by Father John Dresko
Annually, our country pauses to honor and remember, at least officially, workers in our country on Labor Day. It is important to reflect on the words of Saint Paul from his first letter to the Corinthians regarding a labor dispute in the early Church. In that reading (1 Cor. 9:2-12), Saint Paul talks about the rights of the apostles to make their living from the Church because they have worked so hard in the Church. Now I know that in the Orthodox Church none of our parishes have ever had a dispute about whether their pastor should be paid more or less (!), but nonetheless, it is a very important reading for us to dwell on. What's important is not just that Paul defends very vigorously the fact that the Church has a responsibility to care for its workers, but also that Paul points to the Church, to the Corinthians, as the sign that he has worked in the Church. He says to them, "Am I not an apostle?...You (meaning the Corinthians, the faithful of the Church) are the seal of my apostleship." (1 Cor. 9:1-2) He is saying, "You are the example that what I have done is work very hard in the vineyard of the Lord and that work has brought forth fruit, because you, the people of Corinth, are the seal of what I have done." They prove the apostleship of Paul; they justify his labors.
In America, we have a funny idea of labor. Generally speaking, we have laws that prohibit people from working until they're about 16 years old. We also have laws that say when you reach a certain age (about 65 or 70), you have to stop working. You have to retire. We have really three areas of labor that we have defined for American society: labor, retirement and, perhaps most important, inheritance. The American ideal is to reach working age, start out in your life's career, make your money, put away enough for retirement, and then, by not squandering it, leave an inheritance to those loved ones whom you choose. The problem in America is that we tend to take the same ideas and ideals about labor, retirement and inheritance and apply them to our Church life and our individual spiritual lives. We look at labor and say, "You aren't supposed to work until sixteen." But in the life of the Church, if we waited until everyone is sixteen and then expect them to take up some of the burden of the life of the Church, we will shoot ourselves in the foot. They will not be involved enough in the life of the Church to want to stay until they're sixteen.
Labor, in the life of the Church, has to be part of a person's life literally from the moment he/she is baptized. When a child is brought into the life of the Church, they are baptized and chrismated and immediately the priest gives them Holy Communion. They are full members of the Church and they are expected to bear the full responsibility of full membership in the Church in as much as their abilities allow them. For example, it is important to nurture children, to educate them, expect them to sing in the choir, take care of the candlestand, serve, read, etc. That is the way they become incorporated into the life of the Church. As time goes on, we live out our lives in the Church and we are called to do the things that need to be done in the life of the Church. We serve, we sing, we pray, we worship, we serve on the Parish Council, the Sisterhood, the Brotherhood, the PTA, we light candles and clean up, we help at fund-raisers, etc. - all the various things that are done in the daily life of the Church.
But then, God willing, we reach a certain age and we can think that we are entitled, because in America it is true, to be relieved of that burden. To retire. But in the life of the Church, that is simply not so. God does not tell us, "Before you are sixteen, to have no responsibility in the Church: you don't have to pray, you don't have to fast, to don't have to learn, to don't have to come to church services." As a matter of fact, we even begin to expect repentance from children at about the age of seven. Likewise, God does not say, "When you reach a certain age, then I don't have any more responsibilities for you. I have taken away everything that I have given to you. I'll give it to someone else - even if there is no one else."
Saint Paul felt the tug of that feeling so strongly, that to the Philippians he says these words: "...I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account." (Philippians 1:19-24)
If I die, that is gain- because I am with Christ. But if I live, that means fruitful labor for me. Saint Paul's desire was to depart and to be with Christ, for that is far better. "I want to die," Saint Paul says to the Philippians, "because then I can go to the Kingdom of God and be relieved of all these burdens - all the burdens of caring for you, for the Corinthians, the Romans, etc. in the life of the Church; I would rather just die." Anyone who has worked in the Church - any priest, any bishop, any Christian who has tried to do anything in the life of the Church - can understand that feeling. There are times when it would be so much better to lay down and just be with the Lord, to be relieved of all the struggles. But then Saint Paul says, "But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account." He would rather die, but he knows from the Lord that he is not going to die, because he has labors to carry on in order for them (the Philippians) to increase in stature - for them to grow as a Church.
So Saint Paul is tired. He wants to retire. He wants to die. But the Lord says no. It is better for the Church, and ultimately for Paul's salvation, that he remain in the flesh because then he could continue his work, his labors. So we don't have a young age, and we don't have an old age, when the Lord does not demand something of us. But we must not forget inheritance. We know that labor is the life of the Christian, labor is the life of the Church. We know that there is no "pre-labor," and there is no "retirement" in the Lord. We spend our lives in this world working and slaving, saving up and putting away, etc., in order that something might be left for those who come after us.
It is obvious that we as Orthodox Christians do not take that same ethic of inheritance and apply it to the life of the Church. Not only, generally speaking, are we not generous with the Church, but we don't think about inheritance in the life of the Church. Most people do not think about putting something aside or leaving something as our legacy to the Church. We don't put bequests to the Church in our wills, we don't leave money to the Church, we don't leave property to the Church. It happens occasionally, but that is the rare exception rather than the example. But that's not even the point.
The point is that we spend all our time on this physical, material, tangible inheritance - building up our bank accounts and building up our retirement accounts and building up our IRA and 401k accounts, making sure that our mortgage is paid off and leaving property and, most definitely, writing a will to ensure that not one penny goes where I don't want it to go. At the same time, we ignore the inheritance that we must leave to the Church. We ignore the inheritance that we must give to our children. At the same time that we accumulate our bank accounts, we allow our children to go astray. At the same time that are socking away money in our retirement accounts, our children are running around in the streets. At the same time we are spending hours poring over our tax returns searching for that last little deduction, our children are spending time watching TV, playing video games and never praying. We don't give our families the inheritance of faith. That's the inheritance that God is worried about. That's the inheritance that the priest mentions, when he says after Communion, "O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance." Bless Thine inheritance - bless what is left to us.
But what are we leaving? We worry so much about these earthly anxieties that we don't give ourselves to the life of the Church. We don't give ourselves to a life of prayer. We don't give ourselves individually to God. And the material inheritance we leave is spent in a short time, and in a generation, no one knows a thing of what we did in our lifetimes. Inheritance is something that God give us not to accumulate in a bank account, but to accumulate in the Kingdom of God. Saint Paul says these words to the Colossians: "Whatever your task (that is, whatever you are called to do in life), work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ." (Colossians 3:23-24) Whatever you do in life, the inheritance that you can receive is already prepared for you. It is the reward from God for the way you live your life today.
And so, we are called to labor. We are called to labor from the moment we are baptized to the moment we die. We are called to remember that the retirement plan in the life of the Church, in our spiritual lives, the moment when we are freed from all responsibilities and obligations is the moment we take our last breath. That is the moment we peacefully retire from the life of the Church. And we are called to remember that the inheritance is the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom has already been prepared for us. The only thing that we can do is squander it. We can't lose it unless we want to. If we turn to the Lord and go to Him, we have it. Lastly, as we remember labor, we remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whenever we are tired, whenever we feel like the Lord (or the priest) has asked us to do just too much, whenever we feel that "someone else can do it," remember these words of our Lord: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)
If we are too tired to carry the burden of the Church, if we are too tired to carry the burden of Christianity, if we are too tired to carry the burden of spirituality in our own lives, it's because we have been trying to carry it by ourselves. We do not labor alone. We labor with Christ, and if we allow Him to carry our labors and bear the yoke, the labors and the burden will be light. But they will not go away. The inheritance is ready for us. Whether we accept it or not is our choice.