Adapted from a sermon

Delivered September 3, 2006

Immanuel Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Dianne O'Connell

 

Song of Solomon 2:8-13                                                          

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

 

“Working in the Vineyard

After the Blossoms Fade”

(A Labor Day Sermon)

Good Morning. I hope you enjoyed the reading from the Song of Solomon this morning.  It was selected on the basis, not that it was a lovely, sensuous poem, but strictly because it was recommended by the Lectionary.  It didn’t seem to fit in with my assignment to preach a hard-hitting Labor Day sermon for the People of God.  But after reading it a few times, I changed my mind.

The Song of Solomon has provided a great deal of stress for many uptight leaders of our religious traditions. It is full of erotic allusions.  It must be an allegory, they say.  The Jews sometimes said it was meant to be read as representing the love of Yahweh for his people. Catholics said it represented the love of Christ for his Church. And Protestants said, no, it represents God’s love for man’s soul.

You read it.  What’s wrong with it just being a beautiful love poem? You may agree with me that the poem genuinely represents the love between a man and a woman – in the days of their early passion, full of joy and hope for their future.  And, that God smiles on this love and calls it Good.

Some think that the girl may be a dark-skinned princess. Others say she is a deeply tanned peasant girl. All realize that she is deeply in love with her beloved, and he with her.

For this couple, the winter of their loneliness is over.  Spring has blossomed.  The vineyards are there solely for the young couple’s pleasure.  The vines are blooming, the fig trees are figging, the voice of the turtledove is heard throughout the land.

Life is beautiful, as it should be for us all, full of hope and all good things. But let’s take the story a little further than the springtime of fresh love. Let us assume that our young couple has married and their love has blossomed like the flowers and grown into a hungry young family.

What comes after spring?  Summer. And the labor required to nurture God’s gifts into fruit and grain to feed this growing family.

What comes after summer?  Fall.  Harvest time. Labor Day. Time to reflect and honor the work of our young man and young woman – and the work of every other man and woman in God’s vineyard.

It's Labor Sunday, the day before Labor Day - the only holiday brought to you by the working people of the United States of America.

Every major faith tradition embraced by America's families includes in its teachings the call for fair treatment of working people.

Jeremiah proclaims "Woe to him...who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing, and does not give him his wages."

Timothy admonishes the rich "to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous."

The Prophet Muhammad flatly states, "When you hire, compensate the workers and treat them fairly."

Our holy writings are rich in guidance for behavior toward workers.

Most of you know that I hold dual certification on this subject. Yes, I am a Presbyterian minister. But also, I have a history as a labor organizer for both the teachers’ union many years back, and currently for the nurses’ union. I see no conflict with these roles, and in fact, believe they are often one in the same.

I believe as the Liberation Theologians do that God has a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.  Or as Mark Twain once said, “God must love the poor people, or why would he have made so many of them.”

Last year, Chuck preached our Labor Day sermon using the passage from Exodus -- Moses Leading the People Across the Red Sea -- seemed like a Workers' Strike to us, and perfectly appropriate for Labor Day.  

But I'm not here to preach a "Let My People Go!" sermon. I'm here to remind us what Labor Day is all about, introduce a couple of my personal saints, and to strongly suggest that throughout Scripture, we are told that God stands firmly on the side of the worker and his/her family.

Labor Day. A day to honor those who labor in the vineyard; those who work. That includes all of us. A day to honor the work that we do, because Jesus Christ has told us that 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 to take a break.

We offer to our God, the talents we have. They may not look like much at first, but sometimes they work wonders. I am reminded of two women. One was a white, working class Irish Catholic. She gave what she had, all that she had, for the betterment of the working poor. 

She was born in County Cork, Ireland, in the 1830s. 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. After marrying Mr. Jones, she became better known as Mother Jones.

As a young woman, Mary taught school in Monroe, Michigan, and later opened a dressmaking establishment in Chicago. 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.  It was during these days, that she 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. One American president called her “The Most Dangerous Woman in America.”

So as we celebrate Labor Sunday, I offer a memory and a prayer for the likes of Mother Jones, women who have dedicated their lives to the American worker.

The second woman I offer up for our reflection today wasn’t even Irish. In fact she was an illiterate American slave. That did not stop her from doing the Lord’s work.   Lynne Sangster is going to tell us a bit about her.

(Ain’t I a Woman? reading)

We think we've come a long way since the days of Sojourner Truth and Mother Jones.  Perhaps we have. But we still have a long way to go.  Labor Day just isn’t about labor unions, it is a time to remember that we are all workers, that working is part of our God-given lives and responsibilities.

As we work, we have a responsibility to honor and support the work of others.  We are all working in God’s vineyard. God tells us that we must “love one another”, that we must not oppress the worker, that we must care for the widows and children of those workers, and as workers ourselves, we must provide a good days service for our wages and be good stewards of the results of our labors. All this for the Glory of God.

Let us pray:

By the power of the Almighty, 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 beside us in our world.

This morning, O God, we take time to offer our prayers of gratitude for the springtime of our lives – full of joy, hope, and promise.

We offer prayers of gratitude for the summer of our lives as we work in your vineyards for the benefit of ourselves, our families, and our neighbors.

We offer prayers of gratitude for the autumn of our lives, as we gather in the fruits of our labors, reflect upon our lives and our work, pray that our work has found favor in your eyes.

 Great God, as we look toward the winter of our lives, we also pray for:

Bless us this Labor Day weekend, O God. Help us recognize the sanctity of our work and the work of others. Help us to love our neighbor. And when our lives come to a close, O God, help us remember the reassuring words of your Son, when he told us,

"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."

Amen.

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