Of One Mind, with Fear and Trembling, And Other Good Stuff

Paul at Philippi

Luke in Acts 16 gives us the picture of Paul’s visit to the city of Philippi in response to a dream in which a man appeared asking him to come over to Macedonia, thus creating Philippi as the first beachhead for Paul on the European continent.

Philippi, named after himself by Philip, the father of Alexander the Great in 356 BC had in 168 BC become part of the Roman Empire. By the time of Paul’s arrival around 49AD, the city had a mixed population of Greeks and Romans.

After his arrival, Luke tells us that Paul went outside the city and there encountered a group of women among whom Lydia, possibly a convert to Judaism, but most probably a Gentile, sympathetic to Judaism becomes a pivotal figure for him in the Philippi mission. We know she was a wealthy woman in her right because Luke tells us that she was a dealer in purple cloth, the most expensive kind. After listening to Paul she and her whole household were baptized.

At Philippi, another powerful event took place with serious consequences for Paul and Silas when they encountered a slave girl possessed by a demonic ability to tell the future. They prayed for her deliverance and when the demon left her, so did her power to tell the future. This landed Paul and Silas in serious trouble with the girl’s owner. As a result, they were arrested and thrown into prison. While in prison an earthquake shattered the doors, but instead of fleeing Paul and Silas remained to share the gospel with the amazed and grateful jailor. He also was baptized. Having protested his Roman citizenship, Paul was released by the magistrates and returned to Lydia’s villa for the duration of the rest of his short stay in Philippi.

Paul’s authorship of Philippians is not the subject of serious dispute among Biblical scholars. Philippians is a letter or maybe a series of letters later edited into one, written while Paul was imprisoned, though the location of his imprisonment is debated. The main purpose of the letter seems to be to address discord among the Philippian Christians.

In Philippians 2:1-13 Paul pens words of such power and beauty that they became a universal hymn in the Early Church. Compared with the later philosophical complexities of the Nicene Creed, Paul encapsulates the essence of the Incarnation in words of poetic simplicity.

Paul implores the Philippians to be of the same mind and to ensure that their common mind reflects the values and attitudes displayed by Jesus. On the face of it, it’s a simple enough request. Simple statements are often the most open to widely differing interpretations.

The problem addressed

Even in Paul’s world, there existed news and fake news. Who were the Philippians to listen to? Who were they to believe –  Paul or the teaching of the Judaizes – Christian missionaries who preached gentile conformity to the Law of Moses?

Interestingly, Paul does not assert his doctrine over that of the false teachers. At least in this instance, Paul seems to realize that no Philippian mind was likely to be changed through impassioned argument.

Instead, Paul reminds his readers of the intimacy he enjoys with them. He assures them of his continued love and concern for them, despite the drastic situation he finds himself in. Such love is clearly mutual, evidenced by the Philippians sending Paul one of their own, Epaphroditus to assist him in his imprisonment. It’s probable that Paul composes his letter to be taken back by Epaphroditus on his return to Philippi.

Paul’s substantive point

Paul asks the Philippians to reject the spirit of individualism, a powerful counterforce to relationship building. He asks them to put personal ambition and conceit aside, regarding one another with a humility that sees one’s own interests as intertwined with the interests of others. In short, he is asking them to open to the possibilities of a common vision the blueprint for which was to be found in Jesus’ relationship with God.

What do we hear?

Paul recognized the powerful forces working against his vision for the Philippians. Today we can easily see the effect of equally powerful, polarizing influences dividing us from one another and working against the rebuilding of a common vision in society. In their modern guise, the equivalents of the Judaizers of Paul’s time continue in the cultural expressions of Christianity that are little more than a baptism of contemporary society’s popular social values.

The baptism of contemporary values can take a number of differing forms. There is the very popular and smug wealth-righteous feel-goodness of the Joel Osteen’s, for there are many who embrace this facile creed. There is the espousal of condemnatory hatred for difference of which Roy Moore is but the latest poster boy for a Christianity marked by its narrow intolerance, and message of exclusion. There is yet another form of cultural baptism, one that perhaps at St Martin’s we are more aligned with. This is the baptism of post-Enlightenment, ethical reason, expressive of a belief in the moral and ethical superiority of liberal, inclusive values. This is the Christianity of the good and the reasonable, whose sense of moral satisfaction leaves little room for the God Paul preached.

