The Measure of Success - Rev. Arthur G. Severance

Start Date

A very rich and wicked old miser was dying. He seemed so worried that his family asked the pastor to come and comfort him.
I wouldn't mind dying so much, the old man said, if I could take my money with me and keep it safe.
Don't worry about that, the preacher came back. It would  all be burned up anyway.

In Texas some years ago , the wolves were decimating the farmers' sheep. So the authorities raised the bounty on them. Two hunters decided they could use the extra money, even though they knew how dangerous wolves could be.  They headed out to the wide open spaces to shoot some wolves and make themselves rich!   
       They had just fallen asleep out under the stars when a noise woke one of them. In the reflection of the campfire he saw the eyes of 25 wolves--teeth gleaming. He shook his friend and whispered hoarsely, "Wake up! Wake up!  We're rich!"   

Like the story of the  kindergarten teacher who tells how he handed out sheets of colored paper and told the children to share the lone pair of scissors on the table. What does share mean? he heard one little girl ask her neighbor. Share, her friend whispered back, is what you do when you have only one of something and the teacher is looking.

I want to talk about success, this morning, sharing, and yes, about money. Indeed this sermon could  be called,  The Sermon on Amount. Ours is a mission possible if we will accept it. We can measure our success, and it does not just depend on the proverbial bottom line. Our success might be better measured by how we grow in our generosity as well as numerically and spiritually. 

One of the most popular quotations attributed to Emerson but which is almost certainly is not from him, was this quote on success:
 To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

I think it is inspiring and  profound, even though it was not by Emerson.
It seems that mistake  may be traceable to a 1905  poetry publication by a Bessie Stanley. where in a collection of quotations on "success," her poem appeared on the facing page from a quotation which was from Emerson. Perhaps the mistaken attribution began when someone copied the source inaccurately from that collection. Emerson scholars seem to agree, and no one has been able to find it in any of Emerson's writing. I want to argue that it is still true and inspiring; success does not depend on a famous name! 

Unitarian satirist, Ambrose Bierce  said: Success is the one unpardonable sin against our fellows. Money: A blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it.
Millionaire  J. Paul Getty shares his theory of  the Formula for success: Rise early, work hard, strike oil.
And someone once wrote: Behind every successful man lurks a truly amazed ex-mother-in-law.  John Chrusciel

Success does not have to mean financial accomplishments, though it is the most common way we use the word. Inspirational Author: Dale Carnegie wrote: Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.

French author Alexander Dumas gives it an even different take: It is high time that the ideal of success should be replaced by the ideal of service.

Unitarian poet and hymn writer, William Henry Channing, nephew of William Ellery Channing, often considered the father of American Unitarianism, wrote another famous definition: To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly; to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart; to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.

Someone once asked Mother Teresa, who will, no doubt, be declared a contemporary saint,  if she didn't get discouraged working with the poor since she could never succeed in eliminating poverty. Her answer is, I think, a profound statement of universal faith and a way of looking at success differently; We are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful and generous, I would add, with her as a guide there as well, having given her life to a sense of the holy as seen through helping the poor, the downtrodden, the least among us, as Jesus taught.

Most of us misquote the Christian New Testament when we say that money is the root of evil, or as George Bernard Shaw paraphrased: The Lack of money is the root of all evil. The correct quote is: the love of money is the root of all evil. Money, especially when combined with the term success can become idolatry, blinding, deadening. 

I always give the congregation a money back guarantee of getting in to heaven 
if only you give enough to the fellowship, and friends, in over 20 years, I have never had any one ask for their money back!  Oh, a few live ones have, but that doesn't count. 
And yes, one year I even threatened the congregation  with Hell!  The title was There'll be Hell to Pay. In a lighthearted way I was trying to say that religious meaning gathered here in loving community is the opposite of hell, but that it would be hellish if this community did not exist  because no one would pay their dues! 

Since I believe that we create our, own heaven and hell, I can guarantee that our generosity of spirit, that our love and service to others will make our world a heaven! Not perfect or without pain, but love will make it all worthwhile. Remember that while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

A  Zen story tells about   monk who carried no possessions except a bowl, his clothes, etc.  At some time he was given a huge ruby by a thankful student, which he absent-mindedly threw into his backpack.
Later on, he was passing another traveler who was sitting at the side of the road in distress.  The monk asked to the other's well being, and the traveler said how he was penniless, starving, and could the monk help him.  The monk told the traveler of his state of non-ownership, about his spiritual journey, and then said he would see if there is anything in his bag he could give the man.  Since the ruby did not hold any worth to him, he had forgotten it was in there.

He reached in and pulled out the priceless gem, and gave it to him. The man was overjoyed, overwhelmed, thanked the monk, and hurried off before the monk changed his mind. The monk continued on his journey.
A few days later, the man caught up to the monk.  "Monk," he says, "I have been trying to catch up with you for two days.  Please, can you give me something?"
The monk said, "I have given you all that I have, I have no more to offer you from my pack."
"No," said the man, "I don't want you  to give me anything from your pack. 
 I want you to give me that which allowed you to give me that gem."

