Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sermon: Labor Day

Sermon for Labor Day, 2013
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse, September 1, 2013
Lectionary readings for the day, click here.
Sermon based on Gospel According to Matthew 6:19-24
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to You, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

When I was a child, Labor Day was a play day –
a time to hang out with friends,
enjoy a last summer swim, and
make homemade ice cream.
It sometimes coincided with my mother’s birthday,
so we thought the holiday was for her.

As we commemorate Labor Day in our worship, we explore how we offer our ‘labor’ to bring about God’s kingdom – how God is calling us toward heavenly aspirations.

Labor Day – this day of rest and respect –
actually emerged out of conflict.
First celebrated in Boston in 1882 by the Central Labor Union, it became a federal holiday in 1894. 
President Cleveland signed it into law to reconcile
with the labor movement following a deadly encounter
during the Pullman strike –
a confrontation between labor unions and railroads.[1]

That conflicting labor movement,
often facilitated by Christian leaders,
brought about many of the benefits and rights
that we appreciate today: vacations, holidays, health care,
workers comp, days off, disability,
protection from discrimination, fair pay, and
collective bargaining.

This year marks 100-years of the Dept of Labor,
established in 1913 by President Taft, giving workers
a direct seat in the President's Cabinet for the first time.[2]  

In 1933, Episcopalian Frances Perkins (the first woman appointed to the President’s Cabinet) served as
secretary of labor. She was the principal architect of
·        the Social Security Act of 1935
·        maximum hour laws
·        a federal minimum wage
·        regulations on child labor and
·        unemployment insurance
(Incidentally, she won the Golden Halo award this year
in the  whimsical, online “Lent Madness” competition.[3])

Labor Day is more than symbolic.
It reflects a prophetic concern for justice of hard working people, the poor and the vulnerable in work and in service.

The collect for today asks God’s blessing on our linked lives,
and asks for guidance in all work we do,
“…that we may do it not for self alone,
but for the common good and,
as we seek a proper return for our own labor,
make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of [all] workers…”

It is to these “rightful aspirations” that we turn today
in the gospel text, which occurs during Jesus’
“Sermon On The Mount.”

During this part of Jesus’ sermon, he is describing what community life is like in God’s economy,
(as opposed to the world’s economy).
This has radical implications for the disciples.

Jesus confronts cultural and economic norms
“Do not store up treasures on earth…
store up treasures in heaven.”
He sets up a dualism between
earth and heaven,
temporary goods and permanent goods,
serving things and serving God.

With classic hyperbolic language,
Jesus points to the “rightful aspirations” of the disciples.

Perhaps in the midst of Jesus’ Sermon, he felt
the disciples needed reminders
about why they were serving to begin with. 
Jesus shifts the disciples’ orientation,
their “aspirations,”
away from “what they got” as a result of their labor
to “whom are they serving.”
In spite of all the changes between then and now,
some things remain the same.
I wonder if we, too, need clarity of purpose–
reminders of our aspirations?

Have you ever wondered, like me,
if your labor, your service, matters?
Or thought,
Can I trust that in serving God my needs will be met?

Jesus’ teachings has radical implications for us disciples.

For one thing, it is really hard to take into account God’s will
in the midst of a culture that revolves around economics,
the need to have money, and a greed to have more.

It is hard to give whole-heartedly in an employment culture that often shows lack of concern for
the conditions of workers.

Does it strike you as ironic that stores offer Labor Day sales, even while the original reason for Labor Day
was to offer rest and respect for workers?
It seems our culture’s Labor Day aspirations are to
“store up for ourselves treasures on earth.” 

As I hear the text of the gospel today,
I hear Jesus asking us to shift our orientation,
our aspirations,
away from “what we get” as a result of our labor
to “whom we are serving.”
When the disciples make that shift, toward the grace of heaven, they find Jesus sanctifies their kingdom labor.

