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February 27, 2011: “Toward a Theology of Abundance: A Vision”

I heard about a new bumper sticker the other day that read, ” Tithe if you love Jesus. Any fool can honk”.


TITHE: Leighton Farrell was the minister of Highland Park Church in Dallas for many years. He tells of a man in the church who once made a covenant with a former pastor to tithe ten percent of their income every year. They were both young and neither of them had much money. But things changed. The layman tithed one thousand dollars the year he earned ten thousand, ten thousand dollars the year he earned one-hundred thousand, and one- hundred thousand dollars the year he earned one million. But the year he earned six million dollars he just could not bring himself to write out that check for six-hundred thousand dollars to the Church. He telephoned the minister, long since having moved to another church, and asked to see him. Walking into the pastor’s office the man begged to be let out of the covenant, saying, “This tithing business has to stop. It was fine when my tithe was one thousand dollars, but I just cannot afford six-hundred thousand dollars. You’ve got to do something, Reverend!” The pastor knelt on the floor and prayed silently for a long time. Eventually the man said, “What are you doing? Are you praying that God will let me out of the covenant to tithe?” “No,” said the minister. “I am praying for God to reduce your income back to the level where one thousand dollars will be your tithe!”

        Once upon a time at a church meeting a wealthy member of the church rose to tell the rest of those present about his Christian faith.

        "I'm a millionaire," he said, "and I attribute my wealth to the blessings of God in my life." He went on to recall the turning point in his relationship with God. As a young man, he had just earned his first dollar and he went to a church meeting that night. The speaker at that meeting was a missionary who told about his work in the mission field. Before the offering plate was passed around, the preacher told everyone that everything that was collected that night would be given to this missionary to help fund his work on behalf of the church. The wealthy man wanted to give to support mission work, but he knew he couldn't make change from the offering plate. He knew he either had to give all he had or nothing at all. At that moment, he decided to give all that he had to God. Looking back, he said he knew that God had blessed that decision and had made him wealthy.

        When he finished, there was silence in the room. As he returned to the pew and sat down, an elderly lady seated behind him leaned forward and said, "I dare you to do it again."

        I don't know about you, but I don't think I've met a rich person, if we assume for a minute, I'm talking about financial wealth; I've met people who I knew were financially wealthy, but none that would admit it!  Except for maybe Donald Trump. We've also met people, I will guarantee, who have a lot of money, but don't show it or talk about it and people don't find out about it until they die, usually because they leave that money to an institution that means something to them- a church, a library. a university, a hospital, or something similar.

        Most of  us, however, are not rich, at least in financial matters, though I know a lot of people here who are rich in love and compassion, and probably happier that way. Money is rarely a good yardstick to measure character, unless one looks at the attitude toward money, and especially toward the sharing of money.

        What I want to talk about this morning is a theology of abundance and a vision for this church, this beloved community. What we often seem to have currently is a theology of scarcity, and often try to get each other to give more because we don't have enough money to meet the budget or pay the mortgage, etc. Indeed, sometimes we say we need to grow so we can get new members to help pay for the church, then wonder why new members aren't knocking  down our door so we can get their money. We are in good company; though, since many if not most churches operate this way because it's probably just human nature.

        I recently went to a district workshop on Stewardship, based on the book, Not Your Parent's Offering Plate, by J. Clif Christopher. I liked that book so much, I read his second one, Whose Offering Plate Is It? New Strategies of Financial Stewardship.  And guess what, one of the most important things about a good stewardship campaign is NOT to complain that we don't have enough money; indeed if a church is complaining the whole year through that it's always desperate or there's going to be a shortfall if we don't do something, chances are they're not not going to instill confidence in their members that they know how to handle money, and if people feel like the church is not handling money well, they're reluctant to give, not inspired to give. 

It gets to be a vicious circle.

In the March/April 2004 issue of Spirituality & Health, is an article called, ‘The Soul of Money,’ by Lynne Twist; ‘A Life of Abundance.’ Money is like water. It flows through your life, and can carry your soul’s intention to nourish people and projects that mean the most to you. Why not use this tax season to visualize genuine prosperity? You center yourself in the principles of sufficiency:

 * What you appreciate appreciates. In money and in life, with your attention your inner riches grow, independent of monetary value.
 * When you stop chasing more of what you don't need, you free up tremendous energy to do more with what you have, and what you have grows.

        Begin with this subtraction exercise: Consciously let go of what I call the myths and mindset of scarcity 'the assumption that more is better, there's not enough, and that's just the way it is. Letting go may not be easy. We live in a sea of messages from advertising, marketing, and the culture that tell us to consume. Nevertheless, letting go is critical for this accounting. With each category of reflection... each question, release yourself from the mindset of scarcity, and trade it to one of sufficiency, the under- standing that there is enough, we are enough, to meet life's challenges, regardless of our income. Look for a match between what matters most to you and the flow of money in and out of your life.  Follow your answers to these questions to the bottom line and discover where money and soul can merge to light up your life!'

