Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and laziness, not in quarrelling and jealously. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Let us pray.
Worker God, whose hands built the earth, molded our bodies, and sowed the stars across the sky, we gather in your presence on this Labor Day weekend with praise and thanksgiving for your mighty deeds. Meet us here, Worker God; touch us with your words and presence. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be inspired by you, our Creator and Sustainer. Amen.
It’s kind of funny that we call this “Labor Day Weekend” but it seems that everyone tries to do as little labor as possible for these three days. Many of us see this weekend as a celebration of the end of summer and one more chance to relax before the busyness of Fall sets in. Labor Day did not start out with that intention. The first Labor Day celebration and parade in the United States was held in New York City on September 5, 1882. 20,000 workers marched in a parade up Broadway carrying banners that read:
“LABOR CREATES ALL WEALTH.”
“EIGHT HOURS FOR WORK,
EIGHT HOURS FOR REST,
EIGHT HOURS FOR RECREATION!”
This was the desired goal for all American workers.
After the parade was over, picnics were held all over the city. And over the next few years, the idea spread from coast to coast. All states began to celebrate Labor Day. In the year 1894 Congress voted to make it a federal holiday. They set the day aside to honor the value and dignity of work. This weekend we have the opportunity to think about work and why it is meaningful in our lives today and why it is important to God.
For some of us, just hearing the word “work” makes us feel tired or stressed. For others, thinking of work brings a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. Work can be a mixed blessing and work means different things to different people. Work can mean your job or what you do to earn a living, but it can also refer to the work you do volunteering or the work you do at home to take care of yourself, your family and your home. At its most basic level work is defined as any “exertion or effort directed
to produce or accomplish something.” With this definition we could all say that we do work every day. Some of it is rewarding and some of it is mundane and taxing.
When did the idea of work first enter into history, well, according to the Bible, in the beginning of the book of Genesis we see God hard at work creating the universe and everything in it. God pronounced everything that was made through God’s work, good. God made people and put them to work too. Gen. Says, “So the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden.” Why? “….to till it and keep it.” To do work. So we see that in our Christian creation story God made us not just to hang out and keep God company but to be productive and active in the care for creation.
Genesis goes on to imply that at first the work is pleasant and enjoyable, until Adam and Eve disobey God. It is only then that work becomes difficult. In the garden, everything they needed was provided for them, but when they are expelled from the garden, God tells them:
“With labor you shall win your food… You shall gain your bread by the sweat of your brow.”
Work would now be strenuous and necessary for survival. Work had been changed from a blessing to a curse. So which is it for us? Is work a blessing? Or is it a curse?
One of the points I take from this story is that when our relationship with God is going well, our work goes well. When Adam and Eve were paying attention to living the way God had asked them to live, everything went well. When they thought they knew better than God and decided to do whatever they wanted, that is when they got into trouble. When our spiritual life is in harmony, our physical life is in harmony. When we are grounded, centered in God, even when things are difficult they do not seem as challenging because we have a faith perspective to give us strength and perseverance. When we turn from God and from what God has said is important, this puts us out of balance. When we are ungrounded from God, everything seems more difficult because we feel like we’re struggling all on our own without purpose and guidance.
Moving on to the New Testament, Jesus offers another perspective on work. Jesus, the divine presence in human form, learned a trade and worked with His hands as a carpenter but he also worked without pay to do the labor of his heart. I think that both physical and spiritual work were important to Jesus. In Jesus’ teachings he communicated the idea that God cares about how we conduct our business and how we treat others in our professional relationships. In business and in our personal lives, he taught that we are to treat others the way we would like to be treated and we are to be just and generous. It is the Christian way to do the best you can for others, not the least you can get by with. This goes against the way that most of our society operates. Our culture emphasizes individual success and achievement even if it is at the expense of someone else, but as Christians we are called to follow the alternative.
Our culture promotes the idea that the greatest good is to have the most wealth. But Jesus was a radical in his own day and his message is valuable to us today. He said:
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed – for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
In our society we often work for the goal of gaining wealth and possessions instead of for the love of what we’re doing or caring most about how our work affects others. Jesus encourages us to have a different focus. Jesus does not say that it is wrong to have things. Jesus says a man is a fool when he considers his things above his soul. He is “rich in the things of this earth, but poor in the things that are eternal.” There are many theologians who believe that this may just be the biggest spiritual problem of all times. We work so we can be rich in the things of this earth, but sometimes the way that we work and our purpose for working makes us poor in the things of the spirit. Jesus would encourage us to work in a way that enriches our spirit, not just our wallet.
In the passage from Romans that I read this morning it said “any other commandments, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” We are commanded to act with love and to do no wrong to others. Is this something you think of regularly when you are working? This commandment was not meant just for Sundays or just for our behavior with family members and friends. This was handed down to us as a way to live every day with everyone. What would it mean for your professional life, your volunteer work or your parenting if you put this emphasis to do no wrong to others and to love others at the center of all you do? Realistically, we are all imperfect people and we will make mistakes and end up hurting others, but this gives us something to strive for. This gives us a goal to follow that will bring us more spiritual nourishment if we try to pursue it.
When we are faced with the question, “what can we do to insure that our work on this earth will be for us and for others a blessing and not a curse?” we can also look to one of the founding church fathers for wisdom. Theologian and church pioneer John Wesley wrote a sermon entitled “The Use of Money” and in it he said “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” You “gain all you can” and “save all you can” not simply so that you have more, but so that you can give more. Secondly, whatever work we do, John Wesley says, we must make sure that it does not go against our conscience. We are to be compassionate and generous with others. Wesley says, “We must not hurt others through indebtedness, nor by engaging in unfair competitive practices that price them out of business, nor by hiring their workers out from under them, nor by selling products or services that will hurt their health!” It is very practical advice and as relevant today as when he preached over 250 years ago.
The words that John Wesley has spoken are in alignment with the words from Romans “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” We can let this be our guide at church, at home and at our jobs. If we measure our success by how we treat others and not just by how much we earn, we will have rich spirits and full hearts, not just full houses.
On this Labor Day weekend, I think it is also important to address the fact that we are still in very tough economic times, and many people have lost their jobs. Your work is an important part of your life, but it is not all of who you are. Your job does not give you value. Your sheer existence gives you value. Years ago a father of a friend of mine lost his job, and he felt that he lost his sense of worth in the world. He became seriously depressed and did not want to get out of bed. He thought that he had no reason to live. It took him months to see the value of his work as a father and as a husband. I hope that if any of you are struggling with unemployment, you will also be able to see that the work you did to make a living is not as important as the way you live and the fact that you are alive. God looks at each of us as significant and worthy, no matter what our salary. If only we could see ourselves and others that way too.
On this Labor Day weekend we remember that God rested from his creative work and we also need a time to rest and relax. I hope that you will rest and be restored so that when you go back to your work, whatever that may be, you may see it with a fresh perspective. In and through Jesus, work is meant to be a blessing to us and to others, nor a punishment or a chore. No work is ordinary if done in the right spirit.