Labors of Love (Dr. Anthony Stringer)

Opening Words

Happy Labor Day. That sounds odd, doesn’t it? It’s like I’m sentencing you to long hours of hard labor, but with a smile. Nevertheless, Happy Labor Day.

No doubt in what they thought was a fitting tribute, the Mount Vernon Women’s Auxiliary erected a simple tombstone in 1929 in a field that holds the unmarked remains of some unknown number of black slaves who labored until their deaths on the estate of General and President George Washington. Carved into this tombstone are the words:

In memory of the many faithful colored servants of the Washington family buried at Mount Vernon from 1760 to 1860. Their unidentified graves surround this spot.

The irony of this inscription seems to have been lost on the Mount Vernon Women’s Auxiliary. The mind boggles that over the course of a hundred years, not one of those faithful colored servants deserved to be memorialized as an individual. And so we light our chalice this morning in honor of all those who have labored in field, factory, and sweatshop, through long hours of harsh anonymity.

[Chalice is lit]

Happy Labor Day.

Meditation/Joys and Concerns

I invite you now into a place of refuge.

There is a natural rhythm to life. A natural ebb and flow. An alternation between active and passive. Engagement and retreat. Action and rest. Labor and play. As we breathe in, we are active. As we breathe out, we are at rest. Breathe in, active. Breathe out, and rest. In, active. Out, at rest. In, active. Out, at rest.

Nature’s rhythm. Our rhythm. Our lives become chaotic and disordered when we are only active, only engaged, only at work. And so we seek refuge. A return to nature’s rhythm. To our rhythm. Breathe in, active. Breathe out, and rest. In, active. Out, at rest.

Our lives become languid and lazy when we are only in retreat, only at rest, only at play. And so we seek refuge. A return to nature’s rhythm. A return to our rhythm. Breathe in, active. Breathe out, and rest. In, active. Out, at rest.

There is refuge in the natural rhythm of our breath. There is balance, order, and normality. We can always return to the simple, natural rhythm of our breathing. To restore balance when it is lost, return to what is natural. Breathe in, and be active. Breathe out, and be at rest. In, active. Out, at rest.

As is our custom, I will read the names printed in the Order of Service. [Read names]

I invite you now to call out the names of those you would have us hold in our thoughts and near our hearts. [Call names]

Burdens shared are burdens made lighter. Sorrows confided are sorrows lifted. In community we heft all burdens and bear all sorrows. Amen.

Sermon

What is your life’s work? What do you care passionately about in the work you do for money, or in the work you do as a volunteer? What drives you in your work? What makes your work, or your volunteer time, worth all the effort? In short, what is your passion? What is your labor of love?

These are the questions I asked many of you be email. I don’t know what this says about us as a working community, but many of you were laboring too hard and too long to ponder these questions, let alone attempt to answer them. But many of you did answer and your responses ran the gamut from the predictable to the truly surprising. Some of your answers resonated with my own feelings about work but other responses left me slack-jawed and puzzled. A few answers saddened me.

Some of you find passion in what you do for other human beings. But I must tell you that even in this age of liberation, even in a liberal and enlightened community such as ours, caring for children was perhaps the most frequent answer given by the women who responded, but was mentioned by only one man who answered my queries. The women who have made this the center of their work lives, whether as a stay-at-home mom, a volunteer at an inner-city school, or as a director of a Head Start Program, these women were clear about their passion and about the importance of the labor they have chosen. One woman put it so eloquently, I can only quote her. She says: “I am teacher, I am protector, I am mentor, I am role model, I am mom.”

I commend the one male respondent who evidently shares this passion for children and exercises his passion through volunteering at the Hope School. My sample is of course a biased one, and I don’t mean to imply that other men in the congregation are not equally passionate about children. I know they are. Still, it is the women in my sample who were dominant in this area and I can’t help but note this fact.

Some of you find passion not in what you do, but in being a part of a great and important endeavor. One person describes herself as not being the one who makes the medical discoveries, but as being the one who does the paperwork that allows the research lab to function and as such is a part of a great and important endeavor. One person in our congregation was not in court challenging the parasitic practices of the U.S. tobacco companies, but did help to develop the economic theory that became the basis for those court cases and as such was part of a great and important endeavor.

Others find passion in what they have chosen to do after retirement. For some retirement has brought a chance to concentrate on the work they value rather than the work that makes ends meet. For others, perhaps the truly lucky ones, retirement has allowed them to continue with the parts of their former jobs that they loved, while leaving behind the parts they found tedious or boring or simply not suited to them.

But as I said, some answers saddened me. Some of us have only found what we truly love after laboring long at what we truly despise. Others are locked into labor they hate, having made unwise choices about work and career, or having had no choice in the matter at all. There are also those among us who persist with work that does not pay what the labor is worth, because they love the labor for itself. They simply must write, must paint, must crusade for their cause, even if, as a consequence, they do without some of the material things we all desire.

