How Much Do We Deserve? (Rev. John A. Buehrens)


From the Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 19, starting at Verse 16:

Then someone came to him and said, “Good Master, what must I do to have life eternal?” And he said to him, “Why do you call me “good.” There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” And he said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions.

And from the poetry of Mary Oliver:

You are young. So you know everything. You leap into the boat and begin rowing. But, listen to me. Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me. Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and your heart, and your heart’s little intelligence, and listen to me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life toward it.

from West Wind (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 46


A friend of mine says that the real secret to every sermon lies in the experience that made the minister want to preach it. If that’s the case, then the moment of inspiration for what I have to say today came at a glitzy mall near my home in suburban Boston, just before Christmas. In the midst of the crowd of shoppers heavily laden with purchases, I saw a teenager bopping along, listening to his CD player, while wearing a T-shirt inscribed, “ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT NARCISSISM!”

That is the spiritual ailment of our age, you know: the sense that all that matters is what I feel, or want, or think I deserve. Then, driving home, I found myself listening to my own new CD – by “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” those amazing African American women, several of whom are Unitarian Universalists. “I been thinkin’ ’bout how to talk about greed,” they were singing. “Greed moves like a virus seeking out everyone . . . Nothing seems to stop it once it enters your soul . . . Greed driven people created slavery . . . Greed is so sneaky, hard to detect in myself, I see it so clearly in everybody else.”

Next June at our UUA General Assembly, delegates will be asked to vote on a draft Statement of Conscience entitled “Economic Injustice, Poverty and Racism.” Has anyone here read it? I’m not surprised. That’s why Denny Davidoff and I wrote about it in the current issue of our magazine, the WORLD. We both worry that we UUs really don’t know yet how to talk about economic justice, much less speak out about it as a matter of conscience. Not yet; not without risk of hypocrisy. So we have jointly recommended more study, more reflection, more debate over just what conscience might call us to do about our involvement with the economic injustices connected with poverty and racism. For it’s one thing to become more consciously anti-racist and more determinedly multi-cultural. We’re making some progress on that front.

It’s another thing to start talking about the economic issues involved. Then we’re like the woman at the revival who just loved to listen to the preacher denouncing all the evils of the world. Why, she’d just sit there in the front pew, rockin’ in rhythm to his fiery preachin’, dippin’ a bit of snuff, then hollerin’ “AAAmen!!” When the minister took out after runnin’ around, drinkin?, smokin’, gamblin’, dancin’, druggin’, fornicatin’, even gum-chewin’, she’d rock, dip, and holler “Amen! Preach it!” But when the minister got around to shaking his head over “that deplorable habit, fortunately now going out of fashion, namely, snuff-dipping,” why, she stood right up and said, “Whoa now, Reverend! Now you’ve left off preachin’ and gone to meddlin’!”

Three years ago the great American sociologist Robert Bellah addressed our GA in Rochester, NY. He talked about the effects of hyper-individualism in our society, saying, “It is no accident that . . . the United States, with its high valuation of the individual person, is nonetheless the only North Atlantic society where such a high percentage of people live in poverty. Just when we are moving into an ever-greater valuation of the sacredness of the individual person, our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing. And this is in no small part due to the fact that our religious individualism is linked to an economic individualism which, though it makes no distinction between persons except monetary ones, ultimately knows nothing of sacredness. If the only standard is money, then all other values are undermined.”

Globally, we are six billion people now on this planet. According to the UN, at least two billion live on $2 a day or less. Two-thirds of those live on less than one dollar a day. Issues of covenantal commitment to the common good and to distributive justice are everywhere. On my shelf at home I keep a painted papier mache chalice given to me last year by the Banghi women of Ahmedabad, in India. Banghis are those who by caste custom must earn their living in the villages cleaning out other people’s latrines, in the cities, gathering refuse in the streets, as “paper-pickers.” With help from the UU Holdeen India Program, 17,000 Banghi women in Ahmedabad were organized into a union – which now has a contract with the city to provide all its recycling services, and for a living wage.

I say that our support for those women illustrates the principle, “from those to whom much has been given, much is expected.” Ethicist Peter Singer in an essay on famine goes so far as to suggest there should be an economic formula for our responsibilities. If we really lived out a sense of social solidarity with others, then someone with $50,000 in income, he says, would have to devote more than $20,000 of that to helping the neediest. Talk about meddlin?! As children’s writer Shel Silverstein once said in verse:

I’ll share your toys, I’ll share your money I’ll share your toast, I’ll share your honey, I’ll share your milk and your cookies, too. The hard part’s sharing mine with you.

