It is Labor Day weekend. Like most American holidays, that has come to mean little more than three days off. But, like with most American holidays, there was once upon a time when it really meant something about our national values. The first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882. Soon the first Monday in September was established as the official day to recognize working men and women. The holiday was once dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It was intended to be an annual national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well being of our country.
There was a time when the names of labor leaders were cheered and they were revered. My father was a miner and a truck driver. Jimmy Hoffa’s name has been turned into a symbol of corruption but around our house in the 1950s, Hoffa’s name meant workers getting a fair deal. He was proud of that Teamster’s badge.
Remember names like John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, Samuel Gompers, the longtime leader of the American Federation of Labor and one of the great organizers of the American Labor movement of the last years of the 19th century and the 20th. Albert Shanker - until Shanker's time teachers…and most all public sector employees…were forbidden to strike. Albert Shanker fought for the rights of educators to earn a decent living and partake of benefits reflective of their worth to society. Then there was Caesar Chavez who founded the National Farm Workers Association that later became the United Farm Workers. Cesar led the disenfranchised against the profit-hungry grape growers.
Caesar, Samuel, Shanker…Caesar Chavez, Samuel Gompers, Al Shanker…But the greatest worker organizer and advocate in history was Moses. Like all of those other names…Gompers, Lewis, Shanker, Reuther, Hoffa, Chavez…Moses represented underpaid and exploited workers. Like the pharaoh before them, the industrial and business leaders feared and disdained those who represented the working poor.
But Moses was the first in history willing to stand up against the economic and political powers. Moses never intended to be a leader, didn’t want to have that role. Moses was simply negotiating justice for his people. He wasn’t asking for something for nothing…he wasn’t asking for a handout, Moses was asking for justice.
As we read Deuteronomy this morning, we know the negotiations failed. Moses has led his people out, they went on strike, God promised them a better deal, a better contract…the strike-breakers went after them with their spears and chariots and God took care of that.
All God wants for God’s people is freedom, the freedom to be themselves, to take care of their families, to be a part of the community. God gave the Israelites their freedom just as God gave all humans their freedom in the Garden of Eden. God led them to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. God asks only that they remember and never forget that they were once slaves, once illegal immigrants, once hungry and poor and struggling.
Take care, God says, “take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.”
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. It was all good…humans for relationships, animals for companionship, water for life, every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.
So what happened?
* Every day, approx. 29,000 people in the world die of hunger, or hunger related diseases.
* 80 million children between the ages of 10-14 work for low wages in often dangerous conditions to supply inexpensive products for citizens of wealthier nations to consume.
* 100 million children from 6-11 years of age are receiving no education and they will likely soon join the 900 million adults who are illiterate round the world.
* 1 billion children do not have clean water or sanitary waste disposal (that’s 1/6th of the world’s population, and that’s just the children!)
* The wealthiest 345 people in the world possess the wealth equivalent to that held by the poorest 40% of the world’s people – that’s over 2 billion people!
* If we were to join the ranks of the 1.5 billion people, half of them children, who are constantly hungry, our diets would consist of 2 oz. of rice a day.
These are today’s slaves. Just what is a slave? Throw out the images of pre-civil war slaves. In those days, people knew a slave when they saw one…by the color of their skin, usually in chains, people bought and owned. Today slavery is different. Today’s slaves are those who are bound by the society in which they live to provide their labor for wages that do not allow them to meet their own basic needs. You see nearly all of those families receiving food stamps and Medicaid are working, many of them more than one job…the political system requires they work in order to receive any government assistance and the economic system makes sure they can’t earn enough to sustain themselves.
So…who negotiates for them? Who remembers them? The world’s richest woman doesn’t She says low-income people are only poor because they don’t work hard enough, and because they drink too much and are lazy. This from a Australian named Gina Rinehart, who inherited her $30 billion fortune. God sees it differently…Jesus and the prophets spoke often of how the system was rigged against the poor.
God says, “take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.”
But they are forgotten. No one speaks for them. Or should I say no one negotiates for them. There’s no labor union representing the poor. They can’t afford lobbyists and political consultants, they have no super pacs…and so in today’s world they have no place, no voice.
They have become the stuff of political rhetoric, not sacred obligation. Sacred obligations are not created on election day but on the Sabbath. Money creates Pharaohs. God calls the Caesar Chavez’s, the Samuel Gompers, Al Shankers and Moses.
The pharaohs don’t mind if we simplycollect food for the poor. Pharaoh loves it when we subsidize the low wages he pays with the food we contribute. What the pharaoh minds is when we negotiate for the poor, when we actually speak out and become their advocates. The pharaoh says, “please just leave the food at the food pantry and quietly go your way.”
Food collection is an important mission and we here at Highlands have been generous with NEEDS and COMEA among others. But, the sacred obligation of the church, the synagogue, the mosque goes beyond collecting food. Listen carefully to the scripture from this morning…James 1:27…”Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Churches are stained by the world when they simply collect food for the hungry and never ask, “Why are so many people hungry in the richest country on earth? Why is it we can pay a billion dollars a week to fight a war and have long, mean-spirited debates over food stamps?” “Why are people in our community holding garage sales and spaghetti suppers to raise money to pay for cancer treatment?”
When we Christians ask those questions as we drop off the food baskets, we go from being a respected charity to becoming meddlers. Moses was a meddler…as were Caesar, Samuel, and Shanker.
A stained, defiled world doesn’t like religious meddlers. Once I wrote one of my weekly columns on poverty in Wyoming. A reader responded with a letter to the editor. “Rev. McDaniel,” he wrote, “should stick to saving souls and leave economic policy to others.”
That’s how badly stained the world has become. The stain of the world comes when the church offers food baskets but doesn’t answer God’s call to negotiate on behalf of these people. As we celebrate the Labor Day weekend, take notice of the working people in your lives. Is that woman who served your meal at the restaurant able to feed her own children? Does the fellow who put a new roof on your house have a roof over his own head? What do the falling prices advertised at Walmart mean for the workers whose labor has been discounted so that we can buy for less?
You see…that’s what Jesus was saying when he told the people, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
If we aren’t able or willing to negotiate on behalf of the poor, we should at least honor those who do…and that is what Labor Day is about.