Six Days Shall You Labor

Here at Labor Day, I want to consider the role of work in our lives. I take my title and the jumping-off point for these reflections from the fourth of the Ten Commandments, but to understand that you have to first recall the first of the two creation myths in the Book of Genesis. Remember that Genesis has two stories of how God created the world, very different and written at different times. Adam and Eve and the Garden and the serpent and the idea of original sin, those are all in the second story of how this world was created. In the first story, which is the first chapter of Genesis and one verse of the second, creation starts in a formless chaos out of which God speaks the elements of the world into existence; it takes God six days to separate the light from the darkness, the sky from the land and the land from the sea and put the sun and moon and stars in the sky and populate creation with all the critters and finally humans. At the end of each day, God looks at what she has accomplished on that day and pronounces it good. And finally when God has made the humans on the sixth day, on the seventh God rests. The first creation story ends with these words:

“[Genesis 2] 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”

But it turned out that resting on the seventh day was not just a nice idea; God goes on to make it a model for humans to follow, whether they wanted to or not. Six weeks after the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery in Egypt, their leaders Moses and Aaron almost have a mutiny on their hands because the Israelites are starving in the desert. Some want to go back to the fleshpots of Egypt where at least they would have a full stomach. God solves the hunger problem by sending a kind of bread which falls like dew from the skies, manna, but God is very particular about how they shall gather the bread. Each day, each family is allowed to gather one Omer, one measure of the manna for each person in the household, except that on the sixth day they shall gather two omers per person and on the seventh day, they gather no manna. Because the seventh day is a day of rest.

Through the whole forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert, God provided manna from the skies for them to eat, but there was a double portion of manna on the sixth day and no manna at all on the seventh. It was an enforced sabbath.

Later God is laying down the law to the Israelites as they are still wandering through the Sinai desert. God gives them the Ten Commandments, as well as a lot of more detailed laws. The Fourth Commandment requires:

“8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

You know God considers it important to take that day of rest if she puts it in the ten biggest list of dos and don’ts. And note that it doesn’t just apply to Jews but to anyone who lives in a Jewish community. Slaves and aliens and so forth.

So it’s ironic that an awful lot of people who consider themselves to be followers of the Ten Commandments, who would never think of taking God’s name in vain or committing murder, theft or adultery of bearing false witness, will cheerfully work right through the sabbath day.

And it is doubly ironic that the chief offenders in this regard are preachers. People who are supposed to be advocates for the Judeo-Christian ethos are up in the pulpit every Sunday violating the fourth commandment. I’m doing it right now.

Some people would counter that the main point of the fourth commandment is not rest but holiness, and since the minister is leading services for a religious community, they are fulfilling the spirit fo the Fourth Commandment. Under this view, the purpose of the commandment is to remind the faithful to devote some time to the source of it all, to the one from whom, in the words of the old hymn, all blessings flow. And as we all know, there are many conservative Jews and members of Christian denominations as well who are very strict in observance of the Sabbath. Whole chapters of the Torah are devoted to list of the things you can’t do on the Sabbath.

Holiness is clearly part of it, but I’d like to lift up the value of non-doing for its own sake. Non-doing has its own type of holiness.

In other words, one way we can contemplate the value of work is by considering its opposite. We pause in our worship service for a time of prayer and meditation. Many of us meditate at home or in a group which gathers Saturday morning here. We deliberately put activities on hold.

But there are less formal ways in which to non-do. In this denomination we like to read Mary Oliver, and few of her poems are more beloved than “The Summer Day,”

“I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?”

“How to be idle and blessed.” Idleness in this telling is a form of being blessed.

Is walking through the fields all day talking to the grasshoppers the same as observing the Sabbath? What is work, what is leisure, what is worship?

And what does any of this have to do with Labor Day, you may be wondering? Just this: Labor Day, the original International Labor Day celebrated May 1 around the world, commemorates an important stage in the history of class struggle, and the principle issue in the struggle leading up to that day in May was the eight-hour working day and the forty-hour working week.

Early in the nineteenth century the Welsh utopian socialist Robert Owen said that the ideal division of the day was “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”

BY 1886, that eight hour shift had become the rallying cry for the new labor movement. The reading I just did tells the story of the Haymarket affair and how that was sparked by demands for the eight-hour day. The Haymarket affair is called a defeat for the US labor movement and it did not result in immediate gains, but it also did spark a sympathy for the plight of the urban wage worker.

The unions continued to press in the twentieth century and in 1926, Ford Motor Company became the first large employer to make 40 hours the standard work week. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which limited the work-week to forty-four hours, and in 1940, they dropped that to forty hours. To avoid labor shortages, the law gives the employer the right to require the employee to work beyond the weekly limit, but makes the employer pay time and a half if it does require this overtime.

Yet even setting the maximum hours in law does not guarantee that it will stay as a practice.

A recent CNBC report said this:

Recent data indicates that the typical American worker is no longer adhering to an eight-hour workday. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 44 hours per week, or 8.8 hours per day. A 2014 national Gallup poll put the average number at 47 hours per week, or 9.4 hours per day, with many saying they work 50 hours per week.

