Responsive Call to Worship
On this Labor Day Weekend,
we celebrate work—
whether that’s a job or school—
paid or not—in an office or at home or in the field—
white collar—blue collar—
we celebrate work
as privilege, as responsibility and as opportunity—
even as we rest from work.
We marvel at what can be accomplished working together,
and, given that, lament what all has not been accomplished.
In our worship, we name God’s work
a manifestation of God’s will—
an expression of God’s being,
and name our claim
to seek the will of God
to do the work of God
to be transparent to who and how God is.
May it be so.
May the claim we name
be our word made flesh day by day.
Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep,
and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks
when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.
I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered
on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them
from the countries, and will bring them into their own land;
and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel,
by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land.
I will feed them with good pasture,
and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture;
there they shall lie down in good grazing land,
and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,
and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.
I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak,
but the fat and the strong I will destroy.
I will feed them with justice.
Today, our God, we pray
with images of Syrian refugees burned into our minds—
juxtaposed with images of our own families—our own children.
So aware of families risking everything for a future
better than—safer than—more hopeful than their present.
May we who follow You—
You as the God who always said welcome the alien in your midst,
may we be counted among those asking
what does it cost our humanity,
and what does it cost our faith,
not to be a voice both of outrage and welcome and help?
What does it cost our humanity and our faith
not to expect grace—
not to expect grace to overcome logistics and details—
not to pay the cost for being who we like to think we are?
It is so complicated.
Let that not be an excuse to not work for transformation—
for a future better than—safer than—more hopeful than the present.
We’re better than this.
Our story is better than this.
May we live into the bigness,
and not allow the smallnesses to stifle our truth.
This we pray in the name of the one
who was not into excuses for his faith,
but into an incarnation of it,
Witness of Communion
We’re putting communion in the middle of worship.
Isn’t that a mean trick to play?
Now it doesn’t mean you’re almost done!
To suggest its centrality as sacrament to worship,
and to actually emphasize less the the old, old story
as to suggest this is our story; this is your story.
You come to this table hungry—
hungry for meaningfulness—
for things to be other than they are,
and it is here
that we are sustained in our hunger
by the stories of God
and the witness and encouragement of the faith community.
We’re glad—so glad you’re hungry for the right things.
But we’re not here to feed you till you want no more.
That would be kind of ludicrous, wouldn’t it,
with the morsel of bread and the sip of juice?
No, we’re here to feed your hunger—
to bless it,
and to send you forth
that in your work in the world,
it might be fulfilled.
Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Today we officially begin our year-long sabbatical from the lectionary—
drawing our worship structure less from the church year,
and more from the cultural year—
asking what’s going on in our culture,
and then what do Scripture and faith have to say in and to that context?
And it’s Labor Day weekend—
the traditional end of summer
and beginning of school.
It’s not the end of the summer,
nor is it the beginning of school,
but it nevertheless serves as sign and symbol of both.
And in so many ways, in our culture, now is the real beginning of the year.
Even though it’s in the very middle of the year.
And originally, we were going to consider beginnings today,
but we’re going to do that next week.
Things will still be beginning then as much as they are today,
and labor day deserves some attention of its own
from the perspective of faith—
from the perspective, dare we say it, of God.
The idea of labor day was first suggested to labor unions in New York City
in the spring of 1882 by either Peter J. McGuire, a carpenter,
or Matthew Maguire, a machinist.
And then several months later, Labor Day was first celebrated,
Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City.
At 10 a.m. that Tuesday morning, there were only 80 gathered at City Hall,
but then 200 jewelers in derby hats, dark suits with buttonhole bouquets
and canes resting on their shoulders marched up.
The parade started and just a few blocks up,
400 bricklayers wearing white aprons came in from a side street
with two wagons on which they had crafted brick arches representing fireplaces.
Machinists, engineers, and blacksmiths wearing heavy leather aprons.
Furniture makers with a wagon carrying a desk
and other office furniture they made.
Piano makers with a wagon with a piano on it,
and someone enthusiastically playing it!
