Thinking Outside the Bottle

Living Wage Sunday

October 10, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Ancient Testimony ~ from Amos 2:6-8

Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel . . . I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way . . . and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.


One of our community ministers introduced me to my hypocrisy this week when he said, “Here we get paid to work ten but we end up working sixty.  I don’t know how else to do it around here.”  At our staff meeting last week, the majority of the staff announced a kind of internal strike: no additional tasks, unless there is some additional money.  Or help.  We are facing slowly into the fact that our programs and people have doubled, or more, in the last few years, and that our staff has not.  Only their work loads, not their salaries.

We had to table the discussion at the staff meeting.  I couldn’t really respond because I was so busy preparing my living wage sermon, while assigning just one more task to each of the above mentioned, if he or she or they had a minute.  There is nothing wrong with a little hypocrisy but a lot starts to smell up the place.

So let me surely rejoice in the idea of a living wage.  Let me love how we traded places with each other for the opening liturgy.  Let me love the way you all motioned things you love doing, when we said the word “Spirit” in the song.  Some of you turned a spoon, others prayed, still others ran.  You didn’t have to pay to do these things.  You were paid the wage of the Spirit, which is the wage of abundance, anyway, anyhow, anytime.

We only sort of want to trade places with low wage workers.  Welcome to the restaurant workers who are here today, especially the one who told us that the little he made was often stolen before he left work.  We support the living wage, but in a way that the Spirit tells us.  We want people to be heard and appreciated as well as being paid, although it is pretty hard to see the appreciation without the check.

The giant thirteen and a half-pound chicken mushroom on the altar table today was found along the side of a road, in the woods, facing north.  In about an hour’s worth of time on the phone and email, we sold her to a very high-end Manhattan restaurant for $100.00.  She will be soup by the evening.  Yet another example of great resources and low costs.  But the presence of this forage here today reminds me how often restaurant workers are foraged, bought low, and sold to the high.

At the Judson retreat, we realized that we have many resources and little money.  For today I want to stay right there.  Each of us has many resources, even if we don’t have much money.  Each person, even if they are paid a minimum wage, is a person of value and worth and resource.  When we think about money too much—even the living wage—we forget how rich we actually are.

Consider thinking outside the water bottle when it comes to the difference between money and resources.  We don’t pay enough for most things.  France is on a general strike because the people have figured out that their government bailed out the banks and now wants the people to bail out the government.  What a concept.  In today’s world, just about nothing is priced right.  The cost is too high and the money too low.  That goes from our Judson staff to water bottles to governments and economies in recession.  The price of things just ain’t right. Peter, in our office, does more than most bankers would think about doing in any given day.  And he gets a low wage.

Think with me about the water bottle… that thing that so many of us buy, which actually comes out of a tap.  Again, I can’t bear to guilt you anymore.  So: I will not say that I’d like to ban plastic bottles round here.  I wish I had that power.  Or the power to get everyone a living wage.  Every time I see a water bottle, all I can think of is women and children walking twenty miles a day to fetch water.  We who could get it out of a tap don’t even respect it enough to just drink it that way.  This is called having lots of money but few resources.  It is a resource to be able to care about a woman who walks for water.  It is a resource to be able to appreciate her even if you can’t figure out how to get water for yourself except in a bought bottle.

Instead of guilting you about the difference between you and her, I can say that I’d like you to think about water as a resource, not a commodity; to think of yourself as a resource, not a commodity; to think of the poor and the underpaid as a resource and not a commodity.  What follows from that resourceful thinking is appreciation, in a world that suffers a gap in wages and also a severe appreciation deficit disorder.

And I’d like to show you what I mean.  A resource is the experience of fullness or of being appreciated.  Instead of sending you out to do more work, at a rapidly decreasing wage, I’d like to send you out of here appreciated for what you are and who you do.  I will demonstrate.

[At this point I picked out about a dozen people in the congregation and thanked them for their gifts to Judson.]

Appreciation is great, but it doesn’t help us make the decisions we need to make to get to living and wages.  This week, I hosted several of you in very painful appointments about how Judson was “over-promising and under-delivering.” Your messages were clear, honest, true.  We say we can be truly present to each other, that we can be a sanctuary for the magnificent arts of the spirit—and then we don’t return your phone call or answer your email.  Or we say that magical word, NO, and your feelings are hurt.  Instead of following the business mantra of under-promise and over-deliver, Judson does the opposite.  We also repeat our shortcoming, and will do so again and again.  Our staff is on overload, so there is a way in which I hope you don’t over-respond to this sermon.  We may again over-promise and under-deliver.  I marvel that in a place so touched by the biblical text of “shorting” that we so often short.  We pay our incredible administrative assistant what the market will bear.  Likewise our administrator and facilities coordinator.  Then we preach rousing sermons on how it is wrong to sell the poor for a pair of sandals (while overworking the community ministers).  Judson, in fact, under-prices itself all the time—and then we wonder why we feel so short in the world of the tall.  We sell our treasure for a pair of sandals.

Houston, we have a problem.  It is the short between the promise and the delivery.  In the distance between the price and the cost.  The way so many of us feel overworked and underappreciated; the way the minimum wage is a travesty of justice.  The way the rich continue to sell the poor for a pair of sandals.  Houston, we have a problem.

I can’t guarantee a political sea change that would bring in the living wage today.  If I could, I would.  But I dare not assign you another task.  Instead, let me end with appreciation, that resource that is boundless.  Let us trade places with each other as a destination—and learn the great art of thanksgiving as a start.

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