of human suffering, historically and contemporarily. And, around my sophomore year, I began to struggle with this question: Where is the omnipotent, compassionate God in whom I had been taught to believe? And unable to answer my question and having formed my question into a repeated prayer, hearing no answer, I adopted the mantra: If God is God (that is, almighty, thus able to stop injustice), God must not good, and if God is good (that is, benevolent, thus wanting to stop injustice), God must not be God.(2)

In my despair, Bill Huntley, the college chaplain, befriended me. He was the first adult who, without judgment, without explicit or implicit messages about what I must, ought, should do, encouraged me to be me. To follow my thoughts to their logical, sometimes illogical conclusions. To wrestle to find words to express thought and feeling. To make wildly arrogant pronouncements about how things should be. To cry openly without shame. Even to curse aloud without guilt. To pray fervently in my own language, not relying on words from a book.

One day, Bill asked: “Ever considered ordained ministry?” “Yes,” I replied, “but not really.” “Think about it,” he said. I did. For two years. Leading to my senior year’s crisis of vocational paralysis; unsure whether to submit applications for law school or seminary. After weeks of worried vacillation, I decided not to decide. I would complete all of them! Whatever school, law or seminary, gave me the most scholarship money, that would become my calling!

That very night, the dream, which, in proverbial language, is as fresh to me as if it had occurred last night or early this morning: I, in an out-of-body experience, stood on a hilltop behind and looking at myself standing at the edge of a precipice gazing into a cloudy horizon, from which came a voice, “You shall go to seminary.”

Immediately, I awoke and I was at peace. A peace I hadn’t been able to give, couldn’t give myself. I reflected on Bible stories of God who speaks through dreams,(3) whose shekinah, presence appears as cloud.(4) That counterbalanced my skepticism that I had heard only the voice of my unconscious self. Believing it to be the vox Deus, the voice of God, I tossed the law school applications. The rest is history.

In the course of that history, I’ve continued to discover reasons I became a priest. I’m inspired by the reality, even the idea of God. I’m inspired by the connection between creation – the cosmos, nature, the plant-and-animal world, humankind – and transcendent and immanent (beyond-and-in-time-and-space) mystery, which we call “God,” who is knowable through our experience. I am moved by people’s pains and their joys. I love to talk and to listen. Thus priest, pastor, preacher is not merely what I do, it is who I am!

Tomorrow is Labor Day. I invite us to reflect on our callings. Who we are. What we do. And why…

Jesus and the Pharisees argue about washing hands. They aren’t debating table etiquette or good hygiene, but faithful observance of the law, signifying obedience to God. Jesus’ problem is whenever the outward deed becomes more important than the inward devotion it is meant to symbolize. His problem is whenever the practice of the law obscures the intent of the law: Love for God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength(5) and love for our neighbors as ourselves.(6)

Tomorrow is Labor Day. As we love God and love all who share this Earth with us, as we become and do, more and more, the labor of love, then we will know, more and more, who we are, what we do, and why.


(1) Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993.
(2) “If God is God, God is not good, and if God is good, God is not God” is the refrain of the character Nickles, the portrayer of Satan, in the story within the story in J.B.: A Play in Verse (1958) by Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), one of the most seminal books of my life and for my thinking.
(3) For example, Genesis 20.3-7; 28.10-15; 1 Samuel 3; Matthew 1.20; 2.12; Acts 9.10
(4) For example, Exodus 13.21; 33.7-11
(5) Deuteronomy 6.5
(6) Leviticus 19.18

2 thoughts on “The Labor of Love

  1. Paul,

    I knew this story, but it’s even more amazing in this context, because you simply left it to God. Thank God you listened to that voice!! The thing is … sooooooo many people are so grateful that you chose to become a Priest… Your compassion, your ability to listen to understand without judgement, and your ability to feel what we feel have made you an outstanding Priest.

    I have often wondered what type of lawyer you would have been, but I truly believe you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing, because you know who you are (flaws and all), you’re incredible at what you do (ask anyone) and I believe that through all of your reflections over the years you know WHY you do what you do.

    I am thrilled that God has chosen the Alzheimer’s journey for me. I never thought this would be the work I would be called to do, BUT I’m glad I am who I am and that God believes this is work I can do. I’m proud of my security career too, but I think giving people hope against this horrible disease is my calling.

    I thought a lot about this on Labor Day and am so proud of the lessons that my Mom taught me and that I could spend such a meaningful time with her this weekend in honor this special day.

    Much love!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loretta, there is so much of what you write that spurs my thinking and sparks my feeling…

    Least of all being your compliments to and about me. I suspect this is because, as I age, I find myself growing more selfless and less selfish (this latter trait, long being one of my most recognizable elements of my shadow-self). That said, I thank you. I appreciate your kind words of affirmation. For truth is, also as I’ve aged, I do listen more and more to others without judgment, but rather acceptance, even AND especially when I don’t agree! I also do and can feel what others feels, placing my self, my soul in their life-and-world-experiences. Again, my thanks to you.

    And, I’ve sometimes, not often, though, wondered about what sort of lawyer I would have been. I do think I was called, had that been my career/vocation path, to be a defense attorney. And, I also confess, that there have been moments – less and less o’er the years – when I’ve thought that I would have been more financially successful had I chosen the law as my course rather than ordained ministry. Nevertheless, I’ve never regretted answering God’s call, which is as much of a sign that it was my calling as anything else.

    Now, my dear sister, for you…

    Yes, your work in the field of affirming caregivers of our sisters and brothers with dementia is your calling. If I’ve said/written it once, I’ve said/written it countless times, your initial book, “Being My Mom’s Mom,” is a seminal piece of literature for the time in which you wrote and published it AND for long after, unto this day and beyond. First and foremost, because dementia – as we live longer and with better medical care – will continue to rise as a medical concern for millions of folk. Secondly, because you write with compassion and care and competence. You have given to folk your open heart of love and your open hands with effective strategies to care for their loved ones AND themselves. Brava! Brava! Brava! Carry on!

    As for Doris, you continually honor her with your lasting memories of what she taught you, what she hath given you, allowing you, therefore, to be the person you are and continue to become. Precious gifts and graces, surely, beyond compare. AND, in your ongoing devotion to your beloved mother, as you care for her, she continues to grant you wisdom in her words (especially her oft hilarious and always timeless bon mots!) and in her deeds, for she tries her hand at the crafts you put before her. She, in this way, I think, is a living laboratory of learning for you as you follow your calling to combat this dreaded disease.

    Bless Doris. Bless you.

    Love you, each and both


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