Monday, October 19, 2020

“We’re All Essential” - September 6, 2020

Text: 1 Corinthians 12:12-20


I got a haircut this past week.  It was the second time I had gone to the barber shop since the pandemic started.  I thought about just letting it go and trying to recreate the hairstyle I had as an 18 or 19 year old college student, but I just can’t pull it off anymore.  And at some point it starts to get on my nerves, so I get a haircut.

Well, my barber is on Welch Avenue.  I headed over a couple of blocks, I went in and sat down in the chair and I said, “Mark, you are working in a war zone!”  It was true in more than one way.  Welch Avenue is completely torn up, as they are putting a new sewer line in.  There is a chain link fence along the sidewalk on either side of the street, and the rest of it is a chaos with bulldozers and dust and assorted construction debris.  It’s a mess.

Of course, you can’t park nearby, and even when they finish the project, they are adding bike lanes and wider sidewalks for pedestrians but getting rid of street parking.  So his barber shop is not easily accessible and it’s not going to get that much better.  Another barber had a chair in his shop for years, but she left close to two years ago when the city announced it would eliminate street parking on Welch.  It’s not an easy time for my barber.

But that is not the only difficulty he’s facing.  Right now, it is not even the main difficulty he is facing.  There is a pandemic going on.  For a couple of days last week, Ames led the nation in new COVID-19 cases per capita.  And here is Mark on Welch Avenue, maybe the epicenter of the epicenter.  He’s wearing a mask, customers wear masks, but it is pretty hard to socially distance when you are cutting somebody’s hair.  And he’s in the vulnerable age group.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, established as a federal holiday to honor workers and commemorate their contributions and struggles to bring justice and dignity to the workplace and to society.  And this year we may be thinking about Labor a little differently.  We may be thinking about work a little differently.  There is this phrase that has become a regular part of the vocabulary: essential workers.

In a way, it is a problematic phrase because it implies that the rest of us are not so essential.  But I appreciate that this has shone the spotlight on a number of folks whose labors may go unappreciated, or underappreciated.

Think of all the people without whom we would not have food on our tables, or houses to live in, or clothes to wear.  Think of all the people who make it possible for us to have electricity to light and cool our homes, automobiles to drive, computers to connect to the world.  Think of child care workers who make it possible for so many of us to work.  
Think of those workers without whom garbage would pile up on the street.  And not just garbage; think of those folks who haul off the piles of tree limbs after a derecho.  It’s essential work.  Think of those who stock the shelves at grocery stores, or help us figure out what kind of gadget we need at the hardware store.  With many people trying not to venture out, think of the army of folks who deliver groceries and restaurant orders, and of course pizzas.

What about factory workers who manufacture and assemble the things we need, including just now masks and gloves and hand sanitizer?  And think of all those in shipping and receiving and transporting the goods and food we depend on.

And for goodness sakes, don’t forget the barbers.

We could go on and on.  And maybe that is the point here: our work is important.  All kinds of work are important.  All work that helps and builds up and supports and contributes to a good and just and healthy society can be God’s work.

In this strange and uncertain time we are living in, we have perhaps been made more aware of that.  I am so grateful for teachers and all who have a part in education.  I am so grateful for doctors and nurses and healthcare workers who put their lives on the line in the midst of a pandemic.  I am so grateful for scientists and researchers who look to solve problems and improve the way we live and find cures to disease.  I am grateful for public servants who truly serve their communities and for first responders who are there in times of need.   God bless them all.

Many of us spend a big portion of our waking hours either working or getting ready to work or thinking about work or maybe complaining about our work, so this is worth considering in light of our faith.

The fact is, a lot of people are nervous about their jobs, particularly in this time we are living through.  Folks are concerned about holding onto their jobs if they have one or finding a job if they don’t.  

My dad worked for the same company his entire adult life.  That is increasingly rare.  He worked for Whirlpool, making refrigerators.  At one time, Whirlpool employed 10,000 people in Evansville, Indiana.  Now when we go to visit my parents, we drive by the massive Whirlpool plant that has been mostly shuttered: all of the jobs have been eliminated or moved elsewhere, many out of the country.  A small manufacturer is now in the building but probably uses about a tenth of the space, if that.   

