Monday, September 5, 2011

The Collect for Labor Day

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I’m not sure it’s fair to call Labor Day a “Feast Day” in the Episcopal Church, but we do have defined propers for the occasion. And, even though we aren’t opening up the front doors to the church building in order to usher in the crowd that is looking for a place to worship on Labor Day, the church does have something to say about labor. This year, with our national focus so squarely fixed on jobs (or the lack of them), Labor Day seems a particularly appropriate time for religious reflection.

The collect for Labor Day, which is found at the top of this post, says some remarkable things about our common labor. First, a word about collects in general. Collects are a special form of prayer, which are designed to bring together (hence the name “collect”) all our prayers on a certain occasion into one articulation. Usually, this type of prayer begins with an ascription of divine identity—saying something about who God is. Next it makes a petition—asking God to do something. Then it envisions the fulfillment of that petition—stating what we hope will happen as the petition is granted. Finally it concludes with the familiar acknowledgment of God’s triune reign over all creation. We don’t make it very far into this collect before we encounter some bold theological assertions about our common toil.

We pray, “Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives…” Do we believe that? Do we really believe that everything we do impacts the lives of everyone else? When was the last time you contemplated the global (if not intergalactic) impact of your daily life and work? If we really believed that our lives were that causally linked, would that change the way we approached this period of economic challenge?

As the prayer reaches its climax, we say, “make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work.” For the most part, the anxiety and worry I have felt during recent months/years has been personal. “How will this affect my life? What will this do to my portfolio? How will those I love handle this downturn? What will this do for our stewardship drive or our capital campaign?” But I think this collect envisions a deeper and broader concern for the welfare of others. How has this economic crisis affected all of us?

For many of us—especially those of us in the American south—socialism is a dirty word. It suggests a particular political-economic system as the “right” way to run a country. In the context of the gospel, socialism is something different. It’s a way of living in Christian community. Is it practical for the federal government to operate as the apostles did in the earliest days of the church—holding everything in common and dividing up labor and resources according to the needs of the entire group? No, surely the bible isn’t asking us to replicate the communal policies enacted in Acts at the federal level. But as Christians we are supposed to recognize our common life together. And, if we are truly aware of how intimately tied together our lives are, wouldn’t we choose to govern our personal lives more like the apostles?

Labor Day is a chance to celebrate our common life together—how each of us contributes for the good or ill of the rest of humanity. Some might conclude that it’s impossible to separate the political and religious spheres of life. Others think government and religion must have separate interests. Either way, as Christians we are called to acknowledge the ways in which we are linked together and then live accordingly.

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