Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Labor Day, Preached September 5, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
Scripture Exodus 20:1-11
20 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to anything or worship anything; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the injustice of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 and showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, and the Lord will not overlook anyone who misuses God’s name.
8 Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. 9 Six days you can labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female workers, your livestock, or the immigrants in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
The people of Israel, at this point in their Exodus, are on a path away from slavery in Egypt toward some new land and community where they will no longer be slaves and will not work in unfair conditions for ridiculously low pay all to build cities and wealth for others. In the promised land, they will work together, with and for each other, and will build a nation where no one is enslaved, everyone is welcomed, and all are treated justly and fairly.
The pain of slavery is fresh in their minds and bodies. They suffered it. They escaped it. So, with God’s help, here in the wilderness, between the slavery behind them and the promise and hope ahead of them, they make rules for how to live together and how to treat one another.
We read the first four of those commandments today. Have one God, the God that saved us from Egypt. Never worship anything other than that God alone. Use that God’s name only for what is holy, just, and loving. And remember the Sabbath. One-seventh of our time, lay down our labors and rest, just like God did.
These four are sometimes called the first tablet. These commandments focus more on our relationship with and to God. The second tablet then would have six commandments on it, the ones that focus more on our relationships with and to one another. Let’s do a little test and see if we can crowd source the remainder of the commandments. I’ve given you one letter for each as a clue…
Number 5? Honor your parents
Number 6? Do not Kill
7? Do not commit Adultery
8? Do not Steal
9? Do not Lie
10? Do not Covet
Those 10 are the biggies, the opposite of how life was in Egypt, and the vision of how life is and should and will be in God’s great community.
The people who lived in slavery in Egypt want this better way to live and enthusiastically say YES to these. But it only takes one generation for the YES to become a MEH. The children born in the wilderness never knew slavery themselves. If the adults do not teach the children what happened and teach it to them so well they feel it themselves and believe it for themselves, then the pain of real slavery isn’t real enough to inspire the future generations to also say YES to these commandments.
Tomorrow is Labor Day, a day we honor the American worker in the factories and fields, in the tough jobs with long hours and low pay. We, as a country, over a century ago set aside this day to give rest to those who labor. On this day, we all lay down any expectation of workers to show up and serve us, as a reminder to the whole country of the intense effort “essential” workers put forth day after day, week after week.
When Labor Day started, it was just one generation past the end of slavery in America. In the late 1800s, this Labor Day was a plea for help, rest, and fair compensation. Here’s a quote from the History channel, from a write-up about the origin of Labor Day. (Quote) in the late 1800s, “the average American worker worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories, and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and … immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to (things like) fresh air, sanitary facilities, (or) breaks.” (Close quote)
One generation out of slavery and we were already forgetting, enslaving people in a new way, hard labor, ridiculous hours, minimal pay. That’s why Labor unions formed and used their power to strike as leverage to bargain for safer conditions, more reasonable hours, and fairer pay. Those strikes forced our country’s industries and services and economy to pause, all to push the bosses to the table and negotiate for better pay, safer conditions, reasonable hours. The corporate bosses instead asked for government help to break the strikes and force the laborers back to work. When troops showed up, peaceful strikes became violent and some people died. The national holiday, Labor Day, was the government agreeing to a planned scheduled day for labor to make its case.
This year, as COVID still lingers over our economy, there are lots of people who worked minimum wage jobs with no benefits and were barely ekeing out a living who have decided not to return to those jobs. I can’t blame them. What would it look like if our country fulfilled the vision of a promised land, where all are welcomed, all are treated fairly and justly, and we all work with and for one another for this common hope.
Scripture knows this about humanity and warns us. Nearer the end of the Toray, as the people are getting closer to the land, in Deuteronomy 6, it says (Quote) “Now these are the commandments—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may honor the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all God’s decrees and commandments… Keep these words… Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away… When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that God swore to your ancestors… to give you—a land with fine (things you didn’t build or plant or deserve)… take care that you do not forget, the Lord brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery… When your children ask you in times to come, “What is the meaning (to me) of these decrees and statutes and ordinances that the Lord God has commanded you?” 21 then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt… God brought us out from there in order to bring us (together here)… Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes… for our lasting good, and to give us fullness of life…” (Close quote)
To remember what happened to those who came before us, and to tell what happened to those who come after us, that is one of the main reasons we are church.
If church does nothing else, can we do two things? First, can church honor the commandments that unravel all systems of slavery or oppression, lying, cheating, killing, and build communities of peace, justice, and love? Second, can church teach the children about the real pains our ancestors suffered or caused other to suffer, so our children continue to honor the commandments and build the beloved community?
On this Labor Day, rest. Give yourself and those around you a sabbath. And look for those who do not or cannot, and invite them
May all glory and honor, now and forever, be to God and God alone. Amen.
And now, blessing laughter and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the world turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.