Here’s Paul speaking:

Though in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God something to be exploited. He did not stand on his superior status but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.

The primacy of relationship with God is the basis upon which Paul issues his heartfelt plea to the Philippians. The relationship between Christians, Paul contends, must always be modeled on the relationship Jesus shared with God:

For being born as a human being, Jesus humbled himself, and became obedient even to the point of death, and not just any death but death on a cross.  

Hence, our humanity is defined not by our God-like aspiration, which is a kind of deluded omnipotence, but through our sacrificial action of service to, and for, one another.

In Jesus, we have our blueprint of God’s vision for humanity, a vision in which humility and obedience become the hallmarks.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you.

Do we have the courage to approach the practice of our faith in a spirit of fear and trembling, allowing God greater scope to work in, and through, us? Fear and trembling here do not mean fearfulness or weakness, but possessing a spirit of respectful listening to God, of being open to the intimations of the divine, through which a growing conscious awareness of God begins to reshape us. It is not what we do that matters, but what we allow God to accomplish, working in, and through, us.




“The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs, Assistant Priest.

Jesus must have known that you don’t argue with grapes. When they’re ready, they’re ready. Now. The sugar is right, the tannins are right. Laborers need to be available at a moment’s notice to bring in the harvest quickly –often as early as 3:00 a.m. to get started while it’s still reasonably cool. Jesus’ parable of the vineyard depicts a landowner who knew the pressure of time and the race against nature to make good wine. But this landowner is a little unusual. That’s because this is a parable.

“The Kingdom of God is like…” When you hear those six words it’s time to fasten your seatbelts.

As you probably know, most of Jesus’ parables drew upon themes that were common to his audience—things they identified with, like family relationships, herding sheep, farming. But there was always a twist—otherwise it wasn’t a parable. He wouldn’t say “The Kingdom of God is like a shepherd who has sheep, now everyone go home.“ and leave it at that. The parable by definition challenges the status quo, not confirms it. Parables challenge the audience’s expectation of what they already know about sheep herding, or fishing. Or vineyards. Or economics. Or fairness. Or community.

The beauty and the curse of parables is that they can be interpreted in so many ways. One of the early takes on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard posits the laborers as different communities of the people of God: Those who came earliest to work were a metaphor for the Jews, and those who came later were the Gentiles. The conflict, then, was over who had greater rights to the Kingdom of God, and the challenge lay in understanding that the Gentiles’ claim was equal to the that of the Jews.

Another interpretation is economic; the parable proposes that the Landowner/God employs an economic model that turns current models –of payment proportional to work–on their ear. In other words, God’s economy is not the same as ours: God is generous, which is not necessarily the same as fair. And we are left to wrestle with how to live into that idea.

I have no argument with either of these interpretations. Each is a product of its historical/political/cultural context, and context is crucial to how we interrogate and are challenged by what we read.

The context in which we read the parable of the laborers today is the context of this particular day in history, in this church, in this service. Today we find the Gospel neatly in conversation with the passage from Exodus about the Israelites’ whining and God’s response of manna in the wilderness. This story isn’t just about food. It’s about the people’s relationship with God–about the enoughness of God. It’s about God’s call to look beyond the tyranny of fear of scarcity toward the promised land of a liberating trust in God’s abiding love. God says, “I am enough. YOU are enough—you are my children.”

Now when we look at the parable of the laborers, we see that they, like the Israelites, have a complaint, and it is summed up in three words: “It’s not fair!” It’s not fair that THEY get more than we do! WE worked harder! They aren’t equal to us! Notice the exact phrasing: “You have made them equal to us…” Not, “you have paid them equally”, but “you have MADE them equal…” Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference, but perhaps it points us to an interpretation that isn’t purely economic. What if the challenge of this parable, like the story of the manna, isn’t just an issue osubsistence? ? Perhaps Jesus has taken the concept of enoughness and expanded it? The people of Israel were reassured of God’s provision to them, and that was enough for the people at that point in their journey and history. But then Jesus seeks to take that concept and tweak it—to take it to a new level. In his parable he’s not just calling his hearers to think about themselves in relationship to God, but also around themselves, into their relationship with others.

The key to this lies in the final words of the passage: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

“The Kingdom of heaven is like…”

When I was a kid I used to love to ponder the old question, “Who came first, the chicken or the egg?” I loved watching in my head as the paradox went around and around…, in a loop of causation that never ended, the images ever-filling and ever-emptying, one always dependent on the other.

