The Labor Day holiday is an unusual one for the books. On Labor Day most of us actually do as little labor as possible. It is a notoriously bad weekend for attendance at church. People are traveling, involved in other social activities, cramming in that last weekend at the beach. Labor Day is considered the unofficial end of summer, as most kids are back in school already or will be this week. Naturally, Labor Day sales abound as people are preparing to transition from summer to fall. We relax, enjoy hopefully good weather, taking in as much rest as possible.
In the buzz of activity around Labor Day, something is missing, We don’t talk about Labor. We rarely stop for a moment to think about each other as laborers in God’s vineyard who deserve to be recognized for our work. Do we even know what the person next to us does or did for a living? After all, that’s what the day was set aside for. In 1882 in New York City, the workers decided to hold a Labor Day Parade. They highlighted each other’s accomplishments, union solidarity, and the great strides in workers’ rights since the Civil War. And even after the holiday was established on a federal level on June 28th, 1894, the Sunday before Labor Day was unofficially designated as a time to spiritually recognize the important of the laborer, the treatment of the poor, and the dangers of wealth. How far we have strayed from this basic purpose of a Labor Day holiday.
It is not often that we hear about the Pullman Strike of 1894 that spawned this federal holiday. The strike started in a time of severe economic depression and unrest, when Pullman railroad workers were getting a 25% cut in pay but no subsequent cut in rent or food costs in the company’s lodging. Which six o’clock newscast shows a politician laying a wreath at a monument for the 34 strikers killed or the 57 strikers that were injured in that strike? Which 24-hour news channel is going to remind us of the property damage done which when inflated for our day was over 8 million dollars? And where is the government watchdog group that will remind us that President Grover Cleveland sent over 12,000 Army troops and U.S. Marshalls to break up a strike allowing an attack on American civilians? The Pullman Strike it was this powder keg of events that allowed Representative Lawrence McGann’s call to adopt the Senate Bill to honor Labor on the first Monday of every September to be heeded. It was this set of events that led to President Cleveland signing the bill into law just 2 days later. It was the sacrifice of these workers for basic dignities of wage, hour and living conditions that we are called to honor on this Labor Day.
So, on this Labor Day we lift up the understanding that work is a very important part of God’s will for people. God has always honored and provided work. The book of Genesis begins with God working – creating the world and all that was in it. On the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day as a result. So, God is a worker too and appreciates rest. God created us in His image, in the image of a working, creative being. The first thing that God does with the created human being is to place it in the garden of Eden to till and keep it Gen 2:15). Work is encoded in our spiritual DNA, to care and prosper the creation God produced.
So why do so many people think of work as something bad, or dislike work? Work has become troublesome, unpleasant, oppressive because of sin of rebellion, that is traced right back to Adam and Eve, in the garden of Eden. The punishment for this sin is that the ground becomes cursed. Work would be a toil all our days, and bring suffering, often resulting thorns and thistles instead of the good things God intended. People would eke out a living by the sweat of the brow. God, made enough in the earth for all to enjoy, but as a result of sin, some people enjoyed an abundance of resources, causing poverty and need to come into being. The scriptures describe the growth of sin related to work: Cain kills Abel because Abel’s offering is preferred by God. People become competitive and seek to supplant God with the Tower of Babel, forcing them to be scattered over the face of the earth. People grew exceedingly wicked causing the Great Flood. From the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph work becomes a force to outdo each other, fighting over resources, lying and cheating. All this brings us to the great economic and social oppression of the Hebrew people by the Egyptians, until they are liberated by God, led into the wilderness to a vision of being a new people, where the image of work is restored to its rightful place. In our Hebrew lesson we hear God’s admonishments to his people to be open-handed, to give generously to the poor and needy as an act to heal the damage of the sin against work, the divine image of labor that God planted in the Garden.
The spiritual undergirding of Labor Day reminds us to work to bring balance to the world. Because of sin, there will always be poor and needy in the land. Jesus acknowledges as well that as a result of sin, there will always be poor in the land. That doesn’t mean, however, that Christians should sit by complacently and ignore the plight of the poor. If we have been blessed with resources, if we have more than we need we are meant to share. This is a God mandate. Giving generously to those in need is a healing act; it restores our nature to the vision God had for in when we were created. A generous giving working God creates us in the image of being a generous giving working people. When we comfort the sick and those who mourn, feed the hungry, help those in need pay their bills when they are behind, we heal ourselves in the process. It is a blessing to be able to do these things, to be openhanded and give generously. It aligns us with our God nature.
In our gospel lesson, we see a wealthy individual, a good man, a pious man, seeking the way to eternal life. He approaches Jesus and knees before him deferentially. As a wealthy man he is probably used to getting what he wants and he asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus quotes from the second half of the ten commandments that deal with ethical conduct among people: no lying, stealing, adultery, honoring father and mother. The wealthy young man declares he has kept all these commandments perfectly since he was a child. Jesus looking at him with love, points out he lacks one thing. His wealth has gotten in the way of a relationship with God. Paul reminds us that love of money is a root of evil. This evil has polluted the earnest young man. He needs to divest and follow Jesus. The young earnest rich man walks away without a word – in sorrow, because Jesus has exposed that his attachment to wealth has gotten in his way with his relationship with God.
Most of us are wealthy in some way or another. Do we have a cupboard and refrigerator full of food? Do we have a warm bed? Do we have access to a hot shower? Do we have work, activities to occupy us? People we can fellowship with? Do we have a change of clothes and shoes that fit? We may not see ourselves as rich, we may not be wealthy according in the standards of the United States or what the media reflects back to us, but compared to rest of the world, we are not doing too bad at all. Instead of focusing on what we lack, we are called today to focus on what we do have, and more importantly, on what we can share. Can we spare some money? Can we give a word of encouragement? Can we spare some time or give a listening ear to someone down and out? We indeed are wealthy is some way or another. Labor Day reminds us of this fact. We are wealthy in God’s eyes, and God yearns to use us, to give generously to us, to restore to the world some sense of Eden, of paradise.
As we begin a new church season next week, we will begin a six-week series of called “Drawn In.” We will be drawn in to explore the seed of creativity, of God-given Labor, so we can be renewed, restored, and rediscover the joy of giving generously to others, to our community in which we are planted. It will be a time to rediscover how to find the vision of giving generously that God is calling us to.
So, this Labor Day, how can you and I give generously? What time, talent or treasure do you have in abundance and can freely share? Every day is a giving day. We have the privilege to use what we have been given for the good. As we remember those who worked for better conditions for working people, may we continue to work towards a society where giving generously is a norm, where the vision of Paradise is reignited, and where we follow Jesus, in serving, caring and healing God’s creation and all of God’s people, creating a Labor Day that celebrates the gift of work, the creativity of work, the godly joy of work, the as God intended for our world.