A Fair Balance
Sermon seeds for Labor Sunday, September 2, 2012
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8:1-4, 13-15
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."
In Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, he asks for donations of money for the church in Jerusalem where many people are living in poverty. He writes, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.
Paul instructs the Corinthians on the importance of a “fair balance,” where no one has either too much or too little. May we have ears to truly hear Paul's message today, a time when in both the United States and around the world, there are a few extremely wealthy people, far too many poor, and many in the middle who are struggling to avoid sliding into poverty. As Paul said, one person’s abundance is for another person’s need. There is plenty for all if we share. The Church is called to work for a world where there is a “fair balance” between abundance for a few and the needs of many.
In the United States and around the world, inequality is growing. The poor are falling deeper into poverty, the rich are getting richer, and those in the middle have seen their incomes stagnate or decline.
- Most working age adults receive all or nearly all of their income from a job. And our wages and salaries largely determine our income in retirement as well. But in the four-fifths of all jobs in the U.S. classified as “non-professional” and “non-supervisory,” wages and salaries have stagnated since the mid-1970s. As a result, average income for the bottom 90% of households today is lower, adjusted for inflation, than in 1970. But at the very top of the income scale – the top 1/100th of 1%, some 16,000 households – annual incomes rose by an average of $20 million over that same time period.
- Inequality is also growing in most countries around the world. Between the mid-1980s and mid-2000’s, among the 73 nations for which data are available, 53 countries (home to over 80% of the world’s population) had a rise in inequality while only 9 (with 4% of the global population) had a fall.
Such an unequal sharing of resources in both the United States and around the world has a direct impact on people’s lives including their health, access to education, and opportunities for advancement. In Bolivia and Peru, infant death rates are four to five times higher for the poorest 20% compared with the richest 20%. A baby boy born in the U.S. to a family in the top 5% will live 25% longer than a boy born into the bottom 5%.
Inequality among countries has also grown in recent decades. Rich countries have gotten richer and pulled further in front of poorer ones.
- For example, in 1990, the average American’s income was 38 times higher than the income of the average Tanzanian. In 2005, the American’s was 61 times larger.
- In rich countries, income per person, adjusted for inflation, has risen two- to three-fold since 1970, a much larger gain than in poorer ones. Tragically, in 13 poor countries, average income is lower today than in 1970.
As the apostle Paul wrote, “It is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” The world is richly endowed with God’s abundance. Surely God must be offended and saddened by such inequality.
The federal poverty line in the U.S. is $23,000 for a family of four. But even families with incomes above this level struggle and suffer. Experts estimate that a meager but minimally adequate income is roughly twice the official poverty level, or around $46,000 for a family of four. In the United States, one-third of people live below this higher, but more accurate, “adequacy” line. People with inadequate incomes not only lack essentials like adequate food, shelter, transportation, quality education, and health care. They also lack opportunities to improve their lives. They suffer from poorer health, shorter life expectancy, more mental illness, and higher infant mortality. They do less well in school.
In a rich county, and in a rich world, there is no justification for a high level of inequality that blocks people from reaching their potential and bars millions (and billions globally) of God’s children from becoming the unique, special people God created them to be.
What can be done to reduce inequality? The Church is called to a very important ministry of advocacy and prophecy. The Church and people of faith must advocate for fairer public policies.
- To raise wages for the majority of workers, we need strong labor unions, strengthened labor protections, a higher minimum wage, and more supports for workers such as childcare, early childhood education, and paid sick days.
- Our international trade and investment agreements need to be rewritten to level the playing field between corporations and workers in both the U.S. and around the world, and protect the environment.
- Congress must create jobs and put millions of people back to work.
- Declines in income taxes paid by wealthy households and corporations, as well as cuts in the estate tax that is paid entirely by the wealthy, reduce tax revenues and lead to cuts in government services and higher deficits. More tax revenue is needed to promote the common good and provide opportunities for all. An increase in tax revenue could make higher education more affordable; improve the quality of public schools; provide universal health insurance and early childhood education; support infrastructure investments that create jobs, boost productivity, and enhance the quality of life; strengthen the safety net; and clean up the environment.
