This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.


The reading this morning is by Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University, from her book The Origin of Satan. In this passage, she discusses an ancient Christian document called Testimony of Truth, part of the Nag Hammadi library which was rediscovered in upper Egypt in 1945. Pagels writes:

“The author of Testimony of Truth… raises radical questions:

“‘What is the light? And what is the darkness? And who is the one who created the world? And who is God? And who are the angels?… And why are some lame, and some blind, and some rich, and some poor?’

“Approaching the Genesis story with questions like these, this teacher ‘discovers’ that it reveals truth only when one reads it in reverse, recognizing that God is actually the villain, and the serpent the holy one! This teacher points out, for example, that in Genesis 2:17, God commands Adam not to eat from the fruit of the tree in the midst of Paradise, warning that ‘on the day that you shall eat of it, you shall die.’ But the serpent tells Eve the opposite: ‘You will not die, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (3:4-5). Who, asks [the author of] the Testimony, told the truth? When Adam and Eve obeyed the serpent, ‘then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’ (3:7). They did not ‘die on that day,’ as God had warned; instead, their eyes were opened to knowledge, as the serpent had promised. But when God realized what had happened, ‘he cursed the serpent, and called him “devil” ‘ (3:14-15)….

” ‘What kind of god is this god? … Surely he has shown himslef to be a malicious envier,’ says the author of the Testimony.” (pp. 159 ff.)

SERMON — “Working”

Bible-bashing is not something I do. If this morning’s reading got you thinking that I’m going to rip into the Bible and expose it as a worthless sham, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. I like the collection of books that we call the Bible, and I read the Bible regularly for pleasure and for profit. At the same time, being a Unitarian Universalist, I think hard about what I’m reading, and I’m not afraid to be critical; nor am I afraid to ask hard questions.

Over the past year, I have been asking hard questions of the book of Genesis. You know the book of Genesis: it contains classic Bible stories like Noah and the flood, Joseph and his Technicolor dream coat, God creating the universe in seven days — and perhaps most famous of all, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

I find it difficult to wrap my head around the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In brief, the story goes something like this: God puts Adam and Eve, the first two human beings, into a place called the Garden of Eden. It’s a wonderful place, says God, you’ll like it here, the garden is filled with good things to eat — except, says God, don’t eat anything from those two trees in the center of the Garden. God goes away, and along comes the Serpent. Serpent says to Eve, Don’t believe what God tells you, go ahead and eat the fruit from the trees in the center of the Garden; try it, you’ll like it. So Adam and Eve eat some fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and they suddenly know they are naked. Well. To make a long sordid story short, God finds out what they have done and punishes them. But they didn’t die from eating the fruit. God lied to them.

What a strange story this is! A strange story, and God does not come across as a particularly nice being. I find myself nodding in agreement when the anonymous author of the Testimony of Truth writes, “What kind of god is this god? … Surely he has shown himself to be a malicious envier.” What with God lying and all, I cannot think this story provides a good example for us as a way to live our lives. Yet this story has served as one of the foundation stories for our Western culture.

One part of the Garden of Eden story has particular relevance for this weekend, Labor Day weekend. When God throws Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, he curses them. God says to Adam, no more easy life for you, now you have to earn your living by the sweat of your brow. And as for Eve, now she is supposed to toil away at home, and kowtow to Adam, and have great pain when she gives birth, and kick snakes whenever she sees them, and generally lead a miserable life. Both Adam and Eve are now going to have to work for a living, and God makes it sound as if there is nothing good about work, God implies that working means suffering and hardship. I’m not sure, however, that God is telling the whole truth about working.

I have had a number of jobs over the years, and more than once I have felt that working is bad news. Just counting full time jobs, I worked in a warehouse, was apprenticed to a sculptor, worked in sales, worked for a carpenter, was a clerk in a health food store, and now I’m a minister. Some jobs can be pretty bad, bad enough that you begin praying for quitting time about five minutes after you start. Some jobs can be unspeakably boring, so boring that you’ll look for something, anything, to keep from going out of your mind from boredom. Some jobs are good one week and unbearable the next. Working can mean suffering and hardship, work can be a curse upon humankind, so God is telling at least part of the truth.

Part of the truth, but I cannot accept that work is always, always a curse. Most of the jobs I’ve had have at least been partly good. Even the worst jobs I’ve worked have had bits and pieces that weren’t so bad, or were at least bearable: maybe you could salvage five minutes out of a week. And work can be better than that — I’ve had jobs that were as much as 75% good.

