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Sunday, September 03, 2017

The Sacredness of Work

Pentecost XIII Proper 17 A - September 3, 2017
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE

 I’m going to do something the good Roman and Anglo-Catholic mentors of my youth said a preacher ought never do: I’m going to preach about a secular observance in church. 

The impulse for the admonition to “keep holy the Sabbath” was very pure: The priests and nuns of my youth believed that Church was the place to retreat from the world and all of its corruption;
a place to find hope from heaven in the face of human misery; 
a place where one could find the strength to lift up one’s head and straighten one’s back from the oppression of the world; 
a place where wealth and prosperity were weighed and measured not by dollars and cents but by prayer and devotion.
That meant that everything about the liturgy of my youth pointed to The Great Mystery of God: 

There were billowing clouds of incense which floated up, up, up to the bowed roof of the church, designed to recall the up-side-down bottom of Noah’s Ark, a reminder of God’s promise never again to destroy the earth. 

Icons and stained glass windows were there to remind us of the stories of our salvation. 

Psalms and scripture and prayers were sung in chant, a form of music whose very structure gracefully danced its notes up and down the image of Jacob’s ladder between heaven and earth.

These good, devout, noble Roman and Anglo-Catholic priests and nuns decreed that there was to be no mention – much less celebration – of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day in church. No birthday celebrations except that of Jesus. No anniversaries except the anniversary of the death of the saints and martyrs. 

Coffins are covered with palls to keep the faithful focused on the resurrection of the body and not the grandeur or simplicity of the casket. No preaching on national holidays like Independence Day. 

And, for God’s sake – literally – keep politics out of the pulpit.

However, that did not mean that the church was not to be involved in the world. 

Indeed, the church of my youth was intimately involved with the cares and troubles and suffering of the world. 

The priests and nuns of my youth were always seen advocating for the poor, speaking out publicly against economic oppression and marching against prejudice and for civil rights.

This always seemed a bit schizophrenic to me – this separation of what we did in church on Sunday and what we did in the parish hall and in the streets the rest of the week. 

Much later, I met Bishop Frederick Barton Wolf of Maine – a devout Anglo Catholic man who could swing a mean pot of incense and chant anything that wasn’t nailed down. He would become my ordaining bishop. 

He also preached from the pulpit about justice and called us to take a stand against prejudice and bigotry and oppression because, he said, quoting Psalm 89:14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne; love and faithfulness go before God.”

In one particularly inspiring sermon I heard him say, 
“Scripture tells us that the church is not OF the world but it’s also true that the church is IN the world; and because the church is IN the world, some of the world will always be IN the church, so the best of the church can also be IN the world.”
Now, I agree that it is probably good to keep politics out of the pulpit. That said, it must be noted that Jesus was a very political creature. He railed against the oppressive powers of the occupation of Israel by Rome and the participation in that oppression by the religious leaders of his day.

No, I’m not going to talk politics, but I do want to talk about the holiness of work. Because, you may have noted, this is Labor Day. Some prefer to call it “The Last Weekend of Summer”. Except, of course, it’s not. That will come later this month, on the 22nd, at the equinox which begins the official season of Autumn and, of course, that will be the end of summer. 

Still others will see a link between Labor Day and patriotism and even a parade. Many will simply know that this is long weekend away from work, a time for a mini-vacation to travel to a national park or to the home of a friend or relative for one last summer barbecue – hot dogs and hamburgers and pulled pork and crabs and corn and watermelon, and soda and beer.

Many of us have forgotten that this long weekend was brought to us by the Labor Movement

The history of that movement is very much mirrored in the situation we find ourselves in today. 

There are many strands to the movement but the “official launch” began in New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, where a parade and a picnic were held to bring together the city's workers.

The late 19th century, of course, was the Gilded Age and there was great tension around immigration. (Stop me if any of this sounds familiar). 

The question was: To what extent could all these masses of unskilled workers teaming in from southern and eastern Europe join with the native-born white skilled trades who sort of had a lock on the labor movement at that time? 

Complicating this dynamic was the fact that many of these immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were Roman Catholic or Jewish. Many of the "landed gentry" in America were proudly Protestant who feared that the Catholics were here to take the land for Rome. The Jews were seen with suspicion because, well, they weren't Christian. So there was a religious dimension to the tensions around immigration. (Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.)

