This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.
I was going to preach a nice historical sermon this morning, part of a serires on the 300th anniversary of this church. But with the crisis in the global financial markets over the past week, this morning I will instead be preaching on the economy.
The first reading this morning is from the Hebrew Bible, the Prophets, the Book of Isaiah, verses 16-18 and 21-26 of the first chapter:
Cease to do evil;
Learn to do good.
Devote yoruselves to justice;
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.
“Come, let us reach an understanding,”
– says the Lord…
The faithful city
That was filled with justice,
Where righteousness dwelt –
But now murderers [dwell].
Your silver has turned to dross;
Your wine is cut with water.
Your rulers are rogues
And cronies of thieves,
Every one avid for presents
And greedy for gifts;
They do not judge the case of the orphan,
And the widow’s cause never reaches them.
Assuredly, this is the declaration
Of the Sovereign, the Lord of Hosts,
The Mighty One of Israel:
“Ah, I will get satisfaction from My foes;
I will wreak vengeance on My enemies!
I will turn My hand against you,
And smelt out your dross in a crucible,
And remove all your slag:
I will restore your magistrates as of old,
And your counselors as of yore,
After that you shall be called
City of Righteousness, Faithful City.”
[New Jewish Publication Society translation]
The second reading is from “The Miracle of Mindfulness,” the 1975 book by Thich Nhat Hanh, who is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. He writes:
“Thirty years ago, when I was still a novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task. During the Season of Retreat when all the monks returned to the monastery, two novices had to do all the cooking and wash the dishes for sometimes well over one hundred monks. There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks, and that was all. Cleaning such a high stack of bowls was a chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold. Then you had to heat up a big pot of water before you could do any scrubbing. Nowadays one stands in a kitchen equipped with liquid soap, special scrubpads, and even running hot water which makes it all the more agreeable. It is easier to enjoy washing the dishes now. Anyone can wash them in a hurry, and sit down and enjoy a cup of tea afterwards. I can see a machine for washing clothes, although I wash my own things out by hand, but a dishwashing machine is going a little too far!
“While washing the dishes one should only be washing dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed about mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.” [pp. 3-4]
Well, as I said earlier, this morning I had planned to preach on a nice safe historical topic. I was going to preach on the history of our covenant here in our church. We would have taken a nice historical trip back in time, and I would have told you wonderful things about the three hundred year history of our church.
But then current events intruded. The stock market dropped 678.91 points on Friday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has dropped 39.4% since October 10, 2007. The pundits in the news media are freely making comparisons with the great crash of 1929, when the Dow Jones dropped 89% from September, 1929, to July, 1932.
The financial situation in this country has gotten worrisome. The financial situation in the whole world has gotten worrisome! I’m worried, and I’ll bet most of you are worried too.
The financial situation in our church is worrisome, too. We have become overly dependent on our endowment, which provides more than half our operating budget. Our endowment is now dropping in value. That means the income from our endowment is dropping as well.
Forget the church, many of us are finding that our personal financial situations are worrisome! If you’re like me and much of your retirement money is invested in stocks, you have been watching your retirement savings dwindle. Hey, I still have an account in Washington Mutual — you know, that bank that almost went belly up a couple of weeks ago? — and I’m in the process of getting my money out. On top of what’s going wrong with stocks and the banks, the price of everything is going up. And for those of you who own your own home — well, we’re all expecting property values to drop.
OK. We all know what’s going on, and I don’t need to recap the news for you. What I’d like to do this morning is to talk with you about how we might respond to this crisis religiously, as Unitarian Universalists. Religion is supposed to help us make sense out of this crazy world we live in; as Unitarian Universalists, can we make sense out of the global financial crisis? Religion is also supposed to help us answer the question, “What ought I do?” — can we figure out what Unitarian Universalism is calling us to do in these times?
I’d like to begin with our prophetic response to this crisis. Now, by “prophetic,” I don’t mean that we can see the future. I mean “prophetic” in the sense of those old Biblical prophets who went around telling everyone what’s wrong with society — the kind of prophet we heard in the first reading this morning. As Unitarian Universalists, what is our prophetic response to this financial mess?
We know that greed is one of the primary causes of this financial crisis. Let me give you an example of how we know this is true. Earlier this week, Richard Fuld had to testify before Congress. Fuld was the president of Lehman Brothers, fourth largest investment bank in the United States until they filed for bankruptcy on September 15. Fuld testified to Congress that he took home three hundred million dollars in pay and bonuses over the past eight years — that’s an average of 37.5 million dollars a year. He was quoted as testifying to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, quote “I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me.”
