This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.
The reading this morning is by Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University, from her book The Origin of Satan. In this passage, she discusses an ancient Christian document called Testimony of Truth, part of the Nag Hammadi library which was rediscovered in upper Egypt in 1945. Pagels writes:
“The author of Testimony of Truth… raises radical questions:
“‘What is the light? And what is the darkness? And who is the one who created the world? And who is God? And who are the angels?… And why are some lame, and some blind, and some rich, and some poor?’
“Approaching the Genesis story with questions like these, this teacher ‘discovers’ that it reveals truth only when one reads it in reverse, recognizing that God is actually the villain, and the serpent the holy one! This teacher points out, for example, that in Genesis 2:17, God commands Adam not to eat from the fruit of the tree in the midst of Paradise, warning that ‘on the day that you shall eat of it, you shall die.’ But the serpent tells Eve the opposite: ‘You will not die, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (3:4-5). Who, asks [the author of] the Testimony, told the truth? When Adam and Eve obeyed the serpent, ‘then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’ (3:7). They did not ‘die on that day,’ as God had warned; instead, their eyes were opened to knowledge, as the serpent had promised. But when God realized what had happened, ‘he cursed the serpent, and called him “devil” ‘ (3:14-15)….
” ‘What kind of god is this god? … Surely he has shown himslef to be a malicious envier,’ says the author of the Testimony.” (pp. 159 ff.)
SERMON — “Working”
Bible-bashing is not something I do. If this morning’s reading got you thinking that I’m going to rip into the Bible and expose it as a worthless sham, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. I like the collection of books that we call the Bible, and I read the Bible regularly for pleasure and for profit. At the same time, being a Unitarian Universalist, I think hard about what I’m reading, and I’m not afraid to be critical; nor am I afraid to ask hard questions.
Over the past year, I have been asking hard questions of the book of Genesis. You know the book of Genesis: it contains classic Bible stories like Noah and the flood, Joseph and his Technicolor dream coat, God creating the universe in seven days — and perhaps most famous of all, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
I find it difficult to wrap my head around the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In brief, the story goes something like this: God puts Adam and Eve, the first two human beings, into a place called the Garden of Eden. It’s a wonderful place, says God, you’ll like it here, the garden is filled with good things to eat — except, says God, don’t eat anything from those two trees in the center of the Garden. God goes away, and along comes the Serpent. Serpent says to Eve, Don’t believe what God tells you, go ahead and eat the fruit from the trees in the center of the Garden; try it, you’ll like it. So Adam and Eve eat some fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and they suddenly know they are naked. Well. To make a long sordid story short, God finds out what they have done and punishes them. But they didn’t die from eating the fruit. God lied to them.
What a strange story this is! A strange story, and God does not come across as a particularly nice being. I find myself nodding in agreement when the anonymous author of the Testimony of Truth writes, “What kind of god is this god? … Surely he has shown himself to be a malicious envier.” What with God lying and all, I cannot think this story provides a good example for us as a way to live our lives. Yet this story has served as one of the foundation stories for our Western culture.
One part of the Garden of Eden story has particular relevance for this weekend, Labor Day weekend. When God throws Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, he curses them. God says to Adam, no more easy life for you, now you have to earn your living by the sweat of your brow. And as for Eve, now she is supposed to toil away at home, and kowtow to Adam, and have great pain when she gives birth, and kick snakes whenever she sees them, and generally lead a miserable life. Both Adam and Eve are now going to have to work for a living, and God makes it sound as if there is nothing good about work, God implies that working means suffering and hardship. I’m not sure, however, that God is telling the whole truth about working.
I have had a number of jobs over the years, and more than once I have felt that working is bad news. Just counting full time jobs, I worked in a warehouse, was apprenticed to a sculptor, worked in sales, worked for a carpenter, was a clerk in a health food store, and now I’m a minister. Some jobs can be pretty bad, bad enough that you begin praying for quitting time about five minutes after you start. Some jobs can be unspeakably boring, so boring that you’ll look for something, anything, to keep from going out of your mind from boredom. Some jobs are good one week and unbearable the next. Working can mean suffering and hardship, work can be a curse upon humankind, so God is telling at least part of the truth.
Part of the truth, but I cannot accept that work is always, always a curse. Most of the jobs I’ve had have at least been partly good. Even the worst jobs I’ve worked have had bits and pieces that weren’t so bad, or were at least bearable: maybe you could salvage five minutes out of a week. And work can be better than that — I’ve had jobs that were as much as 75% good.
Our Jewish and Christian heritages seem to keep telling us that work is a curse. The Christian tradition often seems to be telling us: wait for the next life, and you might as well write this life off. Beginning with the Garden of Eden, it’s hard to find a passage in either the Jewish or the Christian scriptures that extols the virtue of work. I can find stories of wars, stories of adultery and passion, stories of prophets proclaiming, stories of suffering, stories of kings and queens, a story of someone swallowed by a huge fish. But there aren’t too many stories in the Bible of ordinary people living ordinary lives, working at ordinary work — and enjoying their work.
You would think that the Christian scriptures would do a little better in acknowledging that work can be a good thing. The hero of the Christian scriptures is Jesus, a workingman, a carpenter, and many of his followers are ordinary workers. Except that Jesus tells people to abandon their work, even abandon their families, in order to follow his teachings. Jesus seems to imply that you can be spiritual, or you can work at an ordinary job; but you cannot do both. In the Bible, Jesus seems to draw a fairly sharp dividing line between spiritual enlightenment or the Kingdom of God (which is good), and daily work (which is not so good). As much as I respect the teachings of Jesus, I’m not sure I agree with him here.
