Fish for Five Thousand

The following was given at the Thursday evening worship service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, at the 7:00 p.m. service. Copyright (c) Dan Harper 2011.

Reading

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reforms. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions, yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Frederick Douglass, from “An address on West India Emancipation,” August 4, 1857.

Story

I’d like to tell you a story about that radical rabble rouser and rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth.

Once upon a time, Jesus and his disciples (that is, his closest followers) were trying to take a day off. Jesus had become very popular, and people just wouldn’t leave him alone. Jesus and the disciples wanted a little time away from the crowds that followed them everywhere, so they rented a boat and went to a lonely place, far from any village.

But people figured out where they were going, and by the time Jesus and his friends landed the boat, there were five thousand people waiting there for them. So Jesus started to teach them, and he talked to them for hours.

It started getting late, and the disciples of Jesus pulled him aside and said, “We need to send these people to one of the nearby villages to get some food.”

“No,” said Jesus. “The villages around here are too small to feed five thousand people. You will have to get them something to eat.”

“What do you mean?” his disciples said. “We don’t have enough money to go buy enough bread for all these people, and even if we did, how would we bring it all back here?”

“No, no,” said Jesus. “I don’t want you to go buy bread. Look, how many loaves of bread we got right here?

The disciples looked at the food they had brought with them. “We’ve got five loaves of bread, and a couple of fried fish. That’s all.”

“That will be enough,” said Jesus.

His disciples looked at him as if he were crazy. There was no way that would be enough food for five thousand people!

But Jesus had spent the whole day teaching people about the Kingdom of God — today we’d call it the Web of Life — teaching them that everyone is dependent on someone else. And while he was sitting up in front of the crowd teaching, he looked out and saw that many of the five thousand people had brought their own food with them. He watched them as they surreptitiously nibbled away at their own food, ignoring the fact that many of the people around them had no food at all.

Jesus told everyone to sit down on the grass. All five thousand people sat down. Jesus brought out the five loaves of bread. Being a good Jew, he blessed the bread using the traditional Jewish blessing: “Blessed are you, O Holy One, Creator of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Then, so everyone could see, Jesus broke the bread, and cut up the fish, and divided it up, so the disciples could hand it around.

Everyone saw that even though Jesus and his disciples had barely enough food for themselves, they were going to share it with everyone. From where he sat, Jesus could see the truth dawning in people’s eyes. All day long, Jesus had been teaching them that the Kingdom of Heaven existed here and now, if only people would recognize it. Now Jesus was giving them a chance to show they understood, and to act as if the Kingdom of Heaven truly existed.

The disciples began to pass around the bread and the fried fish, shaking their heads because they knew there wasn’t going to be enough food for everyone. Yet, miracle of miracles, there was plenty of food to go around. People who had food put some of their food into the baskets so it could be shared. People who hadn’t brought food with them took some food from the baskets. By the time the followers of Jesus had passed the baskets to all five thousand people, everyone had gotten enough to eat, and there was so much food left over that it filled twelve baskets.

And that’s the story of how Jesus fed five thousand people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fried fish. Many people believe that Jesus performed a magical miracle when he blessed the bread and fish, and that somehow God turned a dozen loaves of bread and two fish into thousands of loaves of bread and thousands of fried fish. It’s easier to believe that God performed the miracle, than to believe that humans could perform the same miracle. Because if humans performed the miracle, that means we could do the same thing today: to share with those who need it, and to live as if the Kingdom of Heaven existed here and now.

Sources: Christian scriptures, Mark 6.32-44. Theological interpretation from Bernard Loomer, Unfoldings (Berkeley, Calif.: 1985), pp. 3 ff.; and Latin American liberation theology.

Heaven on Earth

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 worship services. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2010 Daniel Harper.

We all know what heaven looks like, don’t we? It has nothing to do with religion, it’s a part of our popular culture. You go to heaven and you get a long white robe, a halo, a palm frond, and a golden harp. Mark Twain parodied this version of heaven in his book Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven. When Stormfield, a crusty stormy old sea captain, finally gets into heaven, after a few misadventures, he gets suited up in proper heavenly fashion, and then goes off to find a cloud:

“When I found myself perched on a cloud, with a million other people, I never felt so good in my life. Says I, ‘Now this is according to the promises; I’ve been having my doubts, but now I am in heaven, sure enough.’ I gave my palm branch a wave or two, for luck, and then I tautened up my harp-strings and struck in….”

