Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Work of the People

The following is a sermon delivered at First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist, on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2007. This sermon was prepared for Interfaith Worker Justice's Labor in the Pulpit program.

The readings were Isaiah 58 and an excerpt from Martin Luther King's Letter From Birmingham Jail.


Greetings and blessings to you from Boston University School of Theology, where I am a seminarian. With me I bring the greetings and blessings of my fellow students and my professors, who are my brothers and sisters in the Spirit, and my dear friends.

But I have come this morning particularly to bring you the greetings and blessings of a specially chosen and beloved group of men and women. I bring you the salutations of Selida Pol, a janitor who works three jobs, in downtown Boston, Cambridge, and in Chinatown. Selida works 15 hours a day; she gets hardly any sleep, and she supports herself and her family in her home country.

I bring you the greetings of Vanessa Reeves, who worked for three years at Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel, N.C., butchering hogs. She was injured when a 200-pound hog carcass fell on her, and because of this she suffered a miscarriage. Her doctor said the miscarriage was caused by the stressful pace of the assembly line or from the hogs hitting her. While she was in the hospital she wasn’t thinking about work at all. But Smithfield fired Vanessa for not calling in. She was fired when she was in the hospital and she lost her baby.

My friends, I bring you the greetings of all these working women and men near and far, your sisters and brothers in the Spirit, and mine. And on their behalf, and according to the commission given to me by Interfaith Worker Justice, I bring you a message of healing and hope. Let us dedicate ourselves in faith to work generously for the well-being of Selida, Vanessa, and the thousands of working poor among us so that we may be found by our God to worship in spirit and in truth.

Some Unitarian Universalists, I am told, would not characterize their Sunday morning service as worship. The term worship itself is problematic because of the hierarchical and patriarchal assumptions embedded in its meaning. In our public language, worship is used in an exclusive sense, as if what we did when assembled in sacred spaces such as these was exhaustive of the service we render to God and all that is holy. So allow me to offer another, more expansive word in its place: liturgy. It comes from the Greek leitourgia, a compound word which means “work of the people” and in its original secular context referred to work toward the common good of the nation or state, or to use a less hegemonic term, the public. In a theological context, leitourgia became the “work of the people” in public prayer, worship, and spiritual service for God and God’s holy people. The English word liturgy as it is used today is associated with public acts of worship in a church or other consecrated space, but reclaiming its older meaning it may also be applied more generally to ritual acts that bear witness to God and all that is holy, giving praise and thanks for divine favor and blessing.

With this expansive view of liturgy I affirm that what we do here is the work of the people, a people that is chosen, beloved, special, and holy. But it is not the only work. I also affirm that to march with Cambridge janitors for living wages, better health care benefits, and full-time employment is the work of the people—it is liturgy, and it is worship. To go on a hunger strike for underpaid security officers at Harvard University, as students did in Harvard Yard in May, is to worship in spirit and in truth. To meet with the manager of the Star Market in Mt. Auburn and urge the supermarket he runs to stop selling Smithfield bacon, packaged with the blood and sweat of five thousand exploited and abused workers in North Carolina—this is the work of the people, courageous and true. To return weeks later to the same manager with a letter of thanks because Star Market removed Smithfield’s product—this is worship, joyous and good.

And it is indispensable. In fact, without this kind of work, the worship we offer in this sacred space remains a soulless formality. Without leitourgia, our worship can still be technically competent, theologically politic, and even externally beautiful. But internally it is false and intrinsically alien to the divine Spirit of life and to all that we hold sacred and dear. We know this truth well in the head, but we do not treasure this truth fully in the heart, and we do not honor this truth fully with our hands, for truth is served only when truth is done.

This morning you have heard the words of Isaiah, one of the Hebrew prophets. And by prophet I mean one who is a fiercely passionate lover of the sacred and of all people. Isaiah delivers a stern message about true worship to Israel, God’s chosen and beloved people. I will skip the exegesis and get to the point, which is that external worship is no worship at all. The people of Israel stand accused, tried, and convicted of the insincerity of their service to God. Their liturgical practices are judged empty. Their worship is self-serving. This is not to say Israel’s fasting or any of its religious disciplines are wrong, but without the fasting from self-interest which these practices are meant to develop, these devotions enact a lie. Their work constitutes a betrayal.