That is the spirit and success of generosity, that which allows us, encourages us, indeed, calls us, to give up our gems. 

A few years ago, my wife Cathies older cousin and her husband came from California to visit for a few days. Since they knew I was a minister, we ended up talking church a lot. No theological arguments, just sharing stories about how churches are run, often seemingly nothing to do with theology!
They were active in their local Methodist church and both had been life long Methodists. The husband told us that when they were just starting out and had kids, they could never afford to tithe to the church. A tithe is 10% of your income, and with growing children, it seems like the money always goes out quicker than it comes, or stays in. But it was interesting to me that tithing for them wasn't something the
preacher said they had to do or go to hell, it was something they wanted to do, they lived generously and that was a part of their generosity. 

The church was important to them, and it was with some pride in his voice that Uncle John spoke of how, once the kids were grown and married, they were finally able  to tithe, and had been for the last few years. The more they were able to give to their church, the better they felt about themselves and about the church!

I used to say that there are two good reasons to give generously to your congregation :
1.  if you are dissatisfied with how things are going, a generous giving might help make things better! 

 2. If you love what this beloved community is doing, you know a generous giving might help make things better! 

Living generously is being successful. We cant take it with us, but we can leave it where it will do the most good! 

Let me tell you a  story  about   a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while trying to make a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby boy. He dropped his tools and ran to the boy. There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself.  Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death.
The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman's sparse
surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy the farmerhad saved.

"I want to repay you," said the nobleman. "You saved my son's life."
"No, I can't accept payment for what I did," the Scottish farmer replied, waving off the offer.  At that moment, the farmer's own son came to the door  of the family hovel.
"Is that your son?" the nobleman asked.
"Yes," the farmer replied proudly. 
"I'll make you a deal. Let me take him and give him a good education.  If the lad is anything like his father, he'll grow to a man you can be proud of." And that he did.

In time, the Farmer s son graduated from St. Mary's Hospital Medical
School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as the
noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of Penicillin.

Now that would be enough of a story if we stopped there, but there is more.
Years afterward, the nobleman's son was stricken with pneumonia.  What saved
him?   Penicillin.
The name of the nobleman?  Lord Randolph Churchill. His son's name? Sir Winston Churchill.
How many of us have had our lives saved because of penicillin?
Someone once said: What goes around comes around.

This religion and this church   transforms lives, brothers and sisters, and it may be  the most important work many of us, paid or volunteer do! 
We also save lives;  I know because the teens in my San Antonio church youth group told us so in one of their Sunday service, how when suicidally depressed they found love and acceptance here, they found a liberal religious oasis that is missing in their high schools around the city.
We also celebrate lives when death comes for some of our folks. Oh, we do wonderful memorial services in UUism  affirming coming of age teens, sharing words for all ages for our children.

Now, of course, we must put a price tag on all of this, must finally add up the costs and the benefits, must decide for each one of us, how much this is all worth. 
I dont think I could live fully, without this denomination, without the liberal religious search for truth and meaning, and for the most important of all, for the profound sense of community. So many different people who have developed deep and abiding friendships, some in San Antonio, for instance, even meeting their future spouse there, back when they had such a successful singles group, that most of them got married off,)  gathering on Sunday morning for Religious education and worship, for discussion and sharing meals at soup lunches, potlucks, circle dinners, and yea, even meetings.

Living generously in giving to this church  assures you that this sacred place, this beloved congregation, will be here when we most need it,  and we never know when we might need it.  

We must live generously and successfully enough so that this oasis doesn't run out of living water, so that there will be a beloved community which welcomes all seeking people, no matter what race, gender, sexual orientation, or other adjectives might be. Here we can be in religious relationship; here we can help work toward justice and equality in the community, city, county, in the world.

 How much should we pledge? Certainly enough to make us feel good,  but I think you should be working towards a minimum of $100 a month, remembering that no one will be turned away if they cant afford that. Indeed in our church in San Antonio, there were a few times when we gave money to  families in the congregation who could not come up with the rent one month!  In the past three churches I've served, if we take the pledge budget and divide it by number of members it comes out around $1200. Remember that's individual member, not pledge unit of a couple for instance.

And this year, we are asking every member to talk to a member who has agreed to be a steward who wants to meet face to face with every ember for at least 2 reasons, only one of which is about money and your generosity of both spirit and finances. The other reason is to ask you some questions about how you relate to this beloved community and your wishes for the future. My vision for this church is that it be transformative for each of us, for us as a beloved community, and for the wider world, starting with our community. I hope that this church GROWS US! 

Unitarian Universalist minister , John Corrado, writes  so poetically and religiously about our dreams and visions for this church in  his hymn called Weaving:
Let us join in human weaving
in blending all the textures of our lives.
Spinning dreams born of believing
a magic power abides.

Weavers of the dreams we share
wishing wishes few would dare
ours a loom where all threads gather
to dress the world with love.


