To Break Every Yoke: Work and Faith
Compline, the service of night prayers in The Book of Common Prayer, p. 134, is a beloved liturgy. Many evening meetings end with this brief and beautiful service, which includes this prayer: O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This short collect helps call us to imagine an economy of mutual service, everyone contributing his or her toil to the pool of what is necessary for us to live. The carpenter serving, the physician serving, the sandwich maker serving, the teacher serving. Without the service of everyone the whole world ‘round, the life that we live is diminished.
Of course, not everyone benefits adequately from such an economy. Many are unable to do work that they might love, and for them, work is mostly burden and obligation, toil and never vocation. Many fail to gain a living wage, and the spiritual value of sabbath rest is not available to people working two or three jobs to make ends meet. During this Lenten season, the possibilities that this prayer from Compline holds before us are good to call to mind. Praying for all those who labor is a good thing. Making possible a genuine and realistic economy of mutual service is the unrelenting demand of the prophets.
Read: Ephesians 3:14-21
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
What do you do? What do you do for a living? We ask these questions to know something about someone, to know who a person is. Our identity and value are bound together in many ways by our work—or by our lack of work. Are we productive? Life is often assessed on how productive someone may or may not be. For those of us who celebrate the Holy Eucharist, life is what we receive as a share in God’s triune life. The work of the Eucharist is what God does to bread and wine and to us. The work of Christ is the offering of his life of communion to us. God is what God does and vice versa. For the first centuries of Christian theology, this work of God was called the “economic trinity.”
When we celebrate Holy Eucharist, we do so in a place prepared by human hands, with bread and wine made through the efforts of human labor. So next time someone asks you what do you do for a living, you can say, “I celebrate the Eucharist; I do the work of communion.”
In God’s economy, human labor is ordered toward the flourishing of life, for the realization of the abundant life for all of God’s creation. Furthermore, when our work is offered to God, toward the life God envisions for us, God is working in us, “producing” holiness of life. We do not do the same work, but we are called to offer this work for the giving and receiving of life, the communion of work. In this way, God’s work of communion is wrought in us, drawing us not only into God’s abundant life but also drawing us closer to each other, so close that our fellow workers can show us the face of Christ.
Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name, and finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer, p. 832)
Ralph McMichael is a priest in the Diocese of Springfield.
Read: Genesis 1:27; 5:1-2
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them “Humankind” when they were created.
Women in South Sudan work hard. They haul their family’s daily water, often for miles, collect firewood, do some 90 percent of crop cultivation, cook, clean, hand-wash clothes, and bear and rear children. Twenty women die for every 1,000 births, and more than 80 percent are illiterate. True, some educated women work in government, the church, and the private sector, but the reality for most women is that they receive little if any education, are married early, bear child after child, and struggle from dawn to dusk merely to survive.
Go to South Sudan, and you will find the women in church singing joyfully, but don’t expect to see much of them otherwise; they are busy at home and don’t speak English anyway. Talk with church and community leaders about women’s role in society, and you will hear women’s empowerment endorsed, both from a human rights perspective and a realistic awareness of economic good. But the culture keeps women down to an enormous extent.
What can we do? Aware of the complicity of the church in colonialism, Western Christians have to tread lightly, listen long, and let our South Sudanese sisters and brothers guide any actions we take. Some ways Christians have been trying to help empower the women of South Sudan include building schools for girls and providing adult education, starting cooperative preschools run by mothers so school-age girls can stay in school, helping women’s groups start micro-lending programs to fund women’s entrepreneurship, drilling wells and funding grinding mills that decrease the time women must spend on subsistence tasks, and introducing farming practices that will yield crops to sell as well as to eat.
Women in South Sudan already work harder than most of us. They deserve our help, prayers, and advocacy to bring freedom and dignity to their working lives.
