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Sermons: “Speaking With Your Money

I should consider giving up traditional ministry and become a psychic or a prophetess or something. You see, about a month ago I chose the topic of today's sermon, “Speaking With Your Money.” Then, a week ago, as I started to think about how to put this sermon together, I heard the latest news—Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh had won the Nobel Peace Prize for nothing less than speaking with his money and helping others to do the same.

As I learned more about him a few words stood out that sum up his philosophy. He said, “We achieve what we want to achieve. If we are not achieving something, my first suspicion will fall on the intensity of our desire to achieve it.” [1]

It got me thinking: What do I want to achieve? Not in terms of personal gain, but in terms of what would I like to be a part of changing in this world?

There are so many worthy goals. It's easy to get overwhelmed with choices or to get torn in so many directions that one's efforts are totally diluted.

What can I get energized around to the point that I have an intensity of commitment? Then how can I use my money to further that goal or goals? How might the fact that I am Unitarian Universalist inform those decisions?

Bangladesh in 1974. Thousands of people died. At the time he was teaching economics at Chittagong University.

Yunus wrote, “People were dying on the streets; we could see human bodies like skeletons, walking like zombies, lying on the street sides.” [2]

“Nothing in the economic theories I taught reflected the life around me. How could I go on telling my students make believe stories in the name of economics? I needed to run away from these theories and from my textbooks and discover the real-life economics of a poor person's existence." [3]

He could no longer follow his original life plan. So he stopped teaching economics and began to focus on the goal of finding an economic solution to poverty. He experimented with a variety of approaches, until in 1976 one unusual attempt succeeded.

In that year, Yunus met a twenty-one year old woman, Sufia Begum, who had to borrow money to buy bamboo to make stools. She earned 25 cents a day, but after paying off her debt from borrowing fees, she only took home two cents a day. She could barely feed herself. Yunus' solution focused on trust and community. He trusted the woman and took a risk by lending $27 of his own money. He didn't just lend the money to her though, and that fact is part of his success. He lent the money to her and her neighbors who shared her trade. He asked the group to pay it back over the course of the next year. It worked and he found that both of those elements made a difference in the success. Next, he agreed to serve as a guarantor on a larger loan from a traditional bank. He soon got fed up with the traditional banking system. He developed Grameen Bank using the principles of trust and a community of people who have a commitment to help each other. The system includes a willingness to take risks and a commitment to human rights.

Grameen Bank uses methods that are pretty much opposite of conventional banking. For example:

  • Conventional banking says, the more you have, the more we will lend you. The Grameen Bank believes credit should be a human right. It lends money to those who posses nothing, but have potential to earn. It looks for untapped potential.
  • Conventional banks are owned by rich people (mostly men). Poor women own Grameen Bank.
  • Conventional banking is based on collateral. Grameen credit is based on trust.
  • Grameen does not lend to individuals, but to groups of people who are them responsible to each other. New loans are available when previous loans are paid.
  • Conventional banks punish people who can't pay loans. Grameen bank helps borrowers reschedule loans.
  • Conventional banks require lots of paperwork. Grameen lends money to illiterate people.

The bank now has 6.6 million borrowers. Yunus set out to end poverty. The Nobel Committee acknowledged him for working toward world peace because they believe that we can't have peace until we find ways to get people out of poverty.

He used basic loving human values and creativity to speak with his money. The message carried far beyond his original dreams, opening a world of possibility. Mohammad Yunus wrote, “ Grameen has taught me two things: first our knowledge base about people and their interactions is still very inadequate; second, each individual person is very important. Each person has tremendous potential. She alone can influence the lives of others within communities, nations-within and beyond her own time. Each of us has much more hidden inside of us than what we have had a chance to explore so far. Unless we create [an] enabling environment to discover the limits of our potential—we will never know what we have inside of us. Grameen has given me a faith, an unshakable faith in the creativity of human beings. That leads me to believe that human beings are not born to suffer the misery of hunger and poverty. They suffer now and did in the past because we turn our mind away from the issue.” [4]

Reading this I thought, how could Yunus's approach to Speaking With His Money apply to us? When he said, “We achieve what we want to achieve,” he used a communal “we”, not the “we” of each one of you gathered here individually. I know this because he saw that an individual person could not pull themselves out of poverty. His money got a process started, but ultimately it took a community of poor people working together to help each other.

In our individualistic society we tend to ask the question, “How can I make a difference? How would I like the world to change? What can I do?”

I suggest we look for a community perspective. The fact that you are here in this room right now indicates that you have at least a sense of the importance of community, maybe a deep commitment to it.