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew,
Jesus reminds the disciples
“the kingdom of heaven has come near” –
in fact, it was already arriving! 

Jesus invited the disciples
to view the world
through God’s clear eye, with lightness. 
to live in God’s economy
with treasure in their heart
to find meaning for their labor
outside themselves – in God’s kingdom.

In other words, Jesus taught the disciples that
the compensation for their labor,
is God’s gracious, everlasting and faithful
It is God’s desire to use our every day activities
to create a more just and vibrant world. 
It is God’s desire to sanctify your work and your service.

Author, educator, and spiritual activist Parker Palmer says, 
“The power of a fully lived life
…comes only as we let go of what we possess
and find ourselves possessed
by a truth greater than our own.”

And in being possessed by that truth greater than our own, Palmer reminds us,
Our strongest gifts are usually those
we are barely aware of possessing.
They are a part of our God given nature,
with us from the moment we drew first breath,
and we are no more conscious of having them
than we are of breathing.”[4]


Today, Jesus reminds us that all gifts offered
in service of God’s reign is sacred - the labor of
workers, leaders, employers, blue-collar, white-collar, no-collar,
paid and unpaid, employees and volunteers. 

The labor of  
parents, siblings, co-workers,
citizens, educators, musicians,
knitters, care-givers, pray-ers,
candlestick polishers, chief executive officers, politicians,
lawyers, students, farmers,
gardeners, chefs, librarians,
All labor in God’s reign is sacred. 

The first reading today from 2nd century B.C. Ecclesiasticus,
emphasizes this very idea:
“All these rely on their hands, and
all are skillful in their own work.
Without them no city can be inhabited, and
wherever they live, they will not go hungry.”

Which is why today and tomorrow, we can thank people who labor for us. Take a moment to thank folks for their service.

If you ever thought that your small part
does not matter, think again. 

Brother Lawrence,
who served in a Carmelite Monastery in the 1600’s
became known after his death
in a short but profound memoir,
The Practice of the Presence of God.[5]

Br Lawrence worked in the monastery kitchen. 
There, with the tedious chores of cooking and cleaning
at the constant demands of his superiors,
he developed his rule of spirituality and work.

For Brother Lawrence, “common business,”
was how he found and experienced God’s presence.
He said,  
“…the sacredness or worldly status of a task mattered less
than the motivation behind it.”
“…is it [not] that we should have great things to do…
We can do little things for God;
I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him,
and that done, if there is nothing else to call me,
I prostrate myself in worship before him,
who has given me grace to work;
afterwards I rise happier than a king.
It is enough for me to pick up
but a straw from the ground for the love of God."

Brother Lawrence knew for whom he served;
he felt that having a proper aspirations about tasks
made every detail of his possess surpassing value.[6] 

He reminds us that
what you do matters –
no matter how big or small –
in service of God’s reign. 
God sanctifies our work, our service, our labor.

God links our lives to bring about God’s reign, God’s kingdom-come-near, which is that place where, as our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori says,

“where no one goes hungry
because everyone is invited to a seat at the groaning board,
…where no one is sick or in prison because all sorts of disease have been healed,
…where every human being has the capacity to use every good gift that God has given,
…where no one enjoys abundance at the expense of another,
…where all enjoy Sabbath rest in the conscious presence of God…”[7]

All labor is sacred.

That’s where our treasure is.
That’s where our heart is.

May God bless our heavenly labor.


[1] Excerpt From Bruce Epperly, “Seeking God’s shalom: Reflections on Labor Day,” at cited on August 30, 2013
[2] Excerpt from Department of Labor’s centennial website, at cited on August 30, 2013
[3] As noted on cited on August 30, 2013
[4] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass., 2000) p. 52
[5] This short book can be found at bookstores everywhere and online at cited on August 30, 2013
[6] Bio of Brother Lawrence excerpt from on August 30, 2013
[7] Katharine Jefferts Schori, 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States

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