Labor of Love

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2016 Daniel Harper.

Opening song:
The opening song, sung by Lewis Santer, was “Commonwealth of Toil” by Ralph Chaplin. See note (4) for the lyrics.

The readings, chosen and read by Rev. Mary Ganz, were the following poems:
“What I Learned from My Mother” by Julia Kasdorf
“What Work Is” by Philip Levine
“Heart Labour” by Maggie Anderson


I thought I’d speak with you this morning about whether you can find a job you love. One legacy of the Protestant Christian tradition which has deeply influenced United States culture is an assumption that our jobs should be both personally satisfying and good for the world. That old Protestant Christian tradition taught that each one of us had a vocation, a calling: it wasn’t just priests who were called by God, every single person in the Christian community was called by God to do their bit to make this world a kind of heaven on earth.

This morning, on the day before Labor Day, I thought I’d question this old Protestant Christian assumption. So let me offer up an old story, supposedly told by Jesus of Nazareth, and first written down about the year 70 C.E. by a member of the Jewish reform movement that later became known as Christianity.

As the story begins, a crowd has gathered around to watch that radical rabble-rousing rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, debating with the chief priests, scribes, and elders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. At that time, the Roman Empire ruled Jerusalem and the rest of Judea, a land which not so long before had been an independent Jewish country. When the Romans took over Jerusalem, the chief priests, scribes, and elders had to learn to get along with the Roman overlords; and at the time of this story, they derived much of their power and authority from their association with the Romans.

These chief priests, scribes, and elders are debating Jesus because they desperately want to get Jesus to say something, anything, that can be taken as critical of the Roman regime. If they can do that, then they can get the Romans political leaders to arrest Jesus and execute him. Avoiding all their verbal traps, Jesus proceeds to tell them a story, which goes like this:

A man goes out and plants a vineyard. He puts a fence around it, digs a pit for the winepress, and he builds a watchtower. Then the landowner rents the land to some tenants, and he goes off live in another country. [At this point, the crowd listening to Jesus tell the story realizes the man must be quite wealthy, since he can afford live abroad.]

Harvest season comes around, and the landowner sends a slave to go and collect the rent from the tenants. The tenants grab the slave, beat him, and send him back to the landowner empty-handed. So the landowner sends another slave; same thing happens, except the tenants also insult the slave. The landowner sends another slave, and this one the tenants kill. The landowner keeps sending slaves to collect the rent, and the tenants beat some of them up, and they kill some of them. [The crowd is getting a better sense of how wealthy the man his: he has so many slaves, he can afford to let some of them get killed.]

The landowner finally decides to send his son, thinking: Surely the tenants will respect my son. But when the tenants see the landowner’s son, they say to each other: This is our chance, if we kill the son, the landowner will give up, and the land will be ours. So they kill the son, and throw his body out of the vineyard. [The crowd is now confused: are the tenants the heroes of this story, or have they just gone too far?]

Jesus ends the story by saying: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” [Mark 12:9] The crowd is thinking: Wait a minute, what is Jesus saying here? We thought this was an allegory of the evil Roman empire taking over Jerusalem. We thought Jesus was telling us to resist the Roman overlords. Is Jesus now telling us that “Resistance Is Futile”?

And then Jesus quotes the Hebrew scriptures, Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” Many of the people in the crowd are good observant Jews who can fill in the rest of the Psalm from memory, including lines like “All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!” and “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?” So Jesus is NOT saying that resistance is futile after all!

And indeed, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, all willing tools of Roman empire, know that Jesus is talking about them. Jesus is saying they are like the evil landowner who extorted too much money from the tenants, provoking the tenants to open rebellion. When Jesus quotes Psalm 118, it sounds to them like he’s calling for open rebellion. They dearly want to arrest Jesus, but they fear the crowd, so they do nothing.

As for the crowd, Jesus has gotten them thinking.

On the one hand, the image of the tenants killing the landowner’s son, then throwing the body outside the vineyard — that’s a pretty disgusting image. That’s the trouble with armed rebellion: you have to kill people, and you are not going to respect the dead bodies of those you kill.

