Dean Lloyd: “The Work of Our Days”
Every year we arrive at Labor Day with what I suspect are mixed feelings. This weekend marks the official end of summer—how did it go so fast? And it also marks the launch of another busy fall with schools in session, work intensifying, and life in general ratcheting up. We’ll have our last gasp of easy living tomorrow, and then on Tuesday morning it’s off to work.
Work. Labor. We devote major amounts of our lives to work, whether it’s inside the home or out, whether it’s in positions of great responsibility or we’re on our own. We Americans seem to have complex feelings about our working life. For one thing, we often have our identities tied up in our work. Start up a conversation with someone and the second or third question you will likely ask is, “What do you do?” The vast proportion of Americans say they would work even if they didn’t have to, but a large number would also say that they don’t find their jobs very rewarding.
For more than 100 years now our nation has officially observed Labor Day as a legal holiday. The idea for it came from a union leader in the 1880s who thought there ought to be a holiday to honor working people. While for most of us this weekend has become one last three-day fling of summertime, its original vision was to be an occasion to hold up the rights of workers to fair wages and decent working conditions.
One of the remarkable things about our working life is the way it puts us in touch with so many levels of society. You might try an exercise this weekend of listing the different places you’ve worked through the years, and think about the different people you met, the issues they faced, the lives they led. I tried my hand at a quick list: daily delivery of the Washington Star, pumping gas for a dollar an hour, bagging groceries and taking them to people’s cars, sacking seed brought in from the fields and working in clouds of dust that took months to get out of my lungs, traveling as an assistant auditor for small businesses, selling men’s clothes, serving as a personnel officer in the military, a college professor, a chaplain, a parish priest.
Each of those jobs connected me to a different part of the labor force that we depend on: farmers and grocers, garment workers and retailers, oil and gas. We rely on a vast network of labor every day. And the list of essential jobs could go on and on: bus drivers and police officers, nurses and bankers, engineers and assembly line workers. “Our common life depends upon each other’s toil,” our Prayer Book says. If Labor Day had no other purpose it would be enough to give thanks for the labor of the countless thousands who make our lives possible here this morning.
But Labor Day can also encourage us to think more about the Christian meaning of work. We Christians believe that God cares about our work, our vocation or calling, and that in some way God’s purposes are involved in the work we do. Sometimes the Bible talks about work simply as toil, as in the ancient story of the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden and are told that they will toil all their days to get enough to eat. But in the Psalms work is often seen as a positive blessing. “You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands,” God says in Psalm 128. The Psalm we heard today sees work as an act of building and creativity, “Prosper the work of our hands, O Lord.”
Even the founders of our faith had day jobs. Jesus was the son of a carpenter, and I would bet was something of a carpenter himself. Several of the early disciples were fishermen; one was a tax collector, another a physician. St. Paul, who built the early church, made his living as a tentmaker.
In the Christian tradition the terms work, calling, and vocation often get blurred. For one thing, we often speak of clergy as having been “called” to ordained ministry, but we rarely speak of lawyers or firemen as having a calling. It was the great Reformer Martin Luther in the 1500s who challenged the notion that only clergy receive callings from God by declaring that one’s daily work is a calling, and that no one calling is more special in the eyes of God than another. He puts it this way:
Only look at your tools, your needle, your thimble, your beer barrel, your articles of trade, your scales, your measures, and you will find this saying written on them. ‘My dear, use me toward your neighbor as you would want him to act toward you with that which is his.’ None of the things with which you deal daily are too trifling…You have as many preachers as there are transactions, commodities, tools and other implements in your house and estate…
We all have the same calling, the church came to say, to love and serve God with our whole lives. That is our first mission, our primary vocation. And then we choose an occupation, a job, a way of making a living that is our way of carrying out that fundamental calling. That means that all of us are, in a way, priests called to worship God in our everyday work. A carpenter’s workbench is his altar, an office administrator’s desk is her altar, the cab of a truck driver is his altar, a lap is a mother’s altar, and a conference table where a new business project is taking shape can be a holy table.
