Prayer for Labor Day
adapted from a prayer by Carol Penner
We come before you on this weekend when we celebrate those who labor and honor those who fought (and are still fighting) to make labor just. And so today, we ask you to bless our hands in all their varied labor, O God.
Bless the hands that work the land;
hands that move earth, sow seeds and bring in the harvest,
hands with callouses and dirty fingernails, strong hands.
Bless the hands that operate machines;
hands that drive cars, trucks and forklifts,
hands on computer keyboards, capable hands.
Bless the hands that make things;
hands that manufacture and create,
working wood and metal and plastic, practical hands.
Bless the hands that clean;
hands that wash, mop and scrub,
hands that know what to do with soap, determined hands.
Bless the hands that make music and art;
hands that play instruments and hold paintbrushes and mold clay
hands that are creative tools, artistic hands.
Bless the hands that care for others;
hands that cook and feed, heal and nurture and teach,
hands with a gentle touch, loving hands.
Bless the hands that are generous;
hands that give away money and food and time,
hands that are always trying to be empty, Christ-like hands.
Bless the smallest hands and the most wrinkled.
Bless the sturdiest hands and the frailest.
Bless the hands that are folded in prayer.
Bless the hands that are wrung with grief.
Bless the hands that are lifted in praise.
Remind us that our hands do the work of your hands,
O God our Creator.
Love & Taxes
Romans 13:8-14 [NRSV]
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
In the lead-up to our verses for today, Paul has been giving the Christians in Rome a little tax advice. In chapter 12, Paul focuses on life within the Christian community, but in chapter 13, he zooms out, examining what it means to live as a Christian in a broader social context. “Pay to all what is due them,” he writes, “taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Taken at face value, this feels like practical enough advice, but not particularly spiritual advice. Then we get to verse eight, where what is really owed is revealed. We owe a debt of love. We do not only owe it only to the people in our church, or the people who share our faith, or even the people who share our values, but to everyone. Even to the people who make tax policy.
In the gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that people will recognize his followers by our love. Not by the crosses we wear around our necks or the slogans on our t-shirts or the bumper stickers on our cars, but by how we treat others. And yet, despite the fact that we are told over and over again throughout scripture—by the prophet Micah and by Jesus himself and by Paul—that love is the way to fulfill God’s law, we consistently try to uphold it by other means. If people are meant to recognize Christ’s followers by our love, then throughout Christian history, we have often been unrecognizable.
Just this week, one of my clergy colleagues relayed a very telling story. A teacher who is a member of one of his congregations told him that recently one of her students discovered she attends church regularly: “You go to church?” the little boy asked. “But you’re so nice!” A Pew Research survey showed that 57 percent of people under forty agree that religious people are generally less tolerant of others. In other words, a majority of them agree that Christians are actually less loving than non-religious people. Instead of being known by our love for neighbors, we are more often known by our love for the rules. Perhaps it’s because it’s easy to make rules about us and what we can control. Loving other people is messy. It requires us to do things we don’t particularly want to do for people we don’t particularly want to do anything for.
This is why Paul tells us that we have to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” At first read, that can sound like the very kind of hypocrisy that we are trying to avoid. None of us want to be the kind of Christians who put on a false face or pretend to be something we aren’t. But putting on Christ isn’t so much like putting on a Halloween costume as it is like putting on a garment. We wear clothes for many reasons, after all—for protection, for identity, and for fashion. So maybe putting on Christ is fashion in its most basic sense: we are, after all, always aiming to be fashioned into Christ.
Most of us wear a uniform of one kind or another. Every Sunday, I stand in the little room off the chancel, and I pull on my robe, and I hold my stole in my hands, and before I put it over my head, I pray. It’s a simple, honest prayer, because it’s Sunday morning and I figure God and I are both feeling the crunch. It’s usually some version of, “Okay, Holy Spirit. I’ve done what I could. Now it’s up to you.” What I mean is that I hope the Spirit will speak through me, that the Spirit will open your ears to whatever it is that you need to hear most, even if it isn’t the thing I thought was my main point. And even though sometimes I wake up on Sunday morning wondering whether God knew what God was up to when God lead me to this odd and wonderous calling, when I put on my vestments, I feel like I have put on my calling. I’m still the same person, of course, but I’m reminded of who I am. Even if you don’t have a uniform, I bet you have an article of clothing like that. Maybe it’s a blazer or scrubs or a pair of boots that have years of dirt caked into them. When you put them on, you remember the work you are meant to do. We put on Christ, not to disguise ourselves, but to remind ourselves who we are and of our calling in the world.
As Christians, we are not called to hide away or put our heads in the sand. We are still expected to participate in the world, but we are expected to participate first and foremost as citizens of God’s kingdom. Paul, like many early Christians, was concerned about eschatology, which is a fancy seminary word that literally translates as “the study of the last.” They were worried about the end of the world, which you would probably have been worried about too if you had been living under Nero. And which you might be worried about now, honestly, if you pay much attention to the news.
I remember having a conversation with someone one time who was trying to convince me that the end of the world was indeed nigh.
“Well, maybe,” I told them. “But Christians have been saying that for thousands of years.”
“Yes, but it’s truer now than ever before!” they argued.
“Sure,” I admitted, “I suppose that’s technically true. But people have been saying that for thousands of years, so I’m not sure we should worry about it.”
This is one of the reasons that Paul has to tell the early Christians in Rome that they still have to pay their taxes and generally be responsible members of society. Because when people think the world is ending, they start to stop doing the things they didn’t much want to do in the first place. And they often start doing things that are destructive in the long term, which is why Paul has to warn them against partying, drunkenness, corruption, decadence, squabbling and jealousy. Even if it feels like the world is ending, you still have to work toward its future, because faith calls us to look ahead toward the promise of God’s kingdom, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
In his commentary on Romans, Paul Achtemeier writes, “The conviction that Christ will return is the conviction that God will in fact one day redeem his creation, that he will one day fulfill the promise of restoration and recreation given in the resurrection of Christ. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that that future has already invaded the present, an invasion shown by the presence of the Spirit within the community of the faithful that gives to the Christian faith the distinctiveness it has.” We are a distinct community because we continue to live into the belief that the future holds promise. We hold out hope for a future shaped by the love we do.
I like the way the New International Version translates verse eight: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.” Love is, after all, the debt we can never pay off. We can pour it out and pour it out and pour it out, and still, we wake up the next day and find that the balance hasn’t shifted at all. We owe our neighbors just as much love today as we did the day before, because every day we wake up just as in need of that same love. It’s why every Sunday morning we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” It is a checkbook can never be balanced. In fact, the minute we attempt it, the minute we begin to think that we are owed more than we owe others, we have missed the point entirely.
If that idea of continuing debt sounds a little exhausting, it’s because it’s doing the work of over six hundred commandments. “For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” Paul writes. “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Paul is echoing Jesus’s teaching here, although it might stand out to us that he doesn’t include the first part about loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. That’s because the two commandments are really one. They aren’t a first commandment to love God and a second, lesser, commandment about loving others. Instead they are more like part one and two of one command. It is impossible to love God with everything we are and not love the image of God walking about all around us. You can’t fulfill the first part if you are breaking the second.
That kind of love is work. Paul is not talking about feeling kindly toward your neighbor. This love isn’t really about an emotion at all. This kind of love doesn’t require you to gin up the right emotion. It doesn’t inspire you to write sonnets; it inspires you to build callouses. This kind of love is like armor—not against other people but against despair. This kind of love freed us—not from our duties but from our selfishness. We are called to obey—not because we are afraid that we’ll punished if we break the rules but because we understand the love that undergirds God’s commandments.
It’s not about how you feel, it’s about what you do, which is good news you have done something very kind and felt very cranky about it. That’s why in Paul’s mind it makes perfect sense to connect it to the idea of paying taxes. Death and taxes may be linked in our minds, but love and taxes sound like things that go together like toothpaste and orange juice. And yet, Paul wants you to love your neighbor the same way you pay taxes: not because it is exciting or because it brings you joy or because you heard a romantic song about it, but because you owe it. Every person out there is owed our love in action, no matter how we feel about them. So when it is hardest—when people anger or frustrate us, even when we cannot understand them or when we feel like they are actively working against us even when loving them feels like paying taxes, write that check. And if the debt is never paid off, the good news is that the checks we write for love never bounce. The more we give it away, the more of it we seem to have. Put on Christ, tear up the balance sheet, write a blank check. Love one another. Every single other.