James 1:22-27, 2:14-20
Labor Day Sunday
At the heart of the Communion we will celebrate this morning is a call to remember who and whose we are as God’s dearly beloved ones. In a world saturated with forces intent upon separating us from God, ourselves, each other, how much we need to be reminded of what matters most to us, who we are, why we are here, and how it is that we invited to live and love most fully! Today is the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, a weekend probably most commonly experienced as one final opportunity for rest and re-creation as we transition from the hopefully more relaxed season of summer into the inevitably busier season of fall. And at one level this emphasis upon a rest from our labors is in keeping with why there is a Labor Day holiday to begin with. But especially in light of the recent onslaught against the labor movement, unions, and workers’ rights, this may be the time to remember as well the historic roots of and rationale for Labor Day, and to ask ourselves how remembering our past might shape our present and even point toward our future. For example, I suspect I’m not alone in not having realized that Labor Day was first celebrated back in 1882 in New York City. But even more to the point, I also had no idea that in 1909 the Sunday before Labor Day was proclaimed as Labor Sunday and “dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the Labor movement,” to praying for the rights of workers and advocating for their fair and just compensation.
Unfortunately, whatever solidarity may have once existed between people of faith and the labor movement seems to have been largely forgotten within many of our churches. Indeed, as the anti-union narrative has been woven among us, it’s now more common to find at least suspicion of and apathy toward unions, if not outright hostility, even among people of faith. Of course, the labor movement is not without its flaws, but then neither is the church, either historically or currently. And perhaps if the kinds of worker justice and fairness issues by unions were no longer relevant, this amnesia about, and apathy or even antipathy toward the labor movement, might not matter that much.
But the hard reality is that the rising pitch of anti-union sentiment throughout our nation is happening within the context of increasing anxiety and employment insecurity for far too many among us. Despite still being the wealthiest nation the world has ever known, these are distressingly hard times for American workers. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, our national unemployment rate is averaging above 10%, with much higher percentages in some areas and among some demographic populations. The Economic Policy Institute reports that a full 25% of all jobs that do currently exist pay poverty-level wages, thereby precluding many who work hard at full-time jobs from being able to keep their families out of poverty. An astounding one out of every eight people, including one out of every six children, lives below the official poverty line here in our nation, a rate higher than in any other industrialized country, and more than double that of such nations as Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Throughout the past few decades, the disparity between our lowest paid and highest paid workers has increased so exponentially as to far exceed the corresponding gap within any other major industrialized country, thereby creating a situation wherein some of the richest people on earth share the same country with their poverty-stricken, often under-paid, and either under- or un-employed fellow citizens.
That’s the bad news, or at least a small glimpse of it. And it can be incredibly debilitating and overwhelming, especially for those who feel trapped within jobs that pay far too little, and/or struggle every day just to find any kind of employment. Likewise, even those of us fortunate enough to have employment at least sufficient unto our basic needs, can feel helpless and despairing in the face of economic circumstances seemingly beyond our control. What’s especially pernicious about the anxiety this may thus arouse within us is that it makes us especially prey to the fallacy that unions and the labor movement have either somehow caused our financial distress, or at least stand in the way of our economic recovery. Indeed, the passivity of people of faith in the wake of this latest attempt to dismantle one of the few remaining sources of hope and empowerment for workers throughout our land is perhaps simply an extension of the deafening silence of most of our churches in response to the massive transfer upwards of wealth and economic power that has been happening among us since about 1965. Whether through ignorance, amnesia, or maybe just our own relative financial security, we have largely remained disengaged as economic conditions have worsened significantly for those most vulnerable among us.
But the good news is that such unbridled economic disparity is neither inevitable nor irreversible, at least not if we take seriously the admonition of our brother James in this morning’s Scripture reading to embody and enact our faith. Of course, that can be a big “if.” There’s a story about W.C. Fields being asked one day why he was so intently studying the Bible, to which he responded, “I’m looking for loopholes.” Aren’t we all? Certainly this appears to have been true for the people James was writing to, who even as some of the earliest Christians were already falling prey to our faith-eviscerating tendency to focus more upon believing and professing the right things, than upon doing and living right (i.e., just and loving) relationships with God and each other. How well James understood our temptation to talk the talk, without ever really walking the walk. And how clearly he insisted that faith without works is dead, that it is only through faith in action, through love embodied with and for each other, that we most fully remember and live into whose and who we are. Essentially, James is the “show me” advocate of faith in God. I imagine he would have no quibbles with our denomination’s affirmation that “God is still speaking,” but he would be much more interested in knowing whether we were still loving, whether anyone could tell by our actions what our religion looks like, what matters to us, what difference our faith makes in our lives and on behalf of others.
I’m afraid we must acknowledge on this Labor Day that for too long now it has been unclear what our religion looks like with regard to issues of employment and labor. But thankfully, this has not always been the case, which in turn emphasizes our need to remember who we have been so that we can most fully become whom God calls us to be. Whenever I hear the labor movement and/or unions disparaged, I wonder, have we so soon forgotten how hard-won were the labor reforms that we take for granted today, such as an 8 hour work day, paid overtime, social security, paid vacations, minimum wage, health care, and laws against child labor? Have we likewise no recollection that the intense battles that resulted in these labor improvements were often waged with labor and religion working side by side in solidarity and coalition with each other? As often happens when the previously unthinkable becomes commonplace, it’s hard for us now to grasp how unrealistic and distant once seemed the day when these basic worker rights might be enjoyed by all of us. Yet they never could have been achieved had not there been a recognition among people of faith that exploitive working conditions were not only bad for those suffering under them, but indeed were bad for all who understood themselves to be woven together as the people of God and beloved members of one human family wherein the sorrows and/or joys of any are shared by all.
