Sermon for a Vigil to Witness the Lives of Undocumented Workers

The other day a congregational pastor friend and I hosted a dinner for our softball team.  It was our first year as a team and we decided to celebrate with a pig roast.  We decided to roast a whole pig in part for amusement, but also for the more serious reason of shortening the distance from farm to table.

We didn’t hunt the pig down, of course.  The closest thing to hunting we do is going to the grocery store, and I generally leave my spear and hunting cap at home.   Although we did cut the meat directly from the pig, I’m sure we missed something by not slaughtering the pig ourselves.

One of the blessings of our commercial economy, and its sophisticated system of coordination, is that we can get lots of what we want for very little.  We don’t spend a lot on food; we have many objects which make our life comfortable for cheap.  But the system is so complex that all the little agreements and exchanges that bring things into our lives and food onto our table become invisible.   A child knows that milk comes from a store; they are less likely to know that it came from Bessie, who lives on an Amish Farm or in an industrial dairy farm.

All along the way are persons and agreements that are rendered invisible and easy to ignore.   It makes it easy for products to get made, to be sold, and to buy.   We don’t think about how products become the things we buy, perhaps because we’re busy and careless, our lives are fragmented and we don’t have time to see.

Some of us, in the midst of having to pay attention to everything all the time – might even enjoy invisibility.   But invisibility is often the first step to  diminishing the humanity of another person, implicitly indicating they are unnecessary even though our entire system requires the work of people we have not seen and do not know.  They are, in many ways, offering their lives to us.

So we have this vigil.  Let us recognize here, this small gathering, that we don’t know how we’ll transform policy or  the souls of the farmers who employ our friends.  But as we light these candles and bear witness her we are simply saying:  we see you.  You are not invisible to us.   When Jesus is crucified the church demands us to look:  do you see Him?  Look.  Just look.    This is what was required for the sake of your peace.  Let it not be invisible any more.  Let it be seen and known by you.

As the church we are called to see what had once been invisible; a system where we are all willing participants, complicit and cooperative, in violence.  But we do not end there.  Elaine  Scarry writes that the body under torture is voiceless.  The  pain cannot truly be known by another person.  Through the constant imposition of pain, and the tortured becomes separated from his or her own physicality, dissembled and diminished.

And our responsibility as a church is to offer that voice.

We may not get it right.  We may not have the perfect policy answer.  We tread with great humility in the atriums of power that can impose their will for the sake of either profit or justice.   But we can say something.  And through this voice,  we reassemble the body, and it looks a lot like a body with whom we should be familiar.

We may not always know what to say.  Perhaps we just begin with a gesture – pointing to what had once been invisible.  Or may be just say “I am.”  The first step of becoming visible.  “I am.  I exist.  I am how food gets on your table.  I am here.”   This is the voice of the voiceless.

It may give us life as well.  It is as the Father says to us, “I am.  Here.  With You.”  This is what we say this evening.   “I am.  Here.  With You.”  It may not alter the world in its entirety – that, perhaps, is for God.  But we by seeing them, by hearing them; by giving them a voice, we offer a little  space, breathings space, the possibility of salvation.  “I am. Here.” they say.  And as the Father says, as the Son says also, “I see you.  I am here.  With you.”


Gratitude and the Commercial Society

Are we losing our ability to express gratitude?

Is it perfunctory and ritualized?  The casual way we say thank you to a clerk or the worker at the DMV?   Perhaps our fees are enough gratitude; more seems cloying or inauthentic.  Simply handing over the cash without robbing the person on the other side fo the counter is good enough.

And it’s amazing that we do so.  The everyday exchanges we make without fear of violence is remarkable.  Strangers who look different from me take my money and give me french fries, shoes, and repair my window panes.

But when I cater an event, I usually thank the volunteers – not the caterer himself.   When the church throws a potluck, I have a long list of individuals to name when I’m addressing the crowd.  But all a caterer asks for is to have a sign and a few business cards.

Admittedly, sometimes I appreciate the “holy indifference” of a commercial society.  I don’t need to thank Anne for the awful Smuckers meatballs she made.  If people like the caterer they can get her card.   If someone is thankful for the caterer, they get her business.

When I hand over the cash, however, I don’t need to feel anything.  The exchange is done.  I’m free of the need to feel gratitude.   I don’t feel gratitude for my phramacy; I do feel thankful for my doctor.

I also don’t go to the DMV and feel gratitude; I rarely hear gratitude about schools, but for particular teachers.  WE’re in the habit of blaming the state for whtever goes wrong:  we take pot-shots at the post-office or the DMV, without considering the amount of work that both institutions do, or at the percentage of successes they have.  But governments are less responsive, surely, to the information pricing gives.  One expresses gratitude to a government by reelecting officials rather than buying the products over again.

It’s important to remember that we may feel, or lack, gratitude in part because of the system of relationships we’re in.  Commerce and government can economize gratitude, diminishment, or price it.  For some, the state diminishes the impact of gratitude by regularizing social welfare; commerce does the same by pricing it.

Gratitude is worth cultivating, and one way is through parties.  It’s easier to justify gratitude when there’s a celebration than when in a long line at the DMV.   Markets don’t need to do this, although corporations are more likely to through making good will gestures to the community and funding charity events.

I’m not likely to express gratitude to Apple, thought I might like their computers; or to Honda because I drive one; or to my high school.  I appreciate those who gave me advice about the computer, came with me to buy a new car, and taught me how to write.   All of these relationships happened within the context of engaging other institutions.    But I suspect paying a service fee may quantify the amount we are gratified; but it can replace that emotion, rather than develop or harness it.  This is oen of the spiritual dangers of capitalism, in spite of its many blessings.

I’m broadly grateful that we live in a commercial society; I think it would be stronger if our public institutions mitigated the “winner-takes-all” elements of our culture.  I’m skeptical that people who make more than $4 million dollars a year are more deserving of their wealth than the needy.  It seems to me that those making that kind of money would have a great amount of gratitude for being citizens of the country, and support this country’s institutions.  But perhaps instructing people in gratitude may inspire resentment rather than promote generosity.   Or we may be inaccurate assessors of the real price of the objects we value.

At the very least, it may have merit that in all our encounters to bless the usefulness of the persons before us in our economic and political life.