Not Just a Job – sermon for The Campfire Church, 23rd August 2020 (Tony Collins)
I wonder, have you ever been out of work?
I have had a brief experience of being on the dole. In 1983 my wife Jane and I finished our two year course at All Nations Christian College, near Ware, in Hertfordshire.
We were intending to go to Brazil as missionaries, and an organisation there was waiting for us to join them. However, the development of one of our daughters was giving cause for concern, and at the age of four she had not yet learned to speak. After many tests we were advised that if we went ahead with our plans she might never gain a command of English, and we simply couldn’t make that sacrifice.
We found ourselves stranded in Ware, a town we barely knew, with two small children, one of whom was giving us cause for anxiety, no work, no purpose, far from our families, and with rapidly dwindling funds. All the friends we had made over the previous two years had left the college, mostly for positions overseas. Our vision of becoming missionaries was in shreds.
So I signed on at the Job Centre, and every week went down to collect unemployment benefit. I started making phone calls to past contacts, and scouring the ‘positions vacant’ sections. By this point I had worked for seven years as a publisher. I had enjoyed selling books, but I hated selling myself. To hold yourself up for inspection, at the mercy of someone’s opinion, requires a toughness of spirit and a willingness to make yourself vulnerable. You start wondering whether you are aiming too high; you grow frustrated; you wonder whether God is really looking after you. I remember, at the end of one humiliating afternoon, on my knees, pounding the carpet in despair and shouting ‘I am worth something!’ My wife had a lot to put up with.
During this tough time a note arrived from my former boss, a good Christian man, who delivered to me what amounted to a prophetic word: ‘Always remember,’ he wrote: ‘The Lord is no man’s debtor.’ His comment boosted my spirits.
To my intense relief I found a job after just six weeks. But I vividly remember the sense of humiliation engendered by the process of job-seeking, and the knocks to my confidence.
At present a lot of workers in the UK are protected by a furlough scheme, which comes to an end in October. It is estimated that about 7.5 million jobs, and a million businesses, are protected by this scheme. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who devised the furlough arrangement, has become probably the most popular politician in the country, with the hashtag Dishy Rishi. His popularity is likely to fall sharply, however, as the furlough scheme comes to an end and winter sets in, with some economists predicting levels of unemployment not seen in Britain since the 1930s. We are in for a rough ride. As many as one million jobs may be lost permanently, and you will have seen the headlines this week as Marks & Spencer announced 7000 job cuts. If you work in retail, or the hospitality industry, this is the moment for a change in career.
Other governments have sustained their furlough schemes: in Germany the Kurzarbeit or ‘short work’ programme may be extended from 12 to 24 months. Borrowing by governments is going to rise to sky-high levels.
The situation prompts the question: why is a job so important? Apart from the obvious value of sustaining your eating habit, to have work is to boost your sense of identity, your dignity, your sense of purpose, your status.
However, as the expression ‘wage slave’ implies, not any job will do. No one wants to do repetitive unsatisfying work, and the revolution in automation has removed many of these tasks from the market anyway. With these tasks, many worthwhile jobs also disappear.
Furthermore, this revolution is far from over, as artificial intelligence becomes ever more – well, intelligent. Some economists think we are on the verge of a new industrial revolution, with billions of jobs likely to disappear around the world – not just menial tasks, but the roles currently filled by prestigious people such as bankers and doctors and lawyers.
With the need for work shrinking, and jobs becoming scarcer, how do we pay our way? One answer is universal basic income.
Universal basic income already exists, in some places. For example, since 1982 all Alaskans have had a significant annual payment, of around $1500, called ‘Permanent Fund Dividend’. This payment is based on oil profits, though the figure is likely to fall as we move away from oil. Another example: On 18 May 2020, Spain announced its intention to bring in a 'Guaranteed Minimum Income' to ease the pressure of coronavirus on poorer families. Many believe this is a step towards full Universal Basic Income, and think it is likely to outlast the COVID-19 pandemic and become permanent. Germany has just announced that it will start trials for UBI. In the UK the Green Party and the Scottish National Party are both in favour.
However, even if the idea takes hold, it is going to be introduced very patchily across the world, and there is going to be a great deal of international social unrest as the jobs market changes and shrinks.
Quite apart from the imbalances ahead, losing employment will mean that many of us are going to be casting around to restore our sense of self-worth. If the measure of a person is not the power of your car or the rank at your bank, how do you measure worth?
