Scott Gunn: On Labor Day and every day, honoring workers honors God


Since it became a federal holiday in 1894, Labor Day has honored the labor union movement, American workers and the important work they do. As a Christian, I believe that God has given each person a unique vocation – an appointed kind of work. Honoring workers honors the work that God gives us.

Economists and politicians have a special interest in Labor Day. But so too do religious leaders. My interest is not partisan maneuvering or enrichment, but rather celebrating the dignity of work itself.

I believe that God calls each person to particular work. Some are called to be parents, others to be firefighters or factory workers, while still others are meant to be doctors or lawyers.

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When priests like me use words like “vocation” only to talk about the call to ordained ministry, we do a disservice to other workers. The plumber can do God’s work as well as the teacher or the priest.

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When we see things this way, it means that we will naturally want to encourage all people to find the thing that they are called to do. It also means we can see every kind of work as holy and important.

Thinking this way keeps me from believing that I’m better or worse than others. Seeing all work as holy and important ensures that I will be grateful for all those whose work supports others.

While Labor Day is a modern holiday, the idea of honoring work and workers is ancient. There are teachings in the Bible on this topic that are especially relevant today.

There is a flip side to seeing all work as holy and important. We need to treat all workers with dignity. It doesn’t do much good to say that factory workers are important and then to treat them poorly.

Labor Day is thus not just a celebration of workers, but also a call to action. We must each do our part to ensure that all workers are treated with dignity and that their work is honored and valued.

In this way, the connection between this holiday and the labor movement makes a lot of sense. This is a day to give thanks for workers and for all who strive to improve the conditions of workers.

While Labor Day is a modern holiday, the idea of honoring work and workers is ancient. There are teachings in the Bible on this topic that are especially relevant today.

Jesus teaches in Luke 3: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

This warning came to tax collectors, who often abused their position to take advantage of others, but it surely applies to all workers. Refraining from dishonest business practices is a Christian precept.

Jeremiah 22 warns: “Woe to him who builds his house on wrongdoing, his roof-chambers on injustice; Who works his neighbors without pay, and gives them no wages.” This teaches us that we cannot claim to be righteous people of faith and also rob others of their wages or mistreat workers.

In the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5), God orders us to work six days and keep one day as a day of rest. God’s desire is that all people set aside time for rest and re-creation. In our culture, we’re all busy all the time. This goes against what God asks us to do.

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Obeying the commandment to rest requires that some basic conditions be met first. Too many people are not paid a living wage, and so they must work ceaselessly. Calling for a living wage supports the divinely appointed time of rest that God asks of us.

So today, let us give thanks for our own work and for the work of others. I hope each one of us will pray for guidance. Are we doing the work God has in mind for us? And are we doing what we can to dignify the work of others?

There is a beautiful prayer for workers in The Book of Common Prayer used by the Episcopal Church. We often say this prayer at bedtime. I love how it acknowledges that each one of us depends on the work of others.

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Here is the prayer: “O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Work is holy. Workers are holy people. This day, let us see the connections between our lives and the work of others. Let us honor workers and honor God.

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