“The last will be first and the first will be last.”

I used to think about these words just like the chicken and the egg. If the first is last and the last is first, then when the first becomes last then it has to be first again, and the first has to be last…” And around and around it goes. It was great fun for a distractible kid.

What is the Kingdom of Heaven like?

The Kingdom of Heaven is like…a landowner who provides enough—a daily wage—for his laborers, and challenges them to see one another in a less competitive and more mutually dependent relationship. A relationship where envy and fear of scarcity give way to trust.

“You have made them equal to us…” Well yes. That’s the point, and the challenge of the parable. All children of God, and all with gifts to offer one another in the work that needs to be done in the world.

The laborers know better than to argue with the grapes. But they also have to learn that they need each other to get the whole crop in by nightfall. Some are better at cutting the grapes from the vine, while others have stronger backs to carry heavy baskets. The ones with fresh hands and feet can relieve those with blisters and aches. It takes all of them to complete the harvest. – together.

So to see this parable as a simple economic inversion is to rob it of some of its richness. It’s not just about payment for work. Yes, God is gracious and generous in ways that only God knows. But the generosity of God extends beyond substance and subsistence into relationship. We need to see, not simply a single static instance of inversion, but the dynamic movement of interdependence—of mutual strength and vulnerability that complement and nurture each other.

That’s what the Kingdom is like.

Our default position is to scoff at this as idealistic, unrealistic and naïve. One look at the headlines will suggest that the Kingdom that Jesus invites us into is a pipe dream. You would be forgiven for skepticism. Believe me, there are days when the idealist in me is sorely, sorely challenged.

But it’s really important not to let that negative mindset take control. We have to fight sometimes to see the Kingdom breaking through, but this parable tells us what to look for. And when you seek, you find.

I found Gould Farm is in western Massachusetts. When I visited the farm and began to learn more about it, that is when this parable came into new focus.

Gould Farm is not a new thing: One hundred years ago Will and Agnes Gould established a community of healing in the Berkshires; a place where people with emotional and psychiatric vulnerabilities could come and find healing in a setting that focused on work, therapy, kindness and community. The patients, called guests, do much of the work of the farm and its companion bakery and restaurant, guided by supervisors who depend on them in order to provide a livelihood for the community. Clinical staff work with the guests, and live on the farm as part of that community. Everyone cooperates in a nurturing cycle in which each person depends upon others and is likewise depended upon by others.

The first shall be last and the last shall be first, shall be last…shall be first…

And you know what the motto of Gould Farm is?

“We harvest hope.” Not grapes– Better. Healing and wholeness.

In his e-news epistle this week Father Mark wrote that the challenges of our time call for more than individual action; they require efforts of collective imagination—new visions of community. Gould Farm is one such community. It’s not a parable pipe dream—it’s a harvest of hope, and God knows it’s not the only one out there.

As a matter of fact, we can see it here this morning when we learn more about the work of Youth in Action, whose leader and members are here today with a new exhibit and information about an initiative that seeks to bring the community together around issues crucial to the well-being of our society and common life. I’m delighted to see this opportunity for new relationship, and I pray that it will be fruitful for the young people of our community, and for all of us.

The harvest is ready. Don’t argue with the Hope.



God, Breaking out

Through a glass, darkly

Forgiveness runs contrary to self-interest, whereas judgment is instinctual. In Romans, Paul speaks of a community as a place where we are faced with having to tolerate difference – or not, as more often the case may be. Toleration of difference seems to run contrary to our natural instincts while fear and judgment seem to be our natural inclinations. The toleration of difference requires reframing the instinctual desire to condemn. Have you noticed how much condemnation and judgment is in the Bible?

If we read the Bible as if God is the author, then we can’t but help notice that God appears to be rather too much like ourselves for comfort. For like us, God appears incredibly inconsistent – mostly judgmental, yet unpredictably forgiving.

Are the images of God we encounter in the Bible God’s self-representation, unchanging for all time? To approach the Bible in this way is very dispiriting. How can we have any confidence in being loved and accepted by such an unpredictable and inconsistent figure, the very worst kind of parental model?

Alternatively, we can read the Bible as the record of its human authors’ picturing of God. Such imaginings are always limited by the human writers’ historically and culturally shaped experience and expectations. This is why the Bible is so amazing because it presents a long historical record of how God gradually emerges into human consciousness within Israel’s particular history. God seems to grow and change in sync with the development of Israelite experience, because although human authors’ project themselves onto God, God rebuffs their projections by acting in unanticipated ways.