And who has been betrayed? Israel’s God? No, because one’s God is not betrayed as much as denied. Then who has been betrayed? It is the hungry, the oppressed, the homeless. The people of Israel have broken covenant with their God because they have betrayed their poor. How I wish you could have heard the words of Isaiah 58 from the mouth of the Rev. Dr. William Barber, the president of the North Carolina NAACP, who preached full-throated and unsparingly on Wednesday at the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg. Eight hundred fifty of us gathered at this church in this historic town in Virginia because the shareholders of Smithfield Packing were in the city holding their annual meeting. We were electrified by Reverend Barber, who embodied Isaiah’s words when he said that work without justice is slavery. But even more do I wish you could have seen the Smithfield workers from Tar Heel, who were greeted with an ovation and given a place of honor in the front pews of the church. Vanessa was with them, and she told us how she lost her baby, and we were stunned into silence, worshipful silence. Behind her whisper, we could hear Isaiah bellowing, calling out to the executives of Smithfield: “Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laborers.”

And we marched out of the church onto the streets of Williamsburg, continuing our leitourgia. We sent a handful of workers and clergy into the Smithfield shareholders’ meeting, inviting the executives and stockholders to join in our worship, to hold back their feet from following their own pursuit of higher profits and production quotas, to stop seeking their own interests, to cease speaking of the workers and labor unions with malice. They did not join our assembly, but we will not withdraw the invitation.

Today we have also heard the deceptively familiar reflections of Martin Luther King, whom many would regard, in addition to being a pastoral and political leader, as a prophet, a Christian prophet. I say deceptively familiar because we are accustomed to reading his rhetoric and comforting ourselves with the knowledge that some of the victories for which he struggled have been achieved. But like Isaiah in the reading we heard, King had no intention of comforting the recipients of his letter from the Birmingham jail. As his letter states, throughout his campaigns for civil rights and economic equality, as he toured the churches of the South, King asked himself, “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?” King knew the answers to these questions because the work of a people tells us what kind of people they are and who their God is. He asked them because he wanted his fellow clergy members, both his enemies in the flesh and friends in the Spirit, to hear the questions. Like Isaiah’s ominous interrogation of Israel, King’s questions call across forty-four years and hundreds of miles from that cell in Birmingham to us. These questions call across thirty-nine years and a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, where King was staying during his stand in solidarity with 1,300 striking sanitation workers. Do we dare to recognize ourselves in the questions? Do we fear to recognize ourselves in the answers?

When people ask me why I came to Boston to study theology, I tell them it is because I want to know and love God better, and to know and love people better. As a person of faith I believe that knowing and loving God is somehow related to knowing and loving people. The better I know and love God, the better I know and love people, and the better I know and love people, the better I know and love God. I also believe the inverse is true: the less I know and love people, the less I know and love God.

I have concluded that it is impossible to know and love my sisters and brothers or my God unless I accept the invitation—a calling, if you will—to join the priestly, prophetic people of God fully in the work of the people. If I am a stranger to Selida Pol and Vanessa Reeves, then I am a stranger to the God I claim to worship. The gentle songs of sympathy I sing in the sanctuary are so much sound and fury, signifying nothing, if I do not join the choruses of the mighty songs of solidarity heard on the streets of Boston, Cambridge, Memphis, Tar Heel, Williamsburg, and elsewhere. For my failure to see the needs of my working brothers and sisters as my own, I seek forgiveness. I pray to the divine Spirit to help me remember that every time the families of our hard-working brothers and sisters suffer the indignity of involuntary material deprivation, a spiritual wound is inflicted upon us all. We cannot turn away from this wound. The wound is part of our history; our story is a story of a wounded and wounding people. But our story does not end with the wound alone. The story ends with healing and hope. It is the healing of this wound that Isaiah proclaims when he announces divine blessings to those who release those bound unjustly, untie the thongs of the yoke, feed the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted.

This is the hope of Interfaith Worker Justice. It is the hope of Selida and Vanessa and Reverend Barber. It is my hope, and I invite you to share this hope with janitors, security officers, meat packers, and hotel workers; with laborers who are African-American and Latino; with immigrant workers, documented or not; and with all who bear the heavy yoke for our enrichment, for despite our neglect of and estrangement from them, they are truly chosen and beloved.

I will not close with my own words of peace. Instead, please hear the peaceful words of two janitors who work in Cambridge, our brothers Elcides Perez, who comes from El Salvador, and Rafael Emilio Soto, who comes from the Dominican Republic.