Friday, October 20, 2006

Living Wage - A Matter of Faith

Sermon Delivered by Jamie Goodwin
October 15th, 2006
Sunday Morning Service

They say, when you writing a sermon, that you should never apologize. They say that you should come from a place of understanding, dedication, and passion. They say that you should just put your ideas out there and allow the congregation to respond to them as they will.

But I still need to say this; with today’s sermon I am distinctly aware of three things.

First, there will those of you out there who disagree, passionately. Know that you are loved and respected, and in my case admired.

Second, political issues are complicated and detailed and one sermon will not be the solution to the problems of poverty or opportunity that our country faces.

And third, talking about a problem is all well and good but there must be a call to action, there must be a wave of individuals working, moving for what they believe in order for change to happen.

At its heart, the issue of Living Wage is about one simple idea. A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it.

"We look around every day and we see thousands and millions of people making inadequate wages. Not only do they work in our hospitals, they work in our hotels, they work in our laundries, they work in domestic service, they find themselves underemployed. You see, no labor is really menial unless you’re not getting adequate wages."

That is part of a speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. a little less than a month before he was killed in 1968.

There are numbers, I could bore with the details of how with inflation and standard of living increases that the minimum wage today has about 4 times less buying power than it did when originally enacted. I could tell you about how the increase in corporate profits is somewhere along the line 10 times that of the increase in minimum wage workers salary. I do encourage you to look up these numbers, do a search online, but for me the issue is about so much more then mere numbers.

I mentioned earlier how I believed that any call to social justice must also be a call to action. Words are not enough, but they are enough to make place to start.

Saint Vincent de Paul said, “It is not enough to give soup and bread; this the rich can do. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.” He was born poor you see, and at his families urging was ordained in the church. His intelligence and ability to organize had him quickly climbing the ladder of power in 17th century Europe.

In those times it was not unusual, and it may not be unusual now, for wealthy families to hire a private Chaplain to minister to them. Vincent was doing so in Paris in 1613 when he became increasingly aware of the peasants around him, peasants who were barely given enough food to survive, who in a very real sense where treated as less than human.

It is amazing to me that nearly 400 years later we are still talking about basically the same issue. We are still talking about how when people are left to live in poverty and shame they loose a portion of their humanity. They are treated as less, as unworthy, as a blemish to be tolerated (because we still need them to plow our fields, and build our homes) but to be otherwise ignored.

A month or so ago I went on a trip to Chicago. Any of you who have ever driven to the Windy City from here know that your trip takes you through Gary Indiana. Gary is one of our cities that was founded by a corporation, The United States Steel Corporation to be exact. Traveling down I-90 you will notice a few things about Gary. On the right you will first see the mill itself... it is huge, covering an expanse of land that in many ways feels shameful for some reason you cannot quite put your finger on. On the left, quite literally across the tracks you will see the city buildings, the quite pretty downtown area. And just a little further down the road the run down, barely standing homes of the people who live and work in the area.

The disparity of the people who serve the mill and the city and the corporation and city government itself is so obvious to an outsider as to be embarrassing, and I am sure an outsider would see the same driving through Akron as well.

The divide between the have and the have-nots has grown to a size not seen sense the days of St. Vincent de Paul. Not seen sense the industrial revolution, and we have a choice to make. Do we continue down the path were the vast majority of our neighbors remain uncared about and uncared for. Or do make a difference in their lives, in all our lives.

The first minimum wage laws where passed in the United State in 1938, and for sometime after that kept pace with economic and corporate growth. Many of us who work in manufacturing continue to earn fair wages and have a good quality of life. It may not surprise you to learn that many people who are working at minimum wage levels are employed by the government itself, and many others are working for industries that are subsidized by government funds.

The people who are living in abject poverty are most often the same people who are cleaning our public spaces, laundering our clothes, and preparing and serving the meals to those with wealth and power.

Once again we turn back the clock when in 1776 the year of the founding of our nation, the Scotsman Adam Smith said in his work “The Wealth of Nations” “It is but equity . . . that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged.”

Wages reflect our personal values and our nation’s values. Wages reflect whether we believe workers are just another cost of business—like rent, electricity or raw materials—or human beings with inherent dignity, human rights and basic needs such as food, shelter and health care.

The minimum wage is where society draws the line:

This low and no lower.

In 1966 martin Luther King Jr. addressed the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalists; and our current President William Sinkford was there and remembers;

Dr. King never lost hope. And we need to sustain our hope as well, to create our own “stone of hope.” I recall hearing those words, “stone of hope,” from Dr. King as I sat in a crowded room at the UUA’s General Assembly in Hollywood, Florida, in June of 1966, listening to him deliver the Ware Lecture. Dr. King decried militarism, economic injustice and the scourge of racism. He invoked the words of Jefferson and Lincoln, a call for Americans to live up to the ideals that this country was based upon. And he called for Unitarian Universalists to be part of this struggle, reminding us that “when the church is true to its nature, it stands as a moral guardian of the community and of society.”

Today I call upon Unitarian Universalists to honor Dr. King’s memory by renewing our commitment to peace and justice. I believe there will be backlash every time the circle of equality is widened, but I hew my stone of hope with these words: “The arc of the universe is long,” said Dr. King, quoting 19th century Unitarian abolitionist Theodore Parker, “but it bends toward justice.”

Have no doubt this is the work of the church, of our church.

Ginger Luke, the Director of Religious Education at River Road Unitarian Church says it better than I.

So is the living wage an important enough issue to engage the congregation in years of educating and dialogue? Is the living wage too specific an issue? What I believe wholeheartedly is that poverty in the United States is a religious and ethical issue, which threatens the very essence of the way we live. Poverty shatters the worth and dignity of our people.

Recently throughout Unitarian Universalism there has been much discussion about just what is it that binds us together as a religious community. We do not all believe alike, as I said earlier, we do not all think alike not theologically or politically. None the less our vision is grand and our religious community offers us nothing less than the opportunity to work together to make change in our world.

Prophetic voices throughout the ages have called upon their nations to show justice to the poorest and most vulnerable in society. The Prophet Amos exhorts the people of Israel, “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Then, and now, the assembled people of faith are called upon to establish justice for low-wage workers, whose cries are so often heard across our land.

Buddhist Master Tich Nhat Hanh says

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing,
and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to
work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals.

The Buddhist concept of Right Livelihood, or non-harmful ways of making a decent living, is understanding that we all need the basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. Grinding poverty, for those who are working as hard as they can, leads to constant suffering and fear. Everyone, without exception, wants to live with dignity and safety, in happiness and in peace. When we help others, we help ourselves.

The Persian Muslim Sufi Thinker, known to us as Saadi has this to say,

To worship God is nothing other than to serve the people.
It does not need rosaries, prayer carpets, or robes.
All peoples are members of the same body,
Created from one essence,
If fate brings suffering to one member
The others cannot stay at rest.

This is the work of people of faith; this is our work if we are brave enough to take it on. We believe that WE can make a difference. No one will do it for us, as Gordon McKeeman said from this pulpit “But, you say, we are so few… If we are few, it’s all the more reason for us to speak up with our lives.”

I ask that you please pray with me now.

Let the world be changed, for I long to see the end of poverty;
Let the rules be changed, for I long to see all jobs pay a wage that enables a life of dignity and sufficiency;
Let the rules be changed, for I long to see trade bring justice to the poor;
Let my life be changed, for I long to bring hope where good news is needed.
In the strength of Spirit and inspired by Compassion, I make this promise to work for change, to strive for justice, and carry always a message of hope and dignity,
To all of humanity.

Amen and May It Be

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