Liberal religion and unions

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2013 Daniel Harper.


The first reading comes from a booklet titled “Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” prepared for the August 28, 1963, march:

Why We March

We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis.

That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. They impose a special burden on the Negro, who is denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing.

Discrimination in education and apprenticeship training renders Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other minorities helpless in our mechanized, industrial society. Lacking specialized training, they are the first victims of racism. Thus the rate of Negro unemployment is nearly three times that or whites.

Their livelihoods destroyed, the Negro unemployed are thrown into the streets, driven to despair, to hatred, to crime, to violence. All America is robbed of their potential contribution. …

The Southern Democrats came to power by disenfranchising the Negro. They know that as long as black workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all.

[The second reading was a copyright-protected reading by Martin Luther King, Jr.]

Sermon — “Liberal Religion and Unions”

Today is the day before Labor Day, and Labor Day is the holiday on which we celebrate the contributions that working people, trade unions, and labor unions have made to the United States. So this morning, I thought we should talk about the relationship between labor unions and liberal religion.

Organized religion in general has had a strained relationship with organized labor. Some people in organized labor have felt that organized religion keeps people from addressing the unfairness they face in day-to-day working life by offering hopes of heaven in a life after death. But our liberal religion, Unitarian Universalism, teaches that we must address the problems facing us in our lives here and now, not waiting for some heaven in a life to come. Yet even so, we have tended to spend less time on the problems of working life than on other problems like racism, sexism, looming environmental disaster, and so on. What I propose to do is to talk about why we should be spending just as much of our time and effort on labor issues as we spend on our preferred issues.

And I’m going to start by reading you a story that comes from the Western religious heritage, more specifically from the Christian tradition, the 65th chapter of the Gospel According to Thomas. This is supposed to be a story that Jesus told:

“A […] [person] owned a vineyard. He gave it to some farmers so that they would work it (and) he might receive its fruit from them. He sent his servant so that the farmers might give him the fruit of the vineyard. They seized his servant, beat him, (and) almost killed him. The servant went (back and) told his master. His master said: ‘Perhaps (they) did not recognize (him).’ He sent another servant, (and) the farmers beat that other one as well. Then the master sent his son (and) said: ‘Perhaps they will show respect for my son.’ (But) those farmers, since they knew that he was the heir of the vineyard, seized him (and) killed him. Whoever has ears should hear.” (1)

What a strange and controversial story, like many of the stories told by that Jewish teacher we know as Jesus of Nazareth!

It is a controversial story because later Christians interpreted this story as an allegory. After Jesus had been executed by the Roman Empire, these later Christians remembered this story he had told, and they interpreted it to mean Jesus was foretelling his own death. They turned the story into an allegory, where the person who owns the vineyard is God, and the vineyard itself is Israel. God sends prophets to Israel, prophets who are treated badly; then God sends Jesus (whom Christians think of as God’s son); and the people of Israel kill God’s son. Some later Christians even interpreted this story to mean that Jesus’s fellow Jews executed him; which is a silly and faulty interpretation of what actually happened, since it was the Roman Empire which was responsible for executing Jesus. Because of this silly and faulty interpretation, this story has become controversial.

But let’s ignore that silly old interpretation of the story. Let’s take this story at face value. What happens in the story? Some person owns a vineyard; he is obviously an absentee landowner, since he must send someone else to see what’s going on in the vineyard. This absentee landowner finds some farm workers to farm his land for him. Then he sends servants and his son to get his rent from the workers. But the farm workers are so angry at the absentee landowner that they beat his servants, and kill his son.

Biblical scholar Dominic Crossan suggests that this is a “deliberately shocking story of successful murder.” (2) The story causes us to ask: Why would farm workers resort to murder? What would make them so angry? And here we stumble across an interesting problem. The text of the Gospel of Thomas comes from a manuscript that is some sixteen hundred years old, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945,. In places, this old manuscript is damaged. I said that a person owned the vineyard, but there is an actual literal hole in the manuscript just before the word “person”; the missing word might “kind,” making this a “kind person,” or it might be a word for “usurious,” which would make this person one of those absentee landowners that were hated by the farmworkers of that time and place. (3) It is not too much of a stretch to say these landowners resembled the white landowners who had black sharecroppers working the land in the Southern states following the Civil War.

If we assume that the landowner is keeping the farm workers in a sort of semi-slavery, then we can understand why the farmworkers might want to murder the landowner’s son. The usurious landowner was charging the farm workers injurious rents, so they were unable to make a decent living from their work. In Jewish law and custom, such practices were discouraged and even forbidden. Indeed, in Jewish custom, the true owner of the land was God; no human being could own the land. This helps us to understand why the farm workers would beat the slaves, and murder the son; while the murder is deliberately shocking, it helps us see that the farm workers believed the landowner was trying to take some of God’s power and authority to himself.