But Stormfield knows only one tune, and everyone is playing something different, and after 16 hours of it, it gets pretty tiresome. Stormfield strikes up a conversation with the fellow on the next cloud over, and the fellow says to him:

“‘Are you glad to be here?’

“Says I, ‘Old man, I’ll be frank with you. This AIN’T just as near my idea of bliss as I thought it was going to be, when I used to go to church.’”

So the two of them walk off, dump their robes and harps and halos, and go find something else to do. Now if you want to go to that kind of heaven, and get your white robe, and your golden harp, and your palm branch, and your halo, well, go for it. But I have no interest in going to that kind of heaven, and no particular interest in talking about that kind of heaven.

 

What if heaven has nothing to do with golden harps, and halos, and white robes, and clouds? What if heaven is not the afterlife? What if heaven is not a place separate from earth? What if heaven is for everyone?

Historically, the Universalist side of our religious tradition affirmed that everyone gets to go to heaven, based on the logical reasoning that if God is indeed good, then God would not damn anyone to eternal torment, since such damnation would be unspeakably evil. This was a radical idea in its day, but the Universalists did not stop there. Many Universalists abandoned traditional ideas of heaven, and began to wonder what it would be like if we could create a heaven on earth, here and now.

Back in 1943, when most of the world was embroiled in war and violence and killing, the Universalist Church of America issued an “Affirmation of Social Principles” which begins as follows: “We Universalists avow our faith in the supreme worth of every human personality, and in the power of me [and women] of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.” To progressively establish the Kingdom of God; to progressively establish heaven on earth. Such an ideal does not require a literal belief in either God or heaven; rather, this is a statement that presents us with the possibility that we can truly live out our highest ideals.

 

Now that we have established what heaven does not look like — no halos, harps, or clouds — we might ask what a Unitarian Universalist heaven might look like. And I have an answer that is of great relevance to us here in Silicon Valley: a Unitarian Universalist heaven might just be the World Wide Web.

Tim Berners-Lee is the fellow that developed the World Wide Web, and as it happens he is also a Unitarian Universalist. Back in 1998 on one of his personal Web pages on the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web site, he posted an essay titled “The World Wide Web and the ‘Web of Life’,” in which he says that although he developed the Web before he discovered Unitarian Universalism, he feels there are parallels between the philosophies underlying each. Unitarian Universalists, says Berners-Lee, “meet in churches instead of wired hotels, and discuss justice, peace, conflict, and morality rather than protocols and data formats, but in other ways the peer respect is very similar to that of the Internet Engineering Task Force. Both are communities which I really appreciate.”

So says Tim Berners-Lee. I would explain it this way: both Unitarian Universalism and the World Wide Web are designed to foster communities based on networks of trust and mutual respect, networks where you are judged by your contributions, not by your age, race, class, or social status. Neither Unitarian Universalism nor the World Wide Web are always successful in fostering those networks of trust, but that’s what they’re designed to do. The fundamental metaphor of each is a web: a web of information and communication for the one, and an interdependent web of all existence for the other. This is an ecological metaphor, which implies that individuals are part of a non-linear, non-hierarchical system; and this metaphor helps us remember that we are all interdependent and interconnected.

I’ll let Tim Berners-Lee tell you how this relates to heaven, although he doesn’t use that word. I’ll intersperse a little commentary among Berners-Lee’s words:

“The is one other thing that comes to mind as common between the Internet folks and the Unitarian Universalists [says Berners-Lee]. The whole spread of the Web happened not because of a decision and a mandate from any authority, but because a whole bunch of people across the ‘Net picked it up and brought up Web clients and servers, it actually happened. [Commentary: Just like heaven, the ideal of the Web existed, not as something that would happen later if you were good, but something that could happen now if you put in a little effort.] The actual explosion of creativity, and the coming into being of the Web was the result of thousands of individuals playing a small part. In the first couple of years, often this was not for a direct gain, but because they had an inkling that it was the right way to go, and a gleam of an exciting future. It is necessary to Unitarian Universalist philosophy that such things can happen, that we will get to a better state in the end by each playing our small part. [Commentary: Heaven is like the World Wide Web, it will happen if each of us makes a little effort to make it happen.] Unitarian Universalism is full of hope, and the fact that the Web happens is an example of a dream coming true and an encouragement to all who hope.”

If people of good will and sacrificial spirit put their minds to it, they have the power to overcome chaos and evil and progressively make real idealistic utopian visions. By working with, not against, the power of the interdependent web of all existence, we can actually makes our ideals come true.