The Pullman Railroad strike – during which 12,000 troops were called out by President Grover Cleveland to suppress the riot and the reason the president authorized the Labor Day celebration in NYC, to bring about peace – demonstrated that the unskilled and the skilled could come together to organize an entire industry for things like work place safety and fair wages. 

That miracle union of immigrant and citizen, of skilled and unskilled worker, working together to achieve a common goal of justice was due, in large part, because of the glue that held the Labor Movement together. What was that glue? It was a faith which flowed from a variety of religions with similar beliefs about God as the source of life and work and purpose.

Now, a confession: I am from one of those immigrant, unskilled worker families. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins were all part of the Labor Movement in the textile mills of New England. Some of my early memories are of family and friends and neighbors gathered ‘round my grandmother’s kitchen table, or setting up boxes for people to sit on in my grandfather’s garage where the workers plotted strategy for a negotiation or demonstration or a strike.

I have other, very clear memories of being in the kitchen of the parish hall of our neighborhood church, helping to cook and serve great pots of soup and loaves of bread for the workers who were on strike. 

“Father” would always be there, in his cassock and collar – as would Mother Superior or Sister in their habit – giving the people hope, praying with the people, pointing us to a picture or statue of Jesus while reminding us that there was no greater sacrifice than people lay down their lives for others.  

 I remember this morning’s gospel being quoted: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Our priest also reminded us that, in the beginning, God formed us lovingly out of the dust of the earth, and breathed into us the breath of life and gave us work and purpose for living. God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to till and keep it. 

Through our work, God has made us co-creators with God, giving us the ability to shape the world in which we live. And, God gave dignity to our labor by sending God’s Son to labor with us; with his hands; as a carpenter. 

As a symbol of this belief, my father wore a cross which he fashioned himself out of nails. He wore it to remind himself and anyone who saw it that Jesus was a common laborer. That was important to him as a factory worker.

In late September of 1997, my father suffered a small stroke. He had been preparing his beloved garden for winter. The doctor told him that this was going to have to be his last garden, that his 84-year old body could no longer tolerate the work required to tend a garden. 

I saw him a few weeks after that. He was standing in front of the window, hands in his pockets, looking with great sadness at the plot of land from which he had lovingly tended and had fed his family for many years. 

I came up beside him silently and simply stood there with him. After a while, he looked at me and said, “Doc says I can’t have a garden. What am I supposed to do? If I can’t feel the dirt in my hands, if I’m not pulling up crops from the ground, well . . . what’s the point of living?”

By February 1998, less than five months later, he was gone. 

My father worked in a factory all of his life – Firestone Tire and Rubber – but gardening was my father’s life work. It was what he loved to do. He worked hard at it. Sweated and strained and pulled muscles - gladly. He was a poor man but that work ennobled him. Through it he felt a co-creator status with God. The work in the factory was what he did to support his family, but the work in his garden was what he did to honor God. 
I sometimes wonder if at least some of the problems we face in the world today aren’t due to the fact that we have become a nation where labor is cheapened and leisure is glorified. I wonder if we haven’t subverted our priorities and made ourselves, as individuals and as a nation, sick unto death. 

The Dali Lama is quoted as having said, 
“Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
I hope we are able, this Labor Day weekend, to spend just a little time thinking about the source and value of labor. Indeed, I hope I may have inspired you to think about the value of labor and the balance of leisure. 

About the dignity and value of work. 

About the way our understanding of the tenants of our faith translate into social programs like unemployment insurance, old age pensions, social security, government relief for the destitute, safety regulations, and – above all – wage levels that mean not just survival but a tolerable and even enjoyable life. 

A living vs. a minimum wage.

Jesus says to us this morning, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” 

That means that we may sometimes find our lives at the crossroads of the sacred and the profane, the secular and the spiritual. We may find ourselves like Moses, discovering the holy in the midst of the common, the seemingly unimportant, the unexpected. And, that salvation may be found in the work of the church outside the walls of its buildings and grounds, in the work of justice and peace.

Or, to quote Bishop Wolf, 
“Scripture tells us that the church is not OF the world but it’s also true that the church is IN the world; and because the church is IN the world, some of the world will always be IN the church, so that the best of the church can also be IN the world.” 
May the best of the church be in your celebration of Labor Day. May your baptismal vows inspire you to honor and respect the dignity of every human being. Amen. 

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