© Hollis Huston 2011
“The Best Things in Life: Doing Well and Good with Stan and Rosie”
a sermon preached by Hollis Huston
at South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
on February 27, 2011
Earlier versions of this sermon were spoken at:
Community Unitarian Church in White Plains on April 10, 2005
Paint Creek Unitarian Universalist Congregation (Rochester, MI), 1999
[Yeshua] would sit across from the treasury and observe the crowd dropping money into the collection box. And many wealthy people would put large amounts in. Then one poor widow came and put in two small coins, which is a pittance. And he motioned his disciples over and said to them: “I swear to you, this poor widow has contributed more than all those who dropped something into the collection box! After all, they were all donating out of their surplus, whereas she, out of her poverty, was contributing all she had, her entire livelihood.”
‘For [the Divine Domain] is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents,* to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
I’m going to say a dirty word this morning. It’s a five-letter word. I’m going to talk about “money.” I know this discussion is not your favorite thing, that it’s a bit like going to the dentist. But there’s no point in avoiding it – because you’re going to be talking about money next month, whether you like it or not. And you might as well like it. If you approach this discussion positively and with faith, you can have a successful canvassing process – which will mean that you won’t have to talk about money again until next year this time. If you aren’t successful, you’ll never talk about anything but money. You might think you’re talking about something else, about theology or building maintenance or staffing or religious education curricula – but the subtext of your talk at every moment will be “We don’t have enough money.” The only remedy for lack of money is having enough money to support your dreams.
I am reminded of a saying of Wilkins Micawber, a friend of David Copperfield in the Charles Dickens novel of that name. Now Micawber is so famous for his faith that “something will turn up.” But in his more rational moments, here is what Mr. Micawber has to say about the difference between surpluses and deficits. "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six[pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds [and sixpence], result misery." The decisions you make in the next few weeks will decide whether you spend the next year in happiness or misery. And you don’t want to constantly waiting for something to “turn up.”
So let’s go to the dentist. Let’s do what liberals don’t like to do. Let’s get it done, and done right, so that we won’t be miserable. Let’s talk about money.
It’s a small business that I want to talk about first. I want to tell you about Stan and Rosie. Stan and Rosie owned a mom-and-pop grocery store in University City, Missouri, which is my favorite place of all the places I have lived. University City Quality Foods (or “Stan and Rosie’s”) was a kosher butcher shop with a complete stock of food and beverages. Now we all know that the tide of economic history is against the small grocery store. So how did Stan and Rosie stay in business? Well, with great ingenuity. There prices were, well, not the cheapest, but they knew their public, and served them well.
Within walking distance were a quarter of the Washington University faculty and a generous portion of the writers, classical musicians and theatre artists of the city. Stan and Rosie knew the exact combination of pretension and economy that defined us. They knew our middling income and expensive tastes. Stan and Rosie knew what we liked to have for dinner, what kind of wine we liked with it, what kinds of cheese we preferred and what kind of crackers we ate them with. They’d reserve a fresh turkey for you at the holidays. They had an excellent rack of party supplies. They knew us all by name, and the names of our children, and they keep track of our professional credits. When you walked in the store, Stan offered your kid a cookie, after asking you if that’s OK. Their store was a safe place. You could send your kids there to get a quart of milk, and Rosie wouldn’t let them buy candy without calling you up. Best of all, you could run a charge account. In fact, you hadn’t really moved into the neighborhood until you had an account with them. Every month you got a statement, but they never bugged you about it even when you were sixty days behind. They knew their neighbors. They knew our code of honor. They knew we were good for it, sooner or later. Our neighborhood would have been incomplete without Stan and Rosie. We met each other every afternoon and talked about our books and articles, our shows and our concerts, while we waited in line for Stan to tell us what we were going to have for dinner. Stan and Rosie were the glue that held our neighborhood together. Stan and Rosie added value to our neighborhood. They raised the buying- and selling price of our homes.
But of course they were capitalists – filthy capitalists. They charged us a lot more for their goods than it cost to put them on the shelves. They knew that the nearest supermarket was a ten-minute drive away and they took advantage of it. They knew that we wouldn’t be greeted by name at the supermarket. They lured us into their store with their courtesy and their knowledge of our tastes, and they enticed us to come back by reserving just that cut of meat that they knew we liked. They seduced us with their easy credit terms – and of course it was all just to make us buy more stuff. When you come right down to it, Stan and Rosie’s place was just about money, wasn’t it? They devised and executed this elaborate routine just to make a profit.
