My friend Tom lives only a leisurely bicycle ride from the beach. Coming back from the community pool, Tom’s neighbor noticed a nice cooler sitting by the curb near Tom’s trash bins and asked why Tom was throwing it away? Tom said, “We are not throwing it out. It has waters for the guys on the truck”. Surprised, they deadpanned, “You leave water out for the garbagemen?” Tom smiled and replied, “Sometimes we leave Gatorades”. The neighbor pressed, “Why do you give bottled water to garbagemen?” Tom replied, “It’s hot in Florida.” Tom added, “back in college I rode on the back of a packer several summers. It’s hot, humid, and hard work lifting cans and hanging a packer all day. The smell is twenty types of terrible. Some folks won’t look at you, but a few weeks without trash pick-up and people are ready to riot. Some days we put out water, we pressure wash our bins every now and again, we always bag everything, we leave gift cards on holidays, we always smile, speak, or wave hello.” It’s Labor Day weekend. Do we see the workers whose insights, skills, and hard work built community and bless our lives? Do we celebrate God’s presence in the people around us?
Deuteronomy 16 invites us to “stop working and celebrate the presence of the Lord” with everyone. Jesus, who loved people and parties, tells us to go to the roads on the edge of town and invite everyone you find to the Kin-dom festival. (adapted Matthew 22) Love leaves no one out. Love never overlooks. Love sees all the people. Love acknowledges each one’s contribution. Love advocates for things like healthcare, living wages, and childcare leave. Belmont has joined with other churches, synagogues, mosques, aid agencies, unions and community leaders to be part of NOAH: Nashville Organized For Action and Hope in working together for affordable housing, education, criminal justice reform, and economic equity for workers. NOAH sees and advocates for others.
In a Christmas Sermon On Peace, Dr. King writes, “Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific Islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you by a French person. You go into the kitchen to drink your coffee, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. But maybe you want tea; that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese person. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African… And before breakfast, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured; this is its interrelated quality… It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of an interrelated structure of reality.”
Generous souls train themselves to dwell in that interrelatedness in seeing God’s presence in the people around them. As you move through this weekend will you ponder how you got that bread for your toast? Do you start with the farmer who placed the grain in the ground or the manufacturers who made the tractor, the engineers working on sustainable fuels, or the clerk stocking the grocery shelves? This Labor Day, let us take notice of all workers by celebrating our universal interrelatedness.
I fear that market-hungry news outlets, divisive social media algorithms, and antagonistic church politics are fueling a cultural separation into a camps of self-congratulatory self-righteousness that see those who do not agree with our theology, cultural assumptions or politics as modern “heathens”. Shouldn’t the radical nature of Jesus’ Incarnation shake and break down those hostile dividing walls unifying us in God’s love of people? (Ephesians 2) Do we realize how much individual human beings matter to God? God so loved the world that God took on our humanity in Jesus Christ. Jesus offered few theological purity tests but framed God’s assessment in terms of how we treat people from “love your neighbor as yourself” to “as you did for the hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, immigrating people around me you did for me.” (Matthew 22, 25) In Jesus, God did not send laws written on stone tablets. No, God’s very Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1) This Holy Mystery should radically change our treatment of others. In 2nd Corinthians Paul writes to a church in conflict, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by all, and you show that you are a letter of Christ… written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are human hearts.” (2 Cor. 3) Do we look for the letter of Christ being written in lives all around us?
As Paul closes his letter to the Roman church, Paul lists 24 names in 16 verses. Each name comes with an acknowledgement, a shout out, a personal thank you. It is easy to focus on theology instead of people. Churches do it all the time. The lectionary did here, skipping this list of names in its three year cycle, maybe to go easy on the liturgists! God never skips a name. In all the great words of the Apostle Paul maybe these words mean more than we think because Paul saw Pastor Phoebe, a benefactor to me and to many; the clergy couple, pastors Priscilla and Aquila who risked their necks for Paul; Paul’s dear friend Epaenetus, the first Christian in Asia; Mary, who is such a hard worker for the church; Andronicus and Julia, apostles who served time in jail with other Christians for free speech and religious liberty; Ampliatus and Stachys, dear friends in the Lord; Urbanus, our coworker in Christ; Apelles, who is tried and true; Tryphaena and Tryphosa, who are workers for the Lord; my beloved Persis, who has worked very hard in the Lord; Rufus who is an outstanding believer and his mother, who is a mother to me as well; Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Christ sees people. Paul celebrated God working through these 24 people- letters of Christ! Paul ends writing, “Say hello to each other with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ say hello to you.” My Aunt Margrette never missed a milestone in my life, from graduation to the boy’s baptisms. She always offered a welcomed hug and gentle kiss on my cheek. What might happen if we greeted people with such kindness, seeing them, acknowledging them, and celebrating them. Love people. Advocate for people. Let your words and greetings fall on people’s ears with the tenderness of a welcomed kiss. Jesus came into this world for people. All church work is about people. Celebrate Priscilla, Rufus, Urbanus, and Junia. Put out some bottled water. Write some thank you’s. Advocate for living wages. See people. Greet people a holy kiss. Celebrate the presence of God in the letters of Christ being written all around you. Amen.