The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Labor Day Weekend is a time of transition. We are shifting from summer into autumn, schools are reopening, and after a Monday of rest, people will return from vacation to work. It’s a fine time to be thinking about how we live and work together. To this end, St. Paul has words of advice for us in his Letter to the Romans:
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers…”. These are words for lilving a joyful life: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another…. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”
Here is a bit of grammatical information to bear in mind as we listen to this passage. In this reading, Paul is not issuing these summons in the singular--but the plural. In fact, all of this lesson is written in the plural. So, Paul isn’t writing to individuals, so much as he is communicating to a community of faith. And here, I believe, is an important point; this lesson isn’t so much about your life--but our life together. Life is meant to be lived in community. It’s an excellent reminder on a weekend during which we remember the labor of those upon whom so much of our security and happiness are depend.
With this in mind, I would like to share some words of Barbara Brown Taylor who has written an essay titled “Working People.” It’s perfect for Labor Day Weekend. She writes: “The day I moved to Clarkesville, I walked from the church to the post office, where I came up a quarter short on a book of stamps. “Don’t worry,” the blond clerk behind the counter said. “Just bring it back before we close at five.” Her nametag said “Elaine.” When I brought the quarter back, I told her my name but she already knew it. Eighteen years later, I have learned to stand patiently in line as Elaine greets her customers by name.
Last week a white-haired woman lingered at the counter, speaking of things that had (absolutely) nothing to do with the U.S. Mail. There were six of us behind her, but Elaine never rushed her. Never stopped smiling. When my turn finally came I raised my eyebrows as I slid my package across the counter.
“She lost someone close to her a while back,” Elaine said in a low voice so only I could hear her, ‘But I don’t mind. I like hearing the stories. Plus, I learned a long time ago that people aren’t going to stop talking until they have said what they want to say.”
(In an aside, Taylor writes): “And to think I paid good money to go to seminary.”
Bunny works at the Laundromat across the street. When the water in my well is running low, (Taylor writes) she sometimes helps me with the sheets for a dollar a pound. Other times we stand around talking as we watch clothes go round and round in the dryers. This is how I learned that Bunny put up the posters with the face of a beat-up woman on them, right above the telephone number of a shelter for women fleeing physical abuse. She knows all about that, she says.
Bunny lets other people put up posters too, but only if the signs are in Spanish as well as English. She says one regular customer calls every week to ask “when the Mexicans will be there” because they “make her uncomfortable.” Bunny says, “When she calls now I just tell her that the Mexicans are here all the time.”
George drives a school bus, which is not how I know him (Taylor writes). I know him because he also drives the college van when I take my religion students on field trips. These are just two of his three jobs he works since the economy tanked and his retirement evaporated. Before that he was a New York City cop, which explains both his natural authority and his accent.
Some drivers snooze in the van while students explore a monastery or museum, but not George. “I love learning new things,” he says, locking the doors and putting the keys in his pocket. On the long drive home, while everyone else is conked out, George never takes his eyes off the road. It is hard to believe he is in his 70s. Once he has delivered us safely back home, his shoulders sag a little while he says goodnight to the students who stumble half asleep off the van.
St. Paul tells us to “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” This reading is a glimpse of what life in Christian community looks like. It is a clear statement that religion/faith/spirituality (whatever you choose to call it), isn’t so much of an individual pursuit--as it is instead a community endeavor. It takes all of us to live and love the Kingdom of God into being.
At the end of her essay, Taylor concludes, “Perhaps, as Archbishop William Temple once said, “It is a great mistake to think that God is chiefly interested in religion.” What may matter more are the everyday ways we rise to our work, serving one another with gladness and singleness of heart, so that the life we share goes on working, not for any of us alone but for all of us together.” Amen to that. In Jesus’ name. Amen.