If You Are Able, Earn Your Keep (Sermon 1 in Series: Pathways to Personal Fulfillment)

Monday, tomorrow, is our country’s holiday intended to celebrate those jobs that make it possible for us who aren’t independently wealthy to support ourselves and our loved ones.  Many of these jobs allow us, to greater or lesser degrees, to make contributions to betterment of humanity–one person at a time or whole groups through job tasks well done.  It is a privilege to have both the health and the job opportunities that allow us to be and remain meaningfully employed.
Those who have health issues that prevent them from working are not supposed to feel guilty because they are unable to work.  They are not drains on those who do work, and their value to families and to society as a whole equals those who work.
I have a great job–at least I did before I left for an eight-week study leave, and if anything has changed as to my employment status no one has yet told me.  I love being the pastor of a theologically progressive, socially responsible and active and amazingly diverse congregation where there’s all the fresh air in the world for thinking one’s own thoughts along the lifelong pathway of searching for truth.  You could call us a community of eccentrics, and that would be correct as long as you didn’t think we lacked a unifying thread or reason for being.  Actually, there are two.  One I’ve already mentioned:  joining together in the search for truth, not expecting to come out at the same place along the way or at the end of the journey.  The other unifying principle for the Silverside seekers’ community is the commitment we have to each other to care and to be there to celebrate with each other when rejoicing is in order as well as to be there to encourage and support each other when times get tough; and times do get tough.  In that vein, I’d like to thank our Deacons, a few members and friends who have no special church appointment but who have the gift and the calling to minister to the sick and struggling and suffering, and to the Reverend Gordon Umberger for taking the lead in caring for those who were ill and those who lost loved ones while I was away from Wilmington for my study leave.

So, as far as I know at this moment, I left a job that I loved, and I’ve returned to that same place still employed.  The pastor of my former congregation in New Orleans didn’t fair as well as I did in that department.  Two years into his ministry, he was having some conflicts with strong-willed congregants; this end of one’s second year in a ministry is as predictable as the “terrible twos” in growing children.  He left some of these conflicts unresolved and went on a one month study leave and vacation.  He came back to find that while he was gone a small group of detractors, with many members away on vacation themselves, had put into place a series of planned confrontations whereby he would rather quickly lose his job, and he did.  He wasn’t fired out right; he was given the opportunity to resign or be out on the streets with only one more paycheck in hand.

He’s not terribly experienced; he’s not a newbie by any means, but he’s only 35 years old.  His wife doesn’t work outside their home, and they have three children.  My former congregation, and shame on them, did not do all they could have done and should have done to repair the criticisms of the pastor of which most congregants were completely unaware.

This young pastor is not a personal friend, though we have talked from time to time before and during his two year tenure.  He seems very gifted to me, and every word that had floated north from New Orleans for the last two years was exceptionally positive.  In his inexperience, he didn’t respond in the best of all possible ways to what he justifiably took as threats to his livelihood, but the church is–or at least was–mature enough to handle this and help him not hang himself; it’s a congregation membered by more lawyers than should ever be allowed to descend on a single faith community!

I’ve been on the phone, on Facebook, and on email hours and hours the last couple of weeks trying to do my very limited bit as a former pastor to help remediate a situation that didn’t have to end the way it has ended.  I’m not regarded by most members of that present congregation, many of whom don’t know who I am since I’ve been gone some twenty-one years, as someone who could be called on to help them solve their problems.  I did, though, love the place and have kept in touch with a few people, as many as wanted to keep in touch with me; and some are seeking my input.

Never in its history, as far as I can recall, had this church terminated a pastor.  There will be a vote this coming Wednesday I believe to vote on a severance package; I was told that he is asking for salary and benefits through the end of the year.  He has to have at least that much; jobs for clergy aren’t any easier to find than are jobs in any other sector in the US right now.  The economy has left any number of congregations unable to pay a full-time pastor; such churches generally are trying to work with a permanent part-time pastor or an interim with no end of the interim in mind.  Every one of these churches is in decline.

Well, I will use with my second successor in New Orleans in mind to point to another group who must be remembered on this Labor Day 2011:  those who are skilled and who desperately want to work but who, nonetheless, remain unemployed.  There is national concern that those who stay unemployed for an extended time become unemployable regardless of what the economy does.  Therefore, I am calling for a parallel commemoration for tomorrow that I’m naming as you saw in your eblasts “Can’t Labor Day.”  This honors those who desperately want to work but can’t find a job.

