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.

A Place To Call Home

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) 2005 Daniel Harper.


I have one short reading this morning, by the Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and poet, Ryokan.

Though travels
take me to
a different stopping place each night
the dream I dream is always
that same one of home.

SERMON — “A Place To Call Home”

I want to speak with you this morning about what it means to call a place home. No doubt I got interested in the topic of home because Imy partner and I have just moved for the third time in three years. But it was just by chance that last week I came across the poem by Ryokan:

Though travels
take me to
a different stopping place each night
the dream I dream is always
that same one of home.

To dream of a place we can call home:–

Even if you live all your life in the same place, it can seem as if you have a different stopping place each night; even if you travel continuously, each place you stay can feel like home.

Scientists who study the earliest human beings, and the earlier humanlike beings, speculate that our ancestors moved from place to place depending on the availability of food and water. In this place that we call home, the south coast of Massachusetts, the indigenous peoples that lived here before Europeans arrived spent winters in upland hunting grounds, moved to fertile ground to plant beans and corn and squashes, spent summers by the sea to fish and gather shellfish, moved back to their fields at harvest time, and ended the circle of the year by returning to the hunting grounds. Home for them might have meant the length of a river and the watershed it drained; or an annual round of fields and hunting grounds where ancestors got their food, places that would change slowly as the fertility of the soil waxed and waned or game animals moved in and out. Today we tend to think of home as a room or an apartment, or a small plot of ground in the city with a house, or a slightly larger plot of land in suburbia with a house. But home is more than a building, more than a house lot. When we call a place “home,” we mean something more complicated than that.

Ryokan, in his poem, says that when he is traveling with a different stopping place each night, the dream he dreams is always the dream of home. Some people try to tell us that we should be at home wherever we are, because wherever you are, there you are. Or that we should be at home in our own skins. Or that we should feel at home wherever we are. I have never been satisfied with any of these sayings, any more than I am staisfied by saying home is a few rooms where I sleep and watch television. You can be sure that Ryokan was not dreaming of a television set.

In common useage when we say “home,” oftentimes we are referring to a room or an apartment or a house where we go to sleep at night — after having watched some television of course. But if you really think about it, your home is more than that room or apartment or house. It’s not enough to have a room or three. If you walk through any suburban neighborhood you can see the houses where people try to make it enough: those are the houses with the rooms lit by the blue glow of a television set or video game. Televisions are marvelous inventions, and I do enjoy watching reruns of “Will and Grace” while I’m at home. I like having my familiar desk and dishes and chairs, too, but while all these thigns might make a place feel homelike, they aren’t home. Maybe we have to look farther afield to discover what home means.

A job or a workplace are often another place that becomes a sort of home to us. Work need not be paid employment. Henry Thoreau writes: “For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully; suveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes….” I have done some of that work at times when I had insufficient paid employment; like Thoreau I have found that “my townsmen would not after all admit me into the list of town officers, nor make my place a sinecure with a moderate allowance.” But work is work whether you are paid for it or not.

Work is the way you contribute to the grand working of the cosmos. Work offers a second place in our lives. Even if you work at home, the work you do can make your house or apartment feel like a different place. Work also brings us into contact with a different set of people. You have a circle of family, housemates, neighbors, and friends that come and go in your house or apartment; and you often have a different circle of acquaintances, co-workers, customers, and friends that come in go in your world of work. Although it’s never quite that simple, since if you work in a family business or stay at home to raise children, you might see much the same circle of people at home and at work.

The place you live and the place you work are both parts of the place you call home. I am convinced we human beings need at least one more place in our lives. Two years ago, we were living in Oakland, California, and there was a Starbucks coffee shop a few blocks away from us. A group of men gathered there each evening, sitting outside when the weather was fine, and talking for hours in some language I did not recognize — a friend of ours said they were Eritrean. Personally, I’m not a big fan of Starbucks coffee shops, but that Starbucks in Oakland offered another place in the lives of those Eritrean men. I have no idea what they actually talked about; but for a price of mediocre coffee they could go and sit for hours at a time, reconnecting with old friends or striking up conversations with a new acquaintance.

Not that I think that going to a Starbucks coffee shop is going to make your life complete. We do need that place where we can go and have informal conversations with people outside the inner circle of family or housemates, conversations that stretch beyond the limits of the workplace. Those informal conversations take place at Starbucks, or at the mall, or on the edge of the soccer field while you’re watching kids play soccer, but those informal conversations are not quite enough.

In the times of our ancient, prehistoric ancestors, I like to imagine that we had still another place:– sitting in a circle around a fire at night. Sitting around that fire in the evening, we (or rather our ancestors) had time to talk with friends and family and neighbors. And that was also where we told the stories about where we came from, and who we are, and what the meaning of life might be. That was where we sang the old songs and chants together. It’s where children learned how to be adults by watching adults who were not their parents. It’s where we dreamed dreams and where we sometimes managed to share the great mysteries of being — not necessarily where we encountered the great mysteries of being, but where we shared those mysteries with others.

Unlike our ancient, prehistoric ancestors, we rarely sit around communal fires any more. But I believe our congregation fills much the same place in our lives today. Our congregation is, or should be, a place where we can sing the old songs (and maybe some new ones too), and ask the big questions about life, the universe, and everything; and share together something of the mysteries of life.

So you can see, in spite of the way we commonly use the word “home,” that home is more than, or should be more than, just some rooms in a building with a television set. Yes, we need a safe place to lay our heads at night, yes we need food and clothing besides, and maybe in the crazy postmodern age we need to watch “Will and Grace” before going to bed at night. Adding a workplace helps complete the picture of what a home is: we also need to contribute to the workings of the cosmos, however we may do that. And we need places where we can have those informal conversations with other people. But we also need that place by the ancestral fire, to hear the stories of olden times, to tell our own stories, to help nurture the children, to explore the great mysteries of the cosmos.

I want to point out something about these places that make up home, and it’s going to sound pretty obvious, but still needs to be pointed out. You can live in a room by yourself (and maybe a television set). You can work by yourself. But the ancestral fire has to have other people sitting around it. When you come to the proverbial ancestral fire to hear the stories of olden times, there pretty much has to be someone else there to tell the stories. When it’s time for you to tell your own story it really helps if there’s someone there to listen to you. When you face the great mysteries of life and death, you need to share those with other people.

Or to put it another way, when you explore the great mysteries of the cosmos you ahve to do it in conversation with, in partnership with, other human beings. You can’t do it alone. Our culture values the loners, the cranky individualists, the characters like John Wayne who seem to be totally self-sufficient. But the myth of the loner, the myth of John Wayne, is just fiction. The reality is that those who try to be totally self-sufficient wind up being less than fully human. We need other people in order to be fully ourselves.

So it is that we have our homes, the place where we lay our heads at night; and we have our work, where we have a hand in the workings of the cosmos; and we have a place around the ancestral fire. That’s why I keep going to church — because without that place around the ancestral fire, I don’t really have a place to call home.