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, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, page 261)
Although the real end of summer does not officially happen until the autumnal equinox, I still think of Labor Day as the practical “end of summer.” The collect above, one of my favorites, is the last one in the Prayerbook. Since it’s a challenge to get even the most devout to come to church on the Monday of a long weekend, I often used the readings for Labor Day on the Sunday of that long weekend when I was serving a parish, rather than the readings assigned for the day.
Work is about using the gifts that God has given us to make a difference in this world. That definition goes all the way back to the first chapters of Genesis, where God creates humankind to tend the garden; to in fact be co-creators with God. That notion remains central to Jewish theology to this very day. There is also in Jewish theology a sense of the unfinishedness of the world: it’s still a work-in-progress. God rested on the Sabbath, but then got back to work with partners to share the work on the eighth day.
It’s there, to be sure, in Christian theology as well. But I wonder if our appropriate emphasis on grace (as opposed to works) doesn’t sometimes lead us too far toward a misunderstanding of what it means to give something back to God in thanksgiving: to use our gifts for the glory of God. The fancy theological word for this, of course, is “stewardship,” although that word gets so misused that as soon as a preacher says it out loud people instinctively worry that someone is about to ask them for money. (I promise I am not, in this context.)
The collect for Labor Day reminds us that work is not for self alone. It reminds us that we need each other. It reminds us that Biblical economics and American capitalism are not synonyms. It insists that there is no such thing as a “self-made man.” These are lies that our culture is selling, but we follow a counter-narrative revealed through Holy Scripture by the living God. That God has “so linked our lives with one another that all we do effects, for good or ill, all other lives.”
The purpose of our work is not so we can drive bigger cars or live in bigger homes. Rather, the Christian witness is that we have been given gifts so that we might offer something back for the “common good.” So that we can help make the neighborhood a better place to live as nurses and plumbers and teachers and factory workers and business people. And that is what it means, I think, to talk about being stewards, not only of the treasure with which we have been entrusted but so, too, of time and talent.
What will you do with this one, wild, precious life God has given you, with the unique talents that you possess and the limited number of trips around the sun that you will get, for the sake of God’s world? What will we do together, as God’s people, as co-creators called to repair the breach?
In the epistle reading appointed for Labor Day (I Corinthians 3:10-14) St. Paul says that our life’s work will become visible “on the Day.” It’s an eschatological statement for Paul about the day when there are new heavens and a new earth. But I also hear these words in a more existential context: even before the Day of Judgement, we will each have to face our own end. What will we have accomplished? What will be said about us at our funerals?
As one who has officiated at many funerals over 30 years of ordained life, one of the things I’ve noticed is that one of the great differences in how people face their own deaths has to do with how they have lived their lives. Often those with many regrets and much unfinished business and all kinds of loose ends and work that they feel didn’t amount to much tend to fear death. In contrast, those who know they have done what they could, have found meaning in their daily lives, have been able in some small measure to see the fruits of their labor, tend to face death with a sense of peace and even of hope. They know that nothing is lost in the economy of God. They can say, “what is done is done…let it be.”
I’ve also sat with vestries and it's the same with congregations that come to the difficult decision to close: it can be a more difficult or more like a holy “death” depending on how they perceive the work that has been done – what their legacy has been.
Every vestry meeting I’ve attended in this diocese begins with prayer. Across this diocese, I invite you to begin again in September with this collect for Labor Day. And then perhaps you will discuss briefly what it means for you, and what it means for your congregation, in the work God has given you to do. If you want a reading from scripture perhaps use that epistle reading from St. Paul, I Corinthians 3:10-14. Spend a little time “dwelling in the Word” and share with one another:
• How does this view of work challenge how you have thought about your own work, a and the work of the congregation you serve?
• And. where in this prayer is there “good news” for you? How is it inviting you to new and abundant life, in the name of the risen Christ?