- Rich countries need to share more of their wealth with their poorer neighbors around the globe and enact policies that allow all nations to thrive such as cancellation of debts, promotion of food sovereignty, and fair trade and investment treaties.
- We also must protect the environment and quickly move to renewable sources of energy. Climate change will most gravely impact the poor.
The Church and people of faith must also be prophets announcing God’s intentions for our nation and the world. We must challenge cultural behaviors and values that idolize money and “things.” Greed is not good. The Church must speak in support of the common good and against consumerism and materialism. And the Church and people of faith must live out these values in our own lives. We must love our neighbors in word and deed. We must stand with the poor and those on the margins. We must use our money wisely to bring God’s vision to reality.
On Labor Sunday, we especially recognize that all workers – from those who clean hotel rooms and care for elders, to those who work in department stores, fast food chains, and warehouses – are children of God, worthy of respect and living wages.
God created a world of abundance. If we share there is enough for all to live in the fullness of life. Like the Corinthians we are called to follow Paul’s instructions, to find a fair balance between one person’s abundance and another’s need. The economy is not like the weather. It is created by people and can, and should be, directed by people to serve all people and the earth. Our goal is nothing less than a world where “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
That They All May Be One - Solidarity Forever
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight; I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. -- Isaiah 65: 17-23
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will be believe in me through their work, that they may all be one. -- John 17:20-21a
Isaiah may have been focused on the violence and destruction of warfare, but he could have been referring to the economic violence and destruction that exists in the U.S. today.
- Farm workers - those who plant - often don't eat. Nearly two-thirds of farm workers live in poverty.
- And those who build don't always inhabit. In Washington, DC, unemployed men travel from W. Virginia to seek work on construction projects during the week -- while living under the bridges – then return home on the weekend. These people are building but not inhabiting.
- And although for most people physical safety at work is not a concern, each year about 6000 workers are killed on the job from the equipment and other hazardous conditions in which they work.
All workers are made in the image of God, the worker, and have dignity and value. All work that makes a contribution to the community has dignity and is not degrading. But many jobs are degraded.
A degraded job is one that pays too little. It is one of the over one-quarter of all jobs that pays a wage so low that even someone working full time, year round, earns too little to lift a family of four above poverty.
A degraded job is one that is potentially unsafe. Each year some 5.7 million workers are injured on the job or become sick due to their job.
A degraded job is one where the worker is treated unfairly or illegally. According to the Department of Labor, essentially all poultry processing plants and 60% of nursing homes fail to properly pay workers for overtime hours worked, pay less than the legally-required minimum wage, and/or violate of child labor laws.
A degraded job is one where the employer discriminates in hiring and promotions - abuses that occur even in apparently respectable firms like BellSouth and Texaco.
A degraded job is one where a worker has too little autonomy or control over her work, resulting in high levels of stress and even physical illness.
US labor law provides few protections against these abuses.
But workers need jobs, even bad jobs, if that is all they can get. How can workers improve their workplaces and gain dignity on the job - especially the three-quarters of all workers who don't have a college degree and have less bargaining power with their employers?
One important way that workers can address workplace injustices is by joining and participating in a labor union.
All of us are indebted to union struggles of the past for many of the workplace benefits we take for granted. Yahweh gave us the Sabbath but unions brought us the weekend, the 8-hour day, paid vacations and holidays, health insurance, and pensions.
Unions continue to work for justice today.
Unions reject the notion that any work is demeaning and remind us that all workers have value. Janitors, nursing home attendants, hotel and restaurant workers, and many other workers on the bottom of the hierarchy of jobs are trying to join unions to get dignity on the job, fair treatment, and just compensation.
Unions are working to bring living wages, health insurance, pensions, paid vacations, sick leave, and holidays to workers who formerly had none of these.
Unions are working to give employees a greater say in how their jobs are structured and the way workplaces operate day to day.
