“Awaken us Lord to the recognition of our work as a joy rather than a job.”“May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us.Prosper the work of our hands;Prosper our handiwork.”
On behalf of President Clinton and Vice President Gore, I want to express my deep personal appreciation to Dean Baxter, the ministerial staff and members of the National Cathedral for inviting me to deliver this year’s Labor Day message.
I am honored by your kind invitation. The U.S. Department of Transportation, 100,000 strong, deals with one of the largest segments of today’s economy, accounting for 1 in 7 jobs and 11 percent of our Gross Domestic Product. Yet transportation is about so much more than concrete, asphalt and steel. Transportation is truly the tie that binds us together as a people. It is the means of access to our pursuit of happiness.
Even as we worship together here this morning, we are joined in the Spirit with people of faith across the country who are also celebrating Labor Day with special services.
Among them are participants in a relatively new program, known as Labor in the Pulpits, which started in Chicago three years ago. As of last year this joint project of the AFL-CIO and the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice had expanded to 37 cities.
The purpose of Labor in the Pulpits is to encourage union members to address congregations about the connection between faith and work as part of Labor Day programs. By improving the dialog between faith communities and the labor movement, this program can only benefit us all. I commend it.
The National Cathedral-“a great church established for national purposes,”-is a perfect setting to honor the contributions of all who labor, especially those who work with their hands:
The very stones, door posts and windows of this worship space proclaim the skills of several generations of masons, carpenters, glaziers, and other artisans. It is their work, over the course of eight long decades, that built this magnificent cathedral.
Our first reading this morning speaks of our utter dependence upon artisans like these, who perform tasks essential to civilized life in every age, even though these tasks are often perceived as lowly. As the writer of Ecclesiasticus says-
“Without them, no city can be inhabited.”
Yet despite our dependence upon their skill, the writer concludes on a disturbing note: these artisans, he sadly tells us, “are not sought out for the council of the people.”
As we might express this idea today, ‘they are not invited to sit at the table of power.’
It was on behalf of those excluded from the table of power that a mighty modern prophet of God-the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.-came to this very Sanctuary on March 31, 1968.
And it was in these hallowed walls that the words of his last Sunday sermon echoed as he left this place of safety on the road to Memphis and a martyr’s death.
There, on the balcony of the Loraine Motel-a lodging you won’t find listed in any Michelin Guide-he gave his life on behalf of the lowliest laborers of all, those who clean up our garbage. Yet their spirits burst forth through the words on the placards declaring “I Am A Man!”
Labor Day is therefore a time not only to acknowledge working people and their contributions to our society, but also to remember that the rights of working people were bought at a great price.
As Dr. King said, some 31 years ago, to those who sat in the very pews you sit in now:
“We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.”
And that, my brothers and sisters, is what we are called to be, ‘co-workers with God.”
There are, of course, risks. Those whom we honor each Labor Day, in all too many cases, were called upon to give the “last full measure of devotion” to the cause of economic justice. Like the persecuted martyrs of the Christian faith in ages past, they suffered beatings, torture, imprisonment, and even death.
Yet the struggle of labor’s martyrs transformed the quality of life for all Americans.
They brought us benefits like the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, worker’s compensation, health and safety laws, Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, and the right to organize for collective bargaining.
It is therefore “right and good” that we acknowledge their sacrifices on our behalf at today’s service.
It is also appropriate that we revisit some of what Dr. King had to say during his last Sunday morning as a preacher.
The title of his talk was “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.”
He took the title from the story “Rip Van Winkle,” pointing out that all most of us remember about Washington Irving’s tale is that Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years.
What most of us do not remember is that Rip Van Winkle slept through the American Revolution.
Dr. King admonished this Congregation, perhaps from this very pulpit, not to ‘sleep through a revolution,’ or as he put it, a “triple revolution.”
The first revolution reshaping the world of 1968, in Dr. King’s view, was technology. It was ‘making the world a neighborhood,’ yet we were still continuing to resist our mutual dependence upon one another as a world community. And the biggest evidence of that resistance was the war in Vietnam
The second revolution, Dr King reminded the congregation, was the continuing struggle to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice in America.
