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The Sin of Wages – 10/20/2013

There is an old story, about a traveler who was passing through the countryside and came upon a man with a hammer and chisel, cutting a hunk of granite into a clean, precise block. The traveler approached the man and, out of curiosity, asked what he was doing. “I am a stonecutter,” he said gruffly. “I am doing my job.”
Continuing on, the traveler met a second man engaged in much the same work as the first: smoothing out a large, rough piece of stone into something suitable for building with. He asked the same question, and got this response and a small smile, “I am working as a stonecutter, to support my family.”
Last, the traveler came to a third man, chiseling away at a piece of stone just like the rest. “What are you doing?” he asked.
The worker turned to the traveler, his face glowing with wonder, and replied, “I am helping to build a cathedral, and I am cutting stone in order to do it.”
This story has been passed around enough and told in so many different ways that I couldn’t find an original source for it. But usually, when it is told, the moral goes something like this: the third worker, who defines himself by doing something grand and glorious, is the happiest, the most satisfied. That’s the person in the story we’re supposed to want to be like – and, when the story is told by organizational consultants, as it sometimes is, that’s the sort of person we’re supposed to want our employees to be. But like any work of art, if you stare long enough at it, questions begin to emerge:
Why is the third worker any better than the first? Does the one produce blocks any better or more quickly than the other? What’s so bad, after all, about giving a short, simple answer when a stranger asks you a foolish question in the middle of your work day? Is customer service really a critical qualification for being a stonecutter? Isn’t it possible to care about the project and your family at the same time? Shouldn’t any sane working person be worried about earning a living, whether or not they are building a cathedral? And over all this, that grand impertinent question: why should we care?
This sermon is the first in a monthly series addressing that very question, “Why Should We Care?”. Specifically, why should we care about matters of justice, or what happens to anyone we do not already know and like personally? We Unitarian Universalists are famous for a lack of consensus: there is no issue or subject on which we all think or feel exactly alike. But, there are many matters on which we have, as a movement, taken a public position. There are causes for which our theological ancestors argued and agitated. There are also current debates in which our association has chosen a side through representatives from our member congregations. For the next several months, we’ll be looking at some of these issues together – as an exercise not of political argument but of theological exploration. We’ll consider together what the arguments for – and in some cases against – the common positions of our faith are. As a reminder, just as with everything I have ever said from this pulpit, you are not required to believe or to agree with a single word I say. But it is our responsibility to each other to consider one another’s reasonings and beliefs, to engage deeply and critically with the living tradition we share, and to live our lives in accordance with the truth as we each understand it.
Our particular topic today is work – its value and meaning, and what rights and protections those who work ought to be afforded. The General Assembly of our association of congregations has passed several statements of conscience and public position in this area. At this national level, we have called for a living wage for all workers, and gone even a step beyond that, declaring, “every person has an inherent and moral right to work at a meaningful wage.” The wording of these resolutions can get rather dry, but in one of its more poetic turns our General Assembly proclaimed a universal human right to, “a job, a home, and a hope” : decent, safe work that provides a means to live, a safe place to do that living in, and the hope that the conditions of one’s life can be improved. At least three of the seven principles that we have agreed to as a movement are pointed to as justification for these positions: the belief that all people matter, the understanding that justice, equity, and compassion all fit together into the ideal shape of human relationship, and the appreciation that we are all connected, so that what harms any human being harms us all.
But I want to dig a little deeper than this, so let us begin at the beginning, with the first stories in the first book of the scriptures of the Jewish and Christian traditions that so deeply inform and influence our own. Most of us will remember that the book of Genesis opens with the creation of the world – you may also recall that in the first three chapters we get two different origin stories for the earth, its inhabitants, and the human condition. Modern biblical scholarship tells us that these two stories were written centuries apart by different people with very different theologies, speaking to very different audiences. But as throughout the rest of the bible, a mixed chorus of voices creates new beauty out of dissonance and harmony.
In the opening of Genesis, the earth is created in seven days. “…God separated the light from the darkness…And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” God separated the sea from the sky – a second day. Dry land and all plants appear on the third, the sun and moon on the fourth, fish and birds on the fifth, and all the animals that live on land – including us humans – on the sixth day. And then, “On the seventh day, God finished the work that God had been doing, and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work God had done.” This text and many others throughout the rest of the bible are often pointed to in justifying an understanding of God as king, as supreme authority over the universe, the great architect and director of all things. But the character of God in this story does not lay out directions for someone else to follow, and does not simply give orders that employees or subordinates execute. This image of God changes things directly, through effort – through work. This a story about labor – labor on a grand, supernatural scale, but labor nonetheless. In the metaphor of business, this God is not a manager. Genesis opens with a metaphor of a divine worker, and it builds to the lesson, on the seventh day, that the work isn’t finished, the job isn’t done, until the people who did the work have their rest.
Every theology has its potentials and its limitations, and one of the limitations of a theology that imagines God as a king, a boss, or an overseer of events, is that it lends itself to a hierarchical reading of the universe. Reality is defined by a ladder of power: some are at the bottom, others in the middle, a few at the top. There might be free arguments about who belongs on what rung, but at the end of the day the fact that there is a vertical structure of power, of dominion and control is taken as a good thing. As Unitarians and Universalists and even before the invention of those names, our theological ancestors challenged that notion. It is why we hold the ideal of democracy sacred – sacred in the religious as well as the secular sense. Leaders can find legitimacy through election, or gain authority by taking responsibility that others fear or neglect, but power, in the understanding of our tradition, must be shared in order to be just. Today, as a religion we hold many different views of God including the absence of God, but among the most common choices is what is sometimes called religious naturalism. This means understanding divinity as something that exists in the unfolding of natural processes. God – if you like that name – is to be found in the living and dying of all things, in the vast creative and fierce destructive power of the world that surrounds and includes us. If holy is to be found in the ongoing work of the ever-spinning universe, I would submit that that ennobles even the most basic and humble of professions. Just pushing a broom or collecting garbage from the street, we are moving around the very stuff of stars, sorting fragments of the body of God.
Now the second creation story in Genesis is that of the Garden of Eden. You know the bullet points: Eve and Adam, a mischievous snake, and a powerful piece of fruit – never actually called an apple in the text. At the end of it, the first humans are banished from the garden and three curses are pronounced. The first is for the snake: fated, henceforth, to crawl on its belly. (A question for another day: how did it get around before that?) Human beings receive the next two judgments: one is childbirth, and the pain that accompanies it. The other is toil: food will no longer come free from the earth – the land will have to be worked for it. So the close of this story is quite literally about labor: it is a mythic explanation for the way things are. Existence does not simply give us everything we want through no effort of our own or anyone else’s – it requires work.
The departure from the garden is traditionally read as a great loss, a terrible tragedy. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all view it somewhat differently, but all three traditions contain voices of great longing for it, wanting to return to its ‘perfect’ state. Now the ethic of Unitarian Universalism, which accepts truth and rejects falsehood no matter what sort of containers each are found in, I believe requires us not to dismiss this or any other story in scripture. But, it also demands that we be willing to read against the grain as well as with it. The state of being that the ending of Genesis 3 suggests to have existed in the garden – where there were no children or possibility of children, and no need to work or struggle for any reason – is so alien to what it means to be human, that I cannot call it good. What would even be the reason to relate to one another if we had no needs to provide for, and no younger generations to make us think about the future? Eden serves

