What is it about the good stuff?

These are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 17 January 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 62: 1 – 5, 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11, and John 2: 1 – 11. This is also “Human Relations Sunday”.


I didn’t realize that there was a song entitled the “The Good Stuff” or that Kenny Chesney wrote it. But I had heard something with the words “good stuff” in it and I went “looking” for it on the Internet. Then I connected the words that I had heard from a television commercial with his song. This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the song or country and western music for that matter. But it does have a lot to do with the theme for this Sunday being Human Relations Sunday and the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As it happens, the anniversary of Dr. King’s death in Memphis is Easter Sunday this year, April 4, 2010, and I will be at the Dover United Methodist Church (Location of church) to lead the services. “Nathaniel Bartholomew” will be presenting part of the message; hopefully John Wesley and the woman at the well will join him in the celebration of the Resurrection. More details will come in the next few weeks. If you have not read either “Where were you on April 4, 1968?” or “On this day”, then please do so. It will give you some idea of my thoughts for this particular Sunday.

When you read the history of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, you will find that it wasn’t just a strike for better wages or better working conditions; it was also a strike for dignity and respect.

During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers were crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. (http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/memphis-v-mlk/ )

On February 12th, 1375 workers (sanitation workers and other Department of Public Works employees) went out on strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. At the time of the strike, workers were paid $1.70 per hour and were asking for $2.35 per hour; the city’s offer was a 5% hourly increase (or 8-1/2 cents).

It was this strike that brought Dr. King, rather reluctantly, to Memphis. But he understood that racial equality was very much tied to economic equality, so he came to Memphis. When you consider what has happened to the economy over the past few years, you have to wonder if people really care about equality of any kind.

Banking organizations argue that they are too big to fail and come begging for Federal money to save them. And both the present and the past administrations have blindly given them the money that they have requested. But all this has apparently done is to reinforce the notion that the rich can have what they want and the poor must suffer. The one single aspect of the economy over the past ten years or so is that the gap between the rich and the poor, those with and those without has gotten bigger and it looks like it will continue to get bigger.

And yet we continue to say that we are a Christian nation, committed to the ideals that Christ taught us some two thousand years ago. What happened to the money changers in the Temple? It was well known that they and the tax collectors routinely ripped off the common folk, charging exorbitant exchange rates and demanding more fees than were required or reasonable. Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple to show his anger with their behavior. Yet, it seems as if we merely put guards around our financial system and told the bankers to keep on doing what they have been doing.

When Martin Luther King came to Memphis in 1968, it was for equality, economic, social, and racial justice. Looking back over the past forty-two years, I am not entirely sure that we have changed that much.

Anytime there is a discussion of raising the Federal minimum wage, the conservatives hold true to form and say that this will destroy small businesses and they are opposed to the idea. But, from a business standpoint, what good does it do to allow big businesses to pay exorbitant salaries and bonuses to the upper level executives while the workers are struggling? It is time; in fact, it is long overdue that our discussion focuses on a living wage, not a minimum wage.

I wrote about the living wage back in 2006 when I gave the message “What If?” In it I noted that the city council of Chicago had voted to require Wal-Mart and other similar stories to pay their employees a living wage of $10.00 per hour with an additional $3.00 per hour in benefits by the year 2010. Wal-Mart replied that they would pull out of the Chicago market rather than do such a thing. Businessmen always seem to think that paying the employees a little bit more will do more harm than good, yet many companies have no problem giving upper level management ridiculously large bonuses.

I suppose that earning the minimum wage is alright if you can find a place where you can get by on $290 a week or $15,080 a year. Current Federal poverty guidelines state that the poverty line starts at $10,830 for one person, $14,570 for two persons, and $18,310 for a family of three (2009 Federal Poverty Guidelines). But the Federal guidelines don’t consider where you live or how many people are in your family.

Consider the following fiscal data for where I live in the state of New York. (The following data is from http://www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu/states/36/locations)

The living wage shown is the hourly rate that an individual must earn to support their family, if they are the sole provider and are working full-time (2080 hours per year). The state minimum wage is the same for all individuals, regardless of how many dependents they may have. The poverty rate is typically quoted as gross annual income. In this data, it has been converted to an hourly wage for the sake of comparison. Wages that are less than the living wage are shown in red.

