Labor Sunday 2010

Workers: Made in the Image of God
Focus scripture: Jeremiah 18:1-11

Resources on joblessness and the economic crisis

Have you ever lost your job? (This is not a question that seeks a show of hands but just some internal reflection.) Have you ever been out of work, unemployed? Not just taking off a couple of weeks between employers when you already have your next job lined up. But have you ever been out of work, not knowing what your next job will be or when you will have it? I hope you have never been forced to go through such an ordeal but many people have.

Imagine that you go to work tomorrow and you are called into your boss's office. Your boss tells you that you are being laid off. You are to immediately pack up your things and you will be escorted off the premises before lunch. (It is hard to even think about this.) You are stunned, bewildered, lost, afraid. You go home and start looking for another job. The weeks go by. You spend hours every day online, going through the newspaper, and checking in with friends and former co-workers. Your savings are gone. Some bills are going unpaid. You are building up debt on your credit cards. The kids are even worrying – you can see it in their faces even though they don’t say anything. You haven’t slept well in weeks. It seems you are constantly arguing with your spouse. You are reluctant to drive anywhere because you can’t afford gas.

Let's not continue describing this scenario. It is too painful and for some of us, it may be bringing back some very real and painful memories. But it is important for all of us to remember that many of our neighbors are living through this nightmare right now. Maybe some folks here this morning are in the midst of such a situation. Our hearts ache for anyone who is unemployed.

Unemployment is one of life’s major stressors not unlike divorce or the loss of a close family member. Unemployed people suffer from depression, anxiety, anger, and hopelessness. As the length of time without a job increases, our emotional and even physical health can deteriorate. Mental health experts say the US is currently in the midst of a mental health epidemic due to our high level of unemployment.

Work plays a central role in our lives. For most of us, our only income comes from our job. If we are not working, the loss of income puts our homes, cars, health insurance, and much more at risk.

Our work, our job, often determines how others see us and even how we see ourselves. We know that we are much more than our work, but our self esteem can be tightly linked to our job. The English philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important.”  Luckily he was a philosopher, not a doctor, so what could he know about it? But we know for many folks, losing a job brings a loss of self esteem. 

Our work is also one important way we contribute to the common good. It is how each of us adds our bit to the collective work that needs to be done for society to flourish. It is important to recognize that “work” does not just refer to paid work. It includes all our efforts that contribute to society, this common project we are creating together. It is one way we are linked to the larger world. Many of us are engaged in multiple types of work: at home, as volunteers at church and in the community, and in the paid labor force. But because work done for pay is most prevalent and problematic, it is an important focus of this conversation.

In the passage we read this morning Jeremiah describes God as a potter. From Genesis, we also know God is a creator. In other words, God is a worker, a doer, someone who acts. We are made in God’s image and likeness so we are also workers, doers, actors. One way we live out our true vocation as people of the worker-God is by working. We work not just because we need to for economic reasons but because, by working, we are being fully human.  Being a worker is intrinsic to who we are at the most fundamental level.

Seen in this light, work is not just a way to earn some money. Our work has, or should have, innate value. Our work – our vocation, no matter what we do -- is to be performed with care and attention, and it must be honored and treated with respect. Workers, each one of us, deserve to be treated with fairness and dignity on the job.

Work is so central to our lives that the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948) states “Everyone has the right to work and to protection against unemployment.” The right to work, to a job, is a fundamental human right. 

Despite the importance of work to our economic well being, mental health, and even spiritual lives, millions of people in the US are without jobs. Unemployment is common even in good economic times but now, during this economic downturn, things are even worse. Today about one in five workers is either officially unemployed, unofficially unemployed (“unofficial” because they have stopped actively looking for work), or working part time when they want full time jobs. One in five people. That’s the average. Among people of color and young workers unemployment is even more common. Moreover, researchers find that when workers who are laid off during a recession eventually do return to work, they take significant cuts in pay. Even 15 to 20 years later, they still make significantly less than their peers who had not been laid off. Meanwhile those who do still have a job worry that they may lose it. We all lack economic security. The chronic problem of unemployment, a problem that gets much worse during severe downturns like this one, is one indication of the fundamental flaws in our economic system.

Many of us have responded to the economic crisis by generously giving to food pantries, hunger centers, and other safety net organizations. These efforts have helped millions of people. They are important but they are also inadequate to address the crisis. For someone who is out of work, a free bag of groceries is great. We know it may mean the difference between having dinner and going to bed hungry. Helping our neighbors during a crisis is a wonderful act of discipleship. But it is far too little.

When people who want to work are forced to rely on charity, it is demeaning to the spirit. It is not God’s vision for this world. God provides all we need. It is up to us to arrange our economic system so that everyone can receive what they need and also contribute their gifts – their work – for the good of all.

In Jeremiah, God the Potter is shaping the “house of Israel,” not individuals. The passage speaks of God’s concern with how a nation is acting, whether the nation is doing evil. This is not to let individuals escape concern. But the systems and institutions, the collective behavior of nations and groups of people seem to be God’s primary concern in this passage. As individuals, each of us needs to be doing what is right. But our nation is also called to act in ways that are consistent with our values.

Systems, institutions, laws, and policies have a particular need for redemption. This is the work of the church: to care for our neighbors by stocking the food pantry and by pressuring Congress and other elected officials to change the economic system so everyone has what they need and also is able to contribute their work to the common good.    

The Psalmist writes “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Ps 24:1). God has provided abundantly for all our needs. There is much work to be done and many workers for the tasks. The gifts and efforts of every person are needed as we labor, along side God, to co-create the world God envisions for us. Let us work with each other, with policy makers, and with God to create an economic system that values all workers and their work.

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