Labor of Love

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.

Responsive reading

“A Magnificent and Generous Economy”

Ellen Emerson, daughter of Lidian and Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote this about her mother: “One of Mother’s talents was making something out of nothing and there was room to afford it great play.

“Every rag of remains of her days of fine dressing was used in one way or another with great ingenuity till there was nothing left of it. Every garment could be made to serve a second term.

“Whenever Mother saw an opportunity she spread out the wearing-out things and the stores in the bundle-trunk and devised intricate plans, having someone at hand to baste as fast as she could arrange the pieces.

“Almira Flint, the daughter of one of the farmers, came to sew for us and told me afterwards that Mother taught her how to do many things by telling her how, and simply expecting her to do it; she made her a carpenteress, an upholsteress, a paper-hanger, a dress-maker.

“Almira had naturally a true eye and a skilful hand, a spirit also that hated to give up. She wouldn’t say I can’t, so she and Mother were always triumphant together over many successes. Every economy and skill that she learned of Mother she used at home.

“Economy was natural to Mother. She knew she was practicing a vigilant, active and inventive economy in all departments of her housekeeping.

“To her economy was a large science with many intricate and minute ramifications. Her economy did not lie in going without.

“Instead she wished everything to serve all the purpose it could. She was, as naturally, magnificent and generous.”

From The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, by Ellen Tucker Emerson. Adapted by Dan Harper.


The first reading is from The Case of the Perjured Parrot by Erle Stanley Gardner (1939).

Perry Mason regarded the pasteboard jacket, labeled “IMPORTANT UNANSWERED CORRESPONDENCE,” with uncordial eyes.

Della Street, his secretary, looking crisply efficient, said with her best Monday-morning air, “I’ve gone over it carefully, Chief. The letters on top are the ones you simply have to answer. I’ve cleaned out a whole bunch of the correspondence from the bottom.”

“From the bottom?” Mason asked. “How did you do that?”

“Well,” she confessed, “it’s stuff that’s been in there too long.”

Mason tilted back in his swivel chair, crossed his long legs, assumed his best lawyer manner and said, in mock cross-examination, “Now, let’s get this straight, Miss Street. Those were letters which had originally been put in the ‘IMPORTANT UNANSWERED’ file?”


“And you’ve gone over that file from time to time, carefully?”


“And eliminated everything which didn’t require my personal attention?”


“And this Monday, September twelfth, you take out a large number of letters from the bottom of the file?”

“That’s right,” she admitted, her eyes twinkling.

“And did you answer those yourself?”

She shook her head, smiling.

“What did you do with them?” Mason asked.

“Transferred them to another file.”

“What file?”

“The ‘LAPSED’ file.”

Mason chuckled delightedly. “Now there’s an idea, Della. We simply hold things in the ‘IMPORTANT UNANSWERED’ file until a lapse of time robs them of their importance, and then we transfer them to the ‘LAPSED’ file. It eliminates correspondence, saves worry, and gets me away from office routine, which I detest….


The second reading is by W. E. B. DuBois, taken from his essay, “To His Newborn Great-Grandson.”

The return from your work must be the satisfaction which that work brings you, and the world’s need of that work. With this satisfaction, and this need, life is heaven or as near heaven as you can get. Without this — with work which you despise, which bores you, with work which the world does not need — this life is hell.


That last reading, the passage from W. E. B. DuBois, has been sticking in my head since I ran across it about six months ago. DuBois says, “The return from your work must be the satisfaction which that work brings you, and the world’s need of that work.” When I first read it, I liked this idea. Your work, whatever it might be, returns to us two things: whatever satisfaction each of us gets out of whatever work we do, and the world’s need of that work. As near as I can tell, this is a true statement.

But the more I thought about this, the less I liked it. DuBois may have been speaking the truth, but I’m not sure I like the truth he was speaking. I say this because a good bit of the work I have done in my life has been pointless and not particularly necessary. By DuBois’s standards, that would mean that I have lived a goodly part of my life in a kind of hell. I say this also because I know lots of people who have fairly meaningless jobs that provide little satisfaction. This would seem to imply that a fair percentage of the population is living in a kind of hell.

To better explain what I mean, let me tell you a little bit about one particular job I had — not that I think my life is particularly interesting, but rather I think this particular job is fairly representative of a lot of jobs out there. Twenty years ago, I was working as a salesman in a family-owned lumber yard, with about 80 employees. Probably ninety percent of our sales was to building contractors, with the rest to individual homeowners. I thought of it as a pretty decent place to work. The salespeople were treated with a certain amount of respect, at least as long as we kept our sales figures up. There wasn’t much room for advancement, but you could make a career there, as witnessed by a couple of older salesmen who had worked there for decades. We were required to work fifty hours a week, and sometimes you’d find yourself working sixty hours in a week, but when you punched the time clock at the end of the day, you could completely forget about the job. And the compensation was excellent — I made a heck of lot more money selling building materials than I make as a minister, with much better benefits besides.

