Monday, March 29, 2010

Sharing the Wealth
One of my favorite things about the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach is that we get to break the rules of polite conversation. We get to break the rules of what you talk about with company. Didn’t you know, you’re not supposed to talk about money, or religion, or politics with people you don’t know very well. Well today, we’re going to talk about all three, because they all three matter, and they’re pretty intertwined. In fact it’s difficult to say anything substantial about any one of these topics without broaching the others. Religion, money and politics, what a web.
First I want to talk a little bit about money. It’s no secret that some people have more material goods than others. We can see it driving down the street, we can see it in clothes, in homes in cars, in all sorts of different ways. Although its uncomfortable to talk about sometimes, the fact of the matter is some people have more wealth than others.

We all know what the stuff is, cars, houses, retirement funds, maybe even just enough food. We know what the stuff is, but what I want to talk about is the way that we own these things. What does it mean that some people own more than others. How do we own something? What gives us that right?

Most of us take it for granted, this sense of ownership. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours and we have pieces of paper to prove that. If there is dispute, we’ll talk about it, and in the end we will clarify, what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours. But what does that mean? By what right do we own what we have?

Is it because we have power over our environment and power over other people? Do we own more stuff because we exert our power over the world around us and take what we want? Or maybe that power isn’t just ours alone, maybe God decides who deserves to have more wealth. That may sound antiquated, but there are plenty of people today who still believe that God rewards those people who are worthy with financial and material rewards. Is that what it means to own stuff? Being powerful or God wants us to have it?

Or, do certain people have more because they have worked harder and earned it? Well that’s a slightly more complicated question, one that many of us may want to jump up and say yes, or no to. It’s true that many people, many of you, have worked your butts off to make a dime. And you have succeeded at that. It is also true that many other people have worked their butts off simply to put food on the table for their family. Usually those people are able to make enough, but sometimes they aren’t. We just heard the intergenerational story about Mariz. Our world is full of people who work very hard, and yet still struggle to make ends meet.

By what right do we own what we own? Is it through earning alone? Did Mariz simply not work hard enough?

Perhaps working, even earning our money doesn’t quite lead to a solid sense of ownership. I want to offer a different concept of ownership for us today. It’s actually more trusteeship. There was a saying in my head as I wrote this sermon and finally I had to look it up. It turns out it is from the Gospel according to Luke in chapter 12. The story itself is unfortunately violent and pretty distasteful. However, the saying, the one sentence that stuck in my mind, that one that I want to share with you may be a helpful key to this question of ownership. “To whom much is given, much is required.”

In the Bible passage, it’s pretty clear that the giver of resources is understood to be God, and for those who have been fortunate, much is required of them in faith. Well, I’d like to unpack that a little bit for a modern Unitarian Universalist.

“To whom much is given, much is required”. Those who are more fortunate have a moral obligation to take that into account as they relate to the world around them. This is not a message of guilt. Money is not the root of all evil. I’m not asking you to give away all your worldly possessions. I’m just offering a potential answer to this question of what does it mean to own what we own.

The best answer that I can come up with is that we have a sort of trusteeship over our possessions. We are called to use our resources, whatever they are, to the best of our ability and knowledge. And by that right, we own what we own. And to whom much is given, much is required.

In a perfect world, hard work is rewarded equally. We would like the think that our world, and especially our country is a meritocracy, where you come into the world on an equal footing and you earn what you can by the effort you put out. It’s a sort of economic Garden of Eden. But Eden my friends is a myth, a powerful myth, but a myth. We are not born out of the Earth as individuals like Adam and Eve. We are born into families, families that are unequal. And unlike that perfect pristine garden, we walk into an economy that is already established. In our world different types of work are given different value. In our world, political instability of some countries makes it nearly impossible to earn and honest wage. In our world women still earn ten to twenty percent less than men in the workforce. A litany of other institutional structures than maintain wealth, and poverty get in the way of an equitable distribution of wealth.

So what does that mean for us as Unitarian Universalists? Obviously something is wrong with a picture that does not give people equal access to wealth of even basic needs. And we have language to describe a problem that limits anyone’s full humanity, or perpetuates injustice. We call it evil.

In our religious community, most of us don’t see evil as a supernatural being or a deep-seated characteristic in human hearts. We have long since given up any significant notion or the Devil, and our first Principle is about the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Certainly then, those individuals of worth and dignity aren’t the source of evil…. So what is? Why is our economy where Mariz can barely scrap together enough money to feed her family in this country of plenty, why are we so far away from that economic Eden where there is enough to go around and people are rewarded fairly and equitably for their work?

Evil is in structures and systems that prevent people from actualizing their best selves, that keep people from reaping the rewards of their hard work, that communicate to people that they are of less value and insults their dignity. Whether it is racism or sexism or militarism or political force or economic exploitation, evil exists in the systems that crush the human spirit. Our call as a UU community is to work to dismantle these structures, to help people free themselves from these systems.