Hourly Wages One Adult One Adult, One Child Two Adults Two Adults, One Child Two Adults, Two Children
Living Wage $10.82 $19.96 $15.86 $25.00 $31.99
Poverty Wage $5.04 $6.68 $6.49 $7.81 $9.83
Minimum Wage $7.25 $7.25 $7.25 $7.25 $7.25

These values are reflective of the community in which the person lives. If I go twenty miles north, the living wage for a family of two adults and two children drops to $28.98; if I go twenty miles south, the living wage for the same family goes up to $34.65. But it is more important to note when you consider the expenses for living in this area, a single adult working at the minimum wage does not earn enough to meet his or her basic needs (see the following table on typical monthly expenses). Is this right?

Typical Expenses

These figures show the individual expenses that went into the living wage estimate. Their values vary by family size, composition, and the current location.

Monthly Expenses One Adult One Adult, One Child Two Adults Two Adults, One Child Two Adults, Two Children
Food $237 $386 $458 $607 $756
Child Care $0 $624 $0 $624 $1,104
Medical $94 $186 $188 $280 $372
Housing $901 $1,103 $901 $1,103 $1,103
Transportation $278 $479 $556 $757 $958
Other $200 $393 $400 $593 $786
Monthly After-Tax Income That’s Required $1,710 $3,171 $2,503 $3,964 $5,079
Annual After-Tax Income That’s Required $20,520 $38,052 $30,036 $47,568 $60,954
Annual Taxes $1,995 $3,471 $2,943 $4,433 $5,580
Annual Before Tax Income That’s Required $22,515 $41,523 $32,979 $52,001 $66,534

Typical Hourly Wages

These are the typical hourly rates for various professions in this location. Wages that are below the living wage for one adult supporting one child are marked in red.

Occupational Area Typical Hourly Wage
Management $44.49
Legal $38.54
Computer and Mathematical $30.81
Architecture and Engineering $30.69
Healthcare Practitioner and Technical $30.13
Business and Financial Operations $27.51
Life, Physical and social Science $27.17
Education, Training and Library $23.04
Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports and Media $20.66
Construction and Extraction $20.54
Protective Service $20.45
Installation, Maintenance and Repair $18.61
Community and Social Services $18.48
Healthcare Support $18.48
Sales and Related $15.68
Production $14.82
Office and Administrative Support $14.33
Transportation and Material Moving $14.04
Farming, Fishing and Forestry $12.18
Building and Grounds Cleaning and maintenance $11.77
Personal care and Services $10.92
Food Preparation and Serving Related $9.64

These values are reflective of the area in which I live. There are changes in these values depending on where you might live. But it is quite clear that people in certain jobs are not going to make it at their present salary without some sort of assistance. So we might ask “Who gets the good stuff?”

When Jesus changed the water into wine at the wedding feast, everyone was surprised because it was a better quality wine than was being served. From some notes I had before, one used the good stuff first and then passed out the lesser quality wine at the end when no one could tell the difference. Yet, when all of the supposedly good wine had been served and more was needed, Jesus turned water into wine and the quality of the wine was better than what the caterer had brought.

Maybe I am wrong about this but it seems to me that when John wrote about this episode in Jesus’ life, he was thinking about the differences in society, the same differences that exist in our society. There is a standard for the rich; there is a standard for the poor and lower class. We see it in the economic strata; we see it in the healthcare debate. No one who has power is willing to say that perhaps all the people deserve the good stuff. To borrow an analogy from modern day sports, this is not about a salary cap or a luxury tax on higher incomes; it is about each person being able to do the job they want to do and receiving a fair and equitable wage, one on which they can support a family.

John Wesley is probably shaking his head in sorrow. All the work that he did for all the people seems to have been thrown away. He probably cries when he sees those ministers with the six figure salaries asking people to send them more money with the vague promise of a greater return. He wonders why they remember that he said it was okay to earn whatever you could but forget that he also said don’t do it through the exploitation of workers or that he also encouraged saving all you could and giving all you could. The good stuff isn’t what you have; it is what you give away.