O God who created us male and female in your image, you teach us to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to respect the dignity of every human being. Hear our prayers for the women of South Sudan: Deliver them from violence, oppression, and degradation; bring them justice and dignity; and help them to provide for themselves and their families through meaningful work and equal participation in their society. Guide decision makers in the church and other institutions to follow in the footsteps of your saints, Pandita, Sarah, Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner Truth, Harriet, and Vida, by working for women’s education and rights, and lead your people far and near to work for economic justice and gender equity in South Sudan and throughout the whole earth. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Holy Women, Holy Men (Pandita Mary Ramabai, pp. 307-08; Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, pp. 352-53; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Ross Tubman, pp. 474-77; Vida Dutton Scudder, pp. 632-33).
Debra Morris Smith is a member of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Creve Coeur, Missouri. She coordinates communications with and travel to the Diocese of Lui in Sudan for the Diocese of Missouri and is a member of the board of the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan.
Read: Amos 8:4-7
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Twenty years ago, as a college student active in both the Episcopal Church at Yale and the Student Labor Action Coalition at Yale, I was struggling with how to integrate my faith and my commitment to worker justice. I had recently met Yale workers as I volunteered at the soup kitchen at Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green in New Haven. Why did workers at Yale—a corporation with billions of dollars—need to go to a soup kitchen? Why didn’t Yale pay them enough to get by on their own? Doing service work, without asking why that service needed to be done, was no longer enough for me.
At a conference on faith and justice at Judson Memorial Baptist Church in New York City, I heard powerful messages from the Rev. Jim Wallis from Sojourners and Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice (where I was privileged to work a few years later). Wallis recounted that, in 1971, the founding members of Sojourners took an old Bible and cut out all 2,000 plus passages that related to social and economic justice. Jim Wallis would then take that “Hole-y Bible” with him to preach. Without justice, he said, God’s Word is full of holes.
That conference was a moment of conversion for me. Justice is core to God’s Word and ought to be core to all Christians. The sacraments—the continual cycle of gathering God’s people together and then sending God’s people out to love and serve the Lord— call us to put our faith to work for justice. As baptized Christians, we have committed ourselves to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305). With God’s help, we are called to make our faith incarnate in thought, word, and deed. My hope and prayer is that the people of The Episcopal Church will take a leading role in advocating for just wages for all people.
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer, p. 261)
Low Pay Is Not OK: http://lowpayisnotok.org/
ShowMe15: http://www.showme15.org/ (St. Louis and Mid-South)
Throughout the United States, low-wage workers are organizing to gain just wages, as well as dignity and respect in their work places. The Church is called to stand in solidarity with low wage workers and to advocate for just wages for all workers.
For selected biblical passages on justice for workers from Interfaith Worker Justice: http://www.aflcio.org/content/download/2548/24708/ Biblical+passages.pdf
Most low-wage workers in the United States rely on public benefits (Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credit, etc.) as well as services and contributions from nonprofits like feeding programs in Episcopal congregations, because they cannot make ends meet on their own. Most low-wage workers are not scheduled for enough hours or paid a high enough wage to support themselves and their families. For example, 52 percent of low wage workers in the fast food industry are enrolled in one or more public programs, compared to 25 percent of the work force as a whole. Being unable to support themselves is demoralizing for these workers and their families. It is also expensive for tax payers.
Because fast food workers are not paid a just wage or a “living wage” by corporate employers like McDonald’s and Burger King, American taxpayers subsidize these workers’ incomes, as well as the fast food corporations themselves. Taxpayers support seven billion dollars in public benefits for low-wage workers in the fast food Industry. For more details, please read “Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast-Food Industry,” a report from the Labor Center at the University of California – Berkeley: http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/pdf/2013/fast_food_poverty_wages.pdf.
Teresa Mithen Danieley serves as a priest in the Diocese of Missouri.
