Working Stiffs

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) 2006 Daniel Harper.


I have three Labor Day readings for you this morning.

The first reading is from an interview with John Taylor Gatto published last year in Working Stiff Review. Gatto, an award-winning teacher in New York City for 30 years, is best known for his book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling in America. Gatto says:

“Although I went to college at Cornell and Columbia, my first real job which I put my heart and mind into as an independent young man was as a cab driver working the night shift from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., six days a week. I loved it. The money was good, the scenery and association in constant flux, the absence of supervision a spectacular bonus.

“Although all of my people on the Italian and German sides of the family aspired to white collar utopia, and many of them made it, the idioms, principles, and appreciations were, without any apology, working class for all of us. My own lifelong sympathies have remained with those who work; the harder the better….

“I was a cruising cabbie, always hunting for fares. Lots of miles on the odometer, as opposed to the guys who wait in lines. With hundreds, or thousands, of other cruisers in competition, the fat payoffs came from imagining unlikely places where a fare might appear, and then calculating which lane would give you the best chance to snag it from the others. So a real stretching of the mind was one lesson, as just rolling around was a guarantee of empty pockets. Another lesson was how to focus exclusively on the business. Stopping for lunch, dinner, coffee, conversations, and phone calls was the way run of the mill cabbies came to think that the work was dismal and low-paid. I pushed my cab steadily for 12 hours, took my pleasure from the passengers and the sights, and almost never stopped. When checking in at shift’s end, people would casually ask what I’d booked, and were frequently amazed. “How much? That’s impossible,” they’d say….”

The second reading comes from Walden by Henry David Thoreau, from the chapter titled “Economy”:

“…For myself I found that the occupation of a day-laborer was the most independent of any, especially as it required only thirty or forty days in a year to support one. The laborer’s day ends with the going down of the sun, and he is then free to devote himself to his chosen pursuit, independent of his labor; but his employer, who speculates from month to month, has no respite from one end of the year to the other.

“In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely…. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.”

The third and final reading comes from the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of the sayings of Jesus that was first written down sometimes between the year 50 and the year 100.

“The [Father’s] imperial rule is like a woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her [along] the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.” (Thomas 97.1-4, Jesus Seminar translation)

SERMON — “Working Stiffs”

Here in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century, we seem to have two options in life. We can work hard, and take our pleasure in the work, or we can somehow put together a pile of money so that we may retire in comfort and devote our lives to pleasure. We are working stiffs, every one of us. Even if you run Microsoft and have more money than Warren Buffet, it seems that we are worthwhile only for the work we do and the money we have made, or good only for the work we once did and the money we once made.

In the first reading this morning, John Taylor Gatto talks about how much he loves work. He says: “My own lifelong sympathies have remained with those who work; the harder the better.” I feel the same way. I’m one of those people who doesn’t mind working sixty or more hours a week, even at the expense of family and friends; and generally speaking I like to hang out with others who like work as much as I do. However, it does sometimes occur to me that there might be more to life than work, or escape from work.

Whether or not you like work as much as I do, you too are part of this society where we are told that work, hard work, is the highest value in life. I suspect that it has occurred to you, too, that there might be more to life than work, or more to life than escape from work. On this Labor Day weekend, let us therefore take the time to reflect on work, and the importance of work to our larger lives.

I like the image John Taylor Gatto gives us of what it’s like to be a cabbie: cruising the streets twelve hours a day, seventy-two hours a week, using your imagination, stretching your mind, being the best cabbie possible. And I like the way he sets forth an alternative option. As a cabbie, you don’t have to push yourself that hard, you don’t have to use your imagination, and you don’t have to stretch your mind in order to work harder. You can, instead, use your imagination to figure out ways to escape from work: to stop for lunch, to stop for conversation, to stop work for phone calls, or other means of escape; to escape from work that could just as easily numb your mind as it could stretch your mind.