On the other hand, since they are Jewish, the crowd knows about Sabbath years, and about Jubilee years. (1) According to the book of Leviticus, every seventh year is a sabbath year, when you are supposed to let the land lie fallow. Everyone in the crowd would have known that the book of Leviticus was written by Moses, and they would have known that Moses wrote down the actual words of the god of the Israelites. The god of the Israelites told Moses: “When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord.” This was, by the way, an ancient Jewish practice for promoting ecological sustainability.

So every seventh year is a sabbath year. Then every seven-times-seven years is a jubilee year. In the jubilee year, the god of the Israelites charged human beings to do the following:

— let the land lie fallow, to encourage ecological sustainability;
— proclaim liberty throughout the land for all inhabitants and free those held in bondage;
— any land that was sold must be returned to the original human owners (this was because the God of the Israelites really owned the land, not humans).

When Jesus quotes Psalm 118, he gets the crowd thinking about jubilee years. The crowd knows the Romans will never abide by the rules of the jubilee year; the Romans had their own gods, ignoring the god of the Israelites. And the crowd knows that the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of Jerusalem — those among the Jewish people who should above all others uphold the laws of their God — the crowd knows that these Jewish leaders have been co-opted by the Romans; they are no longer serve truth and righteousness, they serve Rome. The Roman empire rules Jerusalem with their military might, ignoring the Jewish laws of ecological sustainability and human freedom.

So ends this old Christian story. You will notice that there is no real resolution to the story. And here’s how I understand this story:

The chief religious idea of Jesus of Nazareth is what he called “the kingdom of heaven.” But for Jesus, heaven meant something different than it does in today’s United States, where our religious culture is dominated by Protestant Christian ideas. For Jesus, heaven did not mean — to quote Joe Hill — “pie in the sky, bye and bye”; for Jesus, heaven is something that exists here and now. Heaven is, in fact, what we today call the “Web of Life,” that is, the interconnected relationships that bind together all human beings, all living things, and many non-living things. When we damage those interconnected relationships, when we damage the Web of Life, we are damaging what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven. (2)

In the story, the landowner set up his vineyard and rented it out to some tenants and then left town so he could live in some exotic foreign place. By doing this, landowner damaged many relationships of the Web of Life. As an absentee landlord, he damaged his direct relationship with the tenants. Because he did not live on the land, he damaged his relationship with the land, and he demanded that his tenants produce more from the land than the land could sustainably yield. He was a slave-owner, which damaged many human relationships; worse yet, he sent his slaves to do his dirty work so that he didn’t have to face up to his tenants.

This story, then, is a case study in damaged relationships: damaged relationships between people, and a damaged relationship between human beings and the land. This is a case study in how human beings damage the Web of Life.

Now let me say the obvious: this case study comes from two thousand years ago, from a place with a very different economic system than we have now. We probably can’t draw exact parallels with Silicon Valley today, much as we might be tempted to do so.

But what we can say with certainty is that most of our jobs damage our interconnected relationships with other human beings, and with other living beings. Take my job as an example: being a Unitarian Universalist minister is all about strengthening relationships between people, and between humans and the rest of the ecosystem. That’s on the plus side. On the negative side, statistics show that ministry as a profession is correlated with a higher rate of substance abuse, and a higher suicide rate, and strong anecdotal evidence suggests that many ministers work long hours to the neglect their immediate families. Ministry as a profession may strengthen some of the interconnected relationships that make up the Web of Life, but it does damage to others. And this is a good job.

You can do this kind of thinking about your own work. To get you started, I’ll give you three examples of how your work might damage the Web of Life. If there’s institutional sexism present in your workplace — and that is true of far too many workplaces in Silicon Valley — your job is doing damage to the Web of Life. If your work is not carbon-neutral — and that is true of most jobs in the United States today — that damages the Web of Life. If your workplace shows evidence of institutional racism — true of most workplaces in the United States — again, damage to the Web of Life.

