About 125 years ago there was a movement in America, beginning at the local level, to set aside a day each year to honor the contributions of American workers. This movement culminated in the establishment of Labor Day as a national holiday for this purpose.
Labor Day is a bit like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Both recognize that there are many people whose names and faces we will never know who have made an enormous difference in the quality of our lives and the life of our country.
Unfortunately we have lost our way with Labor Day just as with many of our holidays. It is celebrated as the beginning of football season, as the last chance for a long weekend at the beach or in the mountains before summer ends, as another day for a cookout or an outing on the lake. And many of the workers that the holiday was intended to honor are the ones that have to work on that day today: grocery store cashiers, butchers, convenience store attendants, fast food employees, and retail clerks. Of course there are occupations in which someone always has to be on the job, which makes us especially keen to give thanks for them: doctors and nurses and other employees of hospitals and emergency clinics; police, firefighters, and emergency personnel; prison employees, military personnel, and so on. Even church organists who celebrated their birthday this week have to work on this weekend. A belated happy birthday, Chris, and thanks for all you do to make a difference here!
And speaking of Chris, I have asked him to play a special piece today and he has graciously agreed to do so as the Offertory. It is American composer Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” I’ve always loved this piece and the name of it. Fanfares are usually composed for kings and queens and presidents. The idea of having an ordinary, garden variety person like me or you walk into a room and deserve to have such a magnificent piece played in our honor is one of the greatest things ever. It fits so beautifully with Christian beliefs such as the priesthood of all believers and the inherent value and dignity of each human life.
“Fanfare for the Common Man.” Not until this week did I know the story behind this piece of music. Maybe you do, but I’d like to share it in the assumption that many do not. It was written in 1942. Pearl Harbor had been bombed December 7, 1941, so America had just entered the second world war. People from all walks of life were volunteering to serve in the military; women were rushed into the workplace as men left to go to war and planes and tanks and ships needed to be built, giving birth to the legend of the Rosie the Riveter symbol; the energies and resources of the nation were poured into the wartime effort with much sacrifice required. All hands were needed on deck, and the common man and common woman of America came through in a big way.
Eugene Goossens was the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He had lived in England during World War I, and during the war he had asked British composers to compose fanfares to lead off each concert during wartime. This was very well received, so when America entered World War II he asked American composers to do the same. His goal was that the fanfares would be stirring and morale boosting for the audience, and would serve as significant contributions to the war effort. 18 fanfares were composed, but only Copland’s has had enduring importance.
Goossens suggested titles like “Fanfare for Soldiers,” envisioning them as patriotic, wartime pieces. Copland considered several titles. One was “Fanfare for a Solemn Assembly.” One was “Fanfare for Four Freedoms,” making reference to Roosevelt’s state of the union address in January of that year which spoke of four freedoms we were fighting for: freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom from fear of secret police, and freedom from want for the average person. But he ultimately decided on “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which was derived from a recent speech by Vice President Henry Wallace. Publisher Henry Luce had stated that the century following World War II would be the American Century. Wallace said that the century following World War II should be the Century of the Common Man. He spoke of the revolutions throughout the world that had led to this point: our own American revolution, the French Revolution, the Latin-American revolutions, the German Revolution of 1848, and the Russian Revolution of 1917, each of which he said was a blow against tyranny and for common people. The percentage of people who could read and write and think for themselves and invent and innovate and manage was increasing exponentially.
I’d like to read a couple of paragraphs toward the conclusion of Wallace’s speech about his dream of the Century of the Common Man. I would remind you that at this time using the word “man” referred to mankind and was not intended to exclude women.
He wrote, “Everywhere (in the world) the common man must learn to build his own industries with his own hands in a practical fashion. Everywhere the common man must learn to increase his productivity so that he and his children can eventually pay to the world community all that they have received. No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations…. And when the time of peace comes, the citizen will again have a duty, the supreme duty of sacrificing the lesser interest for the greater interest of the general welfare. Those who write the peace must think of the whole world. There can be no privileged peoples. We ourselves in the United States are no more a master race than the Nazis. And we can not perpetuate economic warfare without planting the seeds of military warfare. We must use our power at the peace table to build an economic peace that is just, charitable, and enduring.” (Prefaces to Peace Symposium, pp. 373-374)
The two things that struck me reading this speech were: first, the degree to which public discourse has been dumbed down in the last 74 years; and second, the fact that not a whole lot of his dream was realized. Those are sermons for another day. The point for today is that Aaron Copland was sufficiently inspired by this image of the Century of the Common Man and the role being played at that very time by the common men and women of America to entitle his work, “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
In a humorous footnote, Goosens was very taken with both the title and the music and told Copland he would like to use it for a special occasion, in March of 1943, because it was income tax time. Copland replied, “I am all for honoring the common man at income tax time.” (Wikipedia article on “Fanfare for the Common Man.” I have to think he was biting his tongue when he commented on this trivialization of this great theme.
