An altar in the workplace

A Sermon by Revd Will Morris

I’ve never had a conversion experience, but the closest I’ve come was in a rather dingy classroom in East London just over a decade ago.  More than a year into my ordination training, I still had no real idea why I was doing it – apart from the fact that all the people who could have prevented it, hadn’t.  I was flattered, was intrigued by the process, was glad to be back in formal education – but as to why I was training to be a priest, to be a publicly-affirmed Christian minister, as opposed to remaining the worshipping layperson I had comfortably been for over forty years.  Well … I had no idea.

Then one Tuesday evening in the late autumn of 2007, Ed Newell from St Paul’s Cathedral came to teach a session on faith and the workplace.  I think most of my classmates, many of them aching, in any event, aching to leave the secular workplace, were mildly bored.  I, however, was completely transfixed.  I was – and still am – slightly leery of the concept of destiny. But that evening, I – with total clarity – suddenly felt at last I understood why I was where I was.

Part of that was like looking at random jigsaw pieces that suddenly resolve themselves into a single picture.  Before that evening, I had asked myself why I was training to be a priest when I knew that I would have to stay in my secular job after ordination. Before that evening, I had asked myself why I was training for another job when I already had one that I loved. Before that evening, I had asked myself whether I was – as a very well-paid tax lawyer for a large US corporation – subconsciously trying to cleanse a job that some viewed as ethically dodgy, by throwing a priestly cloak over it all.  After that evening, however, I felt with total certainty that I was specifically being called to become a priest, and – that’s a crucial conjunction – and also to remain in my potentially morally ambiguous, potentially ethically challenging secular workplace.

But the other part of that understanding as why I was doing this was the discovery – in that slightly run-down classroom – of a passion.  Total conviction that God was interested in the world of work; that he cared about it; that it was as valid and important a part of his creation as anything else.  Not perfect to be sure – and very imperfect in many ways – but important, and undoubtedly and undeniably part of what he cared about. I was convinced from that evening on that my role – my vocation – was to work to bring God and the workplace closer together.

But why, I often get asked, does God care, or at least care as much, about the world of work – especially for-profit work – as he does about other unambiguously “good” things, such worship and churches?  To that my answer is simple – perhaps even simplistic – and draws on the Bible. And what I see there is not a God who cares only to be worshipped, but a God who also rolls up his sleeves and works.  Whether you understand it literally or metaphorically, in the book of Genesis, I see a worker God who works throughout the day, only pausing at the end of each day, to look at it, and announce that it is good.  I see there a God who delights in creating things.  And I see a worker God cares about the whole world that he has made.  Not just churches or holy places; and not just on Sunday mornings. I see one Creator God and one created world, the entirety of which he loves.

And at the other end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, at the end of time, I hear about the new heaven and the new earth; the new Jerusalem descending out of that heaven, and God saying: “See, I am making (I am making) all things new.”  Everything new, the whole of the created world, every aspect of it: not just the temple, and not just the Sabbath.  At both the beginning and end of time, God is creator: working, remaking, perfecting things.

And here in the middle, between the beginning and the end, is where we are.  In a broken, messed up world.  But a world that God calls us to work in, to work on, to help him heal and rebuild in anticipation of that perfecting at the end.  And guess what? He wants it all rebuilt, all healed – not just the church, not just the pretty bits, but everything – including the world of work.

So what has that come to mean to me over the past ten years at St Martin’s?  Well, other than our small but very faithful fortnightly pre-work breakfast group, efforts to build up larger groups, new congregations, simply haven’t worked.  And so, my ministry has been largely outside this building.  Partly writing, partly speaking, partly teaching; but mostly it has been about being present in a variety of workplaces and in a variety of roles.

And I have discovered that this ministry in the workplace can be one of real richness, Partly myself, and partly with others, a number of clear opportunities have emerged, and let me describe just a few of those:

  • The workplace is somewhere where we can fulfil our obligation as Christians to care for those who are in need – for our neighbours. Those in the workplace who (to adapt slightly the parable of the sheep and the goats) are metaphorically hungry, or thirsty, or the stranger, or feel naked, or feel themselves a prisoner.
  • It can also be somewhere to exercise the gifts and talents that God has given us by making things, providing services that help improve make people’s lives.  And if we’re successful in that we can also create employment for others than gives them dignity, and enables them to support their families. And in doing that also create wealth that can then be shared with others.
  • It can be a place where we seek healing for God’s creation by working for fairness and ethics in our own business, and by encouraging that business to contribute to the common good of the community and society around it.
  • And it can be a place where we bring our experience of Jesus to others – not usually by overtly preaching, to be sure, but more by the example of the way we lead our lives and treat others, while being open about our Christian belief and motivation.

The possibilities are so widespread and so far-reaching.  It has been a remarkable, and unexpected gift to me.

But to be very clear this is not just my opportunity, not just a gift to me, but all of yours also.  First, you students: Education isn’t just about learning things and acquiring skills. Much more than that it’s about learning how to live complete, full and fulfilling lives.  As you consider what your lives will be, potentially working for the next 40 years, envisioning the whole world as something God cares about and somewhere where you can make a difference is your opportunity, is your choice, is your calling.  And, you, my friends, the people of St Martin’s, the living stones of this church, this is also your vocation.  During the week, in your workplaces, in your everyday lives you have this opportunity – this gift – to be God’s ministers of healing and reconciliation through your simple daily actions.  You can be – you are — the laborers in the harvest God calls us to be.  This, for each one of you, is your vocation.

But, for me, there’s still one tricky question that relates to the story I told you at the beginning. And it’s this: why did I need to train to be a priest, to be ordained, to do what any decent human being should anyway do?  I once had a conversation with Bishop Richard who wondered aloud exactly that.  As I’ve just done, I tried to explain all the good things I could do in the workplace.  Yes, yes, he said, but you could do that as a deacon or a layperson; why do you need to be a priest? Somewhat deflated, I had no answer.

But I think there is answer, and, as so often on my spiritual journey, it was supplied by Sam Wells.  The role of the priest, he told me, is to bring bread and wine to the altar.  To bring everyday things, the things of this imperfect world, into the presence of God.  And there, through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, have God transform them into sacrament that nourishes and heals; into sacrament that reconciles us with the world, with each other, and with God.

Now, this priestly role can be done in a literal way in a church, as we are just about to do; but it can also be done metaphorically elsewhere, including at work.  The priest can bring that damaged, broken piece of God’s creation that is the workplace, can bring it to God’s altar, in light of Christ’s sacrifice, and there it too can be transformed into sacrament – something that once again nourishes, heals and reconciles. To adapt an old phrase, a priest – even when no one may be listening – can bring the workplace to God, and God to the workplace, creating in that space something sacramental.

I have never talked about this quite so openly before, but this church, this congregation, have nourished me on my personal journey over the past ten years, and so I tell you this now by way of thanks.  I believe I was called to be not only a Christian in the workplace, but also a priest in that place.  Called in order to help bring together at that workplace altar our deepest needs and God’s love for everything – everything – that he has made.  Called to bring about at that altar, in that place, reconciliation, healing, and grace.  For that again I thank you.  And for that I thank with all my heart the God first who brought me here, and now who sends me out again. Amen.