Labor Day

A sermon preached by Tim Yeager at
St. Paul and the Redeemer Episcopal Church
Chicago, IL USA, September 1, 2002


Our heavenly Father and our Mother, we thank you for this beautiful day, for the gifts of life and breath, for the fellowship we share here in this house. On this Labor Day Sunday, we thank you for the countless men and women who have labored down through the ages, to bring about a better and more just world for all of your children. We pray that we too might be good and faithful servants in this time and place, that your will may be down on earth as it is in heaven. We pray that we might seek your Kingdom and its justice above all else. We thank you for the example of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, the Carpenter from Nazareth, in whose name we pray. Amen.

I thank Jim and Jarrett, and all of you, for the opportunity to speak to you today. My name is Tim Yeager, and I am the Financial Secretary of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, which is Amalgamated Local Union 2320 of the United Auto Workers union. It is my privilege to work for, and to represent, nearly 4,000 members who work in non-profit agencies across the country, most of them in federally-funded legal services programs, but also in human services agencies such as Hull House here in Chicago.

I am a member of Grace Church in Oak Park, and also serve on the Peace & Justice Commission of our Diocese, where it has been my pleasure to work on a number of issues with your assistant rector, Fr. Jarrett.

My sermon today is based upon todays gospel passage.

What we see here in Matthew is an exchange which goes to the very heart of Jesus mission. Jesus begins to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, the seat of power of the spiritual and political leaders of the land, confront the elders and the high priest, expose himself to persecution and death, and ultimately be raised from the dead.

But Peter resists this notion and rebukes Jesus for even raising it. I am sure that Peters conduct was well intended. He doesnt want Jesus getting in trouble. But Jesus response to Peter is absoluteloy devastating: GET BEHIND ME, SATAN! YOU ARE A HINDRANCE TO ME, FOR YOU ARE NOT ON THE SIDE OF GOD BUT OF MEN.

I have always felt sorry for Peter in this story. He wants to do the right thing. (He always does.) He loves his Lord. And he had some success recently in figuring things out. You may recall from last weeks gospel reading that Peter had been warmly praised by Jesus for calling him the Messiah. But now, in a sudden turnaround, Peter is called the worst of all possible names by the Son of God. SATAN.

I think the key to understanding this passage is to understand who Satan is. He is an adversary, but above all, a TEMPTER. At this moment, Peter is offering Jesus the temptation of not going to Jerusalem, of not putting himself at risk. Jesus could have said, Maybe youre right Peter. Well stay home. And he could have been perfectly justified in the eyes of all of his followers. After all, he was simply responding to the pleas of someone who just last week was given the keys of heaven. It would not have been seen as an act of cowardice.

And after all, things had been going pretty well for the Kingdom of God movement up to that point... large, friendly crowds, plenty of homes where they could stay, no shortage of loaves and fishes, hundreds of people healed... It would be tempting, and much safer, to stay in Galilee.

But Jesus says that he MUST go to Jerusalem. There is no choice. And he goes further to say that anyone who would be his disciple must do the same thing, to take up their cross and follow him.

Let us think for a moment about what the consequences would have been, if that fateful trip had not been taken. If Jesus had stayed home, he could have worked out a reasonably comfortable existence. He had a good career as a healer and teacher. He could have continued preaching about the Kingdom of God as a place where the hungry were fed, the naked clothed, those in prison set free. All the economic metaphors would still have been applicable, that in the Kingdom of God the first shall be last, and the last shall be first... That all were invited to the feast... That you were to love your neighbor as yourself, and the definition of neighbor had been expanded to include all people, not just the Jews next door. Jesus and the disciples could have institutionalized their communal existence, set up a system of coops, held regular office hours for healing... there could have been regular lake-side sermons for all who were interested.

If He had opted not to go to Jerusalem, there would have been no betrayal, no arrest, no abuse, no public trial, no abandonment by friends, no suicides, no humiliating procession through the streets of the capital, no death upon the cross. He would have saved His life. But in doing so, He would have lost His life. He would have gained the whole world, but would have forfeited the whole meaning of His life and His ministry. There would have been no crucifixion, but there would have been NO RESURRECTION. That would have been the end of the story, and we would never have heard from them again.

Going to Jerusalem is central to the Christian story. The Son of Man must go there. He told us so. And He told us that we must go there too, if we are to be his followers. We must move out of familiar, comfortable surroundings, to the places where the truth must be spoken, to the places where the children of God cry out for help. The Church founded by Jesus of Nazareth was not intended to be a place where the faithful practice an alternative lifestyle within tightly knit local communities. It is, at its roots, a movement for social and economic justice that entails risk, that calls us to stand in solidarity with those who are struggling for justice in their workplaces and in their communities, and requires us to confront the powers of the world with this message in the centers where they trade and the palaces from which they rule. This is what it meant to go to Jerusalem then. This is what it means to go there today. This is the Church at its best, when it is most faithful to its calling.

This is also true of the labor movement at its best, when it is most faithful its calling. The labor movement and the Church of God are not, and should not be, strangers to one another. We are called to the same struggle for justice and peace, and to care for one another.

