September 5, 2021
Happy Labor Day!
How did we get here so quickly? We will turn around twice and it will be Advent!
We know we are saved by grace and not by works…so why even bring up work and working on the Lord’s day. Why should Labor Day even make it into the sanctuary? We give thanks in a cursory way for things around us, but do we pause to consider how many hands it took to make or distribute the number of goods we consume each day? Labor Day gives us the opportunity. And you thought it was about potato salad.
We pause today to think about all of those hands. This past 2 weeks, think of the hands that you noticed – maybe reaching over a barricade to lift an afghan woman to freedom. Maybe the hands of a soldier cradling a baby. The snap of a salute as our fallen heroes returned to this country. Hands offered to neighbors to lift them from floodwaters. Hands of a nurse giving care to a covid patient. All of those hands doing all sorts of work.
The first Labor Day parade happened on Sep 5th, 1882 in New York City. 20,000 workers carried banners in the streets. In 1894, congress made Labor Day a Federal Holiday to celebrate the value and dignity of work. We sometimes forget the ‘holiness’ of work.
Work must be balanced with rest. Keeping the Sabbath holy comes as number four in the Ten Commandments; this means that, before any mention of murder, property, or sex, God directs ancient Israel to take a holiday one day out of every seven. The command is linked both to the character of God - who himself is said to have rested after the act of creation.
It is recorded in Deuteronomy 5:15, "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." Resting on the seventh day was foundational to the identity of Israel as God's people. They had been a slave people in Egypt and God rescued them; he therefore commands them to refuse the slavery of constant work in their own land. The Sabbath is Israel's weekly Independence Day to remember that they are as a nation of liberated slaves.
Sabbath is "set apart" from the other six days to offers a respite from the demands of work. The commitment to a weekly pause means that, even when things at the office or our chores at home are at their most relentless, there is a buffer against work that keeps it from becoming the whole of life, or simply more of life than it merits. It prevents work creep. It reminds us that work is to support life, not the other way around. It affords fresh perspectives on the work we do, shrinking it to its proper dimensions.
Those who observe a Sabbath affirm across the board that they are more productive, not less, because they allow no work or work-like activity to cross the threshold of that seventh day. One of my favorite theologians, Walter Brueggemann claims that people who "remember and keep Sabbath find they are less driven, less coerced, less frantic to meet deadlines, free to be, rather than to do." Instead of compromising productivity, Sabbath can increase it; but to use it as a means to that end is precisely to miss the point. Sabbath is designed not only to make us more efficient and fruitful in our work, but more fundamentally to challenge our obsession with efficiency and with productivity.
And here is a real, reformed tradition thought. God is sovereign, God is one. Like sleep, Sabbath undercuts our need for control. Submitting to the physical and psychological need to shut down overnight means (among other things, and whether consciously or not) acknowledging that the world is going to get by without my input for the next 7-8 hours. Both sleep and Sabbath are acts of humility. YAY! Naps are HOLY! They force us to admit the limits of our indispensability, and to see the world in terms of gift and blessing instead of utility. We let go and let God.
Sabbath rest is to be holy, just as labor is to be holy.
Let me tell you a story about the first recorded labor walkout. The workers (Israelites) asked their union rep (Moses) to stand up to the boss (Pharaoh) about their terrible working conditions. In Exodus: Chapter 5, Moses and Aaron plea for better work conditions and the Pharaoh says, “Get back to your work!” And who can forget Yul Brynner as Ramses in DeMille’s Ten Commandments decreeing, “do not supply the people with straw, let them go and gather their own straw…but don’t reduce their quota. They are lazy!” Have you ever had bosses like that? No straw, more bricks? It is hard to find the holiness in labor if it is oppressive, but it is there.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians emphasizes the importance of being all in with everything we do, that there should be sacred aspect to all that we do. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him… Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters”
And he writes to the Ephesians that their gathering as a church is “To equip God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” OK, that was a long way to answer the question, “Why do we celebrate labor day at church.”
We are called to ministry. Our work is a ministry. I may be the pastor, but everyone here is a minister. Whatever profession we may have or have had, in every relationship in which we are engaged, we are called to a higher level of employment, and that is to be ministers, each and every one of us every day. Anytime you use your talents, your gifts, abilities, time, intelligence, energy, … anytime you use anything God has given you to honor God, well, I call that ministry. We are called to love God and to love others, so we honor God by pouring love into all that we do. That makes our work sacred. Love others, Love God. God uses our hands to accomplish His plans.
It is not just what we say or how we think, it is what we do, too.
Let’s take a look at our hands. If you are holding anything – put it down. Hold out your hands – palm side up. Look at the shape of your fingers. Perhaps there is a mark made by a ring. Or a scar caused by an accident. A callous caused by years of hard work or playing tennis or holding a pen or knitting needle. Look closely enough and notice the whorls of your fingerprint. Like snowflakes, no two hands are alike.
