Labor Rights Sermon (Labor Day Weekend)

Labor Rights Sunday * September 2, 2012

Preachers: Lucy Waechter Webb, Lainie Rini, Erin Hardin

Texts: Amos 5:11-15 and James 1:17-27

The Story of Labor Day (Pastor Lucy):

As we begin our next season in a theme together, we will be focusing on "Telling the good story" together. In Sept we'll tell stories of our past, in Oct stories of our present, and Nov stories of our future. So to kick off this season of story-telling, Lainie, Erin and I will be sharing a few stories with you this morning.

As you know by now, we are thinking about labor rights on this Sunday of Labor Day weekend. And I am curious as we begin this conversation, if anyone knows the history of the holiday Labor Day? Does anyone know how the holiday developed in the United States?

The first Labor Day celebration in the United States can be traced to New York City's Union Square in 1882 when workers took an unpaid day off to march in the city in support of the holiday. After that, individual states then started to claim the holiday one by one, and it was made a national holiday in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland. The national holiday was created in response to the famous Pullman Strikes. And I want to share with you this morning that story.

The Pullman Strike was the first national strike in US history, and before it was over it involved 150,000 people in 27 states and literally paralyzed the railway system. Pullman was a railcar company known for making sleeper and luxury rail cars and from the success of his business, Mr. Pullman fashioned an entire city, Pullman City outside of Chicago, he created it for his workers to live and in fact required them to live in Pullman housing. The city was often considered a model city, where Pullman built and rented houses, libraries and even the preacher had to rent the church from Mr Pullman. Well they managed along just fine for about 10 years, and in 1893 there was an economic depression and wages were cut on average in the company by 25%. However the prices of the product remained the same, and more importantly so did the rent that workers were paying for their housing. And when a worker/renter fell behind on rent, it was simply deducted from the paycheck. So naturally, they began to organize and approached the company to ask for lower rent given the state of their lesser wages.

As you can imagine, they were refused. And the largest strike in national history began. Once the larger railway system of unions became involved in the strike, within 3 days 50,000 men walked off the job. At this point, a federal court saw the gravity of what was happening, and declared the strike a federal crime sending federal troops in by the thousands (they estimate over 14,000 total strike breakers with various law enforcement combined), which escalated the strike further into violence. People on strike were rioting and destroying thousands of dollars of property, and people lost their lives when the troops started to fire. After it was over, President Cleveland and Congress made organized labor a top priority in that election year and legislation for the holiday, Labor Day, was pushed through Congress just six days after the strike ended. At the same time, the strike did not accomplish was it was intended to do, wages remained the same and many people caught up in the strike were blacklisted from future work on railway system. Pullman workers signed a contract that they would not strike or unionize in the future, and many labor unions in the country were gone until the Great Depression.

This is an incredible story and testament, however, to the power that people have when they gather and organize for change.


The Story of Amos (Pastor Lucy):

Now, I’d like to turn to Amos. And tell the story of the time when these words were spoken. This is a tough passage no? You trample on the poor, I know how many are your transgressions, and how great your sins. If you’ve read the whole book of Amos before you know that this is not the only section that is rough, almost the entire book is dripping with his anger! And that comes from the context he found himself in, and the state of his nation. I’d like to start by sharing with you a piece of the commentary from biblical scholars that introduces this book in my study bible. Listen closely, this was written about the time Amos was writing, but things might sound familiar:

“The book of Amos is a compilation of sayings attributed to the prophet Amos, who was active… in the long and peaceful reign of Jeroboam II. In this period, Israel attained a height of territorial expansion and national prosperity never again reached. At the same time, this prosperity led to gross inequities between urban elites and the poor. Through manipulation of debt and credit, wealthy landowners amassed capital and estates at the expense of small farmers. The smallest debt served as the thin end of a wedge that lenders could use to separate farmers from their patrimonial farms and personal liberty.”

“Into this scene stepped Amos, a native of a small village in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, and himself a farmer and herder…Amos denounced the society of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, in vivid language, bitterly describing the decadent opulence, immorality and smug piety of elites who “trampled the head of the poor into the dust of the earth”

Hopefully this sounds a little familiar. A country attaining the height of territorial expansion and national prosperity never before reached. Prosperity that led to gross iniquities between the rich and poor. Manipulation of debt and credit (read: mortgage crises). It’s as if Amos is reading our newspapers and standing right here on the front lawn of our capital buildings.