Here are some hot off the press statistics from the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The numbers I’ll be giving you reflect the employment/unemployment situation as of this past Wednesday, the last day of August for this year:
The total number of unemployed persons, 14 million, was essentially unchanged in August, about the same as in recent months.  This makes the unemployment rate 9.1 percent of that part of the population able to work; that rate has remained relatively unchanged since April.

The Bureau tells us how many people are unemployed from what it calls “the major worker groups.”  There are 8.9 percent of adult males able to work and wanting to work who can’t find work.  Adult women, an even 8 percent.  Among teens who want and need to work, the unemployment rate is 25.4 percent.

Looking at this grim picture from an ethnic point of view the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals to us that 16.7 percent of our African Americans citizens who are able and willing to work can’t find jobs.  For Hispanics, that number is 11.3 percent.  For Caucasians, it’s 8 percent, and for Asians it’s 7.1 percent.

The number of long-term unemployed persons–long-term referring to those who have been unemployed for half a year or more–is holding at 6 million of us; that’s 42.9 percent of the total number of people who are unemployed in our country at this moment.

The labor force rose to 153.6 million total workers in August.  Given the other numbers I’ve given you, obviously, that’s a very small increase.

The number of us employed part-time for economic reasons (in other words, involuntary part-time workers) showed an increase in August from 8.4 million to 8.8 million. These members of the work force had their full-time hours cut back to make them part-timers, or they were never able to find a full-time job to begin with.

There’s still another group of unemployed people.  They are considered marginally attached to the current labor force because they keep on seeking work, but had not looked for a job during the month before the Bureau compiled the statistics I’m sharing with you.  There are 2.6 million of these folks, and that’s an increase of .2 since last year at this time.

Among the marginally attached, there are presently 977,000 “discouraged workers,” those who have stopped looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them; for the time being, at least, they’ve given up.  We see them out on the street corners and at busy traffic intersections wearing their business suits, but holding the same signs the obviously destitute hold in similar places:  “Will work for food.”

I think it was NPR I was listening to the other day whose reporter was telling the story of more and more super wealthy people who bequeath their children enough cash on hand to make life a little easier, but not enough to keep them from working.  These are wealthy people who earned their money by working hard, and they believe in the importance of working to build both self-esteem and responsibility so they want their children to work too; the big bucks, then, are put in a trust to be paid out at key life events and, in fact, will benefit the grandchildren of the benefactors more than their children.  For example, a chunk might be left to make a solid down payment on a new house, but not enough is left to buy a house outright or make house payments beyond the closing on the home purchase.  There’s something that matures us to work and earn our own keep if we are able; some people, as I’ve said, aren’t able because of physical and/or emotional difficulties.  And again I say, they are not second class citizens.

It’s rather astounding, though, to see how work opportunities are created or adapted so that persons with various physical and/or emotional limitations are still able to work and earn their own pay.  Work means much more than money to many of these, our fellow citizens too.

Immigrants relish jobs in the new countries to which they’ve moved in hopes of a better life.  They need not be fancy jobs either.  My older son’s, Jarrett’s, partner, Joseph, was telling me just this week that when his parents immigrated to this country from Peru several years ago, his mother was delighted to have a job scrubbing toilets for two years until something better for her came along.  Mrs. Faura didn’t take a job that any US American wanted; no one here wanted the job she was glad to get.  She was able, through her own toil, to make it possible for her family to live here in safety.  Now their son is the proud holder of a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Maryland in Baltimore County and an Instructor in Art and program coordinator of the degree in communication studies and digital art at Baltimore’s College of Notre Dame.  Without a doubt, Joseph’s academic opportunities and these early career successes rest to some degree on his mother’s work scrubbing toilets so that her children, Joseph among them, would have a brighter future than she could have imagined for them in their country of origin.  I might add, in case it isn’t evident enough already, that I, too, am exceedingly proud of Joseph.

Thinking people in our culture are surely aware that not all necessary work results in monetary pay.  The mother or father who stays home with the children in their early years, putting her or his career on hold is, working harder, much harder, than many workers in any workplace, not knowing if the progress she or he had made in the career will still be recognized when the time comes to reenter the for-pay workforce.  I have many students at Wilmington University who worked to get their children’s educations paid for before they, the parents, decided to use any of their cash to pay for a bachelor’s degree for themselves.  These are people whom I admire greatly.  In a way, these students have worked some twenty years before using their hard-earned money to pay tuition for English 101 and love it!

