Christian Faith And Economic Democracy: The Time Has Come!

Dear Sisters and Brothers, Happy Labor Day! I hope you all get a good rest, but please, not before this sermon is finished! I begin with a very simple question for you today: What is a Cathedral anyway? The answer may not be so simple! Yes this Cathedral is a big, beautiful building. It’s the sixth biggest cathedral in the world. (Of course some of us wish it could have been even bigger — say #4 or #3, if not #1.)

But today — and every day — is a day for saying something rather different about a cathedral — and this one in particular. The Washington National Cathedral is a great company — of carpenters, electricians, mechanics, masons, sextons, cleaners, accountants, secretaries, salespersons, docents, ushers, supervisors, police, gardeners, groundskeepers: all the people who, in Saint Paul’s image, “present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”

And it is the ‘sacredness of their labor’, even more than all the majestic beauty that surrounds us that make this a holy place. We celebrate their labor on this Labor Day Sunday.

That great text of Saint Paul’s in Romans 12 is a vital charter for the style of the whole Christian life: of discipleship and the place of our labor within it:

  • Yes, presenting our very bodies, with all of our energy, strength and skill, as a holy and living sacrifice: working, according to the will of God.
  • But more: not being conformed to the most worldly notions of success and status, whatever our work — but rather transformed by minds that can really discern what can make our lives and our work truly good and perfect. Or, as we Methodists have been taught to say, “going on to perfection.”
  • And, of course, not thinking too highly of ourselves and our achievements — but grateful for the diversity of special gifts for which God has gifted every one of us; gifts that point to our vocations, in all their variety.
  • Which means, though we are many, we are one body in Christ, individually members one of another. Here’s the heart of Paul’s message: we are to be lovingly united in a divine division of labor, for the common good.

You may have yet to discover what the beautiful windows of this Cathedral have to say about the importance, the gifts and the holiness of labor.

There is a clerestory window up there on the north side, memorializing a Scotch coal miner who came to America just 100 years ago, in 1902, as a teenager. He worked with the Mine Workers and then the Steel Workers. He then founded the CIO (the Congress of Industrial Organizations) in 1935. His name was Philip Murray. The emblems of the CIO and many particular unions frame that window.

At the center of that Labor Window is the figure of the fearless biblical prophet Nehemiah, a master builder standing there with a blueprint in his hands. Nehemiah, who rallied all the men of Jerusalem to share in the work of rebuilding a ruined city — and whose very name, even today, lives on in the rebuilding of housing in many of America’s inner cities: “Nehemiah Housing”.

On the left, in that same window, is Moses, leader of liberation of oppressed people to the Promised Land. On the right is Amos, the voice of God’s judgment against the oppression of hard working people and poor people: the exploitation inflicted by those idle rich who lounge around on beds of ivory, while drinking wine and anointing themselves with precious oils. It is Amos who offers that lovely line of judgment: “The revelry of the loungers shall pass away.” (Try that line someday on some lazy colleague or some child of yours: “The revelry of the loungers shall pass away.”)

In Amos and in many other places, the Bible expects that all of us are to do our share of the necessary work. So Happy Labor Day!

Behold! How many other windows celebrate the gifts of the most diverse fields of work.

We have a physicians’ window
A poets’ window
An architects’ window
A musicians’ window
A painters’ window
A teachers’ window
A scientists’ and astronauts’ window
A fishermen’s’ window
A farmers window
A philosophers’ window
Even a lawyer’s window (don’t laugh!) and yes, a politicians’ window.

One of the most precious traditions of Christian experience is the sacred memory that Jesus was a carpenter and the son of a carpenter and that his very first followers were persons whose livelihood depended on physical labor: fishermen or farmers and craftsmen.

A grate spiritual and moral legacy of our Lord Jesus the carpenter is a threefold doctrine of work:

  1. The sacred dignity of every worker as a child of God.
  2. 2. The solidarity of the whole human family in our common life and work.
  3. 3. The loving life of service in the family of God which gives to our work its ultimate meaning, its very holiness.