Our Jewish and Christian heritages seem to keep telling us that work is a curse. The Christian tradition often seems to be telling us: wait for the next life, and you might as well write this life off. Beginning with the Garden of Eden, it’s hard to find a passage in either the Jewish or the Christian scriptures that extols the virtue of work. I can find stories of wars, stories of adultery and passion, stories of prophets proclaiming, stories of suffering, stories of kings and queens, a story of someone swallowed by a huge fish. But there aren’t too many stories in the Bible of ordinary people living ordinary lives, working at ordinary work — and enjoying their work.

You would think that the Christian scriptures would do a little better in acknowledging that work can be a good thing. The hero of the Christian scriptures is Jesus, a workingman, a carpenter, and many of his followers are ordinary workers. Except that Jesus tells people to abandon their work, even abandon their families, in order to follow his teachings. Jesus seems to imply that you can be spiritual, or you can work at an ordinary job; but you cannot do both. In the Bible, Jesus seems to draw a fairly sharp dividing line between spiritual enlightenment or the Kingdom of God (which is good), and daily work (which is not so good). As much as I respect the teachings of Jesus, I’m not sure I agree with him here.

Like Jesus, Unitarian Universalists for the most part don’t mix the world of work and the world of spiritual matters. Sometimes I feel that Unitarian Universalists remain all too silent about the world of work. My father grew up in the Evangelical United Brethren, a German-language Methodist group who actively supported unionization of coal miners in the early twentieth century. You will find no equivalent broad-based support for labor within Unitarianism or Universalism, even in the presence of obvious abuses of workers. This might be explained by the fact that historically Unitarians, and to a lesser extent Universalists, were more likely to be mine owners than to be mine workers. Sometimes I fear that we see the world of work as something we consider impolite to discuss, something we come to church to escape from.

Mostly, then, Unitarian Universalists don’t talk about the spiritual realities of their work. We do not discuss whether work is a curse, as God in the book of Genesis says, or if it is a blessing. My own experience has been that work is one of the central spiritual realities in our lives; and that work can be a blessing.

First of all, work can be a blessing if it is possible to find meaning in your work, if you can understand that in some way your work makes the world a better place. Some jobs are so pointless that that is not possible. But sometimes you can make even a pointless job contribute something to making the world a better place. A few years ago I worked with a man who, in spite of having a college degree, wound up working in menial jobs (he was black, and his college degree may have meant less to potential employers than the color of his skin — I don’t know). Once he had had a job doing building maintenance, and part of his job was to sweep off the sidewalk in front of the building every morning. A menial task — yet he made something more out of it. He made a point of giving passers-by a cheerful “Good morning” as they passed by, and gradually some of them came to greet him in return. He saw this act as a deep expression of his faith. Such a simple thing to do, it was a way to take the most menial of tasks and make it into something that makes the world a better place.

As an expression of my own Unitarian Universalist faith, I try to treat each and every person as someone worthy of dignity and respect. I often fail, but I do try, and sometimes I succeed beyond what I thought possible. When I was in sales, I sold building materials, primarily to residential building contractors. This was in the 1980’s here in Massachusetts when nearly all contractors were men. With my Unitarian Unviersalist belief that women are just as good as men, I treated women contractors the same way I treated men contractors. That became a deep expression of my own religious faith, and that was probably the best thing I did in that job. In a small way, I think what I did made the world a better place.

I hear similar stories from Unitarian Universalists who go into their working lvies trying to treat each and every person as someone worthy of dignity and respect. I think about the Unitarian Unviersalist high school students I have known who have stood up for gay rights in schools that were homophobic. I think of Unitarian Universalist office workers I have known who quietly and gently challenge racist remarks. I think of Unitarian Universalist small business owners who treat their employees with respect. Our working lives can be expressions of our religious faith, and in this way we can find something of a blessing in even the most pointless jobs.

And we have to question why there are jobs so pointless that we have to find ways to make them spiritually satisfying. Our culture begins by assuming that work is a curse not a blessing, which means it’s easy to say: Well, work is supposed to be bad anyway, so if my job is pointless and if I don’t get fair pay, that’s just the way it’s going to be; or, If I give my employees pointless jobs, that’s just the way it’s going to be. If we as a society expect work to be a curse, then we will tolerate the fact that what’s most important about a business is not whether the business makes the world a better place, but rather that that business makes more money. (As if profit can only be measured in dollars and cents!)