So I had a decent job. However, considered in light of DuBois’s words, my job was pretty pitiful. The world has no particular need of lumber salespeople. Basically, my job was to sell as much building materials as possible, with as high a profit margin as possible. It was best for me when I could sell to contractors building big luxury homes — best for me, but not so good for the world. And I got no great satisfaction out of the job. Don’t get me wrong, I thought then and I still think now that it was a decent job, and I’m still mildly proud of the fact that my last two years there I was top gross and top net among the inside sales staff. But I got my satisfaction elsewhere in my life. Therefore, considered in light of DuBois’s words, the work I did at my job was pretty pitiful.

Let us consider another kind of work. In the responsive reading this morning, we heard a little bit about the work that Lidian Jackson Emerson did in her life time; this comes from a biography that Lidian’s daughter, Ellen, wrote of her. After she married Ralph Waldo Emerson and became a housewife, Lidian could be quite sure that the world needed her work. In the New England of her era, children were cared for by women, the food was cooked by women, and the houses were managed by women; and while it might not be personally satisfying to all people, if we’re going to survive as a species, the children must be cared for, the food cooked, and households must be managed.

This is not to say that the work itself necessarily satisfied her. Lidian had a small but adequate income of her own from an inheritance. Before her marriage to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lidian Jackson had devoted her life to charitable works, to reading and study, and to her Unitarian faith; she was thirty-three when she finally married, and you get the sense from Ellen’s biography that becoming a housewife — the endless details of caring for children, cleaning, cooking, and so on — consumed her time but did not entirely satisfy her. Yet she made of the work what she could. As we heard in the responsive reading, she took her work seriously and performed it well. She may not have taken her satisfaction from the inherent joys of the work, but rather from the knowledge that it was necessary work and that she did it well.

You can understand that my work as a salesman differed from Lidian Jackson Emerson’s work as a housewife and mother. The human species will not survive without someone like Lidian Jackson Emerson to raise the children, prepare the food, and take care of the household. As for my old job, the world would be no worse off if there were no lumber salespeople. After I quit my job as a salesman, I went to work for a carpenter, and I found myself in a job where the work I was doing was necessary: we would go repair the roof of someone’s house, for example, and at the end of a day’s work I would know that I had accomplished something that really was worth doing.

So much of the work we do these days seems relatively meaningless; so many of the jobs we fill seem pointless. We live in the information economy now, and a lot of our country’s wealth is generated from moving information around, which may be satisfying but which is not as elementally necessary as raising a child. Then there are those of us who work in big bureaucracies, or in big factories, where you can feel as if you’re just a replaceable cog on an insignificant wheel, going round and round in circles. Jobs are increasingly anonymous, workers are increasingly replaceable, and sometimes the work we do seemingly gets farther and farther away from the real world.

Our work is increasingly divorced from meaning, and I am convinced that has become one of the great spiritual crises of our time. We are afraid that if we cross-examined ourselves, as Perry Mason cross-examined Della Street in the first reading this morning, that we would discover that much of the work with which we occupy ourselves could have been left undone, and transferred into a file marked “LAPSED,” and ignored; and no one would notice the difference.

That is why I don’t much like DuBois’s words — because they ring true. He said: “The return from your work must be the satisfaction which that work brings you, and the world’s need of that work. With this satisfaction, and this need, life is heaven or as near heaven as you can get. Without this — with work which you despise, which bores you, with work which the world does not need — this life is hell.” I am lucky that I have never had work that I absolutely despise, nor have I had work that was entirely unnecessary; and the most boring work that I had at least compensated me well. But much of the work I have done over the years has been meaningless and not particularly necessary. Having talked with some of you about your work, I know that some of you feel similarly. Those of us who have had these experiences, according to DuBois, have lived — or are living — in a kind of hell.

In order for work to be satisfying, it must fill some great need in the world, and it must bring inner satisfaction to the worker herself or himself. One of the great spiritual questions is this: “What is my place in the world?” Good work helps us answer this question, because if we know what we are giving to the world that the world needs, then we know a part of how we stand in relation to the world; from this knowledge can come an inner spiritual satisfaction. Another great spiritual question is: “What ought I to do with my life?” Good work helps us to answer this question, because if we know we are filling some need in the world, we know a part of what we ought to do with life; from this knowledge can come an outward-directed spiritual satisfaction.

