Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth… from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” (Psalm 90:1-2) … “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12) … “Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.” (Psalm 90:15) …
Like other psalms we’ve read together this summer, Psalm 90 offers us some real gems: memorable lines like these to meditate on, each one offering a bit of wisdom to carry with us or a meaningful phrase to add to our prayers.
Like so many biblical texts, Psalm 90 read in different versions offers yet more gifts in its words. From the poetry of the King James: “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) To the clarity of Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message: “Make up for the bad times with some good times; we’ve seen enough evil to last a lifetime.” (Psalm 90:15) “Teach us to live wisely and well!” (Psalm 90:12)
But with so many lines to choose from and so much to be gleaned from the psalm as a whole, it was the final verse of this one that really drew me in this time: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17)
I guess it makes sense for that line to draw my focus this Labor Day weekend when we’re thinking about work. “Prosper the work of our hands.” But it was actually the verb there that I kept returning to: “prosper the work of our hands.” I wonder if it’s because so many big things seem to be spinning out of control right now. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the enormity and seriousness of the problems facing our world. Or in worrying that nothing we’re doing is enough. I think that’s why this line of the psalmist’s prayer resonates with me. Lord, make it matter, what we’re able to do. Make our efforts count. “Prosper the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17)
Of course we know “the work of our hands” is simply a figure of speech, and that God can work through us in a multitude of ways, using any number of body parts. Listening ears. Observant eyes. Strong voices. Creative brains. Compassionate hearts. All that and more, it seems to me, is included in this ask of God: “prosper the work of our hands.” We want to do our best with these bodies we’ve been issued. We want to give it our all in the time we have. In Ecclesiastes we read: “Whatever you hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10) Our second Scripture lesson urges us, whatever we do, to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God … through him.” (Colossians 3:17) And here in Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days,” Lord. (Psalm 90:12 KJV) As I understand the gist of verse 17, we want to make those days count. “Prosper the work of our hands.”
I can see how the word “prosper” in the translation we’re using today might lead people to think material success is important. And that could be what the psalmist had in mind. Whatever his own work, or that of his immediate community (since the text refers to the work of “our” hands vs. “my” hands) he probably did want God to make that work productive and successful. But it’s worth noting the Hebrew root translated “prosper” here in the New Revised Standard Version can also be interpreted in other ways. Translations like “establish the work of our hands” appear to be equally fitting here, or “confirm” that work, or make it stand. In a world where so much is fleeting, make our efforts last, Lord. Establish them. Make them stand.
And if we read this text in conversation with the rest of Scripture, it becomes clear pretty quickly that there are far more important things than financial or material prosperity. Like generosity to the poor, hospitality to the stranger, compassion to the prisoner – we see these kinds of priorities emphasized throughout the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. In the gospels, conventional understandings of prosperity are turned entirely on their heads when Jesus speaks of the last becoming first and the first last, and again when he asks a rich man to sell all his possessions and give away the proceeds to the poor. (Mark 10:21) Hardly the stuff of upward mobility! In the epistles, too, we see different standards for a successful life than are necessarily obvious to us from the broader culture. Taking to heart that whole text we heard from Colossians today, how might our lives prosper with humility and patience? How might we thrive through forgiveness? Or measure a productive career in acts of kindness and love?
Whether the work of your hands is at a piano keyboard or a laptop keyboard or a drafting table. Whether your work is relatively solitary or involves a classroom full of students, a hospital full of patients, or a store full of customers. Whether your work results in a paycheck, or children or parents who know they are loved, or the satisfaction of helping a neighbor or a nonprofit cause dear to your heart. Whether your hands are covered in dirt from the garden or toner from the office printer or glitter from a child’s art project. Whether your hands are stiff from repetitive motion, or sore from heavy lifting, or cracked from scrubbing and sanitizing. Whether you’re young enough that you’re still imagining what you’ll be when you grow up, or you’re training or retraining for a chosen profession, or you’ve long ago retired… Whatever your hands find to do to make a difference in this world – for there is plenty each of us can do – let’s do it with all our might. (Ecclesiastes 9:10) And “whatever [we] do… [let’s] do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God … through him.” (Colossians 3:17)
“Prosper the work of our hands,” Lord. “Prosper the work of our hands.” Establish it. Make it matter. Make it count.
At the same time, it’s probably worth mentioning another important teaching about work in Scripture. And that’s the importance of balance, and rhythm, and rest. We know it’s not healthy for us to work constantly and never step away. It can also leave us feeling a little adrift when we don’t have meaningful work of some kind to do. Granted, not every chapter of our lives allows for the ratio of work to rest we’d prefer. Life is complicated. The limitations of human bodies and the complexities of relationships, organizations, and even whole economies can interfere with the best laid plans. Wished-for projects and needed down time may not present themselves when we want them to, or we might simply have so many other people depending on us in certain seasons that it’s hard to step away. But surely a measure of balance is the goal.
Certainly, that’s what God has in mind for us. We began our service this morning with the divine command: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” (Exodus 20:9-10) Because Jesus assured us “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” (Mark 2:27) it seems to me we can reset as often as we need to in our efforts to regain that balance, aiming to find meaningful work to do while at the same time maintaining healthy boundaries and prioritizing physical and mental rest.
As we come closer to restoring a bit of equilibrium for ourselves, we may also notice how many others can’t afford to alternate work with the rest they desperately need. The Sabbath commandment in Exodus makes clear everyone deserves that balance – not just those of us for whom overwork is sometimes out of necessity and sometimes by choice – but also those with very few choices or none at all. God commands us to be sure they get a Sabbath too. In Exodus the specific reference is to slaves getting a day off but surely, we can extrapolate to include those scrambling to hold down multiple minimum wage jobs to put food on the table, and anyone employed in a job we would do most anything to avoid. It seems to me complete obedience to God’s Sabbath commandment asks the workaholics among us to take breaks, yes, but also asks people of privilege like us to do a bit of work – to vote and to advocate and to share what we are fortunate enough to have – so that all God’s children get the benefit of Sabbath rest.
“Prosper the work of our hands,” Lord. All of our hands. Help everyone find that balance of work and rest, and bring us to the end of each day feeling we’ve done something that matters. An act of service. An act of kindness. Words spoken or tasks accomplished that meet a need.
In a world that frightens us sometimes with the severity and scope of its problems, our text from Colossians reminds us: the most ordinary, everyday tasks can matter. When we act with humility and compassion. When we lean into patience and forgiveness. When we offer love. “Whatever you do – in word or deed - do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God … through him.” (Colossians 3:17)
And back to our Psalm? We’ve got a limited number of years at our disposal. “Teach us to number our days” and, Lord, make them matter. “Prosper the work of our hands.” Prosper it. The work of tiring days and uncomfortable conversations and thankless tasks, along with work that brings us great joy. The schoolwork and the paid work and the family chores and caregiving. Our efforts on behalf of those who are hungry, those who are hurting or lonely, those who are fearful and far from home. Along with every task undertaken and every challenge faced in the cause of justice. God, prosper our work. Help us make a difference. Make it count.
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth… from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” (Psalm 90:1-2) … “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12) And “prosper the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17) Amen.