Labor Day Sunday
by Rev. Bob Clark
September 3, 2017
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
It's All About Work
So, today I am diverting from the appointed lectionary readings to preach on the focus of tomorrow's national holiday - Labor.
I retired five years ago from a job I really enjoyed for 15 years as NAEIR's Director of Human Resources. During that time I also taught a class at Carl Sandburg College that Steve Jackson's Dad, Jim, taught before me on Labor and Management. The text I used was entitled, "Labor Relations: Striking a Balance," and it was an excellent textbook. I found it interesting that its author would use the word "Striking" in his title.
Labor Day in the U.S. is a national recognition of the Labor Movement, the development of Labor Unions and the advance of legislation that guarantees in our world of work the right to collective bargaining. I am very aware that some of this is being eroded today by "Right to Work" legislation enacted in several states.
When I was HR Director at NAEIR I wore several hats. Gary Smith, NAEIR's President and CEO, designed my job to be intentionally broad in scope. Hiring and training, making sure all employees knew and understood the Employee Handbook, which I updated a few times, teaching TQM, Total Quality Management, to all levels of the organization, Creating and managing a safety program to reduce Worker's Comp claims, and, of course all normal functions like payroll, insurances, progressive disciplinary action, documentation, and terminations of employment.
What I consistently told our 164 employees was that I was their single most important ally and advocate, and that if I did my job right, they should never feel the need for a labor union. We had an open-door policy whereby all they needed to do was to tell their Supervisor that they needed to see me, and they would not be denied. But, I reminded them, I am management. So as much as I was FOR them, if they did anything to harm the organization, there would be consequences, up to termination of employment, and I would be directly involved.
I was also given by Gary Smith a huge long leash into the community for public relations. Those were the days when we had about $100,000 in our annual budget for philanthropic donations to organizations and activities in and around Galesburg. I oversaw that budgetary item and made regular recommendations to Gary for his approval. On one such occasion we were looking over the budget and reviewing our donations into the community when Gary looked at me and said, "There sure are a lot of recipients here who have to do with MUSIC!" I replied, "Yah, how about that".
One of the things I learned while teaching at Sandburg was that over the decades of "the labor movement" there have been excesses on both sides of the equation, and that usually it has been our elected government at both the federal and the state levels who were called upon to attempt to balance things out.
And so, today, I am a great believe in balance in the workplace.
The other side of what I said about doing my HR job right to where our employees would never feel the need for a labor union, I learned through Guy Vitale and then his son Adam at G&M Distributing. I would visit them annually on behalf of the Knox-Galesburg Symphony together with Maestro Bruce Polay to thank them for their generous support and to renew the commitment.
On one such occasion I told Adam that if he ever needed some HR counsel he should not hesitate to ask my advice at no charge. He thanked me and said, "Bob, we have such a wonderful Union here, that I have never felt the need for an HR professional!" How about that!
One last thing before I move into talking about work itself.
I believe we are in a time, and have been for about the past ten years, when labor and management need to find win/win ways of working together. Management needs to really respect the importance of their workers - providing safe, creative and rewarding work for their employees, and as much as possible relegate the mindless, monotonous work to the machines.
Labor needs to appreciate the need for a business to make a profit in-order-to stay in business and creatively help in that pursuit. Greed on either side is what gets things out of balance. Even nonprofits need to run in the black to survive.
Now about WORK itself.
From the second grade on through high school I spent every summer at my Great Aunt Viola's farm. My Great Uncle Raleigh was there too, but he was gone most of the time running his business. My "Aunt Olie," as I called her, taught me the value of work. We would be up by 6:30 each morning, have a good breakfast, and then start on chores and the work of the day. I would gather eggs from the henhouse and then head to the barn where my cousin Alan, who was ten years my senior, and whom I admired, would be milking their three cows - one at a time, of course. My job involved a shovel.
When the milking was done he would carry the pail of milk to the kitchen, where my Aunt would skim off the cream into the butter churn, which was a glass gallon-sized jar with a crank handle that turned a paddle. I would sit at the kitchen table and churn until we had butter. Then we would head out to either the strawberry patch across the road, or the raspberries behind the barn, or the tomatoes down the hill and spend a couple of hours picking for the roadside stand we operated and which I manned in the afternoons.
Sometimes when I was resting she would come with something for me to do like, "Bobby, while you're resting sort these strawberries." "Sure, Aunt Olie." My bedroom was upstairs. She taught me that when I went upstairs, if there was something on the stairs, never just walk by it. She also taught me how to darn a hole in my sock using a lightbulb.
Needless to say, I loved my Aunt Olie very much. She never said directly what I am going to tell you now, but her actions and her example said more than words could have expressed. Somehow she conveyed to me that WORK is a sacred thing - almost a privilege - like a gift.
She taught me things like, I never have to be without a job. There is always something to do, and even if you are poor, you can afford a bar of soap. She taught me some pretty old-fashioned values, which I still live by today. She was my Great Aunt on my mother's side of the family - the German side - the Meidenbauers. I always attributed her work ethic to her German heritage, and the more I have learned about Germans and work the more I am convinced that this does indeed have some validity. But there was always some more. She had such an appreciation for nature, for plants and animals, for God's good creation and our place in it. Her work was her thankful response. She was a living sermon for me while I was growing up.
One of Amber and my favorite movies is "Dave" starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. Dave runs an employment agency, but he is a dead-ringer look-alike for the President of the United States. Something happens to the President, who is a genuine jerk, and the White House co-opts Dave to fill in. Dave is wonderful, and he accomplishes some really great things, one of which is to adopt a national policy of "Work/Jobs for everyone who wants to work and who is able". He creates a Jobs Program, and in a speech to congress he says something like this: "Have you ever seen the face of a person who finally gets a job after being unemployed? It's like they could fly!"
As a retired HR Director, I can answer unequivocally, YES, I have seen that look.
Just a final word about the scripture lessons for today.
The lesson from Proverbs was chosen because it was the wisdom of Solomon when he was younger and had not only wisdom, but purpose and focused work in building the temple for his God. Anything from Proverbs is better than the depressing stuff he wrote in Ecclesiastes as he was older and facing the handing off of everything he had worked for to his no-good son.
Everything was "vanity" and "chasing after the wind". And, he was right, it took one generation to lay waste to everything he had worked for.
The lesson from Matthew is not about our work and just rewards for our labor. If it were about that we would have to say, if we are honest with ourselves: "This isn't fair!" It's a partner story to the lament of the older brother in witnessing his father's lavish welcome of his prodigal son. "This isn't fair, Dad!'
The lesson of the workers in the vineyard is about God's work - not ours. It's about God's abundantly generous love given to the least among us. Whether we work one hour or twelve in the Master's vineyard, which, by the way, is always symbolic of Israel, (and thus for us - the Church) we must be grateful and not judgmental. The hierarchy in Israel was very judgmental, and it was not kind to the least in their realm. The Prophets unanimously lifted up this complaint against the leaders and people of Israel.
So, on this Labor Sunday, let us give thanks for the work God gives us to do. Let us do it with a sense of gratitude and purpose as we seek to honor God the Giver of all good gifts and those with whom and for whom he has called us to work.
I finish with some wisdom from Kahlil Gibran "On Work" from his 1923 masterpiece, The Prophet.
Then a ploughman said, Speak to us of Work.
And he answered saying;
You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life's procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth's furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born, and, in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life, and to love life through labour is to be intimate with life's inmost secret.
Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man's ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.
WORK IS LOVE MADE VISIBLE.
May it be so for each of us. Amen