No, we don’t feel sorry for you, Mr. Fuld. You were greedy. Now you are sitting pretty in your designer suits while the rest of us schlumps have to deal with the mess you have left behind. It is hard to feel sorry for any of the investment bankers who made their millions before the stock market started to fall. We don’t feel sorry for them, we just call them greedy and selfish.
Greed has driven the stock market for quite some time now. But actually, greed has driven our whole society for some time now. We have been convinced that we can get something for nothing. We have all dreamed of buying a house that goes up and up in value so that when we sell it, we make out like bandits — houses have become an investment that will make us rich (we hope) rather than a place to live. Everything has become an investment. I’ve dreamed those dreams, and I’ll bet lots of you have, too. Alas, those dreams come down to greed: wanting something we don’t have, that we can obtain for no real effort.
Selfishness plays a part, too. How can someone like Richard Fuld take home three hundred million dollars and think he really deserves all that money? There’s an element of selfishness in such an attitude. Yet selfishness extends beyond the Richard Fulds of this country down to our economic level. I discovered recently that according to a recent study, less than half of all Americans give any money to charity. It gets worse — when you look at those of us who do give money to charity, most of us give very, very little money away. Indeed, most of the charitable giving in this country comes from a small minority of people who are very generous. Yet most Americans have substantial discretionary spending. Michael Durrall, a financial consultant to churches, tells us that most church members could double their charitable giving and not notice a change in their lifestyle. (Obviously, he is referring to the fifty percent of Americans who give any money at all to charity, because for the other half who give nothing, doubling zero is still zero and so obviously they would not see any change to their lifestyle if they doubled their charitable giving.)
But let’s go back to the leaders of this country — and I mean the financial leaders of this country, who may or may not be our elected leaders. Our financial leaders have set a general example of greed and selfishness that is appalling; it is time that we stop letting them lead us into greed and selfishness. One way we make sense out of this financial crisis is through prophetic response to this appalling greed that has taken over our country:– we condemn the current culture of greed and selfishness, and call for new standards of ethical financial leadership.
We need to do that, but we also need to acknowledge our personal responses to this financial crisis. The financial situation is bad right now, and we have to make personal sense from this mess we’re in. Many of us — me included — are fearful, worried, even angry. I don’t know about you, but one of the things I’m dealing with right now is keeping my fear and worry under control. In order to keep fear and worry under control, I have been engaging in
First, I’ve been thinking in terms of living simply. “Simplify, simplify,” said Henry David Thoreau. The point of living simply is to focus on what’s of greatest importance. The latest electronic gadget is not of greatest importance. In the second reading this morning, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds me how much we take for granted. We have access to laundry machines! We have things like dish detergent, and running water! We have more than we usually remember that we have. When I can remember how much I already have, I face away from the greed that tells me that I need all the latest appliances. I don’t need those things — I suppose I could even learn to be like Thich Nhat Hanh, and wash out my clothing by hand. It might be a good way to be mindful of all I do have.
Of course, those of you who have children may have a hard time with this approach. Children have become very vulnerable to marketers, and when all their friends at school have a cell phone, or a certain video game, then they absolutely have to have one too. It is harder for people with children to practice simple living. At the same time, the real point for all of us is not to practice simple living the way Henry Thoreau did — we don’t have to go out and live by Walden Pond — rather, it will be enough to practice simpler living. We can simplify, but not to the point of giving everything up.
My second spiritual practice for these times that I am working on is the spiritual practice of giving money away. I am doing this because I know that those of us who do not risk getting put out on the street have a special responsibility to increase our charitable giving in order to support those who are more financially vulnerable than we are.
Now for some years, I have had a spiritual goal of giving away ten percent of my income (that’s pre-tax income) each year. I’ve been working on this for a while now, and in 2005 I was up to giving away eight percent of my income. That felt like a spiritual accomplishment, and it felt good. It was one of the best things I’ve done in my spiritual life — I felt more centered, and more focused on what’s truly important in life. Well, then my partner found herself with less and less work, and as our household income declined, and we kept cutting back, and one of the things I had to cut back temporarily was my charitable giving. Now I’m down to giving away five percent of my income.
But this financial crisis have strengthened my resolve to increase my charitable giving back up to eight percent, and then on to ten percent of my income. This will not be an easy goal to attain, and I’m not going to let myself feel guilty if I don’t make it to my goal as quickly as I’d like. This is not about guilt; rather, I’m suggesting that this kind of thing can be a spiritual goal for all of us. By giving away part of our income, we turn ourselves away from the predominant greed and selfishness of our society — and I will tell you from my own experience that this has the effect of reducing my own personal fear and worry.
So it is that part of my personal response to the financial crisis has been to calm my fears and worries by engaging in two personal spiritual practices that relate to the financial crisis: living more simply, and giving part of my income away. I don’t mean to imply that you need to take on either of these spiritual practices yourself. But I do want to say that each of us can find personal spiritual practices which can help to calm our fears and worries, and to strengthen the best part of our selves.