The operative masons and the decorative masons, the dress and cloak makers.
The shoemakers, the cigar makers.
It is reported that a great majority of those marching were smoking cigars!
More and more joining in until there were 10,000 workers marching
through Union Square, up Broadway to 42nd Street
to demonstrate the strength of organized labor,
and as part of its work for better working conditions.
The idea caught on in some of the other industrial centers in the United States—
at first a function of municipal ordinances—
then state legislation—initially in Oregon in 1887,
then in Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.
By the time Congress passed an act in 1894, making it a national holiday,
30 states were already regularly celebrating it.
Here’s the thing: what is now a day off—summer’s last hurrah,
was initially a subversive strategy to confront people with the disregarded truth—
the truth not made manifest, “We’re better than this.”
One of the banners carried that first Labor Day parade up Broadway
read: “Children in Schools and Not in Factories.”
You know what else those radical workers wanted?
An 8 hour work day.
12 was the average, and that was 12 hours, six days a week!
We’re better than this.
There are shadows to our history as a country—
a pattern in which those with power exploit those without.
That goes back to Native Americans—
to Africans and then African-Americans.
To blacks from the Caribbean—
to workers, women and children, immigrants.
We like to think we’re the land of freedom and opportunity for all,
but we haven’t been—
haven’t been the land of freedom and opportunity for all.
And we have to be reminded of who we say we are—
of who we want to think we are
without having to pay the cost of actually being that way.
It’s true for the church too.
Similar shadows in our history—
the same desire to be perceived as in the way of God
without having to pay the cost of being in the way of God,
and the same need for reminders—
we’re better than this.
Our story is bigger than this.
We have too much allowed ourselves,
both as citizens of this country and members of the Church,
the illusion that history is written by the winners.
As, by in large winners, that’s easy.
But history is, in truth, the collected stories of everyone—
including, always, the stories of the least of these.
And our greatness as a country is not based on our standard of living.
It’s not based on our technological accomplishments.
It’s not based on our military prowess.
It’s not based on what we pay actors
and usually big men who play games well.
It’s not based on the luxuries in which some indulge.
In the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt,
“The test of our progress [and our greatness, I would add]
is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much;
it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little”
(Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937).
To the extent that our country and the church have been redeemed,
it’s in that we sometimes listen—eventually—
we sometimes eventually listen—hopefully—
sometimes hopefully eventually listen enough (sometimes just enough)
to the voices of those crying out, “We’re better than this.
Our story is better than this.”
So rather than assuming all is well—
assuming that by virtue of who we are, we do right,
we always need people—need to empower people—
who will consistently remind us—
persistently remind us:
we’re better than this; our story is better than this.
In our faith tradition, we have stories of such people—
be they leaders called by God,
be they prophets,
be they writers of songs,
and in our faith tradition, these are people
more transparent to God.
And so what we’ve noticed before
is that the vocations of these people
themselves become transparent to God—
metaphor for God and for God’s work.
Shepherd, king, farmer, judge, potter, vineyard owner.
God’s not shepherd, king, farmer, judge.
Nor is God potter or vineyard owner.
But they nevertheless all serve as sign and symbol of God.
And amidst the long list of names for God,
it’s fascinating to note some presented in contrast—in juxtaposition.
So in Isaiah 40:9-11, God is named both King and Shepherd—
named from both extremes of the social register.
That’s a provocative juxtaposition.
God is fundamentally identified as light
in whom there is no darkness according to 1 John (1 John 1:5)—
dwelling in unapproachable light according to 1 Timothy (1 Timothy 6:16),
and yet according to 1 Kings, God dwells in thick darkness (1 Kings 8:12)
(and you can also see Exodus 20:21; Psalm 18:9-14; 97:2-4; 139:7-12).
Deuteronomy 32 images God as the rock who is your father
(Deuteronomy 32:4-6) and the rock that bore you—
gave you birth (Deuteronomy 32:18).
So not just God as man, and not just God as woman,
but God as a woman in labor.
Worth noting this particular weekend!
