I’ve always regarded Labor Day as an oxymoron. It seems a bit odd to have a national day off to celebrate working. That’s probably why the first Monday in September is often referred to as “The Unofficial End of Summer” and usually “The day before the first day of school.” Nevertheless, I think it is important to see it for what it is.
The holiday itself owes its origins to labor activists in New York who wanted to commemorate the social and economic achievements of American workers, particularly those in unions. Oregon was the first state to pass a law recognizing a specific day, in 1887. Seven years later, Congress made it a legal holiday for the entire nation. According to the official government website, because “American labor has raised our nation’s standard of living and contributed to the greatest production the world has ever known…it is appropriate that the nation pays such tribute.” That may be patriotic and true, but I tend to see Labor Day differently.
I see Labor Day as a golden opportunity to celebrate vocation. That’s the idea, emphasized by Martin Luther, that whatever our occupation—our jobs, positions, and work we do—should be done in such a way that we glorify God. Let’s be honest, many jobs out there have the potential to be humbling or demeaning. And yet, when I behold someone who seems to have found an inner motivation to what might otherwise be experienced as a meaningless activity, I love it! Why, this Thursday alone, I watched a flagger stopping cars where a street was being repaired, carry on, smiling and dancing in the rain; I met with an insurance agent who came in to her office after hours to patiently and effectively resolve our Medicare Part D problems; I marveled at a security guard at the Social Security office making every effort to ensure the wide diversity of people coming there with questions knew what they needed to know; and then saw a guy who’d spent hours weeding a section of our church place the refuse in the dumpster with a satisfied smile meant for God alone.
We often hear the term, “priesthood of all believers.” It’s intent is not to make everyone a church worker; but rather to see every kind of work as sacred. Labor Day serves as a reminder to cherish those people who do what they do with that kind of devotion—to look out for them, and if we can, thank them, but if not, thank God for them. Labor Day reminds me to see a job done well as a job done well. And seeing it as the most basic, earthly, human way to praise God. Luther reminds us, “When God blesses us, He almost always does so through other people.” And most often, through their labor. Makes me want to join in.
I realize, by the time you read this, we’ll have already advanced our calendars past Labor Day. But until next first Monday in September, may we all still recognize such labor and those laborers who give glory to God…maybe even strive to be one ourselves.