Grace Presbyterian Church
September 5, 2021, Pentecost 15B
Ecclesiastes 3:9-15; James 5:1-6
The Just Reward of Labor
Over the course of the pandemic and shutdown time we were introduced to a new phrase: “essential worker.” The term caught up everything from health-care workers to teachers to supermarket employees to delivery personnel of all kinds, persons who were performing services deemed essential during the period when going out for basic things was no longer a given. People made signs and banners to celebrate “essential workers”; official proclamations were made; all manner of public acknowledgment was given. Oddly, though, some things didn’t change; working conditions, salaries, or basically anything that made the doing of those jobs easier and less horrifying to do. Aside from the brief public outcry, nothing about working at those jobs improved.
Labor Day doesn’t necessarily get a lot of attention from many churches these days, in the way that other non-religious holidays like Independence Day or Mother’s Day do. If anything, it might mark the time of the year for certain church programs that may have gone dormant over the summer months to get fired back up again.
That hasn’t always been the case in this country. There was a time when “Labor Sunday” was a thing in certain, mostly mainline US churches. Especially in parts of the 1910s and 1920s the day before Labor Day was marked with messages on the subject of scripture and labor in the US, seeking to bring understanding and reconciliation at a time of strife between workers and those who held power over them. [Nota bene: for further background on the relationship of church and labor in those years and before, I recommend Heath W. Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (New York: Oxford, 2015).]
The emphasis hasn’t maintained a presence in church life, for the most part. For the most part I’m actually OK with that, since typically I’m not big on giving over the hour of worship to secular pursuits. Every now and then, though, it’s a good idea to make an exception. The holiday itself may not be a religious occasion, but that doesn’t mean that scripture and the church have nothing to say on the subject of labor, work, and the relationship between labor and power. Far from it.
I could have, perhaps most easily, chosen Jesus’s words of instruction to his disciples as he was about to send them out on their first independent “mission trips.” Jesus is particular that they “pack light” for their travels, and instructs them not to move about from house to house as they are in a particular location, but to remain with one host and eat and drink whatever that host provides. Luke 10:7 sums up that instruction with the note that “the laborer deserves to be paid”; Matthew 10:10 gets even more to the point with the summation “laborers deserve their food.” This same idea gets cited in 1 Timothy 5:18 as well, credited as scripture. Note that Jesus is, at the same time, designating the disciples as “laborers” – not elevating them to some lofty status or handing out titles like “evangelist” – and also insisting that they as laborers deserve to be paid – or at minimum fed. The work should be rewarded. One might also cite the interesting parable in Matthew 20 about the landlord who hired laborers to work his land for the day, who chose to be rather generous with some of them.
I could also have gone back to the legal codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in which the Hebrew people are instructed several times over about how to treat those laborers in their employ. Apparently it had to be repeated that one was not to withhold the wages of those who work for you, particularly the poor and needy – both Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:14 have to give that instruction, with the latter also noting that it did not matter whether those laborers were local or “aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” Hmm, that sounds relevant to today all of a sudden.
The idea of one’s labor being a source of pleasure rather than drudgery is one that comes up in Ecclesiastes, rather uniquely in scripture. The reading we heard earlier is relatively typical of what that book has to say on the subject; namely, that there is truly nothing better in life than to take pleasure in one’s work and to enjoy the fruits of one’s toil. It’s not clear that Qoheleth, the author of the volume, ever had the experience of wages being withheld by a crooked overseer, though.
We could also remember that curious passage from a few weeks ago in Ephesians 4, in which we are told that thieves must give up stealing, but work honestly so that they might have “something to share with the needy.” Our work is not just for ourselves, but for those who have need.
Perhaps the most shocking passage on the subject of labor and work is today’s reading from the epistle of James. One doesn’t expect to be reading an epistle and suddenly feel like you’re been catapulted into one of the saltier Hebrew prophets like Amos. Those first three verses are fierce in their denunciation, promising great torment and miseries to these rich people being addressed here. For James’s audience, which probably did not actually contain many rich people at all, the denunciation might have come across as a kind of reassurance; the ones who have exploited and oppressed me aren’t going to get away with it in the end.
