Vox: Finland Gave People Free Money. It Didn’t Help Them Get Jobs — but Does That Matter?

The psychological stability afforded by a guaranteed regular paycheck also emboldened some of the Finnish recipients to be more entrepreneurial. Sini Marttinen, one of the recipients, likened her experience on basic income to winning the lottery. “It gave me the security to start my own business,” she said. This entrepreneurial effect has also been observed in the past with cash transfers in places like Kenya.

Vox: Finland Gave People Free Money. It Didn’t Help Them Get Jobs — but Does That Matter?

Read the whole article.

Radical Charity Update

Some of you may know that I have a book coming out from the Cascade Books imprint of Wipf and Stock, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church). The publishing process is a long process, and Radical Charity had to sit in the queue for a little while. But I’m happy to report that copyediting started last week, and I have received and returned author queries. With any luck, the book will move on to the typesetting stage soon.

This is starting to get much more real!

Judgment

I majored in philosophy. 

Now, before you judge, I majored in philosophy during the philosophy boom of the late 90s, when there was a major philosopher shortage and all of the big philosophy firms were hiring. I had no idea that the philosophy market would collapse right before I graduated.

Either that, or I majored in philosophy because I was in my late teens, and I like big questions, and it was interesting (and maybe even a little romantic).

But regardless of the reason, I majored in philosophy.

And one of the things that philosophers like to do is pretend that people are rational. We imagine that people make decisions based on evidence and logic. And we’re not alone. A lot of people imagine the same thing. Science, economics, law, and other fields are all based on the idea that people are reasonable.

And that’s just not true.

There is a lot of evidence that people aren’t reasonable. But the way that I learned about human irrationality was this: I learned about the fundamental attribution error.

It’s a neat little trick that our brains—that our psychologies—play on us. And it works like this.

When do something bad, I think about all of the extenuating circumstances that drove me to that choice. speed because I’m going with the flow of traffic, and I’m late for something very important, and the speed limit is clearly set to low for this road, and everyone should understand that.

But when you do something bad, I don’t think about extenuating circumstances. I attribute your behavior to your character. I make assumptions about the kind of person you are. Youspeed because you’re a reckless driver with no respect for the other people on the road.

And we all do this. I do it. You do it. That person who cut you off in traffic or didn’t hold a door or responded too curtly to an email does it. We all tell ourselves, “I am a good person who does bad things for good reasons… and other people are jerks.”

We’ve spent a few weeks in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

A couple of weeks ago, when we had our first reading from this sermon, I told you that it isn’t really a sermon. It’s possible—and maybe even probably—that Jesus never said these exact things in this exact order.

But Jesus was a teacher and a preacher. And while there was probably no one who remembered a whole sermon of his, people remembered bits and pieces. People remembered the themes and ideas and phrases and images that Jesus used again and again. And when Matthew was writing his gospel, he put Jesus on a mountain, like Moses on Sinai, and had him say these bits and pieces in this order.

And you can tell that Matthew took a bunch of things that Jesus said and just sort of cobbled them together because of this passage.

It starts with Jesus telling his disciples—and with Matthew telling us—not to judge.

“Do not judge,” he says, “so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get… if you want to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye, you had better make sure there’s not a log in your own eye, first.”

And there’s something beautiful there. Don’t poke around in other people’s eyes when you can’t see clearly. Get the muck out of your own eyes before you try to help your neighbor with the stuff in theirs. Don’t judge people; get yourself together so that you can help people.

But then Matthew has Jesus turn around and say this:

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”

So Jesus starts by telling us not to judge, and then turns around and tells us to know what is holy and what is valuable… and who the dogs and swine are… and that sounds pretty judgmental to me.

And, I know, it’s Jesus saying this.

Jesus, who is God-become-one-of-us. Jesus, who knows our hearts. Jesus, who we meet in everyone who has need. Jesus, who feeds us at his table.

Jesus, who will come in glory and put some of us on his right and some of us on his left.

Jesus, who will send some of us into the kingdom that God has prepared for us since the foundation of the world, and who will leave some of us in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Jesus, who will judge with perfect knowledge… and perfect love… and perfect compassion.

There’s a tension here. And we need to face it honestly.

And it begins with this: I do not judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion. I don’t know all the facts, I don’t love as I should, I can’t walk a mile in your shoes.

I’m not qualified to judge. I’m not qualified to call someone a dog or a pig. And neither are you.

There’s a tension here. And we need to face it honestly. And it begins with that humility.

And then it goes here: it is one thing to judge a thing, or a behavior, or a system, or an institution; it is an entirely different thing to judge a person.

And this is where it get hard.

As Christians, we have to be able to look at things and behaviors and systems and institutions and say, “This is good; and this is bad.”

As your pastor, I need to be able to look at an immigration system that rips children from parents, and places those children with families they don’t know… and say that it is wrong.

I need to be able to look at a system of mass incarceration that holds more than 21% of the world’s prisoners, where race is a major determining factor in whether you end up in jail, where money is a major determining fact in whether you stay there, and where it’s incredibly hard to get our of the system once you’re in it… and say that it is wrong.

I need to be able to look at the food we gather for the Referral Center, and the warm clothes we gather around Christmas, and all of the other ways that we help people in this community and beyond, both as individuals and as a church… and say that they are good.

And, I will admit, there are very few times when we can look at something and know for sure that it is wholly good or wholly evil. We rarely get to choose between good and evil. Most of the time, we have to choose between good and better, or between bad and worse. And it’s hard to know which is which.

Well-meaning people, acting in good faith, trying to do the best we can, can disagree about things.

But it is still true: it is one thing to judge a thing, or a behavior, or a system, or an institution; it is an entirely different thing to judge a person.

And that’s where the fundamental attribution error comes in. Because so often, when we look at ourselves and see that we’ve done something we’re not proud of, we say, “I am a good person who did a bad thing.” And sometimes we even add, “For a good reason.”

