Sermon 9/1/19: The Holy Table and the Bargaining Table

The Very Rev. Joy E. Rogers

Lectionary 22

August 31/September 1, 2019

The Holy Table and the Bargaining Table

It only took a few years after a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem, for small groups to start gathering in tiny villages and small towns of the Galilean countryside. 

They were Jews and poor, barely getting by, always on the brink of destitution; some of them already over that edge, dispossessed from their land by imperial taxation, and impossible debt, exploited by official corruption, disregarded by ruling classes and religious elites, steadily pushed into lives of desperation as beggars or bandits, or slaves.

St. Paul had not yet started to write his now famous letters to infant churches. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had not yet put pen to parchment to write down their stunning versions of the Jesus story. Before churches and clergy and catechisms and creeds as we know any of those things, after Jesus’ death, as before it, there was the meal, the table fellowship of the companions of Jesus. 

Gathered around the table they listened to Jesus stories, brought by wandering preachers -- strangers who perhaps had been eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection, who had taken to the road to make the same proclamation that he first made.

The kingdom of God has come near. 

As from Jesus’ himself, Jewish peasants heard anew of the Kingdom, a realm where God rules, a realm of peace and justice, a realm where all people will be holy, whole and home. 

They heard of miracles, about healing and forgiveness, about a new community that shattered old categories of human worth. They heard of love enough to live God’s righteous life in an unrighteous world, love enough to die for others, love enough to show forth the presence of God in the midst of suffering, injustice and hate.

And folk who never met Jesus in his earthly life, folk who never heard him teach or saw him heal, people, who knew only of injustice, poverty, oppression, and fear as their way of being in the world, found a new truth in those meals, in acts of hospitality to strangers and to friends,  at a table with the poor and the destitute and the frightened and the passionate; in a banquet fashioned from what they had, however little, and who they were, however vulnerable.

The Kingdom of God broke into tedious and dreary existences, filling them with a vision of hope and peace and healing and justice and with a power to transform lives.  And the Risen Lord met them at the table. 

Before churches and clergy and catechisms and creeds, there was the meal.

The Savior who comes to dinner today proved to be a difficult guest for his important host.  He still is a disconcerting companion at the table if we take his idea of a guest list seriously.

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

How was your invitation addressed?

We come, because after Jesus’ death, as before it, there is this meal. 

The table is a test.  Not of our wellbeing, spiritual or material.  It is a test of Gospel hospitality by a community that practices the outrageous manners and prepares the scandalous meals that bear witness to a world that works another way.

The manners and meals of Jesus once offered human beings a salvation worth dying for and a vision of a world worth living in, for the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, for you and me.  They still do.

The table is a test that tells us who is not here; the multitudes who cannot find their way to any tables, material or spiritual and so many who do not yet believe that this meal is offered for all. 

The table is a challenge to practice the protocols of another realm, God's realm.  To take the lowest place and find that it is a Cross, and trust the promise, Jesus' promise, that this is how God will change the world. 

My name is Joy and I am a retired Episcopal priest.  I am here today because I am a Board member of an organization called Arise Chicago; because Monday is Labor Day.

To ponder the meaning of Labor Day amid a faith community at worship suggests that we believe that God somehow fits into this secular American holiday.  To connect the table where we meet Jesus with the work of the world is not such a stretch, I think.

A prayer we use at my parish church as we prepare the table makes the connection between labor and God;

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.

A bargaining table for a contract negotiation can be a holy place when justice is served.

In the late 1800’s the industrial revolution was at its height in the nation – an agrarian rural world being overtaken by a new kind of realm, the industrial urban world of manufacturing.  Factory workers, men, women and children, worked 12-hour days, 7-day weeks, in dangerous and dirty conditions, for paltry pay. 

The times were tumultuous, confusing, frightening – old values, old certainties, old lifestyles were being overturned.  The United States was on its way to becoming the world’s most powerful industrial economy. Some were making huge fortunes. And there were those who were paying a huge price to make it happen. Not unlike 1st century Galilee.

The Labor Union movement came into being, to organize workers, to protest poor working conditions and to compel employers to negotiate hours and pay.  Public rallies and strikes became provocative and often effective tools to bring workers’ rights into public view.  And akin to the dynamics of the Civil Rights movement, conflict often erupted into violence.

