Working Hard, Hardly Working

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) 2008 Daniel Harper.


First reading — “What We Live For” read responsively.

Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry

They say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow.

As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence. We have the Saint Vitus’ dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still.

If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, that is, without setting the bell, there is hardly a man on his farm in the outskirts of town

–notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, nor a boy, nor a woman,– but would forsake their work and follow that sound.

I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things. We think that that is which appears to be.

[From Walden, H. D. Thoreau, adapted DH.]

The second reading is a historical reading. It comes from a sermon preached by Duncan Howlett from this very pulpit on March 4, 1945. At that time, the entire city of New Bedford was in an uproar because of an action by the War Manpower Commission, the government agency charged with mobilizing labor for the war effort during the Second World War. The War Manpower Commission tried to forcibly transfer workers from various textile mills, into other mills which were producing tire cord. Both mill owners and organized labor felt this was an unnecessary action, and Duncan Howlett articulated why in this sermon. He said in part:

“Down beneath a worker’s natural aversion to leave his present job, down beneath the usual aversion to carrying a heavier work load than necessary; there are motives far more fundamental, which are keeping the workers out of the night shift at the tire cord mills. Most of these men have workers have men very close to them facing the enemy overseas. Iwo Jima is not so far from New Bedford as some might think. Brothers, fathers, husbands, and sweethearts of New Bedford workers are there, and they are with Eisenhower and MacArthur too. The workers know what production means to the fighting man overseas.

“Consider the record of this city for patriotism: Almost complete freedom from strikes, Army and Navy Es flying everywhere…; War Bonds oversubscribed in each drive, and the Red Cross blood bank more than supplied on its quarterly visits. Why in view of all this, and with the rest of the nation calling in question its patriotism, has New Bedford failed even under duress to transfer workers to the tire cord mills?

“The real reasons are these: The workers are not reassured by the fact that labor disputes are now pending before the War Labor Board. Workers at these mills are not given company-provided insurance as they are at the other textile mills in the city.

“Most important of all the deep-seated complaints of the workers, however, is the fact that the transferees have no assurance they will not lose their seniority rights. Seniority means a great deal to the worker….

“But I do not believe even these factors whould dissuade New Bedford workers from manning the third shift at the tire cord mills if they believed that the lives of their loved ones depended upon it. They are not convinced that these forcible transfers are necessary, and for two reasons….”

[From a pamphlet edition of this sermon published by First Unitarian church in New Bedford.]


That passage we just heard from the sermon by Duncan Howlett raises an interesting question for me. Howlett seems to assume that there is a sort of promise between the worker and the employer. It is true that the workers about which he speaks were members of a union, so whatever promises existed between workers and employer were enforced by a contract reached through collective bargaining. Nevertheless, Howlett does assume that workers would be treated according to certain standards. The whole point of his sermon is that some of these promises were going to be violated by the War Manpower Commission. He said, “The forced transfer of workers here is unnecessary and unfair and down underneath we sense we are resisting [the War Manpower Commission] for reasons beyond our own workers, and beyond our own needs. High principle is involved….”

And what is that high principle that is involved? At the end of the sermon, Howlett said: “Let us put human personality first always. Let us not forget the endowment of our Creator to each of us. Let us remember, in fine, that we do God’s will insofar as we care for his children, that is to say, insofar as we guard the rights of our fellowman. Remembering this, let us continue in the faith of our forefathers, faith rooted in the wisdom, power and majesty of almighty God, issuing in the rights of man.” And that is how Duncan Howlett summed up the moral underpinnings of the relationship between workers and employers back in 1945.

Here we are, sixty-odd years later. Whatever moral underpinnings to the relationship between worker and employer that may have existed back in 1945 are not so readily apparent today.

There was a time after the Second World War when a whole generation assumed there were promises made between workers and employers. One promise went something like this:– as long as you were a reasonably capable worker, there would be a job for you until you were ready to retire. (For many workers, that was actually an explicit promise enforced by a labor union, and in 1953 nearly a third of all workers were represented by a union.) We should also be clear that this promise was not extended to huge segments of that generation:– for example there was an assumption that women would stop working once they got married; and many persons of color certainly couldn’t count on having a job the same way white persons could. Nevertheless, many people in that post-War generation did assume that as long as you were a reasonably capable worker, you could be pretty sure of a job.