Our Unitarian Universalist faith holds us to a different standard: work should be satisfying to the worker. Work should be one of the ways we build connections with other people. If I manufacture something you need, and if you grow food that I eat, and if you provide a service that everyone depends on — then we know that we are doing something that’s more than a way to provide a paycheck, we are doing something for the good of other people, something for the good of the community, something that helps weave the interdependent web of all exitence.

My friends, we are called upon as religious people to proclaim that work should be a blessing and not a curse. We are called upon to proclaim that work should affirm each person’s dignity and worth. We are called upon to proclaim that a society that lacks meaningful work is a society that lacks meaning. And we are called upon to proclaim that we can only have true community in communties where people are given chances to contribute meaningfully to the community.

Maybe it all goes back to that old Garden of Eden story. But we can tell the Garden of Eden story our way, something like this:

Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, which was a wonderful place, but they didn’t even know it was wonderful because God wouldn’t let them have any knowledge of what was good and what was evil. The serpent told Eve that she could eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Eve was a smart woman, and she chose to eat that fruit, and she got Adam to eat some, too. Suddenly they knew good and evil! This made God angry, and God confronted them. There were recriminations and harsh words all around. In the end, God said because they disobeyed, they would have to suffer for the rest of their lives.

We would say today that God put his own spin on the events. But the truth of the story was this: nothing changed for Adam and Eve, except that after eating the fruit they knew some things were good and some things were evil. It was only after they ate the fruit that Adam and Eve knew how hard they were working! They made the choice to know.

Once you tell the story that way — once you tell the story so that work is not God’s curse upon humankind — we understand that we can know the truth of working. We can choose to know why so many jobs feel pointless, why some workers get paid so little, why work has become a curse instead of the blessing it is meant to be. We can choose to understand, and then we can begin to work making a world that is truly a blessing for all working men and women.

Spiritual Growth and the Workplace

This sermon was preached by Dan Harper at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 1998 Daniel Harper.

I’ve included this sermon because it’s the only sermon of mine that actually convinced someone to become a Unitarian Universalist (at least, that’s what he told me later).


The reading is by Henry David Thoreau, from the chapter “The Bean-field” in his book Walden:

“Meanwhile, my beans, the length of whose rows, added together, was seven miles already planted, were impatient to be hoed, for the earliest had grown considerably before the latest were in the ground; indeed, they were not easily to be put off. What was the meaning of this so steady and self-respecting, this small Herculean labor, I knew not. I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus. But why should I raise them? Only Heaven knows. This was my curious labor all summer, — to make this portion of the earth’s surface, which before had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort and the like, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse. What shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work. It is a fine broad leaf to look on. My auxiliaries are the dews and rains which water this dry soil, and what fertility is in the soil itself, which for the most part is lean and effete. My enemies are worms, cool days, and most all woodchucks. The last have nibbled me a quarter of an acre clean. But what right had I to oust johnswort and the rest, and break up their ancient herb garden? Soon, however, the remaining beans will be too tough for them, and go forth to meet new foes.”

SERMON — “Spiritual Growth and the Workplace”

My girlfriend and I were talking on the phone early last week, making plans on what to do for this weekend, the last weekend of my vacation.

“Don’t forget that I’m preaching on Sunday morning,” I said.

“Oh, that’s right,” she said. “What’s the title of your sermon?”

“‘Spiritual Growth and the Workplace’,” I said.

There was a silence at the other end of the line. Then she said, “Boy, that will pack them in, won’t it.”

I said, “I guess it isn’t that great a sermon title, is it.”

She said, “It’s kind of an oxymoron. Spiritual growth — and the workplace?”

As usual, she’s right on all counts. My apologies for the title. But no apologies — yet, anyway — for the subject matter. I keep reading articles about finding or creating work that doesn’t crush your spirit. Susanna Whitman will be speaking from this pulpit next week on “Meaningful Work” — she and I came up with our sermon topics independently. I keep hearing people talk about whether or not they find spiritual fulfillment in their job. I think we’re beginning to see that there is a profound connection between spiritual growth and the workplace. I think people are finding that they want jobs that pay reasonably well and have decent benefits, but that people also want some kind of spiritual fulfillment from their jobs.

You’ll have to wait until next week to find out from Susanna about meaningful work. I’m going to assume that you’re stuck with the job you have. Given that, how is it possible to achieve spiritual growth in the workplace?

Henry David Thoreau, in his usual fashion, gives contradictory advice on work. On the one hand, he strongly advocates that we work as day laborers — it’s the best form of work, says Henry Thoreau, because it leaves you free from long-term entanglements so that you can see your job for what it is, just a means for making some ready cash when you happen to need ready cash.

