Scripture Lesson: Song of Songs 2:8-14 Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
According to ABC News, Americans work more than anyone in the industrialized world. More than the English, more than the French, way more than the Germans or Norwegians. Even, recently, more than the Japanese. And Americans take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later, too.
According to Gallup, it is estimated that the average full-time American worker works 47 hours a week. That one of the longest work weeks in the world, and certainly higher than Europe where the average is more like 35 hours a week. In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.
I had no idea there was such a thing, but apparently 134 countries in the world have laws limiting the maximum work hours per week. Not the United States.
Then there is vacation. Many jobs in the US offer 2 weeks paid vacation. 54% of workers do not take all of their paid vacation. Compare this with many European countries where standard vacation time is one month. In Sweden, it’s 5 weeks paid vacation per year. And I bet they take it!
And what about family leave. The average outside of Europe is 12 weeks paid parental leave. In Europe the average is over 20 weeks. Yes. Paid. Parental. Leave. In Finland, women can take 7 weeks of paid leave before a child is born and 16 weeks after. And the men get 8 weeks paid leave. The US is the only country in the Americas without a family leave policy.
Then there are the American work habits of eating lunch at the desk and working through lunch. Not the norm in other countries. And responding to work email on the weekend. Again, not expected or accepted in other developed countries. No matter how you slice it, Americans work A LOT.
In the article “The U.S. is the Most Overworked Developed Nation in the World” posted at the website 20 something Finance, G. E Miller concludes: “Using data by the U.S. BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics], the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. One way to look at that is that it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford the same standard of living as a worker in 1950 (or our standard of living should be 4 times higher). Is that the case? Obviously not. Someone is profiting, it’s just not the average American worker.
[Labor trends and statistics cited come from: https://20somethingfinance.com/american-hours-worked-productivity-vacation/ and https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/american-work-habits-us-countries-job-styles-hours-hoilday-a8060616.html and https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93364&page=1]
Yes, we live up to our national image of being hard working, and we fulfill our cultural narrative of the importance of working hard. We have been wellformed by the founders of our culture such as Ben Franklin who said: “It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.” I am in there with the best of them. I had two parents who were always working. It’s part of being first generation immigrants. They had the incentive to work hard and make a life in this country. And I have inherited that tendency. So has my brother. We have absorbed the cultural message that hard work is important – not only for productivity and income, but for character and service.
But work is not all there is to life which is why we have Labor Day. A day off from work. Labor Day was originally created as a celebration of the labor movement and trade unions. These are groups that fought for fair, safe, working conditions, workers rights, the 40 hour work week, minimum wage, and benefits such as healthcare, pensions, and sick leave. The labor movement was about protecting workers from unsafe, inhumane conditions. It was about making sure that laborers were given the just fruits of their labor instead of the fruits of their productivity going predominantly to those with capital, the owners, and the boards of directors of a corporation or business. Unfortunately, the labor movement has fallen out of favor in this country and workers are paying the price with the result that more money stays on top and income inequality is increasing.
We heard beautiful words this morning from Song of Songs. And they are not about work. They are about love. The verses burst with ardor, desire, and yearning. In these words we hear of the strength, agility, abundance, beauty, joy, and play that go with love and desire. The writer uses the image of spring time, with its exuberance, bursting with life, irrepressible, to convey the ardor of love.
Is this passage about two lovers and romantic love? Is it about God and the Jewish community? God having such desire and passion for the faith community? Is it about Christ and the church? Christ with such passion and devotion for the church? We don’t know. And we don’t need to know. Whether this is about romantic love or the spiritual life or both, because they are connected, don’t we envy such intense passion? What we need to know is that this passage conveys to us the energy and boundlessness of love. And we are people born to love. We are born for passionate, energetic loving – of life, of nature, of others, of the spiritual life. We are to nurture and cultivate our human ability to feel such devotion and commitment and desire. We are to safeguard, cherish, and protect our capacity to love. The church is about encouraging us to feel – to feel the exuberant intensity of love.
We are not here to just be cogs in a wheel. To be labor units. To be figures in an economic equation to maximize profits for someone else. We are not here just to consume, to buy, to be taken in by the lie that by purchasing things and increasing profits we’re helping working people. Sure, hard work is important, but MORE important, our faith teaches, is hard love. We are here to love with vigor, intensity, and dedication. But when you are working all the time, especially just to stay even, it’s hard to have energy or passion for anything even love.
Love takes time and attention. If we are working so much, as the statistics say we are, then we are not making room in our lives for love. This is yet another reason to pursue economic justice in this country – so that people have energy and time and attention to devote to our real job on this planet – love.
Unlike the culture and economy around us, the church reminds us that our primary purpose is to be lovers. To love people. Music. Beauty. Nature. Ourselves. God, however you imagine God. We are here to feel that ardor and passion. That irrepressible energetic excitement and devotion.
It’s hard in a culture in which we are defined by our job; where our identity is created by our work. Think about it. When someone asks about what work you do, what do we say? “I am a teacher.” “I am a plumber.” “I am a pastor.” We don’t say, I do teaching or I work in a school. Or I do plumbing. Or I serve as clergy in the church. No we say, “I am.” I am a secretary. I am housecleaner. I am a garbage collector. Not I do this kind of work. We define ourselves not by our humanity or our love interests but by our job. In recent years, I have been to Europe several times and it has involved a fair amount of interacting with every day people. I’ve noticed that in Europe, it’s not like that. You talk with people and get to know them and you still have no idea where they work or what they do. You might hear about their political views. Their children. Their tastes in food or drink. Where they went on vacation. What music they like. A favorite book or museum. All this with no mention of where they work or what they do for work. It doesn’t define who they are the way it does here. In the US, one of the first things that comes out when you meet someone is where you work and what you do for a job because we are socialized to create our identity around our job.
Yes, tomorrow is Labor Day. It is a holiday intended to remind people, with a day off, that we are not meant to work all of the time. Work should be fair so that we don’t need to work all the time just to live. Yet many will be working tomorrow – in stores and restaurants and gas stations, etc. It’s often the biggest sales day of the year after Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Instead of spending the fruits of your labors, instead of shopping which requires that others work, I invite you to not work tomorrow. To not shop tomorrow. To not go out to eat tomorrow. To not use the labor of others tomorrow as best you are able. Just for one day. And honor the desire to make more space and time in your life and in this world for love. Hunger for that desire. Pursue that ardor. In some way, capture your calling to love. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.