The genius of the idea, name and music has continued to be recognized and used in the decades since then. A few significant occasions as examples. On September 21, 2012 it was played at L.A. International Airport as the Space Shuttle Endeavor touched down to end its final flight, kind of a symbolic end to small steps for people, giant leaps for mankind. On May 15, 2014, it was played by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at the dedication of the 9/11 Museum in Lower Manhattan, certainly one of the most appropriate uses ever. And on September 26 of last year it was played at Independence Hall in Philadelphia as Pope Francis came outside to make a speech on religious freedom, which he delivered from the lectern used by Abraham Lincoln to deliver the Gettysburg Address. Wow! So in a few minutes it will be played here for Labor Day, 2016, in honor of each one here and the contributions made by all.
Last weekend Betty Phillips, Amy Cianciolo, and I attended a workshop at First Presbyterian Church at which the leader was encouraging us to stop thinking about people and church in terms of membership and start thinking in terms of discipleship. Would it change the way you approach your faith if instead of identifying as a member of Central Presbyterian Church you identified yourself as a disciple of Jesus Christ in partnership with other disciples at Central Presbyterian Church? If you are a member of something, you go to meetings, you listen to programs, you pay your dues, and you go home. If you are a disciple, that involves your whole life.
We watched a video about a young woman who is a contractor who renovates homes. She talked about being frustrated that work takes so many hours a day and there is so little time left to exercise discipleship. But then she came to the realization that she could exercise her discipleship at work – that every day she probably met with subcontractors, inspectors, homeowners, who might not experience the grace of Christ anytime in the day other than through her. So she began to focus on the relationships she had at work and getting to know and understand people and approach them in a Christ like way. She made it her goal every day to do the best job she could in her work to the glory of God.
I think every one of us can learn something from that approach. Whether you spend your day plotting the future of IBM or plotting the day for your toddlers; whether you are cleaning your house or going to school; whether you are on an assembly line or are out selling what comes off the assembly line or hiring the workers to do both those jobs; even if you are unemployed or retired; your life can be a lot different if you approach it as something you do for Jesus.
I had an elderly church member who was a shut in, but what a ministry she had by picking up the phone and calling her friends every day to check on them and cheer them up. Edith Vincent must be about 90 but she continues to crochet baby blankets to welcome new church children. Bob Collier and April Swanson are retired, but they are at church most mornings keeping the facilities in good working order. This year they have replaced more than 60 flourescent light fixtures with LED fixtures that are going to save money and reduce our energy usage. Terrell Wilson is retired from teaching school, but every Wednesday she is here with a room of 30 rambunctious children joyously helping teach them about the Christian faith and life. Jacky Hunter has a full time job but has been our volunteer church treasurer even before I arrived here 18 years ago. Alex Williams is a college student, but his avocation is recreating the Garden of Eden at 1404 North Boulevard and he is doing a pretty darn good job of it!
When I was finishing seminary and went to Gastonia to interview with the pulpit committee of the church I ended up going to when I graduated, the committee members all introduced themselves to me. An older, retired woman told me her name and where she had worked before retirement. She said, “Now church work is my vocation and my avocation.” And she was not kidding. She truly lived out the discipleship model in the way she cared for people and for the church.
The greatest gift is the gift of love. A lot of people know that. A lot of people say that. Not many people live that. If we blend our discipleship with our vocations, then we make work sacred and we can become vessels of grace and love to all we come in contact with. I’ve been picturing heaven this week as a place where the gates open and whether you are Pope Francis or Billy Graham or you or me the “Fanfare for the Common Man” is played as you walk in. If the world is incapable of living out the dream Henry Wallace had for the common man, perhaps the disciples of Christ can give it a shot.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
September 4, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church