But on the other hand, in his book Walden, Henry Thoreau writes eloquently about the joys of hoeing beans — hoeing beans! — which has to be one of the most tiresome forms of drudgery and toil I have ever experienced. Yet somehow, in this most menial of tasks, he manages to find a spiritual dimension.

Which leads me to recall one of the most tiresome jobs I have ever had in my checkered career. I think the least promising job I ever had — I mean least promising in terms of potential for spiritual fulfillment and enlightenment — was when I worked selling lumber and building materials to residential building contractors for about six years.

Sales is hardly a spiritual job. You are judged not by the quality of your soul but by your sales figures, that is, by how much you have sold figured in terms of gross dollar volume and in terms percentage of net profit. Where I worked, we routinely worked 50 or more hours a week. We were out on the sales floor or on the telephone hustling sales from 7:30 in the morning until past 5 in the evening. It was a high-pressure, low-status job, two thirds of the time talking on the phone with customers or suppliers and the other third taking care of who ever came into the store. We made decent money — if the economy was good, though when construction fell off in the economic slump of the late 80’s, I remember taking a 15% cut in pay in the course of a year.

Where’s the spiritual side to that job? — running around trying to squeeze more money out of building contractors. Doesn’t seem likely that there was much spiritual matter there, does it? Yet as it turned out — surprisingly — there was a profoundly spiritual side to being a salesman.

First, understand that sales is founded on the relationships that you build with other people. Whatever product knowledge I may have had, good prices that I may have been able to come up with — these were important, but no more important than the quality of the relationship I had with people. Now a cynical approach would have been to adopt a persona that was pleasing to most people — to put on that plastic personality, to wear that Teflon smile. But early in my career, as I recollect, I talked to an older salesman — we’ll call him Andy — a guy who’d been selling building materials for 20-odd years, and who was pretty good at it.

“How do you do it, Andy?” I said to him. “What’s your secret to sales?”

Andy said, “I treat everyone exactly the same.”

Treat everyone exactly the same. I began to watch him, and he did just that. He treated the whining, pain-in-the-neck, small-purchase homeowner the same as the millions-of-dollars-a-year contractor. In the profoundly sexist world of lumber sales, he treated women exactly the same as he treated men. In a place where, at that time, it was still O.K. to make racist remarks, he treated African-Americans and Hispanics exactly the same as he treated the privileged Yankee WASPs.

More than that, Andy treated — and still treats, he’s still working as a salesman — he treated everyone with decency and respect. I watched him, and I began to try to do the same kind of thing. It was tough, let me tell you — when you have a customer screaming obscenities at you over the phone for no good reason, it’s tough to continue to treat them with decency and respect the next time you see them!

But I kept at it, kept working away at it. What began to happen, as I tried to follow this fairly simple idea of treating everyone with the same decency and respect, what began to happen was that I began to change. I found I had to recognize, to become aware of my prejudices about people — and then I had to try to make sure that my prejudices didn’t affect how I dealt with a given person — at least, not much. I had to look for the humanity in every person I dealt with, no matter what they looked like on the outside, no matter how they treated me.

When I started, my goal was simple: do this so I could become a better salesman and make more money. But over time, I think it became an end in itself — it became a real, if unusual, form of spiritual practice. However, unlike what we usually think of as spiritual practice — sitting cross-legged in a Zen Buddhist monastery, doing contemplative prayer at a retreat center, going to church Sunday morning — this was a spiritual practice that took place out in the world, for 50 or more hours each week, in a decidedly un-contemplative environment.

Of course, there is a place for spiritual practices that require some degree of removal from the world. You should still come to church once a week! What I am saying here is that there is also a place for spiritual practice in everyday life. Spiritual practice can take place in the most unlikely places — including in workplaces that at first glance are deadening to the spirit.

That reminds me of another job I had, one that was more spiritually fulfilling, though it didn’t pay enough to pay my bills. 15 years ago, I worked for a year as a sculptor’s apprentice. The sculptor I worked for was, at that time, enamored of medieval sculpture, particularly the sculptors of the Gothic cathedrals. Those of us who worked for him — the foundry master, the other apprentice, his students — of course shared his fascination with the Gothic sculptors. We began to see ourselves inheritors of that great traditions of medieval sculptors. At some point, some one came up with a Latin phrase that we all began to repeat: “Omni ad majorem gloriam Dei” — Which translates as “all for the greater glory of God.” Supposedly this phrase was current among Gothic sculptors, and the meaning of the phrase — to us, anyway — was that these Gothic sculptors felt they were working to a standard greater than just a human standard — that somehow, everything they made was made as an offering to their conception of God, that God was watching everything they did. To use the words of the hot dog commercial: “We have to answer to a higher authority.”

