Happy Labor Day Weekend!
This holiday began back in the 1880s growing out of the trade union and labor movements. It was designed to celebrate those who worked in the trades and did other sorts of labor—the common man, at the time, and now, of course, includes all types of people—the ones who work primarily hourly wage jobs. It began with parades that would lead to picnic grounds. As people ate simple meals on their blankets and kids ran around playing games, labor leaders would give thanks to the workers.
A sermon on James 2.
Of course nowadays it marks the official end of summer, and the beginning of school. Trade laborers usually get the day off—I grew up in the home of an electrician, and if someone got called in for an emergency, it was double time pay—but those who now work in retail have to manage Labor Day Sales. And those who work might not get extra holiday pay at all—it’s not required in the Federal Labor Standards Act, so employers can turn a blind eye if they so choose. With a Federal Minimum Wage still at $7.25 an hour—it’s $13.50 here in Massachusetts—the retail worker running the sales today in North Carolina could get $58 bucks for their 8 hour shift. And if they’re lucky enough, that federal minimum wage earner will pull in $15,080 before taxes for working 40 hours each week of the year. For those here in the Bay State, you’d gross a little over $28,000, which sounds good if you’re a teenager taking a shift scooping ice cream, but not for the laborers who have a family at home. “Home” of course meaning “low rent apartment,” as there’d be no way on those wages to get a house in this market, with the median purchase price of $555k in our state.
So with all that in the background, we come to James this morning who is once more pretty direct in his epistle. “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in,and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” While we often hear these words as those who might uncomfortably have our hackles raised if someone came in to worship with strong odors or filthy clothing, Professor Archie Smith, Jr, invites us to reverse roles. He writes, “If you were that poor person who happened to show up at a worship service, then you might feel shame and embarrassment along with physical hunger and other pains. These issues might be overridden by you deeper desire to hear a word of hope or to receive a modicum of respect from those who are known as ‘people of God.’”
And then James, in a brilliant move, keeps up this idea from Prof. Smith. He writes, “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?” That one who comes in looking bedraggled, James tells these believers, that’s the one with the deep faith. Because, as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things that cannot be seen. (Heb 11.1) That one coming in to a service looking for a word of hope, longing to be seen as an image bearer of the Almighty One, is rich in faith. They show us what it means to trust fully in God, and God has chosen them to be heirs of the kingdom that God has promised to those who are beloved.
But the rich ones, James says quite directly, are the ones who have an anemic faith, who have trusted in the systems of this world rather than in the love economy of God. They’ve stored up for themselves treasures in this life. So why should we show favoritism to them?
Now, let me be clear as a priest in by nearly all accounts a tremendously affluent area. James isn’t directing us to ignore the wealthy. He isn’t saying show favoritism the other way. But, he is saying, there is to be no distinction in how we show the love of God to others. Because it is easy for us to look at those who are poorer and think they are out of the favor of God. That they’ve done something to deserve making low wages while we’ve succeeded financially in life.
Because that is often how we think. That God blesses hard work. That God smiles on us and graces us with financial wealth. That people who don’t have these things must have done something to displease God. “Nope,” says James. “It’s the other way round.”
It’s not as if we haven’t heard similar things from Jesus, the one who said it’d be easier for a 6 and a half-foot camel weighing in at 1500 lbs to slide through an 1/8th of an inch opening on a sewing needle than for a rich person to make their way into God’s kingdom. Jesus liked to use hyperbole, of course, but he makes his point clear. If we put our faith in money, we’re not putting our faith in God. We can’t serve two masters, of course.
So James boils it down to this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. It’s one half of Jesus’ distillation of the law when he was asked by a legal scholar of his day. Love your neighbor as yourself. Prof. Smith writes, “James calls Christians to a higher standard, the standard of agape or divine love. This love excels all other forms of love and is the distinctive call to Christian communities and disciples. Such divine love constitutes a radical call to unconditional justice wherever the economic gap between poverty and wealth is great. How can wealthy Christians live lovingly and justly when brother and sister Christians live poor and destitute lives?”
Here’s the thing, friends, we are invited to see everyone we encounter as a sister, brother, or dear friend in Christ. We don’t get to pick and choose. And in this world of ours is tremendous disparity. The person packing your Amazon box at a warehouse makes an average of $30k a year. About 14.40 an hour. Jeff Bezos makes more than 13 times that just for his Amazon cash compensation, at $192 an hour—1.6 million a year—which is somewhat modest for CEO pay but not including, of course, his stock options. If we did that math, though, adding in those options, we’d bring him up to $142,667 per minute. In 60 seconds, he makes nearly 5 times what his warehouse worker makes in a year. It’s easy to pick on Jeff Bezos—or other billionaires—but see, we look at those folks and think that somehow they have been blessed by God. We do not consider the hispanic mother of three cleaning homes at minimum wage the same way. Yet we are called to embrace, encourage, and work for unconditional justice, not so we can all become billionaires, but so that all may receive a living wage. According to the researchers at MIT, that would be $34.72 an hour for a family of four living on a single wage in our state, or $25.61 if both adults chose to do so. More than double our current minimum wage, and $40,000 more the one working for Amazon. How different would our world be if we all could have enough to live on?
Don’t show favoritism, James implores us. Show mercy instead. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Work for justice. Point out the inequity in our systems—the ways we keep people in poverty—and then work to change things. Let us celebrate the ones who work while we sleep, the ones who dedicate their lives to making things run smoothly for all of us. The ones emptying waste baskets and scrubbing toilets, the ones who sort mail, those who cut grass and shovel snow, who watch our kids and pick our vegetables, and the very ones packing our online purchases. These ones seek simply a modest life that they can enjoy with those they love. Let us not look down at them or ignore their needs, but instead see them as giants in the faith, beloved by God, and chosen by God to inherit that kingdom of love and grace proclaimed by Jesus. Let us, this Labor Day, remember those who dedicate their lives receiving impossibly low wages to make our lives easier, and then love them fully just as we love ourselves.