Sermon 09/04/2022 – Love the Laborer

Ecclesiasticus 38: 27-32

So it is with every artisan and master artisan who labors by night as well as by day; those who carve the signets of seals— each is diligent in making a great variety; they set their heart on painting a lifelike image, and they lose sleep in order to finish their work.

So it is with the smith sitting by the anvil, intent on his ironwork; the breath of the fire melts his flesh, and he struggles with the heat of the furnace; the sound of the hammer deafens his ears, and his eyes are on the pattern of the object. He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork, and he loses sleep to complete its decoration.

So it is with the potter sitting at his work and turning the wheel with his feet; he always lies down anxious about his work, and his every work is taken into account. He molds the clay with his arm and makes it pliable with his feet; he sets his heart to finish the glazing, and he takes care in firing the kiln.

All these rely on their hands, and all are skillful in their own work. Without them no city can be inhabited, and wherever they live they will not go hungry. Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people, nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly.

Sermon Text

If you pick up your pew Bible, you will not find this morning’s reading. The text we used is from the “Apocrypha,” a collection of books which has always existed alongside the 66 books we call the Holy Bible. They were not given quite the same prominence but were always used and enjoyed by the people of God. When Martin Luther began the reformation, one of his major charges against the Church was that it had never decided whether or not these books were actually scripture. He took those books and said that they were unfit to be called “Scripture,” and so they were thrown out of the protestant bible, now put to the side as the “hidden books,” to be used for study and not to be considered scripture. Catholics, meanwhile, canonized them as scripture at the Council of Trent, calling them “the second canon,” or “Deuterocanonical.”

It is, in some ways, a complete shame that the books of the Apocrypha have fallen out of use in protestant circles. They tell us a lot about the time between Malachi and Matthew, shedding light on how the people of God existed in diaspora and under the oppression of Greeks and Romans alike. There are also massive collections of proverbs, histories, and even some of the earlier pieces of texts describing angels as we understand them today. The apocrypha is a treasure trove of information, even if it is not a place we acknowledge as fully inspired by God.

Today we read one of the hardest truths of life, transcendent into the Biblical era and even beyond it. The plight of the worker in society. Those who build our roads, who put up the electrical infrastructure, that connect water lines from place to place – are often those who are pushed away and reduced to the faceless masses. The cashier at the grocery store and the fast-food worker, the receptionist, and the facilities manager – just cogs in the great machine of our consumption. Without the essential work they do, we would be lost, and yet we do not think of them, hardly celebrate them, and often malign them.

When we open scripture, we may think of it as mostly moral lessons about how to live in general with one another. However, if we really break down the stories within it, we will find that God is a practical deity as well as a transcendent one. The words of the Torah, of God’s teachings through Moses, are centered squarely on the idea that there are real world interactions that need to be mediated through a set of laws and ethics. This is no clearer than the many protections that God gave through Moses to the workers in society. To every laborer was due their pay, and that pay was to be prompt. Even animals could not be withheld food during their work. If cattle were being used to grind grain, or to plow fields, they were to be allowed to stop and eat whenever they felt the need.[1]

We live in a culture that has little regard for workers. Even in West Virginia, once known for open rebellion in the face of corporate oppression, we find ourselves sliding into a mindset that fails to see in the worker the full value of what they give us. Right-to-Work laws in this state weaken the power of Unions, organizations that prevent the abuse of workers by the company that employs them. At-will employment allows for employers to fire their workers for any reason not connected to protected statuses, limiting the legal recourse an employee has for egregious termination. The balance of power has long shifted away from the working people of this world, and toward the rich and powerful. When have we ever seen a working person take public office? Rarely, except maybe locally, and even then they usually have made a good amount of money in their ascent.

As Ecclesiasticus tells us, we all depend on skilled laborers to live. Yet, we never regard those who do this work as equal to those who have found more “developed,” careers. Beyond skilled labor, we have invented the concept of “unskilled labor,” that outside of technical knowledge required for certain positions there are those who simply fill space in assembly lines of life. Those who worked in service industries know that there are skills needed to do those jobs well. We’ve all had bad waiters, because there are skills we need to be a good waitstaff, ask my mother who was a waitress for most of her working life. Those who work in service know that even something like how onions are cut is often highly specified and important work.

The laborer is not someone who deserves denigration, and yet we refuse to fight for them. We support companies who union bust, because we see workers as a threat to our way of life. Yet, we look at people fleeing our state and wonder why. Teachers who cannot legally strike, not able to fight for fair pay, flee to states that will treat them with respect. Young people, fresh out of school and ready for trade or out of college and ready for something new, cannot stay in a state that will not regard their work as significant. We have to see in those around us, as we’ll elaborate on more next week, people worth fighting for and not enemies to fight against.

God has blessed us richly, as people and as a nation, but can we show that blessing to those who keep this world running? Can we love the laborer who serves us?  Not letting society tell us there are haves and have-nots who must be at war, but instead create a solidarity that transcends and transforms these distinctions. The janitor that cleans is no less than the CEO who leads – one works forty hours of hard labor and the other sits in meetings – yet we treat the one with wealth as though they alone were worthy of our regard. James, in his epistle, asks the church if they truly love God, and then says that if they did they would not show preference to those with money and power. Yet, we do so often neglect the poor, the struggling, the working people trying to make ends meet. I proclaim today what Christ proclaimed long ago, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Or, perhaps more simply, Solidarity now, and Solidarity Forever!

[1] Deut. 25:4 Lev. 19:13

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