The human hand is a marvelous creation; a wonderful instrument. No other God- made creature and no other man-made robot or prosthesis has such a sensitive and flexible hand. My dog, Katie, covets my ‘opposable thumb’. Without our opposable thumb we could not turn screwdrivers or door knobs or open jars. We use our hands to pick up and hold objects, to eat, to feel heat and texture.
We use our hands to communicate. Those who are visually impaired rely on their hands to touch and feel and explore things to help them visualize. And who can forget that wonderful moment in “The Miracle Worker” when Anne Sullivan spells ‘water” in Helen Keller’s hand, and Helen’s whole world opens up. At 2 years old, my grandniece, Juliette was already signing. [Sign ENOUGH]. This means enough. When she has had enough food, she signs it. Sometimes when her grandma, my older sister, talks too long on facetime, Juliette signs enough. If I preach too long, please feel free to do this.
Of course, we can use our hands in ways that are negative, as well as positive. Rather than a peace sign, someone recently gave me a gesture the other day that that was not so friendly. Hands that can be outstretched to initiate a hug can punch or slap. Hands can handle weapons just as easily as tools of peace. How we use our hands is very important. Look at your hands, consider them carefully… these are God’s hands. Thank God for them. After you leave here today, be aware of how you use your hands.
How does God’s mission and ministry of grace and love touch others, especially now that Christ is no longer physically present with us? The answer is very simple. We are the body of Christ. And these are God’s hands.
This idea was beautifully expressed in a prayer by Theresa of Avila, written over 400 years ago:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Look at your hands again. These are the hands that we have folded to pray to God, that held babies, and wrote theses, and played piano, and distributed food, and wiped up messes, and pet dogs, knitted prayer shawls. These are also the hands that one day God will take us by to lead us home.
God used Christ’s hands when he walked this earth.
Tradition has Jesus as a carpenter, a craftsman laborer, working alongside his earthly father, Joseph. I think that we forget that Jesus was a worker. He worked with his hands. Jesus’ disciples were workers, too. Peter, Andrew, James, John, Nathaniel, Thaddeus, were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector. Jesus called these men precisely for the skills they had in the hard work they performed before dropping their nets or abandoning their toll booth to follow Jesus. Their working experience helped build the Big C, Body of Christ, Church.
I think of how Jesus used his hands. Jesus was a healer. His hands provided the healing touch to the blind man at Behtsaida. He ‘chose’ to save the man with leprosy by touching him, when most people would have given that man or anyone with leprosy a wide berth. When Peter got out of the boat on the Sea of Galilee to test his water walking skills, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him as he began to sink.
Every Communion Sunday as I break the loaf of bread and give thanks, I think of Jesus using his hands doing the same thing. He did that exact thing at the feeding of the 5000. Opposable thumbs come in handy when breaking bread. I am moved to tears when I think of scene of Jesus using his hands to wash the disciple’s feet, and that those same hands were cruelly nailed to a cross.
There is not a commandment that we work. But our work glorifies our creator. "The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on his shoes, but by making good shoes because God is interested in good craftsmanship." The quote is attributed to Martin Luther, whether he said it or not, I believe that God is interested in good craftsmanship. Take a look at the world around us!
Friday night I watched a few hummingbirds, I was very close to a feeder. The engineering that went into a hummingbird. How does it hover? With those gossamer wings, how does it even achieve lift?
If the moon did not exist with its exact gravitational pull and the sun did not have its exact gravitational pull and we weren’t the third rock from the sun tilted on its access precisely because of these precise gravitational pulls, there would be no life here.
As we honor God’s creation, I think it fitting and proper to honor the workers and creators here. It is not just elevate our own work to be the best that we can give, but to honor the craftsmanship and relationship that exists in everything we touch, or use, or consume.
Consider this communion table. It started out as an acorn. Which grew into a seedling, then a tree. During its lifetime, the tree perhaps provided shelter for animals or shade for humans. The tree was a beautiful thing, a masterpiece created in the beginning. Someone felled the tree, and the tree was transported. The lumberjack and the trucker, all with lives and families of their own, are related to this table. Because of the demand for this table, the creation of the tree from an acorn, they toil and are compensated for their toil. Then the lumber was milled, relating the millworkers into this table of relationship. The milled lumber was sold, so now we have related Home Depot or lumber liquidators. And then it was crafted. I do not think that this particular table was hand crafted by one carpenter, but all who had hands on the wood to craft it in to this fine table, they all have families and friends related to this table. We likely have another round of retailers, transporters, maybe even advertisers, related to this table. And it sits in this sacred place, and we adorn it and use it to gather for the Lord’s supper which is the epitome of relationship.
This is the table that is the reminder of sacrificial love. It holds the elements with which we hold in our hands and taste in our mouths the symbols of the body and blood of our savior. This is the table that unites us with saints and believers across all space and time in the service of our living Lord.
All it took was an acorn, and a little work. Happy labor day.
In the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit. AMEN