Labor Day – The Fruit of Good “Work”

Whenever we observe the Labor Day weekend, I make a kind of strange connection. And I think of a priest and monk named James Huntington. Fr. Huntington was the founder of the Order of the Holy Cross, the first permanent, Episcopal, monastic community for men here in the United States. I’ve been an Associate of Holy Cross for over 30 years and used to make my retreat regularly at their mother house in West Park, NY while I was serving at our Episcopal Church Center.

Holy Cross has always been a community committed to active ministry rooted in the spiritual life. They take seriously the admonition in our Epistle today when St. James writes, “…be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22) Today’s Collect sets out the process for the Christian life – for monastics like the brothers of Holy Cross, but also for everyday Christians like you and me:
“Lord of all power and might, the author and give of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works…” See the pattern? First, the love of God must be grafted (implanted) in our hearts. Then we begin by practicing the disciplines of our religion (increase in us true religion); as we live that life we begin to experience the goodness of God; and then finally, God begins to bring forth from within us “the fruit of good works.” We start being doers of the word…and not hearers only.

That’s exactly the path James Huntington followed. He experienced what he believed to be a call to the religious life in the early 1880s while attending a retreat at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Then he, and two other priests, began to test that vocation by living a common life at Holy Cross Mission on New York’s Lower East Side, working with poor people and the immigrant population there.
That challenging ministry, especially working with immigrants and young people, drew Huntington to the social witness of the Church and he became increasingly involved with the single-tax movement, with the fledgling Labor Movement, and really led the way for The Episcopal Church to become increasingly committed to what became known as the “social gospel.”

This was an early 20th century movement which applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as wealth perceived of as excessive, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, child labor, and inadequate labor unions. The leaders – some of whom overlapped with Huntington – were people like Richard Ely, Washington Gladden, and especially Walter Rauschenbusch.
This movement was not without its critics, even at the time, in The Episcopal Church and the wider Christian community, but it sowed the seeds of our increasing involvement in issues of justice and peace and the realization – arising again in our day in the so-called “emergent church”– that “Jesus did not come to found a church; he came to announce God’s Kingdom!” That the Reign of God begins Now! And we need to work to build a society that reflects those values.

What does all this have to do with Labor Day? Well, of course, Labor Day – as a commemoration on the first Monday in September — was a creation of the labor movement and was dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers and to the contributions they have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country. It began to be celebrated in the early 1880s (just about the same time as James Huntington experienced his call to the religious life!)

There is some debate about who originally proposed the Labor Day observance, but records seem to indicate that it was Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, first suggested the day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold” (History of Labor Day, from the DOL)
Of course, no one can deny today that the labor movement itself has been fraught with its own internal problems, but the ideals of its founders, as well as the commitment of people like James Huntington over the last century reflect Gospel values and are well worth celebrating. Perhaps our Collect for Labor Day in the Book of Common Prayer puts it best, in a spiritual context:

“Almighty God, you have so linked our lives with one 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…” (BCP 261)
With the unemployment rate still hovering around 8.3 per cent in the sure – but oh so slow – economic recovery we are in the midst of, I hope we will redouble our efforts in this country and around the world to see to it that our people have adequate and meaningful work to do. It’s part of being a human being! And the Collect has it about right…

We are so intertwined with each other in this world that everything we do affects all other lives. What we do for good and what we do for ill — affects others. So let’s remember not to just look out for number one, but to realize that we are all in this together. And, as we expect to be paid a living wage ourselves, let’s see to it that others are paid fairly for the work they do. Most of all, let’s remember those who, this day, are out of work. Very few of them want to be. And everyone deserves a chance for meaningful employment.

So, enjoy your Labor Day. But don’t forget where it came from, and what it’s ideals are. For if we are to become “doers of the word and not hearers only,” we need to follow  James Huntington’s example and let God’s name be grafted in our hearts…to put our religion into practice..and to be nourished by the goodness and grace of God…so that we may bear good fruit — the fruit of good WORK !

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