Later in that same interview, Gatto is asked what he believes is “the primary objective of compulsory education.” Gatto, an award-winning teacher who worked for thirty years providing compulsory education to young people, replies thus:

“The primary objective [of compulsory education] is to convert human raw material into human resources which can be employed efficiently by the managers of government and the economy. The original purposes of schooling were to make good people (the religious purpose), to make good citizens (the public purpose), and to make individuals their personal best (the private purpose). Throughout the 19th century, a new Fourth Purpose began to emerge, tested thoroughly in the military state of Prussia in northern Europe. The Fourth Purpose made the point of mass schooling to serve big business and big government by extending childhood, replacing thinking with drill and memorization, while fashioning incomplete people unable to protect themselves from exhortation, advertising, and other forms of indirect command. In this fashion, poor Prussia with a small population became one of the great powers of the earth. Its new schooling method was imitated far and wide, from Japan to the United States.”

So says John Taylor Gatto. I’m not sure I fully accept his historical analysis. It’s too much to blame poor schooling solely on Prussian innovations. For example, in 1837, Henry David Thoreau got a job as a public school teacher in the town of Concord, Massachusetts. It was a working class school, for the town’s few elite students generally attended the private Concord Academy.

After two weeks, Nehemiah Ball, one of the members of the school committee, stopped in to observe Thoreau’s teaching. Mr. Ball did not like the fact that Thoreau used no corporal punishment, that is, he did not beat the students as part of his pedagogical technique. Mr. Ball admonished Thoreau that he had better beat the students to maintain proper discipline. Thoreau randomly beat three or four students, handed in his resignation, and went off to start his own school based on sounder educational principles. We now know, as did Thoreau, that beating students is not necessary for good education. Beating students does not serve to teach them how to be a good person, or how to be a good citizen in a democratic society, or how to be their personal best; it only serves to teach them how to submit to authority. In New England of 1837, increasing industrialization meant an increasing need for factory workers; factory workers don’t need initiative of their own, so teaching them to submit to authority was a lesson that some people may have wanted to teach those working class students.

But Thoreau came to believe that there was that of evil in working at any job, not just working class jobs. This is different from saying that he thought there was evil in hard work, for Thoreau worked hard. But he worked hard at what he thought was important, not at what someone else thought was important. He worked hard at reading the classical Greek authors and the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita and the Analects; he worked hard at writing, he worked hard in his father’s pencil factory, and at his own business of land surveying. But he also wrote: “I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely…. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.”

Thoreau’s statement remains true today, but only in part. If you’re a white man from a middle class or upper class background, it isn’t necessary to earn your living by the sweat of your brow. If you’re a white woman, the story is a little different — you’ll have to sweat a little harder, because a man doing the same work will earn a third more money than you do. That is, if you even get the job; in many lines of work, it remains difficult for women to get a job at all. A news story this week reported that even though half of all graduates from law schools are now women, far less than half of the law clerks for Supreme Court justices (jobs that go to recent graduates) are women. Many jobs are not yet fully open to women.

And what if you are not white — it is even more difficult for someone who is not white to get a job. Thoreau extols the virtues of becoming a day laborer. It’s fine to be a day laborer when, like Thoreau, you are a white man who has lived your whole life in a stable community where you have lots of connections and find it easy to work at day labor jobs you choose, when you choose to work. It is a far different thing to be a person of color and a day laborer in one of the huge and anonymous cities of the early 21st century, standing on the street beside Home Depot waiting for someone, anyone, to come by and hire you for a few hours at an hourly rate that might not even be enough to buy your food and clothes and pay your rent.

Thoreau is probably on the right track in his attempt to understand what it means to work, and what role work should play in our lives. But I don’t think he really understands what it means to be poor. Not that I myself do. To really understand what it means to be poor, I always find it helpful to turn to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus’s teachings about the poor do not make us comfortable. Indeed, he taught that the poor, those who are truly destitute, are more likely to get into heaven than middle class or working class people; that is to say, a beggar is more likely to get into heaven than a working stiff; a homeless person is more likely to get into heaven than those of us who can afford to pay for a roof over our heads.

