Y’all may have noticed that I’m not great at details or schedules. That makes following the lectionary a danger zone for me, so I keep telling you we’re going to talk about things that, it turns out, we are not. I am truly thankful for your grace. This is all said to preface the news that we will not be explaining everything about Christ-Sophia this week. The lectionary, unfortunately for a smooth pedagogy, decided to give us some wisdom from Proverbs a week before reading the beginning of Proverbs that sets up the whole thing. The good news is that the text we are assigned is perfect for Labor Day weekend.
We seldom notice that Labor Day is not just summer’s last gasp, filled with swimming pools and grills. It is actually about labor. Not just a rest from working, but a celebration of the labor movement that created labor unions that gave laborers bargaining power against management – management that worked people to excessive hours in unsafe conditions for little pay, management that created company stores that kept their employees in virtual slavery. In this period of unfettered capitalism, great wealth was generated, but most of that ended up in the pockets of the people at the top, the people who had the means to manipulate political and economic systems to their own ends. Because laborers fought for their rights, corruption was contained and income inequality shrank in the first half of the 20th century. When labor was at its strongest, the country prospered and the lives of ordinary people improved.
The power of unions has shrunk drastically over the last 50 years and the results are stark. Those at the bottom of the wealth ladder earn low wages in mostly part-time jobs. (I saw one study lauding the “increased leisure time” for people at the bottom!) Those in the middle now inhabit a perpetual state of quasi-labor: cell phones on, checking email, retraining, laying awake at night wondering how to not be fungible. Those at the top continue the hiring freezes, wage stagnation, and reduced benefits that they discovered people – unorganized people – would live with during the recession and make short-sighted investors happy in the recovery. Corporate profits skyrocket while labor struggles: CEOs now make 354 times the wage of their lowest paid workers. Perhaps most concerning, the graft of the 19th century is now mostly legal with the wealthiest people attempting to buy the political process. It does not have to be this way.
Certainly, this is not as God would have it. As Proverbs tells us this week, God pleads for the cause of the impoverished. Repeatedly, we hear about how any regulation, any organization of labor, any protection of the common welfare puts a stranglehold on business. Frankly, God doesn’t care. God instructs farmers to leave a portion of their harvests for the poor. God instructs lenders not to charge interest. God instructs debt-holders to forgive debts regularly. Such things do not maximize profits; they do not produce excess capital for investment. Instead, they care for those who are impoverished. They interrupt the cycles of poverty in which people find themselves to give hope. They contemplate a common welfare that is only maintained when it is maintained for everyone. God gives these instructions, but people must carry them out.
The solution to the problem of poverty is complex, so complex that it might seem to be impossible, but if we begin, as God does, by pleading the case of the impoverished, maybe there’s a chance. Rather than concerning ourselves with the economy as an abstraction with its own intrinsic value, perhaps we should, as God does, concern ourselves with those in need. Perhaps we should, as God suggests, organize our lives, our society, our political will around those who struggle the most. This may deny a few the opportunity to amass the wealth of Solomon, but it might more closely mirror the world of God’s dreams, a world where everyone has a seat at the table and everyone can eat their fill.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we talk about poverty, equality, and labor. And probably robots. Robots are important.
Grace & Peace,
As is our annual tradition, we gather the Tribunal for Canonization of the Saints (that’s you!) to consider the cause of certain individuals, now deceased a minimum of five years, who have performed miracles that have set the world on a different (and better!) course. In particular, we select people who are in some way indicative of what Church in the Cliff is about and, in some cases, without whom Church in the Cliff would not exist. We have five slots and seven nominations this year, so I’d like to get some feedback from people. I would also appreciate it if people who are passionate about one of these individuals would participate in the canonization service. Here are the nominees:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Church in the Cliff was formed, in part, to provide greater opportunities for women in ministry. Almost everything we do is informed by feminist discourse. More importantly, the life of Church in the Cliff is enriched by the strong, brilliant, passionate women who have participated in church leadership from the beginning. It is unlikely that any of them would have done that without Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was one of the first to assert the equality of women in the church, to suggest a liberating reading of the Bible, and to advocate for the use of feminine language for God. To that effort, she spearheaded the production of The Woman’s Bible, published in 1895.
Martin Luther King. It is unusual that a Sunday passes at Church in the Cliff without mention of Martin Luther King. In fact, his name is invoked so regularly that it has seemed cliché to canonize him, so we have chosen to highlight others ahead of him. But perhaps the time has come. In addition to the profound effect he had in civil rights, his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” could arguably be an amendment to the canon. He was truly a martyr, his life cut short just as he was setting his sights on even larger problems than those in which he had already triumphed.
Fred Rogers. Many of us grew up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. We learned about kindness, compassion, and puppets. Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, became the moral center for a generation growing up in a world wracked with cultural upheaval, violence, and corruption. Even now, any time something bad happens, there is probably a Fred Rogers quote to give us hope.
Samuel Mockbee. Growing up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, Samuel Mockbee was driven by a need to right wrongs using the talents that he had in art and architecture. He created the Rural Studio program at Auburn University, which taught students about the social responsibility of architectural practice. The program built sustainable architecture in impoverished areas of Alabama using novel materials that would have otherwise been waste. He helped revitalize Hale County, Alabama, while protecting the environment and inspiring young people to shape their world for the better.
Pseudo-Denis. Also known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Denis wrote a body of literature that was hugely influential in Christian theology, particularly Christian mysticism. His work often functions as a bridge between Christianity and non-Christian thought and practice, ranging from Zen meditation to deconstructive philosophy. If you practice centering prayer, you owe a debt to Denis.
Johnny Cash. This almost needs no explanation. Not only was he one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, the Man in Black was driven by his faith and his experience of the shadowy sides of life to care for those that no one else cared for.
Roger Williams. Williams founded the colony of Providence, in what was to become Rhode Island, on the principle of religious freedom. Though he was a Christian, he had the novel idea that Christianity should succeed or fail on its own merits rather than by government coercion, that each faith is enriched in dialog with others. As a result, Providence was open to all. In fact, in addition to founding the first Baptist church in the New World, Williams helped build the first synagogue. He advocated for fair relations with Native Americans and was an early abolitionist. Whatever Baptist identity Church in the Cliff clings to, it is embodied in the life of Roger Williams.
Please email your thoughts to pastor@churchinthecliff.