It’s enough to make one feel like going away sorrowing, like the rich young man in our reading for this morning. We know that we have an obligation to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly enough to empower others to develop their full human, spiritual and moral potential. But we’re afraid. Afraid that we don’t know how perhaps. But also afraid to let go of what makes us feel safe. So we fall back on the spiritual temptation to say that whatever we have, we deserve. Because we earned it. As though no one else played a role. Not our parents, teachers, colleagues, friends, or mentors. Not our values or God. Not those who work for less than we do. Not anyone or anything. Then I can hear my mother repeating what she once said on meeting the late Sen. Joe McCarthy: “Hm! Another self-made man who worships his creator!”

Robert Frost once wrote some verses that a friend sent me when I was elected president:

If you should rise from Nowhere up to Somewhere From being No one into being Someone Be sure to keep repeating to yourself You owe it to an arbitrary god Whose mercy to you rather than to others Won’t bear too critical examination. Stay unassuming.

“The Fear of God”

In the gospel story, when the rich young man goes sadly away, Jesus remarks that it is as hard for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle as for a rich person to enter into the spiritual commonwealth of God. “Then how can anyone be saved?” ask the disciples. With the God’s openness all things are possible, he replies, and then he tells a parable:

The owner of a vineyard goes out in the morning to hire laborers. He agrees to give them the usual daily wage. Then he goes out again a few hours later, seeing more people seeking work, and tells them he’ll pay them whatever is right. He does the same at noon, at mid-afternoon, and an hour before quitting time at sunset. When payment time comes, he orders that the last hired be the first to be paid, and receive a full day’s wage. Those who worked all day naturally grumble. But the owner of the vineyard replies, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what is mine? Or are you envious that I am generous?”

How much do we deserve? In a brilliant book with the same title as this sermon, the Rev. Richard Gilbert of First Unitarian Church in Rochester, NY, suggests some principles for distributive justice. He quotes what the Catholic bishops wrote to their people in a pastoral letter over a decade ago:

“Distributive justice . . . calls for the establishment of a floor of material well-being on which all can stand. This is a duty of the whole of society, and it creates particular obligations for those with greater resources. This duty calls into question extreme inequalities of income and consumption when so many lack basic necessities. Catholic social teaching does not maintain that a flat, arithmetic equality of income and wealth is a demand of justice, but it does challenge economic arrangements that leave large numbers of people impoverished. Further, it sees extreme inequality as a threat to the solidarity of the human community, for great disparities lead to deep social divisions and conflicts.”

Economic Justice for All, Pastoral Letter, 1986

What does our conscience say?

Our political and economic views and circumstances will vary. But a shared religious view of economic justice, I believe, should not rest on the political, or even the ethical level. It has to go deeper. It has to ask the underlying spiritual question. What blocks us from empathy with the suffering and deprivation of others? What keeps us from feeling solidarity with other people’s struggles for justice? What keeps our society, in all its abundance, in such a state of “moral underdevelopment,” as the bishops call it? Take the word “entitlement.” When it becomes a dirty word for public policy toward the poor, why does it remains so apt a description of our society as “a culture of entitlement”?

I know. Among the poor, however clearly we see the objective patterns of oppression, we can be put off by the self-defeating patterns of behavior that some call ?internalized oppression.? When that’s the case, perhaps we should maintain our sense of human sisterhood and brotherhood the same way that Mary Pipher suggests a good marriage stays together: Try looking in the mirror and saying to yourself, “You know: You’re no prize either!”

You see, only you, and you, and you, and I, together can prevent narcissism, can prevent a culture of narcissistic self-involvement from sapping our souls. Only we together can learn to talk about greed. To see it not just out there in others, but in ourselves here as well. To support, not an ideology, but a spirituality that moves toward economic justice. Through more responsible consumption. Through the real empathy that must precede and support all effective public policies. In our country, those policies might include a higher minimum wage, a living wage, affordable housing, health insurance and child-care to help low-income families, and debt reduction for the world’s poorest countries.

There is life without love for others. But it’s worth not a bent penny or a scuffed shoe. When we hear the call to compassion, to economic justice, to empowerment of others, to greater love, let us also hear a voice saying: Row, row for your life. Toward it! Amen.