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Sermon illustrations

Work

Asking for a Pastor’s Advice? Mostly Not

Despite a widely shared belief that faith should inform ethical decisions at work, a mere 18 of 230 respondents had ever consulted a pastor for advice about a work-related matter.

Of these, six were dissatisfied with the experience, including an entrepreneur who angrily moved his church membership when a pastor made light of his concern that his product might be bad for children; nine others had sought advice only when looking for a job. More revealing were the views of more than 200 people who had never looked to a pastor for counsel in a business or career matter.

Taken from John C. Knapp, How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it), Eerdmans, 2012, p.12.

Biblical Economics

In his extremely helpful book, The Economics of Neighborly Love, Tom Nelson argues that the church has an important part to play in helping Christians understand the value and place of economics in our everyday lives. In this illustration, he points out how some churches, like Chicago’s Living Hope Church are actually providing economic hope as well as the hope of the gospel:

Economists remind us the work we do matters much more than we often realize. Scripture also informs us that our productivity or lack thereof matters to God, to us, and to our neighbors. Recognizing the importance of fruitful productivity, Living Hope Church in Chicago is committed to creating opportunities for community members to increase their vocational fruitfulness. Located in Chicago’s South Side, Living Hope is pastored by Brad Beier.

The church serves a community with an unemployment rate of 23 percent. Recognizing an opportunity to care well for their neighbors, Living Hope has sought ways to provide meaningful work to those surrounding the church. Pastor Beier has also articulated a philosophy of benevolence that insists neighbors who want money or help should be given work to do by the church.

In addition, Living Hope has started a nonprofit economic development ministry called Hope Works. Hope Works focuses specifically on economic empowerment and job creation. The organization provides on-ramps for participants to engage in church ministry, relationship building, and discipleship. Lives are being transformed, families are being put back together, and the dignity of doing good work is once again being validated in a community where joblessness and crime has been the norm. Living Hope is increasingly seen in the community as a place where people find spiritual hope as well as economic vitality.

Living Hope is doing important work that affirms the goodness of productivity and empowers others to lead fruitful lives. As God’s image bearers we were created to be fruitful. We are not to worship our work, but our work is a vital aspect of our worship. Our hands and bodies were designed to work and to pray in a seamless life of God-focused and God-directed worship. We were made to add value to the world in and through our work, and to love our neighbor in and through our fruitfulness.

Tom Nelson, The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity, InterVarsity Press.

A Coca-Cola Philosophy & Empty Calories

Studies reveal that 37 percent of Americans take fewer than seven days of vacation a year. In fact, only 14 percent take vacations that last longer than two weeks. Americans take the shortest paid vacations of anyone in the world. And 20 percent of those who do, often spend their vacation staying in touch with their jobs through their computers or phones.

The point? Even when we do vacation, we do it poorly. But even if we did vacation well and took great amounts of time off for restorative rest, vacations are a poor substitute for a weekly day of Sabbath rest. I think the devil loves taking that which is of God and giving us cheap knockoffs. When God invents sugar, the devil makes Sweet’N Low.

When God makes sex, the devil comes up with adultery. The devil always twists the goodness of God. The Bible is silent on vacations. Why? Because if we kept a weekly Sabbath, we would not need vacations. Vacations are what Jürgen Moltmann has called the “Coca – Cola philosophy” of Western life.

In the 1990s, Coca-Cola had a well-known campaign depicting people doing hard work, then popping open a cold bottle of Coke and taking a swig. We yearn for the “pause that refreshes. ” Unfortunately, we try to refresh ourselves with empty calories, or vacations, which are not what we really need. Our souls stir, longing for Sabbath. Not for the frills of a can of saccharine drink, a sugary vacation.

A.J. Swoboda, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, Baker Publishing Group, 2018, Kindle Location 549.

Glorifying God in our Work

Work is one way, perhaps even the main way, we can glorify God in this life.

This may sound confusing if you tend to think of glorifying God as what we do in church when we sing praises to God. No question, this counts as glorifying God. But there is so much more to glorifying God than praising God, no matter how essential and wonderful this might be.

Let me use a personal illustration. I love it when my adult children want to spend time with me. I am doubly happy when they tell me how much they love me. These are, indeed, some of the sweetest moments of my life. But I wouldn’t want Nathan and Kara to spend their whole lives doing this. My wife and I have raised them, not just to be with us and to express their love to us, but also and mainly to be responsible citizens, influential leaders, and faithful disciples of Jesus.