It was Martin Luther who, nearly 500 years ago reclaimed this word of Jesus about the meaning of labor. Over against the pretensions of the church’s priestly hierarchy, Luther affirmed the “spiritual priesthood of all believers,” whether cobblers or blacksmiths or farmers.” The most worldly or menial work, if it served a genuine human need, should be honored as a calling — as much as the most prestigious professions and as consecrated as is a priest or bishop.

Labor Day not only recognizes the sacred dignity of work. It commemorates the long struggle to vindicate that sacred dignity. It is an unhappy part of our American history that this country experienced more repression and violence in that social struggle to secure the rights of workers than did any other industrial country in the Western World.

So this weekend is rightly a reminder that the achievement of social justice can be very costly in terms of lost lives and wounded persons. So it has been with all the murdered martyrs of civil rights. And so it has been with the champions of workers’ rights.

  • The USA, ever since the 1980s, has experienced the most extreme economic inequalities of any industrial nation. At the extremes, the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer.
    In the 1980s and 1990s, the after-tax income of the wealthiest 1 percent of our population rose 75% — while the income of middle-income families stagnated, and the income of the poorest 20 percent actually shrank 15 percent.
    Just to put this in more personal terms: the average income of the CEOs of our major corporations, back in 1960, had amounted to 12 times that of factory workers. But by 1974, that figure had risen to 35 times. By 1995, that average top CEO income had rocketed up to 135 times that of average factory workers.
  • The recent corporate shenanigans at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Arthur Anderson, Rite Aid, and other places reveal a shadowy world in which cooked books and insider trading allow corporate titans to bail out with hundreds of millions of dollars of personal profits for each one — while destroying the jobs and savings and retirement investments of their workers.
    Such crimes have caused the editors of the magazine heretofore called Business Ethics, which has been a crusader for ‘ corporate responsibility,” now to transform its very identity in to a new non-profit enterprise called the “Economic Democracy Project” — with a more pronounced concern for the workers who are the victims of corporate crimes.
  • Meanwhile, on the underside of American life; more than half of the minority children in our impoverished inner city schools are failing to reach even basic “achievement levels.”
  • With two million Americans now in prison, this country incarcerates more persons than any other country. And one in three young African American men are in prison, on parole or probation. Who can possibly calculate the long-range costs of such numbers?

Moreover, the general economic slump of the past two years has aggravated the troubles of working families. The AFL-CIO reports that 10 million Americans who want to work are now out of work. Millions of Americans are losing their retirement savings. And 40 million Americans still have no health security — no health insurance. But, presuming to spur economic progress, Congress last year projected tax cuts that, over the next decade, will provide that same wealthiest 1 percent of Americans with about 500 billion dollars in tax breaks.

So, yes, we have lots of unfinished business, that is, if we really care about the gospel of the “Carpenter of Nazareth.”

We Americans proudly proclaim a government based on God given human rights.

Walter Rauschenbusch, the great Baptist theologian of the Social Gospel, is also one of the saints portrayed in the Cathedral’s Labor Window, in the same lancet of that window as the Prophet Amos. Walter Rauschenbusch wrote way back in 1912:

Political democracy without economic democracy is an uncashed promissory note, a pot without the roast, a form without substance. Economic democracy means: control by the people over their own livelihood.

In more recent years, one church body after another has picked up the theme of economic democracy. But many of our political leaders have been slow to respond — perhaps because many of our church members have been slow to respond.

In 1986, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States issued a splendid pastoral letter titled Economic Justice for All. That pastoral letter affirmed “the rights to life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care and basic education” as “indispensable to the protection of human dignity.” Then, after referring to our American constitutional heritage of civil liberties, the bishops went on to declare: “We believe the time has come … [to secure] economic rights, the creation of an order that guarantees the minimum conditions of human dignity in the economic sphere for every person.”

I believe the bishops have been listening to the voices of Amos and Jesus.

“We believe the time has come,” said the Catholic bishops, but that was sixteen years ago. Dear friends, do you believe? Is this the time? Do you believe economic democracy is a clear implication of the gospel of Jesus, the carpenter? And is it just possible that this sacrament of bread and drink and human solidarity in which we are about to share has something to do with “economic justice for all”?

In Jesus’ name, we ask and we pray. Amen.