Last week I ran across an article written by Elesha Coffman ten years ago in which she wrote: “Unless you are part of the United Church of Christ, you likely do not know that Labor Sunday is coming up…” Now, Dr. Coffman is an intelligent woman—she has a Ph.D. from Duke and teaches at Baylor—but she’s been missing something. She continued: “I've never encountered this observance in a lifetime of attending assorted denominational and non-denominational churches.”
Obviously, she never walked through our doors—or through the doors of any other church I’ve served for over three decades—on the first Sunday in September.
Labor Day is one of my favorite holidays.
At a time when intolerant nationalism is on the rise in the United States and around the world;
when wars—including our own endless war on terror—continue around the world; when the gap between the rich and the poor grows in the United States and around the world;
when partisanship is rife in the United States and around the world,
I like the reminder and the encouragement that I find in the words of Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor: “Labor Day differs in every essential from other holidays of the year in any country. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflict and battles of prowess over others, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day is devoted to no one person, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation.” Indeed, as Peter McGuire said: Labor Day “is dedicated to peace, civilization and the triumphs of industry. It is the harbinger of a better age…labor shall be best honored and well rewarded.”
Many of you know that I come from a strong union family. And one of my proudest moments growing up was when I got my union card as a member of the American Federation of Musicians. “Live Music Is Better” was their motto.
And it is, isn’t it?
Labor Day gives us the opportunity to reflect on the mystery and the meaning of work, to think about the work that we do and the lives we live.
I always enjoy hearing about the work people do, about their vocation, their calling—which may be in part why the vocation, the calling to be a minister seems to me to be such a great way to work. It gives me an entrée into the lives of people. And the work that we do is a big part of our lives.
Even in retirement, the stories people tell are often about work. The “explanations” of one’s life seem to revolve around work—what they could or couldn’t do, the friends they met while working, their partner’s career, the experience of losing one job and finding another.
On the other hand,
If you are unemployed,
if you are forced to do work that brings neither enough money nor recognition,
if you are young and uncertain about where you are going,
or if you are unhappily retired,
one of the most painful questions anyone can ask you may be simply “What do you do?”
For good or bad, so much of “who we are” is wrapped up in “what we do.” All of our actions reveal something of our inner mystery, perhaps none more than our work. “Do your work,” Thoureau said, “And I will know you.”
We work to make a living.
As we work, we are also making a life.
So this weekend, I ask: Does your work bring life to yourself, to others? What do you do—what do want to do—that stirs up life, hope, and dreams in yourself and in those around you?
The Bible does not give us specific answers to problems of 21st century work and vocation, neatly laid out for us. But it does point in some helpful directions. And it's good to hear the mixed voices of scripture as they reflect on work. As it does with the other parts of our lives, Scripture shines a new light on our work.
In the opening pages of Genesis, we discover the God who works—creating the world and giving life to plants and animals and human beings. That ancient creation story tells of a God who works for six days and then calls everything good and rests. We hear that human beings are made in God's image. Perhaps those who find it difficult to stop working can discover the pathway to rest in this picture of the God who is able to find some ending to God's own labors.
We were not created for endless toil. Each person needs to find rest from their work—from caring for kids, from teaching, helping, creating—at least one day out of seven. Constant work without rest can become a form of idolatry—setting up ourselves and what we do as little gods.
I know. People in my line of work are often convinced that all that we are doing is just so vitally important and holy and we wonder how God could get along without us, let alone our congregations. Along with everyone else, I need the reminder that we aren't expected to do more or work longer hours than the Creator.
And while we are not meant for endless toil, we should find some reward in the work that we do.
That’s why I continue to need to hear the question asked by the author of Ecclesiastes: “What gain do workers have from their toil?” This writer is often as grim and pessimistic as I am. But then I hear the answer that breathes life into weary souls: “It is God's gift to humankind that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their work.”
Sometimes what we do is hard, tedious, mind numbing, lonely, boring, or emotionally exhausting. I guess you can expect some of that in just about every job. But scripture pushes us: after the work is over, are you enjoying the fruits of your labor? Are you able to be thankful for the spiritual and material benefits that work brings? What reward do you get from your work? Again we hear that note of joy that keeps sounding in unexpected places, at unexpected times.
Work can be healing when we allow it to bring satisfaction and pleasure into our lives and into the lives of others.
It is also significant that the term “worker” was applied to Jesus himself. While the main understanding of the “work” of Jesus refers to his life and ministry, his death, and his resurrection, we should not forget the references to him as a worker, or more specifically as a carpenter. The fact that Jesus worked is important. It not only shows us that he identified himself with those who earned a living; it also reaffirms the dignity of work, all work.
Because of this, we serve God in all our vocations as we do our work with integrity. As one theologian put it, the first job of a lab technician who is a Christian is not to sing in the church choir; it is to do the technician’s experiments thoroughly, honestly, and scientifically. Such a person must not do a shoddy job in the laboratory to get to choir practice on time.
Work can be healing when we allow it to bring satisfaction and pleasure into our lives.
Probably the strangest story about faith and work comes at the end of the gospel of John.
The sheer astonishment of Easter is gone.
Christ is risen.
But there must have been bills to pay, mouths to feed. There must have been the need—and probably the desire—to work. After the resurrection the disciples did not start spending all their time hanging around a church.
With Peter, they went back to work, back to fishing, back to what they knew and usually were good at.
And it was in their work that they again encountered the risen Christ.
This time they weren’t catching anything. At daybreak a strange figure stood on the beach, asking a question that must have seemed a little like a taunt? "Do you have any fish?"
Not this morning. It's been a bad night at work. Nothing was accomplished. Fishing all night, they were failures.
But when they respond to the suggestion "Try the other side," the net almost breaks because of the catch.
It's then that Peter realizes: "It is the Lord!"
At work—even when work is not going well, perhaps especially when work is not going well—can we experience the presence of the risen Christ? That is to say, can we open ourselves to the sense that God is at work in us, through us, creating something new.
This seems to me to be the hope that we find for all of our work.
There are often times when God seems far removed from the work that we do. At least that is certainly the case in my career. But still there is this hope—the sense that God is at work in us, through us, creating something new.
Which may, after all be the point of this weekend. To enjoy the fruits of our labor, to reflect on how we work, to prepare for making a life in all that we do.
Growing up in that “union household” in the sixties, my Sundays began with going to Sunday School and worshipping. They usually ended in front of the T.V. watching—and I know I’m dating myself here—Ed Sullivan, Bonanza, and finally that black and white classic game show What's My Line?—the one on which sophisticated New York contestants tried to guess what people did for a living.
Maybe there's something to that: worship is followed by work, acts of faith lead to acts of labor. And sometimes, our labor is an act of faith, even a prayer. Sunday gives way to the six other days and the promise that God will be present in all seven.