Mind you, none of us took this phrase literally for ourselves. I think most of us were atheists, and none of us believed so literally in a God who watched over our shoulders as we worked. Nonetheless, we believed in the spirit of this phrase. We weren’t working just to please the boss — though of course we had to please the boss — we were working to do the best job we could do. And more than that, everything we did, even the most tiresome jobs — scraping the floors clean, shoveling and packing sand around the molds — everything was at some level important. What we did was important, and how we did it was important.

The old Gothic sculptors might have said that what they were doing was working as if work was a kind of prayer. Over the years, I’ve continued to think about that as a possibility — work as prayer. I think that’s what Henry Thoreau is getting at when he writes about hoeing his beans, work as a kind of prayer.

Now I have to tell you, I have always had a hard time understanding this whole notion of prayer. When Dana Greeley was the minister of First Parish of Concord, the Unitarian Universalist church I grew up in, we said the Lord’s Prayer together in church about once or twice a month. I have to tell you, it never did anything for me. Still doesn’t. Since then, I’ve tried various methods of praying, since I felt I should — never got much out of it, always seemed more trouble than it’s worth. There’s a pamphlet called “Unitarian Universalist Views of Prayer,” and I for one feel strongly that there should be a section of that pamphlet titled “Prayer Is a Crock of Malarkey.”

Yet at the same time, I’ve long been fascinated with Paul’s advice to the Christian community at Thessalonica. Paul wrote: “Pray without ceasing!” What does he mean by that? How can you pray without ceasing?

I was first made truly aware of Paul’s advice in J. D. Salinger’s book Franny and Zooey. In the book, Franny comes across a little book called “The Way of the Pilgrim,” a Russian book that tells how a Russian peasant discovered one way to pray without ceasing. This Russian peasant’s method of praying without ceasing was to repeat the same words over and over again: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on my soul,” until those words became something he did automatically, like breathing. Franny runs into some problems when she tries to overcome her own spiritual crisis through using this Russian peasant’s method of ceaseless prayer — Salinger almost tells us “Don’t try this at home, folks!”

Well, I was young and foolish when I read Salinger’s book, and so I tried doing the Jesus prayer — though being a good Unitarian Universalist, I left off the words “Lord” and “Christ” — and it didn’t work for me. But later in the story, Salinger quotes from the “Bhagavad Gita”:

You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.

Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme God. Renounce all attachment to the fruits [of work]. Be even-tempered; for it is the evenness of temper which is meant by yoga.

Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender. Seek refuge in a knowledge of Brahman. They who work selfishly for results are miserable.

That makes sense to me. Don’t think I’m suggesting that we all go tear up our paychecks and work for free — that’s hardly the point! The point is that there is more to work than just working for money, or for results. In spite of what Western culture tells us, the point of work is not the paycheck that you get — it’s not that competitive sense of being better than someone else. If the Bhagavad Gita is describing a form of prayer, then this is a form of prayer that makes sense to me.

Work for the sake of working — the work becomes a kind of prayer. When I was a salesman, sales became for me a matter of treating everyone exactly the same. That was the essence of being a good salesperson — I think maybe that’s the essence of every job where you work with people. So work becomes a spiritual matter, and only so is it truly worth doing — or at times, really, even at all bearable.

Perhaps that’s a pretty mundane conclusion to reach: work for the sake of working. Yet thus considered, work can be revealed as the spiritual matter that it truly is. Too often, I know I have treated my jobs as a necessary evil, as something to be endured, as a means to getting a paycheck. Always, when I have done that, I haven’t been particularly happy with my job. Slowly I have been trying to learn to see the work as an end in itself, even when the work seems mundane or stressful or demeaning. Especially at moments that are mundane, stressful, or demeaning.

The old Gothic sculptors vowed to do everything for the greater glory of God. We who are humanists, or neo-pagans, or Christians with a very different understanding of God, we with our many and diverse understandings can’t echo those old Gothic sculptors exactly. But perhaps we can say something similar, using an old Universalist formula:

In everything we do, in the workplace and elsewhere, we can fix our hearts on hope, and on courage, and on love.