And through legislative action, unions are working to reform immigration laws, raise the minimum wage, and improve workplace safety.
Unions are some of the most democratic and diverse organizations in the US today. They can be avenues of empowerment that give workers the means to become active in their own liberation from unjust structures of domination.
Like all institutions including churches, unions are not perfect. But this is not a reason for us to fail to work with our union sisters and brothers to support their struggles for justice.
The church has a special role to play in workers' struggles for justice.
A problem in the workplace is not just a problem for an individual worker and it is not just an economic problem. It is also a theological problem. The author of the book of John quotes Jesus praying that people "may all be one" (John 17:21). But how may we all be one when some eat very well and others do well just to eat? How may we all be one when some are safe at work and others are at risk? How may we all be one when, on the job, some people's views are sought out and others are ignored?
God gave us a world of abundance. Unions are helping some of the most oppressed workers in the US and around the world share in this abundance. And in ways not unlike the church at its best, unions are sometimes providing support and avenues of growth where workers move toward greater wholeness.
In whatever ways we can, may we join with workers and our union sisters and brothers in their struggles for justice and greater wholeness.
Hosting the Poor and Marginalized
Based on Luke 14:1, 7-14 (Year C, Proper 17)
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. … When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
As Jesus is on his way to dine in the home of a Pharisee, he tells his disciples a parable about hospitality. Surprisingly, he recommends against inviting friends, relatives, or rich neighbors to come for lunch or dinner. These guests would likely return the invitation and the host’s gift would be “repaid.” Instead, Jesus suggests inviting people who are poor or have disabilities, someone who probably would not, at least in Jesus’ time, be able to return the invitation. The host would be blessed for performing an act of generosity that would go unreturned.
Today, there are many ways we host the marginalized and less fortunate. We serve in soup kitchens, contribute food to food banks, donate clothes to thrift stores, open our church basements to the homeless, and give money to worthy causes. Some of us are involved in constructing affordable housing and creating community gardens. God blesses these ministries and our generosity.
But the needs within our communities greatly exceed our capacity to help. As David Beckman, president of the anti-hunger organization Bread for the World, points out, the food that churches and charities provide to hungry people is only about 6% of what is provided by federal government nutrition programs. Nationwide, the nearly 3,400 shelters (some sponsored by faith organizations) serve 600,000-plus homeless people. But many continue to live in our streets, parks, and vacant areas. Even with the combined efforts of government programs and the faith community, millions of people in the United States are hungry, homeless, without health care, and without opportunities for a better life. They are also forced to rely on charity, an experience many find to be humiliating and degrading.
Many of our neighbors are struggling because they do not have jobs. Unemployment is always a problem even when the overall economy is strong. But in recent years, joblessness has skyrocketed. While in recent months the official count of the unemployed has improved, this is largely due to people dropping out of the workforce. Someone who is not actively looking for work is no longer included in the count of the unemployed. Congress must enact a large program to create jobs and put people back to work. This would also boost tax revenue and reduce reliance on safety net programs, closing most of the deficit. Unfortunately, there is little political will to do this. Read more.
But on this Labor Sunday we need to also recognize that among the people who rely on our soup kitchens, food banks, clothes closets and government programs are many who work. They have jobs but their wages are very low. Or their employer may assign them too few hours. Or they may have been impoverished by paying medical bills. Or they may have borrowed money to pay for needed car repairs and then been drawn into a downward spiral of debt, extremely high interest payments, and poverty.
We are called to do all we can to meet our neighbors’ needs during a crisis situation: to feed, to clothe, to house, to care for. But what if the crisis is not just a one-time emergency? What if the crisis is a day in, day out, permanent condition? What then is our role?
This is a question we need to ponder and to pray over, especially on Labor Sunday.
Unless a household is independently wealthy, one or more family members must work. But just having a job does not necessarily mean a family is economically self-sufficient.
Over one in every four jobs (28%) pays poverty-level wages, so low that even a full-time worker cannot support a family above poverty.
