Labor Day Sermon

Derrick McQueen, Poverty Scholar and PhD candidate at Union Theological Seminary
September 4, 2010
Fourth Unitarian Universalist Church

On this day, in this moment, we pause to be still and hear the voice inside of us that calls us to rest, be still, hear and discern. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in the sight of all that is holy.

On tomorrow, we celebrate the 116th National Labor Day holiday. Between our media and our telecommunications we have heard about Labor Day Sales, Labor Day Traffic, Labor Day Hurricanes…We have been told that summer is officially over and that it is time to get back to life. Students are told to get those new clothes and get back to school. We are reminded to drive a bit more cautiously as more children will on the streets during early morning commutes. We are told many things during Labor Day Weekend. But mostly we are told to celebrate this three-day weekend as if it is the last holiday we might ever see.

But there is one thing missing in all the messaging we receive about Labor Day. We rarely talk about Labor. We rarely stop for a moment to think about each other as laborers in the vineyard who deserve to be recognized for our work. Speaking for myself, I can’t remember the last time I turned to my neighbor and said, “Thank you for the work that you do, I trust that you are doing your best to make the world a better place. And on this day, I celebrate you.” After all, that’s what the day was set aside for. In 1882 workers right here in New York City, the workers themselves decided to hold a Labor Day Parade. They highlighted each other’s accomplishments, union solidarity, and the great strides in workers’ rights since the Civil War. And even after the holiday was established federally on June 28th, 1894, the Sunday before Labor Day was unofficially designated as a time to spiritually recognize the important of the laborer in bringing about the equity spoken of in so many sacred texts. My, how far we have strayed from this basic purpose of a Labor Day holiday.

But we have not strayed so far that deep down we know all holidays really do serve another purpose other than just a day off from work or school. It is just good to remind ourselves of what they do mean every now and then. And before I start sounding like I am full of chastisement let me say that I think we come by our forgetfulness honestly. It is not often that we hear about the Pullman Strike of 1894 that spawned this federal holiday. Which six o’clock newscast shows a politician laying a wreath at a monument for the 34 strikers killed or the 57 strikers that were injured in that strike? Which 24-hour news channel is going to remind us of the property damage done which when inflated for 2010 was over 8 million dollars? And where is the government watchdog group that will remind us that President Grover Cleveland sent over 12,000 Army troops and U.S. Marshalls to break up a strike allowing an attack on American civilians? Yes it was this powder keg of events that allowed Representative Lawrence McGann’s call to adopt the Senate Bill to honor Labor on the first Monday of every September to be heeded. It was this set of events that led to President Cleveland signing the bill into law just 2 days later. It was the sacrifice of these workers for basic dignities of wage, hour and living conditions that we are called to honor on this Labor Day.

But we are also called upon to learn the lessons from the past so that they are not repeated. This sending of combat troops to action within our own borders against our own citizens has happened no less than thirteen times since 1890 in the history of this nation. At least five of those times troops were sent in to break up strikes or what are now termed rebellions; be it the railroad strikers of 1894, the West Virginian miners of 1920 or the African Americans in Detroit in 1943. Our country needs us to know the secrets of our past. When we bring the secrets out into the light, the plight of the everyday person comes to the fore and we recognize that we are all here to make sure each other is protected; to make sure that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not just hollow ideals upon which our nation stands. For if those ideals are hollow then what is built upon it will surely crumble.

I also would like to suggest that we take the time to learn another lesson on this holiday we call Labor Day. Let us be reminded to treat all days we set aside with reverence, honor and thanksgiving. I am reminded that when I was a child the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a regular day; school for me and business as usual. But in Morristown, NJ as a community, we celebrated the birthday of King every year. There would be a community gathering, community worship, a community meal, a community remembrance, and a community honoring of all the best that King stood for. And to be fair there was recognition of his humanity. We spoke of his strengths and prayed for the healing where his weaknesses left hurt. And then we would stop to reflect on just what great things we might be capable of if we accepted the challenge to do our best for others despite our humanity. What I remember most, however was the sacrifice made by the community in order to make these moments come to pass. Many African Americans in the community who took the day off from work were docked a days wages; we students were marked as absent and failed any test we missed on those days; in order to honor the sacrifice of Dr. King, we were called to sacrifice. The reason this means so much to me today is because the national holiday for Dr. King has become another day off. It has become a mid-winter three-day weekend of sales, a few speeches, maybe an hour of community service. Sadly, more and more it is becoming another American holiday. A time when we fit in as much “me” time as we can rather than just stopping for a day to reflect on what the life of Dr. King has yielded for this time, this place…for this now.

It’s not just Dr. King’s birthday, we do it for Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, Washington’s Birthday. Some might say that it’s just “The American Way”. It’s what happens in a time and place when we are all so busy, so stressed out, so worried about the state of events. Some might say that we need to blow off steam every now and then or we my just explode. Some might even say, “It’s my time and I’ve earned it, so I’m taking it.” And I agree with all three of those statements. I agree that one of the best things we can do for ourselves is self-care. As a matter of fact, I’m a firm believer that if we don’t practice self-care we diminish our usefulness in our own lives, in others lives and in all that we do. So by all means, we must do what we need to be the best selves we can be.