Perhaps most poignant of all is the labor we love so much that it takes us away from people we love, days or weeks at a time. The labor that we value to such a degree that we deprive our loved ones of ourselves, but find we must do this because our passion demands it. I think that I am both sad for, and inspired by, those of you who find yourselves in just this situation. We sometimes must and do sacrifice for the labor we love.

And finally, there were the surprising answers. One in particular I will mention because of how unusual I think it is. One member of our congregation described her work as an elephant handler. “Working with elephants,” she says, “is statistically the most dangerous job in the United States. It is incredibly physical work because everything involved with elephant care is heavy. Safety is a constant concern. The work is arduous, stressful, and [lousy] paying.” So why does she, and people like her, do it? Because, she tells me, she is convinced that elephants are sentient beings. “Elephants get in your blood” she says, “in a way that a giraffe or a bird cannot.” “I feel privileged” she goes on to say, “to have become so intimately involved with such an incredible, amazing, intelligent and magnificent species. They may not be here two centuries from now and I am one of the lucky ones who has been able to get to know them.” “There is that saying,” she continues, “that to love another person is to see the face of God. I see the face of God in elephants every day.”

I don’t pretend to know what this member of our congregation experiences when she is with her elephants, but I think if any experience defines what I mean by a labor of love, it is hers. She inspires me. You all inspire me. I have intentionally not called names, I have intentionally not singled people out. But I want to ask you to stand and applaud one another for the labors you have done and continue to do. Please rise and applaud for our labors of love.

Our labors of love sometimes fail to bring us remuneration, sometimes place inordinate demands on our time and energy, sometimes force us to make painful sacrifices, sometimes can be physically demanding, and sometimes can even be hazardous—–so why then do we love these labors? This is the question that I pondered as I received your replies. And I have come up with five things, five characteristics which seem to be inherent in the labor we love.

The labor we love, first of all, provides an experience that fully engages us. An experience that is in some way unique, that stands out, that interrupts the normal stream of our consciousness. Experiencing the beauty, intelligence, and yes, the godliness, of another species, as our elephant handler writes, makes her labor an act of love. Experiencing success in working with children of another race, as our Hope School Volunteer writes, success that was unexpected because he had never known himself to be particularly adept at relating to children of his own racial background—–this experience makes his labor an act of love. The labors we love bring us just such uniquely engaging experiences.

The labors we love offer us an opportunity to be of use. To do some good in the world; to feel that we have made a contribution to someone or to something; to feel that we have made the world better in some respect, however small an improvement that may be. Size and scope do not matter here. It is only that we have done some thing for the greater good. The labors we love offer us the opportunity to be of use, to be of service.

The labors we love give us a sense of mastery. Or better yet, a sense of mastering. They afford us the opportunity to perfect our skills, to improve upon what we can already do, to aim that one inch higher, to better today what was our best only yesterday. To paint with greater expressiveness, to write with greater alacrity, to speak with greater clarity, or to simply unclog that drain like it has never been unclogged before. The labors we love give us a shot at mastery.

The labors we love allow us to be creative. They offer us the chance to express what lies uniquely within ourselves. They give us a chance to stamp the world with our own graffiti, to make our mark, to put our imprint upon what we do. To do things simply our way. And finally, the labors we love allow us to discover—–to gain new knowledge for ourselves, perhaps even for the world. For Einstein and others of his ilk, there was no greater act of worship, no more rewarding labor of love, than to discover. To unravel the mysteries of the universe. To add to our own, and if we are lucky, to add to human knowledge.

To experience, serve, master, create, and discover—–these are the verbs, these are the actions that make labor synonymous with making love. But when is the last time you’ve seen such verbs appear in a want ad? Can you imagine it? Factory seeks creative welder. Adventurous typist wanted for voyage of endless discovery. Progressive auto dealership desires salesperson with a passion to serve. Police Force seeks recruits. Humanitarians only need apply. The reality is that most labor is not a labor of love. We must count ourselves fortunate if we find love and passion in our work.

I fear sometimes that we Unitarian Universalists will be accused of never being satisfied, of perpetually seeing the glass half-empty. These are, after all, the best economic times that America has ever experienced. Everyone and their mother owns stock. Despite occasional plunges, the stock market keeps setting new profit records. Though some disparities continue to exist across various demographic groups, unemployment is at an all-time low. Companies are forced to offer higher wages and unheard of bonuses to attract the workers they need. Silicon Valley and other centers of the Information and Internet Age create millionaires by the scores. And, if anything, Unitarian Universalists are over-represented in the ranks of the educated and the affluent. I suspect that not only are we educated and affluent but most of us are also among those who find sincere fulfillment in the work they do. So what do we have to lament about? Things are pretty damn good!

Well ours, you see, is a prophetic religious tradition. I mean prophetic in the traditional, biblical sense, not in the modern psychic sense. We claim no ESP, no clairvoyance. We make no predictions for the future. We claim only to be passionate for justice in the present time. And so we cannot help but look beneath the surface, peer around the corner, and peep behind the curtain to see who has been left out, who still suffers, who remains among the dispossessed. Even in these times of plenty, we cannot help but concern ourselves with those still in need. It is not that we are never satisfied, not that we always see the glass half-empty. Rather, it is that we know how full the glass can be. In the fullness of our own lives, we are discomfitted by emptiness anywhere.

