If not us, then who? And if not now, then when?
TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST OCTOBER 25TH, 2020
Let me tell you about Godric. Godric owned a medium-sized chemicals factory in the Hearth of England. I got to know Godric because his factory was in the parish next door to the one I was vicar of in the late 1990s. The parish I served was home to many of Godric’s workers. Now the beautiful thing about Godric was he was a Quaker. And he really meant it. It is rare to come across a Christian of any type, who lives their faith so thoroughly that they do what Godric did. His company was successful, built on the ideals of honesty, hard work, and for a chemicals company a remarkable respect for the environment. So what do you do when you’re a devoutly Christian entrepreneur, scientist, and businessman with a profitable company? Well, if you’re Godric you give it away. Yes, you give it away. Not to jut anyone, but to your staff. The workers who helped make the company what it is. He had his lawyers draw up the necessary paperwork and he – gave it away – to his workers. Now, how do you think the workforce responded to Godric’s shocking generosity Well, they had received, so now they gave. They entered a legal agreement between themselves that whatever happened to the company in the future, even if it got into very serious financial difficulty, all the workers would take big pay cuts, rather than have any worker lose his or job. I’ve never seen anything like this. And it makes me feel good. It reminds me that there are creative and compassionate alternatives to the stale old debate between left and right about which is the best way to run an
efficient, productive, caring business that is full of happy, conscientious works, willingly serving each other and the world.
Can you hear the cry of anguish? Do you catch the desperate voice? Can you feel the pained petition of the worker hoping, praying, pleading that his labor will be enough?
He groans to God from a bygone age. He hammers a coal seam deep beneath the earth’s surface, chiseling a living for his family, breaking his back for his village, risking his life for his people. “Prosper the work of our hands.”
She pleads to God from a bygone age. She stoops low in pain and humiliation, bowing before King Cotton, picking her white harvest under the brutal sun and under threat of a more brutal lash if her yield is deemed too small to satisfy her master. “Prosper the work of our hands.”
She beseeches God from the trading floor. She survives on the success of her last deal. She watches numbers on the ticker. She senses the tightness in her chest, feels the stress in her stomach, hides her sleeplessness in a pint of caffeine. “Prosper the work of our hands.”
She implores God from the classroom. She carries the burden of shaping young lives, she shoulders the disapproval of public opinion, she is bowed down by the expectations and demands and the awesome sanctity of her task. “Prosper the work of our hands.”
He begs God from the empty office block. He dusts cubicles, vacuums stairwells, polishes the places of power. His health is declining, his muscles are soft, his bones brittle, his joints stiff. His fear lurks in the night, stalking him from dark corners, the fear that he’ll be let go and dropped into a sea of poverty. “Prosper the work of our hands.”
She removes her PPE, collapses into a plastic chair in the nurses’ dining room, puts her head in her hands, and silently weeps for suffering she has witnessed in her shift, and wonders how she can cope with the mounting number of sick and dying. “Prosper the work of our hands. O, Lord, prosper the work of our hands.”
It’s an ancient plea. It was voiced at the end of our Psalm today – number 90. Back then, when it was written, this poem was a series of requests to God, made by a nation that had endured suffering, but which was now standing on the threshold of a new age. Those thresholds are exciting aren’t they? You imagine, you hope, you dream … and you become anxious. What if things don’t work out? What if this new dawn just appearing over the horizon is no better than the one that just ended? What if all our hard work, all our dedication, all our focus has been for nothing? What if today’s hopes are tomorrow’s failures? You can feel the poet’s stress inspiring his prayers. “Return, O LORD; how long will you tarry? Satisfy us by your loving kindness in the morning. Make us glad by the measure of the days that you afflicted us and the years in which we suffered adversity. Show your servants your works and your splendor to their children.” And finally, that desperate plea: “Prosper the work of our hands; O, prosper the work of our hands.”
