The snow leopard is one of the rarest and most elusive of the great cats. It lives in the Himalayas, and it blends in so well with its surroundings that it is almost impossible to see. The naturalist Peter Matthiessen wrote a book about his quest to see the snow leopard in its native habitat. Rather than set out directly in search of the elusive animal, Matthiessen studied the Himalayan blue sheep, one of the snow leopard’s main sources of food. He spent 10 days trekking through the Himalayas with a biologist who was studying the migratory and mating patterns of the sheep hoping to catch a glimpse of the leopard off in the distance.
Sometimes that is how we encounter God. We come upon God while we’re intent on doing something else. That’s how Moses came across God. He was at work watching the sheep, doing the same thing he had done every day for years. Something caught his attention. He went to explore it. It was a bush, in flames but not burning up. God spoke to him from the bush, and his life was never the same.
For most of our lives, the majority of our waking hours are spent doing some kind of work, and most of us want such a large segment of our lives to have some connection with what is ultimate, what is most important to us. The Bible supports that longing. We weren’t created to keep our daily labors separate from God. When God made man and woman in God’s image, God put them to work tending the garden God had planted. We were created to find purpose and fulfillment in fruitful labor that continues God’s work of making the world a place where each person enjoys the good things God has made. One of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God was that the work they did became a burden for them. After God cast then out of the Garden, the earth would still bring forth fruits and vegetables and things that were good for the woman and the man, but as a punishment for their sins, it would also bring forth thorns and thistles. As God was driving them out of the garden, God said, “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground…” (Genesis 3:19)
Sometimes our work can seem like a curse. Sometimes we do want to “take this job and shove it.” But there is an inherent dignity in work. Our nation celebrates Labor Day to remember the dignity of work. The holiday grew out of the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was a response to the way that work had become dehumanizing, something that assaulted human dignity rather than enhanced it. As industry grew and became more mechanized, some employers viewed the people who worked at the looms and poured the steel and mined the ore as one more commodity to be maximized. Labor Day began as a reminder that human beings are not interchangeable parts. We were created by God to take part in God’s creative work.
That’s why unemployment is not just an economic problem. A job doesn’t just provide a paycheck that puts food on the table and a roof over the head. A job gives a person purpose, a reason to get out of bed, self-esteem. One of the great political debates of our time is how best to help those who don’t have a job. At its best, public assistance sustains an unemployed person until she or he gets through a rough patch and back on the job. But is there a line where that help becomes a disincentive and deprives a person of the initiative to find work?
At its best, work, whether we’re paid for it or not, is a gift from God that lets us have a part in the ongoing work of God’s creation. But in addition to the work of sustaining God’s creation, of building it up and being stewards of our resources, there is the work of reconciling the world to God, of freeing all people from the powers that deprive our lives of meaning and purpose, that keep us subject to those things that drain our dignity. That is the work that God called Moses to do from the burning bush. In Egypt God’s people the Israelites were slaves. To Pharaoh, they were commodities like the stones they dragged through the desert to build his pyramids. God called Moses to have a part in the work of freeing the Israelites. God was going to give them a land of their own, where they could plant vineyards whose wine they would enjoy, built homes where they could live in peace, study God’s law so they would be motivated by love and compassion rather than the whip of the overseer. The work Moses had been doing all his life prepared him for the work God gave him. His early years living in Pharaoh’s courts as the adopted son of the princess made him familiar with the ways of those in power. His later years as a shepherd, tending flocks in the wilderness, prepared him for the years he would guide the Hebrews through the wilderness.
Moses led the Israelites from bondage to freedom. Later Jesus came to free us all from the bonds that oppress us, from sin and selfishness and hatred so we can enjoy the peace and hope that God intends for us. Along with that freedom he gives us a part in the work he is doing to restore all of God’s creation. Jesus calls us each to take up our own cross, just as he took up his, and find true joy and peace in losing our lives to him.
Some, like Moses, are called to take on leadership God’s work of bringing people back to God by serving as pastors or full-time church workers. Jesus called 12 disciples away from their fishing boats to follow him, but most of the people who responded to Jesus he sent back to the places they lived and worked to tell their friends and neighbors and fellow laborers what they had seen and heard from the Lord. And that’s where most of Jesus’ work gets done, where we earn a living and take part in the life of our community.
Some people shy away from Jesus because they think that following him means they have to do more. They’re afraid it will mean going to more church meetings, giving up more family time for volunteer projects, cramming even more into an already jam-packed schedule. Or they’re afraid that they’ll have to be different people – be nicer or more outgoing or more pious. Well, following Jesus is likely to mean there are changes in your life, but it often means finding who you truly are and doing what you ordinarily do, except you do it knowing that God is somehow or other in the midst of it all.
Someone once said that his job is a way of looking responsible while he tends to more important things. You might say that’s what the Apostle Paul did. He was a tentmaker by trade, and as he travelled around the Roman Empire starting churches for Jesus, he made his living by continuing to make tents. Not only did that provide what was surely a needed product in the economies of Corinth or Ephesus or wherever he stayed, his encounters in the marketplace must have given him opportunities to glimpse God at work in the lives of those he met. More often than not, God works through us right where we are, in the midst of our day jobs. Maybe it’s by noticing an opportunity to offer a comforting word to someone in distress, or to pay attention to someone who is overlooked. Maybe our calling is to do our work with integrity, perhaps to point out an injustice or speak up with courage when we know something is wrong. Knowing that there is another level to our work lets us hold our jobs lightly. If we see a conflict between what our work requires us to do and what Jesus desires for his world, then we can walk away because we know that, in the end, we belong to Jesus, not our employer. When it comes time to retire, we can give thanks for what work has meant to us while realizing that we are a lot more to Jesus than our jobs.
Frederick Buechner is famous for saying that we find our vocation where our greatest joy meets the world’s need. For some people, that is obvious. Some people feel so certain about their calling that they embrace it and can imagine themselves doing nothing else. For others, like Moses, it’s not so clear. He didn’t doubt that God was calling him, but there were plenty of times along the way that he questioned the whole enterprise. Finding his place made his life a lot more complicated. Pharaoh resisted him. His own people, the Israelites, complained against him. There were many times in the years that followed that Moses called out to God and asked why he had been given such a thankless job that caused him so much grief.
God told him from the burning bush that he would receive a sign that would affirm his call, but the sign would be a while in coming. God told Moses that the sign would be when the Israelites worshiped God in the place where he stood. After all the confrontations with Pharaoh, the complaints of the people, the tension and the agony of the exodus, that is when he would know for sure that he had done God’s work. In the meantime, Moses would have to trust. When they were finally free, he would be certain that God was in and through it all.
Some of my best mentors in faith have been those who could reflect back on their lives and see the hand of God at work. I think of a man, I’ll call him Ted, who was in hospice care in the final stages of lung cancer. I think of the grace with which he faced his death because he could look back over his life and know that the same God who had been with him over the past 85 years, sometimes obviously and sometimes seen only in retrospect, he trusted that that same God would continue to be with him and be true to his promises even in death and beyond.
When we are baptized, we are given a
place in the work that Jesus is doing. That place may not be obvious all the
time. Sometimes we see it, and the one who calls us, only obliquely, like Peter
Matthiesen saw the snow leopard . But even if we have a hard time finding our
place, we know that Jesus has found us and has prepared a place for us,
prepared a purpose for us. Even if you aren’t sure what that is, he does. He
knows your place in his kingdom. Your place is with him.
 Belden C. Lane, “Stalking the Snow Leopard: A Reflection on Work,” The Christian Century, January 4-11, 1984, pp. 13-16.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), pp. 25ff.
 Lane, op. cit.