Happy New Year!

It’s Labor Day weekend, the beginning of a new year. The civil new year begins on Jan. 1; it always does. This year, the Jewish new year begins on Sept. 29, the Christian new year on Dec. 1, and the Chinese on Jan. 25, but all of them are movable feasts, so next year’s new years will be different. 

That’s all mildly entertaining, but you and I know that for Americans, the new year really begins on Labor Day weekend. 

Summer is over, the Fair has had its run, the school year has begun, and who doesn’t know the rallying cry of the season: Are you ready for some football? It’s echoed in churches throughout the Valley as they declare Kickoff Sabbaths and Sundays to get things going again.

As a national holiday, Labor Day dates from 1894 as a way to begin healing the wounds of riots and unrest from strikes initiated by workers hard pressed by 12-hour days, seven day weeks, brutal child labor, low pay and unsafe conditions in the midst of the “Gilded Age” of robber barons. Popular movements among the churches supported their demands as biblically sound.

The book of Exodus records how the Lord led the Hebrews from forced labor to freedom. Among God’s earliest commandments were to make the seventh day of each week a day of rest, and never withhold the wages of those who labor. The oppressive labor practices of King Solomon laid the groundwork for a civil war that divided the Kingdom of Israel in two, never to be reunited. 

Through the prophet Amos, the Lord fumed against rulers who manipulated the working poor into the bondage of debt, and imposed taxes that favored the rich. 

Reminding his churches of the commandment that “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out grain,” the apostle Paul declared that the laborer deserved to be paid.

With deliberate reference to Holy Scripture, Labor Day was meant to draw national attention to the value of labor and the labor movement; to give the nation a shared day of rest; and to pave the way for more peaceful resolutions of conflict between labor and management.

Some progress was made. A hundred and twenty-five years have passed, and Labor Day has drifted into a weekend of friends and family observing one long, last drink of summer before getting back to real life. That’s not a bad thing. We need these moments to come together for no other purpose than enjoyment of time together. God approves.

I think it might be helpful for us to also pause for reflection on how well we honor labor in our own time. Loving our neighbors, as we are commanded to do, requires it. Stores and restaurants are open this weekend, staffed with labor. Thank them. First responders are on duty 24 hours a day. Thank them. For some there is no break from bringing in the harvest. Thank them. 

There remain questions of equity between labor and management. Think about it. 

Steven Woolley is a retired Episcopal priest and fire chaplain who remains active in the community and serves the Grace Episcopal Church in Dayton. Reach him at sewoolley@mac.com. Pastors in the U-B circulation area are encouraged to write 500- to 700-word columns. Send them to jeffpetersen@wwub.com.

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