“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
We’re in the middle of Labor Day Weekend. It doesn’t matter what the calendar says about summer lasting a few more weeks. Labor Day is the real end of summer. Here in Massachusetts it’s been a holiday since 1887. So this is our 132nd Labor Day vacation weekend. Labor Day celebrates the contribution of workers to our economy, and surprisingly we do that by celebrating it with a day off from labouring.
I heard from friends of mine who are football fans that this is the 100th anniversary of the NFL. They told me that the season traditionally begins on a Thursday night when the Super Bowl champions of the previous season get the honour of playing in the first game of the new season.
This year though the Patriots won’t be playing in that first game. It will be the Packers and the Bears because they go back to the beginning of the league. It would seem strange to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the NFL without playing football. But it doesn’t seem strange at all to celebrate Labor Day by not laboring.
But back when Labor Day originated, it wasn’t a long-weekend escape to the beach. It wasn’t summer’s last hurrah. It was a day to celebrate the US worker and to do the work of organizing them.
I’ve heard stories that near where I grew up in Westfield there were company towns around the paper mills. The workers paid rent to live in company owned homes and paid for groceries in company owned stores. There was no way to get ahead, to get beyond the reach of the company.
These sorts of abuses were so bad that workers started banding together and the labor movement was born, and that’s the reason for Labor Day. It was a lot more than summer’s last long weekend and a day off from laboring.
Now let’s remember the first words that Maureen shared with us this morning: “Let mutual love continue.” The Epistle goes on to say, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” In other words, stand together. Stand up for each other. Be guided by empathy.
This is the practical spirituality of the earliest church. This was a part of Christian worship. This is why the Epistle calls out to believers and tells them, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
Everyone hearing that word sacrifices in the sermon that is the Epistle to the Hebrews would have known the long history of worshiping God through sacrifices made in the Temple. Now God is worshiped with sacrifices of lives dedicated to one another.
Closer to our own time, but in this same spirit, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968. He was there to encourage the city’s striking sanitation workers. They were treated so poorly that they walked with placards declaring “I am a man.”
In a truly prophetic way, Rev. King spoke to them the day before he was assassinated, and he told them that his death may be imminent, but that he was not afraid. He told them instead, “It really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Rev. King was a good Baptist who knew his Bible well, and most everyone listening to him knew the Bible well. Moses led Israel out of slavery and through the desert Exodus for 40 years, but he was not permitted to lead Israel into the Promised Land. Rather, God took him up a mountain and let him see where others would lead Israel.
Rev. King didn’t see the day he worked and hoped for, but he believed that he was part of a movement that someday would … and this was not only social activism, this was practical spirituality, this was a labor movement encouraged and pushed forward by a church pastor, this was church the way the Epistle to the Hebrews saw church, as people working together for the good of each other.
Church is not limited to thoughts of heaven. Church is the community here and now that binds us together to do the good work of making this world better.
Keep this in mind as we hear stories of abuse, neglect and violence in our world. We’re to stand together with the weak, the poor and the voiceless. This is as old a part of our faith as there is.
And as we get ready to gather around the Communion Table, I ask you to think again about Jesus going to the home of a prominent religious leader for a banquet. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the banquet was an image of heavenly peace and comfort, and I think Jesus overlays the spiritual with the practical in His words.
He tells the people of power and influence around Him that there is no righteousness in only inviting those who can return the favour.
Instead, says Jesus, “‘When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, ...’”
Isn’t this the same message as in the Epistle to the Hebrews, as in Rev. King’s words as he stood side by side with the strikers in Memphis? Isn’t this the same message of Labor Day and standing together to support each other so that men don’t have to walk picket lines with placards of “I am a man”?
Success is not only measured by the accumulation of obscene amounts of wealth, but by how we live for each other. So as we come to the Communion Table let us remember Jesus’ picture of all sorts of people gathering together and each of us bringing what we can for the good of all. In this way, we will know that Jesus is at table with us.
In His name we pray. Amen.
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