Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore, rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act —they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Today is Labor Day Sunday. Labor Day in the USA was established in 1894 in response to years of strikes and protests by workers and labor unions because of poor working conditions, child labor, 12-hour workdays, 7-day work week, etc. In 1894, these protests culminated in Chicago when the American Railroad Union workers went on strike against the Pullman Palace Car company to protest wage cuts and union busting. Labor Day was established by Congress later that year. The United States Department of Labor explains that, “Labor Day…is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”[i]
Working conditions and the economy have significantly changed since 1894; and today, we also seem to be at least somewhat recovering from the recent recession. An article I read[ii] stated that unemployment levels in the US are near record lows and spending has gone up. However, the article goes on to state that:
“Within the cracks of the economy many people continue to struggle meeting their basic needs, including putting food on the table.
…Food insecurity -- defined as not having enough food because of a lack of money or other resources -- is a daily problem for roughly one in eight Americans…That rate remains higher than before the recession, when the numbers were slightly more than one in 10…
… many residents have jobs that earn too much for them to qualify for federal aid, yet lack sufficient income to get by on their own. Many families don't qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program better known as Food Stamps. Almost half of the 41 million Americans who are defined as "food insecure" aren't eligible for food stamps…
"The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is now set about ... 20 percent below the level it was in 1968, so we have many more people who work full time but earn a wage that leaves them at [or below] the poverty line…”[iii] Since 2009, the federal government’s and Pennsylvania’s minimum wage has been set at $7.25 per hour. A single person has to work 87 hours per week to be able to afford a modest 1-bedroom apartment in Pennsylvania on that minimum wage. The actual hourly wage needed for this 1-bedroom apartment is about $15.82; however, in Montgomery, Chester, Bucks, and Delaware Counties that number jumps up to $20.13 per hour.
In church we know and affirm, alongside the letter of James, our reading for today, that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of light” (James 1:17) and so, the 2009 increase in the minimum wage was truly a blessing and a gift to the working poor. However, James also tells us that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father” needs “to care for the orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world”. And in a country as rich as the US, there is no reason for people to be poor and go hungry; as the faithful, we can’t stand idly by but are called to care.
During the time of writing of the letter of James, Orphans and widows were those who lived on the margins of society and who had little to no rights and resources. During our times that would include the working poor; those who work sometimes 2 or 3 minimum wage jobs while not receiving benefits, those who are often labeled as lazy or unwilling to find better jobs, those who fall victim to all the “isms” and phobias that keep people from hiring or promoting them, those who are often thought of as having too many kids and too much free time or not enough ambition, and those who are told to pull themselves up by the bootstraps – even though they don’t have anything to pull themselves up by. Not even bootstraps.
Some may even be here – in this room.
So…What is a Christian to do? To answer that, we can turn to our reading from James. The letter instructs readers on how to live out their faith and be followers of Christ, encouraging readers to always live out the “implanted Word” both individually and communally.
The letter is not addressed to any specific person or church but to “12 tribes in dispersion”. The letters greeting and closing suggest that its recipients are people of God who have departed from a proper understanding of their relationship with God and so need James’ correction.”[iv] The letter proposes that sometimes we are like people who look into a mirror and see themselves, but then forget who we and lose our sense of purpose and Christian identity the moment we turn away. In short, we forget that we are created in the image of God. And in a time of “thoughts and prayers” typed into a small box online before scrolling it off the screen, maybe we do need the reminder that James offers. A reminder that our faith comes with a purpose and with a commandment – and the commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors – that includes those neighbors who may experience injustice, including labor and wage injustice.
James first brings glory to God, the Creator of All. This is a good step for us too. As we enter this Labor Day, let us be glad and thankful for all that God has done for us - in the ways we have labored, the benefits received, and the retirements earned. Let us be thankful for those who have protested on our behalf. Let us become aware of the ways in which God has been with us in our lives and our careers or job. Maybe we don’t or didn’t have it all and for many of us things certainly are not perfect; nevertheless, we praise God for providing for us and for bringing us to this day.