As the Biblical images of God develop and deepen over time, the Bible’s human authors’ gain a little distance from their own projections to discover something new about God. Through behaving unexpectedly, God shows each generation that the divine nature is always more than we can imagine.

The Bible Challenge is aptly named. However, the challenge lies not in meeting the daily commitment of reading so much Scripture, although at times it can feel like this. No, the challenge lies in encountering the Israelite authors’ images of God – images that are not in sync with our 21st-century imagination.

Day 120 brings us to the First Book of Kings. On the way to this point, God has emerged repeatedly as a contradictory tyrant who on the one hand is a liberator, and on the other hand, is a genocidal tyrant. God seems to be a very human figure, by turns angry and then merciful, condemning and then forgiving; who turns a blind eye to the unspeakable abuse of women and the ruthless politically motivated murder of rivals.

It’s difficult to share the conservative fundamentalist defense of the Bible as a rulebook for family values and modern good government.

The parable of the forgiving king

One commentator on this parable in Matthew 18 asks:

“Could it be that judgment is something we do to ourselves when we face the infinite love of God who does not judge, because God, after all, forgives even unpayable debt and sin?” [1]

How do we who are prone to harsh judgments experience the novelty of being forgiven? The unforgiving steward in this parable is a case study in the human response to being forgiven, offering insight into the unconscious rage that being forgiven can provoke.

To be forgiven that which we are powerless in any case to repay is both liberating and humiliating.

This story is set in a world where the economic structure of society is predicated on the continual flow of wealth from the 99% at the base, upwards through the layers of the hierarchical pyramid to those in the top1%. Each successive layer of the social hierarchy is organized to exploit those beneath it for the benefit of those above it.

The king is at the top of the 1%, and immediately below him is his steward who is also still part of the 1%. The impossible size of the steward’s debt indicates that this is not a personal debt, i.e. money he borrowed from the king, but maybe something akin to the national debt that he is responsible for collecting and delivering to the king. Although the direction of the flow of revenue is always upwards, at each level the collectors take their cut. This story is a vignette of the economic exploitation that characterizes non-egalitarian societies.

This is a particular kind of story called a parable. A parable is a teaching tool that exploits what’s familiar from the hearer’s everyday life to make an unexpected point. In this parable, the king acts unexpectedly.

The steward is the immediate beneficiary of the king’s action, for which he is grovelingly thankful. But he remains unchanged by the king’s generosity. Once he leaves the throne room he continues with his conventional expectations of business, as usual, evidenced by his behavior towards the steward immediately under him. It is this, his remaining unchanged by generosity, that leads to his eventual condemnation and punishment.

We can pride ourselves on being cleverer than the unjust steward, leading us to feel morally superior and judgmental towards him. We quickly perceive that the king is modeling an action intended to be the blueprint for forgiveness and generosity.

That’s because, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the forgiving king is Jesus’ metaphor for a new and radical image of God that breaks open the limited imaginations of his 1st-century hearers’.

With 20/20 hindsight, we recognize that this is a story about human resistance to being changed by gratitude. Authentic gratitude changes us because it motivates in us new expressions of generosity. Yet, understanding this, in theory, so to speak, is one thing, but letting it have the power to actually change us, is another.

Let’s not feel too clever because there is a message in this parable that we probably will miss. Our imaginations are shaped by a cultural focus on accountability as a personal and individual matter. Whether we act on it or not we get the point that when we locate God as the source of our gratitude we become less likely to pass up an opportunity to for generous action. Yet, there’s a deeper interpretation that takes the meaning of this parable far beyond the sphere of individual generosity.

David Brooks writing in the New York Times last week noted:

“People are still good at acting individually to tackle problems. Look at how many Houstonians leapt forth to care for their neighbors. But we have trouble with collective action, with building new institutions, or reviving old ones, that are big enough to deal with the biggest challenges”.

Viewed politically, the king’s action is an upending of the economic system. Leading by example, his action is intended to suggest a different and more collectively sensitive vision of God. How many of us are ready for the implications of this for our own society? As David Books suggests, not many of us, it seems.