Whatever the assumptions may have been back in 1945, we certainly make no such assumptions today. I don’t know anyone today who has much expectation that we can count on having the same job all our lives. These days, companies routinely lay people off because of accounting decisions made in some far away office. Companies can and do reduce salaries or benefits or working for no apparent reason at all:– so, a year ago I was talking to someone who worked for a big company; this fellow was at a meeting where the company announced that they were cutting benefits substantially, and when someone asked the spokesman why the company was doing this, he replied, “Because we can, that’s why.” The old assumptions no longer hold; workers can’t count on much in the way of promises these days.

As a result, most workers today do not count on having a job for very long. The routine advice that career counselors now give us is that as soon as we take a new job, we should be looking for the next job. People in their twenties and thirties fully expect to change jobs every two or three years, and they expect to change careers several times during their working life. A couple of years ago, I was talking with someone who supervised a fairly large staff, and she talked about how this affects her as a supervisor. She said that young workers just out of school will quit their jobs if they don’t get what they want within a few months. She was frustrated by this tendency because she works for an employer which is actually respectful of workers; if those young workers would just be patient, she said, they’d get all they wanted. But workers no longer feel they have the option to be patient. No young worker now expects a company to make or to keep any promises, or do anything for workers. Young workers no longer have any patience for employers, because they have seen all too often that employers don’t have patience for them.

Speaking for myself, as someone who supervises employees in a church, I know that the rule of thumb for churches is that we should try to retain employees for at least seven years. It takes that long to break even, after you factor in the costs of hiring a new staff person and the costs of the inevitable inefficiency that comes with a new staff person. In churches, and in the non-profit sector in general, managers are constantly seeking out increased efficiency due to the rising cost of running a non-profit. And yet we face increased inefficiency because staff won’t stick around for long; we are paying the price of employers who show no loyalty to workers.

No one is happy with this situation. I am not an economist, nor a political scientist, so I will propose no solutions to this problem. But I am a minister, and I can ask this: As religious people, how can make sense of this problem?

To begin with, I believe we have to talk openly and honestly about this problem. Now historically, most churches have not been places where we talk about work. We might talk about our jobs when we are socializing with other church folks, but my experience in churches has been that most church people rarely talk about work itself. I guess that jobs are somehow understood as being non-spiritual.

I should add that our own church is somewhat of an exception to my general experience. I believe that we are more likely to talk about our work, and about work in general. Our members and friends get up during the candles of joy and concern, and talk about our jobs: talk about not having work, talk about changing jobs, and so on. The simple fact that we often mention our jobs in the course of a worship service is, I believe, a little unusual, in a good way.

We should talk about work at church. Our jobs take up a significant percentage of our time. Our church should be a safe place for us to talk about the moral and spiritual implications of this significant part of our lives. We should be able to talk about not having work, since unemployment can be very difficult. And then there’s retirement: for many people, retirement can lead to some intensive self-reassessment, so we should be able to talk about the moral and spiritual implications retirement.

Not only should our church be a place where we talk about our own experiences of work, I feel our church can also be a place where we can reach out to those who are younger and less experienced than are we. I’m specifically thinking about how we might reach out to high school and college students. From the very beginning of my time here, members and friends of this church have said we should extend some kind of outreach to the students at UMass Dartmouth and at Bristol Community College. There are many reasons why reach out to the religiously liberal college students in our area, but one of the most important reasons is that many or most college students find themselves in the middle of what amounts to a spiritual crisis: they are figuring out what work they can do that will earn them a living, while providing some kind of meaning and purpose in their own lives. This spiritual crisis can extend from a person’s teens right through their twenties. Our church can be a place where people of all ages can talk about the moral and spiritual implication of work, and where older workers can listen to and offer advice to younger people.

And we can go beyond the narrow bounds of our own personal lives. Religion is supposed to help us to contemplate the broader implications of personal matters. When someone we love dies, our religion not only helps us with that immediate death, but our religion can help us to contemplate the broader meaning of death. When we have a child, when we marry, our religion can help us to contemplate the broader meaning of new life, or of the creation of a new family. When it comes to work, religion can help us contemplate broader meanings.