This is an important point, and I’d like to take a moment to talk a little bit about this Jewish understanding of the land. In the Torah, in the book of Exodus, that book that tells us about freedom and escaping from tyranny, God says to Moses:

“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” (4)

Because humans do not own the land, God tells them, humans cannot exploit the land to draw from it every last bit of profit. The land must be allowed to rest. Not only that, but humans cannot exploit other humans to draw from them every last bit of profit. Workers, too, must be allowed to rest, and the poor must be allowed to have whatever the land offers up — or really, whatever God offers up — on this seventh year, this sabbatical year.

Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that God requires other things of humans during the sabbatical year. In another book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, God tells humans that during the sabbatical year, all slaves must be set free; no one shall be tight-fisted towards persons in need; and, God admonishes humans, in the other six years, humans had better be nice to one another in anticipation of the sabbatical year, lest they risk God’s wrath. (5)

Not only are we humans to celebrate a sabbath day every seven years, and a sabbatical year every seven years, but God says humans should observe a Jubilee Year every seven-times-seven years. In the book of Leviticus, God tells humans: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…” This is a sort of super-sabbatical year, during which humans shall return to the land which their families traditionally lived on, no matter who ostensibly owns it now. (6)

Given this background, we are less surprised that the farm workers were angry at the absentee landowner. They felt they were being cheated; they felt the landowner was denying them their God-given rights; they felt the landowner was infringing on God’s pre-eminent ownership of the land.

This, by logical association, brings us to the historic March on Washington, which was held fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963. African Americans, particularly in the Southern states, were being kept in a state of semi-slavery by unjust laws set up by white European Americans. The African Americans who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were religious people, often religious liberals — so, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a liberal Baptist minister, and Bayard Rustin was a Quaker — and they knew what the Bible said about freedom, and fairness. They knew that the Bible explicitly states that slaves and semi-slaves must be set free, that the land belongs to God and not to any humans, that humans are commanded by God to be fair and just to one another.

More than that, their religion helped them to understand how all humans are interconnected. We heard in the first reading this morning the way the organizers of the March on Washington analyzed the economic situation of their time. They believed that the plight of white workers and minority workers is tied together; that semi-slavery for minority workers meant semi-slavery for white workers, too. Their economic analysis comes straight out of the standards of justice and freedom that Christians inherited from the Jewish tradition, by way of the Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.

This opinion was held by many European American religious liberals fifty years ago, including by many Unitarian Universalists. If you know your Unitarian Universalist history, you know that although we are a tiny and predominantly white denomination, we provided disproportionate support for the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. In fact, our Palo Alto Unitarian Universalist congregation sent its senior minister, Dan Lion, to the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964, and to the march on Selma in 1965.

Yet while we Unitarian Universalists were great supporters of the Civil Rights movement, somewhere along the way we lost sight of the fact that the Civil Rights movements was about jobs as much as it was about ending segregation. We Unitarian Universalists have never been particularly strong supporters of any kind of labor movement. Historically, many Unitarians were mill owners and factory owners and business owners, and they saw themselves as being in direct opposition to labor movements. Historically, many Universalists worked in the skilled trades or middle class jobs, and so were not particularly sympathetic to more broadly-based labor movements.

And from a theological point of view, we Unitarian Universalists have been strong individualists. We like to think that we live life as individuals, on our own terms. This goes back at least as far as Ralph Waldo Emerson — who started his career as a Unitarian minister — and his essay “Self Reliance.” We glory in the theological ideal of self reliance; and this, I suspect, is why so many of us are atheists today, because we have little interest in a theological idea that affirms we humans are dependent on another being greater and more powerful than ourselves. Certainly, many of us have felt that we should rely on our own efforts, not on labor unions.

For these and many other reasons, we Unitarian Universalists have not been very sympathetic to labor movements. And so, when we talk about the 1963 March on Washington, we readily talk about how it was a march for racial freedom and equality, but we pass over the fact that it was just as much a march for jobs and labor rights.

I would like to suggest to you that we need to rethink our attitude towards labor movements. And I would like to suggest that the story I told at the beginning of this sermon gives us a theological reason to rethink our attitudes.

What we learn from that story is that ancient Jews did not believe in exploiting the land to the utmost; they believed in letting the land rest every seventh year. And for the same reason, those ancient Jews believed that one human should not exploit other humans.

In our own theological language, we would say that all human beings, and all other beings, are bound together in an interdependent web of existence. We got the term “interdependent web of existence” from the theology of Bernard Loomer, who was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. Loomer said that when Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, what he really meant (in our language) was the interconnected web of life; he was making the point that we are all interconnected. (7) This helps us towards a better understanding of the story of the absentee landowner and the farm workers: the absentee landowner ignored the interdependent web of all existence. He attempted to extract the maximum profit both from the vineyard, and from the human beings who worked in the vineyard. The point Jesus made by telling us this story is that ignoring our connectedness to other human beings and to all other living beings must lead inevitably to violence, hatred, and waste.