And so often, when we look at other people and see that they’ve done something we’re not proud of, we say, “That is a bad person. He is a dog. She is swine. I cannot give them what is holy. I cannot give them what is valuable. If I do, they will trample it under foot and maul me. They are a bad person.”

And, let’s be honest, there are whole industries—on television and radio and the internet—who will tell you who the bad people are. There are systems and institutions who will tell you who you should say that about. And it can feel so good to judge people that way.

But we are not Christ. We do not judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion.

As Christians, we have to be able to look at things and behaviors and systems and institutions and say, “This is good, and this is bad, this is just, and this is unjust; this is merciful, and this is unmerciful; this is compassionate, and this is not compassionate.” Seeing those differences is one of the first steps towards making this world a place of greater justice and mercy and compassion.

And, at the same time, as Christians, we never look at people and say, “They are good, and they are bad.”

Because here’s the thing: Christ, who judges with perfect knowledge and love and compassion, withholds judgment for the sake of redemption.

In perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect knowledge, with no log in his own eye, Christ sees the divine spark, the image of God, in us, in we who are sinners, and redeems us. That is the promise of our faith.

And if Christ has done that for us, how can we refuse to do that for others? How can we, who are not qualified to judge, look at someone and say, “They are good, and they are bad”?

The answer is easy: we can’t. And the truth is that holy things—holy things like grace—are holy even when dogs have them. And the truth is that dogs like me probably need them more.

I know that’s a tall order. I know how easy it is to judge people. I know how easy it is to say, “I am a good person who does bad things for good reasons… and other people are jerks.” I do it. You do it. We all do it.

But I also believe that we can meet that tall order. By the grace of God, we can do to others as we would have them do to us. We can judge others as we would have them judge us: with love and compassion; with mercy and grace.

We can take those holy things and give them to everyone… even the dogs like them… even the dogs like us.

We can build our houses, we can build our homes, we can build our lives, on the solid foundation fo the grace  of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

Why Do Extremely Wealthy People Hate the Idea of Higher Marginal Tax Rates?

As I write this, Howard Schultz, billionaire and former CEO of Starbucks, is mounting an independent campaign for the presidency of the United States. And he seems to be running for that office because he’s horrified at the idea of paying a higher marginal tax rate on the part of the income that is over $10 million. And he isn’t alone in that horror. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, billionaire Michael Dell was asked about that tax rate and quipped, “Name a country where that’s worked… ever” only to be corrected when MIT professor Erik Brynjolfasson replied, “The United States!”

According to Paul Krugman, taxing high incomes at extremely high rates—though below 100%—makes sense. On the one hand, at a certain point, there is no practical difference between the amount of money that an extremely wealthy person has and an infinite amount of money. Think about it this way: I have enough money that I would never notice if less than a dollar disappeared. I can afford far more of anything that costs a penny than I would want, which means that, for all practical purposes, I can afford an infinite number of things that cost a penny. For a billionaire, the same principle can be applied to items that cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, or dollars.

On the other hand, the government still wants those people to bother earning that money so that it claim the revenue. In theory, a 100% tax would discourage people from working for that 10 million and first dollar. But since they would still work for 30% of the amount over $10,000,000, the government could tax the dollars over that amount at 70%, keep the incentive, and reap the taxes.

And that means, as Krugman puts it, that “the optimal tax rate on people with very high incomes is the rate that raises the maximum possible revenue.”

Now, Krugman knows far more about economics than I do, but I disagree with an important part of his assessment. For two reasons, once you’ve reached an annual income of $10,000,000—and probably far less—money isn’t really an incentive to work harder or longer. First, you don’t really control how much you make. Shultz’s income isn’t governed by how many hours he works or how hard he works during those hours. It’s governed by what decisions he makes regarding the investment of the money he already has (and he can even pay people to make those decisions for him). Second, he’s effectively living in a post-scarcity society, and just as spending a few thousand or million dollars doesn’t really mean anything to him, neither does making that money. I can’t prove it, but I really doubt that more meaningless money is really an incentive for the extremely wealthy. There has to be an entirely different incentive structure in place.

But that’s not the question I want to explore here. The question I want to explore is this: why are these billionaires so horrified by the idea of a higher marginal tax rate when that rate will mean effectively nothing in terms of their quality of life?

Over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Paul Campos proposes some ideas… which he then dismisses:

They want to make sure that their great-grandchildren have more money than they could possible squander? No, because great-grandchildren are usually an abstraction. People don’t really care about them.

They believe in some sort of supply-side economic model? Okay, but why do they believe in that economic model when it flies in the face of all available evidence?

They hate those kinds of taxes on principle? Okay, but what’s the actual principle for whose sake they object?

They’re greedy? Okay, but what does greed mean in a context where more money doesn’t mean anything?

Money is a way of ‘keeping score’? Okay, but that’s pathological in a context where money doesn’t mean anything.

You want to be able to buy something that really would put a dent in your wealth, like the presidency of the United States? Yes. That’s probably it.

I think that Campos is missing something here: there’s a cultural logic to wealthy people—especially extravagantly wealthy people—hating taxes. And it’s sort of related to ideas like greed and ‘keeping score’.

Now, I need to be careful here. What I’m about to say isn’t a bit of armchair psychology. I’m not about to suggest that people who are extremely wealthy believe certain things at either the conscious or subconscious level. Instead, what I’m about to suggest is a matter of cultural logic or social imagination. It’s wrapped up in the collection of all of the things—institutions, traditions, symbols, practices, and so on—that help us think of ourselves as an ‘us’… the shared, often unspoken, understandings of how things are and how things should be.

A big part of the social imaginaries of modern capitalism is the link between material wealth and personal value. To put that another way, the more wealth someone has, the more of a person they are. For example, we often talk about people being paid what their work is worth or, even, what they are worth.