I know that some will say that the people getting the big bonuses are expecting them and that such bonuses are written into their performance contracts. So be it, but when your company is going bankrupt, are you still entitled to a bonus? Is it ethical for an executive of a company to earn more in a bonus than any of the workers employed by the same company may earn in their own lifetime? The good stuff is not something you have; it is who you are and what you are to be.

This is not about giving people a handout or a free ride; it is not about using Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “God helps those who help themselves,” and calling it Biblical. It is saying “allow us to recognize each others’ gifts and make sure that all have a chance to use those gifts to the best of their ability.”

Go back and look at that table and tell me that those who learn management skills deserve a pay rate almost twice that of those who taught them. Go back and look at that table and tell me that those who serve the food at the restaurant where you eat deserve a salary that is below poverty and 1/3 of what others make. Explain to me that those who do the scut work in hospitals can barely make it on what they are paid and then are ignored by the people who expect the hospitals to be clean when they come to visit.

This is an international issue as well. Terrorism finds its beginnings in overseas factories where workers are paid minimal wages for goods to be sold here in this country.

And while I may be angry at the discrepancy between salaries, the situation that we find ourselves is one which we have created ourselves. We no longer care about the quality of goods that we purchase, though we complain loudly about the lack of quality. All we want is cheap goods.

Our society has become a massive marketing tool. We have even decided that adding the word “Christian” to the label automatically makes it better. Several years ago, someone opened up a restaurant in Memphis and called it a Christian restaurant. It would be run by Christians and it would be a place where you could bring your family for music and entertainment and expect it to be good, clean entertainment (which it was). But it didn’t last long, not because it marketed itself as a Christian enterprise but rather because the food wasn’t that good. If your product is not very good, how can you expect it to stay in business?

And if we call ourselves a Christian nation or one with Christian roots, yet we treat our workers with indifference and disrespect, what can we expect to receive? There wasn’t, to my knowledge, a single member of the Memphis City Council who wasn’t a church-going man. And they would have told you that they believed in Christ and His message. But they had twisted the message to meet their views; they had twisted the message in order to maintain a political and racial divide amongst the people. They had twisted the message and convinced the people that theirs was the message that God intended for us to hear. There are those today who are doing and saying the same thing.

When you treat someone else in a manner less than you demand you be treated, what can you expect in the way of service and performance? What can you expect when you keep the rewards all for yourself? Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Memphis because the city of Memphis had made it clear it did not consider the sanitation workers worthy employees.

The solution is a political one but the answer will not be found in Congress or any state legislature because we have told our Federal, state, and local legislatures that it is alright for you to take money from lobbyists as long as you don’t raise our taxes or put the burden on us; put it on someone else’s back. Politics comes from the people and the people will have to work out the answer; that makes it a social answer as well.

This is not a call for some radical new political party. Others are doing that now and it is simply an excuse for more of the same, of finding new excuses to keep the good stuff for one’s self.

It is, however, a call to stop and think about what you have done and what you are doing with what you have been given. Too many individuals have claimed the good stuff for themselves and are unwilling to share with others. We have seen what greed and avarice have done to our society and the world in which we live. As we move into this new decade, this unwillingness will do more to destroy the world than any weapon of mass destruction would ever do.

It is time that we stop and think about our relationship with God and with others. Our place in this world is determined by those relationships. The words of the prophet Isaiah speak to each one of us individually; they put our life in terms of our relationship with God, not our relationship with others. It is a relationship determined by how we maximize the gifts that God has given us and not by the views of others.

In a world where money and power determined status and acclaim, Jesus showed the people of the Galilee that one’s worthiness was truly determined by their own personal relationship with God. Martin Luther King would come to Memphis for the same reason.

To be deemed worthy by God without regard to status is an important distinction. It gives meaning to life far more than any amount of material goods can do. A person will do the best job possible if they know they are respected for their efforts; that is the good stuff. To hoard material things and to measure one’s goodness by that amount of stuff is not; it’s that simple.

But the message heard first at the wedding in Cana and then echoed through the streets of London and Memphis is a message that we are all entitled to the good stuff because we are all equal in the eyes of God. Shall we continue the way that we are headed, knowing that trouble can only result? Or shall we continue the work that began at the wedding, worked through the streets of London and Memphis and ensure equality for all?

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