It is in verse 4, though, that the provocation for this denunciation is revealed, and again, we are taken back to Jesus’s statement about how the worker should get paid. Those rich employers have been withholding their workers’ wages again – and this time the word “fraud” is invoked. The Lord hears those cries, as James puts it, and will not deal kindly with those who engage in such fraud.
One passage that some folks like to pounce upon comes from 2 Thessalonians 3, in which the author rather famously asserts that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” That line crosses over into politics a lot, I’ve noticed. Interestingly that seems to have been addressed to a subset among the Thessalonians who had stopped all work and basically all interaction and were waiting for an imminent return of Christ. And even in the face of this remembering to interrogate scripture with scripture, we have already been reminded that the one who works had better be able to eat. Scripture has this nasty habit of being on the side of the oppressed, over and over again.
We live in a world where that basic fact is too often not true; too many who work can’t eat. I’ve never been involved in serving meals at a homeless shelter or any other such setting, whether in Lawrence or Richmond or here in Gainesville, where the group serving has not been asked to set aside one or more plates for guests of the shelter who were still at work. The disconnect between work and wages hasn’t necessarily gotten better since those “Labor Sundays” of the 1910s and 1920s, or if it ever did get better, it has gotten worse again.
One challenge for us to keep in mind is that the labor that goes into so much of what we enjoy – as the fruits of our own labor, you might even say – has often been removed far, far from our sight. We are, compared to previous generations, far less aware as a whole of where our food comes from, for example. Did you have a cup of coffee this morning? Do you know where it was came from? How about who picked those beans from which the coffee came? Did they make enough to live on? In many parts of the coffee-growing world, probably not. You might remember that sermon from about a month ago, in which we learned that according to a report from Heifer International, the beans grown to make an average grande latte, selling for about $3.65, might earn the workers who actually grew the coffee beans themselves $.02 or $.03, less than the cost of the paper sleeve that comes on the cup. That habit of ours is tied to an awful lot of injustice in the world. (I’m primarily a tea drinker, and that habit doesn’t do any better by those who do the work to make it happen.)
Or are you a fan of tomatoes, for example? We’ve gotten accustomed to being able to have them any time of year, but they don’t really grow well in most of the US during the wintertime. One of the few places they can grow in winter is in south Florida, particularly in the area around Immokalee. For years workers in the fields around Immokalee worked under some of the most grinding conditions out there with less-than-starvation wages as their “reward.” In a rare example of workers taking action to improve their own lot, the Immokalee workers launched a public campaign to provoke fast-food chains – some of the biggest consumers of those winter tomatoes – to pay one penny per pound more for tomatoes purchased from Immokalee growers. Over time, most such chains have gone along with that increase, which has made already a striking difference in conditions for Immokalee workers. Other businesses, though, have been less cooperative; supermarket chains, including those just down the street from here in either direction, choose instead to get winter tomatoes from Mexico, where workers live and work in conditions little different from slave labor. Or we could get into accounts about working conditions in meat-processing facilities right here in the United States – you don’t have to go far to find horror stories.
We mostly don’t know such things. There are horror stories to be told about worker conditions and wages in the garment industry, for example, or numerous other industries. And not all of those horror stories take place overseas, either. We tend to be blissfully unaware, and in the end that doesn’t put us on the good side of scripture, at least where labor is addressed in it.
The last hymn we’ll sing this morning contains a striking line in its second stanza: “In the just reward of labor, God’s will be done.” Another hymn, by John L. Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona Community, opens with a starker statement of the injustice that oppresses far too many of those who labor:
Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain,
Informed of God’s own bias, we ponder once again:
How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self-interest turn prayer and pity blind?
“The laborer deserves to be paid,” said Jesus. And yet, “the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” What will it take for us not to be the reason for those cries? We may have a lot to learn.
For the just reward of labor, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #26, Earth and All Stars!; #515, I Come With Joy; #36, For the Fruit of All Creation