My children honor me when they work hard in school, when they mentor high school kids, stage manage plays, contribute to academic conversations, or write pieces that inform and inspire others. To use language I would not ordinarily use, I am glorified when Nathan and Kara work, when they work hard, when they use well their gifts, when they excel at the tasks for which they are well suited.

Genesis 1-2 reveals that God made us to work. Thus, we glorify God when we do that for which we were made. Moreover, when we work for God’s glory, when we steward well all that God has given us for his purposes, we can enjoy God, sensing the joy he feels in us as we work. To be sure, there are times when we ought not to work. And there will be times when we glorify God through the praise of our lips and the worship of our hearts. But, God has created work as a chief means for us to glorify and enjoy him. This truth can change our lives, our workplaces, and our cultures.

Taken from Mark D. Roberts, Life for Leaders, a Devotional Resource of the DePree Leadership Center at Fuller Theological Seminary

Hard Work is Missing and Its Social Decay

In Hillbilly Elegy the author tells of Bob, who worked with him at a tile warehouse with his girlfriend. Bob missed work once a week, was chronically late, and took many breaks each day, lasting over half an hour each. His girlfriend missed work every third day and never gave advance notice. When they were fired, after many warnings, Bob was furious.

The author concludes, convincingly, that too many today are “immune . . . to hard work,” and that what used to be thought of as good, reasonable jobs are now seen as demanding unreasonable standards.The result is social decay, as Proverbs warned.

Timothy Keller, God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs, Penguin Publishing Group.

The Heroes of the Bible (mostly) had Regular Jobs

Most of the heroes in the Bible had what we would think of as secular vocations.  Isaac developed real estate, Jacob was a rancher, and Joseph was a government official (in charge of agriculture, the economy, and immigration policy) who served a pharaoh in a foreign land that did not honor Israel’s God.  Joseph did not decide he could serve God best by leaving his well-paying government job and starting a non-profit, faith-based organization to do charity work.

Moses spent forty years as a sheepherder, Esther won a beauty pageant and went into government service, and David worked in animal husbandry, the military, and statecraft.  Daniel was an immigrant who attended Babylon’s version of Oxford and became prime minister.  Lydia was a successful businesswoman in textiles.  Paul was a tent-maker. Perhaps the ultimate expression of how much God values work is Jesus the carpenter.

Jesus spent more than three-quarters of his working life in the building profession, fashioning benches and tables and probably involved in construction.  The word we translate carpenter comes from the Greek tekton—from which we get our word technology­—and would include the ability to do stone or masonry work. The Bible is a book written by workers about workers for workers, but too often in discussion about spiritual life our work gets ignored.

John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God’s Best Version of You (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).

God Became Flesh and Built Something

Jesus also spent time—decades even—building stuff. Jesus was a tradesman. He is called a tekton (Mark 6:3), a builder who used his hands. God came to earth and apparently thought it worth his while to take some wood or stone or metal and make something. What did he make? We have no idea. Apparently nothing earth-shattering enough to have kept around. But in this dark world, where men and women were dying, where the poor were suffering, where injustice raged in a vast and violent empire, God became flesh and built some furniture…The light came into the darkness and did ordinary work.

Taken from Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren Copyright (c) 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Homemaker vs. Breadwinner

Contemporary society assumes that we make a choice: one member of a household will be the “homemaker” and the other the “breadwinner” (i.e., in the marketplace generating income to sustain the home). The assumption is that a person cannot be ably engaged in the world, perhaps in a career, if he or she is managing a house or raising children.

We have to choose: Will I raise a family or develop a career? While there certainly are challenges and tensions that come in the interface of each dimension of our lives and work, the woman of Proverbs 31 is clearly engaged on both fronts. And by implication it is important to observe that there is no inherent tension between them.

Indeed, perhaps the two are essential to each other, authenticating or legitimizing the other, each a counterpart to the other. Thus, there is a need to beware of a temptation to claim a higher calling to our work—perhaps our work in the world—and in attending to this dimension of our lives, neglect our basic, mundane, ordinary responsibilities in our home and in the needs of family, neighbors and community.

Taken from Courage and Calling by Gordon T. Smith. ©2011 by Gordon T. Smith.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

The Importance of Meaningful Work

Have you ever wondered what the number-one thing people are looking for in a job? It’s not salary, it’s not even about getting promoted or working on a dynamic team. The number one thing people want from their jobs, according to professor Teresa Amabile, is meaningful work. Human beings are meaning-makers, we rely on meaning to give us hope and confidence to keep fighting the good fight.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Information from Teresa Amabile, The Progress Principle

Just Charge It!