Both Matthew and Paul in the readings for Sunday are showing how God by acting in unanticipated ways administers a seismic shock to the human ordering of things. Jesus presents a vision of a God of limitless forgiveness. This changes everything in the trajectory of Israel’s story, leading Paul to envision communities where people refrain from judgment about petty rules and learn to tolerate difference. Thus a step change was brought about in human consciousness awareness of God out of which, new images of God emerged that were big enough to deal with the new challenges of a post-Jesus world.

Might this parable become more for us than we otherwise imagine? Could it speak to our period of upheaval and crisis, catapulting us into a step change that will enable our collective imagination to build new institutions, or to revive old ones that are big enough to deal with the momentous challenges facing us today?

Belonging to-gather


As we journey soon into the new beginnings of post-Labor Day autumn, what will it mean to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus? More, certainly, than giving up a few things; more than suffering as part of the human condition; more than moving forward on new paths—peering into autumn’s transitions, we belong to one another.  Matthew Skinner

Today’s episode in Matthew

In Matthew chapter 18, Matthew puts words into Jesus’ mouth that reflect issues in his community. Yet, his words are consistent with the way Jesus would have approached differences as he addresses how his disciples are to behave towards one another as they begin to travel with him on the road to Jerusalem. One might imagine that his comments are particularly addressed to the process by which the disciples will negotiate differences and conflict between them.

If Skinner’s assertion that we belong to one another is to have any meaning then we have to understand Jesus’ teaching on our responsibility to one another, and our individual accountability for one another, especially around issues of difference and potential conflict.

“No one is going to tell me what to do”, we mutter to ourselves and, “if I find I don’t like it, then I will just leave”.

In a culture where Episcopalians have come to treat membership of the Church as another version of our membership of any number of voluntary and non-profit organizations, the idea that we are responsible for, and accountable to, one another rings alarm bells. Leaving is often our solution of choice when faced with the inevitability of conflict in our social worlds.

I love Rick Morley’s tongue in cheek characterization of so much of our behavior in the Christian community in a blog entitled Before you un-friend [1]:

If another member of the church sins against you…just talk about them behind their back. If another member of the church sins against you…just call a bunch of people in the church to complain about them. You may even want to start a letter-writing campaign against them. If another member of the church sins against you…just send them a nasty email. Copy the clergy. And, while you’re at it, CC the bishop. If another member of the church sins against you…don’t say anything. Just avoid them. Unfriend them on Facebook. And, if you can’t avoid them on Sundays, then just leave the church

Matthew 18: 15-20 has become ingrained in our collective unconscious as the epitome of the abusive and oppressive way religious communities treat individuals and the way we pass this abuse on in our treatment of one another. These verses are the basis of the practice in some religious communities called shunning. Shunning is a form of officially sanctioned scapegoating.

For not to

We don’t particularly care for the experience of being accountable to another person, especially if the other seems to be just like us, with no more nor less claim to authority than we possess. Yet, what happens if we read Matthew within a new frame created by substituting the word to with the word for?

I take Jesus to mean that within our community life we are to be accountable for one another. This means looking out for one another. Sometimes, looking out for one another involves addressing behaviors that are harmful to relationships between individuals. Sometimes, looking out for one another makes it necessary to challenge one another when if left unchallenged, our behavior might endanger the stability of the whole community.


Watch our for your verbs

We should not be surprised when we disagree with one another. Conflict is rarely the problem, but fear of conflict often is. Fear of conflict makes us secretive and avoidant. It cultivates an atmosphere of paranoia in groups and communities.

We might take particular note of Jesus’ final words in this section. He does not say where two or three agree in my name – he says where two or three gather in my name, I am there among them. the only agreement necessary is the agreement to gather. This is why despite our differences, worship has always been the glue for gathering in Anglican communities.

In The Essential Ingredient, David Lose commenting on Matthew 18:15-20 asks:[2]

So what kind of community do we want from our congregation — largely social, images-2somewhat superficial (which is, of course, safe)? Do we want something more meaningful or intimate (which is riskier and harder)? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference? 


These are great questions on Homecoming Sunday when: peering into autumn’s transitions, we find that we belong to one another.  


The Bible Challenge, Day 110 editorial comment

Luke, in Acts chapter 7 reports the death of Stephen. Stephen was one of those who in chapter 6 we learned were entrusted with the social and pastoral support of the members of the community, especially among the poorer Hebrew Christians. These men were called servants or diakonoi and are the first in the ministry of those today we call deacons.

Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council where he retells the history of Israel. Stephen’s speech is reminiscent of the long speeches that occur in Exodus and Judges in which Israelite history is rehearsed for the benefit of the people, lets they forget their origins as those whom God brought out of slavery in Egypt.

Every time Hebrew history is rehearsed it’s always to make a particular point. With Stephen we get a good view of how the first generation of Christians related to the Hebrew Scriptures. They were incredibly inventive. Unlike us to day, they did not feel constrained to paint only within the lines of conventional interpretation.  For the early Christians, Jesus had changed the course of Jewish history and vastly expanded the destiny of Abraham’s children.

Luke employs the literary convention of rehearsing Israel’s history throughout the early chapters of Acts. When Peter addresses the authorities he, like Stephen begins with historical rehearsal as the basis of introducing a new twist to account for the effect of Jesus. It’s this new twist that gets them into trouble. The purpose of Stephen’s rehearsal of history is to land in a new and different place in order to explain how Jesus has changed everything. So we see Stephen landing on the theme of the Jews rejection of their prophets, and so their rejection of Jesus was nothing new. Now, stung by his words, his hearers become consumed with murderous intent.

The purpose of Stephen’s rehearsal of history is to land in a new and different place in order to explain how Jesus has changed everything. The purpose of Stephen’s rehearsal of the story all his hearers already knew by heart was to land on the theme of the Jews rejection of their prophets. This is the point he wants to bring out about Jesus. He is saying you killed him like you killed or rejected all the prophets before him. So their rejection of Jesus was nothing new. This is too much for his religious hearers. Stung by his words, they become consumed with murderous intent.

When we rehearse the history of God’s relationship with Israel, what is our 21st-century twist that leads us to land on a point of particular emphasis? What do we hear in the story and what conclusion does it lead us to that informs us of God’s presence among us?

Luke concludes chapter 7 with one seemingly insignificant detail. He tells us that the man entrusted with holding the cloaks of the men who stone Stephen is one call Saul. Luke’s introduction of this seemingly insignificant bystander prepares us for a dramatic shift taking his narrative of the early days of the church in a new direction.

Signs of Hope Amid Crisis

I look forward to Labor Day weekend. Who does not enjoy a 3-day break? Although in my case, because my day off is Monday, 3-day weekends are somewhat compromised for me. Yet, I rejoice in them because I know that many of the people I live and work among will enjoy three consecutive days of relaxation as summer ebbs into autumn.

Coming from the UK, where we enjoy six 3-day or bank holiday weekends, two additional public holidays – Good Friday being one, and an average of 3 – 4 weeks of paid vacation leave a year, I am appalled by American attitudes to time off. The average vacation leave in the US is 11 days a year. I wonder why it never occurs to us that falling productivity, increasing family and marital breakdown, rising tides of depression, suicide, and addiction, and rising civic strife are not recognized as the fruits of a work system that denies hope to many through the low pay and long hours that reflect an exploitative use of human beings? So, I am appreciative for the Labor Day weekend.

As summer ebbs into Autumn the Labor Day Weekend is a chance for last visits to the beach, or forests, for family and community barbeques; each occasion a reminder to us that these activities are winding down for another year.

How many of us know, let alone remember the origins of the day we celebrate as an extra day of leisure? Let me cite from the US Department of Labor website:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well being of our country.


Through the years the nation gave increasing emphasis to Labor Day. The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From these, a movement developed to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

In 1993 on the 100th anniversary of organized labor in Rhode Island the following appeared in the Old Rhode Island publication:

In the midst of the financial panic of 1893, Rhode Island workers secured a long-sought ambition—the establishment of the first Monday in September as a legal holiday. The state’s horny-fisted sons and daughters of toil had marched, petitioned, and agitated for over a decade. Rhode Island workers witnessed New York and Oregon pass holiday legislation in 1887, and by the spring of 1893 most other states had followed suit. The General Assembly, under the prodding of elected representatives from various mill towns, finally joined the bandwagon, and Governor D. Russell Brown signed the authorization.

Rerum Novarum (from its first two words, Latin for “of revolutionary change”, or Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor, is an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII on 15 May 1891. It was an open letter, passed to all Catholic Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops and bishops that addressed the condition of the working classes.