Now — we Unitarian Universalists today tend to interpret the interconnectedness of all existence as applying only to environmental issues; thus we say that we must halt global climate change because we are harming the web of existence. But to speak of a web of existence in which all creatures, and all inorganic things as well, are interconnected, means that we are connected not just with polar bears and whales, but also with all other human beings. The implications of this are profound: we do not own polar bears or whales; nor can we own other human beings; nor can we own the products of another person’s work, any more than we can own a polar bear’s pelt.

This is the theological point of ancient Jewish law: to say that God owns the land, and the fruits thereof, is simply another way of saying that all things belong to the interconnected web of all existence, and that nothing can really belong to any individual organism which is a part of the web of existence. By the way, you don’t have to believe in a literal God to affirm this statement; indeed, it would not be too much of a stretch for us to say that God is nothing more, or less, than the interdependent web of existence.

This is a very challenging teaching for us religious liberals. We are accustomed to thinking that we are in control. We are accustomed to thinking that we are most important as individuals. But what our religion is actually teaching us is that what is most important is our connections with other human beings, and with other non-human beings.

And this at last brings me to labor unions and religious liberals. Considered in light of our theological understanding of the interdependent web of all existence, a labor union is very similar to an environmental organization like the Sierra Club, or Bill McKibben’s; a labor union is also theologically similar to organizations that fight for racial justice like the NAACP. Of course all these organizations have their failings. But these are all organizations that affirm the ideal of the sanctity of the interdependent web of all existence. These organizations affirm, as do religious liberals, that we should not exploit other beings, whether human beings or any living beings. These organizations affirm that we cannot live our lives as if we are radical individualists, for to do so tends to separate us from the interdependent web of all existence. And these are all organizations that challenge us to criticize our current economic system of unbridled competition and individualism, in which the highest values are money and, let’s be honest, greed.

We religious liberals know that our highest value must be the interconnectedness of all beings. And so it is that we should place a higher value on the ideal of labor unions (8) — the ideal of people working together for a higher cause, the ideal of fair wages and economic justice, ideals which were a part of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the ideals that come with the realization that we are all bound together in our interconnected network of mutuality.

With these ideals, as Martin Luther King said fifty years ago, “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony.” And so, in the words of the ancient Jewish prophet Amos, may “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (9)



(1) As translated in Stephen Patterson, J. M. Robinson, the Berlin Working Group, The Fifth Gospel (1998).
(2) John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (1992), 96.
(3) “But what does this ancient Christian parable mean? Its interpretation is complicated by a troublesome lacuna, or hole in the papyrus, in its very first line. The missing word is an adjective which would have modified the word ‘person’ in some way. The extant letters around the edges of the hole permit a reconstruction of the word ‘good,’ so that one could speak here of a ‘good person’ who rented the farm to ‘evil’ tenants, just as one finds in the synoptic versions of the story. But the extant letters also permit the reconstruction of the word for ‘creditor’ or ‘usurer,’ which would make this person one of the absentee landlords so much hated among the land-poor peasants of Galilee. One wonders, in the rural areas of Palestine and Syria among the dispossessed and poor — the tenant class — how this parable would have been heard. Were these evil tenants, or were they brave tenants?” — John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser, Q-Thomas Reader (1988), 102.
(4) New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Exodus 23.10-12. To read more on one contemporary Jewish interpretation of this general topic, see “Labor Rights in the Jewish Tradition” by Michael S. Perry (1993), available online here.
(5) NRSV, Deuteronomy 15.1-15.
(6) Ibid., Leviticus 25.8-17.
(7) Bernard Loomer, Unfoldings (1984), 1.
(8) Of particular interest to religious liberals in the Freelancer’s Union, “A Federation for the Unaffiliated,” online here. Something like 30% of all U.S. workers are now contract workers or freelancers of some type, and the percentage is probably higher among us religious liberals, since freelancing fits in with our preference for individualism. What the Freelancer’s Union is demonstrating to us is that even independent workers need a union. This highly innovative union breaks out of the old of trade unions and factory workers unions, funding itself through selling discounted insurance and other services to its members. The Freelancer’s Union engages in political advocacy, provides training and support, helps freelancers deal with deadbeat clients, and is beginning to offer face-to-face meetings for networking.
(9) NRSV, Amos 5.24.

Liberal Religion, Silicon Valley Style

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.


“Jesus said: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of flour. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the flour spilled out 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.”

Gospel of Thomas, ch. 97, Scholar’s Version translation.


