I know that at least some of you share with me coming from other parts of this land; my entire growing up was north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi, in parts of the country where Labor Day had some other than symbolic relevance: it marked the day when women could no longer wear white shoes and men could no longer where straw hats, but more importantly, it marked — or the Wednesday two days later marked — the beginning of the school year. While not by the lunar calendar, it was indeed the end of summer.
But of course, that is not the reason for the holiday we observe tomorrow, which was a reason for last gasp picnics and baseball double-headers, but rather observance of a day which arose to recognize labor unions, whose road to acceptance was a bumpy and sometimes violent one.
North of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi. Which included living in Ogden Dunes, Indiana, from where one of the easiest ways to get to downtown Chicago was on the South Shore Railroad, and on my first such trip I saw from the train some of the historic buildings in the area known as “Pullman,” once the “company town” within Chicago where the railroad cars named after their inventor, George Pullman, were manufactured. It was a strike by workers there and the essential riot that arose that helped give birth to the labor union movement, and, very specifically, to President Grover Cleveland’s declaration of the holiday.
Not wishing to over-simplify, let alone to offend, prior to recent decades in which unions of government employees became dominant among unions, there were two major types of labor unions: trade and craft unions, or unions organized on the basis of what their workers did think “A.F.L.,” the American Federation of Labor, and (with apologies to mine workers), industrial unions, the former of which — such as plumbers, electricians, carpenters, had their roots in the guilds of late-medieval Europe; industrial unions, think “C.I.O.,” Congress of Industrial Organizations, which might to some extent have had the same root, but owe far more to the industrial revolution. Industrial unions are organized. as their name suggests, on an industry basis, on where their members work, such as automobiles or steel, and include workers doing many different things, the trade and craft workers who might make the tools used and repair the equipment being used, the production workers or miners contributing directly to making the industry’s products, and also those sweeping the floors of the factories in which products are made.
And while I experienced first hand some of the resentments that can arise between those in the lower paying positions in a particular company represented by an industrial union and those in higher paying, such as trade and craft, positions, all are members of the same union or “local” and their leadership must represent them all. In a metal-working business, for example, those making the tooling used might be paid twice as much as a janitor, but they both are critical to the functioning of the employer for which they work.
They all are critical for the success of the company — the company depends on its workers, — and the workers are dependent on the success of the company for the existence of their jobs. it is a truly symbiotic relation. Every job matters.
There is a biblical, Christian basis for this. A passage of Paul’s that I particularly love is where Paul compares the Church to a human body: a body cannot be all eyes, it cannot be all ears or any other body part; it is necessary for there to be different parts for a body to work, and so it is for the Church; in a comparable passage, he discusses that not all are given the gift of prophecy and not all are given the gift of speaking “in tongues” and so forth, but that all these different gifts given to different people come together in the functioning of the Church.
All Christians believe this much. But one of the results of the Protestant Reformation — and I am not trying to kick the Roman Catholic Church during this time of particular trouble, — or so the early twentieth-century sociologist Max Weber attributed to Luther and Calvin, is the related idea that all human work is necessary for God’s plan for the people of God. I think it is safe to modify this to the extent that we would exclude “work” that is criminal in nature, but the point would be that, just as the janitor and the production welder and the one who purchases the gases for the welder are all necessary cogs in the gears of a company and its products, so also is the one who prints the bulletins or trims the bushes or plays the piano as important for the functioning of the church as the one who delivers the sermon. I am sure someone will remind me of that this coming week, but the point is that all go together to try to serve the Lord as His Church using whatever talents God has given us.
All work is God’s will and is good; that is what Weber labeled, The Protestant Ethic.
It is an idea that is too readily turned into “all work and no play,” of which many of us are often guilty, and that is a misapplication: God worked six days and on the seventh rested, so Genesis tells us; work without rest is not good.
And it is great when one is privileged as am I that one’s work ends up being on behalf of Christ’s Church, but what I am trying to say is that the work I did and that Ron Vucson did when we were working — but not knowing one another — in that Gary steel mill, or that Carolyn, here, did teaching in school, or that Rosanne did for children in Pinal County, or the work that some of you women I hope were, to the privilege of your children, able to do by staying home and raising children, that all such work is equally important to God’s will.
Which I do not mean as a sop to anyone, but I must repeat: the heart of the Protestant Ethic is that the work we do is good; it is consistent with, indeed, necessary to God’s plan for the children of God.
“But wait, John, didn’t you work in that mill to put bread on the table for your young family? Isn’t that why most of us work at our jobs outside of our homes?”
And my answer is simply, “So?” We even saw in the brief excerpts from that same Paul’s writings that people should work for their food and that work should draw reward; that is the way God deals with our human tendency toward, well, might I say, “laziness”? “sloth”?
So very simply, two things this Labor Day: It is indeed the lot of humanity that God is not going to allow us to eat manna without harvesting; we humans must, at least should, work to eat — which is not an argument against charity. But it is also true that, having so ordained and designed us, God recognizes that just as we live in community, so we work in community, work with others, and the community requires many forms of work just as God has given different kinds of gifts; all that work is necessary, and so all that work is equally important in the eyes of God.
So look with satisfaction at the ways you worked for bread in your life; that bread certainly was not free. As a celebrated economist said, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
. . . And yet, there is a different bread that we cannot attain or obtain by our labors, but is instead a free gift, an act of grace, and that is what we have been calling variously over the past few weeks, primarily based upon Jesus’ words as given us in the Gospel According to John, the “bread of life,” “the bread of heaven.”
Jesus is this “bread of life”; He, not the manna on the plants, is the true “bread of heaven.” Just as the ancient Israelites on the Exodus did nothing to earn that manna, we did nothing to earn Jesus in our lives; Jesus comes to us freely, and though it is well past dawn, what better way to begin our days but with the spiritual breakfast of being aware of His presence, giving thanks and saying a figurative, “Good morning.” “Free breakfast” is too clever and cloying by half, but to feast on His presence each and every day, is a richness that is beyond any of our labors; it can only come as a gift.
A gift, as is this Sacrament, which much recalls that He is the “bread of life” as we remember what Paul wrote for us, that on the night before he died, . .