Life is really tough these days for many our sisters and brothers who simply wish to be meaningfully employed in jobs which allow them to support their families. And precisely because organized labor has been effective in the past at ensuring basic protections and economic security for all workers, many within the middle class which largely owes its existence to labor victories from the past, are finding themselves now vilified and dismissed as being either too expensive or even not sufficiently worthy of being ensured employment and/or livelihood. This may well be one of the most important reasons for us to gather with each other for worship each week. For in healing contrast to our society’s disparagement of low-wage and/or no wage workers, here we are reminded that each and every one of us is a dearly beloved, high value person to God. Our world may still perpetuate the judgment that our worth depends upon the work we do and the money we earn, but our God endlessly invites us to reaffirm that we are inherently loved and cherished, in and through the dignity of any work we do, as well as simply by virtue of being who we are regardless of whether we may or may not be employed. To be sure, this re-orientation can be challenging, even within communities of faith, but as James reminds us, it is precisely when we embrace this challenge that our faith is most alive. My heart ached when I read a recent study indicating that the longer folk remain unemployed the more they tend to withdraw from their faith communities. One person related that the final straw for him was being asked, by a presumably well-meaning fellow church member, “you still have not found a job?” Ouch!
And if even we who share a community of faith together at times find it hard to remember that we are valued more for who we are than for the work we may or may not do, how much harder must it be for those outside of faith communities to know where we stand in regard to their struggle for dignity an well-being? Yet once again, the good news is that we can choose to resist those forces which seek to vilify unions, the labor movement, and all whose labors are considered worth less than others. More than 60 years ago, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights affirmed the basic human right to employment and to protection from unemployment. More than 40 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that there is nothing short of our lack of vision and will to prevent us from co-creating God’s Beloved Community here on earth. King challenged us even then to imagine and dedicate ourselves toward realizing a society blessed by such currently “impossible” assurances as living wages for all workers, full employment and/or guaranteed income for everyone, and universal health care. To be sure, we are currently facing previously unthinkable financial security roll-backs as elimination of the minimum wage (just passed here in NH), reduction of the minimum age for child labor (currently proposed here in NH), and proposed significant reductions in and/or elimination of social security, Medicare, and health care benefits. But rather than passively ignoring the anti-union sentiment increasingly being sown among us, perhaps this Labor Day Sunday can be the beginning for us of renewing and rebuilding the historic solidarity and coalition between religion and labor which proved so powerful in the past, and may be our only hope both for maintaining the achievements of days gone by, as well as living into our shared vision of days yet to be.
Hopeful signs on the horizon of the future to which our past points us include the efforts of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice, currently led by a former president of our denomination, the Rev. Paul Sherry, as well as the fledgling formation of such a coalition here in NH, and of course, our own church’s involvement in the United Valley Interfaith Project. During a time far more challenging than ours has yet become, veteran organizer Joe Hill advised, “my friends, don’t agonize, organize!” In a similar vein, Jeffrey Stout warns in his book, Blessed Are the Organized, that “we’re bound to get immoral budgets as long as ordinary citizens are under-organized and therefore lack sufficient power to influence the way in which the entire debate is framed.” And sadly, under-organized we have been for too long now, especially those of us in the church. It was encouraging at last spring’s rally at the NH State House in support of a moral state budget based upon ensuring the well-being of all our fellow citizens, to see many more church folk involved than has been true in the recent past. But ah, if only we could turn folk out from churches in numbers comparable to the unions, then might we see the dawn of that new day for which we all so dearly yearn!
Actually, I believe the dawn of that day has already begun. Particularly bright among the many rays of its light radiating at the State House throughout these past few months, whether through the on-going Prayer Vigil of Faithful Voices for a Humane Budget, or the numerous rallies held and testimonies offered, especially in opposition to the anti-union intentionally mis-leadingly called “Right to Work” (for less) bill, was our own Rod Wendt’s now famous sign bearing the reminder that “Moses Fought for Fair Working Conditions!” That along with this morning’s bulletin cover reminding us in the midst of our disparagement of low wage workers, that Jesus himself was such a worker, are two of the best affirmations I’ve seen of the inherent connections between faith and labor.
Similarly, the inspiration for the title of this morning’s sermon, and the story with which I wish to conclude, comes to us from the labor struggles earlier this year in Wisconsin. Often at such rallies we hear the chant, “this is what democracy looks like.” But when over 150 clergy marched into the Capitol in Madison, they chanted, “This is What Religion Looks Like!” When asked why she supported the Wisconsin workers, one clergywoman responded, “to be faithful to my ordination vows.” Wow! Could we not also extend this with the affirmation, “to be faithful to our baptismal vows” to resist injustice and embody God’s compassion with and for all God’s people? Or perhaps even more broadly, to be faithful to God’s call “to love our neighbor as ourselves,” and to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?” Whether through the outpouring of the donations we have blessed this morning in response to Hurricane Irene, or through the numerous caring ministries made possible within and beyond this faith community, or through the ways in which we are increasingly standing in solidarity with our friends and neighbors on behalf of worker justice and fiscal policies based upon ensuring the well-being of those most vulnerable among us, this, dear friends, is what religion looks like! Amen, and thanks be to God!