Holy Street Sweeping

My First Job

Do you remember your first job? My first job was working as a waiter and dishwasher at Gayton Terrace, an assisted living community in the far West End of Henrico County. I was in high school at the time, about to get my learner’s permit for driving, and my parents were not the type to pass out free cash to their kids. Not that they had much anyway. So the first few months on the job, my mother drove me to and from work.

On that first day, I showed up at the kitchen of this assisted living home of about a hundred residents. The dining hall manager handed me my nametag, a maroon apron, and taught me how to use a punch clock (“ka-chunk”). I was set to earn a cool $4.25 an hour – minimum wage in 1995. Once I set foot in the kitchen, the first task I was given was loading and running the dishwasher.

Now, I don’t know if you have had experience with washing dishes in a commercial kitchen, but it is not glamorous. You scrape other’s people food off plates, liquids are splashing everywhere, the massive dishwasher is loud and hot. I learned the ropes and they left me alone with the dishwasher for the rest of my three-hour shift (the maximum number of hours a minor could work on a school night).

I still remember that three-hour period fairly clearly to this day. The reason is because it was not at all what I expected work to feel like in this world. Sure, my parents raised me to work hard, do my chores, and find satisfaction in a job well done. But this felt different. Here in the Gayton Terrace kitchen I found myself cleaning other peoples’ dishes and submitting to orders from bosses that were not my parents. I felt a very palpable sense of despair during those three hours – because I reasoned that I was going to have to work for the rest of my life to provide for myself and make a living. And no matter the work I envisioned myself doing for the rest of my life, I figured it would be hard and toilsome, like scrubbing the dishes of strangers.

In hindsight, I can guess that my despair stemmed from two sources: first is the fact that I am a human and work on this earth is hard and not always fun. Secondly (and related to the first), I was raised in the church, where more often than not the meaning and theology of work is cast in the light of Genesis chapter 3 rather than Genesis chapters 1 and 2.

Work in Genesis 1-3

Let me explain. Have you ever seen a painting or depiction of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? If you do a quick survey of Adam and Eve in art history, there are generally two categories of paintings: before the Fall (when they sinned against God by partaking of the forbidden fruit) and after the Fall. The “before the Fall” paintings usually show Adam and Eve lounging (or maybe strolling) in the verdant paradise garden as if they’re on the promenade deck of a luxury cruise ship, surrounded by happy creatures and colorful foliage. The “after the Fall” paintings depict Adam and Eve in some state of shame, darkness, or performing grueling labor upon the land outside the boundaries of Eden. Now, the image of Adam and Eve toiling by the sweat of their brows is a Biblical one. After they sinned, the Lord did said to Adam:

“…cursed is the ground because of you;  in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;   and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face  you shall eat bread…” (Gen 3:17-19).

We often view the work of our hands – our Monday through Friday work in such a light. It is true that human work has been tainted and cursed by the fallenness of humanity. But work is not the result of fallenness. Let me say that a different way: while work and labor can be toilsome, difficult, and even exploitative when abused by bad actors, work itself is not inherently an evil thing. I want to make the case that work is inherently of God – that work is originally sacred – and that our vocational endeavors, from banking to preaching to grandparenting, can and should be redeemed by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and consecrated up unto God the Father as a holy sacrificial offering.

Here is how we know that work is originally good and of God. In Genesis chapter 1, God is the first one who works when he creates the universe. In Genesis 2, we know this creating is considered work because he rested “from all his work” on the seventh day (Gen 2:2). Even nature works: God mandated the land to “produce vegetation” (Gen 1:11) while he ordered the moon and sun to administer over the night and day (Gen 1:14-18). He also orders the humans to work. He called them to “rule” over the creatures (Gen 1:26), to “be fruitful and increase in number,” and to “subdue” the earth (Gen 1:28).