Over 8 in 10 low-wage workers do not have a single paid sick day. If they get sick and cannot work, or if they must stay home with a sick child, they are not paid. And if they are gone too long they may be laid off.
Every week, over half of all low-wage workers are cheated – by their unscrupulous employers – out of some of their wages.
Over one-quarter (27%) of low-wage workers do not have health insurance, either from their own job or through a family member and, whether insured or not, nearly two-thirds of low-wage workers say it is difficult to pay for needed health care.
Many low-wage workers have unpredictable work schedules that vary week to week and day to day. Their incomes vary also. Many are required to be continually on call, available to come in for additional hours, or risk being penalized with reduced hours or even layoff. Many are sent home during scheduled shifts if business is slow. Such scheduling makes workers’ income uncertain and variable. It also makes a second job, schooling, or scheduled child care nearly impossible.
What is the role of the church in a society where the needs extend far beyond our ability to respond? What must we do when the needs arise not just from an occasional crisis but are the day-to-day, long-term reality for millions of our neighbors? What is God calling our congregation to do when episodic interventions are not enough? More fundamental change is needed. Are we not called to rewrite the economic rules and to change the economic system so that everyone, certainly everyone who works, is able to care for themselves and their family?
We may agree that change is needed, but the specifics of what to do are not so obvious. It is difficult to know how to proceed, to discern what we are called to do.
In 2007, the UCC General Synod called for the creation of a new program to help congregations address the economic problems in our communities, the nation, and the world. The Economic Justice Covenant Program provides resources for congregations seeking to study economic injustices, pray and discern God's will for their economic justice ministry, draft and adopt an Economic Justice Covenant, and engage in actions to promote economic justice.
Is God calling your congregation to become an Economic Justice Church? Are you called to identify and support organizations in your community that are improving the lives of workers.
Jesus was a low-wage worker. (Request buttons with this message in English and Spanish.) He was also a person of infinite value, just like low-wage workers today. Let us extend our hospitality and our caring beyond the programs that meet our neighbors’ immediate needs for food, shelter, or clothing. On this Labor Sunday, let us covenant to work with God to create a world where all workers participate in the abundance that God provides for all of us to share.
Scripture: James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37 (Cycle B, Proper 18)
Have you heard of Susan Boyle? Susan Boyle is a 47-year-old woman who aspires to be a professional singer. She was a contestant on “Britian’s Got Talent,” a reality TV show similar to the U.S. program “American Idol.” But she doesn’t fit our image of a singing star: she is not attractive, or thin, or sexy in the way we seem to expect from female performers. In school she was thought to have a learning disability and suffered from bullying. Before her appearance on the TV show she had been employed in few jobs outside of caring for her aging mother.
When she came onstage, the audience and judges were, shall we say, unrestrained in their responses. Disbelief over her appearance and age quickly turned into ridicule and open hostility. It only got worse when, in answer to a question about her dreams, she said she hoped to be a famous singer. But then Boyle began to sing. Within seconds, ridicule turned to amazement and the audience was on its feet wildly cheering her performance. The power of her voice totally captivated the audience. So did her obvious courage to sing so well in front of such a hostile audience.
To say she became an overnight sensation is an understatement. Within days, the YouTube video of her performance had been watched by millions of people. I recommend taking a look at it if you haven’t already. The faces of the judges are the best part. Within seconds you see them change from sneering, eye-rolling ridicule to amazement and support. The change in the audience is similar. Boyle has enormous talent. She has tremendous courage as well. This frumpy, middle-aged, utterly un-cool woman from small-town Scotland would not be limited by others’ opinions of her. They come to admire not just her voice but also (maybe especially) her belief in herself and her courage to stand up to their hostility.
So often we make judgments about others based on unimportant, superficial characteristics. But seldom are our judgments immediately put to the test when we are given an opportunity to learn about a person on a deeper level and discover that our initial judgments are wrong.