I’d like to speak with you this morning about liberal religion in Silicon Valley, or more precisely Unitarian Universalism in Silicon Valley. There are three distinctive features of Silicon Valley culture, and I think these are also distinctive features of our liberal religious congregation.

One distinctive feature of Silicon Valley life is the ethic of hard work: here in the Valley, people believe that the harder one works the better off one will be. And this holds true in our congregation: we work hard, and we accomplish a great deal.

Another distinctive feature of Silicon Valley life is that we live in a truly multicultural and multiracial place, we’re used to it, and we like it this way. And this holds true in our congregation: though we are still majority white, we are changing, and I’d say most of us will feel more comfortable once we have a smaller percentage of white people.

A third distinctive feature of Silicon Valley life is the engineering and entrepreneurial drive which leads us to believe we can fix anything if we put our minds to it. This is also true of our congregation: and so, for one example, last spring even though the Great Recession is still if full swing, even though many of people in this congregation are out of work, our pledge drive was up more than 15% over the previous year.

Hard work. Multiculturalism. We can fix anything and do the impossible. Those three things help distinguish the Silicon Valley way. And those three things are also distinguishing features of our congregation.


Now I’d like to say a little bit more about each of these three things as it pertains to our congregation. I’ll begin with the culture of hard work.

At this point in my career as a minister, I’ve served in eight different congregations. People in this congregation work harder and accomplish more than in any of the other seven congregations I’ve served. I’ll give you some specific examples of what I mean. I once served a congregation fifty percent larger than ours, and it did not have nearly as programs and activities as we do. We carry out more social justice projects than most congregations our size: we host a homeless shelter here in our buildings one month a year and we cook all the meals for them; we serve meals at Stevenson House next door several times a year; we host innumerable lectures and talks on social justice issues, including having the former president of Amnesty International speak here. We provide excellent programs for kids, like our comprehensive sexuality education programs that are better than those offered in area schools. We have a bunch of small groups: men’s groups and women’s groups and so-called “Chalice Circles” and support groups and social groups.

All these things have been accomplished by hard work. People in our congregation put in hundreds of volunteer hours to make all this work. Any congregation requires hundreds of hours of volunteer work, and we’re no different than other congregations in this respect. And it’s something of a misnomer to label this work, because most of what we do around here offers opportunities to socialize and to have time away from job and home responsibilities. Nevertheless, my sense is that we in this congregation tend to be more purposeful and more serious and more focused in our volunteer work than other congregations I’ve known. We may have fun doing our volunteer work here, but it’s purposeful fun, it’s serious fun, it’s very focused fun.

Not only do we work hard, but we are convinced that the harder we work, the better off we will be. I say this based on the following evidence:– Even though we do more than most congregations our size, we are fully convinced that we are not doing enough. And even though we do more than most congregations our size, we are fully convinced that we need to do more in order to feel barely adequate.

And isn’t this the way most people in Silicon Valley treat their jobs? We are convinced that hard work pays off, which implies that working harder and longer pays off even more, so some people estimate that the average work week in Silicon Valley is something like 60 hours a week. That would translate to 8.57 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s a lot of hard work.


Having demonstrated that hard work is one distinctive feature of liberal religion, Silicon Valley style, I’d like to turn your attention to another such distinctive feature. We are convinced that we can fix anything and do the impossible.

Silicon Valley is full of tales of people who can do the impossible. In 1939, two guys named Hewlett and Packard started a business in their garage. That business turned into a major corporation. In 1977, two guys named Wozniak and Jobs incorporated another business in a different garage. That business is now one of the top three biggest companies in the world by market capitalization. And in 1947 a bunch of religious liberals started a congregation which they called the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. In less than a decade, they built it up from a tiny congregation to a big one.

All these people did something that seemed impossible to others. That Palo Alto Unitarian Church, for example, started with fewer than fifty people in a rented space, and in ten years they had built their own building and offered three services with hundreds of adults and hundreds of children in attendance each week. Yes, I know they were riding a demographic trend: the congregation was formed at the peak of the Baby Boom, during the years when this region was experiencing huge population growth as a result of its then affordable housing. But that again is typical of Silicon Valley: successful companies ride trends; as do successful congregations. Hewlett Packard rode the trend of individuals and businesses owning personal computers. Apple rode the personal computer trend for a while, but they moved into mP3 players and smartphones, and now they’re bigger than Hewlett Packard. Our congregation rode the Baby Boom.

I’m going to come back to that notion of following trends in just a minute. But first I’d like to use Apple as an example of a Silicon Valley company that did things that people said were impossible, or at least improbable. Take their mP3 player, the iPod. The first iPods had little hard drives in them, because people said it would be too expensive to manufacture flash drives; but Apple did just that. Another thing that Apple did that was impossible was to rebound from mistakes and reverse downwards trends. Perhaps you remember the Apple Newton, a handheld device of the type known as a personal digital assistant. The Newton was a commercial failure, although medical doctors loved them and used them for years. After the Newton failed, other companies like Palm Computing came in and developed commercially successful personal digital assistants, and the common wisdom was that would be impossible for Apple to become a major player in that market ever again. But Apple did the impossible, combined the personal digital assistant with a cellphone, and dominated the new smartphone market with their iPhone.