I suggest there are two basic categories of worth. First there is ascribed worth – based on exams, reputation, status, possessions. The row this week in the UK over A level and GCSE grades falls into this category: a grade, by definition, is about ascribing worth to a candidate.
Second, there is intrinsic worth, the worth generated by the simple fact of your being. Part of this is bound up with the work of Christ, because you have value as someone for whom Christ died; with whom the Spirit communicates; whom the Father loves. This value, this intrinsic worth, has lots of practical implications for the way we behave: one of the big ones is that you should not treat anyone as rubbish. If you catch a plane without thought to climate change, you are treating people as rubbish.
There’s another aspect to intrinsic worth. Intrinsic worth comes in part from our status as creations of the Most High, but it also comes from the content of our character. Again, our faith has a fair amount to say about this. Paul prays about this in the passage from Ephesians that Grace read for us this morning: ‘I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man.’ The inner man, or inner woman, is ours to own and develop, and in this task the Spirit lends his resources. Every time you pray your inner being is strengthened and made whole, brought into alignment with the Almighty, brought into sharper focus.
Ascribed worth is not to be dismissed: we are social animals, and our status within the tribe represents security. In addition, there will always be those impressed by titles and bling. But the truth is that ascribed worth is assigned by others, and can be withdrawn or dismissed. So it is not a very reliable source of security.
Intrinsic worth, however, is like a fire on a cold night. It’s there in our simple existence, because God created us; it’s there in the assurance that Jesus loves us, died for us, lives in us. Intrinsic worth is also developed from our own soul work, our prayer life, our thought life, our habits and disciplines, our choices to love and receive love, our choices not to hate or to receive hatred, our decisions about the matters to which we pay attention.
Intrinsic worth cannot be kept secret. You cannot fool all of the people all of the time. A village reputation is usually based on fact. Intrinsic worth flows out in your unguarded reactions. It is apparent in the work you do when no one is looking.
Foster your intrinsic worth, because that will bless those around you. Here are some lines from an old Celtic meditation:
If there is beauty in the character,
there will be harmony in the home.
If there is harmony in the home,
there will be order in the nation.
If there is order in the nation,
there will be peace in the world.
Intrinsic worth can and should be part of the world of work. Here’s an example.
I married Pen after the death of her husband Bernard, who was a master builder. Pen told me a story about Bernard, from the days when he was still learning his trade. He and another older man were repairing the roof of a medieval property, and Bernard commented to his companion, ‘It’s remarkable how much attention they paid to getting things just right, even up here where no one would notice.’ His co-worker simply responded, ‘The Lord sees.’
The Lord sees. That’s the thing that keeps us straight and true. To stay with medieval buildings for a moment, one thing you will notice about them is that there is no façade: they are what they are.
To keep your focus on your intrinsic worth is to look past the façade, the face you present to the world, and to become aware of what is holy in your life. It makes you aware of the value of your time, your energy, your compassion, your bandwidth. It makes you alert not to waste what is precious. As Jesus said, in Matthew chapter 7: ‘Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you.’ This fits in with his instructions to the disciples in Matthew chapter 10, where he sends out the twelve disciples on their first independent field trip, instructing them to take nothing which might denote authority or status, to heal the sick and raise the dead, and to walk away from any community which does not recognise them, wiping the dust from their feet. They are to rely upon their intrinsic worth as servants of the Most High, speaking with his authority, and should not crave the approval of others.
Do not dismiss what you have to offer, even if others ignore it. Don’t undervalue who you are, or the price that was paid for you. Use the time that remains to you wisely. Enjoy the sun and the rain and the companionship of your friends and family. Care for the world, but be aware that you cannot redeem the world: that is not your burden.
Look around you and you will see people doing ugly and disgraceful things. The wellbeing of the natural world, the created order, matters greatly to me. So I am profoundly distressed by the destruction wrought upon our planet by thoughtless and greedy people, who fail to perceive its intrinsic worth; but that is not the whole picture. To give one example, I am cheered and heartened by the fact that the very handsome large blue butterfly, declared extinct in the UK in 1979, has been reintroduced and cared for by dedicated and meticulous people, and is once again established at a number of sites. The scientists and volunteers who have made this possible are aware of the value even of a butterfly.
In the name of Christ,