I think Labor Day is one holiday that seems to have lost its meaning. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in on Labor Day. I have no problem celebrating work by not working. I’m just not sure we know what we’re celebrating. Me included. So I looked it up.

Labor Day originated during one of American labor history’s most dismal chapters. In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. In some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country.

So, on September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history. Moving at the speed of government, twelve years later President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.

I don’t know what you do for work, but unless you are the mother of a newborn you aren’t working seven days a week, 12 hours a day. Turns out there is a biblical reason why labor is a battle. From the beginning of time work has been, well, work. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God because they wanted to be in charge of what was right and wrong this was among the punishments.

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;” 

through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow  you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:17-19

I read this to our church on Sunday and asked this question. What’s the point of these verses? My friend Ray, from the front row, yelled out “Don’t listen to your wife!” Here’s what I think the point of those verses is and it won’t get me a place sleeping on the couch.

When we walk away from God, our work becomes a burden. It becomes labor.

If you feel that way, trust me. I get it. Have any of you ever seen an interview that went like this. You’re watching Sports center and a coach will come on who’s retiring and they will ask him “What was it like working for State all these years,” to which the coach will respond, “I don’t know. Coaching was a joy. I’ve never worked a day in my life.” I can absolutely completely not relate to that guy. My work can be great but it can be labor.

Let me help you understand something about that curse in Genesis. Just because we got that curse doesn’t mean we have to live under that curse. When Jesus came he said “The kingdom of God is at hand.” In other words, “I’m bringing a glimpse of heaven to earth.” It’s not his goal for us to live under the curse of sin but to be free from it. I believe Jesus can renew our work. So did the apostle Peter. These words where written to church leaders but I think they work for all of us.

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve. 1 Peter 5:2

Generally speaking, service is how we measure success, but not the way Peter is talking about.

We measure success by how many people serve us. How many employees we have. The number of  people that work underneath us. How big our company is.

This way of thinking goes beyond the office too. Have you ever had a friend made a statement like this to you? “I can’t come on Wednesday morning because I need to be home for my housecleaner.” Let me just tell you that if you make that statement to someone who does not have a house cleaner this is what they’re thinking. “I hate you.” Is that overstated?

We had a housecleaner when my wife was teaching full time. I still can’t understand why she made us clean the day before the housecleaner came over. One of the roughest moments in my life was the day I told my wife that we had to let go of our house cleaner. It almost cost me my marriage.

We measure our success by how many people serve us including employees and housecleaners and landscapers and pool boys.

That’s not the way God measures success. Look at the words Peter uses. Be shepherds. Shepherds care for their sheep. Serve as overseers. Don’t be in in for the money, serve. I love this line. Not because you must. Don’t serve under coercion. Be willing to serve.

I know this sounds like a very biblical, churchy idea, but the business world has awakened to the fact that servant leadership is the best leadership. If you don’t believe me, maybe you will believe these guys.

As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others. Bill Gates

A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind. Nelson Mandella

The true heroes of the new millennium will be servant leaders, quietly working out of the spotlight to transform our world.― Ann McGee-Cooper

Everybody can be great because anyone can serve. Martin Luther King Jr.

Real leaders are not blinded by the trappings of power, but recognize their role as a servant. Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Servant leadership is the best leadership and it turns out the idea is thousands of years old. Let me put this another way

Be the stage don’t seek the stage.

Look with me at my favorite verses in this passage

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 1 Peter 5:6

I don’t know what it is with me but I’m obsessed with humility. There is no question that pride sneaks into my life like everyone else. I’m just super sensitive to arrogance when I hear it in other people. When you win the championship I don’t want you to take credit. I want you to credit your teammates and your coaches and your mama.

Brian Regan has a secret fantasy about how to deal with people around us who take credit. Every time I watch this clip I can’t stop giggling.

 “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Muhammed Ali.

Actually, that’s exactly what it is. It’s bragging and arrogance and pride. At least in God’s economy. I don’t know if God can make it any clearer than this. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” If you are arrogant God is literally lining up on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage from you opposing you and what you are doing.

When we take the credit we are taking it away from God. Most people who take credit for successes rarely take into account the family they were born into and the country that they are from and the race that gives them privilege and the breaks that they got. When we succeed it’s about us. We deserve the credit.

We become me monsters.

I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to get center stage. To get people to realize that I’m valuable and I’m important. One of the reasons why people become pastors is because of the stage. Over the years God has changed my goal. Rather than working so hard to get center stage, I think God wants me to be the stage. He wants me to be the platform other people can stand on. To lift up those around me.

Instead of being center stage I’m trying to be the stage others can succeed on.

To do that we need to ruthlessly cut out pride. We need to humble ourselves and give God credit. Look for opportunities to point to others success rather than get people to notice ours. That attitude would radically change our work. Rick Warren out it like this.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less. Rick Warren.

Do you struggle with work? Maybe it’s time to look at work different.

Focus on serving not being served.
Be the stage don’t seek the stage.

Maybe then our work will not be so much labor.