Now let me come back to this notion of following significant demographic trends; and this relates directly to a third distinctive feature of both Silicon Valley, the multiracial and multicultural character of this area.

Demographers tell us that within a generation, the United States will be a majority minority country: that is, white Anglo people will no longer constitute a majority of the population. Well, Silicon Valley is already there. A couple of days ago, I was in the little supermarket across the street from here, and I heard five different languages within five minutes: English and Spanish of course, but also French, what sounded to my ears like Chinese, and what might have been Russian. There were white people, black people, East Asians, South Asians. We who live in Silicon Valley already know what it’s like to live in a majority minority country. This is the biggest demographic trend that’s going on right now.

If you look around you this morning, you’ll see that our congregation remains mostly white. Last time I checked for myself, about 85 percent of the people who show up on Sunday morning are white. Mind you, we are still way ahead of other suburban Unitarian Universalist congregations, most of which are 98% white Anglo; the only Unitarian Universalist congregations I know of that are more than 20% non-white and non-Anglo are in the middle of cities. Yet in true Silicon Valley style, I am not satisfied that we are performing better than any other suburban congregation — I want us to be better than anyone else. When I hear that we are only 15% non-white and non-Anglo, I feel inadequate, and my first thought is that we need to work harder so that we can become a majority minority congregation as soon as possible.

But fostering multiculturalism is one thing that no longer yields to conventional hard work. In the past fifty years we have done an enormous amount of hard work, and we have made great progress, both within this congregation, and in the country at large. It is now illegal to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity, and it is this congregation’s policy that we aim to be completely inclusive in terms of race and ethnicity. We have gone about as far as hard work can take us. And we’re still not there yet. And this brings me back to the reading from the Gospel of Thomas with which we began this service.

The Gospel of Thomas was one of the books that didn’t make it into the final approved and authorized version of the Christian Bible. It is, in fact, a heretical book, and therefore perfect for Unitarian Universalists. Chapter 97 of the Gospel of Thomas says this:

“Jesus said: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of flour. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the flour spilled out 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.”

What Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven is what we today would call the Web of Life; it is that network of inescapable bonds and connections that tie us to one another. The Web of Life exists whether you believe in it or not. Many people do not believe in the Web of Life; these people do not believe that all living organisms are interconnected in one planet-wide ecosystem that is tied together through the complex interaction of many different feedback loops. But whether you believe in it or not, the Web of Life exists.

Human relations are just a more specific part of this Web of Life. We human beings are all interconnected with each other, our destinies are intertwined with the destinies of all other human beings, whether we like to admit that fact or not.

This is the nature of existence. It does not matter whether you want it to be this way or not; it is this way, we are all connected. You do not have to work hard to make all human beings connect to one another; we are already connected to one another. Indeed, more often than not, hard work can actually obscure or even damage the connections between human beings. If I work more than 50 hours a week — something that I have to admit I have done more than once in the past month — I may get more work done, but I won’t make my connections with other human beings any stronger, and I may make them weaker. If I work too much, I won’t see Carol, my partner, as much as I should, and I will actively damage that relationship. If I work too much, I will get grumpy, and that grumpiness will play out here at church, and that’s only going to annoy people, and again damage my connections with other people.

This does not mean we should stop working. This does not mean that if we stop working altogether, some kind of utopia will emerge. Work, too, is part of the Web of Life; all organisms have to work to get the food and shelter they need to stay alive. But problems arise when we work too much. When we are working so hard that we are not paying adequate attention to what’s going on around us, we may find that the huge ceramic jar that we have been carrying slung over our backs has broken, and the flour that we were carrying has spilled out along the road behind us. And then we get home, and put the jar down, and look inside it, and find to our surprise that it is empty.

It is in that empty jar that we may find the Kingdom of Heaven. That empty jar is a wake-up call, a call for us to pay attention. Pay attention, because the Kingdom of Heaven is here and now, it is not some distant happy land you go to after death, nor is it some distant utopia that we will create one day in the future. The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now; the Web of Life is here and now.

As people who live in Silicon Valley, we are accustomed to doing the impossible. Given the long history of racial division in this country, creating a truly multicultural congregation is impossible. Yet we can do it. We can do it, but not by adding even more hard work to the hard work we have already done.

One of the things I like best about the ideal of Silicon Valley is the way playfulness is to Silicon Valley culture. In one paradigmatic example of this, I am told that when you go into one of Google’s buildings, there are places where you can play with Legos.

