Tomorrow is Labour Day.
Regardless of how it felt during our school years, Labour Day is not simply the last gasp of summer holidays before the school year begins.
Rather, our annual celebration of Labour Day, in Canada, traces its origins to the activities of a labour union, in Toronto, in the 1870s.
In 1872, the Toronto Typographical Union staged a series of strikes in the hope of securing a limitation of the work week to “only” 58 hours. George Brown, who was a prominent Canadian politician, and the editor of the Toronto Globe (and a Presbyterian!) pressed the police to charge the striking workers, and 24 of them were arrested. A group of other unions staged a series of protests, in reaction to those arrests, and those protests took place on September 3, 1872. In response, Parliament eventually enacted new laws concerning labour, and in 1873 the Trade Union Act was passed, which placed a 54 hour a week limit on employer’s expectations for their workers.
A number of other unions eventually supported that initiative, and similar strikes and protests spread to other jurisdictions, including in New York City. Over the course of the next few decades, Canadian unions would mark a day, each year, to remember these changes, and in the 1890s, the Canadian Parliament officially designated the first Monday in September as the holiday that we know as Labour Day.
Growing up, I always found the idea of Labour Day to be somewhat enjoyably ironic – that is, Labour Day is a holiday that celebrates work by allowing everyone to take a day off. But it also is meant to be a time to pause and give thought to the dignity, the benefits, and the advantages that emerge as a result of good and hard work.
I recently heard a quotation that I found to be quite memorable – that “industry is the enemy of melancholy”. And there is a lot of truth to that statement – to fill a day with good and worthwhile things to do is far better than simply passing through the hours. Good work conveys a greater meaning, and purpose, and value to our days. Our labours are worth celebrating; and the hard work of those who labour, diligently, to keep our society safe, strong and peaceful are worth remembering.
In light of the holiday that we mark, this weekend, I found it interesting to note that the suggested epistle for this Sunday of Labour Day weekend focuses our attention on the issue of work in relation to our faith.
This passage has, of course, been the subject of a great deal of reflection – and sometimes controversy – in the history of the Protestant tradition of Christian thought, of which we as Presbyterians are a part. The emphasis of the reformers on faith and grace alone – quite apart from our works – as the basis of our salvation sometimes led our spiritual ancestors to minimize any focus on the importance of good works, lest we fall into the trap of spiritual pride in which we think that we are loved and saved because of all of the good things that we do. And this concern about the relation of faith and good works led Martin Luther, himself, to question whether the Epistle of James should even be included in the biblical canon since it seemed to emphasize the importance of works, as a sign of our faith, to a degree that made Luther uncomfortable. “St. James’ Epistle,” he wrote, “is really an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”
Luther’s antipathy to the Letter of James did not prevail, however, and this letter is an important one in the canon of Scripture — and that is a good thing. Because what the letter of James highlights – and what today’s suggested text focuses our attention on – is the importance of a faith that is active, the importance of behaving and “doing things” in ways that reveal, and reflect and deepen the truth of our spiritual convictions.
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.”
In other words, if you claim to be a person of faith, if you have heard God’s call and the good news made known in Jesus Christ, but it makes no real difference to the way that you are acting – if you are just a hearer and yet “do” nothing – then it might truly be asked how serious and significant your faith is.
It’s like exercise. Lots of people – perhaps everyone – claims to want to stay in good physical shape; we all know the physical benefits that accrue to those who take the time to get exercise; we all can cite the statistics and quote the research about the advantages of staying physically active; but just because we know that exercise is good for you doesn’t mean that we actually do it. In fact, most gyms have a huge number of paying members who never use their facilities! Hearing – and even believing – that exercise is a good idea is one thing; but actually taking the time to act on that belief can be something else entirely. And without any action, all of our knowledge about exercise means nothing.
Much like faith. Most of us can talk a pretty good game about what we believe – we can list the actions and attitudes and activities that are supposed to shape the Christian life. We can quote passages by memory, and mumble out the words of the Lord’s Prayer without a thought. We can celebrate God’s grace, God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s call to do justice, and love kindness, and walk in humility; we can talk about the importance of compassion and of forgiveness, of servanthood and of holiness.
But do we do these things consistently?
Do we put what we say that we believe into action? Do we do what we are supposed to do? Are our lives shaped and guided by the labours of our faith?
Sometimes. But not always. Which is a good reason why our salvation is not, ultimately, dependent on whether we are as good at doing what we are supposed to be doing, as Christians.
But, like exercise, it is good for us to realize, as well, that the words that we read, today, from the letter to James remind us that there are beneficial consequences, and tremendous advantages, that accrue to those who are not merely hearers, but also doers. Like exercise, acting on our faith has the power to strengthen us; acting on our faith has the power to build up our endurance for those times in life when what we believe is challenged, or when our trust in God grows weak; and in the eyes of others, who might long to find reasons to believe, acting on our faith offers tangible proof, and demonstrable evidence that what we say we believe has affected the ways that we act, and has transformed our lives.
And people do notice. People notice when our words are kind, even in response to hurtful behaviour; people notice when our choices about how we spend our time are shaped by the desire to use our skills and our energy in the service of others; people notice when we take time to pray, to worship, to encourage others, to support those in need; people notice when what we say we believe is made real in our actions. Such good works do not save us – thank God, that has already been done; but they do serve to strengthen us, and to reveal that our faith is something real, and transforming in our lives.
So what are we supposed to do about all of this?
On this Labour Day weekend, what might we do to strengthen and rededicate ourselves, and our lives, to works of love and justice and compassion, to the labours of our faith?
Well, that is a question that I cannot answer for any of you. But what I can do is encourage you to give it serious thought.
And this time of year can be a great time to do so. The summer is past, the fall season is beginning, and there are many, many opportunities to find ways to become more committed “doers” of the word, both within the church and beyond these walls. In your personal life, why not make the decision to carve out a set time each day to read the Bible and spend time in prayer? Why not make the decision to allow worship to rise to place of priority in your rhythm of weekly activities? Why not join a Bible study group, as the fall season begins, both to go deeper into the texts of Scripture with others whose insights will be a benefit to your spiritual growth, and to encourage others through the questions and insights that you will bring that will be an equally significant benefit to them? Why not volunteer to teach Sunday School, or offer your time and energy to the Better English Café as it resumes in the coming weeks, or set aside time to help with the Out of the Cold program, peeling potatoes, cutting carrots, setting tables, serving food, washing dishes? Or why not simply make an effort to reach out to someone who needs your support, your encouragement, your time?
In your words, in your time, in your attitudes, in your actions, why not strive, further, to let your faith become a central influence in how you live your life?
And do so because you want your faith to be real, to be alive, to grow. Do so because you know that you are loved, and that it is in loving others that this world shall be transformed. Do so because you have been called and claimed by the One who gave his life for you, and who wants you to experience a deeper, more fulfilling, more rewarding, more engaged existence.
And do so, in the humble awareness, that even your smallest efforts will make a difference — because when you become a doer of the word, you are, after all, simply responding to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more that all we can ask or imagine, and to that great and wondrous God be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus, to all generations, forever and ever, Amen.