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The Landowner and His Workers
The 2011 Labor Sunday reflection
Based on Matthew 20: 1-16, the vineyard owner and his laborers)
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right." So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?" They said to him, "Because no one has hired us." He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard." When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first." When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat." But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" So the last will be first, and the first will be last. -- Matthew 20: 1-16
The Landowner and His Workers
Scripture: Matthew 20: 1-16
Jesus told numerous parables illustrating the kingdom of heaven and how it could be lived out in our daily lives. A number of these involve a landowner who most scholars believe represents God and whose behavior or teachings provide insights into how life is lived in God’s reign, right here, right now.
In this parable from Matthew 20, the landowner has work that needs to be done in his vineyard. Early in the morning he hires the workers he needs and promises to pay them the usual day’s wage. When he goes out again at 9 a.m. he sees unemployed laborers standing about, hoping to be offered work. So he also hires them, promising to pay them fairly. The landowner goes out repeatedly over the course of the day. Each time he encounters more unemployed workers and hires them, even as late as 5 p.m.
Problems arise at the end of the day when the workers find out what they are paid. The ones who have worked since early morning receive the fair day’s pay they had been promised. But so do the workers who did not start until later in the day. All the laborers are paid the same amount, no matter how many hours they worked.
The workers did not think this was fair and maybe we don’t either. In the workplace today, most people receive different wages and salaries based on the number of hours they work and factors such as how fast they work, the experience they bring to the job, and their education and skills.
Some biblical experts turn aside from the question of whether the workers’ pay was fair or not and interpret this parable in a spiritual context. In their view, the parable indicates that it does not matter the stage in a person’s life when he or she becomes a follower of Jesus, whether early in life or later, at a young age or as an elder. God treats every believer identically, giving each one the same “reward.”
While this interpretation is certainly valid, maybe the parable also has a message for us about wages and the treatment of workers, a message about economic life as it is lived out in God’s reign.
Is this landowner, an employer, treating his employees fairly when he pays all of them the same amount, whether they worked all day or just a few of hours? Is this a fair practice, illustrative of the reign of God, or not?
The laborers worked for different lengths of time. Some may also have worked more quickly than others or had more prior experience tending vineyards and picking grapes. But the landowner ignored all these differences. Instead, all the workers received the amount of money they needed to live. The “usual daily wage” described by Matthew is a denarius, the amount of money that would support a large peasant family for one day. The wage was just enough to live on. It allowed for no “extras” but it did cover the necessities, what we might call a living wage. The landowner’s practice provided every worker with a living wage, even those who had worked just a few hours. Making sure that each worker and his family had enough money to meet their needs was more important than providing additional income to those who had worked more hours, worked harder, or had more experience.
Jewish teaching also stipulated that workers must be paid every day (Lev. 19:13). If the typical wage covered the expenses of just one day, then workers would need to be paid every day. In ancient times, the law protected workers who were living paycheck to paycheck.
Repeatedly over the course of the day the landowner went into the marketplace and hired anyone who was unemployed. The landowner believed that each person who wants to work deserves a job, an opportunity to support themselves and their family and to contribute to society. Is this fair?
Maybe the best time to examine this parable and its economic message is when the economy is in crisis, when unemployment is high and harming many workers, and millions of people in the United States and billions around the world live in poverty.
In the United States, we do not provide jobs for people who are unemployed. Instead, we wait for the “market” to do it and the unemployed suffer through months or even years of unemployment. In July, 2011, some 14 million people were officially unemployed in the United States. But a broader count of the jobless and underemployed – a count that includes people who work part time but want full-time jobs and those who have given up looking for work – shows about 29 million are jobless or seeking more hours. This is twice the official number and includes more than one in six potential workers.
While the official unemployment rate for the population as a whole was 9.1% in July, it was higher for already disadvantaged groups and lower for non-Hispanic whites: 15.9% for African American workers, 11.3% for Hispanic workers, 7.7% for Asians, and 8.0% for non-Hispanic white workers. In other words, unemployment among African Americans was about twice the rate for whites and the rate for Hispanics was about 50% higher than for whites. Unemployment among teens was 25%. As noted just above, a more comprehensive count of the jobless and underemployed is about double the official one. Putting this all together, fully 32% of African Americans (one in three), over 22% of Hispanics (nearly one in four), and 50% of teens are either jobless or working part time while wanting full-time hours. Unemployment is also higher among people without a college degree and in areas of the country particularly hard hit by the downturn in construction and manufacturing.