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as a model for ideal world in many respects, free of war or famine or pain, but it is only after Eden in the biblical narrative that human beings become human, just as the snake is not really a snake, until it is sentenced to crawl. The story explains that we are all in this together: all possessed of the same basic needs: food and shelter. (And I would elaborate: meaning and belonging.) Each of these human needs requires human effort to meet them. So we can struggle separately in a false autonomy, pretending that we are self-made and better off alone. Or we can work together, and realize the strange promise of our own humanity. As the great Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies put it, “life is just a chance to grow a soul.” And to grow the things we need requires us to work, or so the bible says.
Now someone this morning is thinking, even if it is only just me: Alright preacher – come on down out of your ivory tower. Turn aside the golden pages of your bible and see if you can connect any of this to the world of things as they are. What does all your theology have to do with labor policy in the year 2013? Well friends, if all work that serves any need plays a part in the ongoing revelation of the sacred in the universe, then the idea that there are some jobs that ought to pay out in fortunes and some that ought to yield starvation wages cannot stand. In fact, the service economy, the janitors, the garbage collectors, the people who work behind the counter at McDonalds, the folks who help us into and out of our beds and empty our bedpans when our own bodies are not up to the task – their work, your work, if you are one of them – seems to me particularly valuable.
Our tradition teaches us that every human life is precious and valuable on an infinite scale. Trying to make that work out justly in the language of hourly pay rates is difficult, if not impossible. But if you work full time – or as much time as you or many of your neighbors can find – you ought at least to be able to keep food

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on your table, and a roof over your head, and some hope of a more abundant life before you. Any system of wages that does not allow for this is broken and fails to meet any basic standard of justice and fairness. This sin of wages occurs wherever our system of compensation – our system for recognizing and valuing work – leaves some with too much and too many with not enough.
We cannot all build cathedrals, and we cannot all be excited and awed by the work that we do every second of every day – at least not yet, not in the imperfect world that we inhabit. It is alright, even appropriate at times to feel undervalued in what you do, or simply long for some other sort of work you think would be more satisfying, or more rewarding, or more fun. Sometimes that can lead to the hard work of an important change; and sometimes not. Now that the Red Sox have taken the pennant some of us might be thinking how we could be headed to the World Series ourselves, if only we had grown our facial hair out a bit more, and had different levels of physical talent and ability than we do, and made completely different decisions with our lives up to this point. But if we lend our minds and bodies to something, anything, that offers some beauty or sustenance to the world, we should, in a society of decent aims, be assured that the world will sustain us in turn. This is the counsel of our tradition as I understand it. Whether you accept or reject it, and what you do with whatever you do or do not accept: that is the work that lies before each of us, this morning.


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