Ecclesiasticus 38:27-32; Psalm 107:1-9; Matthew 6:19-24
Let us pray: Gracious God, “your wisdom invests our labor with dignity: may the work of our hearts, minds, and hands help us faithfully to find fulfillment and offer you praise.” Amen.
For those who listen to National Public Radio with some regularity you may have heard one or more of a series of reports about the state of the economy seen through the eyes of the unemployed and employers. Six people from St. Louis who have experienced long-term unemployment, but who have recently gone back to work either on a full-time or part-time basis, have been interviewed. Employers of large corporations and small businesses throughout the country have also had their say. What I hear in all of these interviews are two things, either real hopelessness or hopelessness thinly veneered by the political idea that if the government would just cut spending and taxes all will be well. In fairness, the latter idea is offered as often by the unemployed as it is by employers. Beyond that no one has a clue about how to answer the question, how this might be different. Truly despair is too much a part of too many lives and despair leaves little if any room to be creative. To paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Palm Sunday sermon at the Cathedral in 1968 before he met his death campaigning for striking sanitation workers, we are depressed and hopeless enough that when it comes to employment we are in danger of sleeping through a revolution.
I begin there as we observe Labor Day because the Judeo-Christian tradition has had a complex relationship to the work we do as human beings. For people of many generations what religion has had to say to them about work often was virtually indistinguishable from what they heard in society: work hard, be faithful to your employer, get a good education and maybe you too would have a better job, more income, and a better life than your parents with some implication that God would be well pleased by all this striving.
When Jesus emerged as a teacher and healer in ancient Palestine he did so in a culture that had many attributes that we would recognize. In this Gospel we hear Jesus counseling his followers to examine their motives in public. If perception is reality, we have an enduring temptation in every facet of our lives, to use any encounter with God to bolster our image and to make a good impression, doing good because it does as much, if not more, for us as it may do for another. We are very committed to polishing our reputation as folks who do good work before God. The outcome that Jesus seeks for us is that our sense of purpose as God’s people is not dependent upon a reward, which is ephemeral. What Jesus wants for us is that our desire to be in loving relationship with God trump all that reward/award junk. What this has to say to us, whether employed or unemployed, is simply “how terribly skewed” our ideas of work really are. Not only do we define ourselves substantially by what we do and how much we make, we define everyone else that way too. (After all, what is the first or second question we ask anyone, but what do you do for a living?) What Jesus asserts repeatedly in the Gospel of Matthew is how important it is that we not fall into this trap, showing us for good measure how welcome tax collectors and centurions are to God, among others. Relationships matter and these are built on loving God and serving the needs of others. Our occupations are mostly beside the point.
Both church and synagogue have for centuries addressed issues around supporting those who work chiefly related to improving the conditions of human labor and treating working people appropriately. For all of the good that can do, sadly we tend to join the ranks of the rest of the world by according greater honor to folks who work in jobs or professions that require a lot of education and have “high personal contact,” e.g., teaching, social work, nursing, being lawyers, doctors, managers of businesses, etc., and looking past people who do work that isn’t so very easy or nice, like picking up the garbage, or cleaning houses, or assembling machinery, or paving roads. While a righteous shout out for people who are unemployed, underemployed, or abused routinely where they work is never misplaced, especially when the unemployment rate appears to be stuck at 9%, once this is done annually we grow very silent until another emergency is at hand. I would like to suggest today that there is sufficient despair about the economy and employment and jobs that as the church we can ill afford to sleep through the revolution. As the community of God’s faithful people we must give the world hope that we have neither abandoned it, nor do we seek to perfect it, but we are called to change it.
As people who value their relationship to God and seek to live up to it faithfully we need to be explicit about our theology of work, embody it, implement it, teach it to others, and hold ourselves accountable for its practice. What do we believe and what are we to practice? We believe that God as creator is the original worker bee. Why else would God need rest at the close of the creation story? Human beings were made in the image of this creative and working God. The punishment Adam and Eve received wasn’t that they moved from a life of leisure to a life of work, but that our human survival depended on work and that continually gets in the way of being able to engage in work that is a calling or a vocation from God. This, too, is redeemed by God. As God’s people the first hope we have to offer the world is this holy ideal of work that is part of your character and your life undertaken because it has value, meaning, and profit for others as well as oneself.
This is a revolutionary idea because we are a nation that has succumbed to the utilitarian view that work is just another self-interested segment of our lives that need not have any more material or psychic reward than what you or I receive. Deep down that’s why a lot of this talk about budget balancing and low taxes is so morally problematic because it presumes that the only good about the workplace and having a job is about the winners in a marketplace. In fact we are asked to be faithful to the Creator God who invites us to be co-creators in all that we do. Nothing could be further from being ruled solely by market factors. The two masters of God and the marketplace are the ones that Jesus rightly notes we probably can’t serve faithfully in the context of what we honor this day.
To help us be a community of hope in a miasma of despair what I would like to propose is a covenant for those of us who are God’s people and who seek to work in the world as people with a vocation, regardless of our occupations. Let me suggest that this covenant in progress contain at minimum the following:
That all of our work is for the glory of God and the good of all; (Would anyone like to spray paint that on the charging bulls of Wall Street?)
That all work should be valuable and interesting enough that people become inspired to pursue excellence and satisfaction;
That every workplace allows time and a place to slow down, think, and reflect;
That corporations are not entitled to value profit at the expense of those who profit them;
That working people appreciate each task, however ordinary, because every task deserves pride in accomplishment;
That cultivating trust in those who work for you and with you is a primary virtue;
That all of us are called to work and to be given the means to be effective stewards of that calling.
This Cathedral, I need not tell you, is one of those rare communities, earthquake notwithstanding, that because of our calling, our work to bring people together respectfully in a sacred place of diverse views, has even a remote chance of offering this nation and the world a hope worthy of the distinctive economic challenges of our day. All of the rules have changed, the revolution is at hand. And we are a human community that by the power of the Spirit can listen and offer imaginative possibilities for the future that cannot emerge out of any political policy debates. This is because we know that to make effective and hopeful change, change that is faithful to God, we must be part of a community of disciplined practice of holy encounter and prayerfully sound judgment in which all are called to be co-workers with God in the work of creation and redemption, committed to work every day to disclose God and the divine image in all of us. There are no quick fixes for joblessness, but there is an opportunity to do more than mouth platitudes and curl up in a fetal position and hope we awaken next year with this all having gone away. My hope, our hope this day is that we accept the call to empower a world to see that stock-holders are not the only shareholders in God’s economy and in doing so open up a world of possibilities for those for whom having a job, today of all days, seems quite impossible. Amen.