Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

February 22, 2009: “Sermon on the Amount”

Opening Words Sermon on the Amount

At heart, we know that the greatest problem in the church today is our own lack of commitment: The pastor was standing at the church door welcoming people at the Easter morning service. He shook the hand of one man and said, "Let me introduce myself. I'm the pastor of this church. We are pleased to have you visiting with us today."

 The stranger said, "Now, wait a minute, pastor. I'm a member of this church, not a visitor." The perplexed pastor said, "But I've never seen you here in the five years I've been here."

 The stranger retorted, "Well, I never said I was a fanatic."

My colleague, Barbara Wells, says in the recent book  on UU growth and evangelism, Salted With Fire, in an essay entitled, Responsibility and Commitment: Why Just Signing the Book is Never Enough:

The path to membership class is required of all people interested in joining our church.  In it, I spell out the responsibilities of membership in a Unitarian Universalist church:

Attend church regularly

Work on your own spiritual development

Serve on a task force

Pledge at a stewardship level

Be involved in service with others

Connect to the wider UU movement.

Id like to add some more and make it an even 10:

Enjoy the church and the people in it by finding a way to socialize with members

Discover your gift, and share it with the church, either with the kids or the adults

Learn to work for change in the church system rather than complain about it passively

Recruit at least one new member a year by inviting friends, family, co workers to worship with us.

Or as someone has put it-If being a Unitarian Universalist were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  Let us be in the spirit of worship of universal love and unity of spirit

Sermon on the Amount
Feb. 22, 2009
Rev. Arthur G. Severance

We must be careful when we mix money and religion; there are too many examples of wrongdoing and air-conditioned doghouses. There are too many religious fixes for a fee. Like the story which Jesuit priest Anthony deMello tells of a wealthy woman who went to her priest and asked if he would say a mass for her recently departed dog, whom she had loved dearly. The priest told her that he did not do masses for dogs. He was quite indignant and told her to try that new denomination down the road. They would probably pray for her dog. She told him that was a shame because she had been going to give the church a $10,000 donation, to which the priest replied: Well, Madam, why didn't you tell me your dog was a Catholic in the first place?

Theologian as well as Comedian, Woody Allen often pontificates religious issues, addressing the large questions as readily as the small ones, and usually without indicating which is which. More than any other time in history, he observes, Humankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

He concludes, the universe is merely a fleeting idea in Gods mind; that's a pretty uncomfortable thought, particularly if you've just made a down payment on a house.   If God only gave me a clear sign, like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank

Well we all know the economy is not doing well. Someone has defined the difference between prosperity, recession, and depression like this:  During prosperity you are annoyed because the dog and cat won't eat the expensive canned food you buy for them.  In a recession you are delighted that the dog and cat won't eat the expensive canned food. You hope they remain finicky until things get better.

  In a depression you begin to look thoughtfully at the dog and cat.

Or as someone said, If you owe the bank $100 that's your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that's the banks problem.

Perhaps you've heard of the commercial worlds, Golden Rule: Do unto others and then use it as a tax write-off.

But we do have to talk about money and the church, don't we. Last year, I happened to mention to the Stewardship chair that   I had noticed that the Sunday I gave the Pledge Sermon the attendance went down, and I wondered whether people were worried that my preaching was so good that I might convince them to give more than they wanted. So we decided that perhaps we would try a stealth pledge Sunday, and we had one of the best pledge results in your history!  We thought about making that a tradition, but since we also wanted to give out the pledge cards this Sunday, it seemed like we had to announce it! The title, by he way, is the common slang we preachers use, though not often in public!  We ministers have all sorts of ideas, of course on how to encourage pledging. One minister had a creative way of approaching this subject and told her congregation, As you know, our budget has increased 18 percent this year. Let me suggest that all of you consider giving one-tenth of your income. Your church is in real financial need. Quite frankly, it is fit to be tithed

 Another minister announced that if his congregation reached a certain fund-raising goal he would permit them to place a clock on the pulpit.   If they exceeded the goal by $2000, he would let them plug it in. If they exceeded the goal by $4000, he would look at it.

Still another minister pastor had a creative idea. His church was instituting a unified budget that would replace several smaller budgets. It took him a long time to determine the best way to present this.  Finally he told the congregation that the new unified budget was their effort to ~put all their begs into one ask it.~

It really does come down to sounding a lot like begging, doesn't it? I like to look at it as giving people the opportunity to give, but let's stay with the concept of begging for a while, because it has religious connotations.

