This sermon by David Welbourn is part of "Work in Worship," a collection of material for work-themed services compiled by David Welbourn. For more sermons, prayers, songs, and readings about work, click on the table of contents to the right.
(Note: Reference is made in the course of this sermon to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It would therefore be appropriate to choose Luke 15:11-end as a lesson)
"What do you do?", or even more revealingly, "What are you?" - that's the sort of question that adults almost invariably put to each other at an early stage of their getting acquainted. And we know what the question means - we are asking about each other's work or occupation. In most circumstances I find I get asked the question very early on, indeed almost as soon as I have met my new acquaintance. But interestingly it's rather different on holiday. The last few yeas our family has gone on "house party" type walking holidays, the format of which encourages the gradual building up of relationships with one's fellow holidaymakers. In this situation, the question What are you? doesn't usually get asked - at least not right away. Obviously people don't think it appropriate to raise the subject of work while they are on holiday. Yet there comes a point - usually on about day four - at which, in order to get to know each other better, we feel we just have to pop the question. To hold back on such information would be to withhold something of importance about yourself and would be tantamount to saying "I don't want the relationship to go any further".
What is all this saying? It is saying that in our culture and society, what we essentially are is in some way bound up with our work. And that, of course, means a problem for the unemployed. Those unable to lay claim to an occupation suffer the psychological equivalent of having an arm or a leg missing. They are incomplete human beings.
We see how much being without work is a problem when we consider what work provides for people. Work is a means of livelihood - and being unemployed usually means much less cash is available for support of self and family. Work gives a sense of direction or meaning: it tells people what they are "for". It also provides a place in society. It involves a contract with society - you use your skills to provide some need which society has and society offers you payment in return. (Unemployment benefit or income support payments are not the same.) Work means social contact; unemployment often means being cut off from others. Work also, hopefully, provides a means of self-expression and an opportunity for self- development and fulfilment.
Unemployment is serious also because of the number of people it is affecting, especially here in the South East [See note at end]. Of the 2.8 million unemployed nationally, a third of them live in the South East. And this region has witnessed the fastest rate of increase in unemployment. Take the Guildford figures as an example.... Other factors make things worse for our region: here people have been unused to being made redundant; and ours is very much a success-oriented culture which makes being a "failure" (and unemployed people feel they're failures) very hard to take.
Another blow is the way people are sometimes made redundant. I was recently told the story of an executive who went away on holiday, leaving his company car in his drive. On his return he found the car missing. He phoned his workplace to say he would be late for work as his car had been stolen. He was told, however,"Your car has not been stolen; it has been repossessed by the firm. You no longer have a job here". Other stories just as gruesome could be told. To be fair, though, I must add that some firms are good about the way they dismiss people, often being very supportive and making great efforts to help they get a new job.
Also very difficult to bear is the shame people feel about being without work. Some are so ashamed that they fail even to tell their own spouse and family. I recently heard of a commuter who lost his job in London taking his usual train to Waterloo each day, wandering about town all day, and then returning in the evening, in an attempt to hide his unemployment from his family and friends.
A big part of the problem is the strength and persistence of what is called the Protestant Work Ethic. I can't go into details now about this, except to say that it involves a set of beliefs which include the idea that human beings are made to work, and that work is virtually the be-all and end-all of life.
An illustration of the work ethic's influence is the way some people must use their redundancy money to start their own business. A way of life not based on work in inconceivable to them. Of course, the present economic climate is a difficult one in which to succeed in a new business. But encouraged by Government assertions about the recession being about to end, they go ahead. They go ahead and fail. Failure means debt; debt often leads to house repossession.
How can the Church, and church pople, support the unemployed? We can help them, first of all, by understanding the current unemployment situation. We must appreciate the plight unemployed people are in. But we must also help people get work into perspective. We should discuss with them the true place of work in life.