 

Believe it or not, this same basic concept can be found among the earliest Christian communities, before the creeds and dogmas mucked everything up. Those early Christians were trying to figure out how to live out the teachings of the rabbi called Jesus. Some of the parables of this rabbi named Jesus seemed to imply that heaven was about to burst upon us, not after death, but really soon, maybe now; in fact, some of those parables could be interpreted as meaning that heaven is happening here and now and you and I can be the causes of it [e.g., Matthew 13.33], or that heaven is happening here and now but its growth is obscured from view [e.g., Mark 4.26-29].

These early Christian communities tried to create institutions that would encourage the emergence of heaven in the here and now. (Mind you, the later creeds and dogmas have obscured much of this from our view, but this really did happen.) Twenty years after Jesus was executed by the Romans, Christian communities had a weekly meal that was central to their worship services; I’m not talking about communion, I’m talking about the agape meal. The idea was that the rich folks would contribute the bulk of the food and drink, so the poor people could come to church and eat their fill. People being what they are, sometimes the rich people, who did not have to go to work, would start early and eat all the food they brought before the poor people showed up after work [1 Cor. 20-21]; Paul of Tarsus chastised the Christian community of Corinth for allowing exactly this kind of behavior. But the ideal was that each person would bring as much food and she or he could, and those who couldn’t afford to bring any food could come and get one good meal each week.

This egalitarian communal meal, which was abandoned by later Christian communities, was a way of living out and actually experiencing the connectedness and interdependence of all humanity. This essential interconnectedness of all humanity was what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven [Bernard Loomer, “Unfoldings II,” pp. 2 ff.]. So the communal meal of early Christian communities was a way of teaching the whole community about the interdependent web of all existence, the Web of Life.

This is not unlike what we do with our second Sunday lunches here in our church. On the second Sunday of the month, Susan Plass and Edie Keating and their helpers put together a meal while the 11:00 worship service is going on. When the 11:00 worship service lets out, we all walk over to the Fireside Room next door, and load up our plates, and sit down at a long table with other people from our church. There is a suggested donation of four dollars to pay for second Sunday lunch. I trust that if someone is waiting in line to eat and cannot afford to pay the four dollars, the people next to him or her will say, Go ahead and eat anyway. And I know that some people contribute more than four dollars, because they have the money and they want to make sure everyone else can eat.

But there is more to the Web of Life than giving food to someone who doesn’t happen to have four dollars in their pocket on the second Sunday of the month. You never know who you’re going to wind up sitting next to at one of these second Sunday lunches. I like them because my partner and I don’t have children, so our second Sunday lunches are about the only times I sit down at a meal with children and teenagers. You might wind up sitting next to someone who grew up in another country, and there’s a good chance you’ll sit next to someone with different skin color than yours. You might wind up sitting next to someone who has a different accent than yours — as someone from eastern Massachusetts, I always wind up sitting next to someone with a strange accent unless I sit next to Phyllis Cassel who also grew up in eastern Massachusetts. This is the beauty of these second Sunday lunches — you wind up sitting near people with whom you might otherwise not share a meal. You understand your place in the diversity of humanity, and you understand how we are all connected and interdependent in the Web of Life.

 

I would like to return for a moment to Mark Twain’s story about heaven. It turned out all right for Captain Stormfield in the end. He left his cloud, dumped the robe and halo and harp and palm leaf unceremoniously along the road, and eventually winds up running into Sam, an old friend of his, who tells him, “‘It’s the same here [in heaven] as it is on earth — you’ve got to earn a thing, square and honest, before you enjoy it….’” — and when it comes to happiness, Sam tells Captain Stormfield that there’s plenty of pain and suffering in heaven, too, because, says Sam, “There ain’t a thing you can mention that is happiness in its own self — it’s only so by contrast with the other thing…. Well, there’s plenty of pain and suffering in heaven — consequently there’s plenty of contrasts, and just no end of happiness.” But we don’t need some supernatural heaven in the afterlife; we can institute heaven here on earth. We can, if people of good will and sacrificial spirit work together to progressively establish a world of justice and goodness. As Captain Stormfield might put it, “‘That’s the sensiblest heaven I’ve ever heard of, Sam….”

Universal Thrift

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.

