For many Americans, Labor Day is primarily a way to mark the end of summer or the start of school.
It actually began back in the 1880s as a day with parades and festivals to celebrate the contribution of workers to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country. Of course, most of us these days enjoy a the day as part of a long holiday weekend – unless we are among those laboring at the stores that hope to draw consumers out to special sales events.
For those of us in the Reformed tradition, this is a good Sunday to consider vocation… the idea that all forms of work can honor God. Whether we are drawn to farming, teaching, medicine, auto repair, homemaking or pastoral ministry, we can pursue those careers as part of our witness to God’s grace in our lives.
We are to work with integrity, modeling servanthood and honesty. We should exhibit the fruits of the Spirit while interacting with coworkers, customers and clients (even if they are family members). But the reality is that – for many – work is far removed from our spirituality. The daily rat race feels more like a curse than a blessing.
When the psalmist describes of the futility of labor:
“In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat… “
it reminds me of the curse spoken to Adam in Genesis 3.
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
While they were in the garden, Adam’s relationship with God (and Eve) was simple and straightforward. So was their relationship with the rest of God’s good creation. Beyond the garden, we see the truth of the psalm all the more clearly- life is never easy. Sin, death and tragedy are part of this fallen world. The very work of being the people of God or gathering to worship God can feel futile if we allow rituals to become empty artifice.
But the flipside is also true: When God builds the house, our labor is not in vain. As long as God remains at the center of this house – the temple that we form together, the work that we do together in God’s name – there is hope.
Like many mothers who deliver late-August or early-September babies, the words “Labor Day” will always have a slightly different connotation for me. My thoughts go more toward the image that Paul paints in our passage from his letter to the church in Rome. It harkens back to the curse spoken over Eve –
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.”
I’ll spare you all the gory details, being as we are in mixed company… After months of waiting to meet the little being that had made my body feel alien and my emotions unpredictable, my labor pains started on a Friday evening. They continued until noon that Sunday. Which certainly felt like an eternity.
Eventually a little person emerged. The family we were building, the moment we had hoped for, had arrived. There was moaning, to be sure… along with waiting, pain, encouragement, and good drugs. But I digress. Which is, honestly what Paul does in this passage.
While compelling, this selection is actually a bit of a parenthetical digression. In verses 16-17, Paul says that the Spirit bears witness to the fact that we are children of God. As children, we are heirs of God, co-heirs with Christ. Paul wants us to understand that we are God’s. And that God is ours. With Christ as our mediator, we also receive God’s glory as our inheritance. Paul also wants us to understand that we share in Christ’s sufferings.
Paul personally understood the suffering of persecution, both as a perpetrator and as a victim. But he also saw the injustices suffered by the poor, outcast, widowed and orphaned women and men who were drawn to this new way of worshiping God. He knew that following Christ would not shield them from suffering, and would probably invite more.
Their hope… Our hope… is in the Lord, who works all things for good. Our hope is in the Lord, who claims us as children and sends us the Spirit and is conforming us to the likeness of Christ.
In other words, our hope is one that straddles the now and the not yet. We have hope now: we experience the transforming power of the Spirit as we are being conformed. But we also hope for what we do not yet see. We do not yet reflect the fullness of the glory of God.
All of creation remains fallen. Remember that the ground was cursed as part of Adam’s curse. All of creation suffers, waiting in eager expectation for the day when the children of God will be revealed. The whole of creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Paul wrote those words some 2000 years ago. They remain true today, without having to account for context…
You see, we believe that we are God’s beloved, redeemed people. The redeeming work of Christ was and is sufficient for our salvation. And yet, we still await the God’s final reconciliation when Christ will bring all things in heaven and on Earth together under one head… Christ himself.
In the meantime, we work… We carry the light of Christ within these fragile clay jars. We offer the praise of God’s glory. We serve as Christ’s ambassadors, living as aliens and strangers in this world, telling the story of his life, death and resurrection as Good News for all.
And in the meantime, we suffer… We yearn for rest, a respite from the demands of this world on our hearts, minds and souls. We mourn the death of those we know and love, though not like those who do not have hope. We experience the pain of our own sin and those who sin against us, though we remain secure in the knowledge that God’s grace is not dependent on our works or lack thereof. We long for the end of war, violence, illness and injustice, with greater and deeper urgency as our hearts become more attuned to the heart of Christ. We groan inwardly allowing the spirit to pray on our behalf
After all, isn’t that what labor is all about… Working through pain in order to bring new life? No matter how long it takes? Our greatest model for this is Jesus himself, as captured in the Christ Hymn in Philippans:
Jesus, who being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking on the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
That is the God who loves us.
The One who died for us, lives for us, intercedes for us SO THAT…
at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The one whom God exalted to the highest place and gave the name that is above every name…He is the One who calls us to labor alongside him.
Love so amazing… so divine… demands my heart, my life, my all.