I propose that we push ourselves, though, just a little further. I propose that we look at these days as days of rest but also as days set aside for remember. What would it look like if we dedicated ourselves to doing just a little research about why these days have been set-aside for us? How about we sit down with a group of young people and teach them that these days have meaning? Let’s take a moment at the barbeque or pool party or even as we gather at the beach. Let’s take a moment and just be silent and grateful and think about the sacrifices made by our common ancestors so that we can enjoy what we enjoy now. It doesn’t have to take all day or even a half a day. It can just be a dedicated moment to sit in the knowledge of our history, to sit in the knowledge of progress, to sit in the knowledge of the work there is yet to do.

There is a precedent for this type of stillness in honoring what has been, is and will be. It’s called the Sabbath. In Wayne Muller’s book “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives” he reminds us that “Millennia ago, the tradition of Sabbath created an oasis of sacred time within a life of unceasing labor.”1 “An oasis of sacred time…” that is so beautifully worded. Conjuring up the image of an oasis in the daunting desert of everyday life is powerful. I love those scenes in movies where people are stranded in the desert and are caravanning or walking for what seems like eons. And then just as the sun climbs directly overhead and the body seems to want to give up, there is a ridge; a ridge of sand gently losing its height to the wind. And as the strength is found to crest that ridge there is the sheer pained delight of what seems to be water in the middle of the desert. An oasis to refresh and empower the body to rest, delight and move on.

The holidays I spoke about earlier? They are nothing more than secular Sabbaths to be observed to rest, renew and delight in our busy lives. On This Day called Sabbath we put down the heavy yoke and leave it where we stand in the field. We give powerful thanks to the earth for what it will yield from our labor and then we go and find rest. On This Day called Sabbath, we walk from the field to the inviting light of the lamp shining in our homes in the distance. We resist the urge to run but start to linger with the idea that there is no need to rush. Upon entering the door, we see by the light of the lamp the food we have set aside for this time and once again give thanks for the bounty. After the meal, we seek out community. We long to see the peace we are starting to feel on the face of another. And so we gather, we gather in one place and see the people we stand in the field with in a new way. We see them in their humanity and it is a beautiful thing. Souls shine brightly in the eyes of our neighbor and we take the time to look, to see deep into that life light. We talk and sing late into the night until our bodies in peaceful resignation take us to rest. Our bodies quiet, our minds still and our breathing steadies and sleep finds us.

That is the beginning, just the beginning of our Sabbath. For me it is like the first time I went camping. As the sun set and dinner had been eaten I realized that I had nothing else to do in that tent but just be. So that’s what I did. I entered into being with my surroundings and I slowed down. Camping was an oasis for me. Now I don’t know what that oasis is for you but I do know it is out there for you.

One of the best things about Sabbath and we see this when we gather on Sunday in community, is that we get to see each other. I mean really see one another, if we just take the chance. We get to catch one another in our Sabbath! What a concept, catching one another as we stop to rest from our labors and find a sweet communion in ourselves in time stretched moment in the schedule of the universe. What will we find in each other if on this day we catch each other in our Sabbath? I venture to say that we will come to learn the very truth of each other just a bit more clearly. I venture to say that a soul shine beauty might be recognized in each other. I venture to say that we might have a regular glimpse of the incredible gift packaged in these bodies of ours.

On this day…let us celebrate. Let us celebrate the labors of our human family. On this day and on this Labor Day, let us stand with the Domestic Workers United as they celebrate the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York State. Nannies and caregivers are now protected under the law for unfair labor practices, a sector left out of fair labor laws since their inception in this country.2 On this Labor Day, let us stand with the workers of our large retailers whose working hours are set just below the minimum so that benefits can be denied. On this Labor Day let us stand with those we would exploit to do the work that some would refuse to do, let us stand with them when they become the target of unfair treatment with threats of deportation.

On this day…let us rest. Let us rest in each other. Let us find comfort in one another’s humanity and in each other’s peace. Let us share our peace if we see none forthcoming. Let us ask for peace if our soul’s supply is depleted.

On this day…let us find renewal. Let us take the time to recharge our batteries not just so that we can face another day. Let us take the time after resting in each other to renew our hope and faith in humanity. As we catch each other in our Sabbath may we truly see the best of what each of us has to offer. May it strengthen us as we gear up to get back to the race of life.

On this day…may this rest and renewal yield in us a delight in our lives and in each other. May the hope we find in each other cause us to be giddy enough to smile randomly as we stroll through the park. May it cause us to catch the smile of a child who makes the subway its playground. May we stop long enough to find the delight of love in the long partnered couple as they stop in their tracks, pull close together and make a wall against the gust of wind that threatens to push them back.

On this day…when we rest from our Labor, may we honor our ancestors and all who have gone before. May we take the time to stop and just for a little while see ourselves in the awesome sacred arc of time. And know that we are a part of something grand. May we see that greatness in each other and finally remember to say to someone, “Thank you for the work that you do, I trust that you are doing your best to make the world a better place. And on this day, I celebrate you.” May it be so…may it be so…

1. Muller Wayne, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, (Bantam Books: New York, 2000)
2. Let it also be noted that farm workers and domestic workers were the occupations left without rights. Although the movement for domestic workers is underway, there has been little progress for farm workers. Especially in modern times since it farm workers also include the most forgotten and exploited; day laborers and migrant, immigrant farm workers.