The Worth of All Work (Sermon Notes)

Sermon Notes / Produced by partner of TOW
Nottingham factory

This sermon by Kenneth Adams is part of "Work in Worship," a collection of material for work-themed services compiled by David Welbourn. For more sermons, songs, prayers, and readings, click on the table of contents to the right.

"Don't tell me that I am doing work of any social value like people who work in the Health Service - I only make underwear". That was what the Christian chairman of a substantial manufacturing firm in Nottingham said in response to a talk about the value of industrial production that I had given at Nottingham University.

He only made underwear. He employed some five hundred people in his factory; he made good underwear and many people wear it. His company was successful and was expanding; the taxes which his company and he and his employees paid contributed to the cost of providing local and national public services - BUT he saw no social value in his work!

The society in which he lived, and the church to which he went, encouraged him to see the social value of the work done by doctors and nurses, teachers and social workers, clergy and ambulance drivers, but not - NOT - the work which he did in manufacturing industry and commerce.

Of course, he and his firm were invited to make financial contributions to innumerable good causes. Such giving of money out of his profits was good - but the making of those profits? Well, when had he ever been to a service in church which celebrated the completion of a successful industrial contract in the way he went annually to church to give thanks to God for the agricultural harvest? Harvest Thanksgiving - yes, that was splendid - a hallowed tradition of his church. But a thanksgiving service for the successful production of underwear - now don't be silly!

Well, that is the silly thing that we are here to do today: to give thanks to God for work of the people of this congregation and locality [the original had "people of this great County in all its aspects] , and that is no silly matter. It is the most wonderful matter, the most creative matter, the most virtuous matter, because that is the work which maintains the fabric of this world. Remember those concluding words of our first reading, from Ecclesiasticus: But they maintain the fabric of this world, and the practice of their craft is their prayer. [Adapt this last sentence if Ecclesiasticus 38:24-end was NOT the first reading.]

That is why this is a Festival - a festive occasion - a time for singing with joy, praying with joy and sharing with joy the news of God who revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ who worked in manufacturing industry in Nazareth as a carpenter making doors, and tables and chairs and ploughs and farm carts.

So we start in a Festival of Thanksgiving with thanks to God who shared in our work and demonstrated by his participation its inherent goodness. If God himself did this then so should we. In the Book of Genesis - in that great vision of the Creation - the very first commandment given to Adam was to work and to cultivate the garden in which he had been placed. The fruit and vegetables were not going to drop into his mouth in some sort of pre-packed, pre-cooked form - he was going to have to work and cultivate that garden.

So the next thing we give thanks for is that ability - that ability to produce by our work all that we require in food and clothing and housing and public and professional services.

The past twelve months have not been easy. Many people have failed in their efforts in business. Companies have failed and people have lost their jobs at all levels, not only in business but in the professions and in the public services. What does a Festival of Thanksgiving for our work mean for those who have no work? Well, at the very least it means this: the evil of unemployment brings home to all of us the value of a job - the value of our work - not just for the pay packet but for many other profound reasons.

Our work is important not only for what we earn by doing it but for the social relationships of our work- place, for the identity which it gives us in the eyes of others and for the way it allows us to contribute to the life of our community.

I suggest that the next thing we give thanks for is the ability which our work gives us to contribute directly to the needs of other people. Indeed, our work is the principal way in which we contribute to the needs of others, and we very rarely emphasise this truth. It is by producing and having available for sale in our shops all the things that people require that those who work in industry and commerce make their contribution to the community.

We see that very clearly when we think in farming or horticultural terms. But, of course, the same is true for those who produce all our other material needs. And those materials have to be brought to us, so we need transport and all the distribution services of wholesale and retail - the railways, the road haulage, the shops, the supermarkets, the petrol stations.

And our needs are not simply material. We need medical services and education, banks and insurance, police and fire services - all this work contributes to our well-being, and it is right to celebrate and give thanks for it.

Human beings also need delight, entertainment, fun - and so we give thanks for the work of all those involved in the field of journalism, broadcasting, the cinema, the theatre, catering, tourism and the vast area of sport.

You see, our work, our ordinary daily work, is the main thing we do for other people. We often think that it is only when we do voluntary work or work of a particularly social-service character that we are working for others.

Think again. My underwear manufacturer in Nottingham would not be making underwear unless there were customers who needed underwear. Nurses would not be nursing unless there were patients who needed nursing. Our work is our main contribution to the needs of others; we don't work for ourselves, we work to provide the needs of others and in that process earn our own keep.

Our work forms the fabric of this world of which our reading speaks. We are all totally dependent on the work of other people. That interlocking web of work is the fabric which maintains us and maintains the world. Our work is our main contribution to that fabric.

Of course, charitable giving is important, but you can only give from what you have earned. And your work - your forty or fifty or sixty hours a week of work - is by far the biggest contribution you make to the needs of others. It is your principle social service.

The greatest social service which my underwear manufacture in Nottingham provides is through producing good underwear, BUT no-one had told him so.
That is what we do today. In thanking God we thank each other for the contribution each has made through his or her work to the fabric of society on which we all depend. It is that work- our own work - which we bring today to this church [original: "to this great Cathedral"] and offer to God. But how can we visualise our work in all its variety which we offer today in thanksgiving?

A year or so ago a vicar I know was organising (on a much more modest scale) such a service as this. He came to me for advice. He said he knew what to bring into the church for Harvest Thanksgiving - the corn and the bread and the vegetables and the flowers. But what did he bring in for an industrial harvest thanksgiving?
I said that the answer was, Nothing. I said that he need bring nothing into the church for such a service because it would all be there waiting for him. All he would have to do - as we can do now - was to look around. In addition to the things in the splendid displays [there was an exhibition illustrating various types of work], the clothing we are wearing, the seats on which we sit, this very building itself and the vestments of the clergy and, indeed, the sacred elements of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, are all products of the industry of countless thousands of people all over the world.

It is all here - the fruits of human ingenuity, human design, human effort, human industry - all the product of that God-given creative spark in human beings who are made in the image of God the Creator of everything, the God who calls us to be fellow workers with him.

There is so much work to be done because we can see the dire poverty in which so many people on this earth at present live. That poverty can only be ended by the production and distribution of the stuff which is required to relieve it, and we have to do this by our work or by enabling them to do that work themselves. Money will only buy the stuff that is required; it is the material stuff itself which has to be produced. All the money in the world won't buy food and transport which people in Russia and Africa desperately need unless someone somewhere has produced them.

Productive work and caring work, both are necessary. And perhaps the home-maker - the person working in the home - best symbolises that unity of productive and caring work. The cooking of the meal and the care of the young and the elderly - that home-creating, home-sustaining work - forms a great part of the work which maintains the fabric of this world and for which we give thanks today.

Kenneth Adams, CVO, CBE, is Industry Fellow of the Comino Foundation and a former chairman of ICF. This sermon was preached in Guildford Cathedral on 6 October 1991. It was subsequently published as 'All Work in His Service' in the Summer 1992 issue of the ICF Quarterly. It is reproduced here by permission.