Sermon: “Ourselves, Alone”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on August 4, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the Gospel of Luke. The ad-libs are not included, and I named this sermon before I wrote it, so don’t make too much of the title.

Ourselves, Alone

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, to Sean for reading today, and to you for welcoming me back.

We’re continuing our lessons in the Gospel of Luke. As I looked at our lesson today, I realized that the obvious sermon is about probate law and binding arbitration. (I’m joking of course: let’s save that for the holidays. Thanksgiving, perhaps.)

But this passage about a family squabble and an inheritance raises an important to look at scripture. Instead of looking at a passage like this as a guide for behavior, let’s think of it as a longer story that’s missing some pieces.

First, we consider who’s present. Jesus, of course, and the two feuding brothers. The crowd and presumably Jesus’ own students. Likewise in Jesus’ embedded parable, we hear about the rich man with the productive farm. Then we can ask ourselves who’s missing from the stories, perhaps implied but still important to understanding what’s going on. For example, the source of the family wealth, perhaps a mother or father, or another relative. In any case this person must be dead. You can just imagine the hard feelings born of family crisis. The same feelings played out in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and in families today. In the parable, we hear about the productive farm but presumably the rich man to not till the soil or harvest the crops himself. The missing people are the farm hands and his domestic workers, the ones who did the work to create the wealth. They’re missing. Even the rich man’s family is missing.

And then in this approach — who’s present in the story; who’s missing from the story — makes a demand of us. Who do you most identify with here? The feuding brothers and the rich farmer are what we would call bad examples; models of living which we use as object lessons of what not to do. If we see ourselves in them, we judge ourselves and (I hope) reform your lives for the better.

But we aren’t stuck with seeing ourselves in one role. What about the unnamed laborer? The unnamed benefactor? What do we make of our own possessions or work while we yet live? And do we, like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, rue the work that we do under the sun? Because this reading is not not simply about personal possessions, though possessions have their place. But rather, what values do we ascribe to possessions that they don’t deserve? If you “are what you eat” (as the saying goes), are you also what you wear? what you drive? where you live and what you own? Is our value as a producer or a consumer?

I mean this is not exactly a trick question. You are in church. Of course you value is not as a producer or a consumer. After all Jesus said:

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

It’s really more of a warning. Because how we approach our wealth (or lack of wealth) cuts right to the root of what it means to be a human being filled with dignity and joy. And if you can reflexively know that your value as a person is not based on being a producer or a consumer while you sit in a church, is it as easily to think that about yourself the other hours of the week?

Several years ago, I was working for a government transparency and accountability organization that specialized in technological and policy. Two of my responsibilities were finances and purchasing, so I know first-hand that we used Amazon Web Services for data storage, processing and other solutions. This is the same goliath Amazon that has taken over online shopping and may provide you streaming video. What’s less well-known is that their huge computing capacity is itself a suite of products. One of which is Amazon Mechanical Turk. This was a service where real human beings would take on small discreet tasks that weren’t well suited for computers. Think of it is artificial intelligence done by human beings. The name came from a automaton in the form of a Turkish man, a mechanism that could play chess. The idea is that you would be impressed by the intricacy of the device which was in fact a human being dressed up to be an automaton. My responsibilities also included human resources, and (as you know) my first calling is in the service of God: I found this service incredibly chilling. I was at work looking at the future of work: unseen people doing that which the tools that human beings created to relieve us of unnecessary burden could not do. People being made into robots.

Was this right? Was this what we were promised? Along with flying cars and trips to Mars, one of the great science fiction promises of the coming age was the end of toil. The future where are we, well anyway most of us, would be spared difficult, dangerous, mind-numbing or repetitive work. But since so much work is difficult, dangerous, mind-numbing and repetitive, the promise has to be that we would have less work overall.

If you read articles on productivity, automation, business processes or robotics, you know that it’s a matter of time until many of the jobs we do today will be automated. We might as well plan on what we are going to do with all that free time. (I don’t think writers of those articles have much experience with manual labor, or have too much faith in robotic barbers.) I know serious people who are looking at Universal Basic Income as a policy to mop up all that excess labor, as if people were rational when it comes to providing funds for people without work.