I had a few scholarships and grants along the way, nothing stupendous by any means, but my family had no money whatsoever to help me with educational expenses; nor were they prepared for the number of degrees I’d go after.  I worked and paid my own way as I went; I knew I didn’t want student loans hanging over my head when I got out while trying to provide for a family living on what a typical religious professional was paid so I worked and paid as I went.  I didn’t talk much about it, still don’t.  Those who knew that I was working and paying my way through three degrees as I went, never taking out any loans, said to me, “You’ll appreciate your degrees more than those who had someone else pay it for them.”  I don’t agree if that’s supposed to be true of everyone who ever took out a student loan, but there’s some truth to what I was told in many cases.

I can usually detect early in any term which of my students are having to work to pay their way through school and which ones have someone else paying the bills.  Those paying their own tuition would never just decide willy nilly not to complete a critical assignment that’s worth, say, 20% of their final grades; whereas, students who have someone else paying the tuition bills do such things every semester I teach.  I tried to turn that around a few years ago by plastering all over my syllabi for every class I taught:  “ALL ASSIGNMENTS MUST BE COMPLETED IN ORDER TO PASS THIS COURSE.”  All that did was make my life miserable reading papers about which the free ride students didn’t give a hoot.  Now, if students choose not to complete assignments, fine with me.

My first boss at Wilmington University, who has since retired, told me one day that you can get a really clear picture of how these students will perform in the career world by taking note of how they behave in class.  Chronic latecomers will be late for work as a rule, and plagiarists will cheat on sources of information used in compiling work reports–not infrequently taking credit for an insight or principle that wasn’t theirs at all.  Generally, he said, these students will not last long in any job; they will eventually be lazy enough and sloppy enough to be caught taking credit for what is not theirs.  Essentially, they’ll be found out as worthless workers; not worthless human beings, but worthless workers.  Some of them will grow up and learn better; others, sadly, will not.

Samuel Butler, the British poet, is credited with having said something along these lines:  “Every person’s work, whether it be literature or music or art or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of that person.”  We understand the importance and the truth of that statement, but we must also see that for most of us work should not be the central defining trait of our identity, a facet of truth that allowed Oscar Wilde to get his foot in the door on this topic:  “Work,” he said, “is for people who have nothing better to do with their time.”  Not everyone with a similar perspective is a comic; Henry David Thoreau is one example; he wrote, “There is no more fatal blunderer than the one who consumes the greater part of life earning a living.”  Understood, and we all know someone who is unmistakably what the great pastoral theologian and counselor, Wayne Oates, called a “workaholic.”  That’s the wrong way to go.

We know that Jesus, who during the years of his ministry greeted every new day with the overwhelming reality of critical human need all around him, still had to make time in his life for meditation and mindfulness.  He had to get away from the demands and pressures, as important and as critical as they were, to refresh himself in order to be able to do any effective work at all.  His life couldn’t be all work, or he could have been no benefit whatsoever to those who needed him most.

There’s a hymn written for Labor Day Sunday, and the words by Densley Harley Palmer are at least thought provoking.

We who live with great advantage
must not crush with tyrant’s boot
but raise up earth’s weary workers
to share in their labor’s fruit.
People are not born for slavery,
destined for a life of need.
None should toil in cruel condition
so the few can quench their greed.

How we live, each acquisition
grows from out another’s toil.
As we press to live unwisely
we another’s life defile.
All earth shares in tight connection
resting on inequity;
as some live in grand condition,
others endure poverty.

All is giv’n to us as blessing,
naught to claim as lot deserved.
No life should be born for wasting
but as gift to be preserved.
As we smother in our plenty,
seeking warehouses to store,
myriad lives are counted forfeit
in our chase for ever more.

No doubt about it.  One of the reasons we work is so that we can amass material goods.  If we can’t buy something or at least qualify for a credit card that can, why bother with working in the first place?

Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending the joint graduation exercises of the Harvard Medical and Dental Schools as the guest of one of the graduating physicians who had been one of the Johns Hopkins undergrad students active in the life of University Church in Baltimore.  I enjoyed being the pastor of Ricky Grisson, and when he left Baltimore he honored me by staying in touch; a friendship developed, and I love Ricky as kind of a cross between a peer and one of my kids.

