A Simple Act

Here are my thoughts for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scriptures are Proverbs 31: 10 -31; James 3: 13 – 4:3, 7 – 8; and Mark 9- 30 – 37.


This is not a pro-union piece even though I am decidedly a union man (I have been a member of the UAW and SEIU as well as the American Federation of Teachers). I have seen enough instances where union leadership was in bed with management to not trust the “paper” that they both sign. And there are many unions today where the leadership has been corrupted by the same allure of power and greed that, to me, dominates upper levels of management in most companies.

I have worked for at least one boss who would have busted the union at the drop of a hat. It wasn’t that he was against the workers but he resented the intrusion of union management into the operations of the plant. I also know that even without the union, the working conditions in that plant would not have deteriorated and our benefits package would have been a good and reasonable one. But when the union protested this manager’s policies, the company fired him and brought in a new manager. The plant was closed within a year because it was no longer productive and I will always attribute that move by management to the discord that existed between the new management and the union leadership. I have seen other companies close their plants rather than work with unions as well.

But, were it not for unions, working conditions in this country today would probably be no different from working conditions in the 18th and 19th centuries and children would still be working in the mines and factories like they were when John Wesley first began his ministry. Were it not for the union movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s, there would probably be no middle class in this country today, merely peasants and serfs working for the lords and ladies of the manor.

I have relatives who worked in the mills of North Carolina where anti-union tactics were used to maintain segregation. The white workers were told that unions would bring in black employees and put them out on the street, so the white workers blindly followed their management and said “no” to unions. Of course, management didn’t do anything to make the working conditions in the mill any better (and believe me, working in the mills in the 1950’s and 1960’s was not an easy job). When the white workers began to find out that they were being used by management, things began to change. Now, of course, to keep from unionizing the plants and the mills, companies have closed the mills in the south and shoe factories in the small towns of the mid-west and sent the work to factories to Mexico, Taiwan, and even mainland China where working conditions are reminiscent of the “good old days”, where the workers are legally exploited and the workers in this U. S. are just plain out of luck.

I suppose it could have been worse if Crystal Lee Sutton hadn’t held up that sign the day they fired her. As the stories on Truthout noted (“You Probably Knew Crystal Sutton” and Real “Norma Rae” Dies of Cancer After Insurer Delayed Treatment”), you probably wouldn’t recognize that name but she was the union organizer that Sally Field played in the movie “Norma Rae”. She was fired for trying to organize a strike and get a pay raise from $2.65 to $2.73 in 1973. But before she left, she stood up with a sign saying “union” and the workers went on strike. A simple act was all it took and the nature of workers’ rights in a mill in North Carolina changed.

Crystal Lee Sutton died last week of brain cancer and she was engaged in another struggle. This time, it was with over health care. The battle for workers’ rights is more than wages, benefits, and working conditions. It is for the right of the individual, any individual, to be treated fairly and equally. Her act of holding up a sign was a simple one but it changed a system.

Another individual walked to the Indian Ocean one day and picked up a few grains of salt from the beach where the water had evaporated. This was a violation of British laws that prohibited Indians from owning or processing raw salt. But this simple act by Gandhi, of picking up grains of salt on April 6, 1930, would ultimately bring down the British Empire and result in independence for India and Pakistan.

A black lady, going home from work one day, was hot and tired. So she sat down in the first seat that she came to on the bus. But the law said that she had to sit in the back of the bus and not the front where the available seat was and if another person, a white person, demanded that seat, she was to give it up. But Rosa Parks would not get up and with that simple act of defiance on December 1, 1955 initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott which was the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

On February 1, 1960, four young black college students sat at the lunch counter in a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter. Normally, we would think that the simple act of sitting at a lunch counter or in a booth at a diner was nothing special. But then and there, the seats at the counter and in the booth were for “whites only”; blacks had to stand if they wanted to eat there.