In the latest issue of Spirituality and Health magazine, there is an article, in fact titled,  Coming to Peace with Begging, by a Franciscan nun, (Sister Karen Zielinski, OSF) who does a lot of fund raising for many different nonprofit agencies as well as , of course,  for her own order and other Catholic charities. She is very good at it and in high demand for her skills. What she has come to realize is that even fund raising is a form of begging, but even more importantly that begging has a spiritual dimension, because .... I realized that Francis of Assisi's tradition of supporting the life of his order with manual labor and begging as truly alive in my life today. She realized, she said that to be asked to contribute to a cause is to be asked to be a part of it, to be in relation, an ask is relational; it is Franciscan to the core. She says. She quotes Eleanor Roosevelt, in all our contacts it is probably the sense of being really needed and wanted which gives us the greatest satisfaction and creates the most lasting bond.

In some Buddhist monasteries one of the activities is begging for food; it is not the same kind of begging that we think of today. The monks do it as religious discipline. It is a religious act for both the giver and the receiver, a religious symbiotic relationship in the Buddhist culture. The monks do not find it demeaning because it expresses faith in the religious system, if you will. And perhaps most importantly in relation to our situation, it gives people an opportunity to participate and help support the religious institution of the culture. It is a metaphor for a canvas campaign- no not begging, but the relationship of money and religion- giver and receiver. One must have faith, you see, and one participates in the karma-what goes around comes around- the belief in Buddhist cultures is strong enough is that the Buddhist monk does not worry where his next meal will come from- karma will provide. Doesn't it sound like the Jewish or Christina concept of God will provide.  One must have faith not just in the divine nature, but in human nature, more difficult in this world all the time, no? Especially in this economy! Especially when we may be worried about where our next meal is coming from! Maybe the church will be where it comes from, because sometimes the church gives us money!

The idea of begging for money is different isn't it. From the idea of giving someone the opportunity to give. Selling Girl Scout cookies is a lot easier than asking a stranger for a handout, for instance. In the on instance, you're selling something sweet for a cause that would melt anyone's heart, and on the other you've got a situation where might actually be arrested for a variety of offenses, the very least of which is disturbing the feelings of people who are uncomfortable around, say, homeless people. Yet every religion teaches as one of its basic concepts the idea of taking care of the poor which includes, of course, giving money to them in some way. And of course, in giving money to support the religion in some way as well, for religious institutions have their needs as well. Some people say that the reason that we UUs are historically the lowest givers of any denomination while being one of the richest, is that we don't use guilt, we don't threaten people with Hell nor do we sweeten the pot with guarantees of heavenly reward for the generous, though, as I've said in the past, I will issue a money back guarantee for entrance into heaven for anyone making a generous pledge, and after more than 20 years, I've never had anyone ask for their money back! And yes, I've even threatened hell as well. Think of it this way. Wouldn't it be Hell if this church were not here because you did not support it generously? But heaven and hell are really about relationships, aren't they? Not theology.

Years ago, when Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn heard that he had terminal cancer, he shocked everyone when he announced that he was going back to his small town in Bonham, Texas. Everyone said to him: They have got the finest facilities in Washington, D. C., why go back to that little town. Rayburn's words have been quoted so often that some of you have probably heard them.. He said: "Because in Bonham, Texas, they know if you're sick and they care when you die. Community is a hospital, too.

 Because that's the other aspect about talking about money and the church and that is that we are a community, a religious community, and I will even go out on a theological limb here and say, not unlike a religious order or monastery in some, albeit limited ways, primarily relational. Our church and most UU churches and fellowships are somewhat unusual because we don't have a central belief creed which unites us like, say, the Catholic  or the Lutheran church; indeed most of us probably don't consider ourselves Christians, and even if we did, most traditional Christians wouldn't consider ourselves so!  In fact, some of us claim to be atheists! Yet we say we come to church, we may use the word worship, we talk about singing hymns, and such; can you imagine how confusing it is to a traditional Christian?

 I want to argue that in some ways what we worship is each other, that is, we worship the religious relationship we form when we come together to make up Easy Shore UU Church in all its and our various theological beliefs as well as doubts. That's one of the reasons why we don't have to think alike to walk together, because it is the together part that is important, the being together and thinking and walking and singing and searching and playing and laughing and yes crying as well. We make up a religious, a spiritual organism which is always growing, evolving, changing-but never very quickly or drastically. of course! In the past, when that did happen, there was conflict and the organism suffered and part of it broke off and it took a while to recover Each time there is a change in ministry, of course, there is change in the organism, today this church, this beloved community is healthy and strong and adjusting to the style of the new minister and there is slow growth and more visitors. We learn to trust each other

The inspirational Quaker writer, Parker J. Palmer, writes about experiencing what he describes as circles of trust that he experienced at the retreat center, Pendle Hill as a unique type of community; he writes that those trusting circles/groups are --one that supports rather than supplants the individual quest for integrity-that is rooted in two basic beliefs. First, we all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution, or leader. Second, we all need other people to invite, amplify, and help us discern the inner teacher's voice for at least three reasons:

The journey toward inner truth is too taxing to be made solo: lacking support, the solitary traveler soon becomes weary or fearful and is likely to quit the road.