Or, as another example, we act as though Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth qualifies him to talk about and influence education policy, healthcare reform, or whatever.

Or, as a final example, we imagine that a wealthy businessperson is qualified to be the president of the United States because he is a wealthy businessperson.

And I strongly suspect that link between material wealth and personal value is felt more strongly by people who are wealthy than by people who are not (partly because I suspect that we tend to find personal value in the things that we have a lot of, are good at, and so on).

If the social imaginaries that a person is embedded in sees a link between material wealth and personal value, then it makes sense that that person would see taxes as a bad thing. That person might even see taxation as a form of violence because, when the government demands money through taxation, it isn’t just taking money, it’s taking personhood. This is related to the notion of ‘keeping score’. The billionaire is a person partly because he’s a billionaire, and taking some of that money—making him a mere multi-millionaire—makes him worth less than his fellow billionaires, not just in terms of his material wealth, but in terms of his very personhood.

(This also helps explain why some people who are very wealthy don’t see a desperate need to fund social programs that help people living in poverty: those people are literally worth less than the extremely wealthy).

There’s a theological side to this: ‘The idea that material wealth is the same—or almost the same—as personhood’ is a pretty good description of greed, not just as a kind of personal vice, but as a sin. On the one hand, it’s a form of idolatry: material wealth is an object of worship. On the other hand, it’s a form of self-harm: instead of finding their value in their status as a bearer of the image of God, they find their value in their status as a bearer of material wealth. It is, perhaps, the most common sin: exchanging God for mammon.

So, what do we make of Schultz’s campaign? He’s afraid. He’s afraid that a popular uprising against the extravagantly wealthy will hurt him. Not literally, of course, but by taking away the source of his personhood. And while he’s right that such a popular upraising will begin a higher marginal tax rate, he’s wrong that it will hurt him in any way. In fact, giving up some of his wealth might even free him from the grip that wealth has on his soul. And it’s sad that he doesn’t see that. It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for him.

Almost.

Do Not Worry

Way back at the end of November, when we were decorating the church for Christmas, we got the Advent wreath and the Advent candles out.

I wanted to make sure that they were okay, so I lit them. Later, we finished decorating, turned out the lights, locked up the church, and left. And I was sure that I had blown out the candles… but there was a little itchy feeling in the back of my brain: what if I hadn’t blown them out? What if I burned down the church?

I get that feeling—that itchy feeling in the back of my brain—more often than I’d like. I’ve had to backtrack home to make sure that I locked a door or closed the garage door. And I always have, but the itchy feeling won’t go away until I check. It’s not OCD… it’s good old-fashioned irrational worry.

In today’s reading, we are still hearing from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus is talking about worry. So I’ve been thinking about worry.

And we are a people—we are a society—that worries.

We worry on a personal level about little things. I worry that I’ve left the garage door open or the front door unlocked.

We worry on a personal level about big things. I worry about accidentally burning down the church or hitting a patch of ice while I’m driving.

We even have a whole industry to help us mitigate our worry. I have car insurance in case I’m in an accident; health insurance in case I get sick or injured; home insurance in case something happens to my house; and a home warranty in case the water heater goes out. I even have that sewer line insurance in case something happens there.

And, of course, we worry on a social level about big things. We have people who tell us to worry: about terrorism and crime and the economy and immigration and a thousand other things. We live in a bubble of worry.

And here’s Jesus, standing on a mountain, preaching to the disciples, telling them—telling us—to stop freaking out.

“Do not worry,” he says, “God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. And you’re more valuable than they are. Won’t God take care of you? So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

And he’s serious. And he’s asking us about our faith.

‘Faith’ is a big word. It’s a word with a lot of history. It’s a word with a lot of baggage. But when you strip all of that away, ‘faith’ just means… ‘trust’.

We have faith in our family and friends… we trust them.

We have faith in our schools and workplaces and coworkers… we trust them.

We have faith in our pastor… I hope… we trust him.

And those faiths are important. And those faiths are little.

But there’s also this big faith. When you’re down and out, when you’re lost in the wilderness, when no one’s around, when your family and friends are miles away, when you are trapped and desperate… where are you going to turn?

Are you going to build up treasures on earth, thinking that they will protect you in times of trouble? Are you going to put your faith in wealth? Are you going to put your faith in money?

It’s common sense, isn’t it? Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life; and money meets every need (Ecclesiastes 10:19). It’s right there in the Bible.

And I’ll be honest: I’m lucky enough to have money. I serve a church that, in accordance with Conference guidelines, pays me well and provides good benefits. I get to have health and dental and vision and life insurance. I can own a house and pay for home insurance and a home warranty and sewer line insurance. My wife is excellent at budgeting, and makes sure that we can pay all of the bills, and that we have plenty saved for a rainy day.

I am incredibly lucky. I could go through most of my life trusting money to see me through.

But I am wise enough to know that could all go away. I could lose my job. I could get too sick for my health insurance to save me. I could end up underwater on my house. We could spend through our savings. We could face a time of trial that is too great for money to save us. I have seen it happen to others… and I know it could happen to me.

Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life; and money meets every need… until it doesn’t.

When you’re down and out, and in your pocket there’s not one penny, and as for friends, well, you don’t have any… where are you going to turn?

Are you going to build up treasures on earth, thinking that they will protect you in times of trouble? Are you going to put your faith in wealth? Are you going to put your faith in money?

Or are you going to build up treasures in heaven, trusting that the creator of the universe, who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field, will give us our daily bread and rescue us from evil? Are you going to put your faith in God?

I want to be careful here. I don’t think, in this day and age, that we should give up all that we have. I don’t think, in the winter in Iowa, that we should all sell our houses and empty our bank accounts. I don’t think that Jesus is calling us to homelessness and starvation.

