Will Messenger: Confessions of Fall & Redemption in Work (Video)
Sermon given at Wheaton College (IL) on Nov. 7, 2018 about the call to bring God's redemptive power into all the places you work over the course of a lifetime. The reading for the day was Zephaniah 3:14-20. Used by permission of Wheaton College and the speaker.
This is Vocation Week in chapel. On Monday Pastor Brooks said that God designed work as a way for us to participate in God’s creation. If your work is that important to God, then a natural question is, “What work does God want me to do?”
I’ve been thinking about that question for a long time. What is God’s calling for me, workwise? Maybe it’s on your mind too. For the past 11 years I’ve been leading the Theology of Work Project. The number one article on our website is in fact, “Calling and Vocation.” Seems like a lot of people are asking the same question.
And it turns out that in the Bible, God is very concerned about your work. But God is not very concerned about what job or career you have. Instead, God wants you to serve him in whatever job you have, every day of your life. God’s main concern is not what work you do, but what you do in your work.
Let me tell you how this first affected me. It’s not a pretty story, but it’s true. I was in the 12th grade, working at a gas station. My job at the gas station didn’t mean anything to me, just a way to make money for college. College was where I was going to find out what God’s calling for me was. College was where I would get prepared for the job God really wanted me to have. Meanwhile, I was stuck pumping gas at ARCO. Not this exact ARCO, but you get the picture. For one thing, in my day gas was 57.9.
Now, if you came to our gas station white, you got full service. We washed your windshield, we checked your oil, we called you “sir” or “ma’am,” we offered you the restroom key. If you came to our station black, we filled your tank. That’s it. No windshield. No oil. No restroom key. No “sir.” No “ma’am.”
I felt terrible about it. I knew the Bible well enough to know that treating black people badly was wrong. But I needed the money, so I could get an education, so I could get a job, and then I could make a difference in the world. The gas station was just a means to an end. So I didn’t quit. The only thing I did was that I treated black customers the same as I treated white customers. If you came in when I was on duty, I would check your oil, wash your windshield, offer you the restroom key, call you “sir,” or “ma’am.” That’s it. That is all I did about racism in my workplace.
Looking back, I wish I had done more. Because it turns out the Bible could show me how to make a difference in this situation.
For example, 1 Samuel chapter 25 could have helped me at the gas station. In that chapter, David is not yet king of Israel. His band of rebels is living off the land. David demands that a landowner named Nabal “donate” a flock of lambs to feed David’s army. Nabal is a hotheaded guy. He gets angry, refuses to donate the lambs, and insults David in front of his troops. David is a hothead too. So he gets 400 soldiers ready to go massacre Nabal and every male in his clan. David is about to commit a kind of mini-genocide, which seems to me like an extreme version of the racism at the gas station.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Nabal’s wife, Abigail, rushes out to meet David. She brings her own feast to give his army, and then makes what is probably the most courteous speech in the Bible. But her speech packs a punch. “The Lord restrain you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance with your own hand…” she tells David, “so that [you] shall have no … pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause….” A hard message, wrapped in a polite speech. After he hears this speech, David changes his mind and calls off the attack.
In other words, Abigail brings David a present, speaks to him respectfully yet forcefully, and David actually changes his ways.
I could have done the same with the owner of the gas station! Every day I was bringing the owner a present because I was one of only two employees who didn’t steal money from the cash register. The owner knew it, and he valued it. Which is why I got paid 25 cents an hour more than the other gas jockeys.
So some night when I took the cash bag to his house, I could have said, “John, the reason the money in my cash bag always matches the register tape, is exactly the same reason I always treat black people with respect at the pumps. I treat you with respect because it’s in my heart to treat everyone with respect. If you ever want a gas station where every employee treats all your money with respect, maybe you could create an atmosphere where every employee treats all your customers with respect. Just an idea. Good night. See you at the pumps tomorrow.”
I believe now, that if I had politely confronted the owner, like Abigail did with David, he would have at least listened to me. I mean he would have yelled at me first. “Who do you think you are to tell me how to run my business?” But he wouldn’t have fired me. And after I left, he would have thought about what I said. Who knows, he might even have started changing the culture at the station. Not overnight, but eventually.
But I never said anything to him about it. For two reasons:
- It never occurred to me that I had the power to make a difference. I didn’t think that a gas jockey like me could do anything. I thought you had to have a position of power to make a difference.
