Labor Sunday Reflection 2009

Seeing Truly

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 or call 216-736-3720.