Sermon
August 31, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings


James 1:17-27

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

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Sermon - Faith At Work

A few years back I was at a conference where the leader challenged us with this story. He had been the pastor of an urban church in Pittsburgh and one of his key lay leaders had a very high level job in the steel industry. This was a difficult time in the steel industry with strong foreign competition, plant closings, and layoffs. One day this church member came into the pastor’s office and said “Pastor, you and I have worked together and discussed many issues in the life of this church and how the decisions we make affect our mission as disciples of Christ. But we have never discussed my life as an executive in the steel industry and, frankly, the decisions I’ve been faced with there probably have a greater effect on this community and the people in it than anything I’ve done before or anything I’ve done as a member of this church. I need to understand how does my faith work at work?”

The challenge to those at the conference was: what would your response be to this individual; what resources could you bring to his assistance. Here is someone who did not wish to be a mere hearer of the word, but to be a doer as well, and to be a doer not just in church on Sundays, but a doer in all areas of his life including his life in the labor force and the world of work. Since this is Labor Day weekend, I thought we might consider such a question in the sermon.

There was a time when this would not have been a difficult task – a time when industry was connected to community and a minister might well preach a sermon about the Christian obligations of management and the duties of labor. The church I served in Vermont was in a town with a heritage of exactly this kind of thinking. This was Proctor, Vermont, the place where the Proctor family ran the Vermont Marble Company and not only the company but also the town and the church.

In fact, the Proctor family founded and supported the church as an expression of both their faith and their sense of good business. They imported workers from around the world, and they saw a church with an English speaking Sunday School as a way to unite these disparate people into a cohesive community.

It was, to say the least, a very paternalistic environment, but the paternalism had many benefits because of the Christian social ethic of the folks on the hill. They may not have offered health benefits as part of the labor contract, but they did establish a hospital which was heavily supported by the company and, in cases of extreme need, it was well known that Miss Emily Proctor might send her chauffeur around and take your sick child or spouse to Burlington or Boston and privately and quietly see that all your medical bills were covered.

The church, in those days, never suffered for volunteers, for Mr. Redfield Proctor would walk through the executive offices of the Marble Company and let people know what their assigned tasks were for the coming year in the Sunday School or with the Trustees or on any special committees that were being formed. There was no boundary in that world between church and work, but that world is long gone and for all the problems we might face, I don’t think we’d be very comfortable if we lived in its tight all encompassing embrace.

We function in multiple worlds, multiple roles, and multiple responsibilities. These are not totally isolated from one another, but sometimes we have to draw clear boundaries between them as a matter of law, or of common sense, or of simple respect for the people we deal with in each different sphere.

I recall one time a school teacher telling me how she prayed every day for her students. One student in particular was having a very hard time during the sickness of his mother, and this teacher had a strong desire to pray not only for this student, but with this student – to share with him a comfort and reassurance that came from faith and trust in God.

However, such a mixing of her personal faith and her professional responsibilities seemed inappropriate, and she did not feel the school administration would look favorably on such behavior, especially since there had been a very public controversy about prayers said at school sponsored occasions like graduation and sports events. In the end she felt she was going out on a limb just saying to the student, “I pray for you and your mother every night.” But she said it, and the student appreciated it; there were no negative repercussions, and she felt she had maintained her integrity as a person of faith and done what was best for this child in her care.

The boundary line between personal faith and public work has been very much in the news these past weeks as the battle raged over the monument to the Ten Commandments in the courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama. Last week rolled the 5,000 pound granite marker out of the public lobby. Federal courts ruled that the monument violated the constitution's ban on government promotion of religious doctrine, while Judge Roy Moore issued a statement saying, "It is a sad day in our country when the moral foundation of our law and the acknowledgment of God has to be hidden from public view to appease a federal judge."

That courthouse in Montgomery, by the way, is located on Dexter Avenue, not far from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was pastor and first took a leadership role in the civil rights movement.

Maybe it’s a little ironic that at the same time we work so diligently to keep the government out of the business of religion, we celebrate Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which was a prophetic attempt to bring religion to bear on the business of government.

Dr. King spoke that day in Washington as a preacher, and he went back to the familiar words and themes of the Bible that speak often and eloquently about the duties of those in power to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.

We remember that speech and it’s talk about a dream of a society where people are judged on the content of their character not the color of the skin, but King’s dream also included economic justice - bringing faith to bear on the workings of the marketplace and the ethics of the bible to bear on the world of labor and job opportunity.

In fact, for many who helped organize the March on Washington, a broad program of economic justice was more important than fighting segregation. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor said: even well before Aug. 28, 1963, the march's actual name - the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom - was already overshadowed by the perception that the demonstration would be a rally on behalf of Kennedy's civil rights bill rather than a protest against policies that disadvantaged African-Americans. Then, on Aug. 28, when King's remarkable "dream" speech swamped all other aspects of the day's events, public acknowledgment of the march's actual objective diminished even further. In the wake of the hugely successful gathering, (the organizer, Bayard) Rustin sought to keep the original economic agenda from being lost. He argued that civil rights proponents should highlight how "the roots of discrimination are economic." Only a political alliance between civil rights forces and the labor movement, Rustin thought, could pursue successfully the march's real goals.

Apparently Dr. King felt the same – you might remember that when he was assassinated he was in Memphis to march with garbage collectors who were out on strike over a grievance regarding wages.

The kind of economic justice that King was marching for has proven to be far more elusive than the goal of desegregation. Maybe, in part, it is because we don’t share a clear picture of what economic justice would look like. Maybe beyond general concepts of equal opportunity and truthful dealings we find it hard to see how our faith can be at work in the workplace and have much redemptive impact on business and labor. Maybe it’s because no prophet like Dr. King has gone into the Bible and pulled out stirring words and inspirational images that give us a vision of economic justice and the path to it.

If we look in the Bible can we find something we could call the Ten Commandments of Economics? We might be surprised at what we find.

For example, in Deuteronomy 23:19 we find this prohibition: You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.

Also, there were rules about collateral used to secure a debt – nothing could be taken that was necessary for life, and so we read: No one shall take a mill or a millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge. (Deuteronomy 24:6)

No interest allowed! No significant collateral permitted! I can hear the wheels of capitalism screeching to a halt!

There’s simply not an easy translation of the business ethic from the days gone by to today’s marketplace. There are no ten commandments of business we can carve into a stone monument and bring into the lobby of our places of labor. The only monument we can bring is the monument of personal integrity informed with a mature faith and motivated by a good heart.

That’s a very tricky job you all have – I don’t envy you your difficult mission and I’m not sure I could complete it. But to echo the words of Paul, I send you out on it none the less – be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. Shape, in your own mind, a vision of what the requirements of justice might be in your world of labor, and, in whatever subtle and even subversive ways are necessary, bring God’s grace into the marketplace and assert your own integrity as a person of faith. I feel confident that out of the goodness in your hearts will flow many blessings and God will find ways to use you as instruments of his justice and peace.
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