We All Have Something to Contribute

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
September 3, 2017


By David Herndon

Labor Sunday

3 September 2017

First Unitarian Church

Pittsburgh PA


Let’s jump right in and look at the two charts you received with your order of service.

The first chart shows cumulative income growth from 1947 to 1979.  During these thirty-two years, whether you were in the top quintile or the bottom quintile or somewhere in between, your income basically doubled.

Right around 1979 or 1980 – that is, right around the time when Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States, and right around the time the steel industry collapsed here in Pittsburgh – our economy experienced a profound shift.  The second chart shows that during the thirty years from 1979 to 2009, growth in real family income was profoundly different across the income spectrum.  For the bottom twenty percent of Americans, real family income actually decreased by seven percent.  For the next twenty percent of Americans, real family income increased by only four percent – a very different reality from the one hundred percent growth this quintile had experienced from 1947 to 1979.  For the middle twenty percent of Americans, real family income increased by just eleven percent, compared to one hundred and eleven percent from 1947 to 1979.  For the next twenty percent, real family income grew by twenty-three percent, far different from the one hundred and fourteen percent growth this quintile had experienced in the previous period.  And for the top quintile, the top twenty percent, real family income grew by forty-nine percent, half of the growth this group of people had experienced previously.

The second chart goes on to show that for the top five percent of people in the United States, real family income growth from 1979 to 2009 was seventy-three percent, somewhat below but still comparable to the eighty-six percent growth these folks had experienced between 1947 and 1979.

But then the second chart discloses something remarkable and troubling.  In sharp contrast to the other ninety-nine percent of Americans, the top one percent of people in the United States experienced a roaring two hundred and twenty-four percent increase in real family income from 1979 to 2009.  Compared to the ninety-nine percent, who did not experience much growth at all from 1979 to 2009, the one percent made out like bandits.

Why do you think our economy experienced this profound shift?

Do you suppose the one percent began to work many times harder than the ninety-nine percent?

Do you suppose the one percent became many times more productive than the ninety-nine percent?

Do you suppose the one percent became many times more ethical than the ninety-nine percent?

Do you suppose the one percent experienced desperate personal needs that justified on humanitarian grounds this massive transfer of wealth?

Do you suppose the one percent were especially favored by God?

Why did practically all the money go to the one percent?

Here is one answer to that question.

Nick Hanauer is an entrepreneur who lives in Seattle.  His net worth is hundreds of millions of dollars.  He believes in the capitalist system.  This past Wednesday, August 30, I happened to hear an interview with him on National Public Radio.  At one point, the conversation focused on the minimum wage, particularly the campaign to raise the minimum wage from seven dollars and twenty-five cents per hour to fifteen dollars an hour.  Here are some benchmarks that Nick Hanauer provided:  If the minimum wage had tracked inflation, it would now be eleven dollars an hour.  If the minimum wage had tracked productivity in the United States, it would now be twenty-two dollars an hour.  And if the minimum wage had tracked the income gains for the top one percent, it would now be twenty-eight dollars an hour.

Nick Hanauer then offered this observation:  “Low-wage workers and middle class workers – rich people stole thirteen dollars an hour from them over the last thirty or forty years by suppressing the minimum wage.  Raising the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour sounds like a lot to a lot of people, but it is actually a third less then they probably deserve.”

Nick Hanauer is not a revolutionary, he is not resentful of capitalism, he is not a socialist, he is not an extremist.  He has enjoyed enormous financial success through the capitalist system, and his answer to the question, “Why did practically all the money go to the one percent?” is that they stole it, at a rate of thirteen dollars per hour per minimum wage worker for the last forty years.

Back in 2014, Nick Hanauer wrote an article.  It was in the form of a memo:“From:  Nick Hanauer.  To:  My Fellow Zillionaires.”  Here is an excerpt from that article:  “The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day.  Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society.  Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France.  Before the revolution.

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us.  No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality.  In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out.  You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state.  Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples.  None.

“Here’s what I say to you:  You’re living in a dream world.  What everyone wants to believe is that when things reach a tipping point and go from being merely crappy for the masses to dangerous and socially destabilizing, that we’re somehow going to know about that shift ahead of time.  Any student of history knows that’s not the way it happens.  Revolutions, like bankruptcies, come gradually, and then suddenly, one day, somebody sets himself on fire, then thousands of people are in the streets, and before you know it, the country is burning.  And then there’s no time for us to get to the airport and jump on our [private jets] and fly to New Zealand.”

In our second principle, we Unitarian Universalist covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in society.Let’s focus on that word “equity” for just a moment.  It is easy to confuse “equity” with “equality,” but they are not the same.  “Equality” means treating each person the same way.  “Equity” means providing each person with what they need to be successful.  “Equity” means those who need more, get more.  As Unitarian Universalists, how can we look at those two charts about gains in real family income and not feel that this economic reality in the United States totally violates the vision of an equitable society that is expressed in our second principle?  How can we look at those two charts and not feel, with Nick Hanauer, that the economic resources that tens of millions of people need to be successful have been stolen from them?