And there are sectors of the workforce which work longer than that:

“In demanding, competitive industries like tech and finance, professionals work in excess of 60 hours a week as a rule, and are available constantly by smartphone. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek story highlighted American factories where employees work upwards of 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week.”

It’s funny, I am a liberal and it bothers me to wear clothing made under conditions that I consider a sweatshop in Asia or Africa or South America. But I was a lawyer for twenty years, and many law firms have a work ethic which would put a clothing factory to shame.

What is work? It is what we do to make money and to buy the necessities of life, food, clothing, shelter. But it also becomes way of providing meaning in our lives. I used to look at myself in the mirror and recognize myself as the person who helped guide people through the legal system. Now I look at myself and recognize myself as the person who tries to minister to people. That gives rise to a fear, now that I have announced I am leaving the Meeting House, that there will come a day when I will look in the mirror and won’t recognize myself as these roles; will I recognize myself at all?

Are we what we do, only? Last Labor Day, I titled my sermon “Is what we do who we are?” No, there is some core of being which is beside what we do for a living.

I am aware that when I stand at this pulpit, I address both people who are still in the workforce and those who have retired. There are probably stories each of you in one of those categories could tell about the transition from working to not working or vice versa.

But the neat division of labor and leisure have become blurred. The lines are being erased by the forces of the modern age just as sandcastles get washed away by the tides. The cell phone has made most of us available to the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If we agree to carry it, we are potentially at work whenever it rings. And most of them have pictures so it is not just your voice and you mind which can be engaged on an instant’s notice, it is your image and your surroundings.

Now let me hasten to add that I make myself available to my parishioners, and we have a kind of trust relationship. You don’t call me unless you need to talk to me and I assume if you’re calling me it’s for something which needs my attention right now.

The larger point is that when you have this little thing in your pocket which is computer, source of information, library of entertainment and a means of getting in touch with anybody in the world, you’re always at the office or the worksite. You carry your worksite with you shrunk into a size smaller than a pack of cigarettes.

What is the concept of sabbath, what does the day of rest mean in the age of the smartphone? Can we unplug? Of course we can. We can simply leave it at home and go out with Mary Oliver to ramble in the meadow, to be blessed and idle.

But of course we don’t. We say we can carry it and not pay attention to it, but can we? A few years ago someone started a dinner club for a group of friends which had one rule. They would gather in a restaurant and they would all put their phones in the middle of the table. If anyone was caught checking their phone before the tab was paid, that person had to pay for the whole meal.

Cell phones are designed to be addictive and many of us are addicted to our phones. That addiction pulls us away from the blessed contemplation in the meadow with Mary Oliver or wherever you want to practice idleness. And Mary Oliver’s poem also hints at an older system drawing us away from the here and now: the Protestant Work Ethic. Max Weber, one of the early pioneers in sociology, came up with the idea that the mentality needed to make the Industrial Revolution was just that provided by Protestantism. Only the elite chosen few are going to heaven, and they have be preordained to go there. But no one knows whether they are in the chosen few or not. Yet there is a hint: people who are financially successful are probably being favored by God before death because they will be favored by her after death. So if you can out-work your fellow souls during this life, you may assure yourself salvation in the next one.

This is the Calvinist corruption in American culture: the rich are doubly blessed to have it all in this life and heaven in the next, while the poor are doubly cursed to suffer in this life and then go to Hell in the next one. So when right-wing politicians start getting off on welfare queens, it is not just covert racism, although it is that. It is an appeal to the implicit Calvinist precept that it is a sin to be poor.

And guilt hangs over it all; guilt that we’re not working hard enough, that it’s never good enough, that the solution is to work harder and cut more recreation and leisure out of our lives.

Many of us work so hard during our working lives that we look for work-like things to do in retirement. But hey, I really can’t fault this, for this is the source of the volunteer energy that keeps this Meeting House and all nonprofits going.

So I need to switch gears here. Volunteer energy to run the Meeting House is a good thing. It’s good for the institution, of course, but it also gives the volunteer the opportunity to feel needed, to contribute his or her energy to a larger good, to work and socialize with people he or she knows and also to meet new people.

The Protestant Ethic can make life miserable if you’re stuck in a meaningless job; but if you have found work which meets your emotional needs and talents, you can do worse than to be devoted to it.

God told the Israelites, six days shall you labor and the seventh is for rest. In our lives, many of us spent six decades laboring, and some are now enjoying a period of rest in the seventh. And we have chosen to live in a place where many other seventh-decade people are also pursuing creative non-work occupations.

That might be a good mission statement for the Meeting House: “a place where we occupy our time in ways that we hope create a better world.” Many of you work hours for this institution and other nonprofits as volunteers. You no longer work for money, you work for love.

Songwriter Bob Franke wrote a song about work and love once, and the chorus will provide an apt coda to these reflections:

What can you do with your days but work & hope,

Let your dreams bind your work to your play.

What can you do with each moment of your life

But love til you've loved it away,

Love til you've loved it away.