Readings

The first reading was from the article “Creating Social Value” by Philip Auerswald, in the spring, 2009, issue of Standford Social Innovation Review:

“For most of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, economists saw themselves as ‘moral philosophers,’ as qualified to comment on the equity of societal processes as on their efficiency. That tradition came to an end rather abruptly with the publication in 1939 by John R. Hicks of the classic book Value and Capital — a work that took the creation of value as a starting point for fundamental theoretical syntheses. At a time when ideological excesses, such as communism and fascism, were becoming the norm, Hicks and his colleagues at the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge were intent on reestablishing the field of economics on firm scientific foundations, immune to whim or rhetoric. Hicks asserted forcefully that the field of economics should be based, not on the fantasy of objectively measured happiness, but rather on subjective judgments of value as revealed through market transactions. Because utility was not measurable, interpersonal comparisons were out of bounds.” [p. 54]

The second reading was from the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 65, Scholar’s Version translation:

“A person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, ‘Perhaps they didn’t know him.’ He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.’ Because the farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him….”

Sermon — “Universal Thrift”

The best churches, churches that uphold the highest ideals, tend to be critical of the society around them. I believe that in this sense our church is one of the best churches, for we do uphold the highest ideals. When we look at the world around us, we see the many things that are wrong with human society; because of our high ideals, we see ways in which human society could be so much better than it is now. We not only hold high ideals, we also act on those ideals, and when we take action on our ideals we are being critical of the society around us.

This morning I’d like to speak with you about one church project in which we have lived out our ideals in two areas: sustainability, and helping out those of lower economic status. I am referring to Universal Thrift Store, the store we house in our church basement, which recycles used clothing and housewares by making them available at low prices to anyone who comes in the store. There’s nothing new about churches hosting thrift stores, but I find Universal Thrift more interesting than the average church thrift store, partly because of the store’s goals, and partly because of some of the innovative approaches to running a thrift store that are being taken. Let me tell you some of Universal Thrift’s story, and then I’ll relate the story of Universal Thrift to some larger religious questions.

Universal Thrift Store was started by Lorial Laughery-Weincek in 2003; the Board of Trustees voted to approve the Thrift Store on June 3, 2003, and it opened for business soon thereafter. As I understand it, a major part of Lorial’s motivation when she founded Universal Thrift was to raise funds to go towards the operating expenses of the church. Lorial knew that she had the skills to run a profitable thrift store and the church needed additional income, so everyone would benefit.

But Universal Thrift was always more than a way to raise money for the church. Lorial had contacts with many social service agencies in the city, and every now and again those social service agencies would send a person in need to Universal Thrift, with a letter asking if Lorial could give that person clothing or housewares at no cost. A family with small children might have had a fire in their apartment, and Universal Thrift could provide that family with basic clothing, and enough pots and pans and dishes so they could cook and eat. Or a woman with children who had escaped from an abusive relationship might need clothing and housewares, and again Universal Thrift could supply a few basic things for free, enough to get that family started in their new life.

Under Lorial’s management, Universal Thrift became more than just a store or social service provider. It was also something of a social center for several groups of people. There was the small and changing group of volunteers who would help Lorial, some on a regular basis and some on an irregular basis. There were the regular customers who came back week after week, and maybe they bought something, but maybe they came to chat with Lorial and the volunteers. And there were a few people who never bought anything, but Universal Thrift was one of their hangouts. Anyone, of any economic or social status, could come into Universal Thrift and be treated as a human being, treated with dignity and respect. Shoplifters were warned away, but even they were treated as human beings — misguided human beings, because who’d be silly enough to shoplift in a place like Universal Thrift, but human beings none the less.

Late last summer, we started experienced an economic crisis, which we now know is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. At about the same time, Lorial underwent a serious illness. Now from 2003 through 2008, Lorial had run Universal Thrift herself. When I learned that Lorial was too ill to work at Universal Thrift, I thought that would be the end of it. So often, church projects like this fall apart when the founder stops working on it — even if they only stop working on it for a couple of months.

But three people, Bill Bennett, Maryellen Kenney, and Ted Schade, stepped forward and said they did not want see Universal Thrift Store close for even one day. With unemployment rising and the economy in freefall, they felt the surrounding community needed Universal Thrift more than ever. So they pitched in and kept the store open.

Their decision was a good one. Due to the economic downturn, sales in thrift stores rose 35% nationwide beginning last fall. Sales at Universal Thrift rose even higher than that; we don’t have seasonally-weighted records for previous years so I can’t give you an exact percentage, but I suspect fall sales at least doubled over the previous year.