And third, Dr. King spoke of the need to “rid our nation and the world of poverty.”
As he put it-
“I would remind you that in our own nation there are about forty million people who are poverty-stricken.
I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia. And the tragedy is that so often these forty million people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich; because our expressways carry us away from the ghetto, we don’t see the poor.”
Dr. King did not believe that government would respond to these challenges on its own, “unless,” in his words, “it is confronted massively, dramatically, in terms of direct action.”
So he finished his sermon and promised to come back to Washington “in a few weeksto demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty.”
Although his poor people’s campaign eventually would come to Washington, Dr. King never returned.
There have been a lot of changes since 1968. And the pace of change has stepped up sharply in just the past six and one-half years.
If some modern day Rip Van Winkle had gone to sleep, say in 1992, he would have closed his eyes to record dollar deficit of $290 billion, 7.5 percent unemployment and soaring interest rates. We were plagued by slow growth and we were a nation growing apart.
Waking up today, Rip would be in for a pleasant surprise. Today we are enjoying the longest peacetime economic expansion in our nation’s history-an economy that has created 19 million new jobs since 1992. We have record-low interest rates; record low unemployment rates-and our nation is coming together.
And this year, instead of a deficit, we expect a budget surplus of $99 billion. Yet as the President said in his State of the Union address earlier this year: “This is not a time to rest but a time to build.”
All three issues Dr. King addressed to this congregation three decades ago are still with us.
This country still has an unfinished social justice agenda for working families and people of color:
We still need a higher minimum wage for our poorest workers
We still must deal with the evil of racism
We still need to protect the financial integrity of Social Security and Medicare
And we still need a health-care system that includes everyone, with no one left out
And, at the dawn of a new century and new millennium, we still need to make sure that economic progress leaves no one behind.
During his domestic tour this past summer, President Clinton reminded all Americans that certain areas of our country-such as Appalachia, native American reservations, our inner cities, the Mississippi Delta and other areas in rural America-have not fully participated in the unprecedented prosperity of the 1990s.
These are the very same areas Dr. King was concerned about in his sermon.
But there has been one BIG change in the conversation since 1968. Back then, Dr. King could plausibly argue that the poor had to force Washington’s hand if they expected government to address their concerns.
Today, I am proud to say, government is proactively reaching out to these areas with programs and ideas that are beginning to make a difference.
We have learned from our mistakes: In the 1960s and 1970s, we learned that government did not have all the answers. In the 1980s, we saw that the private market didn’t either. Today we are approaching the challenge in a new way-a third way-in which government and business work together to inject new capital, new investment, and new opportunity into hard-pressed communities.
When Congress returns to Washington this month we are looking forward to a positive and bipartisan reception to the President’s New Market proposal that focuses specifically on Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, Native American reservations and urban and rural America.
This President and this Vice President are working with vision and vigilance to expand the circle of prosperity to include everyone.
Wherever he went-and to whomever he spoke-the Man from Galilee insisted that God was ‘no respecter of persons,’ that there was room for all at God’s heavenly banquet.
And when Jesus says, in today’s Gospel, “You cannot serve God and wealth,” he is primarily speaking to the people who have it made, rather than those living on the margin. In other words, he is speaking to us. And we know that much is required of those to whom much is given. So let us “press on to toward the mark of the high calling.”
I therefore urge each one of you here this morning to use the opportunity afforded by this service to renew your own commitment to social justice for America’s working families, in whatever way you can.
Dr. King urged us to “wake up.” He said-
“Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. America has not met its obligations and its responsibilities to the poor. One day we will have to stand before the God of history”
And there can be no doubt, as we look at the world around us on the eve of the new millennium, despite our enormous economic achievements in recent years, there is still some spiritual work ahead of us. And that work includes laying up ‘treasures in heaven’ by sharing the wealth down here.
As a contemporary poet and Episcopal priest, Susan Sherard, expresses it:
“Heaven will not leave us alone.
Heaven will continue to come to earth
Until heaven and earth are one.
Heaven will not leave us alone until
Love’s work is done.”