The Spirituality of Work Matthew 16:21-28
Rev. Kristin Stoneking Epworth United Methodist Church
September 3, 2017
Born in 1921 to a mother of German Catholic descent and an Irish Catholic father who was an active trade union member, Daniel Berrigan grew up in New York. At the age of 18 he joined the Jesuits, and after the long process of education and formation of that order was ordained a priest at age 31. Perhaps best known for his activism in the peace movement and referred to in songs by Paul Simon and poetry by Adrienne Rich, he also taught at various religious and secular institutions, published poetry, spoke, was a friend to the labor movement and was devoted to his large family and circle of friends.
Shortly after his ordination, Berrigan left for France where he spent time with French Jesuits who were part of the Worker Priest movement. The convictions and efforts of these Worker Priests, who set aside their clerical garb and parochial duties to work alongside laborers in factories and field in France, often becoming politically active to advocate for fair wages and humane conditions, changed Berrigan. They instilled in him a strong sense of faith as labor and as working for social change. When he returned to the United States, he befriended Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, furthering in him the sense of work as faithfulness. 1
In 1971, Berrigan was pictured on the cover of Time magazine with his younger brother Philip, erstwhile a priest before he left the priesthood to marry. The cover said, “Radical Priests: the Curious Case of the Berrigans.” The term “radical” was one that was put on Daniel Berrigan by others but that he didn’t in any way court. He was a worker in the fields of God, responding to
1 Deena Guzder, Divine Rebels: American Christian Activists for Social Justice, Chicago Review Press, 2011. p. 48
conscience, acting in ways that he believed to be faithful. A colleague of mine at the Fellowship of Reconciliation who was baptized by Daniel Berrigan wrote in tribute when he died last year, “…spiritually-rooted justice makers, especially those within FOR’s community are labeled as representing the radical margins of their faith traditions, yet in reality they claim the very moral and theological center of those religions. Dan’s spiritual centeredness was core to his witness..”2
He labored without expectation for reward, living out witness to the truth that Jesus asks not for success, but for faithfulness.
Tomorrow we celebrate Labor Day, which according to the United Sates Department of Labor is “a creation of the labor movement, dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and wellbeing of our country.” 3 At the same time, Labor Day invites us to consider and appreciate all who labor, not just those whose efforts produce some positive outcome. This is important to do, honoring labor for labor’s sake and valuing the laborer, particularly in a country that too often equates professional identity and financial success with inherent worth.
The movement that gave us Labor Day also gave us a number of protections that allow us to live lives of faithfulness and honor the reality that our lives are a gift, that we as children of God have inherent worth: an 8 hour work day that allows us to balance work with rest, a weekend that allows us to honor a day of Sabbath, child labor laws that insure justice for children and non- exploitation. These protections may not contribute to the bottom line, or in some cases, they actually may. But what matters here is that they are structures that support our call to understand
2 Ethan Vesley-Flad, “Daniel Berrigan Presente!” https://www.forusa.org/blog.php?i=30 accessed September 1, 2017.
workers.html, accessed September 1, 2017
ourselves first and foremost as children of God, with lives that are a gift, with freedom to labor for what we pray for and grace to enjoy life’s sweetness as well.
In our scripture today from Matthew, Jesus makes clear that his invitation to discipleship is not about success as the world defines it, but about faithfulness to following his way. Hear these words from Matthew, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the leaders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him saying, “God forbid it, Lord!” This must never happen to you!”
But Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It’s interesting here that Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” the same word that shows up during Jesus’ temptation when he is taken to a very high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the world in all their glory. There in that high place, the tempter, also referred to as Satan, says, “All these things I will give to you, if you will fall down and worship me.” The promise of “the world” was a stumbling block to Jesus’ labor. Jesus has already refused a trade off where he could only gain by following any voice but that of his God in heaven. And so, to Peter’s suggestion, he has to say, No!!
Jesus says to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their soul?”
To “Take up the cross” has been seen as meaning that one who would follow Christ would endure hardship, but an alternative reading of this text might be, “Do what God has asked you to do.” We have to remember that at this point in the narrative the cross did not mean the same thing
that it does to us now—the crucifixion had not yet taken place. To take up the cross was more
about following one’s God given purpose, laboring with faithfulness, without fearing death.