And before Lainie shares with us next, I’d like call our attention to two details in the specific passage we read this morning. The first is this line about “you who afflict the righteous and who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.(v.12)”  The gate he is referring to is the city gate, which was where most of the public activity during the day was found. This is place where anyone with a complaint could expect to find the elders of the community who would act as judges. So when people are taking bribes, and pushing aside the needy at the gate, they are not only robbing people of the justice they are seeking, but they are eliminating the space and opportunity to even seek justice in due process. Not only are they not aware of what is in imbalance, they are not even willing to be aware. And the response from Amos is to name a very different reality that can be practiced, he says “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate.”

The second detail in this passage I’d like to mention is the implication of the two verbs used in the sentence I just read, “Hate” and “Love”. Both verbs in Hebrew point to the ability to make decisions. To love, “ahav”, can also mean to choose. To hate, “shaneh” often refers to specific decisions. In other words, there is a call to action, rather than simply holding an attitude or feeling about something. You might read it as Decide to reject Evil, and Choose good.

When we think of Biblical Prophets, we think of a radical person, but one with authority, one who is somehow extraordinary and must fall asleep at night and have God whisper words into their ears to share the next day. But the story of Amos, is a story of a common man, a farmer from a village who just spoke out, and spoke boldly.

The Story of us: The Story of Now – (Lainie Rini)

I think we can hear these stories in the Bible and often think that they don’t quite apply to us now in the same way that they did back then. People know that some things back in the Old Testament are just not the way that we do things anymore. We don’t have to worry about worshiping Baal or other deities [or insert other OT outdated reference]. We need not be concerned about the treatment of slaves because we don’t have slaves! At least, not in the typical sense of the word.

The truth of the matter is we need to be ever more concerned about the plight of “slaves”, because by denying their current existence, we are making it far too easy to continue a system of oppression. No, we don’t have slaves the way they did in the Old Testament – we have workers. We have workers who make our clothing, and workers who stock our shelves. In fact, the distinction we are supposed to make between workers and slaves is that the worker is paid. But if we are not treating our workers with justice, if we are not paying our workers, then the words of Amos ring strong and true in our world today. Today, our Ohio State University right down the street is considering contracts with apparel companies that rampantly abuse workers in sweatshops.

The coffee that we can to enjoy on a daily basis is given to us at the expense of hundreds of thousand workers around the world, many children, who are forced to work tireless hours with no pay.  Students will be the future workers of the world, yet our high tuition rates are forcing us into a student debt higher than this country has ever seen. We will be enslaved to that debt until something is done to change this country’s plight. Students cannot even hope to work off this debt, for the minimum wage now is buys less than it would have back in the 50s (and people say we’ve progressed). There are so many more grievances we ought to be concerned for – climate change, fracking drills, institutional sexism and racism… when injustices are listed off in a format such as this, the scope of the problem seems too much to bear.

Amos is asking a lot, how are we to save the world? That is too much. When you draw a line, you get a straight line. Now say you want to draw another next to the original line. Only this time, you make a slight tilt to the left. There’s really not much difference, only a crooked line. But overtime, that shift will continue to grow and separate even more from the original line. I believe this is what Amos is asking of us. No, we cannot face the plight of slaves and single handedly save the world. But if we start by making small shifts in our lifestyle, eventually we’ll be so far from where things were to notice a change. Change starts slow, and it takes time, but it will make a difference. We can make a difference today by changing our practices, just a little. We can buy fair trade coffee, and petition Gee to help the workers. We don’t have to change the world, we just have to start with a shift.

(Pastor Lucy)

This is tough stuff. This is real life, and each of us, each and every one of us, no matter our job status, the income we make, each of us is touched by the things Lainie spoke about. We are all connected to one another, and so when one worker is paid unfairly, when students suffer from oppresive debt, when women are sold into sex slavery for work, when children grow our coffee instead of learn to read, we are affected, changed as a people. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. He also quoted the farmer from Judah, Amos, when he made famous the line of scripture “Let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

I believe God calls us to enter into the mess of the world, not to pull away from it. And we are at a particular point in history where the blend of uncertainties we face has never before been experienced. The realities of struggling planet and the failing of the global economies that are connected like they never have been before place us on the edge of era we have not yet seen.

The National Student Power Convergence that met here last month, is examining just those questions. They are peeking around the corner into that new era. For those of you who don’t know, the Convergence was a gathering of over 200 college students from around the nation who gathered here at OSU and stayed at Summit Church to explore how they might build a student movement dedicated to the very things we are talking about today and more. Our young people are leading us into a wondering, a process of imagining new ways of being together. They practice a mix of reflection and action as they face our very real problems and dream about our future. They will tell you, they don’t have all the answers. But they are wondering and working together to not just envision, or have a feeling, or attitude about the world that Amos calls for, but to enact it. This morning, Erin, is going to share with you her experience of the Convergence.

