The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland concluded last weekend with leaders of business and governments from around the world reaching a consensus on the global economic crisis.  The consensus was not a specific solution to the problem, but rather, on the outlook for the world's economy in 2009.  In a word: dismal.  Some predict that as many as 50 million people around the world may lose their jobs.  "The pain of rising unemployment, home foreclosures, bankruptcies and poverty is only beginning to be felt."1  The Editor-in-Chief of Foreign Policy Magazine, USA predicts, that as the year progresses, and more and more people lose their jobs and their homes, there will be "huge political repercussions around the globe...with governments failing in many countries."

The ground beneath our feet grows more unstable each day as bad news on the economy rains down like great boulders from above.  Our confidence in the future is on life support because we have no idea how much worse things will get before we turn the proverbial corner. 

I cannot remember when people have been as angry as they are today.  In casual conversations, fury and frustration erupt quickly.  People are mad at the hedge fund managers who put together pyramid schemes, they're mad at the clueless CEOs who took government bailout money and continued to live lavish lifestyles, they're mad at the mortgage lenders who made bad loans and then passed them along to others, they're mad at the people who bought far more house than they could afford, they're mad at the people in government who ignored the regulators and the list seems endless.

 As people of faith, how should we respond to this crisis?  Is there anything we can do to help people within our church family and people beyond our walls who have been or will be clobbered by this economic meltdown?  These are questions we need to ponder and to discuss, and perhaps we can glean a few insights by reflecting on the way people of faith dealt with a calamity centuries ago.

The crisis for us to scrutinize this morning occurred 2,500 years ago and is described in the Book of Isaiah.  It tells the story of the Hebrew people who have recently returned to Jerusalem after living for decades in exile in Babylon.  The people had believed that once they finally returned to their homeland, life would be splendid.  After being held in bondage in a foreign land, they were free.  They were free to rebuild their lives and free to rebuild their nation.  They believed it was the dawn of a glorious new age for Israel.

However, the reality of their new situation was not kind.  They were free from foreign dominance, but their economic, political and religious structures had been decimated.  They were free all right; free to live in poverty and chaos.  And as time went on, and there were no signs of recovery from their crisis, they began to lose hope.  Their religious leaders encouraged the people to fast and pray, which they did; but the struggle did not ease and God seemed insensitive to their plight.

In chapter 58, the prophet clarifies the situation for the people by declaring that the community is not thriving because they are on the wrong side of God.  "Wrong side?" the people complain, "We fast and pray but God doesn't even notice!"

People of faith have often believed that if they are in the midst of a disaster, the solution is to pray to God to straighten everything out.   However, this text from Isaiah lifts up the question: What happens when prayers go nowhere?  What happens when we pray and we pray, but the silence is deafening?  Today's text pushes us to consider whether God is expecting something different from us.

Many Christians act as if one of their basic religious duties is to inform God of what needs to be done, as if God is not paying close attention.  Some are as silly and as selfish as "Dear God, I really need a parking place close to the building this morning."  Some are as pathetic as "God, I need a winning ticket in the lottery."  Some try to add a little leverage by bargaining with God: "Lord, if my loved one survives this surgery, I will start going to church every Sunday."  Then, some move away from self to the welfare of others.  "God, please feed the hungry and end the wars."

Yet, I think even these prayers miss the mark and are heard by God much like the prayers and fasting of the Hebrew people who had returned to Jerusalem following years in exile.  I think God replies "Is this the kind of prayer you think I want to hear?  Dear God, we have made a mess, would you please fix it?"

In today's passage, when the Hebrew people whine to God: "Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?"  God replies, "You think you express your devotion by starving yourself and putting on a public display of humility, while simultaneously mistreating your workers and quarreling with each other?  You are clueless!  Here is what I want: Break the chains of injustice.  Treat each other with love and fairness.  And then several specific actions are listed: Quit exploiting your workers, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless and make yourself available to your family.

In other words, God is looking for prayers that are expressed not merely with words, but through moral action.  The more I understand the Scriptures and the harder I seek to live a faithful life, the more I become convinced that God replies to our prayers by saying "Do not call on me to act unilaterally - this is a partnership.  If you want to upgrade conditions in the world, you do your part and I'll do mine."  The Creator of the cosmos is not here to clean up the messes we make, but rather to show us how to prevent the messes.  And when that fails, God encourages us to link arms with one another and to follow divine principles when devising solutions.