I recently attended an event sponsored by Compassion International, the International Child Sponsorship Organization. The event was called “Stepping into My Shoes”. The purpose being to show children in America what it is like living in a third-world country. At one point, children are encouraged to “work”, breaking rocks and shining shoes.

For their efforts, each received their compensation: ten cents. They then went to a “shop,” where they could exchange their newly acquired wealth for items. Unfortunately, their 10 cents didn’t get them very far: a soccer ball was 30 dollars and a toy plane was 20 dollars. One rather distraught young girl wanted to purchase a Barbie doll, but she was $79.90 short of the total price of $80. The daughter, exasperated, finally said, “Why don’t you just charge it on your card mommy?”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Mastering our Craft

The wonderful word master used to describe the person who is at the top of his or her craft, whatever the profession. It was a title that one could work toward and with some degree of confidence ascribe to the person who was very good at what he or she did—whether it was watch making, shipbuilding, teaching or business management.

But in the new economy we are all “in over our heads.” Just when we think we might have mastered our craft, the circumstances and expectations have changed. The field I work in is developing so quickly that I always feel one step behind.

Taken from Courage and Calling by Gordon T. Smith. ©2011 by Gordon T. Smith.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

Never Leaving Their Work

Because of the modern rhythms of work that are mediated through personal computers and phones, people, in the words of one cultural commentator, “leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash—like a dog.” More often than not, our “days off” are days where we are spatially at home , but emotionally and mentally at work . Do these “days off” constitute a Sabbath day?

A.J. Swoboda, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, Baker Publishing Group, 2018, Kindle Location 576.

The Parable of the Two Servants

In this modern day parable, Alan Fadling describes a king and his two servants. Each of the servants desires to do the will of the king, but they approach their work very differently:

One of the servants, for fear of not pleasing his master, rose early each day to hurry along to do all the things that he believed the king wanted done. He didn’t want to bother the king with questions about what that work was. Instead, he hurried from project to project from early morning until late at night. The other servant, also eager to please his master, would rise early as well, but he took a few moments to go to the king, ask him about his wishes for the day and find out just what it was he desired to be done. Only after such a consultation did this servant step into the work of his day.

…The busy servant may have gotten a lot done by the time the inquiring servant even started his work, but which of them was doing the will of the master and pleasing him? Genuine productivity is not about getting as much done for God as we can manage. It is doing the good work God actually has for us in a given day. Genuine productivity is learning that we are more than servants, that we are beloved sons and daughters invited into the good kingdom work of our heavenly Father. That being the case, how might God be inviting you to wait for his specific direction?

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Parenting is Part of My Work

There have been times in my life when I’ve wondered if I have failed to accomplish what God intended for me in my professional life. I have worried that I have not lived up to my potential. I judge myself for not having written more books, preached better sermons, or led more influential institutions.

But, upon reflection, I realize that one of the reasons I have been less productive in my “work” is that I have invested much of my life in the last twenty years in my “fruit,” that is, in my children. I have spent countless hours with them, taking them to the park, reading “chapter books,” advising them with school projects, or just hanging out.

Parenting is not incidental to my primary purpose in life. It isn’t in conflict with my work; rather, it is part of my work. Family life is essential to the measure of my fruitfulness in life.

Taken from Mark D. Roberts, Life for Leaders, a Devotional Resource of the DePree Leadership Center at Fuller Theological Seminary

Parkinson’s Law

It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis.

An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.

From the Economist

Rabbinic “Tentmakers”

In the world of the rabbis, a scholar was expected to earn his keep by engaging in a secular profession. The Mishnah tractate Avot reads:

Make them [the words of the Law] not a crown wherewith to magnify thyself or a spade wherewith to dig. And thus used Hillel to say: He that makes worldly use of the crown shall perish. Thus thou mayest learn that he that makes profit out of the words of the Law removes his life from the world.

From this severe stricture it is easy to understand that rabbis in Jesus’ day were expected to support themselves with secular professions. Engaging stories in the Talmud illuminate the strictly held principle of “no digging with the crown.”

The stipulation of “not digging with the crown” harmonized smoothly with the major task of the sages, which was to interpret and apply the Torah to everyday life. Thus, if they had one foot in the work-a-day world and the other in the world of the Torah and its law, it would be easier to make the connection between the two.