- More importantly, I didn’t think God really cared about my work at the gas station. I thought God cared about the work he was calling me to after I finished college and got a career. So I didn’t think about serving God then, at the gas station, because I was focused on serving God later in my “real” job.
After he talked about the creation, Pastor Brooks moved on to talk about the fall. God created work good. But every workplace is fallen, and every workplace has bad things in it.
And Pastor Brooks said that God’s response to the fall is redemption. God is redeeming the fallen world, and his call to us is to be agents of redemption, wherever we find ourselves. So serving God at work doesn’t mean angling for a good job, in a good career, in a good workplace, where you have a chance to do good. Serving God means bringing redemption to every workplace where you find yourself, every time you go to work. The worse, the better, as far as redemption goes.
The ARCO station was definitely a fallen workplace. Maybe you’ve worked in a fallen workplace too. A store where your manager doesn’t train you, then yells at you for not doing it right. A restaurant that cheats you on tips. A class where the grading is always 3 weeks behind. A job where you don’t do anything meaningful for the world. Or maybe you’ve worked in a good workplace, but things go wrong anyway. The work is too hard or it takes up all your time. People don’t appreciate you. You do all the right things, but the result is a failure anyway—you don’t win the award, your movie gets bad reviews, nobody buys your product, you lose the election.
The Bible’s got you covered. A fallen workplace is the situation that today’s reading from Zephaniah speaks to. Israel was truly fallen. The nation was conquered by the Babylonian empire. All the good jobs went to Babylonians, while Israelites were forced to do menial labor for starvation wages. According to the prophet Zephaniah, they were reproached, oppressed, exiled, shamed, rebuked, punished, and afraid. They suffered bad bosses, discriminatory workplaces, high stress, low pay, and no opportunities for advancement.
It’s easy to think that the way out is to find the right career or job, one that does have opportunities, one where you can make a difference. And I think God does want you to have a meaningful job and career. Even in the time of Israel’s exile, a few of God’s people did find good, meaningful jobs. Like Daniel and his companions—though that’s in a different book of the Bible of course.
And in our day and age, many people have the opportunity to get great jobs. Solving climate change, curing cancer, making impactful documentaries, creating new products, teaching at college, pastoring a church.
God intends for all of us to have good meaningful work, But in a fallen world, things don’t necessarily go the way God intends. If your only hope for a meaningful working life is to get the right job in the right field, you could be in for a big disappointment.
Because God does not promise a good job. But God does promise that you can do good in any job, every day of your life.
That’s what the Theology of Work Project found from seven years of studying the Bible line by line, looking for what it says about work. True, in a few passages, God has a particular job he calls someone to. A few passages. Moses, Deborah, Samuel, King David, Daniel, Mary, the 12 Disciples, Timothy. Maybe 100 people in the Bible are called by God into particular jobs. Everyone else in the Bible is simply equipped by God to do God’s will in whatever job they already have. Even Paul. Paul wasn’t bi-vocational. Paul had one occupation, tentmaker, and one vocation, serve the Gospel in everything he did.
All in all, we found nine hundred passages of the Bible that help people figure out how to do God’s work wherever they work, every day. Even today. Even if your occupation is student. That’s about ¼ of the Bible.
Let me give you an example. When Jesus was faced with 5000 hungry people, he didn’t look at his disciples and say, “You guys are fishermen. We need to get one of you promoted to CEO of a seafood company, so next time we can have food onsite for everyone.”
Instead he turns to them and says, “You give them something to eat.” You guys are food service professionals, start serving food. So they get out the 5 loaves and 2 fishes they have and start passing them around, and everybody gets fed.
You might think, “Yeah but they had Jesus there to perform a miracle. I can’t make a difference in my job because I don’t have Jesus with me there.” Really?
So how can you serve in God’s redemption of the world in today’s work? The best I can do is tell you what’s happened to me. I’m an expert in the need for redemption at work because I’ve made big mistakes in almost every job I’ve ever had.
For instance, while I was in business school, I got a summer internship at Goldman Sachs, the investment bank. I got assigned to a team doing a takeover defense of a department store chain. A fantastic assignment. On my third day, my manager told me to write up a history of a previous takeover attempt, so we could anticipate the adversary’s moves.
I went to the Wall Street Journal archives and waded through weeks of stories with a gazillion details and dead ends. It was hard to find the big picture, the grand narrative, the thread of the story. It took all day, but finally I wove it into coherent story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. My English teacher would have been proud of the compelling narrative I wrote. I turned it in and went home for the night.