Read: Luke 10:1-2
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
In Luke’s recounting of the sending out of the seventy, he could have easily been gazing at a field of thistles instead of wheat and chaff as he recounts the potential harvest and need for committed workers. Thistles could have made his point about the need for universal discipleship since they are universal weeds that take over fields in a single season.
The thistles’ history is one of survival by brutality and yet still they contain a purple center that even Solomon in all his glory cannot match. Their extracts can heal and detoxify the liver, and the silky down makes the best paper. Thistles offer a glimpse into the potential great harvests if disciples are willing to go out to the fields and be a part of the healing of the world. The call to a harvest is for all of creation to be cherished and to remember there is no one that needs to be condemned or left behind.
Thistles are a beautiful symbol for the mission of discipleship. They link the abandoned spaces to the rich potential of the harvest. It costs us nothing to harvest thistles and they reap great rewards. The call to mission is to enter the fields of the world and find the beauty others have discarded as useless. When we go to the fields proclaiming love, we find ourselves confronted by the injustices of poverty and lack of care for the folks who have been abandoned. When we say we love the world, we need to be concerned about people’s economic well-being.
The work of economic empowerment and justice is a journey to the forgotten fields to find the richness even among the weeds. The vision of mission is a movement that calls us to harvest what others have discarded and share the bounty so that all people can participate in the great harvest.
Holy God, giver and sustainer of all life, you call us to use our gifts of time and talent and treasure for the healing of the world. Surround us with your presence, anoint our heads with a balm of peace, then show us the work you would have us do in the world around us. Teach us what it means to fall in love with whole world and love our neighbors as ourselves. Help us work toward the economic well-being of our brothers and sisters. Help us live out this prayer not only with our lips but also in our lives, by giving up more of what we claim as ours for the care of others. Amen.
Becca Stevens is an Episcopal priest and founder of Thistle Farms, a community of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction. Thistle Farms includes a two-year residential program and advocacy services as well as social enterprises including a body care company and marketplace.
Read: Micah 6:8
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The Five Marks of Mission: The Mission of the Church Is the Mission of Christ
To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
To respond to human need by loving service
To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
For three and a half years, I dropped out of the professional world and worked at a well-known “Big Box” store. I stacked shelves, unloaded trucks, and ran cash registers. What I learned about the lives of the working poor changed my faith.
I discovered that our employer did not guarantee a set schedule and often intentionally kept workers parttime. One week I might have forty hours, the next week only thirty. The shifts I worked changed weekly. My income was unreliable and planning my life impossible. Meanwhile, Big Box’s profits soared while my hourly wage remained under ten dollars.
I think of Bob, who unloaded trucks all day but still depended on assistance to feed his family. Or Sue, who worked night shift because she had no front teeth, and management did not want her among the public. Bob and Sue were trapped in poverty, so alienated that they embraced that alienation, covering themselves with tattoos and anesthetizing themselves with substances.
Their behaviors appeared self-destructive, and they embodied generational poverty.
Some answers? Presence, advocacy, and community.
We can be present in the lives of the poor, not merely visitors. The working poor often cannot come to church because they are working or recovering from work. We might take church to them instead of waiting for them to come to us.
We can advocate for the sake of the poor. The conscience of business leaders can be better formed, the loopholes in workers’ rights abolished, and the skills of the unskilled improved. We can replace the notion of a minimum wage with a livable wage.
If we familiarize ourselves with the culture of poverty, we might create a more welcoming community to the poor. We might, for example, arrange events and liturgies in which all of us could participate.
We might then better embody the peaceable reign of God, promised by Jesus.
Lord Jesus Christ, your prophets have instructed us that we need to do justice as much as we show mercy, walking in humble obedience to your will. We ask you for the courage to transform the injustices of our world with the same vigor that we respond with loving service to the needs of your brothers and sisters. Help us reconcile our lives to the lives of the poor and the oppressed, and be a living example of your love for all. We ask this in your name, O Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Kevin McGrane is a deacon who serves at St. John’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis, Missouri.