Reading: A history of May Day

AFSCME University of Minnesota Clerical Workers

Since 1890, May 1 has been recognized around the world as International Labor Day. The origins of this holiday are to be found here in the United States - in the struggle to shorten the workday to a tolerable length, and more specifically, in events that occurred in the Haymarket area of Chicago in May 1886.


Throughout the 19th century, the struggle to shorten the workday was a central issue in workers’ effort to form unions and gain some control over their own lives. The battle over hours was at least as important as the fight for higher wages. Early industrial capitalists imposed working days of 12, 14, or 16 hours, and work weeks of seven days. But from the beginning of industrialism, workers pushed back and tried to establish a more humane schedule of work.

Before the Civil War there were efforts by workers to form unions in the U.S. and struggles for shorter hours. These efforts were scattered and intermittent, and usually aimed at getting the workday down to 10 hours. A mass movement demanding an eight-hour workday appeared after the war, and to a great extent because of the war. The Civil War had become a war of labor liberation through the actions of the enslaved African American workers, who conducted what W.E.B. Du Bois called "the general strike" -- stopping work and leaving the plantations en masse when the Union Army approached. Their actions changed the nature of the war and forced Lincoln to proclaim the emancipation of the slaves.

Workers in the North -- white workers, many of whom fought in the war -- were deeply affected by seeing that the impossible had happened... slaves managing to emancipate themselves. And it called into being the modern labor movement


In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which two years later renamed itself the American Federation of Labor (AFL), voted to call for strikes on May 1, 1886 to force employers across the country to agree "that eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor." May Day 1886 indeed brought a national wave of strikes, involving some 500,000 workers in cities and small towns. Nowhere was the movement stronger than in Chicago. Some 90,000 workers took to Chicago's streets that day, and a major portion of them were immigrants -- German, Irish, Czech, Polish, British and other nationalities. The strike shut down most factories, but one major employer -- the McCormick Harvester plant -- had locked out its union employees since February and was operating with strikebreakers. One the third day of the citywide strike, police opened fire on 500 workers protesting outside the McCormick plant against the presence of scabs. The police killed four workers and injured many more.

Outraged by the murders, workers gathered in a mass rally the following evening, May 4, at Haymarket Square. The crowd of some 3,000 listened to speeches by movement organizers. Near the end of the final speech, by labor activist Samuel Fielden, 180 police advanced in military formation on the crowd that had now dwindled to around 200. As the cops moved on the speaker's stand, a bomb flew though the air and exploded in front of the police, killing one instantly and wounding dozens. The police regrouped and opened fire on the crowd, killing one and injuring many. Several officers were fatally wounded in the melee of "friendly fire" from their own force.

The next day the mayor declared martial law. Hundreds of militant workers were arrested, homes and union offices were raided. Eventually eight men were chosen to stand trial, most of whom had not even been present at Haymarket on the evening of May 4. But all of them were effective labor organizers, and therefore hated by the ruling class of Chicago. Six of the defendants were immigrants (five German, one British) - which aided the effort to demonize them.

None of the accused were directly charged with murder, since there was no evidence connecting them to the bomb. They were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, and were put on trial for their ideas and their radical labor activism. The trial was a travesty, with fabricated evidence, several jurors who declared the defendants guilty before the trial began, and no workers in the jury. Newspaper headlines in Chicago and across the country screamed for blood, and the trial's outcome was obvious in advance. All the accused were convicted, all but one sentenced to death, the other -- Oscar Neebe -- to 15 years in prison. The sentences of two of the accused -- Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden -- were later commuted to life in prison. Seven years later a new Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned them all, declaring that they "were not proven guilty of the crime," but were instead victims of a biased judge and a packed jury. Neebe, Schwab and Fielden were finally released as a result of Altgeld's pardon. But it was too late for the other five: on November 11, 1887, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fisher, August Spies, and George Engel were hung. Louis Lingg had robbed the hangman by committing suicide in his jail cell.

The Haymarket affair, and the execution of the Haymarket martyrs, was a huge setback to the labor movement and to the campaign for the eight-hour workday in the United States. Labor activists across the country were arrested as "conspirators," and militant workers were now called "bomb throwers" as well as "communists." In 1890 the AFL again called May Day strikes for the eight-hour day, and AFL President Samuel Gompers put out the call for labor movements around the world to do the same. As a result, May Day became the international workers' day of celebration, protest and rebellion. It most countries May Day has retained this significance.

But in the U.S., businessmen and politicians over the years stole May Day from the working class and largely erased its memory. Pennsylvania in 1939 declared May 1 "Americanism Day." Congress in 1947 declared it "Loyalty Day," then, changing its mind in 1958, renamed it "Law Day." During the Cold War, when the Soviet government celebrated May Day with an annual military parade through Red Square, AFL-CIO leaders -- many of whom probably knew better -- pretended that May Day was a dangerous foreign tradition that had nothing to do with workers in this country.

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​Unitarian Universalist

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Chatham, MA 02633

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Open Minds — Loving Hearts — Helping Hands

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