Now I do believe there are some jobs, a very few jobs, which are true vocations. These rare jobs provide a balance between several things: they benefit the world, provide an adequate salary to the person holding the job, allow you adequate time for family, the democratic process, and social service; all this, without burning you out. Mind you, I don’t happen to know anyone who has one of these rare jobs, although I like to believe they exist.

But most of us have to compromise in one of these things. For example, many Silicon Valley white collar jobs provide an adequate salary and may even do good in the world by providing needed products or services; but when those jobs require you to work such long hours that you have little time to spend on democratic process, social service work, or even your family, then those jobs are damaging the relationships that constitute the Web of Life.

When you consider the vast array of jobs that you could have, a Silicon Valley white-collar job is about as good as it gets. So you see, if even though a Silicon Valley white collar job is as good as it gets, no one should count on such a job to make life fulfilling.

And this brings us around once more to that old story told by rabbi Jesus. He lived in a world where there were wealthy landowners who made their fortunes by exploiting the land, and by exploiting their tenants. When he told his story of the wealthy landowner and the rebellious tenants, Jesus did not give us a neat, tidy ending. He did not solve the problem for us. But one thing is clear: those tenants are never going to find their work to be fulfilling as long as the human relationships around them are so strained. They are never going to find their work fulfilling as long as the land is owned by wealthy business owners who are accurately described by Psalm 17, in this translation by the eighteenth century poet Christopher Smart:

They’re swollen with fatness, as their days
To sumptuous banquets they devote;
Their mouths are filled with pompous phrase,
As on their wealth they gloat. (3)

And it is clear that those tenants are never going to find their work to be fulfilling as long as the relationship between humans and the earth is so out of balance.

By now, maybe you have come to the same conclusion I have: those tenants are us. Many of us are like the tenants in the story: we toil in a kind of voluntary servitude, while someone else coins our life blood into gold. We are forced to live our lives out of balance with the Web of Life.

Instead of placing all our hopes and dreams into a job, then, let us place our hopes and dreams and love into a vision of what our lives could be. Our real work is, as songwriter Ralph Chaplin puts it, to build a world in which “we claim our Mother Earth, and the nightmare of the present fades away, [and] we live with love and laughter.” And how might we do that? How, to use the old Jewish phraseology of Jesus, can we live to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth? How can we stay in balance with the Web of Life? Here are three possible answers for you to consider:

First, remember the Jewish concept of the sabbath and the jubilee year, which promote ecological sustainability by letting the land rest. Humans need rest, too. Therefore, we can promote our own sustainability by letting ourselves take a sabbath and lie fallow, every now and then.

Second, remember that the Web of Life already exists all around us — the Kingdom of Heaven is already here, in that Web of Life. We are already a part of an interconnected web of relationships that binds together all human beings, and binds humans together with non-human beings. So give thanks and praise for that web of relationships of which we are already part.

Third, strengthen our relationships with other humans, and with non-human beings. Devote our best energy to family and friends and community. Spend time outdoors with non-human beings. Build wider relationships by participating in democracy, and volunteering our time.

If we can manage to do these things — to find time for rest, to give thanks for the Web of Life of which we are part, and to strengthen our relationships with all beings — if we can do these things just a little bit, we may find the beginnings of true fulfillment.

And so you see, this is our real labor, and it is labor of the heart. For our true calling, or true vocation, is not to have a fulfilling job; our true calling is to love and be loved in return.

(1) My interpretive methodology here is based in part on John Shelby Spong’s recent book Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy (New York: Harper One, 2016).
(2) This interpretation from theologian Bernard Loomer. See, e.g., “Unfoldings: Conversations from the Sunday Morning Seminars of Bernie Loomer” (Berkeley, Calif.: First Unitarian Church, 1985), pp. 1-2.
(3) Reprinted in The Poet’s Book of Psalms, ed. Laurance Wieder (Oxfor: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 25.
(4) Lyrics for “Commonwealth of Toil” by Ralph Chaplin: Continue reading “Labor of Love”

Fish for Five Thousand

The following was given at the Thursday evening worship service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, at the 7:00 p.m. service. Copyright (c) Dan Harper 2011.


Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reforms. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions, yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Frederick Douglass, from “An address on West India Emancipation,” August 4, 1857.


I’d like to tell you a story about that radical rabble rouser and rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth.

Once upon a time, Jesus and his disciples (that is, his closest followers) were trying to take a day off. Jesus had become very popular, and people just wouldn’t leave him alone. Jesus and the disciples wanted a little time away from the crowds that followed them everywhere, so they rented a boat and went to a lonely place, far from any village.

But people figured out where they were going, and by the time Jesus and his friends landed the boat, there were five thousand people waiting there for them. So Jesus started to teach them, and he talked to them for hours.

It started getting late, and the disciples of Jesus pulled him aside and said, “We need to send these people to one of the nearby villages to get some food.”

“No,” said Jesus. “The villages around here are too small to feed five thousand people. You will have to get them something to eat.”

“What do you mean?” his disciples said. “We don’t have enough money to go buy enough bread for all these people, and even if we did, how would we bring it all back here?”

“No, no,” said Jesus. “I don’t want you to go buy bread. Look, how many loaves of bread we got right here?

The disciples looked at the food they had brought with them. “We’ve got five loaves of bread, and a couple of fried fish. That’s all.”

“That will be enough,” said Jesus.

His disciples looked at him as if he were crazy. There was no way that would be enough food for five thousand people!

But Jesus had spent the whole day teaching people about the Kingdom of God — today we’d call it the Web of Life — teaching them that everyone is dependent on someone else. And while he was sitting up in front of the crowd teaching, he looked out and saw that many of the five thousand people had brought their own food with them. He watched them as they surreptitiously nibbled away at their own food, ignoring the fact that many of the people around them had no food at all.

Jesus told everyone to sit down on the grass. All five thousand people sat down. Jesus brought out the five loaves of bread. Being a good Jew, he blessed the bread using the traditional Jewish blessing: “Blessed are you, O Holy One, Creator of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Then, so everyone could see, Jesus broke the bread, and cut up the fish, and divided it up, so the disciples could hand it around.

Everyone saw that even though Jesus and his disciples had barely enough food for themselves, they were going to share it with everyone. From where he sat, Jesus could see the truth dawning in people’s eyes. All day long, Jesus had been teaching them that the Kingdom of Heaven existed here and now, if only people would recognize it. Now Jesus was giving them a chance to show they understood, and to act as if the Kingdom of Heaven truly existed.

The disciples began to pass around the bread and the fried fish, shaking their heads because they knew there wasn’t going to be enough food for everyone. Yet, miracle of miracles, there was plenty of food to go around. People who had food put some of their food into the baskets so it could be shared. People who hadn’t brought food with them took some food from the baskets. By the time the followers of Jesus had passed the baskets to all five thousand people, everyone had gotten enough to eat, and there was so much food left over that it filled twelve baskets.

And that’s the story of how Jesus fed five thousand people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fried fish. Many people believe that Jesus performed a magical miracle when he blessed the bread and fish, and that somehow God turned a dozen loaves of bread and two fish into thousands of loaves of bread and thousands of fried fish. It’s easier to believe that God performed the miracle, than to believe that humans could perform the same miracle. Because if humans performed the miracle, that means we could do the same thing today: to share with those who need it, and to live as if the Kingdom of Heaven existed here and now.

Sources: Christian scriptures, Mark 6.32-44. Theological interpretation from Bernard Loomer, Unfoldings (Berkeley, Calif.: 1985), pp. 3 ff.; and Latin American liberation theology.

Christmas Envy

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning comes from the ancient story of Joseph, as it is told in the Torah. The Hebrew Joseph has been sold into slavery down in Egypt by his brothers, and though he had a kind master, after a time he was thrown into jail on unjust charges. Meanwhile, the rule of Egypt, Pharaoh, had a very unpleasant dream one night, and that’s where this reading picks up the story:

“In the morning, Pharaoh’s spirit was troubled; so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh.

“Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, ‘I remember my faults today. Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard. We dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each according to his dream. As he interpreted to us, so it turned out; I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.’

“Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’ Joseph answered Pharaoh, ‘It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.’ Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘In my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile; 18and seven cows, fat and sleek, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. Then seven other cows came up after them, poor, very ugly, and thin. Never had I seen such ugly ones in all the land of Egypt. The thin and ugly cows ate up the first seven fat cows, but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had done so, for they were still as ugly as before. Then I awoke. I fell asleep a second time and I saw in my dream seven ears of grain, full and good, growing on one stalk, and seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouting after them; and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. But when I told it to the magicians, there was no one who could explain it to me.’

“Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, ‘Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, as are the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind. They are seven years of famine. It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. After them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; the famine will consume the land. The plenty will no longer be known in the land because of the famine that will follow, for it will be very grievous. And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. Let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.’

“The proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants….”

The second reading is also from the Torah, from Exodus 20.17:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”


I have to tell you, Christmas is not one of my favorite holidays. You can probably guess why: it’s the commercialization of Christmas that I dislike. Here’s a holiday that started out as a celebration of the a celebration of the return of longer days after the winter solstice; then Christians turned the solstice celebration into a celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth; then in 17th C. Massachusetts, the Puritans banned Christmas and even made it illegal to celebrate the holiday; in the 19th C., Christmas got Victorianized into a sentimental holiday for families to celebrate together; and finally in the 20th C. Christmas got transmogrified yet again, this time into a holiday of excessive consumption.

If you recall the old medieval Christian list of the “seven deadly sins” — lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride — it will be immediately apparent to you that Christmas today, in the 21st C., is a blatant glorification of envy. Christmas envy is the natural outcome of the ongoing evolution of the commercialization of Christmas. These days, we expect to give and to receive lavish gifts at Christmas. Even those who don’t celebrate Christmas find themselves getting sucked into the Frenzy of gift-giving and money-spending — atheists buy generic holiday gifts, Jews give Hanukkah presents, and pagans have solstice gifts. And if we don’t have the money to afford expensive gifts for all our near relations and close friends, we feel that we have somehow failed. Worse yet, if we don’t receive lots of fancy gifts — the latest laptop of video game, expensive clothing, exclusive perfume, whatever it is you long for — if we don’t receive expensive gifts, we feel somehow cheated.

I define this Christmas excess as a species of envy. It is covetousness. We covet what we don’t have. We covet what our neighbors do have — whether those neighbors are our actual flesh-and-blood neighbors, or the virtual neighbors that we see on television or in photographs in magazines or on the World Wide Web. Rather than coveting our neighbor’s spouse or ox or donkey, we covet our neighbor’s toys and gadgetry and lifestyle.

But you already know all this. We all know about Christmas envy. Every year, pundits and preachers rail against the commercialization of Christmas, and every year we ignore them. Envy it may be, but it’s also good fun. It’s fun to find just exactly the perfect gift for someone you love. It’s even more fun to watch that person as he or she opens that gift, to see his or her face light up with pleasure. And it’s fun to receive gifts; it’s fun to get cool things, of course, but it’s also fun to see what someone thinks is just the perfect gift for you, because it reveals something of their character, and it reveals something of how they understand their relationship to you.

So I will not join the preachers and pundits who tell us that we should stop giving gifts at this time of year. If you want to give Christmas gifts or Hanukkah gifts or solstice presents at this time of year, I say: Go for it! Moderation in all things, of course, so don’t go into debt, but if you find gift-giving to be fun, then why not have some fun.

And having said that, I want to turn to the old story of Joseph that is found in the book of Genesis, beginning at chapter 37, and really extending right through the end of the book of Genesis into the beginning of the book of Exodus. Te weekly Torah portion for the sabbath which comes during Hanukkah comes from the middle of the story about Joseph, and we heard part of that weekly Torah portion in the first reading this morning. But before I get to the first reading, let me remind you of the story of Joseph.