Now I’d like to talk just a little bit about what we can do here together as a church. What might this church’s spiritual response be to this financial crisis?
I’ve already hinted at one answer, when I said that those of us who can do so should think about those who are more vulnerable than we are. So it is that here in the church we can focus our energies on what we can do to help out the surrounding community. Indeed, we are already doing this. For example, Bill Bennett, Maryellen Kenney, and Ted Schade have taken over the operation of Universal Thrift because Lorial Laughery-Weincek, who was running the thrift store, is recovering from illness and will be unable to return to volunteering for quite a while. Fill, Maryellen, and Ted knew that in times like these, our community needs that thrift store, so they stepped in. Universal Thrift provides decent clothing and housewares at very affordable prices to people who can’t afford anything else. (In fact, the thrift store accepts vouchers from social service agencies for people who really have not money whatsoever.)
Perhaps it’s time for us expand this service to the community. Maybe we can mobilize more volunteers to go out and find good cheap clothing and housewares, get them ready for sale, and then sell them for very cheap prices to people who need them. Since we already have a thrift shop in place, right now, I would judge that this is the most spiritually important work that we can do. By doing something tangible for the community, we are also engaging in a communal spiritual practice — because when we do good in the world, we are helping to strengthen the best part of our selves.
(By the way, the thrift store also happens to make money for us, because many of the people who shop in the store are not destitute, but simply want good value. Thus our thrift store represents the new concept of social innovation, where charitable organizations can make money while doing good. The money we make through the thrift store goes directly into our operating budget, which means it helps pay for heat and building maintenance. It is now our biggest fundraiser.)
The thrift shop is just one example of what we can do to set up our church so that we transform the world around us into a better place, while at the same time transforming ourselves for the better. We also send a crew once a month to help serve at the soup kitchen. In another, more personal, example, we can each be sure to bring one canned good every week for the food pantry box, so that we can continue to support the Shepherd’s Staff food pantry.
These are very tangible thing we can do, but it is equally important for us to do something far less tangible, and that is to offer our liberal religious witness to the world. We know that some of the conservative religious folks will say that the way out of the financial crisis is to trust in some Daddy God who will fix everything for us. We know that the prosperity gospel folks will be out in full force telling people that you just have to believe in their God, and you will get rich. We know that some of the most conservative religious folks will even try to tell us that the financial crisis has been brought upon us as a judgment form God because we legalized same sex marriage and abortion and women’s rights and so on. We want this church to keep its doors open, and to grow ever bigger, so that we can counteract some of the problematic religious messages that are out there.
We need to be a big strong church so we can counteract these other religious messages. We need to be a big strong voice for liberal religion so that we can tell the world:– This happened because we were stupid and no Daddy God is going to clean up after us, so we’re responsible for cleaning up our own mess. We need to tell the world:– No one is going to get rich just because they believe in the right God, and in fact let’s get away from the greed that says we should be rich. We need to be sure to tell the world:– This financial crisis did not come about because we legalized same sex marriage or gave women the vote. That means that all of us who showed up here this morning are doing exactly the right thing:– by simply showing up here on Sunday morning, we are affirming our religious values. The more of us who show up here on Sunday morning, the better we can counteract all those negative religious messages that are out there.
Finally, let us remember that church is supposed to be fun. If this financial crisis continues, we’re all going to need to have some fun. If you volunteer down at the thrift shop, it’s supposed to be fun because you get to volunteer with like-minded people. If you volunteer in the Sunday school, passing on our religious values to our children in order to help the next generation move away from greed and selfishness,– well, teaching Sunday school is supposed to be fun, because you get to play with kids, and you get to meet the other Sunday school teachers. The same is true for volunteering with any program in this church. Or you can show up for the Independent Film Series tomorrow night, and watch a great movie, and then talk about it with other thoughtful intelligent people — and having thoughtful intelligent conversations is exactly what we need to be doing right now, so we can start to figure out a new moral and ethical direction for our society. All these things are fun, and all these things are free, and all these things have a positive influence on us and one the world.
We need some positive influences in our lives right now. We need to be able to make sense out of the financial mess that’s happening around us, and we need to feel that we can do something to deal with that mess. It would be easy to let fear and worry take over our lives right now. What I have suggested is that we don’t let fear and worry take over our lives. We can offer a prophetic response, and say that greed and selfishness have contributed to the financial mess that we’re in. We can take personal spiritual action, transforming our lives, strengthening our selves so that we can better face the financial crisis. We can band together in this church, so that together our liberal religious witness can transform the world around us. By doing these things, we strengthen that which is best in ourselves.