Like Jesus, Unitarian Universalists for the most part don’t mix the world of work and the world of spiritual matters. Sometimes I feel that Unitarian Universalists remain all too silent about the world of work. My father grew up in the Evangelical United Brethren, a German-language Methodist group who actively supported unionization of coal miners in the early twentieth century. You will find no equivalent broad-based support for labor within Unitarianism or Universalism, even in the presence of obvious abuses of workers. This might be explained by the fact that historically Unitarians, and to a lesser extent Universalists, were more likely to be mine owners than to be mine workers. Sometimes I fear that we see the world of work as something we consider impolite to discuss, something we come to church to escape from.
Mostly, then, Unitarian Universalists don’t talk about the spiritual realities of their work. We do not discuss whether work is a curse, as God in the book of Genesis says, or if it is a blessing. My own experience has been that work is one of the central spiritual realities in our lives; and that work can be a blessing.
First of all, work can be a blessing if it is possible to find meaning in your work, if you can understand that in some way your work makes the world a better place. Some jobs are so pointless that that is not possible. But sometimes you can make even a pointless job contribute something to making the world a better place. A few years ago I worked with a man who, in spite of having a college degree, wound up working in menial jobs (he was black, and his college degree may have meant less to potential employers than the color of his skin — I don’t know). Once he had had a job doing building maintenance, and part of his job was to sweep off the sidewalk in front of the building every morning. A menial task — yet he made something more out of it. He made a point of giving passers-by a cheerful “Good morning” as they passed by, and gradually some of them came to greet him in return. He saw this act as a deep expression of his faith. Such a simple thing to do, it was a way to take the most menial of tasks and make it into something that makes the world a better place.
As an expression of my own Unitarian Universalist faith, I try to treat each and every person as someone worthy of dignity and respect. I often fail, but I do try, and sometimes I succeed beyond what I thought possible. When I was in sales, I sold building materials, primarily to residential building contractors. This was in the 1980’s here in Massachusetts when nearly all contractors were men. With my Unitarian Unviersalist belief that women are just as good as men, I treated women contractors the same way I treated men contractors. That became a deep expression of my own religious faith, and that was probably the best thing I did in that job. In a small way, I think what I did made the world a better place.
I hear similar stories from Unitarian Universalists who go into their working lvies trying to treat each and every person as someone worthy of dignity and respect. I think about the Unitarian Unviersalist high school students I have known who have stood up for gay rights in schools that were homophobic. I think of Unitarian Universalist office workers I have known who quietly and gently challenge racist remarks. I think of Unitarian Universalist small business owners who treat their employees with respect. Our working lives can be expressions of our religious faith, and in this way we can find something of a blessing in even the most pointless jobs.
And we have to question why there are jobs so pointless that we have to find ways to make them spiritually satisfying. Our culture begins by assuming that work is a curse not a blessing, which means it’s easy to say: Well, work is supposed to be bad anyway, so if my job is pointless and if I don’t get fair pay, that’s just the way it’s going to be; or, If I give my employees pointless jobs, that’s just the way it’s going to be. If we as a society expect work to be a curse, then we will tolerate the fact that what’s most important about a business is not whether the business makes the world a better place, but rather that that business makes more money. (As if profit can only be measured in dollars and cents!)
Our Unitarian Universalist faith holds us to a different standard: work should be satisfying to the worker. Work should be one of the ways we build connections with other people. If I manufacture something you need, and if you grow food that I eat, and if you provide a service that everyone depends on — then we know that we are doing something that’s more than a way to provide a paycheck, we are doing something for the good of other people, something for the good of the community, something that helps weave the interdependent web of all exitence.
My friends, we are called upon as religious people to proclaim that work should be a blessing and not a curse. We are called upon to proclaim that work should affirm each person’s dignity and worth. We are called upon to proclaim that a society that lacks meaningful work is a society that lacks meaning. And we are called upon to proclaim that we can only have true community in communties where people are given chances to contribute meaningfully to the community.
Maybe it all goes back to that old Garden of Eden story. But we can tell the Garden of Eden story our way, something like this:
Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, which was a wonderful place, but they didn’t even know it was wonderful because God wouldn’t let them have any knowledge of what was good and what was evil. The serpent told Eve that she could eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Eve was a smart woman, and she chose to eat that fruit, and she got Adam to eat some, too. Suddenly they knew good and evil! This made God angry, and God confronted them. There were recriminations and harsh words all around. In the end, God said because they disobeyed, they would have to suffer for the rest of their lives.
We would say today that God put his own spin on the events. But the truth of the story was this: nothing changed for Adam and Eve, except that after eating the fruit they knew some things were good and some things were evil. It was only after they ate the fruit that Adam and Eve knew how hard they were working! They made the choice to know.
Once you tell the story that way — once you tell the story so that work is not God’s curse upon humankind — we understand that we can know the truth of working. We can choose to know why so many jobs feel pointless, why some workers get paid so little, why work has become a curse instead of the blessing it is meant to be. We can choose to understand, and then we can begin to work making a world that is truly a blessing for all working men and women.