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….

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.

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.