I’m pulling your leg. I’m confronting us liberals with our prejudice about business, and about money, and the words such as “profit” that describe its flow. So let’s examine that awful word “profit” in relation to the sacred work of Stan and Rosie. We begin with the important point that they didn’t just work in the store, they owned it. They had created University City Quality Foods out of their own substance. Which is to say that their capital (life savings, nest egg, inheritance for the kids) was at risk in it. If they were to fail, they would lose a lot more than a job. I suppose Stan and Rosie paid themselves some wages for the hours they spent in the store, but the wages of a store manager are not sufficient motivation for creating a business. Only crazy people would risk their own capital for mere wages, and Stan and Rosie were not crazy. Only a morally irresponsible person would take on such financial risks – risks greater than any employee should assume – without a view toward rewards greater than any employee can gain. We call those rewards “profits.” Stan and Rosie added value to our neighborhood, to our house, to our life. And without the strong possibility of profits, there would have been (and should have been) no University City Quality Foods, no Stan and Rosie, and no neighborhood as I fondly remember it. And that’s why the neighborhood association went out of their way to assist them, and to keep them in business in that exact location.
I called Stan and Rosie filthy capitalists as a joke, to help us liberals see something about ourselves. We’re really uncomfortable with money-words, and we use them as words of moral opprobrium. We believe that anybody who is “out for profit” is not to be trusted, and that to have a financial stake in a situation is to be corrupt in one’s judgment of it. Unless it is proven otherwise we assume that people of wealth have done something immoral or criminal to their competitors, to the public, or to the environment. We disapprove of wealth, of the businesses that generate it, and of the institutions that service it. In commentaries and analysis on my beloved National Public Radio, as well as in the mainstream press and electronic media, which are (I believe) dominated by us liberals, the rhetorical distance between the word “profitable” and the word “immoral” is very small.
Every ideology has its corresponding delusion. Economic conservatives have displayed a childlike faith that markets, left to themselves and unsupported by any other institutions of democracy, can solve all problems, right all wrongs and serve all values. Joseph Stieglitz calls this mythology “market fundamentalism.” Our liberal delusion is that every insolvent cause is virtuous. We think that no holy, humane or transcendent value can be entrusted to sordid institutions of commerce. A disproportionate number of Unitarian Universalists work in not-for-profit corporations or government agencies, and many of us work in the underpaid helping professions: a lot of us are social workers, psychologists, educators and scholars. Our childlike faith is in “not-for-profit” enterprise and in governmental programs.
We forget, of course, that not-for-profit enterprises have special corruptions of their own, and that there are temptations to sin other than money. Our movement owes much of its membership to the cruelties some Christians have inflicted on each other and their fellow citizens in the name of Jesus. Money is, for us, an obscene subject. Wallace Stanley Sayre said “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low." Those who feel they have made great sacrifices for a transcendent value often come to feel that their motives are above suspicion, and that they are justified in doing almost anything to those who get in their way.
We liberals dislike money. We think we are above money. We think the institutions that generate money are not the subject of polite conversation. Money is, for us, an obscene subject. We don’t like to count money or to think about money, and our attitude toward those who do is rather like our attitude toward pornography (in a free society we have to allow it, but we wouldn’t want our sons or daughters to be involved in it). Mencken described Puritanism uncharitably as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is happy. Liberalism (and liberal religion) has sometimes been uncharitably described as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is making money.
But here’s the contradiction. We’re not people who do well without money. Most of the households represented in this room are above the national median household income level, and yet I know that almost nobody here feels wealthy. That’s because it’s expensive to be a liberal. It’s not our fault that the cities have been ruined, and that therefore in order to give our children a safe life and a good education (which is, after all, a transcendent value for us) we must live in the suburbs, where every sentient being must operate an automobile at all times, at an average cost of $9000 per car per year. And then there are all those dance classes and music lessons, and musical instruments and hockey equipment. And the necessity of driving everybody to all activities at all times, so that the overpriced houses for which we mortgage ourselves to the hilt lie empty while we breathe the exhaust of other vehicles carrying their occupants toward the next event in the Blessed Life. Not to mention world travel (high on our list of ingredients in the life well-lived) to historical sites and cultural centers and, if we can afford it, to Europe, or Asia or Africa. Not to mention college: the real cost of the higher education we seek for our children being about $250,000, and very few of us having that kind of bread lying around in the cupboard for each kid, many Americans hope they can send the kids to a good state school and let the government pick up a lot of the cost, or if (as it was for my father) the caché of a private institution for your kids is indispensable, you draw on the great nutritive bosom of the financial aid system – and then you borrow beg or steal the rest, spending the rest of your life to recover from the expenditure.