But in Genesis 2:15, we see a very telling verse that I believe that many of those artists of history missed out on when depicting Adam and Eve in the garden before the Fall. The text says in Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” You see, even before we sinned, we were called to steward God’s creation and to create within it. There is, therefore, such as thing as sanctified work. Yes, our sin came and messed up work. But God in his redemptive love through Jesus Christ has called us to work in our Father’s world in ways that bring heaven to earth. Where there is darkness in work, we can bring light. Where there is brokenness in the world of work, we can bring healing. Where there is chaos in the marketplace, we can bring order. Where there is division and injustice in the workplace, we can be the bearers of reconciliation and righteousness – infused with the resurrection power of God, who, according to Romans 4:17, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Cobblers and Street Sweepers

I believe this redemptive approach to our working lives applies to all levels of work and most any type of work. The apostle Paul says in Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Martin Luther the Reformer said in the 1500s:

Therefore, just as Those who are now called ‘spiritual’ - priests, bishops or popes - are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them….A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.[1]

Several centuries later, another Martin Luther, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, said something very similar: 

"If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne (leon-teen) Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.’"[2]

Nestor

One day I was mowing grass in my front yard and my postal worker came walking up the sidewalk to deliver our mail. I powered down the mower to greet him and we exchanged pleasantries. His name is Nestor, and he has always been a friendly, faithful, dedicated postal worker. He handed me some letters and turned around to head to the next house. As he walked away, I thanked him for his great work as a postal carrier. He responded, “I do it for the Lord!”

I didn’t stop him to ask what he meant by that. He was on a delivery schedule after all. But as I turned my mower back on and zig-zagged through my yard I couldn’t help but ponder that one line from a postal service worker. I don’t even know if I needed to ask him what he meant, though, because he already exhibited what “doing it for the Lord” means in the way I have witnessed his work – cheerful, humble, dedicated, and service-minded. It also caused me to wonder about the inherent sacredness found in his work (and other kinds of work as well). Think about it – the role of his work is that of serving others by delivering messages from one person to another. In the redemptive imagination, his work is that of an angel. Angels deliver messages. That is important work. That is sacred work. I believe this exercise in imagination can apply to most jobs. Think about a certain job and you can see the shadow of heaven behind it. Doctors bring healing. Lawyers and judges seek justice. Financial advisors help people steward resources. Street sweepers provide sanitation, safety, and beauty. The list goes on. Of course, any of these jobs (yours and mine included) can be abused for evil. But as Christians I believe we are called to be the ambassadors of the redemptive work of heaven in whatever work we find ourselves on this earth.

1 Peter 4:10

We have all been endowed with different gifts, talents, abilities, and resources in this world. Our calling is to steward those things to the ends of serving others and bringing glory to God, no matter the task. Listen to Peter’s first letter:

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:10-11).

Theologian Frederick Buechner said it this way: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[3] And you may recall the film Chariots of Fire, in which the Olympic runner and believer in Christ Eric Liddell said, “[God] made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure.”[4] He was speaking to his sister, who wanted him to become a missionary to China. He did eventually serve in China, but he wanted to make a point to his sister that for him, competitive running was just as sacred a calling as serving as a missionary in China. He ran unto the Lord

Bezalel Made the Ark

What does that look like in your daily work, whatever it may be? How can you view your daily endeavors as unto the Lord? We find clues in our main passage today – the story of the artist Bezalel. Bezalel was the head artisan for the tabernacle – the mobile sanctuary used by Moses and the Hebrew people as they wandered through the desert. Bezalel and his team fashioned the curtains, the lampstand, the priestly garments, the altars and other creative details of the sanctuary. But his most well-known piece is arguably the ark of the covenant itself – the cherubim adorned golden chest that contained the ten commandments and other relics important to the spiritual life of Israel. Here is the passage from Exodus 35:

30 Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, 32 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, 33 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft (Ex 35:30-33). 

This is an example of God calling someone to specific work in the Old Testament. It displays that there are multiple meanings of calling in Scripture, depending on the context. For example, the primary calling of all believers is to, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “belong wholly” to Jesus Christ.[5] In fact, when Paul opens his letter to the church in Rome, he plainly says, “And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:6, NIV). But we also see God calling people to specific tasks and roles in Scripture, as exemplified here in the story of Bezalel. God called Bezalel to be an artist. God gifted him with the necessary talents and skills to fulfill his calling. And part of his calling as an artist was to fashion the ark of the covenant. 