If we hear these statistics with our hearts as well as our heads, we understand that millions of people and households are suffering, losing their homes and their cars, and losing their opportunity for the full life God intends for all God’s people. Despair and hopelessness are the daily companions of millions of people.
The landowner’s practice of hiring all the unemployed people he encountered, providing a job for everyone who wanted one, is a compassionate practice and a mark of God’s just reign. It is also smart. Why should society waste the talents and contributions of people who want to work? Ensuring that everyone who wants a job has one is an attribute of “God’s economy.” It is smart and fair social policy. As people of faith, are we not called to bring similar policies into reality today?
In Jesus’ day, unemployment would have meant very hard times for a worker and his or her family. The same is true today. In the United States, most unemployed people have very meager resources to fall back on. Half of the unemployed have been out of work for at least 4 months. During such an extended period without income, one’s savings are quickly exhausted. The average unemployment insurance benefit is $300 per week but less than half of the unemployed receive any unemployment insurance payments. Even among those who qualify, millions have exhausted their coverage and no longer receive any benefit payments. Millions more will lose benefits if Congress fails to renew the benefit extensions that end in December 2011.
Many of the unemployed are eligible for food stamps. This entitlement is available to anyone with low income, for example, below $28,700 for a family of four. Today, one in seven people in the United States receives food stamps. The average monthly benefit is $134 per person, or about $1.50 per meal. Such a low amount forces many people to also rely on the charitable programs provided by church groups and others. But funding for these is being cut severely also.
The current federal budget, passed by Congress in April, imposed significant cuts on social programs. (Additional cuts were approved in the debt ceiling legislation passed in early August and more are on the horizon.) One program cut significantly was the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, reduced by 40%, some $80 million. This program has provided aid to millions of our poor and near-poor neighbors for nearly three decades by funding more than 13,000 non-profit and public food banks, shelters and homeless-prevention organizations. Under the current federal budget, more than 500 counties and cities will lose funding entirely. Among the more than 1,600 counties and cities that will continue to receive money, most will see significant reductions even though needs have skyrocketed. The Providence In-town Churches Association (in Rhode Island) has received funding through this program for decades to support their outreach and services to low-income and homeless residents. Diana Burdett, UCC member and executive director of PICA, reports that their funds are being cut at the same time the number of people seeking assistance has grown from 500 a month (including about 20 children) to 6,100 a month, nearly half of whom are children. The needs in our communities exceeded the capacity of charitable organizations even before the economic crisis began. Adequately funded public programs must be maintained.
In addition to providing the unemployed with jobs, the landowner in Jesus’ parable also gave each worker a living wage, enough to support the worker and his family, regardless of how many or how few hours he had worked. Is this another aspect of “God’s economy” that we might emulate?
In the United States today, fully one-quarter of all jobs pay poverty-level wages, so low that a full-time worker cannot support a family of four above the official, entirely inadequate poverty level. But we could follow the lead of the landowner and ensure that all jobs provide workers and their families with a fair share of the world’s resources, God’s resources. Is not this a characteristic of God’s reign, a world in which everyone is paid enough to live life in fullness, although not extravagance? Let us be generous with God’s resources, even as we also recognize that all we have belongs to God (Ps 24:1)
Few of us are employers or have much ability to determine anyone’s pay or to give someone a job. But we do live in a democracy and have a responsibility to participate in society’s decision-making processes. We also live in an extremely wealthy country with enough for all. But too much of our wealth is squandered or hoarded. Instead, let us seek God’s reign. Let us raise our voices and use our influence to call for jobs for everyone who wants one, living wages for all, a safety net for those who need it, and generosity in sharing God’s resources among all God’s people.
 21.2 weeks Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Situation, July 2011.”
http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t12.htm, Accessed August 11,2011
 National Employment Law Project. Less than half the states (22) provide 99 weeks of benefits. Most provide fewer. http://www.nelp.org/page/-/UI/2011/current.extension.law.impact.pdf?nocdn=1?nocdn=1 Accessed Aug 12, 2011
 Gross income below 130% of poverty. There are additional ways to figure income also. http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/applicant_recipients/eligibility.htm#income
 Steven S. Taylor: The reality of cuts to anti-poverty programs, Monday, August 1, 2011, United Way Worldwide.