Unfortunately, judging others is something most of us do all the time. We make assumptions about another person’s talents, abilities, and even their worth as a human being based on very little other than the way they look; the way they talk; the clothes they wear; their age, race, and ethnicity; their car, house; and other nonessentials. Our brains gather up and process these inconsequential fragments of information and then make snap decisions about the person.
Our tendency to make quick judgments that affect how we see people and how we treat them is exactly what James is referring to in the passage read this morning. Evidently this was a problem in the very early church just as it is today.
A rich person comes in and is escorted up to the front pew. We make a point to welcome them. We offer to take them downstairs to coffee hour after the service. But then a poor person comes in. Someone not dressed quite right. Or maybe a person of a different race or ethnicity, a differently-abled person, or a same-gender-loving couple. Well, they can sit in the back. They will be fine on their own, no need to fuss over them. At least it seems the early church let everyone in. According to the God Is Still Speaking bouncer ad, there are churches today that stop some folks from even coming in the front door.
Making judgments based on our prejudices is, unfortunately, easy to do. Even Jesus, our fully-human, fully-divine brother, briefly succumbed. In the passage in Mark, Jesus has gone to Tyre which could be considered a foreign country. There he is approached by someone – a woman, a Gentile, a SyroPhoenician – who wants him to heal her daughter: She is the ultimate outsider. Jesus makes a snap judgment. He refuses her request to heal her daughter. Moreover, he does so in a cruel way: “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Even in Jesus’ time, comparing someone to a dog was an insult. When the woman doesn’t back down, even in the face of this insult, Jesus immediately recognizes her humanity. He quickly moves past the sexism, religious bias, and dislike of foreigners that was so common in his time. Instantly, Jesus drives the demon from the woman’s child.
If Jesus could be temporarily blinded by the prejudices of his culture, then we all can be.
Obviously, people are very diverse and each has unique God-given gifts and talents. But we are called to value each person equally, to treat everyone with equal respect and dignity. Our common heritage as children of the same Creator outweighs any of our differences. Can we see God in everyone and recognize each person as a sister or brother? As Christians we seek to live out a vision of equality in our church and in all aspects of our lives together.
Today on Labor Sunday, the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, let’s take a few moments and think about workers and work places. Is each worker treated equally, with equal respect and dignity? Consider some of the conditions under which people work.
• One-quarter of all the jobs in the U.S. pay poverty-level wages, so low that a full-time worker cannot keep a family of four out of poverty.
• Some jobs are unnecessarily dangerous. In the U.S. someone dies from an occupational illness or injury every eight minutes. Often, they (and their survivors) have not received fair compensation for their losses and they may also bear large health care expenses.
• Nearly 80% of low-wage workers do not have paid sick days so they can stay home, with pay, when they are ill.
• Low-wage jobs are often dead-end jobs with no opportunities for advancement. At a poultry processing plant in Ohio, a 55-year-old man still gets just $8.10 an hour with minimal benefits after 20 years in the plant.
• Some workers see their wages stolen by their employers in what has come to be called an epidemic of wage theft. Workers are not paid for all the hours they work or they are paid below the legally required wage. The U.S. Department of Labor found that 100% of poultry processing plants do not pay workers for all the hours they work. Just 40% of nursing homes are in compliance with federal labor laws concerning wages and child labor. Wal-Mart is notorious for requiring workers to sign out, then go back to work, putting in time that they will not be paid for at all.
• In Florida over the past 10 years, seven cases of modern-day slavery have been exposed involving over 1000 workers and 12 employers. Workers are confined and if they try to leave or refuse to work they are beaten.
• All of us have purchased and worn clothing made with sweatshop labor. We have eaten fruits and vegetables harvested by farm workers who live in deep poverty.
Why does our rich society allow these abuses happen?
These problems are very complex and defy simple solutions. But let’s consider one factor that may play a role: Do we make snap judgments about low-wage workers that lead us to view them as being less worthy than other people, less deserving of a better life?
Do we think low-wage workers do not deserve a better job? They should work harder. They should have stayed in school. They should have waited longer to have kids. They should not have come to the U.S. They should learn English. The list could go on and on.
