A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 2, 2012.
6Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. 7But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
58Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator* shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you wonder what the lessons from Exodus and Isaiah have to do with worker justice during this Labor Day weekend I invite you to consider the following realities.
- More than 5 million people in this country have been out of work for longer than half a year. Actor Clint Eastwood was wrong Thursday night during his remarks to the Republican National Convention. More than 12 million people are unemployed in the United States, not 23 million.
- Most states offer 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. After the financial crisis in 2008 a federal law extended benefits to 99 weeks. But millions of people have been out of work longer than 99 weeks. They have no unemployment benefits and cannot find work to pay for food, housing, and other basic needs.
- By the end of September, the extended unemployment benefits will end in Nevada, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, the last three states that allow them. Federal lawmakers will not extend unemployment benefits to help the long-term unemployed survive. However, the biggest private banks received more than $700 billion dollars in government money after the 2008 financial crisis.
- Teachers and support staff employees of the Pulaski County Special School District, one of the largest public school districts in Arkansas, are struggling to hold onto their right to collectively bargain with their employer concerning wages, working conditions, and employee benefits.
- Immigrant workers are targets of abuse, mistreatment, and discrimination in our society and elsewhere around the world. Like the immigrant descendants of Jacob we read about in Exodus, immigrants are often viewed as threats to national security no matter how hard they work and how well they behave.
- Collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Indiana, and Michigan have been attacked. The governor of Wisconsin blamed those collective bargaining rights for the budget deficit in his state.
- Police in South Africa shot and killed 34 mine workers several days ago during a demonstration for higher wages and better working conditions. Now 270 other striking mineworkers have been charged with their deaths. The South African government is no longer all white. The face of power has changed in South Africa, but the economic realities of apartheid haven’t changed for workers and other struggling people.
These are a few examples of what workers face today in the struggle for living wages, fair working conditions, and to hold onto hard earned health and retirement benefits. But many religious people do not see their struggles in the light of Biblical lessons about justice and liberation. Many religious people somehow fail to think about who the “taskmasters” are today. Many of us side with the enterprise emperors of our time—powerful people whose decisions and actions make life unjustifiably difficult for working people.
So we need a sermon about what worker justice means during this 21st Century. We need a sermon that calls us to confront the Enterprise Empire in God’s name. We need a sermon that encourages prophetic-minded and spirited people to stand up and bravely resist the Enterprise Empire mindset that treats working people as disposable and places more value on profits than people. We need to be reminded that wealth is not more important than workers.
God stands with the workers, not with the Empire of Enterprise. The Biblical story about the Exodus isn’t sympathetic toward the Egyptian Pharaoh. The Exodus story is about how God worked to liberate working people from an oppressive empire. God sent Moses to Egypt to set the workers free. According to the Bible, the Empire of Enterprise and the people who operate it cannot escape the justice of God.
And the rest of the Bible presents divine justice from the perspective of workers.
- The Hebrew people of the Exodus story were immigrant construction workers. God stood with the construction workers, not the empire that oppressed them.
- David, the heroic soldier-king of Israel, was a shepherd. Angels visited shepherds with news about the birth of Jesus. God stood with the farm workers, not the empires that oppressed them.
- Daniel and Isaiah were government workers who presented God’s challenges to the empires of their time. God stood with Daniel. God stood with his friends Hananiah Mishael, and Azariah (whom the Emperor of Babylon renamed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) in their fiery furnace experience.
- Jesus grew up in the house of Joseph, a carpenter. His closest followers were fishermen. God revealed grace and truth to us through Jesus who associated with working people, not the religious, commercial, and political emperors of his time and place.
The highest and best Biblical understanding about God, love, truth, justice, and liberation are presented from the perspective of working people, not from the perspective of ruling empires. The life and ministry of Jesus proves makes this point. Jesus was born and raised around workers. His first visitors were farm workers. His family became immigrant workers in Egypt after King Herod tried to kill him as a baby. God stands with workers and other vulnerable people, not the religious, business, political, and military emperors of any place or period.
Religious people can be insensitive to working people and the injustices they suffer. The lesson from Isaiah 58 shows how religious people and institutions can disregard injustices suffered by working people. Somehow we think that we can go through our rituals and other religious practices and God will ignore the oppression we allow workers and other vulnerable people to suffer.
But at Isaiah 58:1-2, God commands the prophet.
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practised righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgements, they delight to draw near to God.
