September 20, 2015 Sermon by Art

Proclaim 09 20 15  We’re in this Together, Aren’t We?

After leaving the post-funeral party for my sister on Thursday in Quincy at about 3pm, with fingers crossed Melanie and I drove down rte 93 towards the Ted Williams’ Tunnel on our way back to Salem. Guess what? We hit gridlock, the likes of which I had never experienced. We arrived home nearly 3 hours later, a trip of about 20 miles. Maybe those new tunnels weren’t worth it after all. It’s always busy but it seemed to me that it is worse over the last 6-12 months. Then we turn on our new TV!!!!!(thanks, Holtons) and listen to Greater Boston where the host, Jim Braude, is complaining about a 2 hour ride from Brighton to Milton one day recently. In the course of listening to their analysis as to the root of the problem the light bulb went off in my head as to one potentially key explanation: low gas prices! More cars on the road and less public transit use; it’s an old formula, but, I think often true. Think I’m nuts/ You could be right, but it’s my theory based on some evidence.

I got to thinking that last year when many of us through ECCO worked on ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage and attain 5 days of earned sick time for workers there was another ballot initiative to reverse a billed passed by the Mass. Legislature to raise the gas tax by 3 cents a gallon. Sadly, in my view, that initiative also won, thus eliminating this modest increase, an increase that hadn’t happened in years. We were so ecstatic about our victories, we didn’t take time to mourn this defeat for our common lives together. I get that taxes can be a burden, and that self-interest might persuade us to resist them, but taxes can also be an investment in the future, a future we live with one another.

I, of course, have no idea how any of you voted on that issue, and I presume some of you might disagree with the statement I just made. I respect that and, if it is true, I hope it is something we can discuss. But I have a theory as to why folks might have voted to cancel the gas tax increase: we don’t have a way to talk about what serves the common good, i.e., we don’t even use the expression, nor would we know how to define it if we did use it. Even though it is a key concept in many religious traditions, it has not been much part of our national consciousness as North Americans. We think more, even if unconsciously, in terms of self-interest, that is, in a free, democratic society, everything works best if we all take care of our own issues.

On Labor Day, two weeks ago, I spoke a bit about the early years of the arrival of the Puritans from England, and of the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, who on his arrival in 1630 articulated a vision for this country and its people in a sermon entitled: “A Model of Christian Charity.” In it he used the famous expression that we are to be “a city set upon a hill,” a beacon of light for all to see, etc., and he goes on to say: “We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our COMMUNITY as members of our same body.” As sociologist, Robert Bellah states in reflecting upon Winthrop’s vision, “ (The Puritans) fundamental criterion of success was not material wealth but the creation of a community in which a genuinely ethical and spiritual life could be lived.”  This vision was fundamental to the notion that we are the COMMONWEALTH of Massachusetts! We’re in this together; we look out for one another; when one is affected, all are. Bellah cites a great anecdote attributed to Winthrop: “When it was reported to him during an especially long and hard winter that a poor man in his neighborhood was stealing from his woodpile, Winthrop called the man into his presence and told him that because of the severity of the winter and his need, he had permission to supply himself from Winthrop’s woodpile for the rest of the cold season. Thus, he said to his friends, did he effectively cure the man from his stealing.” Reminds me a little of Dickens’ Scrooge, who when Bob Cratchit returned to work a little late after Christmas holidays, he sternly called him into his office and said, Gruffly, “what do you mean by coming here at this time of day?…step this way…I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer…and therefore I am about to raise your salary!…I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family…make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another I, Bob Cratchit!”

So how do we talk about the common good? Is it relevant? Does it matter? To me, it’s crucial or we will assuredly perish together. We can’t keep building prisons or higher walls or gated communities, whether along our borders or our local communities. Basically, writes theologian Drew Christianson, just what constitutes the common good begins with a dialogue; we need to come together and discuss it and our differences. It might look different in different contexts. Among other things, writes Christianson, it will take this kind of an attitude: “…consideration toward the opinions of others, self-restraint in pursuing one’s own claims, willingness to persuade others over the long term, a desire for cooperation, a disinclination for divisiveness, and protective concern for civil peace…i.e., mutual understanding, self-examination, charity, and belief in the possibilities for agreement…” Ultimately, suggests Christianson, the common good means: “Everyone in the society ought to be able to share in an advancing quality of life…(meaning, among other things that) privileged individuals, groups, and nations must make sacrifices, even from their substance, to close the gap between themselves and the poor.” Or we’re doomed!

