Last week was Black History month, and we as Quakers had a role to play after God convicted us and we not only gave the slaves Quakers held their freedom, but worked at emancipation. The reason why I bring this up is because this week’s text deals with the matter of slavery, and we cannot discuss slavery in our context without acknowledging the legacy of American slavery and the generational poverty that arose from it. There are key differences between the slavery of our history and that of the Roman world, as well as some unfortunate similarities. One of the key differences was the amount of power that Christians had access to in terms of changing fundamental cultural norms. Christians of Peter’s day did not have the cultural influence that was held at the time of American slavery, so Peter’s instruction to them reflects that reality. While the evils of slavery still exist, it is not a highly visible part of life for us, but there are principles in today’s text that can be gleaned and used to benefit our witness in our time and relationships. If you haven’t already, open your bible up to 1Peter 2:18.
18If you are a slave, submit yourself to the master who has authority over you, whether he is kind and gentle or harsh as he deals with you. 19For grace is clearly at work when a person accepts undeserved pain and suffering and does so because he is mindful of God. 20For what credit is there in enduring punishment you deserve? But if you do what is right and yet are punished and endure it patiently, God will be pleased with you. 21-22For you were called to this kind of life, as Isaiah said, “He did no wrong deed, and no evil word came from His mouth. The Anointed One suffered for us and left us His example so that we could follow in His steps. 23When He was verbally abused, He didn’t return the abuse; when He suffered, He didn’t make threats to cause suffering in return; instead, He trusted that all would be put right by the One who is just when He judges.” 24He took on our sins in His body when He died on the cross so that we, being dead to sin, can live for righteousness. As the Scripture says, “Through His wounds, you were healed.” 25For there was a time when you were like sheep that wandered from the fold, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your lives. 1Peter 2:18-25
Last week during open worship, we heard quite a bit about the work environments that challenge our witness. I think everyone here can point to at least one experience in which the work environment was toxic, and I am sure that some of you are in toxic work environments. Here is the hard part that the beginning of this section points to. When you behave in ways that aren’t toxic and you are in a toxic environment, there will be a cost to you. Peter doesn’t try to sugar coat the ways Christ-like behavior can give us Christ-like results: undeserved pain and suffering. The emphasis is emphatically on undeserved suffering, because there are times when we fail spectacularly at living up to the measure of love God has given us. I lost a very good friend for a while when I violated our friendship for my own selfish ends, and I know of ministers of the gospel who fell in highly illegal ways that rightly served jail time for their misdeeds. We are not immune from temptation, and it is within our church community that we can find accountability to help us resist. When we step away from accountability it becomes much easier to take actions we would never do in the full light of others’ view. Peter is writing not to individuals, but to the community of faith and it is important to remember that the witness is not just mine or yours, but ours. The witness of “those Christians” impacts our witness as much as our witness impacts theirs.
Last week we talked about the way our interactions with the government impact our witness, but for most of us that is not an everyday occurrence. We have business interactions much more frequently, and it is in the way we go about our business that our witness is frequently displayed. There was a movie that came out a while ago called Office Space and in its funny and somewhat crude way it explored some of the basic dishonesties that underlay the business world. I would play a clip for you, but I don’t want to offend with language use, so I will read some of the script instead. The scene is a conference room in which two consultants are interviewing employees with an eye on downsizing.
BOB SLYDELL: Aha! All right. We were just talking about you. You must be Peter Gibbons. Uh huh. Terrific. I’m Bob Slydell and this is my associate, Bob Porter.
PETER: Hi, Bob. Bob.
BOB PORTER: Why don’t you grab a seat and join us for a minute?
He does so.
BOB SLYDELL: Y’see, what we’re trying to do here, we’re just trying to get a feel for how people spend their day. So, if you would, would you just walk us through a typical day for you?
BOB SLYDELL: Great.
PETER: Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late. I use the side door, that way Lumbergh can’t see me. Uh, and after that, I just sorta space out for about an hour.
BOB PORTER: Space out?
PETER: Yeah. I just stare at my desk but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch too. I’d probably, say, in a given week, I probably do about fifteen minutes of real, actual work.
BOB SLYDELL: Uh, Peter, would you be a good sport and indulge us and tell us a little more?
PETER: Let me tell you something about TPS reports…’
Cut to later. Peter is more relaxed.
PETER: The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy. It’s just that I just don’t care.
BOB PORTER: Don’t, don’t care?
PETER: It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now, if I work my tail off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime. So where’s the motivation? And here’s another thing, Bob. I have eight different bosses right now!
BOB SLYDELL: I beg your pardon?
PETER: Eight bosses.
BOB SLYDELL: Eight?
PETER: Eight, Bob. So that means when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my real motivation – not to be hassled. That and the fear of losing my job, but y’know, Bob, it will only make someone work hard enough not to get fired.