 Personal communication (email) Aug 11, 2011, 10:48am.
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!
Partners in Service reflects an intentional partnership among the volunteer, the service site an dthe Volunteer Ministries Office (UCC National Setting). Each party covenants with the others to share of themselves and offer their particular gifts and resources to one another to serve God's people. Expectations of the parties involved ina successful placement are listed below. These expecations are based on a one-year term of service. Those provisions that do not apply are negotialbe for shorter terms are marked with an asterisk (*).
Volunteer Ministries Office
Recruits, processes applications, and assigns each candidate to an acceptable service arrangement. Processing consists of gathering references on each candidate, sorting out likely projects according to the candidate’s description of interest, and entering into an agreement with a service site.
Arranges contact between service site and candidate so that both are satisfied and can make arrangements for service.
Prepares visa requests and provides letters of support for international volunteers.
Contracts for background checks for U.S. volunteers (international volunteers must bring with them written evidence of criminal background check and immunization record).
If personal and/or service site insurance is not available, arranges for limited illness and accident insurance coverage during the service period under the Volunteer Ministries group policy.
Maintains contact with volunteer and the service site.
Arranges for an annual gathering of volunteers serving terms of 9 months or longer. Pays for lodging, food and program for this gathering.
Arranges for the termination of volunteer’s service at the end of service period or at an earlier date if circumstances demand such action.
Offers skills, talents, and a willingness to be in service with others.
Provides personal wardrobe.
Assumes cost of deductibles or medical, optical, or dental treatment not covered by or going beyond the limits of insurance coverage.
Pays for any personal trips or vacations during the service project.
Pays for their entire round-trip travel costs to and from the service site at the beginning and ending of service.
Service Site (Support varies at some agencies)
- Provides orientation, training, and supportive guidance to volunteer.
Provides supervision for the volunteer's assigned responsibilities, including creation of position description, and designation of working hours, days off and vacation in accordance with the service site's policies. *Provide international volunteers with at least a 10 day vacation beyond established holidays (during 12 month service).
Provides the volunteer with room and board during the service period.
Provides special uniforms or clothes, if these are required.
Provides for needed on-the-job transportation, including transportation to and from service site if volunteer is housed elsewhere. Prvoides mileage or gas reimbursement to volunteers for requested, service-related duties.
Pays the premium of illness and accident insurance for the period of service. (Volunteer Ministries has access to a short term limited illness and accident policy. This insurance is mandatory, unless adequate insurance coverage is provided by the agency or volunteer.)
Provides the volunteer with a monthly stipend of at least $100 per month for incidentals while in service.*
Remains aware of the volunteer’s need for social activity. (Since volunteers are not in their own communities in most cases, it is requested that available social activities be shared with them.)
The Partners in Service program helps increase the service capacity of the partner host organization and provides leadership development and the opportunity for the volunteer to use gifts and skills.
Volunteers serve in full-time placement for terms of one month to a year or more. The Partners in Service program does not discriminate against applicants on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, sex, age, sexual orientation, or disabilities.
U.S. Young Adults, Baby Boomers, & Builders
Adults of all ages participate in on-going service and advocacy ministries with partner organizations and congregations.
Video arts Publicity
Disaster Recovery: Construction Site Coordinator
Presence Among the Vulnerable
Alumni & Church Relations
Disaster Recovery: Volunteer Coordinator
Immigration and Border Ministries
International volunteers are placed upon the recommendation of partners in the Ecumenical Diaconal Year Network (www.edyn.org), the Evangelische Kirche im Rheinland, Arbeitsstelle ZKL und Friewilligendienst (www.aktiv-zivil.de) and other recognized church partners of Global Ministries of the UCC/Disciples of Christ (www.globalministries.org).
It is to be understood by all concerned that placement is full-time, approximately 40 hours per week, for the residential and international programs. Additional part-time employment is strongly discouraged. Any exceptions should be decided by the parties concerned. Schedules often vary from week to week and may include evening and weekend hours.
Premature termination is possible, when necessary, and can be initiated with the Volunteer Ministries program by the volunteer, the service site, or both. If an unsatisfactory placement has been made, a reassignment may be pursued.
Loan Deferment In some situations, student loans may be deferred for a period of up to three years while the recipient is engaged in service. The volunteer must contact their lending agency. The UCC Volunteer Ministries Office can provide letters of documentation and support.