Our aspirations and ideals are even more expensive. Justice has a price tag. Low-income housing takes money. Decent legal counsel for poor defendants takes money. A shelter for battered women needs to pay a staff and own and maintain a building. If you want another high school or a good library, you have to tax yourself for it. Decent recreation facilities for your kids take money: you’ll either have to raise taxes or attract business investors. If you want to run a soup kitchen you have to get your hands on a kitchen.
It’s expensive to be a liberal. That’s why we’re so nervous. We’re born and bred to dislike money, and yet our lifestyle and our values require lots of it; and we’re always making plans to spend a lot more of it, for the common good, than we can command. Those who in the present culture wars want to blame society’s ills on us have offered the following uncharitable definition: “A liberal is someone who is generous – with other people’s money.”
“A liberal is a person who’s generous – with other people’s money.” That’s one of the nicer things they’re saying about us on Fox News and talk radio. I’d like to put the lie to that definition. But it cannot be refuted by words. It can only be refuted by actions. And the conservative religious people of America have us beaten six ways to Sunday in funding their religious vision. If you’re a fundamentalist or an evangelical Christian, you’re probably tithing. Before I remind you what tithing is, I warn you to grab onto your chairs, and if you have a heart condition to get out your nitro pills, because this is really threatening. Tithing means giving ten percent of every paycheck to your church. Ten percent before taxes. It’s not urban folklore. They really do it. They do it every week, next week, last week. They’re doing it today as we sit here. Conservatives don’t have a problem talking about money. They talk about money very successfully, thank you, and that’s not what’s wrong with them. They give a damn. They put their money where their mouths are. If we want to understand why the voices of religious conservatives are so loud, so clear, so powerful in America, while the voices of religious liberals are so faint, so disheartened and disorganized, the financial facts are a good place to start the conversation. The research is in. The more liberal the church, the lower the per capita pledging. And we Unitarian Universalists are the stingiest of all.
Yes, the conservative Christians tithe. Figure out what tithing would mean for you. Take your gross income and knock the last number off – what’s left would be your pledge. That’s why the conservative Christians have such a big presence in America. And suppose you were thinking of joining a temple or synagogue. Well, Jewish congregations don’t bother with pledges – they bill you for dues. How much? several thousand dollars per household. And that fact tells you something about why the presence of the Jewish minority is so large in the culture of philanthropy and liberal activism. You’re getting off easy. You have the privilege of defining your own contribution. What a way to run a railroad!
But of course we’re not a railroad. We’re not a business. This congregation is a not-for-profit enterprise. We have no product or services to sell. We give it away. You members don’t own it: you can’t pay yourselves dividends out of the proceeds; and you can’t sell the congregation to others and pocket the value. In return for these prohibitions, you and your donors have certain tax privileges that make it possible to raise money in ways that are forbidden to businesses. But like a business you have to pay your bills or close your doors. To use Micawber’s language, if your annual expenses are twenty pounds, and your income is twenty pounds and sixpence, the result is happiness. But if your expenses are twenty pounds, and your income is nineteen pounds, nineteen shillings and sixpence, the result is misery – and you’ll never talk about anything but money. “The moon belongs to everyone – the best things in life are free. The stars belong to everyone; they gleam there for you and me.” That song, brothers and sisters, is a lie. The best things in life are not free. The best things in life, particularly for liberals, are very expensive.
This is what I want you to do. Soften your hearts. This congregation, starting this week, is having a conversation about money. Remember the virtuous lives of Stan and Rosie. Teach yourself that money-talk is not obscene. When your stewardship committee talks to you about money, remember that they are not committing a sin by doing so. And the discomfort you feel when they talk about money, remember that it is not a virtue.
Your stewardship committee tells me there are about eighty pledging units in this congregation. Every household will make a decision in the coming days, and the sum of those eighty decisions will make the difference, as Micawber would say, between happiness and misery. It will determine whether you get to stop talking about money for the rest of the year, or whether you will talk about nothing but money for the rest of the year. Our Jewish brothers and sisters know they have an obligation to make of their faith a light to the nations – to us, the goyim. Is your faith, and your congregation, going to limp along for another year, or are you going to shine? I don’t ask that you tithe – liberals are a long way from that: but if Unitarian Universalists could undertake a liberal tithe, which is to say, five percent to good causes, with half or more of that being a pledge to your congregation – well, if we did that, we would start to shine. You would be the talk of the town. And people in your community would say “There’s a place over on South Ocean Avenue where the people teach us by the beauty of their life what our community can be.” If we hope for this congregation and its values to shine, then our hopes are very expensive. Let us soften our hearts and ask ourselves: is my pledge going to help our values, our liberal religious values, to shine? And I promise that, if you honestly ask yourself that question and honestly respond to it, you will love your congregation even more than you do today.