Stewardship, II: Work

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September 23, 2019

Stewardship, II: Work

Passage: Isaiah 40:12–31

Bible Text: Isaiah 40:12–31 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Jo Forrest | Click here to listen to this sermon.

 
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in balance? —Isaiah 40:12
 

Last week Bill began our fall sermon series with the “Stewardship of the Mind.” Over eight Sundays, we will examine the breadth of ways our faith calls us to be good stewards.

Too often the concept of stewardship has been narrowed to the management of money. Confined to this idea, how we flourish in terms of being a steward of our minds, bodies, time, community, and even death can be lost. Today we will consider the “Stewardship of Work.”

God asked us to work and needs us to exercise our individual gifts at work for God’s goodness to become reality.

Scripture contains quite a repository of teachings about work ethics. The Old Testament’s legal code dictates how to treat employees and slaves, reparations for the loss of livestock, standards for weights and measures, what to do if swindled or what will happen if you cheated another, and prescriptions for rest. In gratitude for such care and presence throughout work, the first fruits of your labor were to be offered.

The New Testament is filled with parables about masters and servants, tenants, and vineyards.

In the 21st century, some of us might dismiss these verses as charming ancient history.

The passage for today is from the prophet Isaiah. Our circumstances are actually very similar to the plight of the Israelites.

Isaiah speaks to a people during the 6th BCE who were living in foreign lands as exiles. The circles of activity that had united their lives in harmony had been ruptured when the temple was destroyed. Rushing to fill the void worshipers of pagan gods and those who would rob them of their beliefs were corrupting their ideas of what or who to worship. Others made their own meaning.

Some maintained God was not present, interested in seeing or hearing what transpired in their lives.

Before I read how Isaiah calls them back to reality, please pray with me.

 God you have spoken to us through creation and your prophets since the beginning. Silence in us any voice but yours. Breathe your spirit into these words again that we hear your call for our lives and be startled by your truth. Direct our meditation and bring us to be faithful disciples of your son, Jesus. Amen.
Isaiah 40 selected verses from 12–31
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?
Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him? Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
“To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: he is great in strength…mighty in power.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable. God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
W hen someone I meet learns that I had a corporate career for twenty years prior to ministry, the immediate question will be “how did that happen?” If I am honest, it is never a quick answer. As I look back on the ten years from when I started to notice and finally became a minister, I see a very circuitous path with only glimmers of light as God demanded my attention.

Here is a memory of a turning point.

At one time I led a practice for a consulting firm in Boston dedicated to improving a retail bank’s ability to attract and retain customers. At that time banks would dangle free checking and no-fee ATMs, even paying $100 bonuses to entice new customers, only to find they would either walk out the door in a few months, or never really use the account for their primary banking needs. More than 50% of these new customers left. Profitability for the bank rested not on the selling the checking account but on all the transactions and the other products a customer would open or buy over time.

In our consulting practice we had intellectual capital, and customer and financial models to demonstrate how to retain more customers, along with the necessary workflow practices to make it a reality for a bank. (I sound like a consultant again.)

At one of the largest banks in the country, our proposed project was projected to be a significant path to profitability if we could impact the payment behaviors of 3% of their new customers. Three percent might not sound like much.

In reality it takes a herculean effort to change behavior first inside the bank of employees, and then with customers, but we proved it was possible and the cumulative impact highly profitable. Nothing glamorous, just solid, customer focused, sustainable banking.

We won the project. It was a great day.

As I was sitting on the plane to O’Hare, all I could think of was…what if…we were instead pitching a project to inspire their employees to be 3% more faithful to God. When I thought of 3% more faithful, I do not mean proselytizing. I hate being accosted by someone who wants to bring me to the altar or shove his or her religion in my face.

Imagine the lasting benefits, far beyond any income statement, if people in the bank believed and behaved as though God cares about their work as accountants and tellers or loan officers. Imagine the benefits at home and in the wider community if at work, people believed God loves them and Jesus’ teachings still matter.

Becoming more faithful at work does not make you less competitive. To fully embody your faith makes you stronger.

What if we were on average 3% more honest in employee reviews?

Author and coach to Silicon Valley executives, Kim Scott, claims the strongest leaders, who inspire loyalty and motivate employees, are those who are willing to be radically candid. Radical candor is telling it like it is with poor performance and praising specific talents to improve. Radical candor articulates harsh truths and is welcomed when employees know the message is coming from someone they believe fundamentally cares, and cares deeply, about them. Performance rises with when those who care for your success hold the bar high.[1]

Consider what it would be like if we were just 3% more willing to see the other person as not only a production unit, but as someone with untapped, creative potential in his field. Do we really see the other?

What if we held ourselves, and others, accountable to ethics we know are indicative of prudent practices even if not prescribed in a policy? I am not talking about becoming a whistle blower, but rather braving the small acts so that the potential for the deeper failings that destroy careers and confidence are diminished. Working in places with high moral standards means you step away from the slippery slope.

What if we were 3% more fully vested in a colleague’s project…to really have her back?

What if 3% more often we wondered how Jesus would support us or chastise our behavior at work?

