The Gift of Labor
Our passage from James today is an admonition that living our lives as good Christians is far more effective and important than proclaiming we are Christians. Basically, it tells us that the world will know we are Christians by our works and actions. This is a theme very important to James: that our work reflects our commitment and dedication to the Christian life.
But the Bible recognizes and celebrates not just the work of caring for the least among us, such as orphans and widows, but also our daily work of making a living. Labor is a gift from God. Just as we are called to be good stewards of God’s gift of Nature, we are also called to be good stewards of God’s gift of labor.
Tomorrow is Labor Day, a holiday that was founded to celebrate the workers of this land. Most of us need to or at one time needed to work, to make a living. I suspect together we have had a diverse set of jobs: EMTs, maybe school teachers or factory workers, engineers, lawyers, maintenance personal, auto mechanic, and so forth. Some jobs seem mundane, others exciting and yet others sacrificial. Some we would view as more important than others. Is a physician more important than a nurse or a garbage collector? We are bound to prioritize jobs according to their importance to our lives.
Yet, I believe, that God sees all honest work as important and worthy of respect and celebration.
Years ago I worked for Bell Labs. I was there for 33 years. There was a mural at the labs which I found very moving. It was a celebration of the Bell System worker. Before the System was broken up, there was an ethos of providing the very best telecommunications possible and a spirit of innovation to back that up. For example, the Bell System, particularly Bell Labs would occasionally be called on to do government work, both military and space. I was told when I was hired that the Labs wouldn’t agree to the work unless it felt it was the only one who could do it and that they could do it well. The Labs understood the need for good workers who took pride in their work.
The mural encompassed all the various activities from the original telephone operators taking calls, to the office staff tracking service calls and customer calls, to the field technician climbing a high poll, to the engineers who designed the telecommunications network and, of course, the scientists who innovated. That mural was a celebration of labor not just for profit but for improvement of the lives of the customers and the community at large.
And I believe that there are many companies with similar ethos. They are good stewards of God’s gift of labor and the benefits of labor. Labor’s benefits should not just be our pay check and the owners’ profit. It should also contribute to the welfare of the community.
In Deuteronomy 15:10, Moses says, “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.”
Here, God requires us to not work just for ourselves, but that we work for the community, whether that is our customers or neighbors in need. And we should do so because we want to, not because we have to. Labor is valued by God because it enhances our lives and our souls. But it also should enhance the lives and souls of our customers or clients. As laborers we have an obligation to give the best work we are able. There’s a song that was popular in the 60s that I remember. It was written by Jimmy Webb and song by Glenn Campbell. It was about a lineman:
I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searchin' in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin' in the wire
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line
I know I need a small vacation
But it don't look like rain
And if it snows that stretch
Down South won't ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line
– Jimmy Webb (1968)
The lineman yearns to be home with his wife and family. He’s worked hard and long hours, but he knows he has an obligation and a duty to keep the lines functioning and working so that customers will not be without power. And similarly we should be dedicated to our jobs, not just to make a livelihood – though that is very important – but also to serve those who reap the fruit of our labor.
Labor is a gift from God. And just as God gave us the creation as a gift and expects us to be good stewards, we are to be good stewards of our jobs. We have abused Mother Nature and we are paying for it. There were those on Wall Street who abused the gift of labor by effectively gambling with their clients money to profit themselves even though it impoverished their clients.
We must also be vigilant that what we do and the income we draw from it results from doing our best. But it’s not a competition. We may not be able to do as well as another or another may not be able to do as well as us. God only requires we do our best.
The writer of Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters…”
And so we do our best no matter what sort of job we have, whether it is teaching, providing medical care, selling cars, working in a factory, or cleaning the streets. Every honest job is of value to the workers and to the community.
Yet we tend to look down on some jobs and look up to others. The pay scales of jobs is often seen as the measure of what is an important job and what is not. I understand that workers in the financial district make very good money. I also understand that those who work in waste management make far less.
Yet whose labor would you miss the most if they went on strike? Would you miss your financial advisor more than your garbage collector? Which would you feel most? Accumulating garbage in your yard or the daily financial report?
This became noticeable to myself over the past few months. There are discussions in my town of Fanwood to merge our Public Works with Scotch Plains. Now Fanwood has a reputation of having the best public works in the are. In a snow storm our roads are thoroughly cleaned. Such challenges to the services such as a merger helps to enhance our appreciation of what are often invisible workers among us.
After Labor Day tomorrow, spend a few minutes each day and see if you see the invisible workers who are so essential to our quality of life. Say thank you to the garbage collector. Don’t get annoyed at the construction worker holding up traffic. He (it’s almost always a “he”) is working very hard to improve are aging infrastructure. Say hello to your postal carrier. She has to deliver your mail rain or shine. … and be kind to your financial advisor.
But also recognize that the laborers who provide you with services are imperfect humans. Although that goes without saying, there are certain professions where we forget that. In particular we are too quick to assume the doctor has all the answers and a politician is pure and perfect. Just as we will make unintended mistakes in our jobs, so will they. An honest mistake requires correction of course. But the worker should be part of the solution not the sacrificial lamb.
Labor is a gift from God. As God gives us the fruits of creation, God gives the fruits of our labor. But those fruits – our income – are reminders of God’s grace. God wants us to be prosperous and creative and part of a compassionate and harmonious community.
But it doesn’t always play out so wonderfully. We have our hours cut or even lose our jobs. But God still cares for us. With faith in God, a clear mind, and the courage to break out of our comfort zone, opportunities will arise. Sometimes an opportunity comes quickly on the heels of a job loss. Sometimes an opportunity comes out of the blue. Either way it is a gift from God. And each opportunity we engage requires of us to do our best.
Labor is a sacred gift. It is one of our most pervasive contributions to a better community and a better society.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …