Pandemic Prayers for Labor Sunday

This weekend celebrates the end of summer. It is one of those American holidays that is celebrated with backyard BBQs and family gatherings before school starts (or at least that was my norm as a child in the Northeast) without anyone really paying any heed to what Labor Day honors.

It seems especially important this year to pause and reflect on the true intention of this celebration that began back in 1882 with the Central Labor Union in New York City. It was, in fact, a day off of work with picnics and parades. The intention was to celebrate the economic and social accomplishments of workers. For those that hope that labor conditions will improve so that meat packers and teachers are safer and women are not drastically setback in their careers by this pandemic, it is on this Sunday that we dare to imagine what justice in the work place and in the field and in the factory and especially within the labor unions looks like. Maybe it’s also a Sunday to talk about how we care for the furloughed and jobless in your context. It’s a little late in the game to organize Labor in the Pulpits but there are certainly ways to uplift the rights of workers right now in your prayers and in your preaching.

Having just read how farmers in Wisconsin may determine the election, I’m find myself thinking a lot about farmers and food justice. I might find a way to include this superb video from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Or in the spirit of Labor in the Pulpits, I might use one of these personal reflections from the Interviews Playlist on their YouTube channel. I might even use the epistle as the focus text and follow that reading with and use one of these videos to highlight what it might look like to live honorably in this day.

Gathering Together for Worship

I wonder what might be the most familiar sound to begin the work day for those in your congregation. Might it be the coffee pot percolating or the sound of a time card being punched? Might it be a whistle or an alarm clock? Is it the sound of a computer booting up after slumber or the sound of children doing what they should not supposed to be doing on the baby monitor next to your head? (That might just be me.) Maybe that’s the first sound that begins worship before even the prelude.

Or if you can find a version of Bringing in the Sheaves that doesn’t hurt your ears (or eyes) on YouTube, that would be a lovely start as would O God, We Call for Justice by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. Whatever sound you choose to begin the work of worship with your people, here is an invitation to follow.

Call to Worship
Inspired by Psalm 119:33-40

Wake us up, O God.
Rub the sleep out of our eyes
and put us right into
the work of justice and love.

Wake us up, O God.
Open our eyes to the needs
of essential workers and day laborers.
Call our attention to those
booting up their computers
to toil over the kitchen table
for another eight hours
and those that are flipping
through the classifieds
after being laid off five months ago.
Give us understanding
and open our whole hearts
to what love and justice
mean right now.

Wake us up, O God.
Lead us into this new day
guided by your commandments.
Give us cause to delight
and turn our hearts away
from selfish gain.
Remind us again,
O God, what can happen
when two or three
gather in your name.

Here is an alternate version that I wrote last year. I’ve adapted it to reflect the epistle reading for this year. I feel like it should reflect the psalm but I don’t like it. I might still like the old version better. It also only reflects one voice rather than a responsive reading that is so commonly used in in-person worship.

Call to Worship
Adapted for Romans 13:8-14

Worker God, whose hands built the earth,
molded our bodies, and sowed the stars across the sky,
we gather in your presence this morning
to remember your commandments
summed up in the this word, love your neighbor as yourself.

Meet us here, Worker God;
it is now the time to wake from sleep
and fulfill your law in love for each worker
and so that all might live honorably every day.

Confessions and Collects

Though I feel like I should write something new, I have now gone to look at last year and I’m just going to post those prayers. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not convinced that the unison prayer to confession works in the streamed format. This prayer reflects that with a call to confession that leads to silence. It is perhaps an unfamiliar format but it’s what I’ve got.

It has been adapted to reflect the gospel for this year and I’ve also expanded the particular workers named. Please adapt to your context, like maybe Whataburger isn’t such a thing where you are. It is here. Oh, but it is here.

Call to Confession
It’s time to put away smugness, clichés,
and worn out self-serving political sound bites.
Let us come before God to seek new understanding of
what is fair and what is just. Let us listen
not to one or two laboring beside us
but let us listen to the needs of all
workers so that we bend our ears
to hear from garbage collectors, census takers,
Whataburger employees, ranchers and farmers,
contact tracers and scientists, bartenders and cooks,
volunteer fire fighters, domestic servants, hospital and hospice workers,
teachers, professors and administrators, and so many others
that are overlooked or undervalued as this pandemic rages on.
Let us confess before God that we are too comfortable
and that we’re more likely to concern ourselves with our own fairness.
Let us repent of our selfishness and open our hearts to still more love and justice.

Silence for personal prayer and confession. 

Assurance of Grace
What has been in the past does not have to define the future.
God’s grace can transform us, will transform us.
Receive this good news and move in a new direction.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

I spent too much time wondering about the volunteer fire fighters. That is what existed in my hometown and I know that is true in many places but I did not know exactly how to parse this grave injustice into one phrase. It is just one example in this pandemic of what worker conditions are, never mind the sheer disregard for human worth in the prison system as it exists right now.

There are some more lovely prayers created by and for the United Church of Christ and some possible sermon illustrations particularly focused on essential workers have been gathered by the Communities of Calling initiative of the Collegeville Institute.

I confess that when I am in doubt about how to pray, I turn to the Book of Common Prayer because there is always one that nearly speaks to my particular concern. There are so many that could be linked together for a pastoral prayer: for social justice, for agriculture, for schools and colleges, for the unemployed, for sound government (cough cough)… Each collect could be followed by “O God, hear our prayer” or “In your mercy, we pray” before wrapping it up with that familiar prayer that Jesus taught us. It’s not how the prayer book was intended to be used but it will work if you are tired and have no words of your own, dear pastor.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week. If you find these prayers helpful and would like some help thinking about the fall, click over here to do a little pandemic worship planning together. I’ve also shared some ingredients (though maybe not a whole recipe) for stewardship and backpack blessings.

Dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you, as always. I’m also sorry that I’m posting this so late in the week. I know many of you post your services on Thursdays. I’m praying for you all the more.