I heard this week about a couple in this county who have sent their children to stay with family in San Diego because they can’t earn enough to support them. They are undocumented workers who live in their car. Recently they were pleased to get work picking grapes in a vineyard. It was a big job and they worked late into the night for two days to pick all the grapes, looking forward to being paid at the end of it. When they had finished they were paid… $30 each.
It doesn’t matter that they are here illegally, it is unfair to employ anyone for two long days and then only pay them $30. There is no-one to whom they can complain. There is no-one in this county looking out for our migrant workers, especially those who are undocumented. In fact, no-one knows how many there are or where they live or what they get paid. When I drive down the road and see fieldworkers I give thanks to God for these people who do back-breaking work for long hours so that I may enjoy inexpensive fresh food.
Tomorrow is Labor Day, a holiday when we celebrate our workers and the labor movement. But the labor movement has largely passed San Luis Obispo by. There are two industries which are notorious for paying low wages – agriculture and hospitality – two industries which are very important here. But no-one knows how many workers there are or how much they are paid or where they live or how they manage to get by in this place where housing is so expensive. And the unions are not here. There is no-one speaking up for these workers. They are unseen and unheard.
Our first lesson this morning describes Moses being commissioned to set God’s people free from their taskmasters. Moses’ faithfulness and the events which led up to the Exodus are well-known. The Exodus – the deliverance of God’s people from oppression is the formative event in the life of the people of Israel – much like the story of the Mayflower is for Americans. As the spiritual heirs of the people of Israel it’s a formative part of our story too, one which we re-tell every year at the Easter Vigil. Often we interpret it metaphorically and spiritually. We think about how we have been delivered from sin and separation and brought into the new kingdom of God.
But it is also a story about social justice. It’s an account of how God heard the prayers of the people who were being exploited and sent Moses to fight for their rights. We live today in an unjust society. One of the aspects of God’s mission is to work for social justice, to work for a fair society in which all people are treated with respect, where everyone has enough to eat, everyone has health care, everyone has a home and everyone gets fair wages for their work.
It is God’s mission and so it is our mission. To work for a new and different society. The Anglican churches have always been active in the societies in which they live. For example, Church of England activists worked for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, and the Episcopal Church played an important role in the Civil Rights movement in this country. Today Episcopalians do quiet and important work for social justice in many different ways and many different campaigns. It is part of our mission to speak up against injustice and to work for equality.
Some people have expressed concern about the Church getting involved in politics. The Church needs to be involved in politics because it is from the political debate that social changes come. We may disagree about the best way for change to be carried out. That is the stuff of party politics and it is not appropriate for any church to advocate particular candidates or particular parties. That is why the IRS can challenge the non-profit status of churches which say that all Christians should vote Republican or that everyone must vote for candidates who have a particular point of view.
Moses challenged Pharaoh directly and personally. We don’t get to personally challenge our President in the same way, but that is what our representatives are for. In order for an issue to become important enough to be part of a Presidential platform or part of the promises a Congressional candidate makes, people have to care. People have to talk about the issue. Public opinion has to reach a critical mass. Our mission is to speak up for the disadvantaged, to speak up for the oppressed, again and again and again. Our work is to write letters to our representatives, write letters to the editor, show up for meetings, show up for marches, show that we care.
The pilgrim fathers and mothers came here hoping to create a new world of religious freedom and tolerance. That is why the writers of our Constitution separated church and state - so that no-one would be persecuted for their religious beliefs. It was not because they believed in a secular society, in fact quite the reverse. They expected and hoped that the religious values of the people would be expressed in the political process and the decisions that were made by state and federal government so that there would be one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.
They didn’t get it right anymore than we get it right today. Looking back we criticize their approach to the indigenous peoples and their support of slavery. I wonder what we’ll be criticized for most in a hundred years time? I imagine it’ll be for our failure to care for the most powerless in our world. And especially our failure to protect the planet and to prevent climate change which will have most impact on those already most vulnerable. Climate change is the single biggest social justice issue of our time. We need to do everything in our power to reduce our carbon output and to reduce the non-renewable resources we use.
And at the same time we need to be working to free the oppressed. The oppressed economically, socially and spiritually. Working for social justice is not an optional extra for us, it is part of our calling. So is bringing others to God. The exodus was about freeing people from oppressive working and living conditions. It was about setting people free economically. It was also about setting them free to know and serve the living God. The two go together.
For some of us it seems easier to work for social justice than to introduce anyone to God. Yet people around us are hungry for God as well as food. They long to be set free. They may not recognize it. They may use other words. Our mission is to witness to our own experience of the living God and to pray for those who need to find God.
So my challenge to you this morning is two-fold. Firstly to think of five people who seem to need God in their lives and to pray for them every day. Pray that they may find a life-giving relationship with the God who loves them unconditionally and that you may be given the words to talk to them when the time is right. And secondly, to decide how you will increase your work for social justice. What you will do to free God’s people from oppression. If you need help with either of those I’ll be happy to talk with you.
You may not feel confident. Neither did Moses. He asked for a sign. Listen to the sign that God gave him, Yahweh said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain." I will be with you and when you have done what I am asking you then you will be back here and that’s your sign… a sign that happens after the task is completed.
Moses had to go on faith. So do we.