Every religion that I know of teaches generosity of spirit and money. These teachings are thousands of years old, so this is nothing new.
I think it was Napoleon who said, religion keeps the poor from murdering the rich. I say that often religion makes poor people feel like they are rich in a way that money alone can not provide. Living generously doesn't matter whether we are rich or poor. Studies have shown that we are actually more generous when we are poor, that the more money we have, the more the temptation to worship it instead of life, God, 
or the sense of connection. Living generously helps us to be more intentional  about our religious search, about our participation in our religious community. We can do that by giving a percentage of our income, for instance. Please let me be clear that this not a country club and there are no set dues; no one will be turned away because they are poor.

` In his novel, A Month of Sundays  ,John Updike has the confused Tom Marshfield,  reflecting on his experience of the church in his youth, say: "Churches bore for me the same relation to God that billboards did to Coca-Cola; they promoted thirst without quenching it.

Has your thirst been quenched here? We don't  promote a thirst, which can be only quenched by the right divine name or doctrine, but promote search here. We dont claim that we have all the answers, but we do claim to have many of the questions.   I would like to think that our religious thirst may be quenched by our living generously, so that this church is not false advertising for cheap grace, a quick fix, or all the answers. Living generously, living religiously, living in loving relationship, is hard work and the hours are long, but it will bring us deep meaning, deep peace, deep love, deep happiness. Oh, we may still suffer; we may still fall ill, but we will have created company and comfort for the long journey, and will have love surround us.  

Our Unitarian Universalist heritage  is unusual because we celebrate religious diversity among us. We are made up of many people who have been turned off, even abused, by traditional religion and and traditional religious language.  As the old Universalist Hosea Ballou used to say: If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good. May love call us to generous living and giving; may we give, not until it hurts, but until it feels good. May we measure our success by how we grow-  not in numbers, but in spirit and service, by how we are transformed, and by how we help transform the world. 
Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. Vaya con Dios is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is Go with God, SO I adapted it to say Vaya Con SU dios
, Go with your idea or interpretation of God.

 A "prosperity" meditation by my ministerial colleague, Sam Trumbore
Meditation
Let us turn inward now,  bringing our attention to this moment,
 calming restless glances darting around the room; listening to the muffled sounds that come and go     like waves breaking on the beach on a lazy summer afternoon;
         Settling into the peaceful silence descending  like snowfall at midnight.
Let us remember the privileges, gifts and pleasures we enjoy
 the wealth, the opportunity, the resources and the support  our birth, our position, our status, our class and our means   provide for us.
Even the poorest among us lives like royalty
         in comparison to most of the world's population.
We live with a level of abundance  hard for the Chinese peasants
                 who stock our materialist tendencies to comprehend.

And yet we still suffer. For all our prosperity and success as a culture --
         there is so much dissatisfaction.
We're embarrassed to discover money can't buy happiness.
We see the suffering of others and react with shame and guilt.
Rather than guilt,  let us feel gratitude for what we have received.
Let our abundance open our hearts rather than close them to human need.
Let our compassion not be drained
         through twenty dollar checks for charitable indulgences.
The planet, the cosmos, all that is holy,
         yearns for unbartered concern offered with unconditional resolve.
May we discover as we reach out to the other,
         the truth of our collective as well as individual inherent worth 
and dignity.
May we experience directly and personally
         the interconnectedness of all existence of which we are a part.
May we cherish and celebrate with reverence
         the high privilege of human birth and consciousness
                 and act wisely for the benefit of all life.
So be it. -      

Reading:  After 9/11, there was much interfaith material on worship on our various chatlines and websites :.http://www.panhala.net/Archive/In_the_Temple.html I found this wonderful poem by someone named Tom Barrett:

What's In The Temple?
In the quiet spaces of my mind a thought lies still, but ready to spring. 
It begs me to open the door so it can walk about. 
The poets speak in obscure terms pointing madly at the unsayable. 
The sages say nothing, but walk ahead patting their thigh calling for us to follow. 
The monk sits pen in hand poised to explain the cloud of unknowing. 
The seeker seeks, just around the corner from the truth. 
If she stands still it will catch up with her. 
Pause with us here a while. 
Put your ear to the wall of your heart. 
Listen for the whisper of knowing there. Love will touch you if you are very still. 
If I say the word God, people run away. 
Theyve been frightened--sat on till the spirit cried "uncle." 
Now they play hide and seek with somebody they cant name. 
They know hes out there looking for them, and they want to be found, 
But there is all this stuff in the way. 
I cant talk about God and make any sense, 
And I cant not talk about God and make any sense. 
So we talk about the weather, and we are talking about God. 
I miss the old temples where you could hang out with God. 
Still, we have pet pounds where you can feel love draped in warm fur, 
And sense the whole tragedy of life and death. 
You see there the consequences of carelessness, 
And you feel there the yapping urgency of life that wants to be lived. 
The only things lacking are the frankincense and myrrh. 
We don't build many temples anymore. 
Maybe we learned that the sacred cant be contained. 
Or maybe it cant be sustained inside a building. 
Buildings crumble.  Its the spirit that lives on. 
If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart, 
What would you worship there? What would you bring to sacrifice? 
What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies? 
Go there now.       -Tom Barrett 1999 Interlude: An Internet Retreat

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Event type
Worship Service