September 1, 2002

The Rev. Dianne O'Connell

First Presbyterian Church, Anchorage


Exodus 14:19-31

Matthew 18:15-20

Romans 13:8-10

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, as the bumper sticker tells us, who brought us the Weekend.

From serious ceremonies to light-hearted fairs and parades, Americans are celebrating the nation's working heroes, people who do their jobs and keep the country running smoothly and safely every day this Labor Day weekend. They will also pause to honor and remember the workers who had just begun their workday last September 11 and died in the terrorist attacks that claimed more than 3,000 lives, including 634 union members.

Every major faith tradition embraced by America's families includes in its teachings the call for fair treatment of working people. From Jeremiah's "Woe to him...who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing, and does not give him his wages," to Timothy's admonition that the rich "are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous," to the Prophet Muhammad's "When you hire, compensate the workers and treat them fairly," our holy writings are rich in guidance for behavior toward workers.

Labor Day is a major holiday in my family. True it's a secular holiday, but it is a holy day for us just the same.

Most of you know that I hold dual certification here. Yes, I am an ordained Presbyterian minister. But also, I have also 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 1999, I have been working for the nurses' union here in Alaska. After the Providence hospital strike, it seemed as though both management and labor might need a little help putting things back together -- so the nurses and I got together and they hired me. It's been a good three years. 

Interestingly enough, I was a guest preacher at another Presbyterian church for Labor Day back in 1999. As I prepared for this sermon today, I mused that the Providence nurses had just completed their negotiations, strike, and contract settlement then. Today, three years later, the Alaska Regional Hospital nurses are facing the same challenge. We wish both sides mutual success in their contract negotiations efforts.

With this as background, you might understand why the passage from Exodus this morning -- Moses Leading the People Across the Red Sea -- seemed like a Workers' Strike to me, and perfectly appropriate for a Labor Day sermon. Wages and working conditions in Egypt were rock bottom awful, and the Hebrew slaves literally tromped off the job - with the Strike Breakers in hot pursuit. And we know who prevailed in that effort and with Whose help.

The whole Exodus story, by the way, is the basis for what has become known as Liberation Theology, a way of looking at Scripture from the point of view of the economically deprived and socially oppressed. This point of view is not just pertinent in Central America where it originated; it also gives hope to our own people living in poverty in both rural and urban America, as well as our people facing discrimination and degradation throughout our society, regardless of economic status.

But I'm not really here to preach a "Let My People Go!" sermon. We are all One People.

I'm here to talk a little about Labor Day, introduce a couple of my personal saints, and to draw our mutual attention to our Lord's suggestions for dispute resolution.

For those of you who like history, the first Labor Day was celebrated September 5, 1882 in New York City. It became so popular that in 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 proceeding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. That's why I have been brash enough to share my thoughts with you today.

Labor Day. A day to honor those who labor; 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 those "talents", by the way, don't have to meet anyone else's definition of "spiritual" or "holy". We know when we do good work.

As an example, 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 34-year-old son said something to the effect of: "It's okay, Mom, you won't be abandoning God or anything!"

It hadn't crossed my mind that I would be abandoning God! I was just trying to discern what 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. The Catholic Worker newspaper has been continually published since 1933. She 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. We are told that her personal spirituality developed from two broad streams: 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 and the devotion to and imitation of the saints and mystics.

I am no saint and certainly not a mystic, but I have a great deal of respect for Dorothy Day.

My second "saint" was no "mystic" either. She was born an Irish Catholic 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 to us as Mother Jones.

Mary's 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 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, literally just in time for the Chicago Fire.

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 their God and to us.

We've come a long way since the days of Mother Jones. Folks couldn't believe how friendly and upbeat the 1999 nurses' strike was at Providence. 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, even on the theological level.

Some of us turn to Scripture for guidance. The Matthew passage this morning, for instance, provides us with a Scriptural Grievance Procedure - every contract has one. Labor contracts, personal contracts. It spells out what do we do if we disagree?

"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 - a prime example of "love the person" but "hate the profession." Sometimes, I actually owe the tax, and like it or not, I have to pay up. And, frankly, if you think about it, society NEEDS tax collectors. So, whereas, I don't exactly seek out tax collectors, I show them due respect.

And as far as "pagans" go - those people who just don't think like we do -- sometimes we have to agree to disagree. Back in the time that Matthew was written, pagans were in the majority. One would agree to disagree -- with respect, and maybe a little distance.

So this is the bare-bones of a grievance procedure, and some people just follow the rules without knowing why. If we want to understand the philosophical and/or theological underpinnings of WHY such a grievance procedure, we have to remember that we are trying to resolve differences, bring peace. For a deeper understanding of why we even bother, we have to turn to Paul in his letter to the Romans:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "do not commit adultery," "do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 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.

This past spring, Providence nurses were back at the bargaining table for a second contract. They harbored no "swishy-sweet" ideas of love for the Providence management. But they did have a new attitude.

In most traditional labor disputes, someone wins and someone loses; or worse yet, both sides lose.

Both the nurses and management wondered out loud if just maybe both sides could "win". They even went to school together to try to learn how to make it possible. It's called Interest-Based Negotiations, and it's not perfect. But it's better. And there was no Providence nurses strike this time around.

And what does this "new and different" approach to problem-solving do? It admonishes both sides to 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?

 Love your neighbor as yourself." Just what do you really want from your neighbor? You probably don't really care if he votes the same way as you do, or if he attends the same church as you do, or even if he uses the same choice of colors for his exterior painting as you do.

But what is it that you REALLY want? Respect? Acceptance? Peace? We are a nation of many cultures. We are a church of many perspectives. What does Love Your Neighbor really mean?

I am reminded of the television spots that have run so frequently since the tragedies of 9/11. You know the one, the many faces of America, one by one, proclaiming: "I AM an American." "I am an AMERICAN." "I am an American." 

Somehow during the past year, we have pulled together as an American Family, as a family brought together by tragedy. Sure, Uncle Harry still cracks stupid jokes, and our sister Janey is still dating that jerk -- but they are OUR uncle Harry and OUR sister Janey -- and they are still OUR Family. 

The family down the street still votes wrong -- every single time -- we can tell by the political signs he puts in his yard. And the family down the road still has that bright pink house with the green trim. But they are OUR neighbors. The neighborhood wouldn't be the same without them.

I suppose we could extend this way of thinking to our church family, as well. Jesus would. Most of us haven't changed much in the past few years. We believe what we believe and we know how Scripture speaks to us. But, I for one can proudly proclaim: "I am a Presbyterian." And each of the many faces of Presbyterianism can do the same thing. I can see the television spot now: "I am a Presbyterian" ringing from pew to pew.

The charge this morning was to help provide a spiritual foundation for Labor Day. Perhaps my comments have been a bit rambling, but heartfelt nonetheless. A bit of history, a couple of saints, a grievance procedure, and our Lord's wish for us to Love One Another -- or at the very least, "show a little respect."  

In closing, I'd like to offer a prayer I adapted from an old Presbyterian Worshipbook. You might recognize it. 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 our people. I also offer it in memory of those who died at work just about a year ago, September 11:

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

"Work along side them, O God."

By the power of an Almighty, Universal Mystery -- whom we 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 homeland security:


Lord, we pray for those who serve our national defense, in our military, in our diplomatic corps, in our Halls of Justice: 


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


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:


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:


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.

Bless us this Labor Day weekend, O God. Help us recognize the importance of our own work and the work of others. Help us to love our neighbor. Help us to resolve our disputes with that neighbor, O God, whether that neighbor lives down the street or around the other side of the globe.

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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