Sunday, January 27, 2008


a sermon preached by the Rev Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday January 27, 2008

OPENING WORDS: “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence, nor imagination, nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius” -- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, b. Jan 27, 1756


My message this morning is a simple one: so simple, in fact, I can summarize it in three words. "People are Precious." I wish I could say that I thought that up myself, but I didn't — it was originally the motto of the Reverend Robert “Daddy Bob” Raible, who was for many years the minister of the First Unitarian Church in Dallas, and whose son Peter Raible was one of my early mentors in ministry at University Unitarian Church in Seattle. But it's still a good motto, and I'm not above stealing it; and I put it before you this morning not so much as a proposition of fact, but rather as a proposition of faith.

If I were to stick strictly to the facts, I think I would have an awfully tough time proving this proposition. What is the inherent worth of a human being anyway? A couple of dollars in chemicals, the value of which is doubtlessly less than the cost of their extraction? Or perhaps a few dollars an hour, 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year — even less if you happen to have been born somewhere in the so-called “developing” world. And I suppose in some way it’s always been this way. “The poor ye shall always have with you,” and perhaps the best first thing we really can do to remedy that situation is to work hard not to become one of them ourselves. It’s not the whole solution, but it’s a start.

Of course, having grown up in Seattle, I was born into a community that is generally considered one of the major beneficiaries of globalization. And, of course, over the many years I lived in the Pacific Northwest, I also eventually became something of a coffee-snob.

It’s true; one of my greatest “small pleasures” in life is brewing and drinking freshly ground whole-bean coffee. These days, I generally try to seek out shade-grown, Fair Trade beans when I can find them (and they’re becoming much easier to find all the time); they cost a few dollars more; but I can afford it, and it’s worth it to me...not because the quality of the coffee itself is any better, but for the difference I’d like to HOPE it makes in the quality of other peoples lives.

Fair trade or not, the Colombian peasant who handpicked those coffee beans (Juan Valdez, or one of his neighbors) was probably only paid pennies for his labor: the average wage of a Latin American coffee picker is still only a couple of dollars a day.

The part-time barista who sells me the coffee is probably doing a little bit better, possibly earning slightly more than the minimum wage: still not enough to support a family above the official US government poverty line, but a fortune to someone like Juan Valdez.

And would anyone even care to hazard a guess at the net worth and gross annual income of Howard Schultz, the founder, former, and now once again Chief Executive Officer of Starbucks?

If I were to ask each of you, individually, "what are you worth?" what would you tell me? The amount of money you earn? The size of your investment portfolio? The appraised value of your home minus the outstanding balance of your mortgage? As I said, if I were to present it to you as a proposition of fact, I would have a difficult time proving my case.

So instead I put it before you as a proposition of faith. "People are Precious" — every human being has an inherent worth and dignity which we must honor and respect as people of faith. Starbucks is generally considered a pretty progressive company, but we all know in our heart of hearts that Howard Schultz is not inherently a more worthy person than Juan Valdez simply because his annual income is several hundred thousand times as great.

Nor do corporate CEO's have some kind of God-given right to dictate policies that deliberately (or even unintentionally) undermine the worth and dignity of third-world people simply because the impersonal nature of the global economy and international commodities markets allows them that power.

Actions like these are on some fundamental level both immoral and unjust — and one of our principle responsibilities as a faith community is to educate ourselves about these things, to try to understand them in all their complexity, to confront them, and then to learn how best to change them -- first in our own lives, and then in the larger society where we live.

Yet I also realize at times these issues and these responsibilities are difficult even for reasonably sensitive and political aware individuals to see and fully comprehend, preoccupied as we so often are by our own economic circumstances, and the outrageous price of heating oil, and sneakers, and whole-bean coffee.

Worth is one thing. Dignity is something else. To dignify something is to honor it, whether it is truly worthy or not, which is why diplomats treat even the most notoriously odious “official” dignitaries as honored and respected guests: to do otherwise would be undignified.

An indignity, on the other hand, is a source of insult and humiliation, to which it often seems the only appropriate response is one of righteous indignation. An ability to maintain one’s own sense of dignity even in the midst of the most undignifying and embarrassing circumstances is a wonderful skill; it allows us to retain a feeling of self-respect and self-confidence even when all the evidence would seem to be pointing in the opposite direction. In my experience, the secret to this skill is really very simple: it is merely the cultivation of a humble willingness to appear foolish for a worthy cause.

And likewise, the willingness to treat others with dignity and respect, regardless of their particular circumstances or perceived “worthiness,” is a magnificent gift: a small act of generosity and kindness in what is often a cruel and unforgiving world.

And this is why it is so appropriate that we begin with the proposition that "People Are Precious." Because an important early step in every spiritual journey is the humble recognition and acknowledgment of our own inherent worth and dignity: the realization that despite our own apparent unworthiness, that we are unique, that we are special, that we have been given a great gift thin the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity simply to be alive -- a give we didn’t really ask for, and don’t really deserve, and for which our only appropriate response is one of gratitude and generosity.

And this in turn is followed by a great leap of faith, in the form of a devoted commitment to treat others with the same respect and dignity and integrity we believe we are worthy of receiving ourselves.