God’s answer to our religious insensitivity about social justice, including justice in workplaces, is unmistakably clear at verses 3, 4, and 6.
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
The trap for religion and religious people is to think and behave as though private and public piety somehow can be divorced from how we treat people and handle power. That’s the lesson we are shown in the Biblical story about Cain and Abel. Cain couldn’t show up before God after murdering Abel and expect God not to know and be displeased about his injustice. We’re also mistaken to think and act that way.
Religion and its rituals are not a substitute for reality. Justice is always focused on the realities of what people do with and to others. God cares about what happens to workers. God cares when religious people behave as though we can sing, pray, praise, and preach around the way workers and other vulnerable people are mistreated.
Religious rituals and practices should inspire us to be more loving, more courageous, and more prophetic agents of God’s justice, not less so. We only fool ourselves if we think we can regularly engage in acts of piety and devotion and somehow please God, yet be insensitive about injustice toward workers and abuse of power by the Emperors of Enterprise of our time and place.
- Employers and other powerful people have no license from God to renege on their promises to pay health and retirement benefits.
- The profit motive doesn’t excuse emperors of enterprise from the moral principles of honesty, fairness, and compassion.
- Workers owe employers honest effort. In return, employers owe workers fair pay and decent working conditions.
- Enterprise isn’t fundamentally evil. But it becomes evil when used to justify oppressive and otherwise unloving living.
As followers of Jesus, you and I are called to do more than sing, pray, and preach about God’s love. We’re called to confront the Emperors of Enterprise in the name of God’s love. We’re called to be agents of liberation like Moses to pharaoh-like people and institutions so that workers in our time, like those of his time, can live with dignity and justice as children of God.
We aren’t called by God to live with our heads in the sand or in the clouds. Inspired by God’s grace and truth, we’re called to live with wide open eyes, sensitive hearts, and ready hands that demand justice for workers and other vulnerable people. If we won’t live that way, our singing, preaching, devotions, and other pious behavior aren’t worth much to God or anyone else, including ourselves.
We must decide whether to live for God as prophets or for the Enterprise Empire as pawns. According to the Exodus story, Moses was born to an immigrant community of oppressed workers. Although the Empire of his time considered his people a threat, prophetic midwives among his people refused to go along with an order to kill all male babies. His immigrant working family took affirmative acts to protect him from being discovered and killed by the government as an infant.
Although Moses was later raised a privileged child of the Egyptian Empire, he had somehow been nurtured by his Hebrew mother well enough to understand love and justice. Anger moved Moses to kill a man who was abusing one of the immigrant workers. That violent act led to Moses becoming a fugitive. He eventually returned to Egypt as God’s prophet of liberation to challenge the Egyptian empire. Moses could have chosen to be a pawn of the Egyptian Empire. Instead, he became God’s prophet of liberation to challenge it.
You and I are also called to be God’s prophets of liberation, not unwitting pawns of the Free Enterprise Empire. We are followers of Jesus, not Adam Smith, the Wall Street Journal, the American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Prosperity, or other manifestations of the Enterprise Empire. Make no mistake, that Empire is real and active. Religion must inspire us to be more real and active prophetic agents of God in challenging it.
- Let us confront oppressive workplace practices and policies as God’s prophets of liberation, not behave as pawns of the Enterprise Empire.
- Let’s challenge the Enterprise Empire of our time and place according to the divine principles of love and truth, peace and justice.
- Let’s boldly and faithfully encourage workers to be faithful in work and fearless in demanding compensation that provides a living income for honest work in safe conditions.
- Let’s challenge employers and other would-be agents of the Enterprise Empire to not use workers as scapegoats for employer mismanagement, fraud, greed, or anything else.
- Let it be said that when working people are mistreated we challenge their employers about it and demand justice for our neighbors no matter where they were born, how they look, or what their backgrounds may be.
- Let us demand that employers provide employees living wages, safe working conditions, and health and retirement benefits because that is what they deserve as children of God no matter what the Enterprise Empire and its priests may prefer in their lust for more profits.
Let it not be said of us as was said of religious people in another time. Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.
Instead, let it be said that we chose to be God’s prophets of worker justice challenging the 21st Century Enterprise Empire to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.
Then our light will break forth like the dawn. Then our healing will spring up quickly. Then our vindicator* will go before us and the glory of the Lord will be our rearguard. Then we can call, and the Lord will answer; we can cry for justice, and God will say, “Here I am.” Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.