The Christian in the World of Work Window: How Faith Works (Deuteronomy 15: 7-11)

This morning, we will take a look at and reflect on the fifth and final stained-glass window in our sanctuary. It is located over in the southeast corner, behind the sound booth and above the exit sign. This window represents The Christian in the World of Work. Like last weeks window, this work of art was also created through a gift by the Edna Edwards Group. I find the images on this window to be some of the more difficult ones to make out, but if you know what you are looking for you can find them. We see in this window symbols of the work people do in their everyday lives. There is a silhouette of a person working on a car, there is also an image of a computer screen, and an open book. (The computer screen is the one I have trouble seen. Just fyi.) The images in this window are meant to encourage worshipers to express their faith in their work. So, you come into worship on Sunday, you take a look at that window, and you are inspired to carry your faith with you into the work-week.

This window, and what it represents, is a bit different than the other windows in our sanctuary. As I mentioned last week, the other windows encourage us to look at varying levels of the ‘Big Picture’ of Christianity and being a Christian church. The World of Work window, however, is not really a big picture window (literally or figuratively). This window brings our attention to a more personal side of our Christian faith. Rather than looking at what it means to be a part of a denomination or the wider Christian church, or even reflecting on the life of Jesus, this particular window calls us to reflect on a part of our own particular faith journey. Specifically, it asks, how do we live out our faith when we are on the job? How is our faith expressed in the work we do? Or, if you are retired, how was faith expressed in the work you used to do? How is it expressed in the things you devote your time to now, in retirement?

One of the most well-known passages in the Bible that deals with faith and work is found in James 2: 14-26. In this passage James wrestles with the idea of someone professing to have faith, but not living it out in the work they do in the world. If someone professes their Christian faith to you, tells you how much and how hard they believe, or how often they pray, what is that worth if they are not doing God’s work in the world. What good is that if they are not treating others with kindness, caring for the weak, seeking justice for the oppressed, ignoring the struggles of the poor? The answer James lands on, the summation of this discourse, is the line, “faith without works is dead.” It leaves us with the impression that if our faith does not inform or inspire the work we do in the world, then it is a hollow faith.

Now, James, perhaps is not talking about the kind of work being described in our southeast window. In fact, what James is talking about can probably be applied more accurately to the window in our northeast corner, the one we discussed last weekend. That window depicts all the things the Church does in order to be faithful to the work God calls the church to do. If you recall there are images of bricklayers and farmers and construction workers and someone learning by reading a book. These are all things the church undertakes as the work of Christian mission. That is different from the work we do for a job. The work we are compensated for and are expected to do by our employers, but is also expected of us so we can participate in society, be a citizen. Those are the kind of responsibilities that come with that kind of work, and those responsibilities are not so easily avoided or shrugged off or deprioritized. So, it would be understandable if, in response to James’ claim about faith without works, we said, “Sorry, James. I get what you are saying but I’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed. I can’t just take off for three months to build a school in South America. What you are asking doesn’t make sense for my life.”

Of course, honoring our faith and trying to live it out in the world doesn’t always make sense. Our faith may represent a covenant we make with God about how we are going to live our life, but unfortunately, this covenant with God does not always line up with the social contract we have with our larger, secular community. The priorities of the world do not make it easy follow God’s will as closely as we might like. This is what is being wrestled with in our reading from Deuteronomy. What is being described in this section of the book is God’s call for a year of jubilee as part of Israel’s covenant with God. This means that every seven years the people are asked to forgive all debts. This is meant to avoid economic injustice among the people.