The four young men were refused service and told they had to leave, they politely said “no” and remained seated. This simple act of defiance was the first successful sit-in; six months of peaceful, non-violent protests would ultimately lead to the counter and seats being open for all customers, regardless of their color. It would spread throughout the south and helped to end segregation in public facilities. This simple act of civil disobedience brought attention to the differences between people when we create laws and rules that control what we can do.

The sad part about this is that we haven’t learned yet that all humans are the equal. Many people today still treat people in accordance with the color of their skin, the nature of their religion, their sexuality or their economic status rather than the content of their character.

By the simple act of holding a child on His lap, Jesus would change the nature of society. In the Gospel reading for today, we are told that the disciples were arguing amongst themselves as to who would be the greatest, who would hold the seat of power in the God’s Kingdom on earth after Jesus was crucified.

Jesus put a child among them and said that who ever would welcome a child would welcome Me. How many times in the Gospel have we read where an act of Jesus ran counter to the traditions and mores of society? And how many times did the powers-that-be and elites of society rebel at that thought and reject those actions?

It is not immediately clear what the disciples thought when Jesus did this. The whole purpose for Jesus putting the child among the disciples was to show the nature of what they were getting into; that society would not remain the same in God’s Kingdom. This little demonstration was prompted by Jesus because the disciples were arguing about who would take His place after His death.

Was Jesus’ act of holding the child spontaneous? Or was it a wise use of the moment? Did Jesus use this simple, singular act to illustrate a point that went beyond traditional or normal thinking?

As James points out in the second lesson, you cannot follow the rules of the world if you expect to be wise and understanding. Everything about the rules of this world is counter to the rules of God’s Kingdom. Why is it that the writer of Proverbs so vividly rejoices in the wisdom and virtue of a woman? And notice also how the woman in that reading is hardly the model that so many fundamentalists today say women should be.

Our use of wisdom is to keep the worldly ways and wonder why nothing seems to work. The ways of the kingdom are not often easily understood. To take on the world, to make that one simple act, you must be prepared and you must be prepared. If we are to face the world, if we are to change the world, then we must seek the wisdom that God offers us.

Gandhi told those who marched with him on the salt march that Britain wouldn’t cave in when they picked up the salt crystals; Rosa Parks knew that she would go to jail for her act of disobedience and the black people who rode the buses had to work together to get people to work without the busses during the boycott. David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil, the four young men who began the Woolworth sit-in knew that what they were doing and what those who would join in their protest would be meet with very stiff resistance. You cannot make that simple act without wisdom, the type of wisdom that James speaks of in the second reading, the type of wisdom the writer illustrates in the reading from the Old Testament.

We are challenged today to see beyond the limitations of this world, a world in which the rich, the powerful, the economic elite dominate. We are called to see beyond a world in which there is little hope, where justice does not flow like a river and only those with money are entitled to care. We are called to bring forth a message of hope and equality, of righteousness and justice; we are called to bring forth the message that offers health to the sick, compassion to the dying, and justice to the oppressed and downtrodden. Injustice in all forms need not be accepted just because that is the norm. Justice must be pursued and established authority be confronted. One person can make a difference. (Adapted in part from http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=13244)

That is what Gandhi did; that is what Rosa Parks did; that is what David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil did, and that is what Crystal Lee Sutton did.

On March 11, 1930, a group of people began a march to the sea, solely to pick up some grains of salt. And though they were beaten and some were killed, in the end, the British Empire began to crumble and the world changed.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white woman and the Montgomery bus boycott began. In the end, the laws that segregated the busses of Montgomery, Alabama were changed.

On February 1, 1963 four young men sat at a lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. They sat there patiently, waiting for service that never came. And when the store closed for the day, they went home only to return the next day. But this time, there were fifteen others and then 300 and then 1000. The world changed with one simple, purposeful act.

In May, 1973, a young mother held up a sign on which she had written “union.” She had been fired for even thinking that to unionize was a possibility. But in the end, her efforts brought about change.

Each one of us can be that one person who makes the difference. All it takes is one simple act; to open one’s heart and mind and accept Christ as your Savior. With that act, things begin to change. The world can no longer be seen in the same light as it was before.

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