by Michael Gallup
“Its just one more bratwurst.” These are the words I try to console myself with each year as I celebrate Labor Day by indulging in the most American sin there is: gluttony. Whether it’s beans or burgers, Labor Day just isn’t the same without cooking too much food over an open fire.
But what exactlly are we celebrating? I have always projected the military-honoring values of Labor Day’s buddy-holiday, Memorial Day, upon it. They bookend summer so they must be about the same things, right? Obviously, we do not have school that day and if you work for the government you take the day off; but why?
The holiday has something to do with the military but not like you might imagine. Here is how Wikipedia sums up the history of the holiday:
The first big Labor Day in the United States was observed on September 5, 1882, by the Central Labor Union of New York. It became a federal holiday in 1894, when, following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland reconciled with the labor movement. Fearing further conflict, legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was rushed through Congress unanimously and signed into law a mere six days after the end of the strike.
After nearly 8 million dollars in damage to the railway system and an exchange that cost 13 workers their lives and wounded another 57, the strike came to an end and a holiday was born for the purpose of appeasment. Obviously little of this incident actually influences how we celebrate but it is interesting that we celebrate it anyway. Despite the fact that all we know of Labor Day is that we don’t have to work (some of us, like me, still put in full days on the first Monday in September) we still celebrate it with similar gusto to any other significant holiday. Yet perhaps that is all we need.
The Hebrews understand this better than most. They have not only adopted the rhythms of Sabbath but have transformed their entire way of life to reflect God’s command to cease striving one day a week. God Himself, even with his limitless power, decided to fire up the grill and sip some sweet tea as he took in the joy of rest after a week of work. And we see in this that not only is rest good but so is work.
Perhaps the reason we party so desperately on Labor Day is the same reason most cash their paychecks on Friday at the local pub. As we punch out of work we feel sweet release. Freedom and the weekend is ours and there is no one named boss to tell us otherwise. Why do so many of us despise our jobs? What have we lost?
Doubtless there is quite some complexity to answering questions like these but maybe under the surface of it all is that we are just so off rhythm. There are few things more sad than a Baptist congregation trying to clap. Within a few beats, half of the place is out of rhythm and while the intent is to make a joyful sound all I hear is noise. We are meant to do work, not just punch a clock, but meaningful and good work. This certainly does not have to be glamorous, it can take place in every area of vocation. The difference is rhythm. God showed us the dance moves: six days we work and one we rest.
I know when I have an extended break I often find myself tired of doing nothing. But conversely, if I go a week or two without taking a meaningful day of rest for myself, I become a shell of myself, dreading every present task. But the demands of our lifestyles and choices push us to our limits, push us to work without ceasing, all the while hating ourselves for it. And so we work for the weekend not so we can rest but so we can ravage our bodies with late hours and copious amounts of booze.
This is not a sermon against partying, I think Jesus models for us that we should indeed celebrate and that it is more than acceptable to involve a little wine. What I am writing against, or rather for, is a healthy rhthym of work and rest. Rob Bell says this about rest: “On the Sabbath we hear again that our worth and value do not come from what we make, produce, or accomplish.” I would add, “but from God.” In the act of trusting that we will make it, that the world is not solely dependant upon us and us acheiving, we find a reason to celebrate both the days of toil and the days of slumber.
So as you gorge yourself today on the finest American fare, I hope you know why you are celebrating: becuase it is good to rest AND because it is good to work.
Michael is working today selling chicken. He also rested well yesterday. Work for him includes being a student at Denver Seminary in addition to the aforementioned chicken-selling. His Idea of rest is being with his family, listening to Bluegrass, or watching football.