Christian Values and Altruisim

July 26, 2015


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

July 26, 2015

“Christian Values & Altruism”

I Tim. 6:11-20


The “Do It Yourself” series has taken off!  Each week this summer you get to suggest the sermon material and topic.  This week’s sermon is a combination of two suggestions ~ one request was to speak to the idea of altruism; the other suggestion was to talk about what is meant by Christian values.  Two sermons – double the time?


When I first took a look at the suggestion about altruism, I thought, “Oh goodie!  I get to preach about stewardship and charitable giving.”  But the person who suggested it also attached a podcast.  It was a TED Talk by Matthieu Ricard.  When Ricard was in his 20s and studying molecular biology, he traveled to India to meet a Buddhist master.  Soon afterwards, Ricard left behind a promising career in science for a quiet, anonymous life as a Buddhist monk.  Ricard argues that altruism is the key to solving major world problems like inequality and climate change.


The word “altruism,” derived from the Latin “alter”, “other,” was used for the first time in the nineteenth century by Auguste Comte, one of the fathers of sociology and the founder of positivism. Altruism, according to Comte, implies “the elimination of selfish desire and of egocentrism, as well as leading a life devoted to the well- being of others.”


Altruism is literally “the practice of unselfish concern, and devotion to the welfare of others”.  Ricard asserts that more consideration of others will lead the world to 3 major outcomes:

  1. The well-being of self
  2. Equality and cooperation between peoples
  3. Better stewardship of the planet


Last week, I was in Columbus, Ohio for the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  There is an old train depot turned into a market in the center of town.  Vendors have booths inside the depot and sell everything from kitchen supplies to organic vegetables to specialty foods.  (The Vietnamese spring rolls were terrific!  Especially when paired with the baklava from another booth.)


One booth has scrumptious looking donuts.  They were absolutely HUGE.  And their price was huge too – about $3 per donut.  But they were really huge and covered in yummy toppings like strawberries, coconut, peanut butter and jelly, etc.  A group of about a dozen children accompanied by 3 adults was walking through the market and spied those huge donuts.  One of the leaders asked how much the donuts cost.  After hearing the price and doing some quick mental math, he shook his head.  Another man standing in line noticed this and immediately asked if he could buy the children donuts.  For $45 each child and their adult sponsor received a donut of their choice.  As the man was being thanked for his kindness, he only asked that they “pay it forward” and give something small to another.  He mentioned that he was a minister in town for a church conference.  But he didn’t ask them if they were saved or even invite them to church.  He was just someone who enjoyed treating the group to donuts.  (And did I mention that they were huge?!!)


My guess is that the sugar high those children experienced was not as significant as the high of those who witnessed this act of altruism.  I know that my own heart soared and I felt a renewed sense of pride in ministry, in humanity, and hope for the future.


Unselfish concern and devotion to the welfare of others truly does make a difference.  When we take on the mindset that we are not here on this planet for ourselves or our desires, our very lives change.  We become healthier – physically, spiritually, and emotionally – and we begin working with others to make our world a better place.


The good news is that altruism isn’t really about giving your money away.  The bad news is that it is about so much more!  It’s about selflessness and willingness to share everything for the sake of another.


Our traditional word for today spells out how to live this kind of life (and our contemporary word is the specific definition of the Greek words used in this text):

But as for you, child of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.  In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.  It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith.

When a political party claims to have “Christian values”, I cringe.  It seems oxymoron-ish to brag about virtue.

But neither should we allow the hijacking of what is defined in our book of faith.  If you want a list of what Christian values are, this text is what I suggest.  It’s not an exhaustive list, but it hits most of the highlights.

  • pursue righteousness,
  • godliness,
  • faith,
  • love,
  • endurance, and brave patience
  • gentleness,
  • humility, a meekness of heart especially toward enemies;
  • compassion
  • Riches for the purpose of doing good,
  • Truthfulness,
  • Generosity and altruism.