Now Christianity does regard work as important - indeed it is a commission from God (Genesis 1 and 2), although here we should realise that paid work is not the only kind of work there is. Paid work should certainly not be regarded as the be-all and end-all of life. How do we help people get a better perspective?
A firmer grasp of the Christian gospel will help. Let me explain. What the work ethic says is, Your value lies in what you contribute to society; you earn your salvation through work. The Christian gospel says, You are valued as you are, as a human being, as a child of God, as a person for whom Christ died. You are valued before you make any contribution. You don't earn salvation, you accept it as God's free gift.
The returning prodigal thought he would earn his way back to acceptance by his father by becoming "as one of his hired servants" (salvation through paid employment) but the father accepted him, with open arms, as he was; he accepted him because he was his son. And so it is with us. We are valuable to God irrespective of our employment status.
Where, though, does work come in, from the Christian point of view? Work is, properly speaking, an expression of gratitude for value already given. The correct sequence is: God loves us and values us. We accept his love and our own value. We want to love him in return. To love God, in the words of the New Testament, is to keep his commandments. Chief among his commandments is that we love one another. One of the ways we love others is by using our talents to meet their needs. A main way of doing this is through our daily work.
So a very important way of helping the unemployed is to preach the gospel to them. However, the message may take some time to sink in. The contrary signals from society are very strong. In addition to being told they are only valuable if they are working, people are counted worthy to receive unemployment benefit only if they are "actively seeking work".
There are also many practical ways the Church and church people can help. Church premises can be made available, perhaps as a drop-in centre, where unemployed people can meet for a coffee and a chat. Or information or advice leaflets can be provided, which tell people where to go for help, or what alternative opportunities there are for them (e.g. in training or adult education or leisure activities), or what clubs and societies there are for them to consider joining. In many church congregations there are people with particular skills for helping the unemployed - for instance, counselling skills, or expertise in financial matters.
I should like now to address particular groups of people. First of all, employers faced with the task of making people redundant. Do so in as humane a manner as possible. Offer people practical help, such as outplacement counselling. Don't feel personally guilty about making people redundant. Your action is dictated not by malevolence but by economic factors beyond your control. The survival of the firm may well depend on some people having to lose their jobs.
Secondly, people who have the privilege of regular paid employment - and it is these days rightly regarded as a privilege. Perhaps you would consider whether you might be part of the problem. I'm thinking of those who work excessively long hours. What an irony this is: some are overworked while others have no work at all. Those without work would love to share some of your excess hours (although I appreciate that the number of hours worked is not always in the individual's own control).
Now a word to the unemployed themselves. If you are without a job, know what makes you a valuable human being. Work is important, but it's not everything; and besides, work need not be the same as paid work. Realise that God loves and values people whether they are in paid employment or not. Tell others about your unemployment, especially your own family. Try also to trust members of the church family. Let them share your burden.
And what of the church congregation? Be an understanding, sensitive congregation. Don't pry. Don't demand to know people's employment situation. But offer them openings, opportunities to share their feelings - if they wish. Look out for opportunities to proclaim the gospel message to them about where their worth really lies. But do so sensitively. Engage in voluntary work which directly or indirectly helps unemployed people - e.g. Citizen's Advice Bureau, YMCA. I have already spoken of the use of church premises and members of the congregation using their professional skills. You might like to set up an Unemployment Support Group - at least a dozen churches in our area have done so. There is so much we can do as individuals and as a church.
I trust you can see that unemployment is not merely a social problem, but something which relates to the central message of the Christian gospel. What is at stake is whether or not people have the chance to find the "life in all its fullness" which Jesus came to bring. So it is as believers and evangelists as well as socially concerned people that we take on board the issue of unemployment and the needs of our unemployed sisters and brothers. It is a vital area of Christian concern and ministry.
(Note: This sermon was preached in the early '90s in Surrey and North-East Hampshire and the statistics quoted are appropriate to that time and place. Preachers who wish to address this issue in their own localities might consider contacting their nearest Jobcentre for their own local statistics.)
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