I belong to this church because Unitarian Universalism (UU) encompasses my core values. I think the world needs our message. We speak out our belief in the worth and value of every human being. We don't exclude people who we don't understand or who might seem very different from us. We stand for human rights and for peace and for the freedom to speak our conscience, even when others disagree. We celebrate many paths along the journey of life and we learn from the diversity. We treasure the natural world and we grapple with the responsibility of interdependence.

I give away a set percentage of my money each month to causes I believe in, but I always start by giving to this church. That might seem odd when there are so many soul crushing problems in this world, but it does make a lot of sense. Unitarian Universalism helps me to clarify and live out my values. This community guides me in figuring out what matters most. It develops my core from which I can then reach out to others. I give to Sunnyhill first because I am a member of this congregation. I want to support the programs of this church. I'm not just the minister, I also believe in the mission and values of this church. I'm thrilled with what this congregation offers my sons—community and an encouragement to explore their own values. I love the vitality of this church, the programs, the discussion, the social events, the services. I believe we offer something important to the local community. I also believe we can't keep this to ourselves. So I'm glad we have a space issues. I support the process of grappling with how to address these problems. I especially support anything that will help to grow this church and therefore grow Unitarian Universalism and make us more visible and available to the larger community.

It takes money to do this. I know that. I want to do my part. I particularly like the fair share contribution chart because it gives me some guidance on how to figure out how to give generously within my means.

And, yes, the money I give comes from my salary. Some of it returns as my salary and benefits, in between it becomes the we money of the church. It might sound strange, but in reality that's how a lot of the money we give away works. Sometimes the link between the money we give and the benefits we receive come directly in terms of—for example a safer community, a cleaner, healthier environment, cures for diseases that affects ourselves or loved ones.

Sometimes the link is intangible. It comes back to us in direct proportion to the attitude with which we give. When I'm stingy, I constrict inside. When I'm generous in my giving and my attitude, it opens my heart.

I came across a story in the book The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist, that explains the intangibles of attitude and giving. Lynne Twist wrote about a job she had as a fund raiser for the Hunger Project. One day she met a corporate executive in his high rise office in Chicago. All she knew about the food company he worked for was that it had recently suffered a major image problem due to inappropriate actions. The idea of contributing to a cause aimed at ending world hunger might help “clean up its image.”

She wrote,

“I was ushered into the CEO's office. There he sat at his desk, and I sat facing him on the other side…The backlighting made it so that I could barely see his face. I only had fifteen minutes of his time, so I spoke quickly about the mission and work of our organization and the challenges of ending world hunger. I talked about the courage of the hungry people and the partnership that we all needed to provide them in their courageous commitment to feed themselves and their children and build the conditions for a healthy and productive life. When I was done and had made my request, he opened his desk drawer and pulled out a preprinted check for $50,000 and passed it across the desk to me.

“It was clear that he wanted me gone as quickly as possible. The perfunctory presentation and the tone of his voice told me that he had no genuine interest in our work, in connecting with resource-poor people or in making any kind of a difference in the work to end world hunger. This was purely a strategic move. He wanted t off-load the guilt and shame from public mistakes the company had made. And he wanted to have the company look good in the media. In purely financial terms, it was to be a simple transactions: Handing me this check for $50,000 bought his company an opportunity to mend its reputation. But as he slid the check over to me, I felt the guilt of the company coming right across that desk with the money. He game me the money and the company's guilt” [5]

Immediately after that she flew to NYC. Here is what she experience there in her own words,

“I arrived in New York in the middle of a rainstorm, and made my way to Harlem , to an old church building. I walked down the steps to the basement room where about seventy-five people had gathered for the fund-raising events. The surroundings couldn't have been more different from the penthouse office that I had left only a few hours before. It was raining, and there were leaks all over the room where we were meeting. Buckets were strategically placed all around the outer walls catching the dripping water…..I looked out at the audience, and I knew that the people sitting there did not have much money to give. I spoke to them about The Hunger Project's commitment to Africa , as I thought it would be the most relevant to their own lives and their heritage. When it came time to ask for donations, my palms were sweating and I began to wonder if it was the right thing to do. Went ahead and made the request, and the room fell absolutely silent.

“After what seemed like a long silent pause, a woman stood up. She was sitting on the aisle in a row near the back. She was in her late sixties or early seventies, and she had gray hair parted down the middle and swept up into a tidy bun. When she stood up, she was tall, slender, erect, and proud.

“'Girl,' she said, 'my name is Gertrude and I like what you've said and I like you,' she said. 'Now, I ain't got no checkbook and I ain't got no credit cards. To me, money is a lot like water. For some folks it rushed through their life lie a raging river. Money comes through my life like a little trickle. But I want to pass it on in a way that does the most good for the most folks. I see that as my right and as my responsibility. It's also my joy. I have fifty dollars in my purse that I earned from doing a white woman's wash and I want to give it to you.'

