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SERMON AT ST. PAUL’S POMONA LABOR DAY 2008 – WHY CAN’T LABOR & MANAGEMENT COOPERATE?
Lesson: Sirach 38:24-37;39:1-11 Psalm: 8 Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
+ In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. AMEN.
I love work. I work as an attorney about ten to twelve hours a day Monday through Friday, another eight hours on Saturday, and usually three to four hours on Sunday. That’s about 70 hours a week. That may sound like a lot to you, but that’s down from the 80 hours a week I was working from about 1995 to 2004 and the over 100 hours a week I worked when I started my first real business, an investigation company, in 1985. So much work may sound like there’s something wrong with me in our increasingly leisure oriented society. It is certainly very un-Californian…I’m originally an Easterner, where I heard growing up, that while we in New England lived to work, Californians worked to live. Call me a workaholic if you will, but I really do enjoy working.
Labor Day wasn’t a liturgical feast until the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894 to celebrate the successes of the unionized labor movement. It’s traditionally been associated with honoring the labor of the hourly workers, like construction laborers, factory workers, secretaries, food servers, maids, janitors, and similar persons, Those of us who grew up with a politically liberal mother, as I did, still see Labor Day in those terms to a great extent. And despite a long-term decrease in membership, the unionized labor movement still has its place in dealing with particular issues. But the way liberals usually look at the relationship between workers and owners is really too narrow a perspective to look at work from a theological viewpoint.
Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible highlights the importance of manual work and the industrial trades. But it also takes note of the fact that those of us who are leaders and intellectuals are also necessary to make organization succeed, be it a business enterprise, government agency, or Church. My rather broad interpretation of the Hebrew Bible lesson’s description of “studying the law of the Most High”, means not just scribes (the ancient equivalent of lawyers) but includes all of us who do intellectual work. We are engaged in a constant discernment of the principles by which God’s creation operates, be it physics, software, chemistry, architecture, geology, mathematics, biology, electricity, music, fine arts, and just plain human nature in activities like sales, social work, parenting, pasturing, and entertainment, and applying those principles to better our earthly existence. Those endeavors do in fact require ample time for study and contemplation to produce results.
It is true, that without factory workers, you would not be sitting in those chairs. It is true that without janitors, we would not have clean bathrooms in public buildings. It is true, that without food servers and bussers, you would not be able to enjoy a leisurely lunch after this Mass.
But that’s only part of the story. Not only does the world need brawn, it needs brains as well. So it is also true that someone had to design the chairs before they could be built in the factory. The janitor who cleans the bathrooms depends on a chemical engineer to design the detergents he uses to clean. The food server has a job because someone had the intellectual wherewithal to experiment with food and originate a recipe for the food being served. The busser’s cart for dirty dishes originated in the mind of a mechanical engineer. And, every business needs sales and advertising people to tell the public about what the factory produces or what’s on the menu at the restaurant. The best products don’t leave the factory and the tastiest food stays in the kitchen is someone isn’t out there selling.
To better illustrate, look at this Church building. Yes, it took carpenters, masons, plumbers, painters, electricians, plumbers, and the other building trades to put it up. Without them, we would have no Church building. But they would have been unable to do so without the architects and engineers who drew the plans and specifications. The point is, hands-on labor and the products of the mind are inextricably intertwined. Both were essential to build this building. Both are essential to any organization.
Traditionally, the leadership of business organizations and those who produce and sell the product or service have seen themselves in adversarial positions. They fight each other for the revenue of a company and control of how it operates. They also see themselves hierarchically, with business owners at the top claiming a right to make the rules because they own the capital on which the company runs and the assets of production, while workers at the bottom thinking they can decide the rules of the game because they own their labor and have the right to work or not work. The entire atmosphere is one of mistrust and does not benefit either management or labor, and no business can exist without its sales force.
This entire idea of an ongoing conflict between management and labor in the post-modern world is simply stupid. Strikes and lockouts don’t benefit anyone. In both situations, the company loses money and so do the workers and so do the vendors and so do the customers. Oppressive company rules that treat workers like wayward children and poverty-level wages are the result of that backward, us-versus-them thinking. So is union thinking that sees management as an enemy and walks off the job if they don’t get their way.
We need a new paradigm for management-labor relations. A paradigm is an orientation, a way of looking a things, a structure, a lens through which we see the world, the underlying assumptions by which we organize persons and things.
In today’s Gospel, all workers get paid the same wage for the day, no matter how long they worked. Today’s workplace needs a paradigm that says all work is, indeed, equally important, whether one works with one’s brain or one’s hands. In this paradigm, everyone who works for any organization, all think of themselves as a COMMUNITY where everyone is valued, where everyone’s dignity is respected. This paradigm is based on the Baptismal Covenant, to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to respect everyone’s dignity. This paradigm sees all positive work as holy, that all work should be a sign of God’s grace, or it’s not worth doing. Geometrically, it is circles of people around common goals rather than hierarchies run from the top down.