BOB SLYDELL: Bear with me for a minute.
BOB SLYDELL: Believe me, this is hypothetical. But what if you were offered some kind of stock option and equity sharing program?
PETER: I don’t know. I guess. Listen, I’m gonna go. It’s been a pleasure talking to you guys.
He shakes their hands.
BOB SLYDELL: Absolutely. The pleasure’s all on this side of the table, trust me.
PETER: Good luck with your layoffs. I hope your firings go really well.
That is a level of honesty that seems to only work out in comedy. Quite often we see that the wheels of business as usual are greased with dishonesty. When I worked in the tech world, it was a common practice to pad expense reports. I think what really clued me in to just how common an occurrence this is was when I just finished paying for a cab ride and the cabbie asked me if I want the receipt from the last person to ride as well. I was confused. I naively asked the driver why I would want someone else’s receipt. He looked at me like I was from another planet and said “For your expense report of course.” And yes the tone of the driver’s voice had an echo of the word “Duh” in it. The driver was amazed that it might never had occurred to someone to falsify an expense report, and when I talked to some of the other techs I was told that everyone did it and that I should as well so that I don’t upset the status quo. I didn’t last long in that job, but because of the ways I interacted with the people around me a witness happened.
After last week’s sermon someone shared with me how their work environment is filled with backbiting, slander, and generally tearing each other down in order to look better. They went on to tell me that since they are working at not being involved with that behavior they have become a confidant to some of their coworkers and are seen as the peacemaker of their job. That is a witness to the difference God makes in our life. The results don’t always pan out from the perspectives of worldly success, but a seed is planted. From an eternal perspective those seeds are worth more than anything the greatest successes of the world can give us. When Price talked about taking the verbal abuse that came with some of his calls it fit right in with this week’s scripture. In many of the working situations we find ourselves in, the master of the situation is the customer, and when we do not respond in kind with abuse, it places the person being abusive in a position to recognize or choose to ignore that they are making a moral decision in their actions. In Peter’s time, it was common that whole households would convert to following Jesus as a result of one slave’s witness. The people who had the most contact with them came to Christ because they experienced a better way: The way of Jesus.
It seems like everyone might be used to people telling them that better ways were possible. Everything around us seems to be telling us about better, new, improved ways of doing the same old things. It is a game changer when we step up and demonstrate that there is a better way that takes us out from the bondage to the same old cycles of abuse which displays the grace and mercy of God. We get to show that another way is not just possible, but that the best possible way is here, being lived out in everyday life by everyday people. We have the opportunity to show everyone around us the grace of God exemplified in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The truth of the good news can come into our daily business decisions and open the way for others to experience a way of life that supports their integrity, and not just our own.
This is actually one of the core testimonies of the Friends that: “Nowhere is the practical working of our faith put to a severer test than in the conduct of our ordinary work and business, yet nowhere is there a nobler and more fruitful witness to be borne.” When I first heard this testimony, I agreed with it, but it sounded like the Friends might have been a bit delusional in how much impact this really had. Well, my mentor Stan asked me if I had been in a grocery store lately. I bit back my sarcastic reply and he explained how the Friends’ witness to integrity led them to set fixed prices on everything, before Quakers became shopkeepers you haggled for everything, and how much you got depended on how good you were at haggling or on whether the shopkeeper liked you. The Quakers instead put fair prices on everything and refused to haggle so that a 7 year old would get the same price as a 30 year old or someone they would have been tempted to cheat received grace. They lost business at first because of this refusal to haggle or to treat people differently based on their social status, but the knowledge that you were going to be treated fairly regardless of any exterior circumstance became attractive after you got cheated by someone else. The practice of set prices eventually became widespread once enough shops and trades workers lost customers to Quaker businesses.
What we see here is more than just the world being changed, but something else as well. When God’s people display integrity in our business dealings, no matter who we are dealing with and no matter the perceived benefits that could come from bending to dishonest business norms, we demonstrate the truth and faithfulness of Jesus. When we are honest and faithful, even in the face of dishonesty and abuse of power over us that reflects on our God. I desperately want people to believe my words when I tell them that Jesus took my brokenness on himself that I might live in right relationship with God, humanity and the entire created order, and that he died that they could we all can be freed from the ways of broken, abusive, and dominating relationships that we call sin. In order to witness to truth of the gospel we must no longer wander, but stay close to the example of our Shepherd and Savior Jesus Christ. Let us seek him together in a listening communion of open worship seeking to hear his voice and his voice alone. Let us pray.
Office Space. Directed by Mike Judge. Performed by Ron Livingston, & Jennifer Aniston. 1999.
Lucas, Sidney. The Quaker Message. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1948.