So what do we do to heed DuBois’s warning against “work which you despise, which bores you, work which the world does not need”? I don’t have any final answer to this question, but I do have some possible answers.

First, let’s remember that we’re not talking about financial satisfaction; we’re talking aobut spiritual satisfaction. Work that brings you lots of money can still be work that leaves you in some kind of personal hell. We all need enough money to pay the rent, put food on the table, buy some clothing, pay the utilities, and support charity. Aside from that, money need not enter into this discussion. Second, let’s remember that we’re not necessarily talking about a paid job at all. Lidian Jackson Emerson didn’t get paid for her work as a housewife and mother; but she had work nonetheless, work which she was able to make magnificent and generous. Having made those two clarifying points, what can we do to heed DuBois’s warning against work which we despise, which bores us, work which the world does not need?

One possible answer is the Henry David Thoreau answer. At one point in his life, Henry David Thoreau suggested doing as little work as possible — he recommended working as a day-laborer when you needed cash, but aside from that he advocated living off the land by living as simply as possible and growing as much of your own food as possible. Instead of working a regular job as a farmer or tradesman or schoolteacher, Thoreau chose to tune in to the transcendent reality of Nature, turn on to the wisdom of the world’s religions found in the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, and the Confucian Analects, and basically he chose to drop out of the comfortable bourgeois life he was expected to lead. This is a very real possibility even today. I actually did this for a year or two — lived cheaply, worked three days a week, and spent my time reading and studying. However, in order to do this, I had no car or dental care, and it was only possible because I had no children to raise. It’s also important to remember that when Thoreau lived in accordance with his suggestions, he was very active: he finished writing a book

What can we do to heed DuBois’s warning against work which we despise, which bores us, work which the world does not need? Here’s another possible answer. If you currently have a soul-deadening job with no redeeming social value, one possibility is to quit your job, and hope you can find another job that is more satisfying. This is the sort of thing that books like “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow” tell you to do — and to give credit to that particular book, the author tells you that you better have a day job to pay the bills while you find that spiritually satisfying job, and she also suggests that you live as simply as possible. It’s also important to remember that if you come from a relatively well-to-do background, this possibility is more likely to work, because you are more likely to receive financial and material support from your family while you’re finding your new and satisfying job, and your network of family and friends will be more likely to include good contacts for finding a job.

Another possible answer is found in Frederick Douglass’s first paid work. In his 1881 essay, “My Escape from Slavery, Douglass writes about escaping from slavery to New Bedford, and then finding work:

“The fifth day after my arrival [her wrote], I put on the clothes of a common laborer, and went upon the wharves in search of work. On my way down Union street I saw a large pile of coal in front of the house of Rev. Ephraim Peabody, the Unitarian minister. I went to the kitchen door and asked the privilege of bringing in and putting away this coal. “What will you charge?” said the lady. “I will leave that to you, madam.” “You may put it away,” she said. I was not long in accomplishing the job, when the dear lady put into my hand TWO SILVER HALF-DOLLARS. To understand the emotion which swelled my heart as I clasped this money, realizing that I had no master who could take it from me,—THAT IT WAS MINE—THAT MY HANDS WERE MY OWN, and could earn more of the precious coin,—one must have been in some sense himself a slave. My next job was stowing a sloop at Uncle Gid. Howland’s wharf with a cargo of oil for New York. I was not only a freeman, but a free working-man, and no “master” stood ready at the end of the week to seize my hard earnings.”

So wrote Frederick Douglass, and from him we learn what we already know: If you are able to work, and able to keep the money you earn for yourself and your family, there is spiritual satisfaction in not being in bondage. There is a larger principle at work here: Work that leads to liberation and freedom, however circuitously, can be spiritually satisfying work.

And that leads us to another possible answer to our question, which is related to this last answer. It is possible to hold down a pointless job, or to have no job at all, and to find your spiritual satisfaction elsewhere. This applies as well to those people who are retired, or students who are not yet working. in the work of repairing the world. I have done so — I have had a relatively meaningless job, but when I punched out at the end of the day or the end of the week, I then did good work by volunteering in my church and in the wider community. This is what Frederick Douglass did. I do not imagine that shoveling coal for Ephraim Peabody provided enough spiritual nourishment for a man whose soul was as broad and deep as Frederick Douglass’s was; but on his own time, he began to speak out against slavery, and so he wound up changing the world for the better.

I leave you with this one final thought: Those words from DuBois come from an essay he addressed to his grandson. And I believe this is the key to everything we have considered this morning: somehow we have to pass on to our children, and other youth in our community, what it means to have good work; somehow we have to let them know that there is more than one way to find good work in this world. May that be the work of all of us here: to let young people know what it means to have good work.