This teaching of Jesus gets even more complicated for us Unitarian Universalists. Most Unitarian Universalists believe that heaven isn’t just some distant place that you get to go to after you die; while it may be that for some of us, we are most likely to believe that the kingdom of heaven is something that is being established right here and now on earth, during our lifetimes. Some scholars translate “kingdom of heaven” as “God’s imperial rule”; thus heaven is the state of recognizing God’s rule over human beings. Some of us Unitarian Universalists might put it that way, or we might say: heaven is the state of recognizing that that which is good and true and real should rule our lives, rather than that which is false and evil and unreal.

However you put it, if we are to believe that heaven is supposed to be here and now, what are we to make of Jesus’s teaching that it is easier for the poor to get to heaven than it is for working stiffs to get to heaven? Surely Jesus does not mean to imply that there is anything saintly or virtuous about not having a roof over your head, not having enough to eat.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus tells a little parable that might help us understand what he means. Now remember, the Gospel of Thomas was one of the gospels that was rejected by the early Christian church; it is not one of the four generally accepted canonical gospels. Fundamentalist Christians and more orthodox Christians do not accept the Gospel of Thomas as giving the genuine teachings of Jesus. But most serious scholars, and many religious liberals, accept the Gospel of Thomas as being just as genuine as the other four gospels. I particularly like the Gospel of Thomas because I find in it parables and sayings that don’t occur in the rest of the Bible; these parables and sayings of Jesus haven’t been explained over and over again by generation upon generation of church-goers. We can hear them today, and they can sound just as shocking and discomforting as when Jesus first said them nearly two thousand years ago.

So it is with the third reading this morning. Jesus said: “[God’s] imperial rule” — that is, heaven — “is like a woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal.” This jar would likely have been a large pottery vessel made to carry flour, or meal, in. “While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her [along] the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.”

I can easily imagine just such a thing happening: you’re walking along carrying some flour back from the mill so you can bake bread. You’re carrying it in a big pottery vessel, which you sling over your shoulder using a rope or strap. This pottery vessel is heavy of its own accord, so when the handle of the vessel breaks off, and it tips so that the flour gradually trickles out as you’re walking, you don’t notice it. Then when you get home, after all that work, you find that you’ve got nothing left in the jar, you just have an empty, broken jar. But how on earth is that like God’s imperial rule? –how is that like heaven?

The only way I can make sense out of this parable of Jesus is by remembering that the poor and the homeless are more likely to get into heaven than I am. This parable of Jesus seems to imply that working hard is ultimately unimportant. I suspect the woman in the parable was a hard worker: women in that time and place didn’t have much of a choice, they had to work hard, taking care of children, cooking, cleaning, with probably very little leisure. Yet here Jesus is telling us that heaven occurs when the all the results of your hard work dribble away when you’re not even noticing; the kingdom of God will come to this earth when what you have worked and striven for has dribbled away.

In this sense, maybe Henry Thoreau is correct when he tells us that men and women don’t need to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows. And for all that John Taylor Gatto loves to work, for all that he was willing to push himself for twelve hours a day in a taxicab, he says that the highest priority for education should be to make good citizens (the public purpose of education), to make individuals their personal best (the private purpose), and to make good people (the religious purpose). If the kingdom of God is here and now on earth, if you are to be a part of that kingdom of God, it does not matter whether you are homeless; what matters is that you are, somehow, a good person.

I believe that Jesus is warning us that hard work does not, in and of itself, make us into good people. I believe he is telling us that hard work can indeed can get in the way of being a good person. It can get in the way if we let the hard work become an end in itself, if we let the hard work dominate who we are as persons. We are not here on this good earth simply in order to work; we are here to search after truth and goodness; if work gets in the way of that search, we will not know the heaven that is here on earth.

I began by saying that here in the United States today, we seem to have two options in life: work hard and take our pleasure in the work, or work hard in order to get enough money to retire in comfort and devote our lives to pleasure. But Jesus’s ancient teachings challenge us to remember that work is all there is to life. Jesus’s words remind us that we have not yet created that kingdom of God here on earth, the kingdom he spoke of where everyone is able to labor for her or his own needs while contributing to the greater good, where no one is out of work or homeless and everyone is treated fairly and decently. We have not yet accomplished this greater work of humanity. May we continually challenge ourselves to work towards that great end.