Isaiah 58 :3-12
‘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.
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 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?
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?
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?
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.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
Matthew 10 5:13
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.
Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. (NRSV)
Grace to you, and peace, from God our creator and our lord and savior Christ Jesus.
May I start with a note about our reading from Matthew? Jesus charged his disciples to tell people, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven” to mean “kingdom of God” – he’s writing for a Jewish audience and honors their taboo against speaking the holy Name. And the Greek testament, “has come near” is just one word, Ἤγγικεν “engiken”. It uses a tense we don’t have in English, the Greek perfect tense. It means “has already approached and is still approaching.” So, this is the good news: “the realm of God is close and getting closer, here and now.”
Tomorrow is Labor Day. It got its start 141 years ago, in 1887. Trade unions promoted it as a day to honor and celebrate hard work and the people who do it. It caught on fast: by 1894 it was a federal holiday. Nobody alive remembers a time without Labor Day. It’s woven into the fabric of our lives. It honors our hard work by giving us a time to rest. It’s a chance for schoolteachers and students to take a deep breath before jumping into a new school year.
The holiday offers us the chance to reflect on our work and what it means to us and the people around us. How does our work affect the life of the world? Getting paid enough to put bread on our tables and roofs over our heads is a very good start. When we need a job, the paycheck and the health-insurance card are holy grails.
I daresay we have other hopes than that for our jobs. We yearn to be part of something big. For example, I have a young friend who got a job at Google, and another who passed boot camp and became a sailor in the Navy. They both are justifiably proud to be part of those well-regarded institutions.
Sometimes we hope to create things that will outlast us: buildings, books, music, institutions. Some of us are schoolteachers because we want to give new generations the foundations of wisdom they need to carry on.
We sometimes yearn for jobs that give Isaiah’s kind of meaning to our lives. We want to be the repairers of the breach and restorers of streets where people live.
We lionize people like Dr. Paul Farmer (cofounder of Partners in Health) and Teresa of Kolkata. We want work like theirs, work that makes our light rise in the darkness and our gloom like the noonday. They are celebrated for being brilliant, relentless, and lucky.
What about the rest of us? We can’t come close to Docte Paul’s and Mother Teresa’s accomplishments and global fame. But we still have our hopes for the work we do. Our hopes are just as holy as those of famous people.
Here’s an example: a village doctor called Jaime Harroquin in El Salvador. A few years back I went there with a church group, hosted by an NGO—a charity—known as Cristosal. We spent a couple of days visiting El Pital, a village of 500 souls in a land where gangs fight all the time. Their fighting is dangerous: many Salvadoran parents choose to send their children, alone, to try to sneak into the US. That’s safer that staying home.
In this midst of this chaos, a nurse, a midwife, and Dr. Harroquin set up a clinic in a building about the size of Ross Varney’s study here at Belleville. Just to give you a sense of it, they had a fridge powered by an extension cord that ran three houses away to the nearest outlet. The national health department refused to send them vaccines because the fridge setup was too sketchy. The power company refused to run lines to the clinic because nobody knew who owned the building: Land-ownership records were lost in the civil war of the 1980s.
In spite of all that foolishness, the health team did great things. They showed us visitors a hand-drawn map of the village posted on the wall. It had a symbol on every house. Red meant somebody in the house was sick. Orange meant the house held health hazards, usually smoke from indoor cooking fires with no chimney. Blue meant somebody was pregnant or had an infant. And, a few houses had green marks: often because the health team finally persuaded them to add a chimney. Dr. Jaime knew everybody! He or the nurse visited the sick people every few days, and the midwife visited the mothers.
Dr. Jaime’s job has difficulties we can’t imagine. Still, we recognize some of his frustrations. Tough assignments and overwork. Obtuse bureaucracy. Stubborn people. Working with authority when possible and working around it when necessary. All of us who work know about those things.
Even so, the pride that health team showed in their clinic and their village shone brighter than the tropical noonday. They’re not celebrated. They’re poor. But they do good work.
The clinic is conspicuously secular, not religious. No crosses, no photos of the martyred bishop Oscar Romero, nothing like that.
Still, Dr. Jaime and his co-workers are 21st-century disciples doing the very things Jesus charged his disciples with doing. Their situations are parallel. In Gospel times there were two gangs, two factions—the Roman army, and the Jewish temple bigshots, the people Jesus called “scribes and pharisees—competing for control. Neither of them appreciated people running around shouting “The kingdom of God is right here, right now.” Such a message implied their worldly kingdoms were weak.
Healing the sick? The priests in Jerusalem thought they had a lock on that business. As for casting out demons and cleansing lepers, that part of their work was a direct challenge to the codes of purity of those times.
That little clinic, by its presence, proclaims that God’s realm of justice, healing, and peace is right there, right now, in El Pital. They promote healing and they don’t shun anybody (the way people in antiquity shunned leprosy victims). They didn’t bring a mess of expensive medical equipment, and they rely on the villagers for food and shelter. They are sticking with it, and their peace is coming upon the village. They should definitely knock off work on Labor Day to celebrate. (They do take the week before Easter off.)
You know, there’s something strange about the Bible’s writing on work. (Or maybe it’s in the way I perceive it?) It’s written for, by, and about bosses. “Honor the Sabbath … the seventh day is a sabbath … you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” It could say, “neither you, nor your fellow worker, nor your boss, nor that contractor your boss brought in to save on benefits.” But it doesn’t. Isaiah addresses somebody with the power to oppress workers, not the workers themselves. And even in the Gospel we hear Jesus’s instructions to the workers, but not about what it was like to follow those instructions. That’s why seeing Dr. Jaime’s clinic was so cool: they were living the experience of discipleship without in-your-face piety.
Why does the Bible address bosses? Is it more glamorous to be a leader / boss than a disciple / servant / employee? If so, what about the rest of us? Isn’t our work just as good for the life of our corner of the world as our bosses’, or the mayor’s, or Mother Teresa’s or Docte Paul’s. Yes, of course it is.
We work to serve some business or human master, but our work also draws attention to God’s realm that’s here and now, alongside the realms of money and politics.
The Bible speaks to us all as bosses, because, in the realm of God, that’s what we are. Like it or not, that’s what the realm of God means. As followers of Jesus’s charge to his disciples, we become capable of doing great things, no matter how humble our daily tasks. Our service to God’s realm gets the work done. It also helps our neighbors “grow as persons, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants” of the realm of justice and peace. (That’s a quote from Robert Greenleaf, an AT&T executive in the middle of the 20th century.)
Dr Martin Luther King spoke to a gym full of middle-schoolers in Philadelphia in 1967. He said this:
When you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.
If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.
He might well have added, “and on Labor Day, take a stroll with your neighbors and enjoy those beautiful streets. They, and you, are signs that God’s realm is right here, right now.”
It’s my prayer for you that you’ll recognize the presence of God’s realm in your work and life, and you’ll embrace the courage and strength to heal the sick in mind and body, and in so doing show God’s presence to the whole world. Amen?