Rerum Novarum discussed the relationships and mutual duties between labor and capital, as well as government and its citizens. Of primary concern was the need for some amelioration of The misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.” It supported the rights of labor to form unions, rejected socialism and unrestricted capitalism, whilst affirming the right to private property.

John Paul II on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum issued Centesimus Annus in which he said:

Man [sic] fulfills himself by using his intelligence and freedom. In so doing he utilizes the things of this world as objects and instruments and makes them his own. The foundation of the right to private initiative and ownership is to be found in this activity. By means of his work, man commits himself, not only for his own sake but also for others and with others. Each person collaborates in the work of others and for their good. Man works in order to provide for the needs of his family, his community, his nation, and ultimately all humanity.

Judaism and Christianity both understand labor as the source of all wealth. Labor bestows dignity on the human person. Labor is the basis for all human flourishing. Core psychological needs for human beings comprise someone to love and be loved by, a safe place to live, an activity that brings meaning and purpose. If labor is right up there among the conditions supportive of human flourishing it must nevertheless be balanced by leisure. Work and leisure in a balanced relationship contribute to a life of well being.

Marx defined capital as stored labor. I am fully aware that in citing Marx and advocating for a need of balance between labor and leisure in our contemporary social climate, I will be dismissed by some, as a Marxist. Yet, as over 100 years of Catholic social teaching asserts, to champion the rights of workers, to assert the dignity of labor, and to confront the abuses of labor at the hands of unrestrained capitalism is not Marxism, but Christianity! I am not advocating the abolition of capital but for a reclaiming of the true soul of capital. The generation of capital is part of a holistic system in which the role of capital is to support the maintenance of the common wealth.

In their current statement on the dignity of work and the rights of workers the US Conference of Catholic Bishops cite 13 Biblical references in support of their affirmation that:

The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected–the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.

As a society, America finds balancing competing needs difficult because competition and the adversarial spirit are intrinsic to the way we view our individual and collective social life. The true meaning of the word com-petition  is to strive together. In our society competition describes the way individuals and groups strive against each other.

A society where the sole purpose of the capitalist enterprise is the maximizing of shareholder returns obscures the reality that capital is stored labor and those whose labor contributes to the generation of wealth deserve far greater respect and enjoyment of the benefits. This is not simply an altruistic idea, it is the necessity for a well ordered and stable society.

Any casual observer of our socio-political scene must conclude that a house divided against itself cannot long stand. The results of the last electoral cycle is a registration of widespread and deep dissatisfaction with the state of our society – our common wealth, where the rights and dignity of ordinary people whose only resource is the sale of their labor, energy, and talent are routinely exploited and abused.

We arrive at the paradox of voting into power, again and again, those who lack the talent, experience, and most shockingly of all, the vision and will to recognize that the accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense of ordinary people has clear ethical limits. These ethics are rooted in our deeper religious traditions of a just society.

In Exodus 3:1-15 God tells Moses:

I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.

God is attentive to those who are denied justice. Liberator is one of the core names claimed by God.

In Romans 12:9-21 Paul invites us to:

Let our love be genuine, hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good: love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another is showing honor. … Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you, do not curse them.

Paul appeals to the creation of communities where justice is the systemic expression of love.

This year’s Labor Day Weekend occurs within the context of environmental disturbance on a monumental scale along the Gulf Coast and now further inland. I will confine myself to two comments.

Firstly, Joel Osteen, the millionaire megachurch evangelist told Houstonians to not fear, for “God’s got this”. My hope is that many will finally wake up and realize that Osteen’s is a profoundly corrupted theology of God that is at odds not only with Judeo-Christian Tradition but flies in the face of the experience ordinary people have in the world. God does not cause hurricanes and so God is not in control of them. Even the rich, those in Osteen’s eyes who are right with God, this time took a hit. Explain that away, Joel.

Secondly, Texas is synonymous with a culture that champions the American idea of competition as each individual for him and herself. Yet, in the face of disaster, the communitarian action of Texans in selfless support for one another reveals something deeper about how people really experience one another. Texans can pride themselves not on their spirit rugged individualism, but on their communitarian actions of compassion.

It’s only together that we can realize Paul’s injunction to:

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

In the midst of unparalleled disaster hope triumphs through the solidarity of one human being with another. Alongside the tragic loss of life, the disruption to livelihood, the destruction of property, the demonstration of hope through solidarity shows us new possibilities for the future of our society. Is this not the central reason for real rejoicing this Labor Day Weekend.

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