“She walked up the aisle and handed me her fifty dollars. It was in five-dollar, ten-dollar, and one-dollar bills. Then she gave me a big hug. As she headed back to her seat, other people started coming up and making their own contributions in singles and five-dollar, ten-dollar, and twenty-dollar bills. I was so moved that I was crying. I couldn't hold all the bills in my hands, so at one point, I opened my briefcase and put it on the table to act as a kind of basket for the money. These moments, with people streaming up to give their money, had the feeling of a ceremony. There was a sense of integrity and heart. The amount of money that we received—maybe $500 at the most—was more precious to me than any I'd ever seen before. I realized that at the bottom of that same briefcase, underneath all these bills, was the $50,000 check. As I saw it, I also realized that Gertrude's fifty dollars felt more valuable to me and ultimately would do more to end hunger than the check for an amount one thousands times more.

“The money I received from Gertrude carried the energy of her commitment to make a difference—the stamp of her soul—and as I accepted the money, I felt inspired by her and renewed by her expression of integrity and purpose. I felt my organization's principles and programs affirmed, not only by her fifty dollars, but also by her contributions of spirit.” [6]

This encounter gave Lynne some extra courage. The next day she mailed the $50,000 check back to the Chicago CEO with a note thanking him for his consideration and suggesting that he choose an organization that the company felt truly committed to.

Years later, she received a letter from that executive saying how that returned check has made a difference in his life.

“In his retirement he had looked back on his long and fruitful career, and one thing that had stood out for him was our interaction and the return of that $50,000 check with the letter explaining that we were looking for committed partners. It stood out for him as a seminal moment when all the rule of corporate America that he had so deeply learned—that you do anything and everything to increase profits—all those rules had been broken by someone outside his world returning the company's money.

“Reflecting from retirement on meaningful moments, he realized that he did, in fact, want to make a difference in ending world hunger. He did want the money under his control to make a difference, and he could see now that it was possible to make a meaningful contribution to ending world hunger. So from his own pocket, and in affirmation of his own commitment, he made a personal contribution to The Hunger Project many times in excess of the $50,000 that had been returned.” [7]

So, if you are going to give a $50,000 check to this church, do it with gusto and conviction or, you never know, the board might just return it. And if like me, you don't have that kind of money, give what you can with enthusiasm and conviction. Know that how you give matters.

One aspect of attitude involves moving out of a focus on my beliefs as an individual and moving towards community giving. Sometimes this congregation encourages us to join together in support of important causes that help to live out UU values. We have joined together in giving significant contributions to the UU Service Committee which advocates for human rights and social justice around the world. In fact, the Unitarian Universalist Association recognized this congregation last year for our outstanding giving to Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. A year ago, we joined together to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. We give money as a congregation to Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network and South Hills Interfaith Ministries. But I think we can do much more as a community. I know members of Sunnyhill joined together a number of years ago to help with a microcredit bank through FINCA.

We could take this a step further. Last spring, the board discussed the idea of taking an offering each month during the Sunday service which would be given not to the church, but to a worthy cause that furthers our UU values. At that time the board agreed to figure out how to do this effectively this year. Karen Zoller will be taking over leadership of the social justice committee next month. I know she would like to make this actually happen. I will support her every step of the way.

I'd like that to happen, but I don't want to stop there. I would like to see us do something even more dramatic. There are definitely people in this congregation who struggle, but the majority of us, myself included, have plenty of money, in comparison to the majority of people around the world. We all make choices. Sometimes we made the decisions so many years ago that we've forgotten they were choice: decisions vehicles, homes, vacations, entertainment, activities for children, computers, television and other technological life enhancements, pets. I set aside a certain percentage of my income to give away before I spend money on other things. For me, that percentage is six. Other percentages might make sense for families in different circumstances. This method helps me to be disciplined in giving and make more generous choices.

Some congregations use this strategy as well by voting to give a set percentage of their operating budget to social justice causes. I challenge Sunnyhill to raise our level of social consciousness and agree to allocate five percent of our operating budget to social justice causes which further the values of Unitarian Universalism. What if we not only took, this step, but did it with conviction? And now, since my subject is Speaking With Your Money, I'd like to put my money where my mouth is with this pledge: If this congregation votes to give five percent of its operating budget to social justice causes, I will personally raise my 2007 pledge by an additional $50 per month.

Are you up to the challenge?

Footnotes

  1. “Overcoming Poverty through Entrepreneurial Empowerment” by Dr. Muhammad Yunus, 1995 Max Schmidheiny Foundation at the University of St. Gallen.
  2. Ibid.
  3. PBS.org: The New Heroes
  4. Microcredit Countdown 2005 Newsletter
  5. P.98-99 The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist
  6. P.100 The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist
  7. P.118 The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist

Source:

2007 Stewardship Sermon Award Winner

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

For more information contact apf@uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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