This is also the first time in Scripture that someone is said to be filled with the Spirit of God, which I find very interesting.[6] It is the first time the specific verb for “filled”[7] appears in relation to the Spirit of God. After Bezalel and his colleagues crafted the artistic elements for the tabernacle, Moses hosted a bit of a grand opening service for this tent of meeting. When he did so, the text says, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex 40:34). And that was the same Hebrew verb for “filled” as the one used for Bezalel’s filling of the Spirit.[8]Thus, the work of the Spirit-filled artisan filled the sanctuary that would then be filled with the Spirit of God himself. God is at once the beginning, middle, and end of the work of our hands.

In fact, if you read all the way near the end of Exodus, you will find that Bezalel and his artist collective also made the garments for the priests (Aaron and his sons), including a golden crown for Aaron. Bezalel’s team etched an inscription in the crown: “Holy to the Lord.” What if we as Christians could follow in the example of Bezalel and metaphorically etch “Holy to the Lord” on everything that passes through our hands in our daily work?

The Ventriloquist

I asked a moment ago what this might look like for our working lives in the 21st Century. And when I say “working lives,” I’m not talking only about traditional nine-to-five work that involves a paycheck (though it includes that too). I’m also talking about raising children, caring for elderly parents, volunteerism, and pretty much any endeavor in life that involves creating things, serving others, or otherwise making order out of the chaos of life. How can we consecrate our work unto the Lord and let the Holy Spirit fill the work of our hands in all we do? Allow me an example from a ventriloquist friend of mine.

Yes, when you’re a juggler like me you have lots of weird friends, including ventriloquists. Oftentimes circus people like us feel inadequate or insignificant in the grand scheme of life. What do we really have to offer? Does our work matter? Is there anything remotely sacred about the absurd? We tend to think so. One day, my friend Gary did some visitation rounds at his local children’s hospital. He’s a believer, but he wasn’t preaching to or praying with patients in the traditional definition of those terms. He was simply going in and doing little puppet acts for the children to bring joy and laughter in an otherwise difficult situation for them and their families. Gary visited a quiet little boy named Tommy. Gary did a few banter jokes with his puppet: “…I can’t believe you would say something like that. If you were my child, I’d give you poison” to which the puppet replied, “If I was your child, I’d take the poison!” Tommy suddenly broke his silence and pointed at the puppet: “I really like him!”  Gary then recounted the powerful moment that followed, and I quote Gary here:

And then the room…something changes in the room. And somebody comes over and grabs my arm and says, ‘Keep him talking!’ So, I have the puppet say, ‘So what’s your name?’… ‘My name is Tommy,’ or whatever it was. So that turns out, the little boy had not said anything for months. So now the kid is talking to the ventriloquist puppet. So now the people are saying, like, whispering in my ear, ‘Ask him if it hurts.’ You know, [in puppet voice] ‘Does it hurt?’… [Tommy replies], ‘Yes.’ [end quote]

Gary said they then did this whole back-and-forth conversation between the doctor and Tommy with Gary and his puppet as the intermediaries. Gary and his God-given talent built a bridge that no one else could. Where doctors, nurses, and who knows how many other people were unable to get through to this suffering child, the puppet could. God had gifted Gary with skills that the world may view as childish in order to facilitate giving voice to a voiceless child. That is what I view as a sacred calling. That is a believer who does their work unto the Lord – faithfully administering the gifts he’s been given to serve others and ultimately to bring glory to God. And you never know when in your steadfast faithfulness to the call, God will do something miraculous right before your eyes.[9]

Bethlehem

When I was in college, I had the privilege of spending a semester studying abroad in Jerusalem. While there, I found opportunities to perform my juggling show at various venues. One was for a Palestinian elementary school in Bethlehem. The night before my show, I could hear gun and tank fire volleying between Jerusalem and Bethlehem – very close to where I was. It was the year 2000, and what came to be known as “The Second Intifada” was raging between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the morning, the headmaster of the school came and picked me up at my school. On the way to the show, he drove me through a town that had suffered a lot of the destruction I had heard the night before. It was very sad – a big hole in a building from a rocket, people sweeping up glass in the street. We then went to the nearby school for my show. There was nothing extraordinary about my show. I performed some tricks and told some jokes. The children laughed and expressed joy. After the show, the headmaster thanked me for bringing a smile to their faces that day. He said, “They really needed that, because during recess, they play funeral.” Death was their day-to-day experience in the real world. My show was a brief interruption to their darkness and brought a glimmer of light to their day. You see, you never know when the work of your hands, no matter how insignificant it feels (I mean, how many things are more insignificant than juggling?), will touch other people in a way that brings a little bit of heaven to earth for them.