I would like to suggest to you that if we are going to achieve our dreams, if we are going to achieve the impossible and become a multicultural congregation that reflects the demographics of Silicon Valley — if we are going to be the first truly multicultural, multiracial, Unitarian Universalist suburban congregations — we will achieve that through ratcheting back on the hard work, and turning instead to playfulness.

In the Gospel of Thomas, the parable does not say that the Kingdom of Heaven is hard work. It is a playful parable that tells us the Kingdom of Heaven is like an empty jar. Yes, we still need some hard work. But we also need more Legos, more playfulness, more Second Sunday lunches, more conversations on the patio, more peering into an empty jar and laughing at ourselves for having not noticed that the flour had poured out on the road behind us.


And for your amusement, here’s a video I made using Xtranormal of this morning’s reading, as told by a robot:

Spirituality at Work

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Starr King Unitarian Universalist Church in Hayward, California, 10:30 a.m. The sermon text below is an uncorrected reading text (typographical errors and all). The sermon as delivered contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.


The reading this morning is from a book titled Let Your Life Speak, by the Quaker writer Parker Palmer. As this reading opens, Palmer has left his job as a community organizer, and he has gone to Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center, as he tries to figure out what he should do with his life. He writes:

“If I were ever to discover a new direction, I thought, it would be at Pendle Hill, a community rooted in prayer, study, and a vision of human possibility. But when I arrived and started sharing my vocational quandary, people responded with a traditional Quaker counsel that, despite their good intentions, left me even more discouraged. ‘Have faith,’ they said, ‘and way will open.’

“‘I have faith,’ I thought to myself. ‘What I don’t have is time to wait for “way” to open. I am approaching middle age at warp speed, and I have yet to find a vocational path that feels right. The only way that’s opened so far is the wrong way.’

“After a few months of deepening frustration, I took my troubles to an older Quaker woman well known for her thoughtfulness and candor. ‘Ruth,’ I said, ‘people keep telling me that “way will open.” Well, I sit in the silence, I pray, I listen for my calling, but way is not opening. I’ve been trying to find my vocation for a long time, and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of what I’m meant to do. Way may open of other people, but it’s sure not opening for me.’

“Ruth’s reply was a model of Quaker plain-speaking. ‘I’m a birthright Friend [Quaker],’ she said somberly, ‘and in sixty-plus years of living, way has never opened in front of me.’ She paused, and I started sinking deeper into despair. Was this wise woman telling me that the Quaker concept of God’s guidance was a hoax?

“Then she spoke again, this time with a grin. ‘But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.'” [p. 38]

Sermon: “Spirituality at Work”

I said that I’d speak with you this morning on the general topic of spirituality and work. In the interests of full disclosure, right at the outset I have to tell you that a good chunk of my working life has been far from spiritual. I spent twelve years in the residential construction business, as a yardman and salesman in a lumber yard, and later working for a carpenter; I spent a year each as a sculptor’s assistant and clerk in a health food store; I’ve worked as a religious educator and as a parish minister. (Parenthetically, I should say that working for a congregation has its spiritual moments, but neither more nor less than other jobs I’ve had.)

In my limited experience, very few people find much that is spiritual in their work life. Spirituality can be defined as that which puts us in touch with something that is fine and good; if you experience God or some kind of divinity in your life, spirituality is that which puts you in touch with that which is divine; and if your experience of life doesn’t include God or divinity, spirituality is that which puts you in touch with that which is highest and best in humanity and nature. By contrast, it’s perhaps most common in our society to see work merely as something to be gotten through; as something necessary for survival, but nothing more. I include housework and child-rearing and caring for elders in this, for these are all kinds of work, and many people who do housework or raise children don’t find much that is spiritual in changing diapers or cleaning floors. And if you’re unemployed or out of work, that’s the hardest work of all: I’m fortunate and have only spent a month out of work and three weeks being laid off, but those were two of the toughest and least spiritual times of my life; I did not then feel in touch with anything divine, nor with anything that might be considered highest and best in humanity.

Thus, for many of us, whatever spiritual lives we might lead feel disconnected from our work lives. But I don’t think spirituality and work are as disconnected as they seem at first. So I would like to talk with you about the ways in which I believe work life and spiritual life are connected.


1. The first and most obvious connection: your work, your job, can be what supports your real calling in life. The circumstances of life might limit your options such that your job is neither going to fulfill you, nor give you scope to live out your highest ideals in the world. Then your job might be that which keeps food on the table and a roof over your head, while you do something else with the rest of your life. And I can offer you an example of what I mean in the life of Rosa Parks.

