September 5, 1999

Immanuel Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Dianne O'Connell

 

Exodus 14:19-31 (A Strike)

Matthew 18:15-20 (A Grievance Procedure)

Romans 13:8-14 (Interest-Based Negotiations)

 

A Labor Day Sermon

Good Morning. It's Labor Sunday, the Sunday before Labor Day - the only holiday brought to you by the working people of the United States of America. The same people who brought to us the Weekend - a concept new to working America until it was bargaining for and won through the process of negotiations.

For those of you who like history, the first Labor Day was celebrated Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City, thanks to the efforts of that city's Central Labor Union. The event was held again the next year and by 1885, the idea of Labor Day had spread throughout most of the industrial centers of the country.

On June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday. And still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

When Tracy sent me the Scripture readings for today, he said something to the effect of, "You can either use these or preach a Labor Day sermon." I responded with, "Well, I'll read the Scripture first, and decide then."

Most of you know that I hold dual certification here. Yes, I am an ordained Presbyterian minister. But also, I have recently returned to my previous "ministry" as a Labor Organizer. Years ago, before attending seminary, I worked for the teachers' union, and since May of this year, I have been working for the nurses' union. After the Providence Strike, it seemed as though they might need a little help putting things back together -so we got together and they hired me.

So, with this as background, you can understand why the passage from Exodus, Moses Leading the People Across the Red Sea, seemed like a Workers' Strike to me. Wages and working conditions in Egypt were rock bottom awful, and the Hebrew slaves literally walked out - with the Strike Breakers in hot pursuit. And we know on whose side the Lord God was in this Strike.

The Matthew passage provides us with a Scriptural Grievance Procedure - every contract has one.

"If your brother (or your supervisor) sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you." That's called the informal step. Try to work it out, one on one.

"If he will not listen, take one or two others along (say the grievance committee), so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses" - that's called Step II and a record is being developed.

"If he refuses to listen, tell it to the church" - well, that's a pretty high authority. I guess that is a close equivalent to "taking the issue to arbitration." Step III.

"And if he refused to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." Now I don't know how you treat pagans, but I know how I treat tax collectors - like a necessary evil, actually. Sometimes, I actually owe the tax, and like it or not, I have to pay up. And as far as "pagans" go - those people who just don't think like we do -- sometimes we have to agree to disagree and just walk away…putting as much space as possible between us and the offending "pagan".

I don't know if my Biblical exegesis is all that great here. And I don't care. I took the first two passages as a Sign from God that it was okay to preach a Labor Day Sermon. I'll save reference to the Romans passage for a little later. But I'll give you a clue - it reminds me of something called Interest-Based Negotiations, but more on that later.

Labor. Work. A day to honor those who labor. That includes all of us. A day to honor the work that we do, because Jesus Christ has told us that virtually all work is honorable if done honestly and well. It's a day to rest from our work, yes, but also a day to reflect on the worthiness of our daily efforts. A day to join with "others-who-work" to celebrate our God-given talents, our God-given lives. And those "talents", by the way, don't have to meet anyone else's definition of "spiritual" or "holy" or anything else. We know when we do good work.

When I was trying to make the decision as to whether or not I should leave hospital chaplaincy for the time being, and return to labor-management relations, my son said something like, "It's okay, Mom, you won't be abandoning God or anything!"

It never crossed my mind that I would be abandoning God! I was just trying to discern what that God wanted me to do with my life and my skills at this particular moment. And making this particular move and this particular time seemed like the right thing to do. So far, I haven't regretted the decision.

We offer to our God and to our World, the talents we have. I am reminded of two women of the workers' movement, earlier in this century. One was a middle class, well-educated, Catholic intellectual and the other was a working class nominally Catholic hell-raiser. The first was Dorothy Day and the second Mother Jones. They both gave what they had, all that they had, for the betterment of the working poor.

Dorothy Day was a journalist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Approximately 120 Catholic Worker communities serve in the United States today, with new houses of hospitality opening every year. The Catholic Worker newspaper has been continually published since 1933.

Dorothy Day was a pacifist, controversial, and dedicated to "those who worked with hand or brain, those who did physical, mental or spiritual work, as well as the poor, the dispossessed and the exploited." She wanted to influence social change through reporting the living conditions of the working poor. Toward that end she also found herself in marches and demonstrations, and sitting in jails for her efforts.

Dorothy Day was a multi-faceted person. Her personal spirituality developed from two broad streams, according to one biographer. As an American born into a Protestant family that valued education and literacy, she was a pragmatist, a worker, and a woman of action. After her conversation to Catholicism, these traits united with the traditions of Catholic social teaching, sacramentality, and the devotion to and imitation of the saints and mystics.

Our second lady was born an Irish Catholic in County Cork, Ireland, in the 1830s, but she would never accidentally fall into the category of "mystic." Her religious writings can be summed up with one of her most famous quotes,

"Pray for the Dead, and Fight Like Hell for the Living."

"Get it straight," she told one reporter,

"I'm not a humanitarian, I'm a hell-raiser!"

Her name was Mary Harris. Her father arrived in America in 1835 and brought his family over as soon as possible. Mary was proud to be the child of an American citizen. As a young woman, she taught school for a while in a convent in Monroe, Michigan, and later re-located to Chicago to open a dressmaking establishment.

"I preferred sewing to bossing little children," she wrote.

She eventually moved to Memphis, TN, where she met and married Mr. Jones, a member of the Iron Molders' Union. Her husband died in the fever epidemic of 1867. After his union buried him, she got a permit to nurse the other sufferers. Eventually the plague subsided.