Have you ever prayed that prayer? I bet you have. It was that silent prayer you offered as you studied for the exam, that one you made as you missed a night’s sleep to finish the project for work, that one you laid before God as you spent another night nursing your sick child. And it’s a prayer not just of individual men and women, girls and boys, it’s the prayer of families, communities, churches, and in 2020, nations and continents.
It’s now eight months into the pandemic and with each passing week our world seems to be changing. At least its mindset seems to. Compassion Fatigue is setting in. I wrote about it in this week’s Inspire newsletter. In many places around the country and in Europe, people’s goodwill has been stretched to the point where it has become easier to just not care anymore. We’ve been on edge for more than half a year, our emotions have been mangled and our minds minced. At this point in our journey from wilderness to home, it is only human to shrug our shoulders, take off the mask, and pretend we can get back to normal without that having serious consequences for the health of our community. Human, yes, but desirable? No. We are called to love, and this is how we love – restricting our freewill, exercising our self-control, and enduring temporary hardships if doing so saves lives.
Prosper the work of our hands; O, Lord prosper the work of our hands; because if not us, then who; and if it’s not now, then when?
Last week I meditated on trees. I love autumn. The aromas calm me, the colors soothe me. It’s a comforting time of year. In the UK, the church makes a big thing of harvest festivals. Churches are decked out with flowers and produce. In the US we have Thanksgiving – we sip from the horn of plenty. And yet, as I meditated on the autumn trees outside my window, I was moved by a fresh thought, a realization I’ve not really been aware of before. What we think of as fruitfulness and splendor, for a tree is death. You can see where my mood has been recently. Not complete and eternal death, but a death, nonetheless. Sure, leaves will return next year and blossoms will lift our hearts, but for now, trees are entering a time a huge loss. Look out of your window – do it right now – and you’ll see trees letting go. They can’t hold on to their leaves anymore. It’s time to shed, to renounce, to give it up, to sleep. To lose. This autumn, the trees that release their fruit and discard their leaves sing the song we’ve bene humming all year in this year of loss.
But the glory of their death is startling. The colors, the smells, the apples and pears. If you’re going to lose things – this is the way to do it – blessing, giving, enriching, comforting, as you lose. Can there be a better way to go?
And this is all part of the message of this stewardship season. In a year of loss we dare to trust God. We give it up and let it go. We know that hoarding our resources, be they money, time, or our personal talents, does not grow the Kingdom of God. We know the secret that when we give the work of our hands, even when we think we have nothing to give, God does prosper our work. because if not us, then who; and if it’s not now, then when?
Let me tell you about Josephology. That’s ‘Joseph’ with an ‘ology’ on the end. You know you’re famous when someone takes your name and sticks ‘ology’ on it. The Joseph in question is the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. And if you don’t deserve an ology on your name when you are the step-dad of the Son of God, then no one does.
Now one of the titles that Josephologists have developed for the great man is St Joseph the Worker. Isn’t that excellent? St Joseph the Worker. It elevates work – in all its forms. It ennobles the thing you do for a job. It gives it dignity. You’re doing something in the glorious tradition of the Holy Family.
We take the disordered, chaotic raw materials of life and we make things out of them, with God. We are made for that purpose. So even if you are not doing any paid work at this moment in your life, you are still co-working and co-creating with God – maybe you don’t do any paid work because you are raising children, or because you have retired, or because of poor health, or because the pandemic has savagely slashed the workforce and you are a victim of that brutality. Even now, whoever you are – all of us, are co-workers with God, charged with the task of bringing order out of chaos, usefulness out of raw materials, fruit out of our days
Unemployment is more than an economic problem – it’s a human tragedy. There can be very little in the human experience to compare with the devastation of being told that you are unwanted, your skills, personality, hands, feet, body, mind are not needed. You don’t have a function. Unemployment is a moral issue and not just an economic one. “Prosper the work of our hands; O, prosper the work of our hands” is a deep declaration of what it means to be human. So let us work it, live it, give it up and let it go, every day. Because if not us, then who; and if it’s not now, then when?