But Jesus is telling us that we cannot serve both God and wealth. We cannot be Christians and lovers of money. We have to choose.

Now, there are some people who will tell you to make your faith in God subservient to your faith in money. They will tell you that the reward for your faithfulness to God is wealth here on earth. They will tell you that, if you give money to their church as a demonstration of your faith, God will put you behind the wheel of a large automobile or in a beautiful house. And those people are wrong.

What I am telling you—and what I believe Christ is telling us—is that we should make our wealth subservient to God. We should ask how we can use what we have to expand the kingdom of God… by feeding the hungry and giving something to drink to the thirsty; by welcoming the stranger and giving clothing to the naked; by caring for the sick and loving the prisoner.

And that…

Way back at the end of November, when we were decorating the church for Christmas, we got the Advent wreath and the Advent candles out.

I wanted to make sure that they were okay, so I lit them. Later, we finished decorating, turned out the lights, locked up the church, and left. And I was sure that I had blown out the candles… but there was a little itchy feeling in the back of my brain: what if I hadn’t blown them out? What if I burned down the church?

And I remembered that, as we were all leaving, Mark had said something about coming back to the church to pick something up or drop something off. So I pulled into a Casey’s parking lot in Eldridge, and I called Mark, and I asked him to make sure that the candles were out when he got back to the church.

And that might not seem like much. But I didn’t have to be worried about that anymore.

And the truth is that when we share what we have—when we share our time and our talent and those treasures that God has entrusted to us here on earth—there is more than enough. And no one needs to worry.

God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. And God has given humanity more than enough to go around. Our God is a God of extravagant generosity and infinite abundance. God has simply spread those gifts around in a way that gives us another gift: the chance to share, to give, and to accept gifts.

And when we do that—when a little bit of God’s kingdom has come and a little bit of God’s will is done—then everyone will have enough and more than enough, and debts will be wiped away, and we won’t face times of trial, and evil will shrink away to nothing, and no one will have to worry.

And that is good news.

Why Pastors Should Know What People Give

Recently, I was with a group of clergy when a dreadful topic came up: whether pastors should know what members of their congregations give to their churches. The room was about evenly divided. Some of the pastors insisted that it was important that they know. Others insisted that they should not know. Two things about the conversation struck me. First, that the pastors who said that they should know didn’t seem to know why they should know. Second, the pastors who said that they shouldn’t know gave a very specific reason for that; one that many parishioners give when they’re asked about pastors having that information.

Let’s start with the first issue. Many pastors know that should know what the members of their congregation give. They’ve picked that up from plenty of church fundraising consultants, and they’re right. What those same pastors usually don’t understand is why they should have that information. And because they don’t understand the ‘why’, they don’t quite know what to do with that information when they have it. Or, worse, they never get that information because they can’t explain the ‘why’ to the people in their congregations who do have that information (if anyone does).

So, why should pastors know what the members of their congregation give? There are at least three reasons.

First, and most importantly, there is a pastoral reason. Unexpected changes in giving can indicate that a person is having a problem. Decreases in giving might indicate that a congregation member has had a significant unplanned expense (like a medical bill or a relative in financial trouble), a sudden drop in income (like a job loss), or that a person is disconnecting from the church. Even an unexpected increase in giving can indicate problems: people contemplating suicide often give away their possessions. Any significant and sudden change in giving should be treated with the same seriousness as a significant change in church attendance, a drop in participation in church activities, and so on.

Second, it’s one of the first steps to improving your annual stewardship campaigns. It’s a simple fact that there are only two ways to increase giving: getting new donors and increasing the amounts that existing donors give. It’s also much easier to increase the amount that an existing donor gives than in is to get new donors. But if you—or someone on your stewardship team—is going to work on getting members to increase their giving, then you need to know what they’re giving now (and it’s especially useful if you can estimate what each family is giving in relation to their capacity).

Third, it’s vital information if you ever embark on a capital campaign. Raising a large amount of money is much easier if you can count on a few large gifts. And it’s much easier to find those large gifts when you can think in terms of multiples of annual gifts. In other words, you don’t want to ask for a $10,000 gift from someone who gives $500 a year; but you can ask for that kind of gift from someone who gives $5,000 a year. If you don’t know how much people in your congregation give, you’ll be left asking people for more-or-less random amounts… and that makes it less likely that your capital campaign will succeed.

So, those are one pastoral reason and two fundraising reasons. While it’s possible to get around the fundraising reasons—you just need someone else to know what people give—there’s no getting around the pastoral reason. And, honestly, wouldn’t we rather that the pastor, who is trained in keeping confidential information confidential, know what people give than a member of the congregation (and probably a different member of the congregation every few years)? Yes.

So what about the second issue? Why are some pastors—and a lot of lay people—nervous about letting the pastor know what members of the congregation give?

The reason that the pastors at this clergy gathering gave was that they were afraid that, if they knew what members gave, they would treat the members who gave more better than those who gave less.

And I just don’t believe that’s true.

Look, it’s easy to believe that once we know who gives what, we’ll be tempted to treat the people who give more better than than the people who give less. But I can tell you that when I was a fundraiser—and when I knew exactly how much each of my constituents gave—I was never tempted to do that.

As pastors, we get to know a lot about the people in our congregation. Some of it is superficial and some of it is confidential. We know people’s favorite hymns and their opinions on how we do the prayers of the people. We know what traditions they want to get rid of and what traditions they will never let go of. We know who is having relationship troubles and who just got a cancer diagnosis. How much a person gives is just one more piece of information that goes into the mix… and helps us to serve them better.

So, please, pastors, give some serious thought to how you could help your congregation—as individuals and as a church—if you knew people’s giving habits. And please have a serious conversation with the appropriate people in your congregation about having that information. It really can make a difference.

