Good morning! It’s good to be back with you, and to get resettled into the neighborhood and congregation. We’ve been back in town for about three weeks, Eve has been in kindergarten for two weeks, and this is the end of my first week in the office, so we are mostly through but not near completely making this mental shift away from Sabbatical life and into this old/new routine.
We do look forward to catching up with you and hearing about what has happened in your lives and in the life of the congregation this summer. Yesterday at the Headings was a good chance to get started with this.
In the Spirit of getting back to work, this happens to be Labor Day weekend, a time that our nation has set aside for remembering and honoring the role of labor and the dignity of work. Since 1996 a broad coalition of faith groups have chosen to recognize the connection between religious faith and the justice issues related to labor by focusing on these issues this Labor Sunday. This year, as I understand it, there has been a particular push for congregations to recognize this in their worship due to the political climate and some of the legislation that has been proposed which removes some of the historical rights of workers. In Ohio, Senate Bill 5, regarding public workers, has been at the center of debate. It will be up for a referendum vote in November as Issue 2. And so congregations in Ohio and across the country are choosing to reflect on the intersection of labor and religious faith this Sunday, and we have chosen to be a part of that group. Nothing like jumping right into the fray after a peaceful summer on the farm.
We’ve included an insert in the bulletin which gives a brief history of Labor Day as well as something titled “Some Basic Principles of Economic Justice.” This was prepared by the Cincinnati Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. I want to read down that column just to give a sense of where this is coming from and how these issues can be framed in the language of faith:
Some Basic Principles of Economic Justice
Through work all people are privileged to be co-creators with God who is the center of human life and community;
Through work men and women participate and contribute to the well being of their families and society;
Economic choices and institutions must be judged by how they protect or undermine the life and dignity of persons, support the family and serve the common good;
All people have a basic right to productive lives including employment with just compensation and benefits;
All employers have a right to expect workers to be productive and committed to quality;
Workers have a right to form unions, cooperatives and other associations to secure the above rights and exercise the above responsibilities;
All work is deserving of respect. Labor Day provides an opportunity for the religious community to affirm and celebrate the workers among us and to highlight questions and issues of the workplace.
Prepared by the Cincinnati Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice
One of the lectionary readings for today comes from Ezekiel. Ezekiel speaks from Babylon, the place where his people have been exiled. Ezekiel is the prophet of the exile, giving counsel and proclaiming his visions to these people of the house of Israel who have been displaced from their native land, now subjects under the king of Babylon, with an uncertain future. In this reading Ezekiel is alerted that when there is a threat that comes against his people, they will take one of their own and appoint them as a watcher, a sentinel, someone who looks with anticipation at the horizon, pays attention to the situation, and alerts the people of danger. If danger is on its way, it is the watcher’s job to blow on the shofar, and sound this trumpet so that the people can take heed and prepare for what’s coming.
Ezekiel then hears the word of God spoken to him – “You, oh human being, I have made a watcher for the house of Israel.” Ezekiel is charged with being one who stands on guard for his people and faithfully warns them of danger so they can take the necessary precautions to keep safe. Before there was the color coded national security alert system signaling the likelihood of terrorist attacks, before there was the national weather service issuing hurricane and tornado warnings for people to take cover, before there were daily reports about the stock market being up or down, and monthly reports about the unemployment rate being up or down, and quarterly reports about corporate earnings being up or down; before any of this there was the watcher, who was charged with paying attention to the situation on the ground, to listening and looking for potential threats to the community. The watcher was an agent of God. Sounding the alarm, blowing the shofar, warning the people to prepare themselves for what was coming. The well-being of the community, God’s people, rests on the watcher’s ability to see and interpret well what is going on.
It is worth asking: who are the watchers we are paying attention to these days, and what are they saying?
I got an email from President Obama on Thursday. Normally, that might make one feel special, but this was one of those that went out to millions of other people around the country. Maybe you got the same one. I usually quickly delete my presidential spam, but this one caught my attention because of the subject line. It said, simply, “Frustrated.” I opened it and a brief skim revealed that this was about the job situation in our country and the political gridlock for proposing some solutions. He noted that he was frustrated and he knew the American people were frustrated with the current lack of jobs and economic opportunity. Our presidential watcher has looked out over the national landscape, surveyed the big picture, has utilized the shofar of the mass email, and has sounded a long note of frustration.