Every Square Inch 

In closing, I want to invite you to think about your own daily work, whatever it may be. You may or may not see your daily work as your vocational calling. Maybe you’re still searching for what that is in your life. No matter where you are on that journey, I still believe we can consecrate our daily work unto the Lord as an offering of praise unto Him. We can ask for the Holy Spirit to fill us and fill our work with the light and life of God – so that others in the world may be served by our giftings, our talents, our skills, and our work. I wish I could have told my 15-year-old self that even in washing dishes for assisted living folks can I be the hands of Jesus….scrubbing, cleaning, praying, and worshipping through each load of the dishwasher. There was a 17th century monk known as Brother Lawrence. When he served in the kitchen as cook and dishwasher, he didn’t like it at first either. But he learned to enjoy the work when he saw it through the lens of doing “everything for the love of God, asking as often as possible for grace to do [the] work.”[10] We can, like Nestor the mailman, “do it all for Jesus.” Abraham Kuyper, who eventually became the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, said in a speech in 1880, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[11] Yes, Jesus is over every work, including the washing of dishes in a steaming kitchen at a retirement home when I was fifteen years old.

As Christians, we lay hands on missionaries and ministers as they go out into the fields of their vocational ministry, and we should. But what if we extended that prayer support into all fields of work? Below is a prayer I wrote as a corporate prayer of the people of God offering their daily work unto the Lord. I provide it here as one way in which the local church can offer commissioning prayers for people in all kinds of work:

Heavenly Father,

We offer unto you our daily work.

Fill us with your Spirit.

Sanctify the work of our hands,

That our roles, positions, vocations, and labors,

Would be done for your glory.

May our endeavors serve the needs of those around us

And fill your earth with healing, justice, reconciliation, and love.

Help us to steward our callings,

That they may be an acceptable offering of praise back unto you.

Amen.


[1] Martin Luther, “An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.” First published 1520. Introduction and Translation by C. M. Jacobs. Works of Martin Luther: With Introductions and Notes. Volume II (Philadelphia, PA: A. J. Holman Company, 1915). Accessed Feb 27, 2020. http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/nblty-03.html

[2] This quote comes from a speech by Dr. King to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, PA in 1967. See https://youtu.be/kmsAxX84cjQ (quote starts at time-stamp 10:50) for the speech.

[3] Buechner, Fredrick. 1993. Wishful Thinking: A Seekers ABCRevised and Expanded. New York, NY: Harper Collins, p. 199.

[4] The scriptwriter for Chariots of Fire, Colin Welland, should technically be credited with the quote. There is no source of Eric Liddell saying or writing this quote in real life. Welland said in a letter to an inquiry about the quote that he came up with it for the film. But he believed that it reflected how Eric Liddell felt. See https://www.veritesport.org/?page=welland for the source of this information, including a link to an image of Welland’s signed statement about the quote (Hugh Hudson, director. Chariots of Fire. Original screenplay by Colin Welland, 20th Century Fox, 1981).

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ethics (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995), p. 253.

[6] Technically, the first time is the parallel passage to this one found in Exodus 31:1-11. The Hebrew term for “filled” in these passages is male (Strong’s 4390 and Goodrick-Kholenberger number 4848).

[7] Hebrew male or mala (Strong’s 4390).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jesse Joyner, “Holy Fools” (PhD Dissertation, Trinity International University, 2021), pp. 150-151. https://www.proquest.com/docview/2622316783/74D2F35035A24815PQ/1

[10] This quote comes from Brother Lawrence’s friend, Joseph de Beaufort, in his description of Brother Lawrence (Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1992, p. 12).

[11] James D. Bratt, ed. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 13, 461, 488. 

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Jesse

Dr. Jesse Joyner travels nationwide as a speaker and entertainer. His primary role is that of a performing juggler spreading joy and the love of learning to family and kids events. H earned his PhD in Educational Studies at Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL). He enjoys playing the piano, bird watching, and old houses. He lives in Richmond, VA with his wife, Sarah, and their three kids - the perfect number for juggling children.

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