It is worth reflecting once and a while on my rather odd job of preaching. And no better time to do that than after a long time out of the pulpit. It’s been five weeks since we’ve been here worshipping together! Every July I can’t wait for the break and I think to myself that the August recess is a brilliant idea. Midway through August the luster is off of it, and by this first Sunday in September, especially if August is a long 5 week-er, as it was this year, I positively itch to be back in the pulpit again, engaging the scriptures and trying to engage you in that engagement.
Time for confession: This year, I did not make it anywhere to worship on Sunday morning. Between being here working on other things on Sunday morning and vacation, when I could have but didn’t go to worship, I missed it. Perhaps my itch is related to my need to be in worship. But that itch is also related to the work of thinking about the scriptures, of writing a bulletin and of preparing a sermon. All of these things make me happy, even if Saturday nights out with me are not so fun because my mind is elsewhere and my anxiety level is higher than normal. The mental energy it takes kicks up a notch as the hour approaches.
The definition of energy is simply the capacity to do work. Work takes energy. The basic laws of physics seem to apply to our psychology as well, systems tend toward dissipation of energy — toward entropy. Working is hard work. And yet, we’ve all experienced, to some degree or another, the joys of work, the gift of holding the entropic tendency of the universe and our minds at bay while we creatively accomplish something.
This is a central theme of Christianity: the work we do, the actions we take, are inextricable from the one who induced those actions. Or we could say, as it is classically said, God’s grace is utterly and unconditionally given, despite what we do — but our good works, when we do them, we do them because the gift of grace, in that act of giving is experienced also as a call to respond in works.
Because these two are inextricable, God’s grace and our work, we could say that to talk about God is to necessarily talk about actions induced by God. This is not to deny that we have agency and responsibility — we do — but to suggest that a change in the definition of one’s god is to change the way one wants to act.
Here’s a labor day example:
We’ve all heard about the famous Protestant Work Ethic. The Protestant Work Ethic was a term coined by the socioligist Max Weber to give some explanation to the industrial revolution, to put it very broadly. He drew on the thinking of two of the original Protestant reformers: Martin Luther and John Calvin. Martin Luther thought that work was a fulfillment of God’s will for humans, and so, an obligation. Luther’s idea of God was informed by his sense that freedom was essential to humans and God — work for him was a voling of God, depending on one’s gifts. Calvin’s view of God was much stricter. Calvin could not see how an all powerful, all-good, God could have created the mess he observed around him. As a result, his God created this mess, and assigned to some responsibility for it, and therefore a place in hell. But humans, in his scheme, do not know who is predestined for hell, and who for heaven. That lack of knowledge functions as an incentive to us poor fools to work harder.
While that may be a kind of solution, the solution forgets that in fact, one’s actions are informed by one’s conception of God, and a God who rules through fear, finds subjects who act fearfully, who cannot intelligently begin to solve the social ills of their day. You might be thinking that thankfully, this kind of Calvinism is gone the way of the typewriter, but in fact it has not, it has instead simply taken on new names — and the Protestant work ethic is similarly informed. Hence, the unlimited seeking of wealth that was seen by Calvin as a proper response to God, is today it’s own gospel.
If we were instead to base our work ethic on what seems more widely attested in the gospels, that God is love, and that that love takes the form of real relationships then the Sermon on the Mount begins to explain why and how people might want to live like the lilies of the field. It’s a different vision of life than the one envisioned by Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic.
We have all, I daresay, experienced work as drudgery, as demeaning and self-defeating. I recall working in a factory after graduating from college where my job was to fold boxes and prepare them for the line. I did not work at that job long, but long enough to recognize the self-defeating unhappiness that seemed to pervade. All jokes seemed to be lewd and destructive, conversation at break time was similar and held only between drags on their cigarettes. Especially for people whose livelihood’s depended on these jobs, I’m sure that some found joy in small things that an impatient young man just out of college could not see. The two men, for example, I observed, who had learned sign language so that they could talk to each other over the din of the factory floor.
We live because such work is built into its structure. Again, the Calvinist solution is to bear it up — it’s God’s way. But this cannot result in the kind of ethics we see Jesus about. Instead:
- One-quarter of all the jobs in the U.S. pay poverty-level wages, so low that a full-time worker cannot keep a family of four out of poverty.
- Some jobs are unnecessarily dangerous. In the U.S. someone dies from an occupational illness or injury every eight minutes. Often, they (and their survivors) have not received fair compensation for their losses and they may also bear large health care expenses.
- Nearly 80% of low-wage workers do not have paid sick days so they can stay home, with pay, when they are ill and not fall further int financial trouble.
- Low-wage jobs are often dead-end jobs with no opportunities for advancement. At a poultry processing plant in Ohio, a 55-year-old man still gets just $8.10 an hour with minimal benefits after 20 years in the plant.
- In Florida over the past 10 years, seven cases of modern-day slavery have been exposed involving over 1000 workers and 12 employers. Workers are confined and if they try to leave or refuse to work they are beaten.
- All of us have purchased and worn clothing made with sweatshop labor. We have eaten fruits and vegetables harvested by farm workers who live in deep poverty thousands of miles away.
We could go on. I titled my sermon, Stop the flagellation and be happy because of a note sent my way after the newsletter was published last Thursday in which I suggested that we need to put an end to the tag sale. “I salute the resolution to stop the flagellation and to find other ways to serve our loving God.”
I do not doubt that our Protestant work ethic theology also includes God wanting us to be happy — just that we get there in different ways — The Calvinists suggest that happiness comes a kind of slavery to a divine Master. But Calvin had no idea that workers would be beaten for not working extra hours — or if he did he managed to convince himself that they were not really people worthy of the same kind of consideration as his privileged white male position was.
An ethics of work whereby we stop the flagellation and find other creative ways to be happy, and to serve this God of grace, like the ethic we find in the SM, could easily be criticized for romancing the small, rural way of life. Jesus avoids this danger, though, by taking Calvins’ messed up world seriously. “The beatitudes [which we’ll start reading next week, and work with over the course of the fall] detail the daily troubles: poverty, sorrow, brutality, injustice, lack of mercy, impurity of heart, war, and persecution of the righteous . . . [in the end though] what makes the world so dangerous is human folly and sinfulness. In the face of all of this, it is due to God that the world endures despite its disasters, and that the possibility exists of finding a way through it all. No question, every day has its own trouble, but thanks to God there is not only a way to survive, but a grace to change. Amen.