Salt

A long time ago—before I was your pastor, before I was a fundraiser, before I even went to seminary—I was a cook. I worked in a little upscale restaurant in a midsize college burg. And while we were never going to win a Michelin star, we were pretty good. And while I’m never going to win a James Beard award, I’m pretty good.

And I know a couple of things about salt.

First, I know that salt goes in everything. A dish without salt is a dish without flavor.

Grilling meat? Salt. Pepper. Sear.

Roasting asparagus? A drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper (and, if you want, garlic and parmesan). Four hundred and twenty-five degrees for about fifteen minutes.

Making pasta? Boiling water. Pasta. Salt. More. More than that. You’re not quite trying to cook pasta in the Mediterranean, but an eight quart stock pot can take about a quarter cup of salt.

Salt goes in everything.

Second. I know that salt goes in early.

If you add the salt as you finish a dish, you end up with a strong salty flavor wherever the salt crystals happen to be. But if you add it at the beginning, it has time to mellow out and spread throughout the dish. You get a flavor that is subtle but noticeable… and delicious.

Salt goes in everything. And salt goes in early.

In today’s reading, we are at the beginning of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

Now, I have to be honest, this isn’t really a sermon. It is quite possible that Jesus never said these exact things in this exact order.

But Jesus was a teacher and a preacher. And even though it’s likely that no one remembered a whole sermon, people remembered bits and pieces. People remembered the themes and ideas that he talked about again and again. And when Matthew was writing his gospel, he put Jesus on a mountain, like Moses on Sinai, and had him say these bits and pieces in this order.

Luke does something similar. He puts Jesus on a plain, and has him say some different bits and pieces in a different order.

And I’m not pointing out just to show off how much I know about the Bible. I’m pointing that out because some of what we’re reading here is Jesus. And some of it is Matthew. And we don’t really know which is which.

But one of the things that Jesus says… is about salt.

“You are the salt of the earth;” he says, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Now, I know that Jesus wasn’t talking about grilling meat or roasting asparagus or boiling pasta or cooking anything else.

You see, in the ancient world, salt was so much more than a ubiquitous seasoning that sat on the table. It was used in food, both as a seasoning and a preservative. Newborns were rubbed with salt (something, by the way, that you should not do). Salt was used in sacrifices.

Our word ‘salary’ even comes from the word for salt. Either because people were sometimes paid in salt, or because people were paid so that they could buy salt.

I even remember a story—and I’m sorry that I can’t remember the source—about a thief who broke into a house. He had filled his bag with precious things and began rooting through the kitchen. He stuck his hand in a jar and discovered that he was touching salt. That simple act connected him to the homeowner… and he put everything that he had taken back, and left in peace.

Salt was important. It was vital. And, “You,” he says, “are the salt of the earth.”

And salt goes in everything. And salt goes in early.

Last week, I talked about some of the things that Christianity asks us to believe: That there is a God who came to live as one of us among a dispossessed people under the rule of a great empire, who was executed by the powers of that empire and who got back up again, and who is working within us and among us to heal this broken world.

That no matter who we are, or where we are on life’s journey, or what struggles we are having, God has been there, too.

But Christianity isn’t just a list of beliefs. It’s a way of life. And there are a lot of different ideas about what that way of life should be. And Matthew gives us one vision of that way of life:

Be the salt of the earth. Be poor in spirit. Mourn for the world and its sorrows. Be meek. Hunger and thirst for righteousness. Be merciful. Be pure in heart. Make peace. Stand up for righteousness and for Christ, even when the whole world is against you. Do those things—be those things—and your reward will be great in the world to come.

And, later this morning, we’re going to vote on another vision of that way of life:

Be a Christian community. Worship the God who we encounter in Jesus Christ. Welcome and celebrate all people, and call each other towards greater wholeness in God. Serve one another and the wider community. Grow together in faith and towards God’s kingdom.

Now, these aren’t mutually exclusive ways of life. We can do all of these things… and so many more. But the key thing about a way of life is that it isn’t just for an hour on Sunday morning. And it isn’t just for the few hours a week we’re in this building. It’s all the time.

We are called to be the salt of the earth when we are spending time with our family and friends. We are called to be poor in spirit when we’re arguing with our kids. We are called to hunger and thirst for righteousness when we are adding something to our Amazon wish list. We are called to make peace when we are standing in the voting booth.

And, if we vote in favor of the proposed statement of identity and purpose later this morning, we are going to be called to worship God through our time at work or at school; to welcome celebrate all people when we’re sitting in traffic; to serve one another and the wider community when we’re walking downtown; and to grow together in faith in all of our interactions with each other and the world.

And that goes for all of us. There are not some of us who are called to be merciful, and others who are called to be pure in heart, and others who are called to stand up for righteousness and for Christ. We are all called to that work.

And there is not one committee that is called to take care of worship, and another that is called to welcome people, and another that is called to serve people, and another that is called to help us grow. We are all called to that work.

We are all called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world… all the time.

I’ll be honest: there are times when that’s going to be hard. There are going to be times when we fail. There are going to be times when we mess up.

There is another sermon about when we fail. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometime. It’s not this sermon. But I can tell you that it ends with some good news: no matter how often we fail, no matter how many times we mess up, no matter how often we feel like our salt has washed away or our light has flickered out… Jesus is there to help us get our flavor back and our candle relit.

But this sermon ends this way: you are the salt of the world. And salt goes in everything. And salt goes in early. Salt melts into the dish and brings out of the best. Salt preserves the good. Salt blesses the new. Salt seasons a sacrifice to God. Salt binds us together in peace and harmony.

And you are the salt of the world. You bring out the best. You preserve the good. You bless the new. You season a sacrifice to God. You bring people together in peace and harmony.

You can do amazing things. You can change the world. You can make the kingdom of God just a little bit bigger. You can heal this broken world.

