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Signs of the Times  •  4 September 2020 •  No. 206

Labor Day 2020

Above: Painting by Blue Bond

Processional. “As we go marching, marching / In the beauty of the day / A million darkened kitchens / A thousand mill lofts grey / Are touched with all the radiance / That a sudden sun discloses / For the people hear us singing / Bread and roses, bread and roses.” —“Bread and Roses,”  performed by Bronwen Lewis, as sung in the 2014 move “Pride,” based on a true story, where a group of British lesbians and gay men support a Welsh miners’ strike

Call to worship

Creator God, we give thanks this day for work: for work that sustains; for work that fulfills; for work which, however tiring, also satisfies and resonates with Your labor in creation.

As part of our thanks we also intercede for those who have no work, who have too much or too little work; who work at jobs that demean or destroy, work which profits the few at the expense of the many.

Blessed One, extend your redemptive purpose in the many and varied places of our work. In factory or field, in sheltered office or under open sky, using technical knowledge or physical strength, working with machines or with people or with the earth itself.

Together we promise:

To bring the full weight of our intelligence and strength to our work.

Together we promise:

To make our place of work a place of safety and respect for all with whom we labor.

Together we refuse:

To engage in work that harms another, that promotes injustice or violence, that damages the earth or otherwise betrays the common good; or to resign ourselves to economic arrangements which widen the gap between rich and poor.

Together we refuse:

To allow our work to infringe on time with our families and friends, with our community of faith, with the rhythm of Sabbath rest.

Together we affirm:

The rights of all to work that both fulfills and sustains: to just wages and to contentment.

Together we affirm:

That the redeeming and transforming power of the Gospel, with all its demands for justice and its promises of mercy, is as relevant to the workplace as to the sanctuaries of faith and family.

We make these promises, we speak these refusals and we offer these affirmations as offerings to You, O God— who labors with purpose and lingers in laughter—in response to your ever-present grace, as symbols of our ongoing repentance and transformation, and in hope that one day all the world shall eat and be satisfied. AMEN.

Left: Art by Ricardo Levins Morales, ©RLM Art Studio

¶ “Labor Day History.” The Canadian roots of Labor Day observance in North America.  (3:13 video)

¶ “Labor Day: Quotes, quick-facts, extracts

Hymn of praise. “,” drawing on the image of Isaiah 42. (Thanks Kathy.)


My primary Labor Day memory comes from seminary days. I was assistant pastor at a church in New York City, and for several years running I was the designated preacher on Labor Day weekend. The congregation shrank to 8-10 people that Sunday, given the New Yorker tradition of leaving town in August, returning on September’s first Monday evening.

My favorite Labor Day tradition (unfortunately cancelled this year) is also a churchly affair. Members of my congregation hike in the Black Mountains east of Asheville, then convene under a picnic shelter in a nearby park for a leisurely, intergenerational potluck dinner and conversation, with plenty of playground equipment and a gentle stream for wading.

Picnics and discount sell-ebrations are synonymous with Labor Day, along with the cheap sentiments of Presidential Labor Day Proclamations. The latter’s sanctimony this year is dramatized by the wretched statistics of how the pandemic is disproportionately affecting low-age earners. More than 90% of the jobs cut during the pandemic have been from restaurants and other hospitality industries.

—continue reading “Labor’s bread and lovers’ roses: A Labor Day meditation

Right: Photo from the 1912 "Bread and Roses" strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts

Hymn of confession. “What makes a gringo your smart aleck lingo / When he stole this land from the Indian way back when / Don't he remember the big money lender / That put him a lincoln parked where his pinto had been / The almighty peso that gives him the say so / To dry up the river whenever there's crops to bring in / Such a good neighbor to take all his labor / Chase him back over the border till he's needed again.” Merle Haggard, “The Immigrant”

In Christian mysticism, the Latin phrase Ora et Labora reads in full: "Ora et labora, Deus adest son has" (“Pray and work, God is there,” i.e., God helps without delay.) The pray and work refers to the monastic practice of working and praying, generally associated with its use in the Rule of St. Benedict.

Hymn of intercession. “There's an evenin' haze settlin' over the town / Starlight by the edge of the creek / The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down / Money's gettin' shallow and weak / The place I love best is a sweet memory / It's a new path that we trod / They say low wages are a reality / If we want to compete abroad.” —Bob Dylan, “Working Man’s Blues

Call to the table. “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.” —Albert Einstein

Altar call. “Those who participate in [sabbath] break the anxiety cycle. They are invited to awareness that life does not consist in frantic production and consumption that reduces everyone else to threat and competition.” —Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance

Benediction. “The ones who work behind the plow / The ones who stand and will not bow / The ones who care for home and child / The ones who labor meek and mild / The ones who work a thousand ways / That we might celebrate this day / The ones who raise our cities tall / For those who labor, one and all .” —John McCutcheon, “Labor Day

Additional resources on Labor Day

• “Labor in the shadow of sabbath,” a Labor Day sermon

• “Meditations on Labor and Leisure: Several reflections on Sabbath keeping

• “Blistering Hope: A stonemason’s meditation on perseverance

• Special issue of “Signs of the Times” on Labor Day (2015)

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