"Love your neighbor as yourself, " "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" — the Golden Rule, the fundamental moral teaching of every great religion known to humankind. It's a simple rule: most of us have known it by heart since childhood. So why, then, is the Golden Rule so difficult a principle to take to heart?

I can think of at least three common factors which contribute to our inhibitions to live up to this ideal. And the first is simply the common human tendency to be suspicious: to anticipate the worst out of a given situation rather than making a special effort to have it turn out for the best. I have no doubts some of you may have also heard that well-known parody of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others before they get the chance to do it unto you."

In a society as mobile and transient as ours, where anonymity is often the rule rather than the exception, and we must frequently interact with total strangers, trust can become a very precious commodity. Sometimes it can seem as though an open and trusting attitude merely extends an open invitation for others to take advantage of us; we’ve all heard those proverbs as well: "a fool and his money are soon parted," "never give a sucker an even break."

Yet although a certain degree of caution and skepticism may well be an unavoidable necessity in preventing our own exploitation by the unscrupulous, this does not grant us a license to be callous or manipulative in our own behavior. The Golden Rule does not call us to do unto others as we are afraid they might do unto us. It demands a standard somewhat higher than our minimum expectations. It calls us to maintain an ideal which exceeds what we might reasonably expect of others, to act the way we might wish to be treated, respecting the worth and dignity of strangers even when they have done nothing in particular to deserve it, simply because by doing so we affirm our own worth and dignity as well.

It calls for us to be trustworthy even when those we deal with may not be completely worthy of our trust. It calls for us to be honest even when we fear we are being cheated. It calls for us to be truthful even when we know we are being lied to. It calls for us to be forgiving, and generous of spirit, simply because that is the right way to be. It does not, I believe, require that we become fools or suckers. It merely insists that we refrain from exploiting the weakness and naiveté of others, even when it lies within our power to do so.

This brings us to a second source of inhibition: that sinking feeling many of us experience deep down inside us that maybe we don't really deserve to be treated as well as we are. Popular psychology even has a name for this experience — it's called "The Impostor Syndrome," and it's dangerous because it tempts us to believe that we can't afford to be kind and generous of spirit; that deep down inside we're really just fakes, and if we allow ourselves to be too forgiving, we run the risk of being found out as something less than we appear.

Of course, the great irony of this affliction (which I suspect is far more common than most of us would imagine) is that what it truly reflects is the tendency of many sincere human beings to judge themselves by standards far more strict and demanding than those by which they would ordinarily be evaluated by their peers. Knowing those deep, dark secrets which only we can know about ourselves, we become our own worst critics; and thus it appears to us far less threatening simply to withdraw from a profound and authentic engagement with the world, than it would be to do unto others as harshly as we ourselves do unto ourselves.

Until we are willing honestly to take responsibility for our triumphs, and forgive ourselves our failures, we stand little chance of doing likewise for those with whom we interact. When our own sense of worth and dignity is so tenuous, so fragile, we simply become incapable of recognizing that everyone else is in exactly the same boat. How can we put ourselves in the other guy's shoes when our own seem too large for us to fill?

Perhaps the Impostor Syndrome would be more easily overcome were it not for the third inhibition I perceive to the ideal: the tendency of our society to set up false and artificially objectified categories of worth and privilege, which undermine our appreciation of the inherent worth and dignity which is all of our birthrights. "Whosoever has the Gold makes the rules" — a man is only worth the value of his productive labor, and a woman 67% of that.

The absurdity of it all is apparent on its face; and yet its pervasive cultural influence remains undiminished. There are winners and there are losers, the elect and the reprobate, the sheep and the goats, the sharks and the minnows. Our dignity is dependent solely upon our worth; our worth dependent exclusively upon our wealth; and those who have nothing deserve nothing better.

This philosophy, which sometimes goes by the name of Social Darwinism, takes an instrumental view of humankind — life is cheap, people are playthings. The means and the ability to impose one's will upon the world becomes the ultimate standard of moral authority; might makes right, and is its own justification.

Yet any ideology which takes an exclusively economic view of human worth is ultimately both soul-crushing and spiritually bankrupts; we become our jobs, we are reduced to our paychecks, we are left pre-disposed to live and die as nothing more than replaceable parts in the gigantic industrial engine which drives our throw-away civilization.

As I said when we started this morning, a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person is fundamentally a proposition of faith. This odd notion that "People are Precious" in and of themselves is a dangerous one, because it requires us at times to make a radical response to the world we see around us.

Yet it also stands at the center of our religious tradition, and indeed, at the center of the broader Faith traditions out of which we have come. Ultimately, I believe, it is the source of our capacity for compassion, for altruism, for the recognition of our common humanity beyond differences of race, culture, gender, or any of the other superficial things which distance and separate us one from another.

And yes it is also essential to our own personal spiritual growth and development, and perhaps even to our survival as a species upon this planet.

But for the moment perhaps we can be content simply to do unto others as we would have others do unto us, in kindness and in generosity, in forgiveness and in love, as we struggle to make habits of what we most value and believe, and learn to trust the wisdom of those things we know in our heart of hearts must be true....