I spent two years in Madison, Wisconsin, working towards a masters degree in history. In order to pay for my program, I worked four jobs : I worked in an italian deli stocking the freezer and making mufulettas; I took notes on an African storytelling class for the African Studies department; I wrote the history of a Sunday school program at a large Congregational church celebrating it’s 200th anniversary; and I worked as the assistant director of a summer camp. Grad school remains a bit of a blur to me. I didn’t sleep much.
I smelled like Italian dressing most of the time. But I did get my masters’ degree.
While I loved doing research at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and I was pretty good at making mufulettas, it was the camp that won my heart. I left grad school feeling called to work with young people, to help them find meaning and see their lives as connected to the greater good. I had learned something about my vocation.
Vocation is our calling to live into our gifts so that we bring hope and healing into the world. All of us have vocation(s). No one vocation holier than another.
God’s dream for all of us is work that is life-giving for us and healing for the world, serving our neighbor and knitting together the fabric of community. This is what it means to store up treasure in heaven.
Our work matters to God. Liturgy – the work of the people – honors God and provides us a weekly meditation on the dignity of labor. We need the musician, the chalice bearer, the greeter, the child placing food in the basket, the altar guild member preparing the table.
The Bread and wine brought forward at the offertory are signs of all our labor. Each of these labors is a gift to God in itself, and each one signifies work we do elsewhere and invites us to consider whether and how we are agents of reconciliation..
All of this is lovely and true, but it’s not enough on this Labor Day weekend in the year of our Lord 2017. So now, let’s take this theologically tidy balloon about vocation and labor and liturgy and tie it to the real world. It’s especially important for us, as Episcopalians to do this, as we were pretty late to the Labor Day parade.
Labor Day began as a call from Labor Unions to celebrate the contribution workers make to the prosperity of our country – carpenters, joiners, machinists, meat-packers, railroad workers. When Labor Day began in the 1890s, workers in so many quickly growing and unregulated industries were fighting for decent wages and safe conditions as they did grueling labor to build our cities and grow our economy. And they were negotiating for all of this with owners, investors, managers and congressmen, many of whom showed up every Sunday morning at Episcopal churches.
J.P. Morgan, Eli Lily, the Astors, the Vanderbilts – Some of these people were generous, in their own way, giving money for civic improvements and social uplift, and some, like Eli Lily, were in favor of government regulations to make products safer. But in general, these captains of industry and finance and the general run-of-the-mill Episcopalian of the late 19th and early 20th century lived lives removed from the toil and dangers of the working class, and did not see the immigrants from southern Europe and Ireland bending over dangerous machines and living in urban squalor as their neighbors.
And the churches these and many other Episcopalians worshiped in, not only in the South but also in New England, were often built with money gained from participation in the slave trade. Slave ships built in Boston were supplied and dispatched from Rhode Island to bring Africans to America as part of the triangle trade. Families involved with this trade gave generously to build magnificent houses of worship. Many churches in our province have begun to acknowledge and repent of this legacy – a tip of the iceberg of ways in which our denomination has not lived into the pronouncement in today’s gospel: you cannot serve God and wealth.
It was only with the revision of the prayer book in the late 1970s that the Episcopal Church added a provision for the observance of Labor Day. The collect we started with today was written for that 1979 prayer book. And it is only in recent decades that the Episcopal Church has begun rising to the call to store up treasures in heaven by protecting the rights of workers, fight modern day slavery, and honor all vocations as holy callings worthy of honor. We have a long way to go, not only in terms of our work in the world, but also in our own internal practices. Wage disparity between male and female priests, urban and suburban priests, and white and minority priests mirror those in other major professions.
So I think it’s important for us, in particular, to keep this feast – to celebrate Labor Day – but to do so with humility and repentance, and to do so curious about what it should look like for us to truly embrace our calling to serve God, not wealth. To use it as as an opportunity to reflect on how our labor – paid or unpaid – stores up riches in heaven – riches like justice, healing, and joy for our neighbor, for our community, for the global community.
And on this weekend in particular, we do all this holding in our awareness the extraordinary labor offered this week in Houston and the Gulf Coast by rescue workers, medics, firefighters, Red Cross volunteers, churches, synagogues and mosques, Coast Guard and FEMA workers, and so many others who have tirelessly worked to save lives, feed and comfort the displaced, and transport pets and livestock to safety. At the offertory, you will be invited to the work of cutting a check to support this labor – A check to Episcopal Relief and Development, which will fund work spearheaded by the Diocese of Texas in the affected areas. These funds are not to rebuild church buildings but to bring direct relief to people in the area, regardless of their faith. The Diocese of Texas has already provided temporary housing for 50 families, and they are recruiting volunteers to help clean out homes and deploying trained, spiritual care teams to reach out to people evacuated to the George R. Brown Convention Center and in other hard-hit areas. These teams are also distributing gift cards to help with purchasing food, basic supplies and necessities.
We serve a God who chose to come to earth in the form of a carpenter. His coming was announced by shepherds. This carpenter selected fishermen, mothers and tax collectors to work with him and sent them out to preach and heal. The good news of God’s love through this carpenter was shared with the world by Paul, a tentmaker. The early Christians were fed and housed by Lydia, a trader in indigo, and funded by Dorcas, a seamstress. Today, as we feast on the bread made by Sandy and brought forward by our greeters to signify all the work of our hands, all our labors, let us rededicate ourselves to our individual vocations and to our collective vocation to be the body of Christ, in communion with all these early laborers, and in the service of all of God’s people.