The Story of the Convergence (Erin Hardin) –

As many of you know we were recently a temporary home to some students from the National Power Convergence, of which Lainie and I participated.  Although Lainie and I had brought unique gifts and interests to the table, and we both learned a lot about ourselves and who we are as members of the mass movement of young adults fighting for social justice.  I am going to share with you, my experience and how I learned more about myself through the weekend of the convergence.

I think it is important, when going into a new experience, to keep an open heart and open mind.  And that’s exactly what I did, and in doing so I found out a few things about myself  that I am glad I discovered early on in my life.  One I am not big on yelling, two I am not a big fan of large crowds.  Both of which are important components of being part of a mass movement, Something I wish I knew before the convergence began.   I was completely overwhelmed by a lot of the radical groups there and movements they were a part of.  It was all too much to handle and I regrettably did not finish the entire weekend because I wasn’t at a place in my life where I felt sturdy enough to be a part of such a powerful movement, in that way, and I still don’t think I am but maybe in the future.  This gave me time to look inward and learn that I was not a protester or marcher.  But after a few talks with Lucy I learned that it wasn’t a bad thing that I lean less toward the front lines and more toward behind the scenes.    I also realized I felt overwhelmed because it is overwhelming!  I mean, we are talking about a major change that young adults are fighting for, not just in America but all around the world.

I am majoring in social work here at Ohio State and I have learned through that and my experience during and after the convergence that I can make change happen without yelling or marching in a protest.  I’m not by any means saying protests and yelling shouldn’t be done, because often times that is all that is effective in gaining peoples’ attention.  However, it’s not for everyone, but the wonderful thing about change is there are multiple entry points and ways to be involved in this revolution.  Although I may not be as radical as those on the streets I have acted on causes that I am passionate about *talk about IJM, being trained as a speaker, leading Come out Come out and being an outspoken Ally for GLBT folks* If you are unable to commit time there are still easy ways to make a difference, willingness to sign letters and petitions can make a big difference.

AS you have just heard from lucy those fingthing on the streets play such a vital role, but even if you aren’t one of those voices on the streets, as a Christian there is still a call to action.  James reminds us of this in the passage I want to share with you….right now! [read passage from James]

The Story of Summit - (Pastor Lucy)

Perhaps you have heard the phrase “faith without works is dead.” Or “a faith that fails to bear fruit does not save.” Well, James is the king of that idea in the bible. He is the one that people talk about when they fight about whether or not it is faith or works that save.

We’re not going to have that conversation today. But what I can tell you, is that both are important. And James reminds us, that acting, being doers of the word, is vital. Not only because it’s the right thing to do and all that jazz. But because when we are not doers of the word, we are deceiving ourselves. We are standing at the gate of Amos’ city, pushing aside those who come, making ourselves comfortably blind. James says we look into the mirror and turn away and immediately forget what we are like! Who we are called to be as a people of God.

It is overwhelming as both Lanie and Erin stated. And we cannot walk away thinking we can save the world ourselves. At the end of the day, I believe that work can only be accomplished with God. But we are faithful servants, only to God, workers that labor alongside God to realize the kingdom.  And there are decisions everyday that we make, often small, sometimes large, but all cumulative.

So in honor of our past, this month, I close the way we began today, with a few reminders of the amazing ways this church has taken action in the past.

-       They opened their doors to Ceasar Chavez, a radical labor rights activist

-       They welcomed and included fully two LGBT groups seeking sanctuary

-       They partnered with the creators of Comfest to celebrate the struggle for the collective good for all people.

I shared these stories with the students at the convergence and they were astonished at this church’s prophetic voice, and commitment to justice. It made very real our new tagline, “No seriously…this is church.”

So in close today, appropriately, we invite you into action. We invite you to reflect how you might consider the words of James and the passion of Amos in your own life and how you might respond in the world. You might do this today and you might take action after today. But we offer four invitations to you immediately following worship. [Name four options] We could have passed out something in worship right now, or included the action piece within our service in the Centrum, but we felt it was important for you all to make a choice. “Ahav”, is the Hebrew from Amos right? To love. To choose. So it is up to you to consider what you will act upon and when. Any one of us cannot do it all. But together, at different entry points, with steps that shift us, we can end up in a different place.