CELEBRATING LABOR DAY

I recently watched a series on PBS about the beginnings of the automobile industry in America. It was quite an eye-opener, when Henry Ford started mass producing cars, using as his template, the slaughtering plant. The difference is that the slaughtering plants started with the finished product and went down to the parts, and Ford started with the parts and worked up to the finished products. But, he utilized a moving line that allowed workers to do one item at a time, as it passed by their positions in line.

I was reading earlier this week from the book of Sirach, also called Ecclesiasticus, and the giftedness of trained trades people. That’s a whole different kind of picture than the early Ford mass produced Model T’s. The workers in Sirach are referred to as artisans and master artisans. Workers that are skilled in cutting fine jewels, signets, and a variety of fine metals. The smiths, anvil workers, and the potter sitting at his work, turning the wheel with their feet. These craftsmen and women are known for their skillful work. (Sirach 38:27-32).

The automation of assembly line automobiles and other industries that followed suit, gave thousands of people jobs in our nation. But most of the work, other than the design and engineering, was tedious. Workers were assigned one duty on an assembly line. That might be fastening on a light bulb or putting in two or three bolts as the auto passed by. By 1927 Ford Motor Company was producing one car every 24 seconds, and half of all automobiles on the road were Fords. The work was tedious, doing the same thing, hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Not only were the workers encouraged to keep up, but they were also told not to go too fast. The idea was to keep the work as routine and tedious as possible. Doing more than was expected was frowned upon.

I remember when the auto industry relocated plants to Mexico, and later to China and other Asian countries. Behemoth-like plants were closed and deserted, and the workers that made pretty good money for industrial work were terminated. Families and cousins, and sons and daughters looked forward to working at GM, Ford or Chrysler when they got out of high school. For many people that I knew, and I know you know many as well, this was good work with good benefits, and considered by many to be their calling in life.

The paper, plastic and packaging supplier that I worked with in Southwest Michigan serviced many General Motor Plants. They all had specific parts. One was a fabrication, sewing plant. Another was an auto body plant, and another was an engine plant. The work had become much more specialized than it was in 1927. If young people got an opportunity to work at a GM plant that paid top-wages and benefits, you just couldn’t ask for anything more. But, that all came to a crippling halt for the American work-force. And, it not only hit the auto industry, but all the other industries as well, including televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, and the list goes on.

There is a theology that that is prevalent in some leading seminaries. The theology is that we are all called to specific work. This work will help identify who we are and mold our Christian worldview, recognizing the gifts and skill sets that we must work with. I believe this with some hesitation, and the hesitation is nakedly obvious. When I saw the industrial market collapse in America, and businesses headed to the borders, people losing their jobs, their homes, and people having their careers pulled out from under them, like a throw rug that does not belong to them anymore, it gave me pause.

Greenville is a small town in Southwest Michigan, former home of the Electrolux Refrigerator Plant, the largest manufacturer in Greenville. When the company fired all its workers and set up shop in Mexico, there was nowhere for these workers to go. Many families belonging to the 3rd or 4th generations of workers were forced to relocate, sell or walk away from their homes or face early retirement. Greenville is about a third of the size as it was before the industry left town. Other businesses that relied on industry had to shutter their windows too. Those that felt like they were called to this work were devastated.

Jobs like this were disappearing all over America, especially in the rust belt of Michigan. Theologians rushed into these situations to tweak their theology and to explain why and how this was possible, to defend their positions that people were called to jobs and careers. Let me tell you this. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matthew 16:21-28) Our calling and identity are found in Christ and the Kingdom of God that is explained to us in the Gospels.

The Bible does have plenty of examples of people that are called to specific careers or occupations. One of the first construction jobs God handed out went to Noah, and he was called to the task of building an ark, using specific guidelines, a specific type of wood, and to use his skills appropriately. The Tabernacle of Moses was assigned to be built by specially called artisans. “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship And, I have put wisdom in the hearts of all the gifted artisans, that they may make all that I have commanded you”. (Exodus 31:1-11)

I do believe that God calls and gifts people with skills for special careers in medicine, engineering, science, law, and, yes, maybe even politics. I believe I was called and ordained to be a priest in Gods Church, even though many people that do my kind of work before going into the ministry felt very comfortable and found their identity in their work. Please listen to what I am saying and what I am not saying. I am not denying gifts and callings, either secular or religious. What I am saying is that God intends to be the source of our identity. Careers can come to a sudden and unpredictable end. Many in the refugee community here in El Cajon can identify with this. In our Chaldean Community we have ex-teachers, professors, mathematicians, engineers, farmers and other trades, but that does not do them much good right now.

In my prior life, a national salesman that I worked with lost his job when they sold his division. He never recovered from his loss, and he took his life. We all know sad stories like this. It’s okay to take pride in your work, but in humility we must admit that for some people any job will be better than none. That’s the case for many unemployed people in East County and other areas of San Diego County. I know I have been in situations at that time in my life when any job would be a welcome blessing. There are many people working two jobs just to make things work in their lives and to meet the needs of their families.

We identify with people and things in our social structures, but our social structures are more than our jobs. For many of us our identity is found in the community of believers, our home church. Our identity is more than where we work, more than where we hang out with our friends. We our called to follow Christ. That means finding our identity as we walk with Him, day by day. Our identity with Jesus is bigger and more important than what kind of work we do. Our identity as followers of the Way is more than all our social responsibilities and interactions. Our goal is to bring Christ into all those activities.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matthew 16:21-28) Our calling and identity are found in Christ and the Kingdom of God that is explained to us in the Gospels.

 

Amen

The Reverend Dr. David Madsen