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.
The opening song, sung by Lewis Santer, was “Commonwealth of Toil” by Ralph Chaplin. See note (4) for the lyrics.
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:
Words: Ralph Chaplin, 1918
Melody: Nelly Gray, 1856
1. In the gloom of mighty cities, amid the roar of whirling wheels,
We are toiling on like chattel slaves of old.
And our masters hope to keep us, ever thus beneath their heels,
And to coin our very life blood into gold.
CHORUS: But we have a glowing dream of how fair the world will seem,
When we each can live our lives secure and free.
When the Earth is owned by labor, and there’s joy and peace for all,
In the Commonwealth of Toil that is to be.
2. They would keep us cowed and beaten, cringing meekly at their feet.
They would stand between the worker and the bread.
Shall we yield our lives up to them for the bitter crust we eat?
Shall we only hope for heaven when we’re dead?
3. They have laid our lives out for us to the utter end of time.
Shall we stagger on beneath their heavy load?
Shall we let them live forever in their gilded halls of crime,
With our children doomed to toil beneath their goad?
4. When our cause has been triumphant, and we claim our Mother Earth,
And the nightmare of the present fades away;
We shall live with love and laughter; we, who now are little worth,
And we’ll not regret the price we’ve had to pay!