These reflections are a slightly edited version of a sermon preached on September 2 at St. Francis Church.
Labor Day is a creation of the labor movement, intended as a holiday for workers. It’s unclear whether it was it first suggested by Peter McGuire, General Secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners or Matthew Maguire, a machinist who later became Secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J. What we can say is this: the first Labor Day holiday was celebrated 130 years ago, on September 5, 1882 in New York City and the idea spread. By 1885, Labor Day was being celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.
This day isn’t about remembering a particular moment in Jesus’ life. It’s not a Christian holiday, but a national day like Thanksgiving or Independence Day. Even so, The Book of Common Prayer gives us readings and a collect for all three days. Just as we focus on gratitude at Thanksgiving, and freedom on Independence Day, so, too, there are some theological themes worth pondering today. The collect appointed for the day goes like this:
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Our lives are linked together. We need each other. I can't do surgery. I suppose I could kill and de-feather a chicken if I had to, but I’d rather not. I can sew a button on a shirt, but I couldn't make my own clothes if my life depended on it. Each of us need other people to do the things that sustain us, even if we don't know their names: farmers and ranchers and fashion designers and textile workers and teachers and that person at the other end of the phone trying to help us fix our computer problems. So Labor Day gives us an opportunity to reflect on community, on why we need others and why they need us, too - and why the work we do matters.
As the calendar turns to September, what would it look like for us to each be more intentional every morning as we take that first sip of coffee or tea about being more mindful of these connections, and giving thanks for those others who make our lives possible?
Our lives are linked together. Who started saying anything other than this? Who started spreading the lie that we are self-reliant and that we need no one but ourselves? We need each other because this is how God has made us. We don't all have to know how to fix the electricity or rebuild the levies after a hurricane. But somebody needs to know how to do that, and they need to do it well and faithfully because the rest of us are counting on them. Whether we preach, teach, mop floors, care for the sick, dig ditches, or run multinational corporations, we are called to do the work that God has given to do not only for our own sakes or to earn a paycheck, but for what these days may sound almost old fashioned: for the COMMON good.
“In the beginning,” we are told in the Book of Genesis, God’s plan for human beings, male and female, was to tend the Garden. Work in that narrative is not a punishment, but an invitation to be co-creators with God. That is an awesome invitation: to share with God in the work of caring for this fragile earth, our island home. It is true that according to the story, labor (in every sense of that word) gets harder after Adam and Eve violate God’s prohibitions and eat of the forbidden fruit. But that doesn’t make work itself a punishment.
So this weekend also gives us a chance to reflect on the Christian notion of vocation—or calling. No one probably helped the Church do this better than Martin Luther, who insisted that it was not only clergy who are “called” to ministry, but all of God’s people. One of the challenges is that we tend to limit our idea of work to what we get paid for. Sometimes we are lucky enough to get a paycheck for our work. But unfortunately, our pursuit of money can also get in the way of really attending to the work that God would have us do. How many of you know people who are stuck in jobs they find unfulfilling for a paycheck, who even have chosen not to pursue their true calling, because it was too risky or because it didn’t pay enough? As our young people return to college campuses this week and we pray for them I hope we will all pray that even in a tough economy (and maybe especially in a tough economy) they will be discovering their own particular gifts and talents and ultimately pursue work that allows them to use those gifts, work that allows them to discover their true calling: where their great joy meets the needs of this world.
Whatever work God gives each of us to do—even what we love and maybe especially what we love—we still need to be careful that it is not all that we are. Hathy and I have dedicated the past 22 years to being parents together. (The work is very fulfilling even if the pay isn't great.) And I know that work is never finished. But this weekend, for the first time in almost twenty-two years, it’s just the two of us again. For the first time since we moved to Holden in 1998, we have two empty bedrooms. All of you who have navigated the so-called “empty nest” stage know that as important as the work of parenting is, even it cannot be the sole source of our identify. As one chapter ends and a new one begins, there is both a loss of what is familiar and a chance for rediscovery. Everyone keeps telling me that it doesn’t take long at all to do that, by the way. I see this same possibility for growth when people navigate retirement: for a while at least they literally wonder who they are when they are not at work.
In the collect for today we also prayed for those who are unemployed. Even as some suffer from an addiction to work and too much on their plates, others are looking for work. And that’s too many of us in these hard economic times. Yet it is hardly a recent phenomena. I’ve been the pastor at St. Francis for almost fifteen years and I don’t think that there has been a single day during my tenure where there wasn’t at least one member of the congregation who was not unemployed. It’s hard on families not only financially but because of all the unknowns and the truth is that people cope with fear and anxiety very differently. It's hard not to lose hope. So we pray on this Labor Day weekend for those who are unemployed.
I was taught from a very young age that work matters and that we should do every job well, no matter how seemingly menial it may be and whether or not we happen to be paid for it; that there is an inherent dignity in a job well done. But even so, it is still what we do, not who we are. I know nurses, and teachers, and plumbers and craftsmen and musicians and business people who are as blessed as I am to actually get a paycheck to do work that they love. Even so, I am clear that being a priest is not the equivalent of my whole vocation. Every spiritual director I have ever had (three so far) has reminded me more than anything else that my vocations as husband and father and son and friend and as a beloved child of God are as much a part of the work God has given me to do as being a priest. They remind me of this because they know that too many clergy forget this, and that too many spouses and children of too many priests end up resenting the church when clergy do forget. I suspect that politicians and businesspeople and others may also be prone to this same problem.
Work requires some sense of balance, and a need from time to time to step back. There was this cartoon a few years back in The New Yorker: two people are lying on a blanket at the beach. There is a sailboat on the horizon. The woman is reading a book (the old-fashioned kind since the cartoon is pre-Kindle.) The man has his laptop open. The caption says, “I’m not a workaholic. I just work to relax.”
In our day, especially, work can be all consuming. With our smartphones we are rarely disconnected. In some cases this is a good thing: it can allow us to work from home or even the beach. But there is a downside and that is that we never get unplugged. Work increasingly intrudes into every moment of our lives and the emails may come 24/7.
And so we neglect to take Sabbath rest. Somewhere along the line we got the notion, especially in Protestant circles, that Sabbath was about all the things you cannot do. But Sabbath is meant for play: to be together with God and with each other. It is meant for being, rather than simply doing all the time.
So maybe this Labor Day weekend is a chance to recommit ourselves to a more natural rhythm of life, the rhythm the ancients knew was built into creation itself. After all, even God took a break after six days. If we are in fact made in God’s own image, then we need to find that same rhythm of work and rest. Our bodies need it. Our souls need it too.