In fact, the earliest recorded example of labor organizing is found in the Bible, in the book of Exodus. It is the story of the Hebrew slaves who were the brick makers and laborers engaged in public construction projects in ancient Egypt. It is the story of Moses and Aaron, called by God to be the first union bargaining committee, called by God to go up to the center of power of that day, to the city of Rameses, to confront Pharaoh with a list of demands, seeking justice for the workers they represented. You will recall that Moses resisted the call at first, but God told him not to worry, that He would teach him what to do and what to say, and so Moses went.

Their first demand, was a three-day weekend. The first labor day. Pharaoh refused to give them time off, and in retaliation, ordered the foremen to increase the work load of the workers by adding the requirement that the brick makers gather their own straw for the making of the bricks, but at no time cut back on their production rate.

The negotiations continued. Moses and Aaron returned time and again to Pharaoh with their demands. The struggle escalated. Ultimately, Moses led the Hebrew workers out on strike. They walked off their jobs, and completely left the employers premises. And when Pharaoh sent his troops after them to bring them back, the Lord our God was not idly standing by. He wiped out the Egyptian army to the last man. God was not neutral in this struggle. In fact He is the instigator of this first labor union effort.

And let us look at Jesus and the people he recruits for the Kingdom of God movement? Who joins and becomes part of his immediate circle?

Of course, Jesus himself is a carpenter. But look at the others: James, his brother, would also have practiced his fathers trade, and would have been a carpenter, but there are fishermen, a low-level civil servant or two, reformed prostitutes, farmers Any kings or princes? Any officials of any consequence? Any high level clergymen? No.

The early church was primarily a movement of working people, who saw in the message a Jesus the hope for a better, more just society. And it was not an easy struggle for them. Some were crucified, some thrown to the lions. But they persisted, and prevailed.

Labor unions are organized by workers to seek better wages and working conditions on their jobs. Just like the Hebrews of old, working people find it necessary to join together to have an effective voice. And just like Moses and the slaves in Egypt, they sometimes must engage in collective action to get Pharaohs attention. The struggle, in many ways, has been the same for more than 3,000 years. And the struggle has not always been easy.

In this city only a few miles north of here, eight Chicago union leaders were legally tried and four were hanged for the crime of organizing a movement to shorten the workday to eight hours. The elders and the high priests of industry considered them a threat, and they successfully obtained the assistance of the State of Illinois in crucifying them. That was only a little more than 100 years ago. Some of the grandchildren of those men are still living in the Chicago area.

And in this city, this time a few miles to the south, on Memorial Day, 1937, eleven members of the United Steel Workers Union were killed, and dozens other wounded, most shot in the back, by Chicago police at the scene of a union picnic during the fight to get the company to recognize and bargain with the union. There are still many people alive who were there, including a dear friend of mine, Molly West. A Chicago policeman pointed his pistol at her forehead and told her that she had five seconds to leave the field, or hed blow her head off.

Workers still face great risks when they confront the elders and high priests of our time. Sometimes the brutal tactics of old are still used. But more subtle tactics are often used.

Take for example the current struggle of the hotel workers in Chicago to obtain a more livable wage and health insurance for their families. The hotel owners, who have reaped huge profits over the years, due primarily to the fact they have, for years, paid their employees substandard wages, have admitted publicly that they wages they have been paying are too low. But this concern rings hollow. You see, while claiming to be concerned about the low wages of their workforce, the hotel owners have already conspired with day labor agencies in economically depressed neighborhoods to replace striking union workers with unrepresented workers who will be paid only $6.50 per hour (more than $2 per hour less than the lowest current wage).

This is intended to undermine the union, and it pits neighbor against neighbor in many communities. And it reveals the truth of the matter -- that the hotel owners are hypocrites not unlike the Pharisees and scribes so roundly condemned by Jesus.

And while it would be technically illegal for the hotel owners to fire union workers who go on strike, it is perfectly legal to permanently replace them. This is a distinction without a difference. And this is a legal loophole which is being used more and more today by anti-union employers in our country.

We do not know at this point what tactics the owners will employ. Like Pharaoh taking away the straw from the brick makers, there are various things that employers can do. What we do know is that the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus is not neutral in such struggles, and neither should we be. Let us therefore join the Carpenter from Nazareth as He goes up to Jerusalem. Let us stand with Him in the marketplace and in the Temple, and join in His call for justice. And when we, like Moses, hear the cry of the oppressed, let us respond in the confidence that the Lord God will help us to know what to do and what to say. AMEN.


Note: The above deals, in part, with the struggle between HERE Local 1 (hotel workers' union) and the Chicago hotel owners. The workers were scheduled to go on strike that Sunday morning. As it turned out, they stayed on the job for three more days and were successful in getting the best contract in their history, with a 56% salary increase over five years, among other things. The congregation at St. Paul and the Redeemer was one of several in Chicago that helped to gather canned goods for the strike pantry. -- Tim Yeager

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