There are millions of low-wage workers, most of whom we will never know. Our snap judgments about them will never be tested against the reality of who they really are.
But as people of God, may we strive to see all people as equally valuable. Can we see that we are all created in God’s image, all fully deserving of a fair portion of the abundant resources that God provides to all of us to share? In other words, can we see that everyone needs a job that is safe, a job where each person is treated with dignity and fairness, and everyone is paid enough so they can buy the things they need for a decent life.
In Justice and Witness Ministries we have a phrase to remind us of the valuable people who work in low-wage jobs: “Jesus was a low-wage worker.” Jesus was a landless peasant. A snap judgment would put him on the lowest levels of Palestinian society. But we know the true worth of Jesus, his infinite value. Can we see that low-wage workers today are of equal worth? Can our eyes be opened to recognize them as our highly valuable sisters and brothers? Can we see how they resemble Jesus?
Everywhere Jesus traveled around Galilee he was approached by people seeking to be healed. The passages we read in John tell how he restored hearing to a man who was deaf. Jesus had and has amazing powers. If we seek his healing, we may be able to hear the cries of low-wage workers. If we seek his healing, we may be able to see everyone as a valuable person, one of our sisters and brothers in Christ. Jesus was a low-wage worker, just like millions of people in the U.S. and hundreds of millions around the world. Let us embrace these people of God and work for their liberation from poverty and oppression. They deserve no less.
To order buttons saying "Jesus was a low-wage worker" or "Jesus tambien trabajo por un salario minimo" contact JWM at email@example.com or call 216-736-3720.
"Let us be doers, not merely hearers" of Jesus' word
(Based on the lectionary selection: James 1:17-27 -- Year B, Proper 17)
Labor Day is the time we commemorate work and workers. In the church, we recognize that God, who loves us and cares about all aspects of our lives, is also concerned about our work lives. Our work situations can be fulfilling and empowering, or demeaning and humiliating. Our jobs determine the size of our incomes, and whether we have health insurance and a pension. Our jobs are the main determinants of whether we live in a big house or any house at all, whether we send our children to college or to bed with an empty stomach. Moreover, even at this time when the economy is considered to be "strong," one in every eleven people who want to work cannot find a job or can only find a part-time one.
If we are "doers of the word, and not merely hearers," as James urged, then we must respond to Jesus’ call to love our neighbors. We must work for justice in the workplace. We must help those who have too little. We must change employment situations that degrade workers. What might we be called to do?
We could work to ensure that all workers are paid a "living wage" adequate for the rich life that God intends for everyone. Currently, one-quarter of all jobs pay a poverty-level wage, one so low that a full-time worker cannot keep a family out of poverty.
We could urge Congress to raise the minimum wage. Pending legislation would increase it from the current level of $5.15 an hour ($10,700 a year) to $7.25, the first increase since 1997.
We could strengthen the right to form or join a union, an internationally recognized human right but one that is seriously eroded in the U.S. We could improve safety in the dangerous workplaces that threaten miners, meat packers, farm workers, and many others. We could provide health insurance to everyone including the one in every six people who currently are without it. We could improve contracting practices in New Orleans so that workers would not be left without a paycheck after weeks of work. We could ensure that everyone who wants and needs a job also has one.
God reign does not end at the door of the workplace. Our love for our neighbors must extend to their working lives also. Let us be doers, not merely hearers, of God’s word.
Workers: Made in the Image of God
Focus scripture: Jeremiah 18:1-11
Have you ever lost your job? (This is not a question that seeks a show of hands but just some internal reflection.) Have you ever been out of work, unemployed? Not just taking off a couple of weeks between employers when you already have your next job lined up. But have you ever been out of work, not knowing what your next job will be or when you will have it? I hope you have never been forced to go through such an ordeal but many people have.
