Sermon: Lions, Lambs, and a Living Wage

A painting of a number of animals, including predators and prey, standing peaceably together.

November 17, 2019
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 65:17-25

by Eric Anderson

There are things I remember, and there are things I forget.

I remember watching the final strike in 2004 as the Boston Red Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1915. I don’t remember anything about the rest of the game. I don’t remember the score. I didn’t remember the year. I had to look it up.

I remember leaping around the room in sheer joy. Oh, yes. That I remember.

I remember joys, and injuries, and insults, and compliments, and disappointments, and triumphs in my life. I forget much of what came before them, and much of what went after.

A complete memory would be a burdensome thing.

When I come to the 65th chapter of Isaiah, there are things that I remember. They are familiar every time I read this passage (it was the Old Testament reading for Easter Sunday this year, so it’s not that long ago).

“New heavens and a new earth.” Since the author of Revelation quoted those words, they’ve reinforced my memory.

“Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” Ah, yes. There is the image of a loving, beneficent God.

And, of course: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Again, there’s a similar verse in Isaiah 11, so it gets reinforced. I don’t remember it that way, though. I tend to remember the lion and the lamb together, not the wolf and the lamb, or the calf and the lamb as it reads in Isaiah 11.

Alliteration is, it seems, something of a memory aid. Lion and lamb…

What I forget is this business in verses 21 through 23 about building houses and living in them, or planting vineyards and eating the fruit. After all, who does that in modern times? Contractors build homes for somebody else to live in. Grape growers don’t eat the fruit, they juice it and ferment it and sell the wine for somebody else to drink.

Neither one – and this is the point of these verses – neither one labors in vain. They gain the benefit of their work. The contractor gets paid. The vintner gets paid. They are able to survive, even to prosper.

“They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity.”

It’s a curious thing, this vision of Isaiah. When predators and prey aren’t consuming or being consumed by one another, we rightly understand the vision as utopian, as an ideal world. Yet there’s a mix here. Alongside this fundamental change in the world we understand, lions and lambs together, new heaven and a new earth, is a highly pragmatic set of social changes. Health care improvements that reduce the horrific rates of infant mortality in those times. Corrine L. Carvalho writes at Working Preacher: “…even in their best times, infant mortality and childhood disease were so great that only about 1 in 4 live births made it to adulthood. Women were often left infertile or even died from complications in childbirth. Today, these problems are still found in too many parts of the world, given the fact that we now have the technology to address many of these issues. For people who live in a world where childbearing is so fraught with danger, it is no wonder that paradise is a world where birthing is easy.”

Paradise for Isaiah, oddly, was not a land without death. Paradise was someplace where a person lived out a lifetime – a significantly extended lifetime even over what we know, but still, a lifetime. Isaiah couldn’t quite conceive of immortality, though Christians have read his words so pretty much for the last two thousand years.

And he didn’t imagine a perfect world as one without work, without labor. He just imagined that people would get paid for it.

That simple wish, that people gain the benefit of their toil, tells you a lot about the world in which Isaiah lived. It was a world in which people labored hard for very little. They built for others but had no homes. They planted for others and did not eat.

It’s a good thing we don’t live in a situation like that.

Except that we do.

Aloha United Way did a report based on 2015 statistics called “ALICE” – an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. In other words, these are the working people – let me emphasize working people – whose incomes do not match basic living expenses. That’s child care providers, retail sales clerks, waitstaff, cashiers, administrative assistants, janitors, housekeepers, landscapers, teaching assistants, restaurant cooks.

A family of four: two adults, one infant, and one preschooler needs to spend about $6,000 a month to afford a home, child care, food, transportation, health care, taxes, and miscellaneous costs. That’s $72,000 a year. $36.17 an hour at full time, or, I suppose, $18.09 if both adults work full time.

In case you’re wondering, 48% of the state’s families with children have income below their basic budget needs.

On this island, it’s 55%. Over half.

I have said this for years. In America, we value hard work right until it comes time to pay for it.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis, in 1989, 10% of Americans took home 42% of the income. In 2016, 10% of Americans took home 50%. In 1989, half of Americans took home 15%. In 2016, it fell to 13%. So no. As a nation, we are headed in the wrong direction.

Novelist Rene Denfield lived on the streets as a teenager, eventually becoming a licensed investigator with a public defender’s office. She wrote on Twitter this week, “A reporter asked me how I got off the streets when I was a homeless kid. I said, ‘I got a job at McDonalds.’ He blurted, ‘that’s embarrassing.’ No, it is not. Hard work is never embarrassing. What is embarrassing is how nowadays that wouldn’t pay the rent.”

Why doesn’t that embarrass us?

I keep hearing that some jobs should be starter jobs, that those employees don’t need a living wage because they’re supported by others at their homes. The ALICE numbers tell us that they’re making a significant contribution to their homes because the other incomes aren’t enough. I also look at who’s doing this work. Sure, there’s young people, high school age. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the U.S. as a whole, just under half of those making minimum wage are 25 years old or younger. And just over half are 26 years old or older. There’s people in their 30s and their 40s. There are people who are my age. There are people who I thought would have retired.

What does it say about an ancient nation that paradise looks like a living wage?

What does it say about us that paradise looks like a living wage?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written,

“The quality of human life on our planet is nothing more than the sum total of our daily interactions with one another.

“Each time we help and each time we harm we are dramatically impacting our world.

“As long as we are human, some of our interactions will go wrong, and then we will hurt or be hurt or both.

“It is the nature of being human and it is unavoidable. Forgiveness is the way we set those interactions right.

“It is the way we mend tears in the social fabric. It is the way we stop our human community from unraveling.”

Forgiveness, by the way, requires repentance.

It is probably not within our capacity to attain paradise, and persuade the employers of the United States that all their employees – all their employees – should have the dignity and the reassurance and the human daily interaction – as Bishop Tutu said, the human daily interaction – of a living wage.

So we do what we can. If we are employers, can we make the shift and direct more of the business’s income to the people who do the work? If we are customers, can we pay a fair price for what we buy? Can we tip appreciatively and well? If we are citizens, can we advocate for a living minimum wage? If we are workers, can we stand together with one another and insist that everyone receive a livable income?

Can we?

It’s Loyalty Sunday, and I should be summoning you to generosity on behalf of the Church, and specifically of Church of the Holy Cross. And I do. Please give. Please support our ministries of worship, of music, of study, of prayer, and of fellowship. Please do.

But please also support the working people around you. They deserve the dignity of work that sustains them in body, mind, and soul. Everybody does.

Paradise is a lion, and a lamb, and a living wage.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Lions, Lambs, and a Living Wage

This is one of the weeks that Pastor Eric added to the prepared text. It happens.

The image is The Peaceable Kingdom by Quaker artist Edward Hicks (ca. 1833-1834) – Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain, Hicks painted on this theme over sixty times in his life.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on November 17, 2019

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