It seems as though employees are expected to check their faith at the door when entering a commercial enterprise. Economist Milton Friedman’s iconic 1970 New York Times article is often cited for initiating and defending this practice. According to Friedman, business leaders have “one and only one” responsibility, which is to increase profits, and never let their perceived “social responsibilities” infringe on their decisions.[2]

Over decades shareholder value has been prioritized, creating an engine of growth that has benefited our country, me personally, and I imagine has positively impacted your portfolios.

In accord, research confirms corporations have discouraged the presence of faith in the workplace. Organizations are marvels at uniting around a common goal, and minimizing distractions, or anything that could cause dissention.

In the process, we have learned to separate our very best selves, our faith, from where we invest the bulk of our days and decades of our lives.

At the same time people were asked to check their faith at the door before going to work, research confirms Christians feel as though their professional concerns are outside the mission of the church. A majority of clergy admits to sidestepping conversations about work with members, sensing their own blind spots about the workplace.

Don’t bring faith to work. Check your faith at the door to the office. Don’t talk about work at church.

This trifecta has resulted in isolating us.

No wonder church attendance has declined since what we do as a faith community does not seem relevant for many who work 40–60 hours of their lives.

As I sat on that airplane I realized the people I saw were often highly educated, professional, articulate individuals who are starved for meaning. It is an entirely new form of the “lost, least, and lonely.”[3] I had felt it myself.

As a people we are able to make meaning, and this is where the caution signs are beginning to shout. Highly motivated, educated, and talented people are turning more and more to work. In the vacuum of faith, work is becoming the center of identity and purpose.

At a time with the highest productivity and automation it is not the laborer who is working more. You may be surprised to learn those clocking the most hours are skilled professionals and those with the longest average workweek and fewest leisure hours are wealthy married men who serve as executives. This is us.

It is not entirely money that drives such devotion to work. At work executives report feeling satisfied and in control. They have found a passion to explore and the creativity is exhilarating.

Just as other trends that start at the top of an organization, this ethos of working long hours to create a sense of fulfillment is bleeding over into other genders and ages.

As teens run the gauntlet to college, they report 95% of the time it is extremely important to “have a career or job they enjoy or would enjoy.” Professional ambitions are higher than family or kindness. The downside of not finding a “vocational soul mate” can mean a wasted life.[4]  No wonder anxiety is on the rise.

Becoming so single-minded for work and building an individual brand is akin to making our careers into idols.

As an aside, I tacked a cartoon from the WSJ on the op-ed, “Pepper…And Salt” above my desk at home months ago nailed this.

The one-frame comic shows God standing upon heavenly clouds, speaking to St. Peter “From the look of things, I shouldn’t have rested on the seventh day.”

Is the answer to our problems solved by working longer hours rather than become wise stewards of what we have?

This is where Isaiah’s timeless prophecy resonates. Isaiah disrupted the status quo in with the truth.

In all our machinations to work, we seem to be just as exiled at times from our God as those who were displaced, vulnerable to other ideas. It might not be the pagan god, Marduk, but this notion of worshiping a career is just as toxic.

Isaiah asks, “who weighed the mountains in scales” reminding us these things we build pale in comparison to God’s craft.

“Who taught God knowledge and who gave God a spirit?” As the Israelites heard such questions, they had no response. God is the creator genius. Before we hang our future on someone else’s star or believe we can craft it ourselves, remember God. Remember God’s commands. Remember it is God who gave you your creative talents. Be startled with what you can do co-creating with God.

Finally Isaiah questions, “do you understand God does not grow faint or weary?”  Isaiah answers, the one “who created us is the one who in this life will lift us up with wings of eagles.”

The cornerstone of Isaiah’s message is to restore a single-minded trust in God.[5]

God chases after us in exile with prophets. God keeps the promised covenant, even when we turn aside. God pursues us in Jesus.

Here is the hopeful research. For the first time in 2016, scholarly research was conducted about faith in the workplace. (Prior research only focused on spirituality since faith had become so polarizing.) Among a number of findings, Christians reported they want to use their unique talents for work in ways that bring honor and glory to God.

Engineers flourish when exercising their minds to solve problems. Nurses are the actual hands of God in healing. Some people are very gifted as leaders. We want insurance adjusters and administrators to thrive with critical thinking and who are willing to dissolve bureaucracies.

Prayers are answered by teachers with patience to be with children and remind them they are loved.

Flights are bearable when the gate agent understands you are just trying to get home after a long week on the road. Empathy is a soothing balm when flights are cancelled.

The way to a rewarding career is to do what gives you life—and that is from a talent given by God. It begins with humility towards God, giving thanks for your talents and passions. Standing firmly on the foundation God has created allows you to become far more than you could ever on your own.

May it be so for you my friends.  Amen.

Click here to read the Stewardship Devotional
[1] Kim Scott, Radical Candor, (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

[2] Milton Friedman, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits” The New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970, accessed July 16, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/1970/09/13/archives/a-friedman-doctrine-the-social-responsibility-of-business-is-to.html.

[3] My doctoral thesis addressed such challenges of faith and work. See my scholar blog for summary: Jo Forrest, “Do, Love, and Walk:  A Study in Faith and Leadership,” https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/candlerdmin/author/jforre3/ and its link to the final project.

[4] Derek Thompson, “Workism is Making Americans Miserable,” The Atlantic, Accessed February 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/religion-workism-making-americans-miserable/583441/

[5] Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40–66 Interpretation:  A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1995), p32.