This sermon by David Welbourn is part of "Work in Worship," a collection of material for work-themed services compiled by David Welbourn. For more sermons, prayers, songs, and readings about work, click on the table of contents to the right.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour. (Luke 4:18-19)
Why are churches concerned, or urged to be concerned, about unemployment? It might be argued that so to be concerned is to become involved in politics and economics - subjects about which the Church has little expertise.
During the war, in 1942, the person who was then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, published a book called Christianity and Social Order. In this book he talks about something that the churches often talk about, which is fellowship. Only here he is not talking about fellowship in the church hall or chapel meeting. He is arguing that society needs to be organised along the lines of fellowship. Let me quote what he says: "No man is fitted for an isolated life; everyone has needs which he cannot supply for himself; but he needs not only what his neighbours contribute to the equipment of his life but their actual selves as the compliment of his own. Man is naturally and incurably social". He goes on to point out that whilst there is a correct use of the word individual to mark us off from one another, we also need the word person. Every person is an individual, but "only in his social relationship can a man be a person". We can think of all kinds of ways in which they two words come into play. We emphasise that we are individuals when we want to talk about our uniqueness. But when we think of ourselves as persons we remember how much we owe to others. The language I speak, the clothes I wear, the job I do, the political ideas I follow, the religion I practice all owe something to the fact that we live in society, in relationship with other people. And William Temple saw that these relationships take place in a "whole network of communities, associations and fellowships". Temple believe that the real wealth of human life consisted of these relationships and that the job of the state was to promote human well-being by fostering "these many groupings of its citizens". Temple also had two other great principles, those of freedom and service, but it's the one of fellowship that we're concentrating on today.
We can see how Temple's emphasis, drawing on Christian social principles, differs from so much thought in our own time, where individualism is promoted to the detriment of society as a whole. But of course it was also true in Temple's day that there were many social ills. And he saw those ills as being those things that undermined his great principles of Freedom, Service and Fellowship. He drew attention to the magnificent unity that existed in much of British society. But then he goes on to say: "Yet allowing for all this, the breaches in our fellowship are pretty serious". He draws attention to the snobbery which is intensified by our education system; to the lack of a voice in the control and direction of the work that provides people with their livelihood; to the class war which is the ultimate expression of this; to the monotony of work which robs people of any idea of vocation. The fact that work is so monotonous makes it difficult for modern people to worship, for Temple says: "For worship is the offering of our whole being and life - therefore very prominently our work - to God; and no-one but an already-perfect saint could sincerely offer that sort of work to God".
And then we come to Unemployment. Temple sees unemployment in the context of a breach of fellowship. He says about it: "The worst evil afflicting the working class in England is insecurity; they live under the terrible menace of unemployment. And in our own time a new and horrible evil has appeared - long-term unemployment on a considerable scale. Unemployment is a corrosive poison. It saps both physical and moral strength. The worst effect of it, especially now the community takes some care of its unemployed members, is not the physical want, but the moral disaster of not being wanted".
Of course, since Temple wrote those words in 1942, many others have written and spoken about unemployment. Some of the things the Temple witnessed how have a dated feel. For instance, in Britain in 1942 unemployment was mainly a working class and a male problem. But he also qualified that by saying "Unemployment is no respecter of persons. It hits young and old, men and women, skilled and unskilled, executives and labourers".
But the reason why I have concentrated on what Temple had to say is that he puts unemployment so firmly in the context of Christian Social Principles. As he says: "Now it is no part of the duty of the Christian as such to draw plans of a reformed society. But it is part of his duty to know and proclaim Christian principles, to denounce as evil what contravenes them, and to insist that these evils should be remedied".
Emphasising that unemployment is a breach of fellowship is another way of saying that there is about Christianity a spirit of inclusiveness, of universality. This Christianity inherits from its Jewish background. When Jesus came to Nazareth on the Sabbath day and read the scriptures in the synagogue, he drew on the idea of Jubilee which we find in the Hebrew Bible, and saying that this Jubilee was coming about in his ministry. The Jubilee is the fiftieth year when land and property will be redistributed so that there are no disproportionate gaps between the rich and the poor. It is the year of the Lord's favour, when the poor hear the good news, the captives are released, the blind recover their sight and the oppressed go free. The principle of Jubilee is clearly enunciated in Leviticus chapter 25. The fiftieth year will be hallowed. Prices are to be worked out according to the number of years left till the Jubilee. In that year people shall return to their property (verse 13). The principle behind it is that the land belongs not to the buyer but to God. "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants" (verse 23). Similarly, people are not to be sold as slaves when they become impoverished but shall serve as hired or bound labourers, free to go back to their families and property in the year of Jubilee (verse 39ff.).
We see this concern to bring people back into society in the ministry of Jesus, in his dealings with the sick, the poor, the foreigner, the outcast, the sinner. So we have the same theme that we find in William Temple - broken fellowship restored. But this restoration refers not just to economic life - it is a matter of the whole work of Christ, including his death on the Cross, bringing about a universal reconciliation. This included Gentiles as well as Jews, the whole created order and not just humanity. Thus the restoring of unemployed people to social fellowship has the widest possible context, the universal restoration of all things, "the universal homecoming", as the theologian Ethelbert Stauffer called it.
But Christianity is not only universal, it is also particular. Universal love has its appeal, but it can sound very bland. This is particularly the case with God. We might think that it is all very well of God to love everyone but the idea lacks moral authenticity. That is why Christianity asserts that God has himself experienced suffering, death and the temptation to sin, and has overcome them as a human individual. Thus God has "the moral authority to overcome them in and with the rest of humanity" (Vernon White in Atonement and Incarnation). So we see that God's love is not bland but costly. God has himself on the Cross "borne our sorrows"; he is universally present in the suffering of others. He does not merely have "awareness" and "sympathy"; he is "the fellow sufferer who understands". Indeed, some theologians argue that "the Christ event" brings something new to the experience of God. In some sense it changes God. This is not a change in God's attitude, but is "something new in the divine experience of the world and himself" (Paul Fiddes, quoted in Vernon White).
We can catch a glimpse of it from our own experience. To know these things at first hand means that one is no longer simply sympathising or having a general awareness. It is to know what the author of a book on unemployment means when he says "unemployment is profoundly hated by the vast majority of those who experience it".
So God in Christ knows what it is to be homeless with the homeless "for the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head". And as W.H.Vanstone suggests in his book The Stature of Waiting, he know too what it meant to be unemployed, for at the end of his life he had to move from being an agent to being a person to whom things were done - one who like the unemployed simply had to wait. The difference is that unlike the unemployed God enters into this experience voluntarily.
If God can enter directly into this experience, can the Church do less than raise its awareness, develop projects, and advocate the needs of the unemployed to all in power, arguing that ways be found to include them in the social fellowship. Otherwise the year of Jubilee will remain a distant dream.
From the Unemployment Sunday Resource Pack produced by Church Action With the Unemployed, 1993
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