Sermon: “Work”

Table of Content

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on November 17, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians and the Gospel of Luke.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back. And I'd like to start, not with the sermon directly, but with an illustration I really wanted to work into the sermon, but doesn't really fit.

Back in 1982 Ridley Scott's neo-Film Noir movie Blade Runner introduced viewers to a dystopian future Los Angeles, where nearly perfect copies of human beings — essentially slave labor on other planets ― would only live (or last) three years, by design. They were forbidden from coming to earth, but some do, with hopes of extending their lives. The blade runners, one is the lead played by Harrison Ford, are the agents sent to find and destroy them. The title suggest our identification with the blade runners, with humanity and order, but is that how it works out? Watch and see.

That disturbing future took place in the far future of November 2019. That future is now, and so I wanted to work it into the sermon, in part to reflect on today, and also because science fiction provides such an easy and accessible window into theological discourse.

If you want to talk about human nature, what better contrast is there than to introduce a non-human character with human characteristics, whether living or an automaton. If you want a metaphor for a spiritual journey, you can depict it as a journey through space, into the literal heavens, where you will find nothing familiar except yourself. If you want an idea of what God is, or properly what God is not, have the characters meet a force which is greater than humanity — perhaps unseen — and whose good or evil works force crises and decisions.

Blade Runner adds another twist. There are several, slightly variant versions of the film, edited to suggest the different answers to the mystery underlying the story. (In fact, my brother worked on one of them.) So it's not clear which version is canonical, or authoritative. All of them, perhaps? We approach biblical interpretation the same way, so this is another way to look at the film theologically.

But I've not seen Blade Runner in two or three years, certainly not contrasting the variations, and haven't seen the recent sequel. Apart from the coincidence of dates, I couldn’t work it into the sermon. And (ironically, you’ll see) it was a heavy week at work, so I didn’t have time to run down all the leads: I’ll leave Blade Runner aside. I hope to come back to it, and other films, some day.


Instead, I started by going back to that article that Pastor Gatton referred to last week — the one from the New York Times ("5-Hour Workdays? 4-Day Workweeks? Yes, Please") by Cal Newport — since he preached from the prior passage from Luke. (I have his book on hold at the library; there’s quite the wait.) The editorial’s main illustration was an experiment by a small German tech firm to have a distraction-free five hour work day instead of a longer day peppered with Twitter, email and urgent texts.

Imagining a world where we work less is also something frequently posited by futurists and in science fiction. It prompted me to lift out the ideas about work in the lesson from Second Thessalonians.

It’s funny that work itself isn’t more of a theological topic. For most of us, it takes up most of our waking hours, working either outside the house, in it, or both. Work for pay gives us access to the necessities and pleasures of life, even as it keeps us from them. A good work life will make you happy, a bad work life will make you unhappy and not having work or not being sure of what work would be good can be the worst of all. Work, like sleep, growth, family and food, is one of those foundational realities of human existence.

And yet, any number of commentators would have us believe that the future of work is optional or minimal, and with a science fiction-like zeal that the robots will take care of us, and so we need to look past work for both fulfillment and the distribution of goods. I’m not convinced, but not because I think people should be forced to work, but that it’s not so easily brushed away.

To be sure, work doesn’t mean the same thing as it did in St. Paul’s time.

Technological advances in the last nineteen centuries have moved us past the power of human and animal power and faster than sailboats. Electric light makes us a little like God for the day and the night are alike to us — but that means we can or must work longer than ever before, not to mention faster communication than even the last generation knew. The ideas of retirement and vacation are revolutionary. And we are less stuck — I can't say not stuck — in the work paths our parents and grandparents set before us. Indeed, we may not work (and live) in the same place they were born or where we were born. And tomorrow we might be working halfway around the world, or speaking with someone who is. For most of us, and by us I mean the whole human family, work doesn't mean farming or finding the next meal. It’s different, less physically demanding, but easier or better? I’ll leave that for you to decide. But work is different now than in the first century.

The first and second letters from St. Paul to the Thessalonians — that is, what's now the the city of Salonica, in northern Greece — are essentially practical advice to that young church, and he was helping them in their own time. The churches were very young at this point, as old (more or less) as social media is to us, and the "rules" were still being developed. We take from the context that some of the people in the church in Salonica didn't think they should work, or that they needed to work. Were some of the people taking the message of a liberating gospel so literally that they didn't feel that they needed to work. Or perhaps took the injection to "give away all you have" so literally that they became dependent on the good-will of others. Or perhaps they believed that God would provide in all things, and too that to mean the supernatural supply of natural needs. Well, eventually. It's not clear, but there's indirect evidence of conflict.

So his warning, “if they don’t work, they don’t eat” should be read not as a kind of punishment but set a standard of how they members of the community should regard one another. Egalitarianism is implied for one thing. And that bit about “not being busybodies” might be translated idiomatically as an injunction to work, but not work each others’ nerves.