Universal Thrift Store also saw an increase in volunteer participation. People in the church and in the surrounding community knew how bad the economy had gotten, and they knew that Universal Thrift was providing an essential service to people in economic need. Donations to Universal Thrift increased, and volunteers began helping out in many ways. Many people began taking a load of donated clothing every Sunday and running it through their washing machine at home, and then bringing it back to church, laundered and folded, the next Sunday. More volunteers began helping out during store hours, both people who come to our worship services and other people whose only exposure to First Unitarian is through their volunteer work with Universal Thrift.

By now, in April, 2009, the pundits tell us that the economy is no longer in freefall, that we have hit bottom, and that some economic signs are actually beginning to look positive. But the pundits also warn us that it is going to be a long, slow recovery, that unemployment will continue to rise for some time, that many families will not see any real improvement in their economic status for some time. Thus many people in the surrounding community will continue to rely on Universal Thrift for some time.

I try to drop in to Universal Thrift once a week to talk with the volunteers to hear how things are going, and just to see what’s going on. The people who shop in Universal Thrift are a diverse bunch: I see people with all different shades and colors of skin; I hear different languages being spoken, English, Spanish, and Portuguese for sure, and sometimes other languages I can’t identify; I see parents with children, single people, older couples, people of all ages. While you can never be sure how much money someone has just by looking at them, I suspect some of the people who come in are comfortably middle class or upper middle class; while some of the people who shop at Universal Thrift (as Bill Bennett has pointed out) put their purchases in a wheeled shopping cart parked on the sidewalk because they don’t have a car. While you can never be certain how much education someone has, some people who come into the store seem as if they have a college education, and others who seem as if they don’t. In short, the wide diversity of the people who shop at Universal Thrift reflects the wide diversity of our church’s neighborhood.

Let me summarize what Universal Thrift does:

Whether someone shops at Universal Thrriftt out of choice or because they can’t afford to shop somewhere else, the store is a resource for the community. Almost as important, Universal Thrift also helps out people who are in dire need and who have no money at all, supplying free clothing and housewares when the need is great. And for all customers, Universal Thrift doesn’t threaten anyone’s personal pride: customers are treated with respect; and most goods are not given away free, thus preventing guilt, shame, and dependency.

Universal Thrift provides a benefit to volunteers, giving an outlet for people to help others through important and meaningful work. And Universal Thrift helps the church: it is now the biggest single fundraising effort in our church, and current projections are that Universal Thrift will gross somewhere around four thousand dollars this fiscal year, twice as much money as the next biggest fundraising effort. We are doing good for others, while doing well for ourselves.

Finally, Universal Thrift recycles perfectly useable clothing and other household goods that might otherwise have gone into the landfill. That is to say, Universal Thrift promotes a culture of sustainability and thrift, in direct opposition to the American consumer culture of unsustainability and waste. In this sense, the phrase “Universal Thrift” is not just the name of the store, it is also an economic manifesto. The goal of Universal Thrift is not to maximize profit at the expense of moral goals; instead, the goal of Universal Thrift is to increase profitability while upholding moral goals like sustainability and human dignity.

I promised you that I would explain something of the religious significance of Universal Thrift. And given who I am, the best way I know how to do that is to retell a story that is originally attributed to Jesus of Nazareth — who was himself an outspoken critic of the economic problems of his day.

Here’s the story Jesus told, as it comes down to us in the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 65:

“A person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, ‘Perhaps they didn’t know him.’ He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.’ Because the farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”

In the standard Christian interpretation, this story is an allegory that has something to do with some kind of foreshadowing of Jesus getting executed by the Romans on trumped-up political charges. But forget the standard Christian interpretation: it takes a lot of work to turn this story into an allegory of Jesus’s execution.

It makes much more sense to take this story at face value. Taken at face value, this story is an accurate description of the economic situation during Jesus’s time. There were many people who were tenant farmers — we used to call them sharecroppers here in the United States. Jesus’s original listeners would have know that the tenant farmers were badly exploited by wealthy landowners — just as we know that sharecroppers here in the United States were badly exploited by landowners. Implicit in the knowledge that the tenant farmers were being badly exploited was the knowledge that in order to make any kind of living, they in turn would have had to exploit the land, farming it unsustainably so that they could hope grow just enough extra to allow them to provide for their own families.