For some of us our work is clearly an expression of our larger calling, so that what we do with our days feels like our daily offering to God. Many people in the professions feel that way. But for many, work is often not fulfilling and doesn’t express a great deal of who people are, and they have to endure much of it for the sake of bringing home a paycheck. And for many more work is simply degrading, a threat to their dignity or integrity, which is often the case with many unskilled or marginal jobs.
We could name a stream of people whose life work has clearly embodied a vocation or calling. There is Greg Mortenson, who in his book Three Cups of Tea describes climbing in Pakistan the world’s second highest mountain, becoming ill and being nursed back to health in a remote village, and out of that experience resolving to make building schools in Pakistan his life’s work.
But people have taken much less notable tasks and nevertheless have managed to do God’s work through them. In Friday’s Washington Post was a front page article about Ron Hillyer, a school custodian at Janney Elementary in nearby Tenleytown, who is retiring after 32 years of cleaning school buildings. According to the Post reporter, Hillyard’s job involved scrubbing human waste off a playground at one school and discarding the burnt bottle caps of drug users from another, but now a hallway in the school is being named after him to honor the encouragement and acts of kindness he brought to the youngsters in the school through the years. He has managed to take maybe one of the least rewarding of jobs and make of it a godly vocation.
Labor Day, though, calls us especially to focus on what is happening to people in the workplace, and no one needs to tell you that this is not an easy time for workers. Although unemployment is running at nearly 10%, when you add in all those who have given up looking for work, some are saying it is twice that. And that means people are not only struggling to make ends meet, they are often wrestling with what being out of work can do to one’s own sense of value. Over half a century ago Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple described the spiritual pain of not having a job this way: “The greatest evil and bitterest injury of unemployment is not the animal grievance of hunger and discomfort, not even the mental grievance of vacuity and boredom; it is the spiritual grievance of being allowed no opportunity of contributing to the general life and welfare of the community.”
And a major problem in the workforce now is the fact that people at the bottom of the workforce simply aren’t earning enough to keep themselves and their families out of poverty. Several years ago journalist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a powerful book called Nickel and Dimed, describing her experience when she decided to go undercover as an entry level worker in several fields. She wanted to experience what it was like to try to survive on the $6 or $7 an hour income that many low earners receive. She started in Key West, Florida, and worked for several months as a waitress, later travelled to Maine where she worked as a housecleaning maid, and finally found a job as a sales clerk in a Walmart in Minneapolis.
Ehrenreich describes the near impossibility of being able to rent housing, pay for food, arrange transportation, on the meager paycheck she received every week. She also reports how physically demanding, uninteresting, and often degrading her jobs were. Constant and repeated movements led to repetitive stress injuries among her co-workers, and physical pain just had to be endured or else someone would take your job. Virtually no one was able to survive on what they were making, and many were driven to hold down two full-time jobs.
Ehrenreich wants us to see the injustice of paying people who are doing society’s most dreary and demeaning work wages so low that no individual or family can survive on them.
When someone works for less pay than she can live on [she says]…she has made a great sacrifice for you. The ‘working poor’…are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.
In the spirit of Labor Day, let us hold up the struggles of those for whom labor is drudgery, whose wages are not living wages, and whose prospects of a better life are often dim. We need to be on the side of a just, fair, living wage for every worker.
And on this Labor Day let us give thanks for all the people whose labors make our lives possible, and give thanks for our jobs, too.
God doesn’t seem all that interested in what job we have. Let us find work that makes our hearts sing if we can, and if we can’t, let us find good work that pays the bills, do it well, and look for ways to use our gifts and skills to glorify God, and to make this a more decent, humane world for everyone.
God has work for each of us to do. “Prosper the work of our hands, O God. Prosper the work of our hands.”