Sharing the wealth isn’t just about what we own as individuals, or as I suggest, what we have been entrusted with. Sharing the wealth is also a question of how our society is organized as a system to distribute wealth. This is not just about personal finances, but also public policy.

Fortunately we don’t live in a blatantly corrupt country. Most of us can do our jobs safely and know that we will be paid what we have been promised. In many ways we are fortunate. However in some less obvious ways, our public policy, while not corrupt, has benefitted the wealthy more than the poor. In recent history, public policy in our country has been used to maintain wealth for the few, and further burden the poor. This is not propaganda to get you excited. This is an honest reflection of public policy in the recent history of the United States.

Over the past thirty years, government policies and market forces have been moving in the same direction, both increasing inequality. The pre-tax incomes of the wealthy Americans have drastically increased, while their tax rates have fallen more than rates for middle class and poor Americans. For the past thirty years, federal tax policy has consistently given advantage to the wealthy, allowing them amass even larger portions of the pie.

I did not plan for this sermon on “Sharing the Wealth” to conencide with such a historical moment. But it did. We all know that a sweeping piece of Federal legislation is about to be enacted. Healthcare reform will touch all of our lives, and it is deeply connected to “Sharing the Wealth.” So we need to talk about it briefly.

We are on the verge of the most sweeping piece of federal legislation to offer more equitable distribution of resources since 1965. The health care bill aims to smooth out one of the roughest edges in American society — the inability of many people to afford medical care after they lose a job or get sick. And it would do so in large measure by taxing the rich. The benefits, meanwhile, flow mostly to households making less than four times the poverty level — $88,200 for a family of four people.

The bill will also hopefully reduce a different kind of inequality. In the broadest sense, insurance is meant to spread the costs of an individual’s misfortune — illness, death, fire, flood — across society. Since the late 1970s, though, the share of Americans with health insurance has shrunk. As a result, the gap between the economic well-being of the sick and the healthy has been growing, at virtually every level of the income distribution. More and more since the 1970s being sick means that you and your family will be in economic jeopardy . The health reform bill will hopefully reverse that trend.

It’s true that many people are deeply upset about this piece of legislation. Perhaps some of you are upset about it. There is a level of discontent and pain in American politics these past few years that is simply sad.
But I have to say, I’m celebrating. Not because it came from one party or another, but because it will help those people most in need. Not because it’s a political victory in Washington D.C. but because it’s a victory for our neighbors who can’t afford healthcare.

A couple of months ago I told you that I wouldn’t talk about social justice any more without giving you some specific action that you can take. So making good on my promise, I have a few suggestions this week to share the wealth.
The fastest and easiest action is to write a check, not for UUFLB, but for the food bank. This month UUFLB has been the designated church to help stock up the food pantry at the resource center. I have been gone for a couple of weeks, but I haven’t seen much food coming in. This is the last Sunday of the month, if you didn’t bring non-parishable food with you, then just write a check to the Laguna Relief and Resource Center. If you don’t have a check book with you, we’ll even take cash. Just leave it in the basket with the sign.

To take action on a wider level, beyond Laguna Beach, I have printed out some flyers that list several different actions you can take. One that I already did and look forward to learning more about is a movement to increase minimum wage.

Did you know in the United States, more than 28 million people, about a quarter of the workforce are minimum wage workers — earning less than the poverty level for their families. Nearly two thirds are women, and almost one third of those women are raising children.
There is a movement called “$10 in 2010”, to increase the minimum wage to a real living wage that matches today’s economy. On the flyer I printed you can find the website with a petition to sign online, and several other ways to help share the wealth.
In must a minute we will sing our Closing Song “We are Building a New Way.” Hopefully we a building a new way of sharing the wealth more equitably. I’m not talking about revolutionary change here. I’m just talking about an economy that is fair, where people are paid reasonably for the work that they contribute to the shared community. And as We build a New Way, we can do that personally. I invite you to really sit with the question of what does it meant to own what you own. By what right do you have it. It’s not a question to be guilt inducing, but it is a very real and important question.
I know for me, I will be sitting with the idea of trusteeship. What I own, what wealth I have I am a trustee of, I am a guardian of it, with the understanding that I will do my best to use it wisely.
And we are also building a new way as a society. Sharing the Wealth isn’t primarily about writing a personal check. It’s about making fair compensation and equitable distribution of resources a priority. Please consider support for some public action to fight the evil systems that maintain economic disparity, or at least be mindful that the systems that we participate in, affect countless people, from CEO to janitor, from Executive to day laborer, It’s time to share the wealth. It’s time to build a new way of supporting one another.


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