A hundred twenty-seven million of us work in this country. And that’s a wonderful thing. But 38 million of those jobs are only part-time. And 35 million of the full time jobs don’t pay enough to support a family. And so I say the glass can be fuller still.

A hundred twenty-seven million of us work in this country. And that’s a wonderful thing. But eight million of us are machine operators and assemblers and for that portion of the workforce real wages today are less than they were in 1973. Nineteen million of us work in retail trades for less than $10,000 a year with virtually no benefits. And so I say the glass can be fuller still.

A hundred twenty-seven million of us work in this country. And that’s a wonderful thing. But it will take 5 million more jobs to get all able-bodied people off welfare. That’s a daunting challenge when you consider that 2 million people today are at the poverty level even though they are full-time employed. And so I say the glass can be fuller still.

A hundred twenty-seven million of us work in this country. And that’s a wonderful thing. But someone in one-third of all American households lost a job in the last decade due to downsizing. And two-thirds of these fired workers could only find another job at lower pay. And so I say the glass can be fuller still.

A hundred twenty-seven million of us work in this country. And that’s a wonderful thing. But some of our largest companies, IBM, AT&T, General Motors, Sears, and GTE fired an average of 10-20% of their workforce during the 1990s. And the workers who survive downsizing are often inexperienced, demoralized, stressed-out, and disloyal to their companies. Say it with me: The glass can be fuller still.

A hundred twenty-seven million of us work in this country. And that’s a wonderful thing. However, dangerous and dehumanizing sweatshops, once thought to have vanished from American soil, have made a comeback. The Department of Labor estimates that over half of New York City’s 7,000 garment factories are sweatshops and that half of the 22,000 registered garment contractors pay less than the minimum wage, two-thirds do not pay for overtime, and a third operate with serious health and safety violations. Make no mistake about what the word sweatshop means. These are dirt and grease-smeared places where immigrant women, many in this country illegally and many not speaking English, work from 7am to 10pm, seven days a week, in locked work rooms, where they are subject to verbal, sexual and physical abuse and are fired for taking bathroom breaks. Please say it with me: The glass can be fuller still.

Muhammad, the prophet of the Koran, enjoined the merchants and lords of his time to compensate workers before the sweat dries their backs. The Torah says to those of the Jewish faith, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer….You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets.” The writers of the biblical text attributed to Matthew proclaim that “The Kingdom is for those who feed the hungry and welcome strangers.” In more recent times, national religious organizations including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the United Church of Christ, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis have all issued statements honoring labor and labor unions, and calling for economic and civil justice. And this year, in a formal Statement of Conscience, our own UUA has chosen to rededicate itself to “the pursuit of economic justice, an end to racism, and an end to poverty.” And the UUA encourages us to join in this rededication, recognizing that economic injustice persists in spite of the longest period of economic prosperity in American history.

And so, this Sunday, Labor in the Pulpit Sunday, we join with Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and with people who profess no religion, to honor the accomplishments of the Labor Movement and to rededicate ourselves to all that remains to be accomplished. The glass can be fuller still.

I opened this service by reading the inscription from the Mount Vernon Women’s Auxiliary to the nameless and faceless slaves buried in unmarked graves on the George Washington estate. Let me close by describing to you what I think is a more appropriate monument to labor.

There hangs a portrait of the laborer, Klas Henning Westerberg, in City Hall in Stockholm, Sweden. Besides the portrait of the architect who designed and oversaw construction of the majestic building, it is the only portrait in City Hall. Once a year, the King and Queen of Sweden come to stand in the hall where the portrait hangs. There they wait to greet each year’s Nobel Prize winners. Each year, after the award ceremony, the Nobel laureates come through the great doors of City Hall, receive their royal greeting, and march silently down the hall where the portrait hangs on their way to a magnificent dinner. Picture it, if you can. Civilization’s luminaries, our brightest minds, the world’s highest achievers in the arts and sciences, our greatest humanitarians, marching beneath the gaze of this lone laborer, Klas.

Who is he? What has he done to deserve to sit there on the wall long after his death? He stares, one eyebrow cocked almost haughtily, confident of his worth. A blue work cap sits on his head, a leather apron is tied around his portly waist. His massive hands lay motionless in his lap. He sits there by virtue of being voted the most important worker by his co-laborers nearly a hundred years ago. What was his job? Was he some master craftsman? Some highly skilled artisan? Perhaps a beloved and tireless foreman? No, he was none of these. He was simply the man who brought the beer in the morning. He sits there and will sit there for as long as there is a City Hall in Stockholm and for as long as there are Nobel laureates passing by to pay him their respects. Happy Labor Day.

Benediction

Experience. Be of use. Master what you do. Create. Discover something new. But in our labors of love, let us still remember the man, or the woman, who brings the beer in the morning. For if we do, our labors will move us on, ever towards justice. Amen.