As we approach what for some will be a long weekend to celebrate Labor Day, I remind us that Labor Day is an observance in our liturgical calendar, complete with a collect (a prayer) and a set of scripture readings.
Here's the collect:
25. For Labor Day (BCP p. 261)
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.
A collect begins with an acknowledgement of some truth about God, and in this case that truth is that God "[has] so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives."
If we linger on this for a moment we see that this is a restatement of the claim on us of Jesus' Great Commandment. The Great Commandment makes clear that there is no private spirituality in the Biblical tradition of Judaism and Christianity. The Kingdom of God, the Realm of God is by definition a social reality. Our engagement with Christ needs to be personal and intimate, to be sure, but Christ leads us by his teaching and example to the insight that God "has so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives."
The rest of the collect consists of our request for God's guidance as we seek to obey the Great Commandment, specifically in the realm of our work.
The collect has us asking ourselves: "what is the good my work accomplishes for the sake of the common good?" We ourselves, as well as those around us, experience this question from time to time in the midst of an existential crisis. Work can bring meaning into a life, but a person can also feel imprisoned by their work, and feel frustrated in their aspirations for meaning. As pastors and lay people alike, we need to be aware of this dynamic in any congregation and in our community at large. If you're struggling in this area and could use a listening ear, I'd like to be able to listen.
In addressing the issue of compensation for work the collect expresses the tension between our own personal aspirations and the rightful aspirations of others for compensation. Reflecting Jesus' teachings which put so much emphasis on the dangers of greed and of the worship of wealth, the collect gives cold comfort to proponents of the "Prosperity Gospel", who would have us measure our closeness to God in terms of our wealth. At the same time, the collect places before us - whether we be employers or the employed - the rights and responsibilities that occur to those who bear in mind that "all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives." As rector of a church which employs staff and is in a dynamic process of change and aspiration, I feel personally this challenge, and I'm grateful for lay leaders who help me address this challenge in a constructive way. If the church isn't a good place to work, that's a real problem.
The collect also leads us to concern for those who are out of work. Meaningful work for which one is reasonably compensated is such a key factor for well-being, as I've come to know personally during a time when I experienced being laid off. The psychological stress of this is considerable. There may even be a tendency for a person who is unemployed to withdraw from community of the church at the very time when the need for companionship and encouragement is most present. Our concern can be to assure unemployed persons of their inherent value as God's creatures and to offer any assistance we can as they take steps toward gainful employment. As a pastor, I invite anyone in this situation to speak with me.
My clergy colleague Armand Larive has written a masterful book entitled "After Sunday: A Theology of Work."* His intent is to address the topic of work in a way corrective of the impression that the church is only concerned with what happens on Sunday morning, and not with the lives we live Monday through Saturday. This false impression is lampooned in a quote he offers from layperson Mark Gibbs to the effect that all the church is concerned with is "turn up, sit up, pay up."
Fr. Larive's book celebrates the way in which humans are called in Christ to engage with God the Creator as co-creators. His work celebrates the possibility that we can undergo the transformation that allows us to see our workplaces as places of divine activity working through us. He's grounded deeply in our sacramental approach to life, which teaches us that God is present in and through and with all material things and in and through all situations.
Fr. Larive quotes a vivid passage from the great Dorothy Sayers, and I want to leave it with you:
In nothing has the Church so lost her hold on reality as in her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world's intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion. But is it astonishing? How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have on concern with ninetenths of his life? The Church's approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk or disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes on him is that he should make good tables. Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly--but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry?*
"All we do, affects, for good or ill, all other lives." That doing includes your workplace. May God bless you in finding meaning in your work, or finding work with meaning, and may God lead us to embrace in our work the common good, and may God help us church leaders to know how to support this holy quest you have.
*After Sunday: A Theology of Work. (New York, Continuum, 2004). This book is available in our parish library.
*Quoted in Fr. Larive's book. The original work is Sayers' Creed or Chaos? (London, Methuen, 1947), 58-59.