Text: Exodus 5; Jeremiah 29:4-7
Police found Maria Fernandes dead in her car on Monday night, parked in a convenience-store parking lot in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The 32-year-old Fernandes was trying to catch a few hours of sleep between jobs. She was wearing her Dunkin’ Donuts uniform when police found her. A friend and fellow employees told officials that Maria worked as many as four jobs trying to make a living. It came to light this week that Maria was working at four different Dunkin’ Donuts franchises and that the owners didn’t know she was working at multiple restaurants. She worked as little as 10 hours a week at one franchise and as many as 40 hours a week at another—all to make a living wage. Maria died from gas fumes in her car. Investigators found that fumes in her car were caused by a gasoline container that had spilled in the back. Friends told police that she kept a gas container in her car to avoid running out of gas when traveling between jobs, and that she often slept in parking lots to get a few hours of rest between jobs.
Maria’s death is a chilling reminder of the struggle low-wage workers and day laborers face today making ends meet, especially women. One journalist writes: “Frenandes’ death is one of many recent examples of the extreme lengths to which low-income women must go to make a living these days. Shanesha Taylor was charged with felony child abuse in March after she left her two children in the car while she went on a job interview. Debra Harrell was arrested in July after leaving her 9-year-old daughter to play in a park alone while she worked at McDonald’s. Jannette Navarro told The New York Times of the difficulty of her erratic schedule at her $9-per-hour job at Starbucks, which prompted the company to change its scheduling policy.” But it’s not just women who are struggling to find work that pays them a living wage today. In our city and in cities all across our nation women and men of all ages are looking for work that not only pays a living wage but adds purpose and meaning; respect and dignity to their lives.
William Faulkner once observed, “You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day—all you can do for eight hours is work.” For those of you who want to take issue with Faulkner, and I know you are out there, just email me this week. But seriously, work is such a huge part of our lives—not only for monetary purposes but in the various ways that our work forms our identity and gives meaning to our living. In his 1972 book, Working, Studs Turkel describes the search of all people who work for a level of meaning in their employment that transcends the actual monetary compensation they may receive for it. It is a search, he writes, “for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor [apathy]; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
For so many in our society, it’s hard to hear someone talk about daily meaning in their work when the four jobs they are working doesn’t pay enough to buy the daily bread needed to feed their family. Or when their society calls them lazy because they are exhausted from going between low paying job to low paying job to low paying job and they finally decide to take one day off. Yes, the pharaohs are alive and well in our world today.
When I read the story from Exodus chapter 5 my first thought was, “so much changes, and yet nothing changes.” Here is a narrative from 6th century BCE that describes so accurately the 21st century social and economic reality. The pharaohs still exists—take your pick of any number of huge corporations who create individual wealth at the top on the backs of millions of low wage laborers. The taskmasters and the supervisors still exist—those who keep asking and expecting workers to do more with less. A few Moses and Aarons still exist, but only a few—those brave souls who stand in the public square and call out for justice for the poor. The workers who the system abuses still exist—the many who harvest the food we eat every single meal, who work in inhumane, unsafe working conditions so that Pharaoh’s grocery store can sell us the chicken and pork and hamburger meat that we will put on our tables this Labor Day weekend. The question that our faith asks, as always, this Labor Day is how do we participate in that system? How are we Pharaoh and the taskmasters in our own small ways?
I don’t ask the question to shame us or make us feel guilty. I ask the question so that we might reflect on and evaluate our role in broken system; and to consider what we might do as people of faith to seek the welfare of our city, our state, our nation, our world—the welfare of our fellow human beings.
As we observe Labor Day, it is important that we recognize and honor the labor of the people sitting here in the congregation. And to affirm the work of all, the vocation of all, the contribution of all. Our welfare is connected to the welfare of other workers who make up our society and vice versa. So we can’t simply recognize the work we do, or the work “they” do, we have to stand together and fight for the rights of all workers, and for all to work. And what does that look like in our society today? Among the many things it looks like, it looks like us marching for workers’ rights. It means knowing who is running for political office who supports raising the minimum wage. It means knowing which companies pay a livable wage and which ones don’t, and patronizing the ones that reflect our values. It means making sure our communities have affordable housing options, and that we welcome those who live in those housing options as good citizens, good neighbors, and good people. It means that all of our families can afford health care. And that when we go to our children’s schools and serve in the PTA that we make sure day laborers have the same access to being part of their child’s education that others do. It means that in our state where we have lagged in labor unions that we support labor unions.
There are tangible things we can and should do to support workers in our society – all workers. And I am proud that this church, this congregation, this body that is a reflection of Jesus is committed to such actions. But I want us to also be willing, this Labor Day, to rethink who we are willing to credit as “workers.” I want us to consider how we feel about work, about those who work, about those who want to work but struggle to find work, and also, for those who, for reasons unknown, do not work. I want us to be willing to recognize our own judgments, our own biases of who works hard enough, long enough, who “paid their dues” so that they have a good income now, those who are worthy of our recognition. As I read the Exodus and Jeremiah passages, I am reminded again of the collective Israel. It is the nation of Israel that God calls to worship in the desert. It is the nation of Israel that is targeted for punishment by Pharaoh. And it is the nation of Israel that God promises to bless in Jeremiah. What strikes me about this Exodus story is the fact that it never focuses on which tribe or individuals of the nation of Israel were working the right jobs? Which were getting enough straw and which weren’t? Who exactly was to blame for the shortfall? These passages that we reference on Labor Day are not about the individual laborers, they are about the collective community and the whole of the body. So I would ask us this Labor Day to push ourselves to remember that all of us are workers. All of us are the laborers in the field. And our welfare is connected to one another. When we march for the rights of our brothers and sisters working in the cucumber fields in Mount Olive, North Carolina we are marching for their welfare and ours—for in their welfare we find ours. When we stand up and advocate for safe working conditions for the workers in the chicken and hog processing plants in Hamlet and Sanford and Smithfield we are advocating for their welfare and ours—for in their welfare we find ours. When we march and protest to raise the minimum wage in our state and in our nation, we are marching for the welfare of day laborers and low wage workers all across our nation—for in their welfare we find ours. And when we support labor unions we show respect and honor to the many women and men who make up America’s work force—and in their welfare is ours.
This past week, our national community failed Maria Fernandes. We asked her to not only make the donuts. We asked her to plow the ground, to grow the wheat, to make the flour, to make the donuts. We asked her to do more with less. And under the weight of that burden she died trying to get a few minutes of rest between her four jobs. But here’s the thing, a part of us died with Maria—for her welfare was inextricably connected to ours. This past week, our national community not only failed Maria Fernandes, we failed thousands and thousands of other laborers who don’t make a living wage, who work in plants that are unsafe, who are asked to do more with less.
But the story doesn’t end there. Eventually, the Israelites were freed from Pharaoh’s oppression and the people entered the land—a place, an existence—that God had promised them. Throughout history, great women and men of faith have kept their eyes on that promised land—where all people are free, where all people live and work with respect and dignity, where all people are seen as God’s beloved. As we celebrate this Labor Day, we must keep our eyes on that promised land where justice rolls down like a mighty stream, where every laborer finds daily meaning as well as daily bread, recognition as well as a living wage, and life rather than death. We must keep our minds set on that promise land for the thousands of Maria Fernandeses of our world. For in their welfare we find ours.
For the work each of you do in this world, thanks be to God. For our collective work to ensure the welfare of our city, our state, and our nation…
Lord, listen to your children praying,
Lord, send your Spirit in this place.
Lord, listen to your children praying,
Send us love, send us power, send us grace.