Growing up as a black woman in the segregated South, Rosa Parks did not have a wide range of careers open to her. As an African American, Parks had to attend segregated schools that were poorly funded compared to schools for white children; and even in those schools, less was expected of girls than of boys. In her junior high school, mostly what she was taught was what was called “domestic science”: sewing, cooking, and taking care of people who were sick. Later she had to drop out of high school to take care of her ill mother. When she got married, her husband encouraged her to finish her high school diploma, and towards the end of her life she wrote about what happened after she received her diploma:

“But that [diploma] still didn’t help me much in getting a job. I had a high school diploma, but I could only get jobs that didn’t need a high school diploma. I worked as a helped at St. Margaret’s Hospital. I took in sewing on the side. In 1941 I got a job at Maxwell Field, the local Army Air Force Base….” (1)

Then in 1943, Rosa Parks found out that a friend of hers, another woman belonged to the Montgomery, Alabama, branch of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Before that, Parks didn’t know that women could join the NAACP; but in December, 1943, she decided to go over and attend one of the meetings. As it turned out, she was the only woman there, and when it came time to elect the new officers for the year, they elected her, the only woman, to be the secretary.

So Rosa Parks wound up joining the leadership of the NAACP, and so she also found a place where she could use her education. As secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, one of her principal duties was “to keep a record of cases of discrimination or unfair treatment or acts of violence against black people.” [p. 84] Parks later wrote: “We didn’t have too many successes in getting justice. It was more a matter of trying to challenge the powers that be, and to let it be known that we did not wish to continue being treated as second-class citizens.” [p. 89] Though she didn’t call it spiritual, this unpaid work was a form of spirituality, in which she turned her thoughts and her efforts to the highest ideals of humanity.

Rosa Parks began serving as the secretary of the local branch of the NAACP in December, 1943. Twelve years later, on Thursday, December 1, 1955, she was riding a segregated bus, and the driver told her to give up her seat to a white person. She refused to do so, and the bus driver had her arrested. Her arrest sparked the African American leaders of Montgomery to call for a boycott of the buses. A dynamic young minister no one had ever heard of named Martin Luther King, Jr., got selected to lead the boycott. And the Montgomery bus boycott marked the real beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, the beginning of non-violent direct action aimed at eliminating segregation and legalized discrimination.

So it was that Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white person grew out of her long work to confront and eliminate discrimination; and confronting discrimination was spiritual work: she was living out her highest moral and ethical ideals. But this spiritual work had nothing to do with her job. In 1955, Rosa Parks was working as a seamstress for one of the downtown department stores. Her job was a means for supporting herself; it allowed her to continue serving as secretary of the NAACP, and to continue confronting racial discrimination in a variety of ways, including not giving up her seat. Her job was simply a means to a higher end.

Indeed, the values of her workplace opposed her spiritual work to confront and end discrimination, for once she achieved notoriety by refusing to give up her seat on the bus, her employers eliminated her job. And we can learn something from Rosa Parks’s example: if your spiritual life is centered around living out your highest ideals, you may well have to keep your spiritual life in large measure separate from your work life. That does not mean your work and your spirituality are disconnected, for you will still be a whole person, just as Rosa Parks was a whole person; but you may have to separate the time you spend at work, taking care of the necessities of life, from the time you spend on spiritual matters.


2. And this brings me to a separate but related matter. Back in 1973, New York Quarterly interviewed the poet Gary Snyder about the craft of writing. And the interviewer said that New York Quarterly had received a note from the poet Charles Bukowski who said that interviews about the craft of writing reminded him of people polishing mahogany. (Since polishing mahogany is boring, I take this to mean that Bukowski felt craft was boring.) The interviewer then asked Gary Snyder for a response. Snyder said:

“I like polishing mahogany! I like to sharpen my chain saw. I like to keep all my knives sharp. I like to change the oil in my truck. Creativity and maintenance go hand in hand. And in a mature ecosystem as much energy goes to maintenance as goes to creativity. Maturity, sanity, and diversity go together, and with that goes stability. I would wish that we could in time emerge from traumatized social situations and have six or seven hundred years of relative stability and peace. Then look at the kind of poetry we could write! Creativity is not at its best when it’s a by-product of turbulence.” (2)

So says poet Gary Snyder. Now if you think about it, maintenance, in the way Snyder means it here, is necessary but boring work. If you have ever sharpened a chain saw, you know it’s boring work; not as fussy as sharpening a hand saw, but still a simple and repetitive task that requires the full attention of hand and eye and mind. And the maintenance that you do around the house may be just as simple, repetitive, and boring: cleaning the toilets and doing the laundry and changing the diapers if you have children, and so on.

Most of the jobs I have held have tended to be dominated by maintenance tasks; as near as I can tell most jobs are dominated by maintenance tasks. I already told you that I once worked for a sculptor, and you might think that sculpture would include more creativity than maintenance, but you’d be wrong: the actual creative work was done relatively quickly; then the sculptor and his assistants had to make a mold, cast the piece in bronze, chase it, put a patina on it; and for each of those steps, he had to set up assistants and equipment and clean up afterwards; and then he had to sell his work; and on top of that he had to teach sculpture classes to make ends meet. That sculptor, like the rest of us, spent most of his work life taking care of boring repetitive maintenance tasks.