Mary Harris Jones now returned to Chicago, just in time for the Chicago Fire:

"The fire made thousands homeless," she writes. "We stayed all night and the next day without food on the lake front, often going into the lake to keep cool. Old St. Mary's Church at Wabash and Peck Court was thrown open to the refugees and there I camped until I could find a place to go."

It was during these days, that she became acquainted with the labor movement, joined the Knights of Labor, and began a bold and dangerous career as labor organizer - traveling throughout the country to encourage the mine workers, the railway workers, any workers trying to better conditions for themselves and their families. She was threatened with bat, pistol, and machine gun. She was jailed and reviled by the Powers that Be of the time.

Her autobiography is a classic of American labor history.

So as we celebrate the spiritual and educational heritage of Labor Sunday, the Sunday before Labor Day - I offer a memory and a prayer for these two women who dedicated their lives to the American worker: Dorothy Day and Mother Jones, two women who offered two very different sets of talents to the American Labor Movement.

The Movement has come a long way in the last 150 years. Folks couldn't believe how friendly and upbeat the recent nurses' strike was at Providence. While the hospital was training its security personnel in response tactics to use if tires were slashing and strikers were to storm the building - the nurses were setting up pink flamingos along the road, hiring bagpipers to liven up their spirits, and waving and smiling to all the passersby.

It was a friendly strike. No violence. Nobody beaten up. Nobody threatened with pistol or machine gun. Nobody thrown in jail. All very civilized. We've come a long way. But problems still exist - or there would not have been a strike in the first place.

We've still got a lot to learn about solving problems - on the personal level, on the labor-management level, on the international level.

Providence hospital and its nurses union have been engaged throughout the summer in a series of training programs designed to approach future problem-solving so that both sides can "win." In most labor disputes, someone wins and someone loses; or worse yet, both sides lose.

How can both sides "win"?

Well, to start with, you try to figure out what it is you are really trying to accomplish. And you try not to take hard and fast positions in the process.

The Romans passage - remember the one I said I'd come back to? - well, that passage gives us some hints, too.

Paul outlines some of those 100 percent right positions we've all grown up with:

1. do not murder

2. do not commit adultery

3. do not steal.

But he also offers that "he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

The word "love" conjures up all sorts of squishy, sweet images. I don't think Paul had this in mind at all when he told the Romans and told us to "love our neighbor." I think he meant look at this problem from your neighbor's point of view - and if at all possible, do him no harm. That's love enough in most instances.

And that's what this new approach to problem-solving does - look at the problem from the other side's point of view. What is it that they REALLY want - and what it is that we REALLY need? It's not a matter of win or lose, but rather how can we both win? Both administration and nurses want the hospital to be profitable. Both the administration and the nurses want to provide excellent patient care. Both the administration and the nurses want Labor Peace. Working together, we ought to be able to accomplish all three goals.

It's called Interest-Based Negotiations. And it just might work. And it's scriptural, too.

Well, Tracy, these are my Labor Day observations. A bit of historical perspective - with Moses leading the workers across the Red Sea; an overview of the present, with a scripturally-based grievance procedure in the Book of Matthew; and a vision for the future - we can solve most of our problems on this Earth if we treat our neighbor with a bit of love, respect and concern for their needs, as well as our own.

For me, that's the spiritual foundation for Labor Day.

In closing, I'd like to offer a prayer I gave at a secular workers' rally a couple years ago. I offer it in the spirit of Dorothy Day and Mother Jones, and the Host of Saints through the generations who have worked for the betterment of our world and its people. I think I adapted the prayer from an old Presbyterian Worshipbook prayer. You might recognize parts of it.

It's a responsive prayer, so when I point to you, your response is,

"Work along side them, O God."

By the power of an Almighty, Universal Mystery -- who many call God -- the sick are healed, the grieving are comforted, and the hopeless find hope, renewed life, work and love. Creator of the universe, you are ever at work with us in our world.

This morning, we offer our prayers for all who work for their living: We ask that you work along side of them, O God; protect them, guide them, give them strength, safety, and rest at the end of each of their days. (pause)

Lord, we pray for those who fly our skies and protect our national security:

WORK ALONG SIDE THEM, O GOD.

Lord, we pray for those who help implement our Democracy, for those who guide us through the workings of our local, state, and federal governments:

WORK ALONG SIDE THEM, O GOD.

We pray for those who labor in stores, shops, warehouses and offices; for those who drive trucks, move goods by rail, by sea, and by air:

WORK ALONG SIDE THEM, O GOD.

We pray for those who grow our food, fish our seas, harvest our timber, build our shelters, teach our children, provide medical and supportive care for ourselves, our young, and our elderly:

WORK ALONG SIDE THEM, O GOD.

We pray for those who employ and those who govern. Lead them in the paths of righteousness, O God, that they may employ and govern for the common good:

WORK ALONG SIDE THEM, O GOD.

Great God, we pray for all those who have suffered and died working for us, protecting us, and caring for us. Bless their memories, God, that we may never forget.

Great God, we also pray for all

who labor without hope,

Those who labor without interest;

Those who have too little leisure, or too much;

For those who are underpaid;

For those who pay inadequate wages;

For those who cannot work, and

For those who look in vain for work.

Work through us in this world, O God, for the well being and safety of our neighbor, of our loved ones, and for the earth itself. We pray this as our traditions have taught us to pray.

Amen.
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In the Spirit of Labor Day, let us remember Our Lord's Words:

 

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." (Matthew 11:28)

 

Let us come to the Lord's Table and join with the Workers and Saints of All Ages as we remember for Whom it really is that we labor.

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