It all begins in the land of Canaan. This is the beginning of the story as it is told in the Torah:

“Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan…. At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers… And Joseph brought bad reports of them to his father. Now [Jacob] loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” [Genesis 37.1-4, the New Jewish Publication Society translation]

As you can see, envy lies at the beginning of this story. Joseph’s brothers are envious of his coat of many colors, a coat given to him by their father. Actually, his brothers are envious of the fact that their father loved Joseph better than any of them, but the coat serves as the symbol for the greater love their father bestowed on Joseph. And they are really annoyed when Joseph tells them about a dream he had one night, in which all his brothers and even his father and mother would wind up bowing down to him.

So what do Joseph’s brothers do? They attack him, tie him up, rip off his distinctive coat of many colors, and then they sell him to a passing caravan as a slave. Off went the caravan, taking Joseph with them. Joseph’s brothers smeared his coat with some blood, then off they went to tell their family that Joseph must have been devoured by wild animals. They may have been envious of Joseph, but I feel that was taking things a little too far: selling your brother into slavery just because you’re envious of him!

Fast forward a little bit, and we find Joseph, now a slave, taken to Egypt and sold to one Potiphar, who is the chief steward of Pharaoh, the king and ruler of all Egypt. Joseph prospers for a while, but then winds up getting thrown into prison on the basis of false testimony — of course, as a slave, we can be sure that Joseph was not allowed to testify in his own defense. So now Joseph is not only a slave, he is in prison: this is what his brother’s envy has done!

While Joseph is in prison, he gets something of a reputation as an interpreter of dreams. He manages to correctly interpret the dream of a fellow prisoner, and that prisoner is later pardoned by the Pharaoh, and returned to his old job as Pharaoh’s cupbearer. Well, one night, Pharaoh has a dream: In the dream, he sees seven beautiful cows come up out of the Nile River, the greatest river in Egypt, and the cows grazed contently in the grass along the river. Then seven scrawny, emaciated, sickly cows come up out of the Nile River, and they ate up all the beautiful cows. At that point, Pharaoh awakened. But he fell asleep and dreamed a second time: this time, he dreamed of seven plump ripe ears of grain that sprout, only to be swallowed up by seven thin, scrawny, misshapen ears of grain.

And this brings us to the second reading this morning. In the second reading, Pharaoh called all his magicians and other wise people, and asked them the meaning of these dreams. No one was able to figure out what these dreams meant. But Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembered that Joseph could interpret dreams accurately, so Pharaoh brought Joseph up out of prison. Sure enough, with the help of the God of the Israelites, Joseph was able to correctly interpret Pharaoh’s dreams: there will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Therefore, said Joseph to Pharaoh, during the seven years of plenty you must put aside enough grain that when the seven years of famine come you can feed all the people.

Pharaoh liked this idea — and that’s where the second reading left off. Pharaoh gave Joseph oversight over all food production, with the power to take surplus grain and store it in the Pharaoh’s granaries. By this point, some six or seven years had passed since Joseph was kidnapped by his brothers and sold into slavery. The seven years of prosperity came, just as in Joseph’s interpretation of the dream, and Joseph went out and bought up something more than a fifth of all the grain produced throughout Egypt. And then the seven years of famine came. The farmers produced very little grain. The Egyptians came to the Pharaoh’s granaries and bought grain from Joseph, the Pharaoh’s representative. The famine continued over the next few years, and when the people ran out of money, Joseph took their cattle in exchange for grain, and when they ran out of cattle, he accepted title to their land in exchange for grain. So it was that by the end of the seven years of famine, Pharaoh owned all the land and all the cattle in all of Egypt — thanks to Joseph’s good management.

The famine extended even as far as Canaan, where Josephs’ father Jacob and all his brothers still lived. Starving, Joseph’s brothers came to buy grain from Pharaoh. They didn’t recognize Joseph when they came before him to buy grain; and they did indeed bow down before Pharaoh’s representative, just as Joseph’s dream had predicted all those years ago.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi tells us that twenty-two years elapsed from Joseph’s first dream, the dream that predicted that his brothers would all bow down to him, to the moment when Joesph’s brothers actually did bow down to him in reality. Twenty-two years to wait for a dream to come true! Twenty-two years of kidnapping, enslavement, and imprisonment! Twenty-two years is a significant portion of a human lifespan. And based on this, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi tells us that that we ourselves can expect to wait as much as twenty-two years to fulfill our own dreams. [“Miketz,” Wikipedia, (accessed December 7, 2007).]

