The Labor of Our Bodies and the Work of Our Hands
It was a day just like this one, 20 years ago yesterday. A perfect fall morning with high blue skies in the Northeast. And then, and then . . . Now, after a week of mourning of all those lost on that day, we realize that was the day “first responders” took on a whole new meaning. Underneath it all, we are still in shock.
I. As the 21st year following 9/11 opens today, we actually see a world the way it was when Genesis was written, in one important respect anyway. We see a world ever struggling to escape the bonds of earthly necessity—the bonds which nature dictates to us, the need for food, shelter and security—we see a world in which people and nations are willing to do literally anything to secure its goods and its comforts. Because, inside every person is a living creature who must bow to the demands of nature, demands as ironclad as the force of gravity.
Genesis refers to the most basic fact of life—Nature does not give up nourishment to man, or woman, without effort. You can’t eat the forests or the deserts or the seas. Survival must be extracted forcibly from “Mother” nature. Work, Genesis says, hard work is men’s fate, and women’s too, to be precise. Just as the woman suffers pangs with every childbirth, the man suffers the pangs of endless toil— (it is the same word in Hebrew, according to Robert Alter’s notes). So nothing can be taken for granted either in the creating or in the sustaining of life. Gains are not permanent—any given creature is only a sometime success who must renew, secure, and guarantee that success against a change of fortune or circumstance.
It’s just as true of nations as it is of people—how else are we to explain a rich country like the United States needing to shore up its own bountiful resources with a worldwide network of military bases to defend our “national interests”? Did we really have to spend 20 years, and how many lives!, defending this consumer existence of ours? Deep down inside, humans and nations suffer from serial insecurity.
This is our world, this is our experience today. Genesis pierced straight to the heart of the human condition—to be human is to suffer in these two particular ways in which we are subject to Nature. And so it is that people are always prone to dream of a by-gone blissful state of perfection, a “before.” Nevertheless, every day, we humans must awake from that dream in a terrain of contingency and terror, scrapping and scraping the means of subsistence from a grudging soil and painfully delivering ever more mouths to feed and to defend from other human predators.
II. Through every era of human history, we have sought to dispel the “curse” and bring nature under our control, to make nature yield more with less effort—through the eras of tool making, agronomy, refining minerals, the bronze age, the iron age, the industrial age, the atomic age, and the computer age. The human has resorted to gain any mortal advantage over competitors and threats—it’s a jungle out there--just let your guard down and find out.
Genesis pierces straight to the heart of the human condition, nor has subsequent history invalidated Genesis’ description of human life. Except we abhor toil, and every society has arranged it so somebody is tending to the body and its needs, tending to the fields and animals, butchering and cleaning, hauling and digging, sustaining the fuel supply of the human engine. The life of the laborer is deemed so unfulfilling that humans invented indentured servitude or slavery—acquiring a labor force through taking prisoners of war, or by some other means like the slave trade we engaged in—thus creating a caste system or a servant class.
The closer you labor in nature, the lower the status in society you occupy, the lower you are paid, the less you are valued (see the new film, “Worth,” about setting the insurance compensations for 9/11 survivors and families.) If you’ve watched a season of Downton Abbey, you’ve seen this pernicious principle at work. Likewise, if you’ve ever seen Chris Rock’s routine comparing “jobs and careers.”
And you can even see this economic arrangement in the backdrop of this morning’s parable, too. Jesus has a theological point to make, which is to assure his listeners that, come early or late, God will always receive you. But to make his point, Jesus as usual resorts to a commonplace of life which everyone would recognize—laborers lining up by the fields hoping to get hired for the day. I saw them myself in L.A., gathering every morning under the freeway cloverleafs, lining up behind the trucks waiting to load up laborers and hoping to be chosen.
In our parable, the landowner sees himself as beneficent in giving everybody the same wage for the day, but that’s not the way the laborers see things. But the vulnerability of the laborers is quite apparent, and fairness to them would mean paying them more than the late comers. The laborer depends totally on how the landowner chooses to define “generosity.”
Civilization has only sporadically tried to protect the laborer even as it protects itself from Nature. Mechanization and the industrial revolution seemed only to have made things worse.
What a history humans have woven out of work—toil, slavery, danger, disease, wealth, happiness, war!
III. But that’s why church is so important. To dispel the “curse” as Genesis saw it, we have only to commit to community. To dispel the curse of labor that led to the subordination of women and servants and slaves, day laborers, wage earners, and caregivers, God called us to create community. Not as a social group with its hierarchies and cliques, but as a kind of “mutual aid” society. Not like when my wife and I join the MFA and drop in occasionally on this or that exhibit, which is OK for what it is. But the church is much more, it is a flotation device in the storm of life as nature shaped it. Nor is it either just a refuge from the hazards of nature but where we pull the human back from our inhumanity in times of duress.
The Bible depicts our expulsion from Eden into Christ’s church, passing through Sinai, Zion, Jerusalem, and Golgotha on the way. Through this passage, we learned from Martin Luther that all labor and work is godly in God’s eyes. In truth, the church brings us to love life and to love the world as it is. Pope Francis envisioned the church as a sort of “field hospital.” And so we are, although not staffed with doctors for the patients but wherein we all minister to each other. And the healing balm that is applied starts and ends with the process of Christ’s forgiveness wherein we repent, reform and find renewal. Let us be the church. Let us be Eliot Church, for the sake of those in and around this community and region. Amen. Rev. Richard Chrisman, September 12, 2021