In the late 19th century the Industrial Revolution was changing the United States as more people were leaving farms to work in factories. The average American then worked 12 hour days, seven days a week to make a living. Children as young as 5 years old worked in factories and mines across the country. Working conditions were often unsafe, unhealthy and unfair.
Workers began forming unions to protest and negotiate better conditions. In 1894 Congress declared Labor Day a national holiday to celebrate the achievements of the nation’s workers and to recognize their goals.
Like so many of our holidays, Labor Day has become a day off rather than a day for celebrating the past with speeches and parades and revisiting old ideals.
Yet work is a too important to pass over; it’s especially important as our world faces a new reality. In our liturgy, then, let’s see what the scriptures and prayers have to say about work today.
Our lectionary offers a number of special scripture readings for reflecting on Labor Day. The first is from the Book of Genesis, reminding us that creation is God’s work and we take part in it. (Gen 1:26-2:3) Readings from Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians tell us never to stop working. (2 Thess.3: 6-12,16) In the gospel, Jesus warns against becoming obsessed with work. He supports us as life and work become a burden. (Matt. 6:31-34)
The Genesis account is probably the most important reading to reflect on, especially since Pope Francis’ encyclical “ Laudato si’. In his extensive comments on Genesis, Francis says that “ human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.” (66)
“We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us…This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1) (67)
Human life involves more that our relationship with God and with one another, the pope says. It involves our relationship to the earth too. That new connection affects the way we look at work now, doesn’t it?
When labor and managment get together now they have to look at another dimension in their negotiations. Creation is at the table too. They’re called, not just to protect the earth, to get what we need now, but to “ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”
Labor Day is not only a time to remember the past. It’s also a time to recognize the reality of the present. That’s not just for organized labor and big business to do. All of us have to recognize that our work, big and small, affects our relationship to God, our neighbor, and also the earth itself.
We pray for the men and women who are not able to find jobs. We pray for their continued perseverance and determination as they continue to seek ways in which to participate in God’s creation and work.
We pray for the men, women and children who must work in jobs that ignore the dignity of their personhood.
We pray for the men and women who own companies, who lead companies and who make decisions, that they act in the best interests of their laborers and of creation itself.
We pray for union leaders, national and local, who are responsible for speaking for workers. May they be guided by the grace and wisdom of the Holy Spirit to speak for them and for generations to come.
We pray that we may recognize our relationship to God, to our neighbor and to the earth that supports us in life.