The workplace is changing; a longterm study by the Bureau of Labor Statictics found that on average, held 11.7 different jobs between age 18 and 48.  That number is actually declining slightly, but it is much higher than it was for my dad’s generation.  Another phenomenon of the contemporary workplace is that the gulf between those who earn the most and those who earn the least continues to widen.  One study showed that in 2018, the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies made on average 278 times more than the typical worker.  In 1989, it was 58 to 1.  In 1965, it was 20 to 1.  

And all those essential workers?  Many of them are making minimum wage, which is not enough to live on, not enough to afford even a very basic place to live.  I don’t begrudge superstars and celebrities and business tycoons who make millions of dollars, at least I try not to, but it seems that there are folks who do not get the respect and appreciation they deserve.

The scriptures actually speak to this.  Jere read for us this morning from 1 Corinthians chapter 12.  Paul is speaking of the church, using the image of the body.  All parts are important.  You might say that all members of the body are essential.  All play a valuable and necessary role.  The brain and the heart and the lungs might think they are the parts that really matter, but if your kidney is on the fritz, you are in trouble, and if your little toe is in terrible pain, it affects the whole body.  In verse 26, Paul goes on to say, “If one member suffers, we all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, we all rejoice together with it.”

While this metaphor of the body is true in the Church, I think this also holds true for life in general.  

On the Labor Day weekend, we might do well to think of those whose labor gets overlooked.  And we might also think about those in the church whose efforts can go unnoticed.  Without these “unsung heroes” of all ages, candles would not be lit and choir anthems would not be heard in worship services.  Or worship would go unbroadcast.  

We begin Church School classes next Sunday and we are thankful for those who teach and who make classes possible.  We give thanks for those who work with children and youth and those who greet worshipers, even Zoom worshipers.  Think of those who keep the building and grounds maintained and who prepare the church dinners.  And think of those who are encouragers and supporters and comforters and pray-ers and helpers and so many who give generously to support all that we do.

Labor Day is a good time to be reminded of all those in our church - in our churches - who often go unnoticed.  And then, what about our families?  Is it possible that there are family members whose labors go unnoticed?  Who shops for groceries?  Prepares the meals?  Cleans the house?  Does the laundry?  Mows the lawn?  Manages the finances?  Takes out the garbage?  Helps the kids with their homework?  Runs a chauffer service for soccer and dance and piano lessons and school activities?  Who helps to lift everyone’s spirits?  Who is a positive and comforting presence?

Labor Day reminds us that there are a lot of people who play important roles in our community, in our church, and in our lives and whose labors may be taken for granted.  Yet they are essential.

All work is important. And for us as followers of Jesus, how we go about our work is important too.  Ephesians 4:28 says that we are to “labor and work honestly so that we may share with the needy.”

What does it mean to work honestly?  There are people who spend half of their day playing computer games or checking social media, forcing everyone else to work harder.  Part of our calling as Christians in the workplace is to give an honest day’s work.  

And part of being a Christian at work means doing quality work.  Our faith calls us to do more than just a shoddy, halfway job.  If I’m having my car repaired, I’ll take a dependable atheist who does quality work over a garage with Christian fish symbols on their sign but incompetent mechanics.  Following Jesus should make a difference in the kind of work we do.  And when we are not working honestly, as the scripture says, we are hurting the whole body.

Now, not all of us are employed in a paying job.  Some are retired or on disability, some work in the home, some are students.  Some may be looking for work.  Think of your occupation as the daily activity in which you spend the most time and energy.  Whatever that is, it is a place in which people of faith are needed.  We need caring, compassionate people in the laboratory and the grocery store and the doctor’s office.  We need caring and compassionate parents.  We need people of faith in the neighborhood and out in the community and at Northcrest.

This Labor Day, let us remember those who struggle with matters of meaningful employment.  Let us honor all people for all useful work and especially remember those who may be overlooked or unappreciated.  And above all, let us remember that our first calling, our highest vocation, is not to any particular job, but simply to be followers of Jesus.  Amen.

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