And not just you… we.

We can do amazing things. We can change the world. We can make the kingdom of God just a little bit bigger.

By the grace of God, we can heal this broken world. Hallelujah. Thanks be to God!

I’ve Been Here Before

There is a scene from The West Wing. You’re going to find that I bring up that show every now and again.

Leo McGarry is the White House Chief of Staff. He’s also an alcoholic.

A few years before the scene in the show, he was sober. And then he fell off the wagon. It was an important night during the president’s first campaign, and he was meeting with some donors, and they decided to have a drink. So Leo had a drink. And then another one. And then another one.

And someone in the scene asks him how he could have a drink.

And he replies, “I’m an alcoholic. I don’t have one drink… I don’t understand people who have one drink. I don’t understand people who leave half a glass of wine on the table. I don’t understand people who say they’ve had enough. How can you have enough of feeling like this? How can you not want to feel like this longer?”

And he says, “My brain works differently.”

And I’m bringing up this scene because I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not sure that his brain really does work that differently

We are Christians. And Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things:

In a God who you can’t see and, sometimes, who you can’t even feel.

In the idea that that God came to live as one of us, 2,000 years ago, in a backwater province of a great empire, among a dispossessed people.

That that God-become-one-of-us was executed by the powers or that empire… and that he got back up again.

That the sprit of that God is in us and around us and advocating for us and empowering us.

That someday, this world that is so messed up in so many ways, will get better.

And sometimes, we have to take those things on faith. We have to trust that they are true. Even if we can’t quite be sure.

But there is something in Christianity that is empirically verifiable. There is something in Christianity that we can know is true… for certain… without one iota of doubt: the world is messed up; we are messed up.

We all have our thing. We all have our things. We all have those feelings that we will pursue no matter what, no matter how it gets in the way of being the people we want to be, not matter how much it hurts us… or our friends… or our families… or complete strangers.

To put it in Christian terms: we all experience temptation and we all give in. I know I do.

In today’s reading, Jesus is tempted. It says so right in the Bible: the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Last week, we saw Jesus come to John the Baptizer in the river Jordan. And he asked John to baptize him. And John tried to respond the same way any of us would respond, “No. You are the Messiah, the king of kings and the lord of lords. I need to be baptized by you.”

And Jesus said, “No. We’re doing it this way.”

And John baptized Jesus. And as Jesus was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened. The Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And you would think that would be the end of the story. Jesus is baptized, his sonship is confirmed, now it’s time to go into the world and recruit some disciples and perform some miracles and get on with things.

But no… we’re doing it this way. That same Spirit grabs Jesus and takes him into the wilderness: away from John and the river and his family and his community. And he fasts for forty days and forty nights and he is famished. And here comes the tempter.

“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? You’re hungry? Turn these stones into bread.”

“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? Here is the pinnacle of the Temple. Throw yourself down from here and have angels rescue you.”

“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? Here are all the kingdoms of the world. You can have all of them. Just worship me.”

And I have to believe that Jesus was tempted. I have to believe that he was tempted because scripture says so: the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit did not fail. And I have to believe that he was tempted because he is fully God and fully human, and temptation is part of being fully human.

Jesus resisted temptation. And part of how Jesus did that is by relying on scripture.

“You want me to turn stones into bread? ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

“You want me to throw myself off of the pinnacle of the Temple so that I can be rescued? ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

“You want me to worship you? ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

And the devil leaves… and that’s great. But the reality of temptation is that quoting scripture doesn’t always work. And the devil can quote scripture, too. And Jesus is still hungry.

The reality of temptation is that it is universal. We all have those moments when we are tempted to step away from the life that God wants us to have. For some of us, it’s the usual tempting culprits. I don’t need to name them. You know them.

For some of us, they are things that we can justify. For some of us, it’s the things that we can justify using scripture:

Homophobia: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)

Greed: “Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life, and money meets every need.” (Ecclesiastes 10:19)

Child abuse: “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” (Proverbs 13:24)

Refusing to help someone who is poor: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

The devil is a master of making sin look righteous. And he can quote scripture, too.

(And, by the way, that’s the danger of taking just a verse: context matters; interpretation matters; love matters.)

And, for some of us, the culprit is the high we get from judging someone else who is being tempted or who has succumbed to temptation.

Temptation is universal. We have all been there. We have all failed. We are all in this together.

But here’s the thing: God has been there, too. Christ faced the devil. He prevailed, but he was tempted. It says so right in the Bible: the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

There is a scene from The West Wing. Josh is the Deputy White House Chief of Staff. And he has PTSD. Leo arranges for him to see a psychiatrist. And after Josh sees the psychiatrist, he talks to Leo. And Leo tells him a story:

This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

We are Christians. And Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things. And I’ll be honest, the biggest thing it asks us to believe is that God has been there, too.

Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things. And I’ll be honest, the biggest thing it asks us to believe is that God has been there, too. Click To Tweet

The world is messed up; we are messed up. We are stuck in this hole and we don’t know how to get out. And Christ jumps in with us. And that’s crazy. It is so crazy that generations of people have criticized Christianity on the grounds that our God is too weak, and doesn’t crush his enemies under his foot, and doesn’t rule the world by force, like any real god would do.

Christ jumps in with us. And that’s crazy.

But Christ can truly say, “It’s okay. I’ve been here before. I know the way out. Follow me.”

That doesn’t mean that things will be easy. Being a Christian—taking the waters of baptism—doesn’t solve our problems all in one go.

After Jesus sends the devil away, he is still hungry. And angels show up to wait on him. And that… that doesn’t happen for us. Unless, by the grace of God, we serve each other. Unless we put aside that temptation to judge our friends and neighbors who are struggling with temptation. Unless we admit that we’ve all been there. 

Unless we jump in the hole and say, “I’ve been down here before, and together, by the grace of God, we can find the way out.”

