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The Venerable Dr Andy Jolley: How good is your work?

Editor’s note. This sermon is the second by three visiting preachers in the Priory’s Lent sermon series in which we are reflecting theologically on the theme of ‘Business and the Kingdom’. The Venerable Dr Andy Jolley is Archdeacon of Bradford. Before ordination Andy worked as a Chartered Mechanical Engineer for the Ford Motor Company and subsequently as a Management Consultant for Coopers and Lybrand. His doctoral research focused on relating faith to work.

12 March 2017
10.30 Parish Eucharist
Third Sunday in Lent
Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
Ven Dr Andy Jolley, Archdeacon of Bradford

How good is your work?  How might we evaluate this question?  Perhaps by asking what effect it has on you?  What impact and effect does it have on others?  And how does it serve God’s purposes?

Much Christian thinking about work starts in the first three chapters of Genesis.  Here we gain some important understandings of work.  Firstly, we see that human beings are made to work. We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), who is a worker (Genesis 2:3).  God creatively planned and then made the cosmos and then human beings for the purpose of filling and caring for the earth (Genesis 1:26).  Secondly, we are made to be creative, with human work being a reflection of God’s creativity.  Thirdly, we are made to work with God. In Genesis 2, we see human beings partnering with God in developing and maintaining what God has created.  In some ways, God deliberately leaves creation unfinished (and un-named) so as to leave human beings scope for exercising their creative imaginations and resourcefulness.  Fourthly, work is linked to human community.  The creation instructions were given to ‘humankind as a whole’ (Genesis 1:28ff).  Hence we must think of work in social and not just purely individual terms.  Work bonds people in ways that other activities do not by virtue of the intellectual, moral and physical challenges it presents.  Many people find that work is a primary source of friendship, community and sense of belonging.  Work can be understood as mutual service of others.

There are two important absences from the Genesis accounts.  First, the idea that human worth can be measured by income or the status of one’s work is missing.  Human beings were ‘good’ in the eyes of God before they started to work.  Human worth and dignity derives from being made in God’s image, not from the nature of work people perform.  Worth precedes work.  It does not derive from it.

Secondly, the idea that work is a curse is also unsupported by Genesis.  Work was part of life before the ‘fall’.  Humanity was to tend for the earth and maintain the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:28; 2:15).  This is not to say that work is easy.  “Subduing the earth” and having “dominion” over living creatures (Genesis 1:28) hint of a major struggle.  This is certainly the case with the processes required to extract, convert and refine most of the earth’s resources, as well as the intellectual struggle required to master the principles and laws of the universe.

However, Genesis 3 does tell us that, because of the effects of sin in the world, work is difficult.  As a result of human rebellion against God, and a loss of a sense of accountability to God for our work, work is under a curse.  As we read on, we see workplace jealousies affecting human relationships.  Work that was meant to be good is now less so.  There is alienation in work and unremitting toil.  Work is more burdensome and difficult through lack of co-operation of both materials (Genesis 3:17-19) and people (eg Cain and Abel in Genesis 4).  Work is now a place of rivalry, competition and quarrelling.

Yet, our reading from Romans 5 speaks of positive effects of suffering and difficulty.  It is this that produces endurance and character and hope.  Difficulties in our workplaces can indeed have positive effects on our character, such as developing patience, empathy and ingenuity.  However, our workplaces can also shape us negatively.  In my work in business, I have been in workplaces that affected me both negatively, fostering independence and selfish ambition, and positively, developing creativity, co-operation and teamwork.  What effect has places where you have worked or are working having on your character?

Romans 5 goes on to remind us of Christ coming into our world and dying for us while we sinners, so as to reconcile us to God.  In Colossians 1:20, Paul extends this to speak of God reconciling all things to himself.  What might this mean for our work and workplaces?  How might they be transformed (or redeemed) to be more godly, more reconciled to God’s ways?  What might our role be in that as we take the aroma of God’s Holy Spirit wherever we go?

Work and working life are therefore to be both affirmed and challenged.  Work is good and part of God’s design for human beings, yet it is not all that it should be.  Creativity is an important way in which people express the divine image within them.  Yet much human work, and unemployment especially, deny the possibility of creativity.  While some drudgery is inherent in all kinds of work, not all drudgery is necessary or justifiable.  Work itself is in need of redeeming, so that the work of all people is secure, free and joyful service.

Our gospel reading tells the story of a troubled woman as she meets Jesus in the context of her work.  She is doing her work, fetching water, in the heat of the day, rather than in the cool at the start or end of the day.  Rather than it being a communal and social activity with other people from her village, she is alone and isolated.  Hers is not good work, a consequence of her poor social standing in her village.

The start of the transformation of her story is when Jesus invites her to work for him – not just to draw water for herself, but to do that for him.  A key first step in seeing our work and our workplaces transformed is to see what we do as working for Jesus.  A natural consequence of this may be to lead some people out of certain types of work or workplace, because of the destructive effects that they have on others – or ourselves.  One friend of  mine was working for a television company, but found the working culture there and ethical values to be too much opposed to the values she wanted to live out as a Christian and she didn’t feel strong enough to live against the grain there.  For others, seeing yourself as working for Jesus may be the key light bulb moment which enables you to stay in a difficult or challenging situation.

As the conversation goes on between Jesus and the woman, she discovers that Jesus knows all about her (that’s what she tells the village in verse 39).  Jesus knows all about us – and our workplaces too.  She introduces Jesus to the village, and the villagers value her doing so.  By verse 42, she is a welcome part of village life.  Her standing in the community has been transformed by her meeting Jesus.  The Eastern Orthodox church celebrate her as Photine and venerate her as a saint who was martyred in Rome in AD66 by Emperor Nero.

So how good is your work? What effect is it having on you, and what effects are you having through your work?  How does it serve God’s purposes?  Perhaps it might help to pray the Lord’s prayer in your workplace.  Not just, “Give us today our daily bread”, but “Your kingdom come here” – what might that mean in your workplace?  It ought to make it good!