As I’ve mentioned many times before, part of what church or religious community is all about, it seems to me, is practicing here what we hope to live out not only here in church but outside in community and country. Religious community is a kind of laboratory, if you will. We do that with ECCO, Family Promise, Open Door, Grace Center, PFLAG, soon Good Company. We reach out and break down barriers; we share, we listen, we cooperate.

Concerning the internal workings of the church, an amazing thing happened in these last few months. Starting last September, we raised salaries significantly, especially for the RE Director and Minister, devoted resources to building upkeep, added more help for children and toddlers, and, by May, at the annual meeting, we were told by our treasurer, the most dedicated and committed treasurer one could ever imagine, Tom Duff, that we were looking at a potential deficit by the end of the fiscal year, August 31, of $16,000.  Quietly and clearly, Tom, and Moderator, Barbara Corning-Davis, asked the congregation, most especially those who were most able, to dig a bit deeper if possible, and close that gap. Tom reported to the board on Wednesday that our end of the year deficit was about $93. And, he added, there is one income item that wasn’t yet reported that might leave us with an actual surplus of $300 or so. This is phenomenal and it took the generosity of many, many people to make that happen. Those who could, I would suggest, thought not of themselves or their self-interest, so much, but the common good of the church community. That is what a committed, generous church community can do when it practices what it preaches. And it will allow us to continue to do ministry outside the walls of this church, serving the wider community. That vision is what we need to bring to our community and our nation.

This year, along with our work in the community to help the police and the community work together to make sure there are no more Fergusons or Staten Island’s here on the North Shore, some are calling Black Lives Matter, we call it our beloved community movement, and our ongoing work with immigrants, ECCO is working across the state with other faith communities and groups to help pass a ballot initiative that will, if successful, change the state constitution, to allow for the implementation of a more progressive income tax. Instead of one flat tax of 5.15% for all people, this initiative will create a second tier for those taxable earnings over 1,000,000 at an increase of 4%. If passed, the added monies, projected to be approximately 1.3billion, will be directed towards education and transportation issues only. This effort is an attempt to help Massachusetts to become more of a commonwealth by more fairly and, I would say justly, spreading out the cost of our common lives together. Some may think this not the most fair or appropriate way to live out our collective lives. We need to hear from you and, as Christianson suggests, listen well and deliberate together, with the hope of reaching more common understanding. But less you think, as some would have it, we are joining in on a new class war with this initiative, I encourage us all to read a piece from Friday’s Boston Globe, by business writer Shirley Leung, entitled: “The Rich Who Say Tax Me More,” where she quotes a wealthy millionaire, who referring back to a time in his life when taxes were higher on the well-to-do, says about paying higher taxes: “I was delighted. I felt privileged to be in a position to pay.”

Or, if you are not so persuaded of the virtue of such statements from some of our well-to-do neighbors, you might want to just explore the bible a bit, where the scourges of poverty and inequality are mentioned hundreds and hundreds of times, and, not least of which Jesus addresses over and over again. It likely was one of the main reasons he was executed in a conspiracy between the high priests and the Roman government. When Jesus died, the early community of followers whose lives and works are described in the Acts of the Apostles, lived together in community and shared everything they had. Or read from our Universalist forebears who, at Worcester, MA., at an annual convention in 1917, spoke against economic inequality and the creation of “An Economic Order which shall give to every human being an equal share in the common gifts of God, and in addition all that he shall earn by his own labor.” Sounds like a pitch for the Common Good.

I recently received the latest edition of a magazine I have a subscription to, THE NATION. Before you react, full disclosure, I fully admit it’s a left-wing rag; not the most left, but pretty left. So I’m guilty as charged. But, why I’m sharing this admission with you is on the front cover is Pope Francis. And why that’s significant is that besides leaning to the left, the magazine is virulently anti-religious, and for the Pope to be on the front page is more than mildly shocking. Even the NATION is wondering just what this unpredictable fellow might say to the President, the Congress and the UN. My hunch is Pope Francis would support this ballot initiative; just a guess.  But, if you are not fond of the Pope, like some of my family, that won’t help persuade you to join in on ECCO’s initiative, I understand.

But I must admit, in closing, after 12 years back here in Massachusetts, greater Boston, I now have a total phobia about driving through the tunnels and onto 93, South or North. I have gridlock nightmares and might start looking into the Salem ferry. And, if another initiative comes along that supports raising the gas tax, thus encouraging less driving and more use of public transit, I’m forewarning you I’ll be all over it.

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