All the great religious traditions of the world do, in fact, help us to contemplate the broader meaning of the work we do. I am most familiar with the Christian tradition, and the meaning of work is woven throughout the Christian scriptures. Jesus is best known for his religious pronouncements, but I’ve always found that Jesus often talks about work. I’d like to take just a moment on two of the things Jesus says about work.

First, Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t take our work too seriously. For example, he says: “No one can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account! That’s why I tell you: Don’t fret about your life — what you’re going to eat or drink — or about your body — what you’re going to wear. There is more to living than food and clothing. ” That’s what Jesus says in the book known as the Gospel of Matthew, as translated by the Jesus Seminar. And what he says here sounds strikingly similar to what Henry David Thoreau tells us in the first reading we heard this morning, when he says, “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.” Much of what Henry Thoreau said was, in fact, merely an elaboration of Jesus’ political and economic philosophy of giving higher priority to spiritual matters than to financial matters.

Secondly, Jesus also talks directly about the realities of work and workers, as in this long parable:

“Heaven’s imperial rule is like a proprietor who went out the first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a silver coin a day he sent them into his vineyard.

“And coming out around 9 a.m. he saw others loitering in the marketplace and said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and I’ll pay you whatever is fair.’ So they went.

“Around noon he went out again, and at 3 p.m., and repeated the process. About 5 p.m. he went out and found othes loitering about and says to them, ‘Why do you stand around here idle the whole day?’

“They reply, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“He tells them, ‘You go into the vineyard as well.’

“When evening came the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman: ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages staring with those hired last and ending with those hired first.’

“Those hired at 5 p.m. came up and received a silver coin each. Those hired first approached thinking they would receive more. But they also got a silver coin apiece. They took it and began to grumble against the proprietor: ‘These guys hired last worked only an hour but you have made them the equal to us who did most of the work during the heat of the day.’

“In response he said to one of them, ‘Look, pal, did I wrong you? you did agree with me for a silver coin, didn’t you? Take your wage and get out! I intend to treat the one hired last the same way I treat you. Is there some law forbidding me to do with my money as I please? Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?’ ” [Mt. 20.1-14]

In this parable about work, Jesus asks us to contemplate the idea of an employer who treats his workers better than we expect. This parable may seem absurd because most of us who have worked have experienced being stiffed by an employer. Not many of us have experienced being treated better than we expected to be treated. Jesus asks us to contemplate an absurd world, which he calls “heaven’s imperial rule,” in which employers are more moral than they need to be.

We live in an era when employers are becoming less moral rather than more moral. Big corporations no longer make any pretence of behaving morally towards their workers. Global capitalism has become amoral, that is, it has no morals at all. It used to be that the ideal was that people would go in business to provide something that the world needed, and would make a profit on the way there. But no longer. Now you’re simply supposed to find a business that will make you money.

Our religion, this church, can give us a place where we can ask: what does it mean to work for a living? Morally speaking, what does it mean to be in business, or what does it mean to work in a certain industry? What does it mean to receive fair wages, and what does it mean to try to offer fair wages to all workers? Morally speaking, what does it mean when we can no longer count on our jobs, when we can no longer count on our employees? Our church is one place where we can, and should, have conversations about the amorality of our current economic system.

And as we consider how our current economic system is amoral, we will want to think about whether it is possible to create a moral alternative. At the most immediate level, we might wish to talk about whether it’s even possible in the current business climate for employers to treat workers decently. Duncan Howlett’s sermon operated at this immediate level of fairness.

And then we will wish to get deeper into this topic. What would it look like if we had a truly moral and just economic system? Do we turn to Henry David Thoreau, with his thought that most of our work is nothing more than a sort of St. Vitus’s dance? Or do we go even further than that and try to find truth in the absurd parables of Jesus in which the whole world is turned topsy-turvy?

I don’t know that we will ever find answers to these questions. Nor do I think there will ever be simple answers to the moral and spiritual questions of work. But we can address those questions….