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Labor is Hard and It is Holy

A sermon for International Workers’ Day in

the Centennial Year of the International Labor Organization (ILO)


Feast of St. Philip and St. James, Apostles

May 1, 2019


St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beltsville, Maryland

Isaiah 30:18-21, Psalm 119:33-40, John 14:6-14


Today we commemorate two disciples, Philip and James,

whose almost anonymous faithfulness

functions for us as a mirror.

Since little is known about them,

we cannot dwell

on their characters and actions.

So they lead us to look at ourselves,

our own discipleship,

and how we can live more faithfully.



The reading we heard from Isaiah

can be of special help in doing this.

It offers us a series of consoling promises

that ends with this one:

“And when you turn to the right

or when you turn to the left,

your ears shall hear a word behind you,

saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.'”


Thus the Lord guarantees us guidance

as we walk along life’s path.

But notice this:

guidance will come from a voice

speaking from behind us.

We must listen to this voice and heed it.

We might miss or misinterpret the message.

So we must strengthen our capacity

to hear and to act.


This passage suggests the vital distinction

between our conscience and the voice of God.

Conscience is the means by which we listen

to God’s voice speaking about anything ethical.

Our conscience is not itself the voice of God,

but must be enlightened, purified, educated

to distinguish God’s summons from other voices

attempting to make a claim on us.


We develop an enlightened conscience,

we learn to obey the authentic voice of God,

through such resources as

attention to Scripture and the Church’s teaching,

prayer, study, participation in the sacraments,

experience of life, and wise counsel from others.

Only an enlightened conscience,

one appropriately informed,

has a claim upon our obedience.

And sometimes we are enlightened

by resources that surprise us.


The conscience of any of us

can also fail to be enlightened or informed

in some particular matter,

and thus we miss the direction

that God wants us to take.

This problem can even arise

in a nation or other large community:

people as a group do not hear or heed

how God intends to direct their steps;

together they reinforce

one another’s incomprehension.



Since the sixth century,

May 1 has been the feast

of those almost anonymous apostles

Philip and James.

More recently May 1 has been kept

in a great many countries

as a occasion to honor labor

often known as International Workers’ Day,

an observance that resembles

our Labor Day holiday

on the first Monday in September.


2019 marks the centenary

of the International Labor Organization.

This United Nations agency advances social justice

and internationally recognized human and labor rights.

It brings together governments, employers, and workers

from 187 member states

to set labor standards, develop policies, and devise programs

that promote decent work for all women and men.


In 1934 the United States joined the International Labor Organization,

due in large part to the efforts of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins.

Ten years later, she supported the Declaration of Philadelphia,

which sets forth the fundamental principles

of the International Labor Organization.

A devout Episcopalian,

Frances Perkins was added to our church calendar in 2009

as a public servant  and prophetic witness.


The first ILO principle is a brief, powerful negation:

“Labor is not a commodity.”

In other words, the worker is human,

so the worker and the worker’s achievement

must be treated with respect.

In the world of labor,

this principle is comparable

to what the Bible announces in its first chapter,

that humanity is made in God’s image and likeness.


“Labor is not a commodity.”

Whether new to us or familiar,

this principle is a precious resource

that enlightens our conscience,

for it summons us to recognize

the dignity of each and every worker,

people we Christians call God’s children.



Christians believe that God has a human face

in the Son of God incarnate and resurrected and alive forever.

We believe that through the Incarnation,

Jesus is one with all humanity,

that we see him in every human face.


The ILO declares, “Labor is not a commodity.”

In other words, labor is not faceless,

but appears with countless faces.

And the Gospel announces that Christ is present

in each of those faces.


“The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers”

was a recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art

where a wide range of workers were presented to the public

by many artists and in diverse media.


In Genesis we read of how God created the universe.

The first labor strike was the Exodus from Egypt.

Like God and like Joseph, Jesus worked construction.

Bread and wine offered at the Eucharist

are the work of human hands.

Labor is not a commodity,

but includes manifold good ways that we pursue

human flourishing, the common good,

and the welfare of this planet.

Labor is hard and it’s holy.


We must learn again

to honor these realities.



The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a priest of the Episcopal Church

and a board member of the Frances Perkins Center


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cropped Frances and Faith icon

April 2024 FPC E-Newsletter

To appreciate thoroughly the life and
accomplishments of Frances Perkins, a great agent
of social change who served as Secretary of Labor
throughout FDR’s tenure, requires recognizing that
faith was the foundation of who she was and all that
she did.