Isaiah images God as a woman in labor too,
with God saying “I will cry out like a woman in labor,
I will gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42:14).
and it struck me—
hang with me here!—it struck me
that we believe the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible,
were edited and written down during the time of Exile—
certainly drawing on older material,
but as a whole “likely dated to the sixth century B.C.
and addressed to exiles”
(Walter Brueggemann, Genesis,
[Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982] 25).
So it’s in the exact same time period,
that we have a people’s sacred texts telling a story
in which the labor of a woman (Eve)
is said to be divine punishment for human disobedience,
that, at the same time, Isaiah—Deutero-Isaiah—Second Isaiah,
writing the same exiles, describes God as a woman in labor!
Taken together, I don’t think these images indicate God
taking on the prescribed divine punishment on behalf of human beings,
though that would, in some circles, as they say, preach.
Nor do I think these images indicate God
identifying with the labor and toil of humanity.
I think these images indicate the absurdity
of taking the Bible as a compendium of images of God written in stone,
instead of as a current
to catch us in an ever-flow of particularity and creativity.
And the juxtapositions and the sheer diversity
are to always point to the need for more—
more names for God—
more juxtapositions for God—
more vocations transparent to God.
I sometimes have the sneaking suspicion—sometimes the fear—
that in our respect and regard for Scripture,
we have entombed it in reverence
instead of allowing it to live and breathe
and reference our own particular lives and times.
I mean, no one wrote scripture, right?
I mean—not meaning to write scripture—
not thinking that’s what they were writing.
“Oh, I’m going to sit down now and write some sacred text.”
No, people wrote of their faith beliefs,
their experiences, their hopes and fears, their sense of God with them,
and those writings came to be recognized as inspired—
inspired by truth—inspired by God.
But what if at least part of the point was for us to be writing our own
instead of just reading theirs?
Maybe these weren’t so much the stories to be told for all time,
but the stories naming truth
so we would know how to tell our own?
What if, again, in the name of respect and reverence,
we have kept calling God shepherd and king, father and mother,
instead of envisioning God as … what?
line worker? engineer? oncological nurse? physical therapist? hospice chaplain?
Raising the question: what about our vocations?
Can they be transparent to God?
To the point that our vocations become metaphors for God?
What does your vocation have to do with God?
How might the way you do your labor be transparent to God?
Within our faith stories, we have these people more transparent to God,
and then we have Jesus—
completely transparent to God, we believe—we claim.
But here too—even here, and hear me carefully,
there needs to be less of Jesus then
and more of Christians now—
less looking back to who he was and what he did,
and more claiming such an identity and role in our world.
We’re not those—we’re not to be those—
justifying our lack of transparency to God
by pointing to Jesus’ saving transparency.
We’re those who point to Jesus’ transparency as model for our own—
that we might be known as people inspired and empowered
to become transparent to God—to God’s will that is God’s work—
that is our work.
It is our calling—both opportunity and privilege—
to help people recognize the need for a better story.
We’re better than this. Our story is bigger than this.
And then to, very practically, help people live a better story—
find opportunities for living a better story—
a richer one—more meaningful—more beautiful.
It is our calling—opportunity and privilege—
to tell subversive stories that point out when we settle for the lesser stories,
and to want/seek/demand/expect/anticipate
ever more transparency to God.
So I have a story for you.
once upon a dream—or maybe it was a vision,
there came a day when everyone’s job
and slowly became transparent—
transparent to God.
And one day it was a machinist, or maybe a carpenter—
and one day a woman in labor
and one day you—one day me—one day us—
transparent to God.
All creation eagerly awaiting such transparency—
in hope of salvation.
It’s labor day weekend, my friends,
transparent to God.
What do you see?
And what do others see in and through you?
Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time
are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.
For the creation waits with eager longing
for the revealing of the children of God;
for the creation was subjected to futility,
not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it,
in hope that the creation itself will be set free
from its bondage to decay
and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation
has been groaning in labour pains until now;
and not only the creation, but we ourselves,
who have the first fruits of the Spirit,
groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
For in hope we were saved.