One of the responsive readings in the back of our hymnbook is entitled “To Worship.”  It was written by Unitarian Universalist minister Jacob Trapp.  This beautiful reading lifts up many different kinds of mindful human activity and characterizes them as different forms of worship.  Interestingly, Jacob Trapp does not include sitting in church on a Sunday morning and listening to a sermon in the list of mindful human activities that he calls worship.  But that is a subject for another day!

One line from Jacob Trapp’s responsive reading is this:  “To worship is to work with dedication and skill.”

Well, what about that?  Can work be done in such a way that it is worshipful?

Dr. King said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry.  He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

Kahlil Gibran said, “Work is love made visible.”  “And what is it to work with love?  It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.  It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.  It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.  It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit, and to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.”

What would it mean for you to do your work in a way that is worshipful?

What would it mean for you to do your work so that its worth is not necessarily measured by the market place, but rather by the standards of your heart?  Or by the standards of your sense of calling?

Shared Ministry

As many of you know, both of my parents live here in Pittsburgh in an assisted living or personal care community called Schenley Gardens.  My dad uses a wheelchair, having suffered a broken hip eighteen months ago.  My mom has difficulty with her short-term memory.  Because of their age-related physical difficulties, neither of them can provide much economic value to our society other than as consumers of assisted living services.  They do not manufacture anything.  They do not write code for computers.  They do not work on highway construction projects.  And they no longer serve as educators, as they did during their working years.

Both of my parents are also members of First Unitarian Church.  They have identified as Unitarian Universalists since the mid-1950s.  They have been part of three other Unitarian Universalist congregations, one of which they helped to create from scratch.  They have made many different kinds of contributions and served in many different leadership roles.  But they cannot really do much of anything for First Unitarian Church.  To be sure, they do make a financial contribution to this congregation.  But they cannot serve on a ministry team or a committee.  Once in a while my mom joins us here in this Sanctuary on Sunday morning, and once in a while she attends a Women’s Alliance gathering.  But that is about all.

Because they cannot contribute to any “deliverables” that go into monthly reports or annual reports, what is their value for our congregation?  Are they welcome?  Are they included?

I am asking these questions not just for my parents.  Rather, I am asking these for all the people who are official members of our church but, for one reason or another, cannot contribute much to the life of our church.

Just a few days ago I was able to track down one of our members who joined our church back in 1954 and then rejoined in 1999.  Yes, we had a mailing address for her.  But the online mailing list for our denominational magazine, the Unitarian Universalist World, said that this address was no longer valid.  With some internet detective work and a few phone calls, I was able to discover that this particular person was a resident of one of the continuing care retirement communities far out in the Pittsburgh suburbs.  She had moved from independent living to skilled nursing care.  Who knew?  Not us.  Yes, I will go to visit her.  No, I do not know whether she will remember me or if she will remember First Unitarian Church.  But as a member of our church, she is part of our covenant, and that covenant does not depend on what one contributes to the life of our church.  Rather, that covenant endures through the ups and downs of life, kind of like a marriage, in sickness and in health, for better for worse.  Ultimately, what we are about in this religious community is relationship, relatedness, being together, being in covenantal relationship.  So when someone cannot be part of our shared ministry, cannot help with those “deliverables,” we do not end our relationship with them.  The relationship just changes.

Our spiritual theme for September is Welcome, and we might do well to ponder what it means to welcome someone who struggles with their abilities.  In the larger society, there is a paradox whereby our society often does not value people who do not work, and yet at the same time our society often does not value people who do work, that is, does not value people who do certain types of work.  Cleaning toilets.  Serving fast food.  Waxing floors at night.  Washing dishes.  For some people, you are looked down up on if you do not work, but you are still looked down up even if you do work.  But as a member of our church, where we seek to have a covenantal relationship with one another, our value to one another transcends our ability to contribute to the life of the church.  And yet it is easy to slide over into standards of inclusion that are contractual, where people are not valued for themselves.

Nevertheless, I operate on the assumption that most of us who are part of this congregation are willing to help out one way or another, that is, most of us who are part of this congregation are willing to serve as resources for our shared ministry.  Part of my job is to match people with appropriate portions of our shared ministry, whether that is visiting someone in a hospital room, or preparing the Sanctuary for Sunday morning, or helping to design and present our worship celebrations, or building a deeper sense of community among ourselves.  If there is one thing I hope you will take away from my sermon this morning, which has rambled out in many directions, it is that when you agree to carry out a portion of our shared ministry, you are doing the things I spoke about earlier in my sermon.   When you become part of our shared ministry, you are promoting economic justice, for you are strengthening this institution; and when you become part of our shared ministry, you are doing worshipful work, for what you contribute to the life of our congregation comes from your heart:it is love made visible, as Khalil Gibran would say.  Ideally, everyone in our church would be able to take up some portion of our shared ministry, and I will continue to ask you all to help out; and for those like my parents who are not in a position to help out, that is all the more reason for the rest of us to step up and do what we can while we can.

© 2017 by David Herndon

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
605 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
(412) 621-8008     Map and directions
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