The next day my manager was furious. “Your report was totally useless,” he said. “You left out almost all the important details. You got the dates all jumbled up. I had to stay here till midnight re-writing it. Did you even do the research I told you to? You’re hopeless.”
“Oh,” I said. “I misunderstood what you wanted. I’m really sorry. I’ll go back and write a step-by-step account.”
“No,” he said. “I’ve already done that. Just go back to the team room and stay out of the way.”
I got cut from the team a few days later. And at the end of the summer they told me I would not be receiving a job offer when I graduated.
Now it was totally my fault. I messed up. But I’m actually a good worker. I could really have used a second chance. I needed a redeemer at work. But I didn’t get one.
And that, my friends, is why I’m standing here today instead of raking in the big bucks as an investment banker.
Funny thing is, about 3 years later the same thing happened again, but the other way round. I was at McKinsey. I was the manager and someone on my client team made a huge mistake. My boss came to me and said, “Get him off the team.” But I thought of Jesus saying, “Forgive someone not 7 times, but 70 times 7.” The guy on my team had only made one mistake. Plus I remembered how badly I needed a second chance once.
I had to think quick. I said, “Let me work with him for 2 weeks first. Then if he’s still not on board, I’ll cut him from the team.”
“OK,” said my manager, “but it’s on your head if he screws up again.” And you know what, after getting that second chance, this guy became the biggest contributor to the team’s ultimate success.
In my experience offering redemption is not only merciful, but wise. A lot of time, recovering from a mistake makes you a better performer than if you never messed up in the first place. A lot of the most capable people I’ve worked with over the years seemed to be losers at one point or another. But someone redeemed their situation and brought God’s light into their darkest hour.
What if you could be the redeemer in your workplace today? Who or what needs redemption where you work? What could you do to offer some form of redemption there? Zephaniah says, “The Lord has taken away your punishment.” I take that as a call for us to do the same for thing for people in our workplaces.
From everything I read in the Bible, how you respond to those redemptive moments, day by day, adds up to more than getting the right job eventually.
Now, let me be clear, when I say redemption, I’m not talking about covering up abuse, or letting people get away with harassment or bullying. The Bible is never in favor of that. Zephaniah makes that clear. God is in the business of ending oppression, protecting vulnerable people, honoring those who have suffered shame. I’m not even about tolerating poor performance or putting relationships ahead of tasks. I’m talking about redemption for those who want a second chance to do right, not enabling people who want to do wrong.
So let me end with one more story of redemption at work. Not long after I became editor of the Theology of Work Project I received a draft article from one of the members of our Steering Committee. I didn’t think it was very good. It had some theological mistakes and some misapplications of scripture and it included a case study that seemed very unrealistic to me. But I wanted to be kind to the author. So I pointed out all these problems in red ink in the margins, and sent it back to him. I included a gentle note saying apologizing that he was assigned this article because it really needed someone with more specific expertise.
After I mailed all this back to the author, I asked an old colleague for advice. I told him the situation and asked if he thought I handled it right. “You did what?” he said. “You realize that he is the expert in this field, right? Didn’t you Google him before you wrote your feedback?” No, I didn’t. “Well what did you think he got wrong?” my friend asked. I showed him a copy of the manuscript with my corrections. “You better do some reading,” my friend said.
It turned out that I was the one who didn’t know what he was talking about. I was the one who didn’t have the specific experience. His theological reasoning and biblical applications were rock-solid, they just didn’t fit my stereotypes. And his unrealistic application was a true story.
Here’s the thing. He forgave me. Not only that he seemed to forget it ever happened. He resubmitted the article, with a few changes, and he never mentioned to anyone all the stupid red ink I’d scrawled on it. He supported me completely as the leader of the project. He sang my praises when introducing me to others in the field. He became a dear friend.
I hope everybody here gets a great job that uses your gifts, supports you financially, makes a difference in the world, gives you amazing colleagues, makes you happy to go to work every day. I believe God wants that too. If you get offered a job at McKinsey, I say go for it! Or the Chicago Symphony, or whatever your dream job is.
Yet more than that I hope that every day, God gives you an opportunity to enact the good news that Zephaniah proclaimed: “God will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” Be those words in your workplace every day. You have about 12,000 days left in your career, starting today. You can do a lot of good in God’s service with 12,000 opportunities.