But this is a short passage, and to read it without inquiring and generous minds would miss the point. What about those who really cannot work? The sick or injuried or debilitated? The very old, and the very young? Are they left hungry? Of course not. This goes against good sense, and cuts against the kind of care that drew people to the gospel in the first place. So the lesson for us is that work is important, it resources our needs, it can build mutual understanding, but it’s not the ultimate good. Work has its place.

Five days a week I work as the operations director of a small international health nonprofit, working up budget, payroll, contracts and the like. It’s typical office work, with the typical mix of rewards and challenges.

It's no secret that I used to be the minister of this church, but after that pastorate ended I didn't want to leave town. The quality of life is good here, particularly for gay couples, and there were few if any churches that might appeal elsewhere. Those that did would pay very poorly in isolated communities, and would offer my husband few good opportunities. So I traded ministry for administration. I bring my theological training into my work: active listening, a kind word, and a willingness to get the bottom of a story have all been a part of my nonprofit life.

But I do miss church work, sometimes, and I do feel that God is keeping me in the ministry. One of the reasons I like preaching here, in fact is that it helps me work out my ministerial vocation when that will never again be my main source of income. St. Paul was himself famously and literally a tent maker, from which we get the term "tent-making ministries" when you refer to a minister who has a day job to cover most of the expenses.

Work has a value apart from earnings. It's not an original thought to say that you get a lot of our sense of self from my work. We build collegial relationships with sometimes turn into friendships. Our work structures our daily lives. The problem is when our work let's become our daily lives. When we have no other sources of validation or encouragement apart from work. Which also means that work has a power over us in more than providing earnings. And then subsumes that you somehow enjoy your job, or have one. I recall being unemployed and hating it. It was like I was always waiting for my life to restart.

I know that one from personal experience. I've had four multi-month long spells of unemployment and I remember how corrosive the experience was. I was lonely. I started missing the presence of co-workers who annoyed me. I worried about money. I doubted my worth. In one case, I'm pretty sure I took a job just to make the grind of not-having go away. That's also why I don't believe the stories of the "end of work" and that robots will do everything, and that we will have to prepare for a time past work. You need something to make life seem meaningful, and we have millennia finding that kind of value in our work.

But what if your job stinks, and you don’t have very good options? Sometimes you need to take or keep a job because there’s no time or energy to change. Or the one you have took a long time to get, and you don’t want to go through that again. Or it provides medical insurance you or a family member needs. Or if you can get through three more years you can retire without imperiling your retirement years. Or a hundred other variations.

Then take my advice: find your vocation, even if it’s not your day job. This is opposite of that cloying work advice, “Do what you love” which sounds like the kind of advice given by people with lots of options and cash to fall back on. Instead, find out what God is leading you towards, and be prepared to follow that off the clock.

That brings us to our lesson from Luke. The passage in Luke is different than the Thessalonian letter, both in that it's not meant to be practical, and not meant to be clear. In it, Jesus is speaking of a final time, but doesn't say when it will be, or clearly how to anticipate it. A time when nothing will be the same. It’s heavy and apocalyptic, and can unsettle you deeply if you’re not aware.

Time, of course, means nothing to God, but it does to us. So this future time, when even the Temple, falls in meant for us. The most we know, and this is so banal that I resist even mentioning it — the most we can know is that it's terribly important. And that we should be ready.

But a cautious, moderate kind of readiness, I think. We cannot become extreme by denying what we can have now. We cannot become extreme by predicting exactitudes we cannot know. I feel a bit of sympathy towards those people who prepare not only for disasters but prepare for a full collapse of society.

They act as though it is inevitable that everything will collapse around us. Food supplies, safe water, public safety, the rule of law and the electrical grid. All things which human beings have built and must maintain. It makes me deeply sad that it makes more sense to some to run to the boondocks and try to reproduce society rather than to make it part of your life's work to preserve all these things from collapse in the first place.

When we find our calling, and pursue it where or not it’s our job, we orient ourselves to that Day that Jesus speaks of. We live for the future. The past is done. Nobody can add anything to it, or take anything from it. We can, and should, be grateful for those who worked and struggled, usually unnamed and unrecognized, for us to be where we are.

In the meantime, what can we do until we find our calling. Reflect your faith in daily life.

To jump from Sunday prayer to Monday work then means taking on new habits that we may not directly benefit from. For instance, we might try and create virtuous circles in the workplace. No winking at little cheats or pilferage. We show our workplace — our coworkers and vendors, if not our bosses and clients — our honest, kind and careful intentions.

Be thankful and show thankfulness for the special contributions others bring to their work, including taking on work that's unpleasant to do or has low status.

And outside of the workplace, we find alternatives to the Washington question. You know the one at social occasions? where we categorize each other by what we do.

In short, work to live, and find a better way of living. But do not live to work.

Find places were we have friends and not just coworkers or contacts, and interests that makes life interesting and rewarding that is not dependent on having any particular job. I will include church in that number.

Don't treat your religion as a niche interest just because others project theirs badly. Your religion can be deep without being intrusive. The good ones are out there; you just may not know their religious motivations. May your behavior at work, at home and wherever you are the first way you express your faith.

Let your life’s work be a blessing for you and for others.

 

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