Some people have asked me how I, as a lifelong Anglo-Catholic, could work so many hours that I would seem to embody the so-called “protestant work ethic.” That’s a concept invented by German sociologist Max Weber in the beginning of the last century from the notion that Calvinism emphasizes the necessity for hard work as a component of a person’s calling and worldly success as a sign of personal salvation. Today’s Gospel, however, says the opposite. In the traditional interpretation of this parable, God is the landowner, the vineyard is the world, and we are the workers. This parable is God’s statement to us that no matter how productive we are in earthly terms, ultimately we have the same reward in God’s kingdom because, rich or poor, God loves us all. Applied to everyday life at a law firm, I experienced a practical application of this parable, where the workers who worked longer complained that they should get more money than those who worked only an hour. I can identify with the boss here; as an employer. Quite recently, a very dedicated, long term employee was upset because this spring we handed out profitability bonuses based solely on job description. This upset one of our workers, and I took her criticism seriously. The result was I improved morale tremendously by giving everyone the same amount the next time bonuses were paid.
Another problem with Weber’s concept is that it says that living as a Christian is an “all about me” thing, as if your personal salvation is all that matters. But Christianity, from the get-go, has been all about community. Christianity is not about personal salvation, it is about salvation for a community. One cannot live as a Christian alone. If you are by yourself, there is no one to baptize you, no one to receive your commitment to Jesus; no one to celebrate Mass with you, no one to forgive your sins, no one to heal you, no one to marry, and no one for you to lead or be led. The fact is, Jesus himself was born into a community. His ministry took place in a community among his apostles and disciples.
Throughout the canonical New Testament, we see stories about communities as we see Paul writing to Christian communities at Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Thessalonica, and elsewhere. The Apostles were not raging capitalists who put self-interest first like Joel Osteen and the other contemporary proponents of the prosperity Gospel. After Jesus left us, the Apostles carried on as a community, and in fact, in Acts Chapter 2 verse 44, the Apostles preached the common ownership of earthly goods, selling all they had and distributed the proceeds based on need.
We Catholics, Anglican or otherwise, live in a sacramental community. Not only do we all gather around the table for Mass, but we receive persons into our community through baptism; those receiving confirmation make commitments to our community; in unction, the community heals us; in reconciliation, the community forgives us; ordination gives our community leadership; and in marriage, we start new communities.
The sacramental ethos, however, does not end with the ecclesiastical community. It is part of the community beyond the Church doors. A paradigm where all work is considered important in that community that constitutes a business organization happens when we think of all work in sacramental terms.
The concept of work as sacrament comes from a book by Father Matthew Fox, titled The Reinvention of Work – A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time. Father Matthew is a former Roman priest from the Dominican Order. After many years of Rome telling him what he could or could not write or preach, he felt God calling him to free himself from the yoke of oppressive Roman censorship by upgrading his Holy Orders to the Episcopal Church in 1994, where freedom of thought and expression are the precious hallmarks of our branch of God’s Holy Catholic Church.
Father Matthew’s book tells us work can be classified into the seven slots representing the seven classical sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Healing, Marriage, and Ordination. If you’re the receptionist at your office, or you conduct orientation for new employees, you do baptismal work. If you’re a teacher, you do confirmation-type work as you prepare young people to assume the responsibilities of adult citizens. If you’re in healthcare, you do healing work. If you’re a psychotherapist or a lawyer, you do penitential work as people tell you their problems and you try to do some things to change things in their lives so that they can live more fully a more successful part of the community. If you’re in sales, you’re doing marriage work, because your task is to initiate and nurture the relationship between your company and your customer. Those of you who are leaders and managers are doing ordination type work. If you produce a product, you do Eucharistic work, since Eucharist is about changing the raw material of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus, just like the furniture factory changed wood into these chairs.
I invite each of you to think about the work that you do, and how it fits into the each of the sacraments. Maybe your work covers more than one; mine certainly does, in that I am the managing shareholder of my law firm and supervise people in addition to practicing law.
The point is, however, that your work can be, and should be, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, not just to benefit you, but something that is part of a community. Yes, work gives you self-esteem and enables you to be economically independent, but it also defines your identity in relation to the community and enables you to contribute your efforts to the community. For a Christian living as a Christian, that means bringing God’s kingdom among us on earth as it is in heaven.
Simply put, it is not only money, but my relationship to the community that makes up our law firm is what motivates me to work. My work, both at the law firm and here at St. Paul’s, fits in the context of a community of persons; not only do I benefit from it, but the community does as well.
In the three businesses where I have been the leader over the last 23 years, God has always been part of the scene even though everyone there was not Christian. I don’t buy into this society’s prevailing secularism that keeps religion out of the workplace. I have always had crucifix in my office, and an Ordo Calendar in the common area. Both generate conversation from clients and employees. Yes, it is a challenge to live in a work community that represents diverse faith viewpoints. Yet as I walk through the office, I sense the inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit making our office community what it is. It is that divine presence I feel in the community of our office that motivates me to continue doing God’s work as a lawyer, putting down the mighty from their seat and exalting the humble and meek, and the love I feel in this community, that motivates my continued service here.
May God bless all of you in your work, whatever you do, and always remember that your work, whatever you do, is important in God’ eyes. AMEN.