It’s one thing to say that work gives life meaning, or to say that “idol hands are the devil’s playthings.” But it’s altogether another to realize how little we may regard one another if large blocks of the population are first unneeded, then unwanted and finally expendable. The Black Plague killed so many people that the labor of those who survived became more valuable, and so those workers could demand more money and better treatment.

I’m sort of workaholic killjoy, but because without work, experience shows that it’s way too easy to devalue the people who don’t work. If you’ve ever been out of work and didn’t want to be, and then someone asks you the quintessential D.C. question, “what do you do?” you know what I mean. If you are wanted you are valuable, if you are not wanted, you aren’t.

Without economic pull, without political pull, I think we do have something to worry about.

I am one middle-aged man with bad knees and I cannot solve this for myself let alone anyone else. I do worry about our future, particularly those who do not already have accumulated wealth. Instead, we need a new way to measure human worth. A way that doesn’t reduce us to how best we can exploit one another. And if we can’t force that appreciation on society-at-large, then at least we can’t give up on it personally, and the groups of people who matter the most to you.

It’s all that more important that we find additional ways of measuring value. And I think this is at its heart a religious question.

In today’s first lesson, we heard “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (2:22) Ecclesiastes has a philosophical, world-weary tone that distinguishes it from the Technicolor way we normally talk about scripture. Perhaps because in was much later than much of the Old Testament.

The Teacher’s complaint in Ecclesiastes has a particular rhythm, and keeps coming back to that phrase “under the sun.” His “labor under the sun,” “wisdom under the sun” and so forth. In the middle of summer, I’m certainly aware of the sun. Seeking out shade where I can. Walking my dog Daisy with the sun to our backs so it doesn’t blind us morning and evening. There is too much light and too much heat, and we wilt under it.

Ecclesiastes was the book that the protagonist chose to memorize in Fahrenheit 451, that cautionary tale against book-burning, mass-culture and soothing consumption. Elsewhere in Ecclesiastes (12:1-8) the tension breaks as poetry:

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

The tone, in reading, is the tell. Shall it be read with knowing bitterness, or weariness, or surrender? Perhaps the kind of cheer that makes the best of bad situation, and in giving one’s best, does very well. Or, as I personally suspect, that disgusted tone that comes from having no choice. But that’s not be at my best, hopeful self. What does work mean? Depending on the tone, the occasion, the person you will get different answers.

But it should be what not defines us. Our lives are precious. They don’t have to be measured against an outside standard to be valid or important. They’re important because their ours. If we choose to share our lives with other people can we give a gift of ourselves to others. But our attention, our friendships our presents — these things are not rent we pay in order to justify our existence. Our lives are a gift from God. No king or president, no company or party, no “tide of history” or fashion of the day. Nothing has a mortgage against your personhood, your dignity or your soul. And because the giver has the nature of love, we can trust that we are endowed with that love from which springs all good things.

Among these are the spiritual gifts of kindness, humility, perseverance and fortitude. The kind of things that are terribly valuable and have lasting value if your sense of worth and freedom are strongly challenged.

And once we appreciate our freedom, once we have it and no one else can lay claim to it. Then we are able to fully appreciate what it means to live together. Because it is in having a full and healthy esteem for oneself that we are able to appreciate how much others value their own lives, their own paths their own hopes and their own futures. And our own worth is far more valuable than anything that the crowd can provide. Instagram celebrity is a new way to become conspicuous, but the desire to be seen and praised by others is hardly new.

The good news is that we have time to recognize these spiritual gifts. We have them already. Strengthen them; help them grow. The capacity of the gifts of the Spirit dwells within us. It’s a question of cultivating these gifts, talking about them, praising them, including them in the decisions you make. Again and again this returns us to the life of faith, which knows you and seeks you and “makes all things new.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.