Imagine that you go to work tomorrow and you are called into your boss's office. Your boss tells you that you are being laid off. You are to immediately pack up your things and you will be escorted off the premises before lunch. (It is hard to even think about this.) You are stunned, bewildered, lost, afraid. You go home and start looking for another job. The weeks go by. You spend hours every day online, going through the newspaper, and checking in with friends and former co-workers. Your savings are gone. Some bills are going unpaid. You are building up debt on your credit cards. The kids are even worrying – you can see it in their faces even though they don’t say anything. You haven’t slept well in weeks. It seems you are constantly arguing with your spouse. You are reluctant to drive anywhere because you can’t afford gas.
Let's not continue describing this scenario. It is too painful and for some of us, it may be bringing back some very real and painful memories. But it is important for all of us to remember that many of our neighbors are living through this nightmare right now. Maybe some folks here this morning are in the midst of such a situation. Our hearts ache for anyone who is unemployed.
Unemployment is one of life’s major stressors not unlike divorce or the loss of a close family member. Unemployed people suffer from depression, anxiety, anger, and hopelessness. As the length of time without a job increases, our emotional and even physical health can deteriorate. Mental health experts say the US is currently in the midst of a mental health epidemic due to our high level of unemployment.
Work plays a central role in our lives. For most of us, our only income comes from our job. If we are not working, the loss of income puts our homes, cars, health insurance, and much more at risk.
Our work, our job, often determines how others see us and even how we see ourselves. We know that we are much more than our work, but our self esteem can be tightly linked to our job.
Our work is also one important way we contribute to the common good. It is how each of us adds our bit to the collective work that needs to be done for society to flourish. It is important to recognize that “work” does not just refer to paid work. It includes all our efforts that contribute to society, this common project we are creating together. It is one way we are linked to the larger world. Many of us are engaged in multiple types of work: at home, as volunteers at church and in the community, and in the paid labor force. But because work done for pay is most prevalent and problematic, it is an important focus of this conversation.
In the passage we read this morning Jeremiah describes God as a potter. From Genesis, we also know God is a creator. In other words, God is a worker, a doer, someone who acts. We are made in God’s image and likeness so we are also workers, doers, actors. One way we live out our true vocation as people of the worker-God is by working. We work not just because we need to for economic reasons but because, by working, we are being fully human. Being a worker is intrinsic to who we are at the most fundamental level.
Seen in this light, work is not just a way to earn some money. Our work has, or should have, innate value. Our work – our vocation, no matter what we do and whether it is paid work or not -- is to be performed with care and attention, and it must be honored and treated with respect. Workers, each one of us, deserve to be treated with fairness and dignity on the job.
Work is so central to our lives that the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948) states “Everyone has the right to work and to protection against unemployment.” The right to work, to a job, is a fundamental human right.
Despite the importance of work to our economic well being, mental health, and even spiritual lives, millions of people in the US are without jobs. Unemployment is common even in good economic times and is much more prevalent during an economic downturn. Since the Great Recession of 2007-2009 the official unemployment rate has fallen. But millions of people are still jobless. Among people of color and young workers unemployment is even more common. Moreover, researchers find that when workers who are laid off during a recession eventually do return to work, they take significant cuts in pay. Even 15 to 20 years later, they still make significantly less than their peers who had not been laid off. Meanwhile those who do still have a job worry that they may lose it. We all lack economic security. The chronic problem of unemployment -- a problem that gets much worse during severe downturns but has become a chronic condition in the U.S. and around the world -- reveals a fundamental flaw in our economic system. The "market" does not provide enough jobs for everyone who wants and needs one.
Many of us have responded to the economic crisis by generously giving to food pantries, hunger centers, and other safety net organizations. These efforts have helped millions of people. They are important but they are also inadequate to address the crisis. For someone who is out of work, a free bag of groceries is great. We know it may mean the difference between having dinner and going to bed hungry. Helping our neighbors during a crisis is a wonderful act of discipleship. But it is far too little.
When people who want to work are forced to rely on charity, it is demeaning to the spirit. It is not God’s vision for this world. God provides all we need. It is up to us to arrange our economic system so that everyone can receive what they need and also contribute their gifts – their work – for the good of all.
