Rev. Sue Larson – Labor Day Sermon

Rev. Sue Larson Immanuel Lutheran Church Watertown, WI

  14th Sunday after Pentecost, Sept. 1-2, Immanuel Lutheran Church

Dear Friends in Christ,  grace to you and peace from God who made us,
has redeemed us, and God the Spirit who fills our hearts and guides
our living every day.  Let us pray:  Lord, on this weekend in which we
honor the work of all who labor, watch over us and give us your
gratitude for all you provide and thanksgiving for the work of all who
support and nurture us.  AMEN.

Well, it’s here – the weekend that separates the long warm days of
summer from the slow slide into cool nights and turning leaves and the
coming of the season of fall.  For all who love football, this is your
time!  The games have started, the schedules are posted and the
tickets may already be in your hand.

This also is the weekend in which we give thanks for and reflect on our
various occupations.  ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson has written a
Labor Day reflection saying that the workplace is where many of us spend the
majority of our waking hours.  Our work places have a profound
influence on our lives, he says, so it is important to recognize how
our work environments shape us as well as to think about the ways that
we can influence the policies and practices and cultures of our
workplaces.

Today’s gospel from Mark 7 brings up a cultural conflict between the
religious leaders who kept a close eye on Jesus.  They had the luxury
of observing the most exacting of religious rules and wanted to know
why Jesus and his group didn’t do the same.  There are some obvious
reasons why the disciples and ordinary people didn’t wash with
regularity.  They didn’t have
slaves or servants to bring them the water when they needed it nor
were they always near enough to a water source to find any.  Then, as
now, water in Palestine was a
precious commodity.  So the religious leaders insistence on being more
stringent and observant came across as a kind of arrogance.  The
culture in
which they were operating didn’t work for the people who didn’t have
the resources
to do the same.

That ways that life goes on for us, even when it is not entirely fair
or just, is what we feel is normal and right.  Our instinct is not to
let it change and to protect what feels secure.  Terry tells about
counseling couples preparing for marriage.  He encourages them to
understand that they are not just marrying a person, they are marrying
into a whole family system – a
community – that has shaped the habits and understandings of the
person sitting across from them – everything from how they observe
holidays so what they do with their dirty laundry!  So we know that we
are always at risk for bias or a lack of perspective about many things
in the world.

Since this is Labor Day weekend, one of those matters for me involves
the issue of labor – unions, organizing, and so on.  My family did not
have a background with that history and my dad was pretty biased – he
believed that, like the Teamsters, most unions were corrupt.  My work
history when I was young was pretty benign, I liked the jobs I had at
the local theater and hospital and clothing store so I never felt
misused and if I had, I knew that there were people who would speak up
for me in my family or community.

I began to gain a larger view of the world though, as I ventured
further from home and learned more about the working world.  I
listened to people like Studs Terkel, the crusty old Chicago writer
who told the stories of working Americans better than anyone else.  He
said once that he enjoyed going on  Labor Day into to the financial
district of the city and to stand on the street corner waiting for the
light to turn next to some well-dressed young couple in their
pin-striped suits and to begin to
expound about the benefits of the labor movement which brought an end
to child labor and gift of the eight hour day.  He laughed and said
that most moved away from him as fast as they could but he suspected
that they really didn’t know what they should about what the labor
movement had achieved in American history.

I didn’t know that much about the labor movement either but that
changed a little when I
agreed to be part of the formation of an interfaith organization about
a decade ago that focused on the concerns of people, primarily
Hispanics, who were marginalized in the workplace in Southern
Wisconsin.  A research organization that tracks income and the cost of living
joined with the faith community and others to publish a report in 2001
called “Can’t Afford to Lose a Bad Job.”  The fact-finding delegation
included a union representative, staff from Centro Hispano, and the
Hispanic Ministry coordinator for the Madison Catholic Diocese.

The report’s findings revealed a very challenging set of concerns:  having
to juggle many low-wage jobs, unstable and inflexible work schedules,
dangerous working conditions, fear of reprisals for any complaints,
racial profiling, unequal treatment, harassment, high rents and
crowded homes, lack of affordable or safe child care, little sleep and
lots of stress but – for those who wondered why these workers put up
with this – an even worse life in the nations from which many of the
families interviewed had come, and the opportunity to send money home
to support families there.

The stories were often heart-rending – one woman worked from 10:30 pm
to 6:30 am cleaning classrooms and offices, then worked at a food
establishment for eight hours, and then did janitorial work at a temp
agency for four hours.  She was sleeping three hours/night.  Another
worked as one of two laundresses in a 200 room hotel.  Washing and
folding the laundry was more than the two of them could do but they
were told that if they didn’t like it they should go somewhere else.
One group of housekeepers in a hotel did complain to management about
the excessive number of rooms to clean without the needed supplies.
But when it came time to meet with the boss, only three did so, and
they were immediately fired.

Bishop Hanson has said that wherever we work, there may be
opportunities to live out our baptismal calling in lives of service
and witness.  That came about for the board of the Interfaith
Coalition in 2002 when they formed a Worker’s Rights Center.  In its
first nine years, it helped thousands of workers save their jobs,
assisted in recovering over a quarter of a million dollars in unpaid
wages, and assisted workers who needed them with referrals to
government and social service agencies.  It has provided basic rights
training to thousands of workers and offered training for employers on
the rights of their employees.

At the core of theology for Martin Luther is the call to faith in a
God whose love is unimaginably great, broad, and deep.  God’s love
embraces all aspects of our physical and emotional lives and God
intends, as Luther wrote about the 4th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer
(“Give us this day our daily bread”) in his Large Catechism, that we
all have “everything required to
satisfy our bodily needs such as food and clothing, house and home,
fields and flocks, money and property.”  He saw the process of
obtaining what we need, our labor, as a holy act when performed in
faith and gratitude, where “picking up a piece of straw” could be
equal in God’s eyes to formal prayer and study.

Luther also believed, that as Jesus spoke to the Pharisees in Mark 7,
that our faith in God will result in righteous action.  His
explanation of the 7th Commandment (thou shalt not steal), included
the following:  “To steal is nothing else than to get possession of
another’s property wrongfully, which briefly comprehends all kinds of
advantage in all sorts of trade to the disadvantage of our neighbor.
To steal is …. not only to empty our neighbor’s coffer and pockets,
but to be grasping in the market … wherever there is trading or taking
and giving of money for merchandise or labor.  No more shall all the
rest prosper who change the open free market into a carrion-pit of
extortion and a den of robbery, where the poor are daily overcharged,
and new burdens and high prices are imposed.”

Luther would have supported those with legitimate authority acting in
the public realm to protect workers’ rights.  To him, that is the work
of all Christian believers.  Bishop Hanson reminds us that is it the
ministry of all the baptized to proclaim Christ in word and in deed,
to make known God’s love and saving grace.   God calls us to work for
justice and peace, for those who are unemployed, underemployed or
taken advantage of in their work.
God also calls us to live in and tend to our relationships, to be
stewards of our family and friends, to care for God’s creation, and to
live active lives as informed citizens.  So let us give thanks for the
rich variety of vocations to which, as a priesthood of believers, we
are called, and to support each other in our work.  May we be a
community that offers mutual support and accountability for God’s many
callings in our lives as we rejoice n the promises that are new every
day.

Let us pray:  Lord we ask that you be with all who lay their hands to
any useful task.  Give each one the just rewards of their labor and
the knowledge that their work is good in your sight.  AMEN

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