In Deuteronomy 15:1, the chapter begins by describing the process and goal of the of the jubilee year to be a requirement for a “remission of debts.” This Hebrew word for remission means, literally, “letting fall, and can also be found in Deuteronomy 23:11. There the word is being used to describe an agricultural practice. Every seven years the farmers would leave their land uncultivated. Leaving the land fallow for a year allowed time for the rest and renewal of the land by allowing the natural rhythms of the Earth to take hold for a time. However, by the time of the writing of Deuteronomy, the Israelite economy operated less around agriculture and more around the owning of property and the holding of debt. This system led to success for some -especially those who had more to invest- and poverty for many others. The remission of the debt, letting it fall away, would allow those suffering financial hardship and oppression, to come out from under it and let nature’s rhythm’s take hold. Ideally, this would mean a society where people took care of each other and worked more for the common good than for individual profit.

The authors of Deuteronomy must have understood that this would create conflict, be difficult for people to carry out. Not only that, but it was in opposition to the systems of power and finance of the time, and so a jubilee year would be impossible for even the most faithful followers to enforce. So, Deuteronomy suggests this law of the Divine Covenant can only be enforced through divine judgement.

Now, I’ll admit, Deuteronomy 15: 7-11 reads more as a call to conscience than a call to good works. However, I do think it has something to say about work – how we view work in our society, how our faith can inform our work. For starters, the call to forgive debts for the well being of the needy points me to a belief that God’s children do not work for their own benefit alone, but for the good of the whole community. And while we certainly have individual responsibilities in our lives -those bills to pay and mouths to feed- tending to these responsibilities does not have to come at the expense of others. And anyone else’s struggle to tend to these responsibilities does not make them less worthy of God’s gifts to this world.

With that in mind, notice that Deuteronomy does not say the poor must pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or get another part-time job to make ends meet. No. Instead it says that the poor and needy will always be a part of this world (A sentiment Jesus echoes generations later). Pointing out this reality is not a call for them to work harder, but instead is a call for those who do work and who profit from their work -those who are able, privileged, and blessed with work and income- it is a call for them, for us, to remain open and generous with our lives, and especially our resources. Also, it is not a call for us to simply accept poverty and hunger, for us to be okay with the struggle and suffering in other people’s lives by saying, “Oh, well. The Bible says there will always be poor and needy, I might as well go on looking out for me.” No, not quite. The inclusion of the jubilee year can be seen as evidence to the contrary. The call for a jubilee year suggests that poverty and the economic hardship that comes from such income inequality is not acceptable to God. In fact, as we learned earlier the symbolism of the jubilee year is meant to mirror the agricultural practice of letting a field lie fallow every seven years so that the natural way of things can take hold and create renewal. This mirroring of agricultural rhythms and natural processes implies that there might be something unnatural or out of balance about extreme wealth inequality and crushing debt.

So, if this is the world God envisions, or at least the world that the authors of Deuteronomy felt called to create, how should this inform how we bring our faith to our work, or other parts of our lives?  James wrote, “Fatih without works is dead.” Perhaps so, but what about works without faith? Anyone can go to work and punch the clock and collect a check, but people are also looking for meaning in their work. People turn to religion looking for deeper truths and meaning in life, looking to connect to something bigger than themselves. Why shouldn’t this extend to our working lives?

We have to have faith that there is something more to our work than material wealth or stature. If you are looking for a reason to believe that, I think Deuteronomy’s vision of a jubilee year suggests a reason to believe this is true. We are called to work for the benefit of all God’s creation. The faith our window encourages us to express in our work is a faith in a God that desires the well-being of all. The faith we express in our work is the faith in the natural rhythms of this world that God has given us that lean toward wholeness, and renewal, and flourishing.

We have faith that the work we do in this world will profit us, and provide for our families, and pay our bills. It is important, no matter what we do, we should take it seriously. Still, as Christians, let us work from a place of faith, a faith that believes that the work we do will benefit the many, not just the few. Let us work from a place a faith, moved by the Holy Spirit, so that what we put out into the world – time, talent, and treasure- will lead to the remission of the brokenness of this world, that it might be made whole and just. That God will find a way to make that happen. So, let us work, faithfully in the belief that if we give generously of ourselves, for the benefit of all God’s people, we will be blessed in all our work and in all we undertake.

Amen

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