Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; James 1:17-27
September 2, 2018
On this Labor Day Week End, does your job ever make you feel overworked, over-regulated, with diminishing benefits? Take heart. This notice was found in the ruins of a London office building. It was dated 1852.
- This firm has reduced the hours of work, and the clerical staff will now only have to be present between the hours of 7am and 6pm weekdays.
- A Stove is provided for the benefit of the clerical staff. It is recommended that each member of the clerical staff bring four pounds of coal every day during the cold weather.
- No member of the clerical staff may leave the room without permission from the supervisor.
- No talking is allowed during business hours.
- Now that the hours of business have been drastically reduced, the partaking of food is allowed between 1130 am and noon, but work will not on any account cease.
- Members of the clerical staff will provide their own pens. A new sharpener is available on application to the supervisor.
- The supervisor will nominate a senior clerk to be responsible for the cleanliness of the main office and the private office, all boys and juniors will report to him 40 minutes before prayers and will remain after closing hours for similar work. Brushes, brooms, scrubber, and soap are provided by the owners.
- The owners recognize the generosity of the new labor laws; but will expect a great rise in output of work to compensate for these near Utopian conditions."
On this Labor Day, workers face challenging times, there is a concentration of wealth and economic power not seen since the 19th century. Inequality in American is at record levels. Millions of people are looking for work but cannot find a job. Millions more have actually given up seeking employment. Millions are underemployed; they don’t earn enough to pay rent or groceries. Ten million fall within the working poor, they work hard, often 2-3 jobs, but don’t earn enough to meet basic needs. 46%, or 22 million workers, consider themselves trapped in underemployment.
What should this matter to us? Today we gather, the day before Labor Day, to remind ourselves of the spiritual transformational nature of work. God set the example for us to lead a productive life when it says in the creation story that God finished the work he had been doing and declared it good. God gave Adam and eve responsibilities to care for the Garden of Eden. God called people to ministry in the midst of work: Moses was busy with his flocks when he saw the burning bush. Gideon was busy threshing wheat by the wine press. Saul was searching for his father’s lost beasts. Elisha was plowing with twelve yokes of oxen. David was caring for his father’s sheep. Nehemiah was bearing the king’s wine-cup.
Jesus himself learned a trade and worked with his hands. Jesus chose working people as his apostles, Peter, James and John were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector. Paul supported his ministry by tent making. Lydia was a seller of purple dyed garments. All these people used their occupations to support Jesus’s ministry. Their occupation as a first fruits offering, work that supported the building of God’s realm, expressing compassion, alleviating suffering. That is God’s work. And it is also ours.
In today’s epistle lesson, Janes declares that true religion is the care of orphans, widows and the needy. Worship here means liturgy, worship. We worship God in our work by doing our best and being our best with those in need. True religion is more than spending an hour on Sunday at church. Everyday we should be about the business of worshipping God in our acts of kindness and compassion. In God’s eyes, our first fruits, our best fruits – is found in the labor and care of the needy. We when we come to the aid of a homeless person, a struggling single mom, a bullied child, we are engaging in worship.
James was the leader of a wealthy congregation. May of these members were content just to come to church, pray, and go home. They wanted a nice, ordered service that made them feel good. But this is not true worship. “Be doers of the word,” James declared. Faith is known in action.
Jesus had a similar problem with the Pharisees. The Pharisees went to the synagogues faithfully. They tithed. They knew their Bible. They publicly dropped coins in the almsgiving pot. They scrupulously observed the traditions of the elders, ritually washing their hands and pots and utensils. Jesus declares that the Pharisees lost sight of what was important, they cared about human rules, human precepts, instead of care for the poor, the widows the beggars the blind, the lepers and other outcasts of society.
The first fruits of our lives are seen repeatedly in the words of the prophets, which form the bedrock of Christian spirituality – “Do not oppress the orphan, the widow, the stranger who live among you.” Over 2000 verses in the scriptures call this to our attention. So, this is where our true work and worship lies. If we dedicate our lives to service and give our very best to God, we keep ourselves, as James declares, “unstained by the world.” Because this is religion pure and undefiled.
We all have models of hard work and charity. For me, it came when I observed my mother, a divorced woman raising six children, on her way to work at a factory on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland Ohio. She would frequently stop under the bridge and bring food and necessities to a homeless woman and her dog. Mom always remembered something for her dog. One day the woman stopped her and said, “I want to give you something for being so kind.” And out of her garbage bag she pulls a moldy slice of pizza. Without missing a beat, mom accepted it graciously, and they went on chatting for a while talking about their dogs.
That’s where I learned the intertwining of service and worship. To see God in the homeless poor and serve them, because the presence of God is with them. To give our first fruits, not our leftovers, to God and those in need. We will only know true worship when we are out in the world, humbly servicing those who are the least of these. This Labor Day labor for those who need work, who suffer the lack of work, who long to work but have grown discouraged, those who juggle several jobs to make ends meet for their family.
So, we remember the needy even as we celebrate tomorrow, the poor who have touch our hearts and who challenge us, most of all let us remember to give thanks. Thanks for the God who never ceases to work on our behalf. Thanks for work that makes us fruitful. Thanks for the true gift of worship – offering our first fruits to a world that longs for justice and righteousness as defined by Jesus. First fruits that can change the lives of others. Thanks for a world that because of our loving support, God can look upon and declare good. Amen