This is a good story to remember at this time of year; it is a good antidote to Christmas envy. Envy arises in part because we want something now; we see our neighbor’s ox or donkey or video game, and we want it now. Even if it’s completely impossible! Envy arises in part when we are hard on ourselves, when we set ridiculously high expectations for ourselves. It is easy to think that we must have perfect lives. And too often, “perfect” is defined for us by someone else; someone else defines perfect for us as we should all be living in a house in the suburbs with 2.5 children, 3 cars, a dog, and a lucrative career in business that allows us to buy fun electronic gadgets. Nor should we have to wait for this dream of perfection to be accomplished.

Or maybe perfect is defined like this: if you’re a man, “perfect” means you look like Matt Damon, and if you’re a woman “perfect” means you look like Lindsay Lohan, and if you’re transgender, or don’t have white skin, or are over 35, well you’re just out of luck and you can never be perfect. In other words, our society makes it impossible to be perfect, and too often we wind up striving for a kind of perfection that just doesn’t exist.

The story of Joseph reminds us that mostly life is not perfect at all. Our lives, just like Joseph’s life, our lives are full of setbacks and disasters and impediments, and our lives most certainly lack perfection. Yet like Joseph we have dreams, and our dreams might not be unreasonable. But Rabbi Joshua ben Levi reminds us that dreams can take decades to come true. And the story of Joseph reminds us that even if our dreams do come true, they may come true in ways that we could not have imagined. When Joseph first dreamt that his brothers would bow down to him, do you think could possibly have imagined how that would come true? — with Joseph working for Pharaoh, so that really his brothers weren’t bowing down to him at all, they were bowing down to this representative of the all-powerful Pharaoh.

If you want to go out and have the perfect Christmas, and spend thousands of dollars and get the perfect lavish gift for everyone on your list and host the perfect Christmas party in your suburban house with 2.5 children, I for one won’t stand in your way (especially if I’m one of the people for whom you will purchase the perfect lavish gift, and by the way I could use a new computer).

But I’m also here to tell you that it’s OK to lower your standards for Christmas, or Hanukkah or solstice or whatever you celebrate. You do not have to give the perfect gift to everyone — and if your children complain that they didn’t get very good gifts this year, feel free to do what a mom of my acquaintance did; when her son complained that he “didn’t get anything good this year,” she told him that if he didn’t want his gifts she would be happy to send them to someone who would appreciate them. You do not have to give the perfect gift to anyone, and you do not have to receive the perfect gift yourself. You do not have to send out Christmas cards (or the Hanukkah cards which I see in the stores these days) — it is perfectly fine to delay and send out Valentine’s Day cards instead. You do not have to decorate your house unless you feel like it. You do not have to attend parties unless you want to do so.

In fact, as your minister I will tell you that there are only two things you have to do to meet your complete religious obligations as a Unitarian Universalist at this time of year. You must give a gift to, or otherwise help, someone less fortunate than yourself; and you must take the time to light a candle and sit in silence watching it burn. If you want, you can meet both those religious obligations by coming to the Christmas eve candlelight service here on December 24, lighting a candle, and giving some money when we pass the collection plate for a charity. Or you can simply go home tonight and light a candle after sunset, and after the candle burns down write a check to the charity of your choice. Or whatever.

Everything else about this season is optional. If you want to go all out and celebrate madly, that’s fine. But this can be a stressful time of year, and you don’t need to be hard on yourself. Which means that you don’t need to envy anyone else’s gifts, or anyone else’s celebration.

So take it easy. And I really mean it about lighting that candle: it really is a religious obligation to sit quietly on a regular basis, even for a minute or two, and do nothing. Sitting quietly gives you a chance to put things in perspective, to reflect on dreams deferred, to understand that you and your soul are more important than whatever gadget your neighbor owns. It’s the sure cure of Christmas envy.