I don’t recall exactly how this worked, but there were no outside speakers at that commencement.  All the speakers were in-house folk.  Because the Med School was larger than the Dental School, two Med School professors and one Dental School prof addressed the crowd.  Similarly, three Med School students and two Dental School students gave relatively brief speeches.  It seems to me that the last of the three Med School students spoke before the first of the Dental School students spoke.  I was sitting there in awe at the brilliance of what I was hearing about the dreams of some of the brightest and best who’d one day be providing health care for us.  Of course, this was before lawmakers decided that only wealthy people and politicians who by some freak accident weren’t already wealthy deserved health care.

The med student who stirred us all, some of us to tears, was going to take his diploma and his cap and gown home that day, maybe lunch with his family, and then get right back to work in a clinic in one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Boston.  He wasn’t just going back to work there that day, but for the foreseeable future that’s where he intended to stay with his Ivy League Harvard degree in hand.  He talked about the gunshot wounds he treated on almost a daily basis.  He talked of the burgeoning roster of patients needing treatment for HIV/AIDS and the limited funds for getting them treated.  He talked about how few patients could pay anything at all and how the clinic’s life and the lives of many of its patients depended on the sporadic donations of benefactors, but all too many benefactors want to give only to causes where they will be honored or praised with plaques and recognition banquets.  That’s what practicing medicine had meant to him during his training, and that’s what it would mean to him after his costly diploma was nailed to a plaster-cracked wall in a little room he called his office.

This physician was followed by a Dental School graduate, and the two speeches couldn’t have been more different.  He wanted to be an orthodontist to the wealthy and drive the most expensive sports cars that money could buy.  Had he spoken before the clinic doctor, there might have been more laughs or snickers when he made his materialistic announcement; there were still a few who laughed as well as a few who nodded their heads as if to say, “Well, at least he’s an honest orthodontist-to-be.”

Straightening crooked teeth is not a waste of time, but worrying about how many teeth he will have to straighten in order to buy the next sports car on his list is.  By now, both of these men are a few years into their respective practices.  One of them knows exactly when he will leave the office every day; one of them never knows and rarely makes it home to dinner on time.

Both get paid, but there’s quite a differential in their salaries.  Same thing goes on in my profession, the ministry.  From the earliest church on into today there are those who believe that anyone who does anything for a church should do it gratis–the preacher, the musician, the grass cutter.  There are some bivocational clergypersons who take no pay from the churches they serve, letting the other job, the second job, pay the bills.  (Sorry I got some of you thinking about that scenario!).  Then there are megachurch clergy millionaires (Sorry I got ME thinking about THAT scenario!).  These rich and famous clergypersons, I can guarantee you, don’t do nearly as much work in a week as a solo pastor of a little church out in the middle of no where; no one twenty-five miles away has ever even heard of her.

Once when Paul was writing to the young man he hoped would take over his ministry when he’d preached his last sermon and written his last pastoral letter, he was giving some advice.  Paul wrote to Timothy:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.”

The elders to whom Paul referred were not lay leaders in local congregations, but rather some kind of professional clergypersons.  We aren’t at all sure just how the hierarchy worked except that Paul thought of himself as the leader of all the churches founded and functioning in the Greek world.  These elders might have been lead pastors in churches with more than one clergyperson in their midst.

Not all pastors had the gifts of preaching and teaching, but Paul thought those who preached and taught should be highly honored, and that honor, he thought, should be expressed in two ways:  1) By giving them freedom in pulpit or lectern, if such implements existed in Paul’s day–probably not.  But the elders weren’t supposed to be asked to suppress their beliefs or their fervor in presenting them.  The other way they were to be honored was to pay them appropriately for their ministerial services. Proper pay for effective work.

Like Paul, these elders were almost certainly bivocational.  Paul kept up his tentmaking work while he conducted his ministry; he was bivocational, and so were these elders about whom he wrote.  Even so, one of two ways of honoring them was by paying them.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have jobs that we’d do for free if we could afford it.  I’m one of those lucky people, and I do love my job.  Tomorrow, part of my day will be celebrating what for me is the gift of work.  Labor Day.  Those of you who are retired may celebrate your years of work as well as the freedom of retirement if you haven’t overcommitted yourselves in retirement.  But I will spend a part of my day pondering the plight of those who want work, but can’t find any work at all.  It will also be, after all, Can’t Labor Day.  I will certainly not be glib about the opportunity I have to do meaningful work.  Amen.


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