Shemmai and Hillel, two of the greatest rabbis, lived one generation before Jesus. Shemmai was a stonemason, and Hillel probably earned his keep as a porter. Thus, Jesus (carpenter) and Paul (tentmaker) were not exceptions to the rule but were concrete examples of established practice. Unlike the contemporary Western world, the world of Jesus expected the scholar to be engaged in a trade such as carpentry.

Taken from Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story by Kenneth E. Bailey Copyright (c) 2009 by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Religious Faith in the Workplace? The Resistance May Not Be What You Think

More often than not, park-it-at-the-door thinking [about religious faith] has less to do with hostility to faith than with the avoidance of risk, for many employer’s fear that any hint of religion is a potential source of conflict or litigation. To be sure, inappropriate religious conduct can lead to claims of discrimination and harassment, and in recent years employee lawsuits on these grounds have outpaced all other complaints against employers under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the United States.

But notable within this trend are growing numbers of cases alleging failures by employers to allow the exercise of faith at work. Religious freedom enjoys a special place in American jurisprudence, and the law places an affirmative burden on employers to “reasonably” accommodate religious expression and practice. Thus, employers now face the conundrum of how to prevent discrimination and harassment while leaving room for the reasonable exercise of religion as more employees of all faiths insist on bringing their beliefs to the office or the shop floor.

Taken from John C. Knapp, How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it), Eerdmans, 2012, p.6.

The Sin of Doing the Wrong Job

Does God take our work seriously? Consider these words from Arthur F. Miller:

It is wrong, it is sin, to accept or remain in a position that you know is a mismatch for you.  Perhaps that’s a form of sin you’ve never even considered – the sin of staying in the wrong job.  But God did not place you on this earth to waste away your years in labor that does not employ his design or purpose for your life, no matter how much you may be getting paid for it.

Taken from Arthur F. Miller Jr. and Bill Hendricks The Power of Uniqueness, Zondervan, 2002.

Struggling to Rest

Rest has never been one of America’s greatest strengths. According to one study, only one in seven adults (14%) have set aside an entire day for the purpose of rest. For those who do setaside an entire day, can you guess how they fill their time? Mostly with work.  Over 40% say they do enjoyable work,and an additional 37% say they will do non-enjoyable work, if it has to get done (Raking leaves anyone?). Out of the 14% who set aside a day of rest, only 19% say they will won’twork at all on their day of rest.

Stuart R Strachan Jr.

That Future Life

As he reflected on his life’s work, the famed author of Les Miserables, The Count of Monte Cristo, and many others, Victor Hugo describes what he believed about life after death, that heaven would actually entail a continuation of his life’s work:

I feel within me that future life. I am like a forest that has been razed; the new shoots are stronger and brighter. I shall most certainly rise toward the heavens the nearer my approach to the end, the plainer is the sound of immortal symphonies of worlds which invite me.

For half a century I have been translating my thoughts into prose and verse: history, drama, philosophy, romance, tradition, satire, ode, and song; all of these I have tried. But I feel I haven’t given utterance to the thousandth part of what lies within me. When I go to the grave I can say, as others have said, “My day’s work is done.” But I cannot say, “My life is done.” My work will recommence the next morning. The tomb is not a blind alley; it is a thoroughfare. It closes upon the twilight, but opens upon the dawn..

Quoted in Randy Alcorn, The Law of Rewards: Giving what you can’t keep to gain what you can’t lose, Tyndale Momentum, 2003.

Thinking Biblically about Work and Ownership

In modern Western culture we place a high value on work, which is fine, but one of the philosophical assumptions that can come with such values is that we assume that we own what we earn or buy. From a biblical point of view this is extremely problematic. There isn’t any necessary correlation between hard work and ownership.

Think, for example, of all the hard work that went into building the pyramids in Egypt. Most of the workers were slaves, and they had no delusions that because they built the pyramids they owned the pyramids. No, they believed that both the pyramids and they themselves belonged to Pharaoh! In this sense (excepting of course that Pharaoh is not God), they had a more biblical worldview of work than most of us do.

Our hard work may be well rewarded or not. It may produce prosperity or not. But until we see all that we receive, whether by earning it or receiving it without work, as a gift from God, a gift we should use knowing who the true owner of the gift is, we will not be thinking biblically about such matters.

Ben Witherington III, Jesus and Money: A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis, Brazos Press.

