Labor Day is one of the many American holidays with a great story and deep meaning that has sadly been buried under a mountain of hot dogs. Memorial Day is about our soldiers’ ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and a debt to them that can never be repaid. Do fireworks really give us a sense of the genius of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution on Independence Day? Unfortunately Labor Day is viewed by the American people more as the official end of summer than as an official tribute to the American labor movement. I want to add my voice this week and praise the spiritual significance of work in our lives.
Labor Day was the result of the Pullman strike in 1894 when 30 workers were killed by federal troops charged with crushing the strike and the strikers. However, the aftermath of the Pullman strike brought a rise in organized labor and with it the creation of an American middle class. The 1890s were dominated by the super wealthy and by workers who were struggling to make ends meet. Those conditions are not unlike today, and although the need for worker protections and a minimum wage are now part of our laws, the gap between rich and poor is growing. The spiritual consequence of all this is that workers often do not have the time, energy or resources to become part of the civilizing institutions like churches and synagogues that knit together the communal fabric of our lives and teach our children the moral values that enable America to thrive and not split apart. Our work must not block every other commitment of our lives. A 40-hour workweek ought to give all of us time at the end of the week to find one another and find God. We simply work too much to enable us to find one another.
Another spiritual element of work is its role in testing our honesty. Being taught to be honest at religious services on Friday, Saturday or Sunday does not mean much unless we take that lesson to work with us on Monday. I think the first question we will be asked by God or the angels in the world to come after our bodies die will not be, “Did you pray enough?” I think the first question will be, “Were you honest in your work?” The morals we take from our faith mean nothing unless we place them into our work. This idea of work as a way to witness our spiritual values is part of what was called by the historians Max Weber and R.H. Tawney as the Protestant work ethic. It is now a part of every faith but sadly it is not a part of every soul. The central point is that work is not a curse. Work is a canvas for our life’s choices. Adam, in the Garden of Eden before the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, was commanded to “work the garden and tend it” (Genesis 2:15). In the New Testament Paul understands that our work is as much for God as it is for us. In Colossians 3:23-24 we read, “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.”
This spiritual sense of our labor produces pride in what we do. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’ ”
Finally, I want you to think about prayer as work on this Labor Day. Prayer is hard spiritual labor. Prayer forces us to repent and forgive, to reflect and to be grateful. These spiritual virtues are brought to us in prayer and each of them is hard earned. Prayer is labor. In fact, in Hebrew one of the words for prayer is avodah, which is the same as the word for work. Prayer is the labor of the heart and soul.
So on this Labor Day, let us all try to recover the vast and spiritually crucial nature of the work we do, the work done for us, and the work all of us have yet to do for God. Such an interpretation of Labor Day might even survive a hot dog.