When Sharon Wilson, pastor of Windsor Park United Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, returned from a sabbatical exploring the relationship between work and faith (see page 27 of the Fall 2004 issue of CONGREGATIONS), she and her ministerial partner Rev. Eleanor Epp-Stobbe developed the following Lenten sermons to address topics of concern identified by the many workers Rev. Wilson had interviewed during her journey. The following are outlines of those sermons.
Week 1 I’m Vulnerable: What Does My Faith Say About That?
The lections for this Sunday were Luke 4:1-13 (the temptation of Christ) and Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 (the story of the protective eagle).
In the first segment of the sermon, the focus was on evil in our lives. In the temptation story from Luke 4, evil comes in the form of a lion, serpent, or adder. One of the ways we can define evil is as that which causes us to feel vulnerable or out of control. (Feelings of helplessness can originate in corporate downsizing for workers, academic assessments for teens, and credit card debt for families.) The story of the temptation provides a good homiletic base from which to explore the concept of vulnerability.
In the second portion of the sermon, I used Psalm 91 to describe the ways in which God works in our lives in times of challenge. Those who feel vulnerable or exposed gravitate to this psalm’s images of the protective mother eagle, who offers shelter and protection. The task, then, is to help listeners identify what forms the mother eagle takes in our contemporary lives. Where do we find our refuge from the pressures of our world? Supportive colleagues, organizations with integrity, a church community that cares, and friends and relatives who stick by us through the dark times might all be supportive mother eagles in our lives. By identifying these “mother eagles” in our lives, the people in the pews can better understand what deliverance looks like in 2004.
Week 2 Greed and the Capacity to Forgive
This sermon was built upon the Hebrew Scripture reading, Joshua 5:9-12, which speaks of the prosperity of the land of the Israelites and of the end of the need for manna, and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, the familiar story of the prodigal son, which holds out to us the challenge of knowing when we have enough.
The first half of the sermon was developed around the story of the prodigal son. He was not content with his life. He acted as though it was his right to have more. Through this story, we are asked to consider the ways in which we strive for more in our lives.
In the story from Joshua 5, when the Israelites were in the desert and received manna from God, they wanted more. The Haggadah in the Seder recounts the lack of contentment of the Israelites in those ancient times. Today, when we want things now and keep raising the bar of our expectations, how do we reconcile in our own minds when we have enough? In her latest book Just Enough, Laura Nash suggests there are four measures of success we can use to find our contentment: achievement, happiness, significance, and legacy. Truly successful people grasp the components of success and manage the tension between them. The father in the story of the prodigal son offers a good example of how to manage those tensions. He knew what mattered in life and helped his sons to find that, too.
Week 3 What Does It Take to Be a Leader?
In Philippians 3:4b-14, Paul sets out his credentials as a leader in the Jewish community. However, his long list of accomplishments pales in comparison to the transformative impact of Christ in his life. In John 12:1-8, we read of Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with perfume while Judas rails against the waste of precious funds. These passages guide us to look at the qualities of leadership and the conduct of leaders. Leaders need to be wise, humble, and strong enough to stick with what they know to be right.
I took the leadership qualities demonstrated by Paul and Jesus in these passages and tried to put them in contemporary terms. Jesus was a long-term thinker and had a precise grasp of the larger picture. He was a good manager of conflict and a keen judge of character. Paul had the courage to go in a new direction. He was willing to help shape a new “corporate culture” in the early church. These stories, coupled with management studies like James Harris’s The Learning Paradox or Ken Blanchard and Don Shula’s Everyone’s a Coach, provide ministers with a firm foundation for presenting leadership as a Christian value in the workplace.
Week 4 How to Identify Success and Go After It
We hunger for success. At least we want to be successful in all the right ways. One of the difficulties many church leaders encounter is how to discuss success without leading to a discussion of asceticism. Many successful people feel that their accomplishments are tainted in the eyes of the church. Can people be successful and still be faithful?
The psalm for this Sunday was Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, in which the speaker cries out to God, “O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!” This was juxtaposed with Philippians 2:5-11, in which Paul sets out the humble, giving qualities of Christ. So, ask many people, does God want us to have everything or nothing? Does God want us to be winners or losers?
The first portion of this sermon reflected on our hunger for success and winning. In the second half of the sermon I tried to help create a different definition of success that allows all Christians to feel included. Success for Jesus meant humility and obedience. For the Israelites it was the knowledge that they were chosen and blessed. Harold Kushner’s Living a Life That Matters was helpful for bringing these scriptures into our context. Success today is to know how lucky you are and how blessed your life is. You are a success when you can give something back or when you take care of the important relationships in your life. You are a success when you can admit that your faith makes a difference. These are components of success that encompass faith as we experience it at home, at church, and at work.