Toil or Togetherness?: A Wednesday Sermonette

Good morning. I’m glad we can gather here to celebrate St. Joseph the Worker day, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk a bit about work. Some of our finest scholars tell us we need to do a good job lamenting what’s wrong before we can make positive prescriptions about what would be right, so first let’s try to name what’s wrong with work.

Do you remember Bernie Madoff? Bernie was that Wall Street titan they arrested back in 2008 during the financial crisis. The investigation uncovered that Bernie had defrauded investors of probably about $20 billion, which made his ponzi scheme far and away the biggest in history. Bernie, the former hedge-fund hero and now current inmate, says he fell victim to his own success. Towards the beginning he made some nice returns and then people expected more and more. Then at some point he started robbing Peter to pay Paul and Percy to pay Peter, and so on. As he posted higher and higher false returns, more and more people wanted to invest with him, and the drive for profit snowballed out of control. Now that he’s serving a prison sentence of about 150 years, Bernie says he’s never been happier. His entire life, he says, was one big lie. The insatiable drive for profit had him living in what felt like a nightmare. And I don’t know what you’d call that other than some sort of spiritual poverty.

Here’s another story, this time about material poverty. I remember fairly well the first time I lent my support to a Workers’ Dignity Project initiative. We were trying to help a 64 year old dishwasher named Bernardino reclaim $10,600 dollars in back wages. His family was choosing between meals and medical treatment right around the same time his employer Vito making appearances as a celebrity chef. Some of the people I spoke to about Bernardino’s situation found it hard to believe that what he was claiming was true, because the injustice seemed a bit too egregious. But I suppose the first rule of injustice is that there is no injustice too egregious to be true, because the reason we knew Bernardino was telling the truth was that he had in his possession a signed letter from Vito plainly acknowledging that he owed Bernardino $10,600 in back wages.

The problem with work seems to be this: we encourage those who can afford just about anything to view their luxuries as needs while treating our poor as if their needs are luxuries we cannot afford. When’s the last time you heard anyone call for a vast expansion of the Labor Department? God knows we could use it. They’re up to their eyeballs in claims of wage theft and worker abuse. But you won’t hear that proposal, because low-wage workers do not have much political clout.

So here’s another piece of the puzzle: poverty and powerlessness are bedfellows. But the choice we all have to make as a human community isn’t between poverty and power so much as it is between toil and togetherness. There is, after all, a poverty that comes with power. It’s the spiritual poverty of our Bernie Madoffs who can never have enough because they can never be satiated. And let’s not think that this spiritual poverty is removed from the material poverty of Bernardino. In biblical reckoning the reason we have Bernardinos is precisely because we’ve allowed some among us to become Bernies. And what these two individuals, both of them poor, have in common is that they both have known the experience of toil more than the experience of togetherness.

Remember our words from Ecclesiastes: “Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! And on the side of the oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.” Toil goes with loneliness and oppressive work comes from a disruption of community. Toil is work without regard for others or help from others, and all of this is vanity.

Clearly a much better alternative is to work in community. Here’s King Solomon again: “two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” I think those are good words, but I also wonder what they could possibly mean in a world like ours. It’s pretty easy to go about our work as if we are all self-contained. I don’t necessarily have to acknowledge that there’s a person behind all the words I read in books, and no one forces me to think about where my food comes from. The entire world is at our finger-tips and we don’t even need to leave our houses to grasp it. You could probably get by just fine if your only in-person social interaction was with the pizza man.

But the truth is that we all depend on the work of others in more ways than we can count. And occasionally we’re made to recognize that truth. I’ve found my involvement with the CIW’s fair food campaign to be fertile ground for theological reflection, but what drew me towards the campaign was much more practical. CIW has a track record of winning their campaigns, and their work has vastly improved the lives and working conditions of migrant farmworkers. I realized, though, that its not coincidence that this effective campaign is also theologically sound. No, the campaign is effective because it’s theologically sound. The Fair Food Campaign connects consumers to the workers who pick their food, and in doing so they show us practically what we should’ve known biblically—that “we all belong one to another.” CIW works to create a sense of togetherness amongst consumers, vendors, and workers, and the results are extraordinary. Consumers, vendors, and workers all joined in common cause to seek justice for farm workers—“a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Amen.

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