This passage is one of numerous passages in the Bible that says, "Here is what faithfulness to God is: It is acting with love and justice."  Acting with love and justice.  It is that simple; and it is that difficult.  It is the mandate of the Old Testament prophets and it is the commandment of Jesus.  God urges us to care about each other and to make sure that everyone gets a fair shake.  It drives God crazy when we fail to reach out with compassion to people who are hurting, or we do not do what we can to level the playing field.

Several of the participants in last week's World Economic Forum said the underlying problem that precipitated the collapse of the financial markets was the loss of moral values. Stephen Green of HSBC Bank in the United Kingdom said that "values that once served the system well have seen gradual erosion."  He said, "This is about values that have developed in the markets in recent years.  We have moved from the old cliché 'my word is bond' to a culture and atmosphere that says, 'if there's a market for it, and I have a contract, and it's legal, that's it;  I don't need to think about the underlying right or wrong (of it)."2 

Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo said that "Moving forward, the moral order and not the legal order has to prevail...Capitalism has to be tempered by sound values and not just those that worship the almighty buck."3 

Jim Wallis of Sojourners says this economic crisis is the result of a spiritual crisis.  Very simply, people lost their values.  People believed that "it wasn't necessary to bring virtue to bear on (economic) decisions...and the common good (could be ignored)." Wallis points out that "Gandhi's seven deadly social sins seem an accurate diagnosis for some of the causes of this crisis." 4  The first three are: politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality.

The current economic crisis presents us with challenges and opportunities.  As people of faith, are we going to be passive spectators and watch others in high positions deal with this disaster, or are we going to do everything in our power to minimize the suffering?  We need to think about ways we can respond both individually and as a church to what is happening around us.

The worst thing we can do in a crisis is to become immobilized.  We must not give in to the idea that there is nothing we can do to make a difference.  Any act that alleviates suffering, dispels fear or eases anxiety is worth the effort.  Any act that arouses courage, creates determination or inspires hope may save a life.

Each of us has a decision to make.  We can think of ourselves as helpless victims or empowered disciples.  We can cry, "Poor me!" or we can pitch in and ask, "What can I do to help?"

We can begin by engaging in a time of self examination.   Keeping in mind that nearly half of the people in the world live on less than one thousand dollars a year, we can put our own plight into perspective.  We can look at what we have and be grateful; and then we can look into our souls and ask: Are we spending our time on what Christ wants us to be doing and are we using our wealth to expand God's kingdom?  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."

When was the last time you contributed food or money to a food pantry?  Did it represent a sacrifice or was it simply spare change?  Could you serve meals to people who are hungry?  Could you lend a patient ear to someone who needs to pour out her pain?

What can we do as a community of faith?  If people lose their homes, how can we help them?  Do we need to create support groups for people who lose their jobs?  Would it be helpful to provide classes on managing money?  What can we do to help people understand that their worth is not tied to their wealth?  What can we do to remind our leaders to focus not on those with clout, but on the common good?  How can we remind people that even though greed has become fashionable in some quarters, it corrodes the soul and destroys community?  It is faithfulness to God, not surrender to the temptations of greed, that will see us through these turbulent times and help us lay a firm foundation for a better tomorrow.

When the great New York preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick retired, he moved to an elegant New York suburb.  He rode the train back into the city routinely, because he kept an office in Manhattan.  At some point, he realized that something unusual happened during each ride.  As the train passed over 128th Street, a fellow commuter would pull the window shade down and close his eyes.  Fosdick's curiosity got the best of him and one day he asked the man, "Why do you pull the shade down every morning at the same spot?"  The man replied, "I was born in that slum and I find it painful to remember it.  Besides, there's nothing I can do about it."  After a sympathetic silence, the old pastor responded, "I don't mean to poke around in your private life, but the least you could do is keep the shade up."5  Let's make sure that we keep our shades up.  Let's make sure that we keep our eyes and our hearts open.  And let's make sure that we keep our hands and feet ready to serve. 

Later in this morning's service, we will ordain and install our new class of deacons and elders.  Every elder, deacon and minister of the word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is asked a question that is actually a question directed at ALL people of faith:  It asks, "Will you show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?"

That is the question God is placing before us as people are being hurt by this economic crisis.  Will we show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?  Will we?


  1. From a panel discussion moderated by Nik Gowing, "The Global Agenda for 2009: The View from Davos," on the World Economic Forum website.
  2. From a paned discussion moderated by Maria Ramos, "The Values behind Market Capitalism," on the World Economic Forum website.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Jim Wallis, "Davos: How Will This Crisis Change Us?" on SojoMail January 30, 2009.
  5. Joanna M. Adams, "Purple Mountain Majesties," January 18, 2009.