But Gary Snyder reminds us that repetitive maintenance tasks are not a bad thing. You can’t have creativity without maintenance; I would add (and I think Snyder would agree) that you can’t have spirituality without maintenance. Snyder points out that in a mature ecosystem, there’s as much energy going into maintenance as into creativity and generativity. Snyder doesn’t associate maintenance with boredom and repetition; he associates maintenance with maturity, stability, diversity, and sanity.

For many of us, a good part of our work life is a kind of maintenance work. If you’re like Rosa Parks, you do your job so you can support yourself while you do something more meaningful with the rest of your time. Even if you’re like the sculptor and have a job that allows you great scope for your creativity and spirituality, like the sculptor a good part of your job will be taken up with maintenance tasks. The higher things in life — creativity, spirituality — can’t exist without maintenance; I’m not even sure we should call them “higher things”; maintenance and spirituality are part of the same connected whole.

Having said that, in a turbulent society, it is probably impossible to achieve a balance between creativity and maintenance. In our turbulent economy, it’s easy to lose your job, and when you lose a job, you’ll be spending nearly all your time looking for a new one, which is to say, you’ll be spending all your time on maintenance. In our turbulent society, where social supports are often lacking, if you’re working full time while caring for children, or caring for aging parents, once again most of your life will be spent on maintenance. And in our turbulent workplaces, you may be called upon to work ten or twelve hours a day or longer on demanding projects that require all your creativity and energy, so that you have no time for maintenance. Because of the limitations of life, we may not achieve a balance between creativity and maintenance at this moment; we can only try to achieve it over time.


3. And this brings me to a final point. A necessary part of anyone’s spiritual life is confronting limitations. In the reading, the one by Parker Palmer, when the Quaker elder named Ruth talked about “way closing behind you,” she was talking about facing up to limitations. Let me point out that limitations can be imposed on us from the outside, as they were with Rosa Parks, but limitations can also be within us. Parker Palmer goes on to add that he once got fired from a job, and he says that it took a major failure like this for him to face up to the realities of his own personal limitations. He writes: “Despite the American myth, I cannot be or do whatever I desire….” (3) I think this is one of the more difficult spiritual lessons we have to learn in our society. The American myth tells us that we have no limitations; we can do or be whatever we want; but that simply isn’t true.

Spirituality is that which puts you in touch with the highest and best in humanity and in nature; spirituality is that through which you live out the highest and best in your life. But the spiritual life is not completely separate from your work life and the rest of your life; all parts of your life are connected. This is what can make it hard. It is not easy to bump up against the limitations in our lives. It is not easy when “way closes behind” us, and suddenly we have to figure out a new way forward.

And this points out one of the limitations of spirituality. Spirituality is what you do on your own; it is your own personal connection with that which is highest and best in life. Religion is related to spirituality, but it is what you do in community. When Parker Palmer was confronted with his own limitations, when he ran smack up against a career crisis, his own personal spirituality was not enough to carry him through. He turned to a religious community. He talked to several different people in his religious community, and finally he talked to Ruth, one of the elders in his religious community, and she gave him the insight that helped carry him through his crisis.

When way closes behind you, and you’re trying to figure out a new way forward — that’s when it can help to have a religious community to turn to for help. You may turn to a formal, organized religious community: Rosa Parks had several black churches she could turn to for support when she needed it. You may turn to a less formal religious community: Gary Snyder, as a practicing Buddhist living out in foothills of the Sierra Nevada, doesn’t have a formal Buddhist community nearby, but he can reach out for communal support when he needs it. When way closes behind you, when you find yourself drifting, when your work life and your spiritual life become disconnected, it helps to have a religious community to which you can turn so that you can reconnect the pieces of your life. When your work seems to take over the rest of your life, when maintenance tasks overwhelm you so that there’s no room for anything else, it helps to have a religious community to remind you that there is a spiritual side to life.

The various parts of our lives can become disconnected; work and spirituality can become disconnected. And we can reconnect the disconnected parts of ourselves with the help of other people. That’s why we’re here this morning: with the help of other people, we are once again reconnecting all the parts of our lives into one whole person.



(1) All information about Rosa Parks’s life (including quotes) are from Rosa Parks: My Story, by Rosa Parks with Jim Haskins. This quote is p. 65.

(2) Gary Snyder, Look Out: A Selection of Writings (New York: New Directions, 2002), p. 139. Interview previously published in Snyder, The Real Work, 1980, and in New York Quarterly, 1973.

(3) Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000), p. 44.