The path is too deeply hidden to be traveled without company: finding our way involves clues that are subtle and sometimes misleading, requiring the kind of discernment that can happen only in dialogue.

The destination is too daunting to be achieved alone: we need community to find the courage to venture into the alien lands to which the inner teacher may call us.

(Excerpted from “True Community” in ‘A Hidden Wholeness’ by Parker J. Palmer)

This is of course, a work in progress because we are working towards that trust, working towards wholeness, working towards, togetherness, working towards social justice. As I've said, we are constantly evolving, Thank Darwin, and older members die or leave, new members join, times and people change.

My friend and colleague Deborah Pope-Lance, shared this story  of the farmer who received several flyers urging his attendance at a series of workshops on improving farming techniques. Workshops were touted on "Crop Rotation For Soil Improvement," "Fertilization for Increased Yield" and "Irrigation Methods for Land Reclamation." Getting no response from the farmer, the County Extension Manager called and again urged him to attend. Don't you want to come and improve yourself?" asked the manager. "Why should I?" responded the farmer, "I already know how to farm better than I do."

Then Deborah adds: "Sometimes the ideal lives to which we aspire bear only the slightest resemblance to what we have been able to affect."

In other words, we continue to build community though sometimes we don't do it as well as we should. Or even ore plainly, we make mistakes-whether it be church leadership, staff, minister, individual members, conflicts arising, all can cause rifts, splits, hurts, pain. We ministers often joke that as much if not more church conflict is over the choice of the color of the curtains as the theology expressed in any sermon. Yet through all the mistakes and conflict, as painful as they have been, we still gather here, some of us for decades of devotion, because this community means so much to us, because we have devoted so much of our lives, our time, and indeed, our money to the making of this religious organism, this beloved community we call East Shore UU church.

As I get ready to lead the orientation next Sunday, which by the way is Bring a guest Sunday,- let me repeat that,- next Sunday is bring guest Sunday,- I decided to reread the 50 Year History that James and Celeste Opfell put together from the archives published in 2007 for the 50th anniversary. Oh what a movie it would make! And I'm not even it, of course, but many of you are, and for those of us who weren't, we are now! We are making the second 50 years, Part II.

Reading the history of the first 50 years makes one realize what dedication and commitment many of you have had over these past decades for many of the names start showing up early and continue until today. What was it that inspired you to continue during the trying times, the difficult periods, the lean times, the dry times, the economic downturns, the conflicts and church fights? Well, of course, it was the good times, not the bad ones, that probably inspired most of us to stay, to work for this beloved community. But I want us to ask ourselves and each other these questions. Why do we come to this church? Why have we or other people worked so hard for so long to build up this place? What do we want to see for the future? How can we reach out to spread our message better and stop keeping ourselves such a secret when there are so many people who need what we have to offer and so that we can continue to develop new leadership so that this church can continue! What would it be like if East Shore wasn't here? If Unitarian Universalism wasn't an option? How much is it worth to us?

 Yes, we have to come to the bottom line, don't we? How much should you give? I often say, until it feels great! Sometimes new people who have no church experience want to know because they have no experience of church giving. The Bible talks about tithing, giving 10 percent and that is often the goal, but according to most studies, the average Protestant pledge is more like 2 percent and the catholic 1.75%! Mormons come closest to tithing about, about 30 percent to 45 percent of them.. So actually we usually suggest between 2 and 5 percent of your income as generous pledges.    We UUs statistically have the highest per capita income of any denomination and the lowest per capita giving; I'm not sure why, but I bet we could work on changing that. Cathie and I try to give 5 %.

That said, let me say this. This is not an exclusive club for which you must be able to afford the dues! Please think in terms of percentage and not amount! I know of people who have not become members because they have not felt like they could afford to support the church because of financial hardships, and I empathize with them, but I wish there was a way we could offer them official Free membership or maybe a This week only reduced rate, so they would feel comfortable becoming a part of the community by making the true commitment of membership. Because, you see, I think it is like staying outside a great party or community looking in, wanting to be a part and thinking you can't, while in reality you are truly and deeply welcome. If you are thirsty, we have the water of companionship and community to offer you, the water of love and spiritual search to satisfy your thirst. There is no charge nor is free. There is a commitment required, however. It's called love. It's called the willingness to risk religious relationship, to become a part of beloved community. Will you accept?

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.