The Three Orientations Towards Work

In his landmark work, Habits of the Heart, the sociologist Robert Bellah describes thee distinct orientations people take with respect to their work. The first orientation is to see your work as a job, a paycheck that takes care of the bills. The second orientation is to see your work as a career. Here, climbing the proverbial ladder in search of status and wealth are central. In the second orientation, the way you feel towards your work is primarily based on how successful you are in it.

If your career is waning, it may feel as though your entire self-worth is on the chopping block. The third orientation is seeing work as a calling. This sense of calling is firmly established in the life of faith. If you have received a call-then someone must have made the call in the first place. That person is God, and because God is sovereign, our work isn’t simply what we want to do.

A call is made and we are there to answer it. The worth of your work therefore, is not dependent on your success, but rather your faithfulness to the call that God has made. Sometimes, that even means that a failure in the world’s eyes can be the greatest success in God’s.

Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart

WALL-E and Work

The animated movie WALL-E is a cute story of a curious robot whose job is to clean up a trashed earth. While humans once inhabited the earth, we soon discover they have been evacuated from earth with the hopes of returning one day after robots clean up the mess. Though a hardworking robot, WALL-E has a rather lonely existence. But that changes when WALL-E meets another robot by the name of Eve. WALL-E quickly gains a fondness for his newfound friend who name evokes a biblical image of creation.

WALL-E enthusiastically pursues Eve to the point of making an unplanned journey, via spaceship, to a high-tech space station where humans who have made a real mess of planet Earth are now living a “utopian, carefree, work-free existence. As residents of the space station, humans are waited on hand and foot by robots attending to their every whim and desire. As a result, the pampered humans have become self-indulgent, bored couch potatoes…

humans now resemble giant babies with soft faces, rounded torsos, and stubby, weak limbs-the tragic deforming and atrophying result of human beings doing noting but cruising around on cushy, padded, reclining chairs, their eyes fixed on video screens, taking in large amounts of calories, and sipping from straws sticking out of giant cups.

Tom Nelson, Work Matters, Crossway.

We Need Conversation Partners when Discussing our Work

When it comes to our work we likely need at the very least three conversation partners. Two of these should ideally be peers—perhaps one who is in a similar line of work (e.g., a fellow nurse who knows the unique challenges of this profession), another who is from another line of work (e.g., the pastor who is strengthened and encouraged by regular conversation with a person in business). The third person, ideally, is someone a generation older; or, as we move into our senior years, someone who is at least ten years older than we are.

Taken from Courage and Calling by Gordon T. Smith. ©2011 by Gordon T. Smith.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

We Need To Hear Our Names

In his wonderful book Run with Horses, Eugene Peterson reminds us of many of the ways in which modern life de-personalizes and degrades us. We become a number and not a name. We are valued for what we do not who we are. This little excerpt is a powerful reminder that our worth and value come from God’s children, given names of significance that, in part, shape our identities.

If I am frequently and authoritatively treated impersonally, I begin to think of myself the same way. I consider myself in terms of how I fit into the statistical norms; I evaluate myself in terms of my usefulness; I assess my worth in response to how much others want me or don’t want me. In the process of going along with such procedures I find myself defined by a label, squeezed into a role, functioning at the level of my social security number.

It requires assertive, lifelong effort to keep our names in front…No one can assess my significance by looking at the work that I do. No one can determine my worth by deciding the salary they will pay me. No one can know what is going on in my mind by examining my school transcripts. No one can know me by measuring me or weighing me or analyzing me. Call my name.

Taken from Run with the Horses by Eugene H. Peterson. ©2009, 2019 by Eugene H. Peterson.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

What to Do With all Our Free Time

For much of the twentieth century, futurists and other labor experts were predicting ever shorter workweeks. In the mid-1920s, for example, Julian Huxley said that the two-day workweek was “inevitable” because of the simple fact that “the human being can consume only so much and no more.” John Maynard Keynes observed in the early 1930s “when we reach the point when the world produces all the goods that it needs in two days, as it inevitably will … we must turn our attention to the great problem of what to do with our leisure.”

Forty years ago, futurists peering into their crystal balls were still predicting that one of the biggest problems for coming generations would be what to do with their abundant spare time. I remember hearing this prediction often. In 1967, for example, testimony before a Senate subcommittee claimed that by 1985 people could be working just twenty-two hours a week or twenty-seven weeks a year. Exactly when they stopped talking this way I am not sure, but they did stop. No one sits around today trying to figure out how to spend their free time. On the contrary, the topic of conversation is usually how to get some. Virtually everyone I know is time desperate.

Richard Swenson, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. NavPress.

See also Illustrations on BusinessCallingLeadership

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