The labor movement went on to become the source of many of the benefits and rights that both blue and white-collar employees hold dear today: vacations, holidays, workers compensation, days off, health insurance, disability benefits, and collective bargaining – as well as laws dealing with child labor and worker safety.  Much of that under fire these days, in political circles and judicial ones.

Labor Unions are no less provocative and controversial in the first decades of the 21st century than they were in the last decades of the 19th.  But it seems to me, that the vision of the Labor movement was, at its best, a vision of the Kingdom. A vision of God’s shalom, more than mere peace, but a vision that embraces harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility for all. Without such a prophetic vision, the people indeed will perish.

What we Christians know about justice, about community, about how to value work and workers, we learned from the prophets of ancient Israel and the Rabbi from Nazareth.

What we know about organizing resistance to oppression we learned from Moses.  The Exodus event, at its most basic, is really a Labor action arising from inhuman working conditions; and it too begins with a meal.

Economics matters in the biblical tradition. What people eat and who they eat with, and where they live, and how they work, are spiritual as well as economic and political issues. Disparity of income and power is a recurring biblical concern: the widows, landless persons, and unemployed people matter to God. Just as God heard the cries of the oppressed Israelites, God hears the cries of the poor.

The world that came into being with the Industrial Revolution is being overtaken by another kind of realm.  Our times are tumultuous, confusing, frightening – old values, old certainties, old lifestyles are being overturned -- and we cannot yet know how this nation will fit into a new kind of world.  There are people making vast fortunes; and others who are paying a heavy price. 

While the national unemployment rate has fallen to record lows, growing numbers of Americans (perhaps nearly 30%) are engaged in the ‘gig’ economy – essentially work is now considered gigs, not ‘jobs’ – temporary positions, short term contracts, free-lance work – uber drivers, dog walkers, analysts, coders, dishwashers – all without a safety net, legal protections, benefits.  For some it is a rewarding way to go; for many it is a desperate option.

Immigrant workers are under attack as never before, from workplace raids in Mississippi, to policy changes that punish those fleeing violence, to the separation of children from their families.  Have we forgotten many of us are the descendants of immigrants who came here in search of a better life?

Living under daily threats of mass raids, frightened about going to work or the grocery store, or picking your child up from school is the stuff of nightmares. 

I first connected with Arise Chicago when I was the Dean of the Cathedral.

It is an organization that builds partnerships between faith communities and religious leaders and workers to fight workplace injustice through education, organizing, and advocating for public policy changes. 

Arise Chicago was founded by Jewish, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist faith leaders in 1991 to make a moral response to workplace injustice. And 28 years later, we continue to pursue the mission.

  • We support workers as they seek to form unions;

  • We support unionized workers as they seek to improve their contracts. 

  • We work with non-union, low-wage immigrant workers, who are facing horrific working conditions, including wage theft and sexual harassment. 

  • We partnered this year with the instructors of the Old Town School of Folk Music; the musicians of Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the graduate student teaching assistants of Loyola.

  • Arise Chicago is a place where all workers can turn when they are threatened, oppressed, exploited. 

  • And it is an organization that makes a place for folk like us to join their justice making mission.

With the growing disparity in this country between the wealthy and everyone else, Labor Day is an opportunity for people of faith to recognize the holy value of work and workers, as well a time for all of us to embrace the larger implications of this holiday.

It is at bottom “the recognition of God's Shalom in which property and wealth are ultimately a matter of spiritual stewardship rather than private ownership.  Like the table, the economy is a matter of justice.

For 2000 years, Christians have come to the table.

Still and always, the meal

Lives and loves and labors offered and blessed and broken open to be shared for the life of the world. Hurts and hungers, and the dark and hateful places of human souls received as well; seeking to be touched and forgiven and healed and transformed through this meal taken together in Jesus' Name for God's sake. Not for our own sake, in service of our own well-being, but for him, and for the way of the world's salvation, still for the multitudes who cannot find their way to a table, and by the power of a God who intends that the banquet is meant for all. 

At the table, from the beginning,  and now for folk like us – who did not know Jesus, who never heard him preach or see him heal, folk who still know of fear and hate and hurt – still are filled with a vision of the Kingdom of God, and with a power that changes lives and heals a world.

Do this, in remembrance of the Crucified One who died for all who suffer and sin, for all who cannot find their way to a table. 

Do this, because it is still the joy-filled encounter with a Risen Lord, and the promise that God will get us all there. 

A Blessed Labor Day to you all.