We are messed up, but we are not alone. We have each other. And we have a God who has been there before. Thanks be to God!

Capital is the Ability to Buy Other People’s Productivity

“This is something more people need to understand: one of the powers of wealth is the ability to buy other people’s productivity.”

Roughly 1,000 news cycles ago—or at the beginning of January—Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offhandedly proposed a 70% marginal tax rate on incomes over $10 million. The pro-wealth right wing responded in exactly the way that people expected. First, they deliberately misunderstood marginal tax rates. Second, they started complaining that a tax rate that high would be taking money away from productive people.

And that really misunderstands what productivity is, who the producers are, and how capitalism works. That’s what David Kalb was getting at in his original tweet… and what I was expanding on in mine.

You see, capitalism works like this. The capitalist has money and a means of production that he can’t operate all by himself. The worker needs money, so she sells her labor to the capitalist. She will take on some of the operation of the means of production in exchange for some of the capitalist’s money. Simple.

Let’s use Jeff Bezos as an example. He has a lot of money—he’s the richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of more than $8 billion (with a b)—and he owns Amazon. But it would be ridiculous to think that he’s coding the Amazon website, stocking the products, taking orders, packaging things for deliver, and so on. In reality, he owns a ‘means of production’: a huge logistics system that is able to move products around the world. And he pays other people to do most of the work of… well, of making sure that huge logistics system works.

Now, let’s invent a fictional worker named Sally. Sally needs money in order to do things like buy food, pay rent, have care insurance, get access to health care, pay off her student loans, and do all of the other things that modern society demands. She does not have a huge logistics system or any other means of production. At least, she doesn’t have any means of production that would make a dent in all of her expenses. So she does what most of us do: she sells her labor to someone like Jeff Bezos. She helps operate his means of production in exchange for some of his money (or, maybe a little more accurately, some of the money that his means of production earns).

It’s a simple arrangement that most of us are used to in one way or another. Capitalism. Easy.

But it also leads to an important question: who here is the productive one? Is it the person who owns the means of production? Or is it the people who operate them? Or is it both? And, if it is both, how is the wealth that’s produced fairly divided between them?

Let’s say that Amazon employs about 500,000 people, including Jeff and Sally (it actually employs tens-of-thousands more). And let’s also say that Amazon generates $200 billion in revenue each year (it actually generates a bit less). Let’s also suppose that a lot of that—half of it—has to go to just keeping Amazon running. If we divided everything equally, that would be $100 billion shared equally among 500,000 people, or $200,000 per person each year. Simple.

Of course, it’s probably not the case that everyone is equally productive. Maybe one person is ten times more productive than someone else. And maybe it would be fair to pay that person ten times as much. So maybe some people only make $50,000 a year and some other people make $500,000 a year. Okay. Still simple.

But here’s the thing. The lowest paid worker at Amazon makes $15 an hour. Assuming a 40 hour workweek, that’s $29,120 a year. Bezos has a salary of about $81,000 a year; a pretty modest salary for the CEO of a major corporation. But he also owns about 80 million shares of Amazon stock, and he makes money every time the stock price increases. That means that he makes the salary of one of those $15-an-hour employees every 11.5 seconds.

I’m not going to do the math. But that means that if we really believe that wealth is a result of productivity, then we have to also believe that Bezos is tens of thousands times more productive than one of his new employees. And that’s just ridiculous. What makes him rich is that he is in the position to buy the productivity of his employees and, therefore, to enjoy the fruits of that productivity. As the owner of the means of production, he doesn’t have to justify his wealth. He doesn’t have to demonstrate that he produces enough to justify the money he receives; he just gets to claim that money because he owns the means of production.

Now, let’s make it worse. Let’s imagine another person who did not create and grow a company like Amazon. Let’s imagine someone who inherited a profitable company and an enormous fortune. Then, let’s imagine that person paid other people to manage that company and invest that fortune. And let’s imagine that those other people were successful and, thanks to their work, that capitalist—that person who has money and a means of production—makes the annual salary of his lowest-paid worker every 12 seconds or so. Is that capitalist productive? No. But he still benefits from the fact that he can pay other people for their productivity and claim the fruits of that productivity.

And that means that he still benefits from the argument that taxing his extravagant wealth is that same thing as taking the rewards of productivity from people who actually are productive. One of the things that capitalism tries to trick us into believing—and it has been remarkably successful at pulling it off—is that wealth is the same as virtue; that a person being rich is evidence enough that the person is smart and productive and whatever else we would like. And while that might be true in some cases, it is obviously not true in others. Wealth has nothing to do with virtue (and, in classical Christian thought, is utterly opposed to it).

One of the things that capitalism tries to trick us into believing is that wealth is the same as virtue Click To Tweet

As I just wrote, it is possible that some wealthy people are also particularly productive. It is possible that there is someone who is so productive that they should receive, say, a million dollars. It is possible.

But two things are definitely true. First, that many wealthy people cannot justify their wealth by pointing to their personal productivity. The only way that they can claim to justify their wealth is by pointing to the fact that they can buy other people’s productivity. And, in the end, that is justifying wealth by pointing to the fact that they were already wealthy. Second, that many people who are productive do not enjoy the fruits of that productivity. They are stuck in a system where they need to sell their productivity for less than it is worth… or, even if they can sell it for what it is worth, they can’t sell it for enough to enjoy a life anything like the capitalists who are in a position to buy it (and who are worried about the top marginal tax rates).

To put it simply, no one is productive enough to justify having the kind of wealth that someone who is worried about the marginal tax rates on incomes over $10 million has. It is possible that wealth is justified by something else, but it cannot be justified through an appeal to productivity. And that is why the argument that high marginal tax rates are not about taking money from people who are productive is garbage.