In Jeremiah, God the Potter is shaping the “house of Israel,” not individuals. The passage speaks of God’s concern with how a nation is acting, whether the nation is doing evil. This is not to let individuals escape concern. But the systems and institutions, the collective behavior of nations and groups of people, seem to be God’s primary concern in this passage. As individuals, each of us needs to be doing what is right. But our nation is also called to act in ways that are consistent with our values.
Systems, institutions, laws, and policies have a particular need for redemption. This is the work of the church: to care for our neighbors by stocking the food pantry and by pressuring Congress and other elected officials to change the economic system so everyone has what they need including a good job.
The Psalmist writes “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Ps 24:1). God has provided abundantly for all our needs. There is much work to be done and many workers for the tasks. The gifts and efforts of every person are needed as we labor, along side God, to co-create the world God envisions for us. Let us work with each other, with policy makers, and with God to create an economic system that values all workers and their work.
July 2010; revised July 2016
Seeking OGHS Ambassadors!
Join an amazing group of people who are excited about helping others, through sharing the ministry made possible by gifts to the OGHS offering. In 2018, the suggested OGHS offering date is March 11.
As an One Great Hour of Sharing® (OGHS) Ambassador, You agree to:
- Learn about the OGHS offering.
- Promote the offering in your own congregation.
- Connect the offering to ways your church is already responding to the needs of others.
- Meet people beyond your own congregation.
- Get involved in the wider church.
- Work with UCC national staff.
Working with church leadership, we encourage OGHS Ambassadors to share information they learn about the offering during Lent, or near the time your congregation will receive the offering.
OGHS staff will provide a live 1-hour training event through Zoom Video Conference or other technology.This training will equip participants to promote OGHS in worship and among groups and individuals in their own congregation, and in neighboring congregations.
We will pair OGHS Ambassadors with congregations that suit the participants comfort level (i.e. giving UCC congregation or non-giving UCC congregation). OGHS staff will initiate contact with the other congregation(s) to arrange for an invitation for OGHS Ambassador to visit.
In addition, we will offer recognition of the work of the Ambassadors on the OGHS Facebook, Twitter Pages, and through possible news stories resulting from participation in the OGHS Ambassador initiative.
The OGHS Team is eager to assist you in planning your personal OGHS Ambassador strategy. We can provide direction to make participation a breeze, as we provide tips for promotion, connect participants to the materials, share ideas, and help participants discover "their own why" for connecting with the wider church and world.
This experience is designed to get more people involved in the mission and interpretation of OGHS.
When we share our resources, including our voice, it really does change lives!
To register send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org saying: Sign me up!
Every Child's Hope (St. Louis)
Mission: Child-and family-service agency offering residential treatment for abused, abandoned, and neglected youth. Daycare center for preschool-aged children on campus. (www.newbeginnings-ech.org)
Volunteer Position: Pre-school teacher's assistant and grounds-keeping assistant
Period: September - August
Apply by: March 15
Housing: Volunteer group housing
Minimum Age: 18 years
Mission: Uspiritus was founded in 2012 with the merger of Bellewood Home for Children and Brooklawn Child & Family Services, two organizations that had each been in operation for more than 160 years. In their beginnings, both grew from the desire of a committed few to nurture and provide for children who needed help most. Through growth, change and ultimately partnership, the organizations that now form Uspiritus continue to uphold that philosophy in all they do to provide greater care for vulnerable children and families throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky. (www.uspiritus.org)
Position: Activities Specialist and Donations Management Assistant
Minimum Age: 21 years
Menaul School (Albuquerque)
Mission: Coeducational school for grades 6 through 12 whose mission is to serve Native American, Hispanic, and other students. Menaul School provides a college-preparatory, faith-based education with emphasis on preparing youth to serve their communities and the world. (www.menaulschool.com)
Volunteer Position: Volunteers may work in the library, help with maintenance, assist the support staff and tutor students
Period: September - December OR January - May
Apply by: 3 months prior to requested start date
Minimum Age: 21 years