I have to admit that I’m coming at this from an angle that doesn’t fit very well into this big picture perspective and that I haven’t been paying much attention recently to most professional watchers. That’s not to say that’s an entirely commendable thing, it’s just to say that these last three months have had a very different focus. For most of the last three months I’ve been watching what, compared to the big picture, is a ridiculously small piece of land, on the outskirts of a small struggling town, of little consequence to the national GDP. I’ve been watching and participating in the summer season of a small farm. Planting seeds, watching them grow, watching weeds grow that need to be pulled; feeding animals, helping sell meat at the local farmer’s market, baling hay that the animals will eat when the pasture grass isn’t growing in the colder months, and starting to harvest some of the garden produce – green beans, garlic, sweet corn, and the first of the tomatoes; eating it fresh and canning it for the winter. Abbie made the connection that baling hay is kind of like canning for cows. With the barn being the rather large animal pantry. Only unfortunately they don’t do their own canning.
I’ve been observing that, while over 9% of the country remains out of work, there’s lots of work to be done on the farm. Too many projects for a single household, even when you’ve got extra people working at it. There’s lots of work, and there’s lots of food that can be grown on a small amount of land. More than a single household or extended family can eat. There’s a wealth that the soil possesses which, combined with good management, enough sunlight and water, creates abundance out of small seeds. An abundance of good food but not so much an abundance of money. We could put people to work, but they wouldn’t be getting much of a paycheck. But butternut squash, tomatoes, green beans, eggs, and even some meat could be available.
I’ve been reading different watchers who are stationed mostly in rural America, where things look different than the city. I’ve been reading from those who lament the extent to which rural America has been depopulated, seeing these populations move off the farm to cities where some of them confront the new reality of unemployment, or, if they’re a little luckier, wage labor.
I’ve been reading people who lament the perspective of government offices, universities, and economists that there have been too many people on the farm. The experts promoting the philosophy of “get big, or get out.” The small farmers’ comeback line on this is that, while agricultural economists have been quick to highlight that there are too many farmers, “no agricultural economist has yet perceived that there are too many agricultural economists.” (“What are people for?” in What Matters? by Wendell Berry, p. 106).
I’ve been reading watchers from the country and the city who see great potential for greater self-sufficiency for people no matter where they live. For building up local economies. For learning to live with less and reviving systems of bartering that give people a chance to use and share wealth in ways that don’t involve the exchange of money.
In other words, I’ve been thinking about things that are very impractical to implement from a big picture policy perspective, but things which provide a wealth of potential for small scale actions, human community, for meaningful labor, even if it doesn’t register in the official economy. I’m not really sure how relevant it is to many of the issues at hand on Labor Day weekend – the vitality of unions, the right to collective bargaining, just labor laws, living wage jobs.
If you have any interest in what these marginal watchers are saying, you may also have interest in another marginal watcher. This one who was the leader of these little start up communities all throughout the Roman Empire in the first century. The Apostle Paul who wrote letters of encouragement and instruction to these little communities of how they may better reflect the radiance of the Christ, who was alive and active among them. In another of today’s lectionary readings, Paul, the watcher, writes to the small community in Rome, those living in the heart of the empire, those spiritual exiles whose claimed for themselves another kingdom as their homeland. Another kingdom already present in the world. Paul writes, and I’m using a combination of the NIV and NRSV translations here: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet;’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10).
“Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another.” Talking about debt and economics and politics could take up down a path we don’t want to go this morning. The way the apostle imagines debt functioning in a positive way in the Christian community is as a perpetual indebtedness that we have to one another. A love debt, that never can be fully repaid. So I am indebted to each of you for the love you have shown me, and you are indebted to each other for the kindness, the generosity, the goodwill, the love that you have shown one another. And we are always indebted to the soil, the earth, for the wealth that it has given us, our very lives. It is the only inescapable debt you ever want to have any part in because it is a debt that keeps creating greater and greater wealth of love, of justice, of right relationship, of forgiveness, of grace, of undeserved opportunity. It is the love of God in action in our lives. The apostle Paul is the watcher over this little household of believers and he seems to be suggesting that we are all watchers for one another. Watching for the well being of the community.
Imagine, a small community living this way. Each of them indebted to one another, beginning to treat others outside of their community with dignity and respect, having positions as workers and employers and administrators, relating with colleagues and employees out of this sense of love and gratitude for gifts that they share. All of life – work, rest, family – taking on a quality of holiness. Love, fulfilling the laws of justice. You, o human, I have made a watcher. Now what do you see?