The list is in your bulletin.  While each word has its own nuance and definition, they can all be summed up in that word: altruism – unselfish concern for the welfare of others.

Of course, Christianity doesn’t have a corner on virtue.  Other religions and cultures have the same or similar lists of values.

We live in a selfish age, a self-indulgent age, an age of “What’s in it for me?” The more we have, the more we want.  The more we see what others have, the more we want what they have.  As we increasingly encounter selfishness in others, we increasingly become more selfish ourselves, partly as a hedge against feeling foolish, partly because we are glad to have an excuse.  Why should we be any different, we ask ourselves.

Here’s why: because altruism is the only way to break the chain, the only way to keep the disease of selfishness from spreading further, the only way to reclaim the humanity that is slowly slipping away from us.  When we refuse to act selfishly, when we put the interests of others above our own, we reaffirm the value of community, we re-stake our claim to follow Jesus.

“In May 2001, Sheila Wassenberg was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer. That summer, she had a lumpectomy and four doses of chemo. But in September, the cancer had returned.

In October, Wessenberg had a right-side mastectomy and started chemo in March 2002.  Then, barely eight weeks later, her husband, Bob, a Lotus programmer, lost his job, and Sheila was told by her oncologist that she had, at best, 18 months to live. “We had wanted for nothing until then,” she says. “We were living in a luxury home on a lake, for Pete’s sake. Granite countertops, marble everything. Then the cancer. Then this!”

The Wessenbergs went through their portfolio first. Then the kids’ bank accounts. Then they sold their artwork, Sheila’s jewelry, the coin collection Bob had inherited from his father, the washer and dryer. “Everything,” she says, “that wasn’t nailed down.”

Still on chemo, Wessenberg took a job through a temp agency, doing payroll four hours a week. The family moved. They managed to pay for health insurance out of pocket for six months, until the premiums jumped to $832 a month. Denied Medicaid because they had too many assets (they still owned a car), she was forced to drop out of chemo—and to start panhandling.

“I just couldn’t believe my life had come to this,” says Wessenberg, who took to walking the streets every weekend with a white pail on which she had written, ‘NOT A BUM. I’m a mom. Please HELP.’ “But I had to do something. It got to the point where we didn’t have enough money for groceries.”

The turning point came late one night when she saw an ad for a campaign called Covering the Uninsured, and she immediately logged on to their website, taking the time to type in her own heartrending story.  Two weeks went by, and then she got a call from a journalist writing a book for the campaign about uninsured Americans. The book, including her story, was later featured in The New York Times.  She received her first phone call at 8:00 that morning. “A man said, ‘You don’t know me, but I just read the story about you in The New York Times, and I want to help you,’ ”

The phone kept ringing. “I found out at one point I was talking to the former CEO of a major financial company,” she marvels. “He sent us a cashier’s check for a phenomenal amount of money. I got $8 from someone in New Jersey. Then a philanthropist in the Beverly Hills area called. One elderly lady sent a dollar in change. It was unbelievable. It was beautiful. It was nuts! I even got a check for $10,000—anonymously.”

Wessenberg sent everyone thank-you notes, many of which she designed herself on her computer. “There I was, doing all these thank-yous,” she says, “when my girlfriend asked me to do her son’s birthday invitations. She loved them, and the next thing I know, a woman my girlfriend works with wanted me to do her wedding invitations. All of a sudden, I’ve got this little business going. One day, I’m destitute; the next, I have a business of my own”—a company she dubbed So Cool.

“There are no words to express the immense gratitude, the peaceful feeling I now have, and the awe I feel for the incredible people who reached out to me—and for the entire miraculous experience,” says Wessenberg, who, with the help of a Dallas-based organization called Bridge Breast Network, is now able to afford the blood work and scans she needs to monitor her health. Despite the fact that she never completed her full course of chemotherapy, her cancer is in remission.

“The fact that I’m still alive and have a roof over my head, I completely attribute to the incredible kindness of the public and the good feelings it created in me,” she says. “Other than my children, it’s by far the greatest gift I’ve ever received.”