Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church at the Covenant Service on the last Sunday of the old year, 28th December 2008
(Regular readers of this blog will recognize the thoughts as having been posted here before)
‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ Matthew 25:21
2008 has not been a good year—the credit crunch led to the collapse of our economy, already vulnerable because of the huge bubble in property prices, bringing with it sharp increases in tax and steep rises in unemployment. The prospects are bleak for many people and the Church has remained all but silent through the whole process—as if God was somehow concerned only with personal things and not a God who looked for righteousness in public as well as private life. Sometimes, it would cause onlookers to wonder what sort of God Christians believed in. Is he a little God, concerned only with little things, or is he a God looking for people who will build his Kingdom?
What might we say? As we place 2009 into God’s hands, how do we respond to the huge challenges of the year ahead?
The elderly Rector who would come to our primary school each Friday morning would say, ‘what have you been taught?’
Before reading from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe he would hand out copies of the Book of Common Prayer and make us turn to the catechism. I still remember the books with their black covers and red-edged pages. It seemed an odd exercise, for hardly any of us went to church, much less attempted to understand the sixteenth century language of the Book of Common Prayer.
Had we understood the catechism, there were probably bits of it with which we would have agreed, even if we didn’t believe the religious stuff. When it asked us about our duty towards our neighbour, we would not have quarrelled with much of the answer.
Coping with the credit crunch would come under our duty towards our neigbour. What is our role in the economy?
Many of us here this morning would know by heart the words to which the old clergyman would have pointed, “Not to covet nor desire other men’s goods; but to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me”. (Words which still appear in the Church of Ireland catechism on Page 766 of the Prayer Book).
“To learn and labour truly to get mine own living”, was the Anglican expression of the Protestant work ethic that underlay the commercial and industrial development of Europe and North America. Education and work were part of the divine scheme of things; they were part of doing one’s duty in the state of life to which one was called.
The work ethic prompted prudence, it prompted good stewardship, it prompted saving and investment. Preachers would have drawn upon Saint Matthew Chapter 25 for inspiration. Jesus commends those who work hard: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ he says to the servants who produce five talents and two talents. ‘You wicked, lazy servant!’ Jesus says to the servant who is given a single talent and does no work to increase what he has been given.
Saint Paul warns against idleness in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, Chapter 3, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right”.
It was a move away from the attitude, reflecting Genesis, that work was a curse that came with the Fall. Work in the New Testament is something good. Work provided independence; it meant that you were not a burden on others. By the time of the writing of the catechism, work was seen as something that provided choice; something that allowed the emergence of the individual in a society. “My own living” would allow for the development of many virtues (as well as many vices!).
Had that primary school class been told that there was a difficult year to be faced, that there was not enough money in the country and what did we think should be done, we would have been unequivocal, “we should work”.
In humility, we have to acknowledge that while Protestant work ethics and Protestant prudence might motivate effort, might ensure things get done, they have a downside as well. They can lead to a lack of charity towards those not working; they can prompt judgmental attitudes towards people living on social security payments; they can give rise to a pride and arrogance that one has achieved everything by one’s own efforts. To understand how deeply our thinking is shaped, it is only necessary to look around the walls of our churches. Catholic churches have the stations of the cross, Protestant churches have plaques commemorating the rich and successful of the parish.
Yet, facing 2009, with the looming spectre of government deficits, rising taxes, lost jobs, repossessions and bankruptcies; it’s vital to remember that work generated the wealth, from which we have receded. Without work there can be no taxation; no welfare system; no health service, Answers to the economic problems come not in increasing taxation and making employment less and less attractive, but in allowing people to “labour truly” to get their own living; allowing them independence and choice. The worst, and the most unbiblical thing the government can do, in our current situation is to discourage work.
As we covenant ourselves to God’s service for another year, we do well to remember that parable of the talents, to acknowledge that Jesus expects that we make use of all that we have been given in order to maximize the potential of our country and in order that we might receive his words of welcome, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’