Baptism

Way back in June, we had a baptism. James and Brianne stood at the front of the church, and I held a kind of squirmy Kaelyn, and I baptized her in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And it was a wonderful day. We welcomed Kaelyn into our family… our little corner of the Kingdom of God.

And, later, someone asked me how I felt about what was obviously my first baptism. And I laughed it off.

But the truth is, that wasn’t my first baptism. It was just my first baptism that wasn’t in a hospital… and my first baptism where the clock wasn’t ticking, or where the clock hadn’t already struck.

You see, baptism is one of our sacraments. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace.

In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, there are seven of these sacraments: baptism, confession, communion, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing the sick. For our Lenten program later this year, we’ll be reading a memoir by Rachel Held Evans organized around those seven sacraments.

In the United Church of Christ—and in most Protestant churches—there are two sacraments. We push confession, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing the sick aside. They’re important, but they’re not sacraments. We stick with baptism and communion. 

And we stick with those two because, we say, they were instituted by Christ himself. 

Communion on the night he was betrayed, when he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it with his friends, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” And likewise, after supper, when he took the cup and blessed it and shared it, saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you. As often as you drink of it, do this in remembrance of me.”

And baptism when… well…

A few weeks ago, during Advent, we met Zechariah and Elizabeth. 

They had a son, named John, and they were told that he would be great in the sight of the Lord. He would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. The spirit and power of the prophet Elijah would go before him. He would make ready a people prepared for the Lord. And I can only imagine how proud they must have been when they imagined the great man that their son would be.

And in today’s reading, we see John… all grown up.

He lives in the wilderness. He wears camel hair clothes and a leather belt. He lives on locusts and wild honey. And the locusts might be a misunderstanding of a word for pancake, or they might be the pods from the carob tree, or they might be insects. He baptizes people in the water of the river Jordan for repentance. He calls Pharisees and Sadducees—Pharisees and Sadducees(!)—a brood of vipers.

He talks about the one who will come after him: the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

And then the one who will come after him… shows up.

It has to be a strange moment. Here is Jesus, the Messiah, king of kings and lord of lords, standing before John in the Jordan, asking to be baptized.

And John responds the same way anyone would respond, “Why are you asking me to baptize you? You’re the Messiah, the king of kinds and lord of lords. I’m not fit to tie your shoes. I need to be baptized by you.”

And Jesus says, “No. We’re doing it this way.”

And John baptizes him, and the heavens open, and the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Baptism is a sacrament. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. And it’s hard to get a more outward and visible sign of God’s grace than the heavens opening and the Spirit descending, and a voice saying, “I am well pleased with you.”

But understand this, because this is so important. Baptism is not a sacrament because Christ performed the first baptism. Baptism isn’t even a sacrament because Christ was the first person to be baptized. 

Baptism is a sacrament simply because Christ joined us in being baptized; and simply because we can join him in that baptism. Whether it’s through a few drops on our heads or being dunked in a river.

And even more: through baptism we join in each other in this family, in the this little corner of the Kingdom of God, and in the whole great big Kingdom of God. Whether we are being baptized in a church on a bright sunny summer morning or in a hospital at the last possible minute or anywhere or anywhen else.

It is no secret that we live in deeply divided times. One of the beautiful things about the United Church of Christ in general—and about First Congregational United Church of Christ in particular—is our diversity. I don’t want to overstate things, we could be a lot more diverse. But one of the joys of serving this church and this denomination is that I get to work with all sorts of people.

And that isn’t always easy. We don’t always get along. We argue.

Sometimes, we argue over important things. Sometimes, we argue over petty things. Sometimes, we argue in a spirit of love. Sometimes, we argue in a spirit of anger. Sometimes, that happens in church. Sometimes, that happens in families. Sometimes, that happens in politics. It happens everywhere. We live in deeply divided times.

Even as a pastor, it can be easy to be pessimistic and fall into the same patterns that we see everywhere else. As a church and as a nation, we face serious challenges; and we live in deeply divided times… and I have this chance to stand in front of you on Sunday morning— behind the authority of the pulpit—and speak to you.

And in the midst of the brokenness of this world, when I preach on controversial things anyway, it can be tempting to speak like John did to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It can be tempting to preach his little sermon:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

And I’m not going to promise that you will never hear that sermon. I’m not going to promise that I will never preach it.

But today—on this Baptism of Christ Sunday—I am hopeful. Because in spite of all of the divisions in the church and in the world, we in this sanctuary, and in churches around the world, are united by the bonds of our baptism.

In spite of all of our differences and disagreements… Maybe even because of them, we are one body, guided by one spirit, called to one hope under the rule of one Lord, sharing one faith, cleansed by the waters of one baptism, worship one God the mother of all.

That is a truth… and that is an opportunity.

You may have noticed that there is something new in the order of worship today. Already this year, I’ve moved some things around… and today, after the sermon, is a time for silent reflection. We’re going to try this for a little while and see how it works; we’re going to take a moment to think about what we heard in the scripture and what we heard in the sermon and what we’ve encountered in our worship and how we can apply it in our lives.

And I’m not going to end every sermon like this.

But today, I want you to think about that person—or, maybe, those people—who you don’t get along with. And I want you to think about the water that touched Christ… and the water that touched you… and the water that touched them. I want you to think about water and the spirit and the promise that binds us together. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

And the next time that person—or, maybe, those people—are getting you riled up or getting on your last nerve… the next time you feel the bile of anger and hatred rise up in you… think about that water… and the way that it connects you… as beloved children of God.

Baptism is a sacrament. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. 

But it isn’t a sacrament because Christ performed the first baptism. And it isn’t a sacrament because Christ was the first person to be baptized. It is a sacrament because Christ—whose shoes we are not fit to tie, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, who carries the winnowing fork, and who will one day clear the threshing floor—joined us in being baptized and bound us inextricably together as one people.

Hallelujah. Amen.

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