Next, James instructs readers to allow God’s word to be implanted and grown in us. God needs to be at the center at all we do because only “the implanted word…has the power to save your soul”. This is an invitation to reflect and to discern and to wonder:
- Are we who we say we are
- Do we see our own image, created in the likeness of God, and can we see God in everyone, recognizing that all persons as a sister or brother, all fully deserving of a fair portion of the abundant resources that God provides to all of us to share? In other words, can we see that everyone needs a job that is safe, a job where each person is treated with dignity and fairness, and everyone is paid enough so they can buy the things they need to not only survive but provide to for their families and to thrive?
- As stewards of God’s creation, are we working toward a fairer and more just world or are we ‘stained’ by worldly pride, greed, fear, or even ignorance?
- Are we doing what we are called to do?
Lastly, James provides readers with a call to action. James’ call to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers, who deceive themselves” is a powerful one. There is no mistake; talk that is not backed up by action is nothing, James tells us. Don’t talk, love – BE LOVE!
This passage and others have given the Letter of James a bad reputation. Martin Luther once called it an “Epistle of straw” and he did not deem it as Gospel because it seems to put works ahead of grace and faith; yet James admits that it is only the implanted word that has the power to save our soul. But what good is the implanted word if it does not make us act upon it? What is its purpose?
If we are "doers of the word, and not merely hearers," as James advised, then we must respond to Jesus’ call to love our neighbors. We must remember those who have fought for our rights and we must work for justice in the workplace today and for generations to come. We must help those who do not have enough, and we must work toward equal and just compensation and benefits.
How? I don't have all the answers but...
We could stand with workers who demand that they are paid a "living wage", adequate for the rich life that God intends for everyone, remember the good that protests and strikes have done for all workers and families, and become informed about labor legislation introduced or needed – and then speak up or write to the newspaper or your representatives about them.
We could each urge our State as well as Congress to continue to raise the minimum wage and ask to link it to the consumer price index. Linking them avoids the erosion of the purchasing power because of inflation, leaving the working poor even more poor. Currently only 17 states link their minimum wage to the consumer price index.[v]
We could let our own wallets do the talking, by supporting businesses that treat workers fairly over those who treat them poorly, and we could advocate to eliminate businesses and business practices in our communities that keep workers down and prey on the poor and working poor.
There are still those who need our voices and our support. They need our action. What we do will tell the world what we as Christians believe and stand for. And change is possible.
- In August, Missouri, voters repealed the state’s anti-union right-to-work law, rejecting being undermined by lawmakers and lobbyists.[vi]
- Teacher strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma earlier in the year showed the power of collective action.[vii]
- Landmark legislation was passed in New York, regulating transportation network companies like Ueber and Lyft while also improving working conditions for traditional Taxi drivers, and Seattle passed a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights.[viii]
Those wins belong to the workers who spoke out and fought back and their allies. And I believe that Christ was standing with every one of them because Christ stands on the side of justice. As followers of Christ, let us resolve to join Christ in the struggles of low wage workers this Labor Day. This is important work and it can make all the difference for the community and world in which we live. Our actions matter. People generally don’t care about our own theologies and the words we say – but what matters is how we treat each other and look out for all of humankind. And that is hard and difficult and often unpopular. Yet we must.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Christians who volunteers at foodbanks and soup kitchens, people or who take to the streets and demand an end to racism and homophobic practices and hunger and poverty and the exploitation of natural resources - For all of them it was or is not enough to just say they are faithful, but they feel compelled to get up and to do.
May they always inspire us to also be not only hearers of the Word but also doers. May our works flow out of our faith and for our love for God.
There is a Christ who needs us to proclaim the Good News and to be his hand and his feet.
My we be like Christ.
May we BE LOVE.
[ii] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/despite-stronger-economy-many-americans-still-need-help-with-food/, August 30, 2018
[iii] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/despite-stronger-economy-many-americans-still-need-help-with-food/ August 30, 2018
[iv] Timothy B. Cargal, “James”, The New Testament Fortress Commentary on the Bible
Visit http://www.ucc.org/living_wage to find out more