If we take this story at face value, as a story about morally corrupt exploitation of tenant farmers and of the land, we can see how the different characters are driven to act by their economic circumstances. The farmers deplete the land, beat up the slaves sent to collect the crop, and kill the landowner’s son. The slaves, forced to act as the agent of the exploitative landowner, are essentially helpless and get beaten almost to death. As for the wealthy landowner, he seems to me to be morally despicable simply because he is so clueless. He obviously has no real understanding of the extent to which he exploited the tenant farmers. He doesn’t get how unjust it is that he should sit back and do nothing, and reap all the benefits of the tenant farmers’ hard work; that is to say, he doesn’t understand that exploitation is bad.

And the rich landowner has no excuse for not understanding that exploitation is bad. Jesus of Nazareth, who told this story, was a Jew, and his listeners were Jews, and we can assume that the rich landowner in the story is a Jew. As a Jew, the rich landowner should know what is said in the Torah, in the book of Leviticus [Lev. 25.1-7], where the God of the Israelites commanded them that they shall periodically let the land lie fallow, that is, commanded them to not over-exploit the land. And when the God of the Israelites prohibits more than just exploitation, their God is also prohibiting wasteful, unsustainable practices. (Yes, the God of the Israelites was an early environmentalist.)

Not only that, but later in the book of Leviticus [25.23], the God of the Israelites commanded them as follows: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” In other words, God owns all the land, and all human beings are nothing more than tenant farmers. So that rich landowner is violating his God’s commandments in at least three ways: first, he is exploiting the land; second, he thinks he owns what really only his God owns; and third, he is living wastefully and unsustainably.

We are not contemporaries of Jesus of Nazareth, and probably most of us here would not consider ourselves to be good observant Jews who are obliged to follow the commandments of the God of the Israelites. But although we may not observe the specifics of Jewish law, we are inheritors of the long tradition that began with the Torah, was interpreted by Rabbi Jesus, and lives on with us today as deeply-felt moral teachings. As a religious people, we know that exploitation is morally wrong: we know that we should not exploit either the natural environment, or other people. As a religious people, we know that living a wasteful and unsustainable lifestyle is morally wrong: we know that we should promote thrift, and an economy based on sustainability.

The religious significance of our Universal Thrift Store should now become more clear. Obviously, we can’t change the whole American consumer economy all by ourselves. But what we can do is try to create moral alternatives to the wasteful, unsustainable, morally wrong American consumer lifestyle. That is precisely what we are doing with Universal Thrift Store. We are running a socially-conscious business venture that is both profitable and moral. Our business model for Universal Thrift generates income, and promotes a thrift-based, sustainable economic alternative. The very existence of Universal Thrift Store serves as a gentle but effective critique of the American consumer economy, showing we can generate income sustainably, and without exploitation.

Let me very briefly outline the business theory behind what we’re doing with Universal Thrift. Obviously, any business tries to generate value — value for the customer, and value for the business owner. But what do we mean by value? Is value to be measured solely in terms of the monetary profit that is generated? Or when we talk about “value,” do we also include sustainability, morality, effectiveness, and equity?

The way we run Universal Thrift, we want to generate value that includes sustainability, morality, effectiveness, and equity. And when we generate value, that value accrues, not to individuals (although many individuals do get value out of Thrift Store), but rather to a non-profit organization with a mission to further spread value through society.

Universal Thrift is a form of social entrepreneurship. We aim to maximize income for our church, while also maximizing benefit to the customers and to the wider society. We promote sustainability by promoting thrift, provide an alternative to the throw-away society, while at the same time we make money. We aim to produce equity by helping those with excess goods donate them to help generate income for the church, while also reducing the waste that comes with manufacturing too many consumer goods. We hope to generate profit while also carrying out larger social goals. This is why I call Universal Thrift an example of social entrepreneurship, because it combines a for-profit business model with a non-profit morality.

In closing, I should say that I believe that Universal Thrift could get significantly larger. I believe we could generate lots more income for the church — I think twelve thousand dollars in annual sales could be within reach within a couple of years. I believe we could help spread the idea of social entrepreneurship more widely in our community — as more volunteers learn the principles of social entrepreneurship through involvement with Universal Thrift, they can spread those principles more widely. Some people might even find a way to become social entrepreneurs who start new projects in such a way that they create jobs for themselves. I believe further innovation could grow out of Universal Thrift, innovations that will further the goals of sustainability while benefiting the wider community.

I don’t claim that socially entrepreneurial projects like Universal Thrift will save civilization as we know it. But I do know that these projects have the potential to turn us away from an economics with a moral void at its center; and turn us towards an economics of universal thrift, human dignity, and sustainability. And so may the phrase “universal thrift” become an integral part of a new, morally sound, economic manifesto.