It’s important to remember that, as fully God, Jesus had the power to turn away from the path that would lead to Jerusalem and the suffering and death that would happen there. But he did not. I don’t believe this was because he was courting the cross, but because he could not turn away from his work. His work, as he proclaimed in the words in Isaiah, was to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to those who are captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to set at liberty all those who are oppressed.” This was his work, his expression of faithfulness, and he could do no other.
He hoped that people would respond by joining his mission, by receiving and sharing the good news and by doing their work. But whether they did or not, he proceeded with his work.
Daniel Berrigan is famous for saying, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood.” He had to do his work. Berrigan lived a life of turning away from success as the world defined it, and proceeding with the call of his own work. He paid a price, being imprisoned several times, but he could do no other. His call was faithfulness, not getting and spending. As an older Jewish man, a neighbor in his Upper West Side apartment building in Manhattan, put it after reading Berrigan's autobiography: "How come you're not something big in that order of yours?"
In today’s scripture Jesus says that true disciples will "deny" themselves in order to take up their cross and follow him. Though denying oneself is language we find psychologically familiar today, this was an odd phrase in those days as the concept of a freestanding "self" was virtually unknown in that ancient Near Eastern culture.
Thus, instead of using this text as evidence of an early martyr-complex, it would be more accurate to think along family lines and kinship ties. In that culture, the self was defined not by any
individual's life, but by one's relationship within and among a family group. This kinship group controlled the individual, gave identity and maintained the world the individual existed within. Jesus' demand was radical: "Give up your world." Give up the trappings that define you, and instead make Jesus and the community that follows his teachings your family, your reference point for authority and guidance.
Dan Berrigan’s younger brother Philip founded with his wife, a former nun, and a handful of other activists a community named Jonah House in Baltimore, which included adults, both single and married, and their children in a large house that had a lot of “deferred maintenance.” Daniel’s niece, Frida Berrigan, has written about the experience of growing up in Jonah House in the book It Runs in the Family. I commend this book especially to parents of young children as much of it is about what it means to parent faithfully. Frida Berrigan shares in the book that in Jonah House, there were sacred moments and not so sacred moments, like when the potatoes given to the community put under the kitchen table and forgotten began to rot and seep through the floor boards, dripping onto Frida and her sister in their basement room below. But mostly, there was daily work: cooking together, praying together, gathering food, mending and repairing things and relationships, considering how to be and act most faithfully.
Frida is clear that we can’t all live in a Jonah House, and in fact, part of her book is about her choice not to live in community with her spouse and children. But her labor is still centered around trying to live faithfully. She parents in a way the makes clear that to be a parent in the United States today who resists messages of hierarchy and violence, who seeks community and engages faith in discernment about daily choices is sacred, arduous work.
Father Daniel Berrigan has been celebrated for his labor, for taking up his own cross and calling others to faith and conscience. But let us not forget the many others whose labor made
Daniel Berrigan’s labor possible. First, there was his mother, who literally labored to bring him into the world. His parents and extended family and church family who raised and formed him in faith. He was taught by the labor of teachers in school, stayed in Jesuit order houses where others often did the cooking and cleaning, and finished his last years at the Jesuit retirement community at Fordham, an institution where others labored to get the building built, still others maintained and renovated it through administration, fundraising, plumbing, carpentry and the like. All of this is sacred, arduous work.
Upon Berrigan’s death in May of last year, his family wrote, “He was not strategic, he was not opportunistic, but he understood solidarity—the power of showing up for people and struggles and communities. We reflect back on his long life and we are in awe of the depth and breadth of his commitment to peace and justice—from the Palestinians’ struggle for land and recognition and justice; to the gay community’s fight for health care, equal rights and humanity; to the fractured and polluted earth that is crying out for nuclear disarmament; to a deep commitment to the imprisoned, the poor, the homeless, the ill and infirm.
We are aware that no one person can pick up this heavy burden, but that there is enough work for each and every one of us. We can all move forward Dan Berrigan’s work for humanity. Dan told an interviewer: “Peacemaking is tough, unfinished, blood-ridden. Everything is worse now than when I started, but I’m at peace. We walk our hope and that’s the only way of keeping it going. We’ve got faith, we’ve got one another, we’ve got religious discipline..."
On this weekend as we honor the labor of the many, much of it unseen, arduous and sometimes in conditions that are inhumane, let us remember, we’ve got faith, we’ve got one another. In following Jesus and following our call, we engage in good and holy work, so that all may live and
know their labor as good and worthy, knowing ourselves as precious children of God with lives that are a gift. Amen.