        I like that last line partly because we rarely mention money as part of the mission of the church, but one of the things a church can be is that place where we can 'discover where money and soul can merge to light up your life!' Indeed, it might  be a good stewardship title, or even a blurb on our sign or in the newsletter. Because we can't really talk about church without talking about money, and money is neither dirty nor scarce. Most of us would rather talk about sex than money, but what if we realized that money was part of our spirituality, part of our religious quest? What if this church were that one place where we could 'discover where money and soul can merge to light up your life?'

        As we begin our stewardship campaign, it is an opportunity to live out a theology of generosity, abundance, putting our money where our mission is, where our heart is, and where our beloved community is. 

Our checkbooks are also our real theology books, showing in black or white where we put our money after the true necessities are paid. How we spend our money is a religious belief!, or more accurately, our religious action!

        From a UUA Curriculum called the 'The Joy of Giving,' using the traditional language of 'stewardship, servers, savers,' 'Stewardship takes place at the intersection of our spirituality and our ethics. We both celebrate life and accept the responsibility to love and care for the gifts of life. We both celebrate UUism and take responsibility for promoting our 'Purposes and Principles' and living the value of our free faith. This concept of stewardship is not just about caring for the present, but investing in the future... ...Giving is a joyous process. And it has the potential to help us grow spiritually.  ...Stewardship is about taking care of something we value and enabling it to grow. When we become stewards, we take responsibility and contribute our time, talent, and treasure.'

        Let us look at our stewardship, our giving, as a spiritual act done out of love, not guilt. How much to you love this church, this beloved community? How spiritual do you want to be? And yes, it's also eminently practical as well. Perhaps we shouldn't even use the term, 'give,' but instead use the term 'share.' I find it interesting that the word, 'charity' originally meant 'love' in the King James Version of the New Testament, and it's most obvious in the well known 'Love' passage of one of Paul's letter to the Corinthians, where he ends by saying in the King James version: 'and now these three things abide, Faith, Hope, and Charity.' The newer Revised Standard Version translates it as 'Faith, Hope, and Love.' Doesn't that give the word, 'charity,' a new dimension?  Giving in a religious way is a synonym for love. Think about that for a minute.

        Most religions talk about a spiritual connection to sharing what we have. Indeed, in Islam, 'Charity' is one of the five pillars of faith, as important in believing in God!

Editor Rebecca Laird in The Heart of Henri Nouwen quotes from this Catholic contemplative’s book Sabbatical Journey: “I think that generosity has many levels. We have to think generously, speak generously, and act generously. Thinking well of others and speaking well of others is the basis for generous giving. It means that we relate to others as part of our ‘gen’ or ‘kin’ and treat them as family. Generosity cannot come from guilt or pity. It has to come from hearts that are fearless and free and are willing to share abundantly all that is given to us.”

Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg writes in Lovingkindness: “The Buddha said that no true spiritual life is possible without a generous heart. . . . Generosity allies itself with an inner feeling of abundance ‘the feeling that we have enough to share.’ In Love Dharma, Geri Larkin states: “The Buddha taught, over and over, that generosity is the first door we walk through if we are serious about our spiritual work. Without generosity enlightenment is flat-out impossible. We’re too self-centered. Unless our relationships are bathed in generosity they don’t have a chance.’ Rami Shapiro in Hasidic Tales observes: “Acts of generosity are essential to the spiritual life, reflecting as they do an awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings. Judaism sets a minimum standard for giving: ten percent of your earnings. But the Hasid, the compassionate disciple of God, goes beyond the letter of the law.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in Celebrating Life notes: “Happiness is not made by what we own. It is what we share.”

        Working towards a theology of abundance means leaving behind our old way of theology of scarcity. After almost 25 years in ministry, I have worked on a lot of church budgets and it's never been fun or particularly spiritual!  In fact, it's usually been the opposite, and almost always because everyone has different firm opinions about what a church budget should be, should reflect. And almost always perhaps the religious feature most commonly seen is that it should be balanced! Common accounting practice after all; good business practice. Yet think about it for a minute; it's all an estimate! I don't know how many long meetings I have endured debating a best guess estimate as if it didn't depend on a wide variety of factors, including deaths, change is the economy of the nation or of members, or new members possibly joining! A budget can be liberal or conservative and there has always seemed to be a balance of those two kinds of people fiscally. Line item budgets that go on for 5 pages are not very spiritual, and over and over the stewardship experts tell us that people do not give to budgets, or at least they don't give as generously as when they feel like their money is making a difference!  And not just in the church, but in the community.

        A church should NOT be about a balanced budget; nor should it be fiscally irresponsible, but it should be about our mission, our vision, our hopes, our desire for social and economic justice and peace, and our need for loving and helping one another.  It should be about helping us be part of the religious dimension, what or who, some call God, or Spirit of Life, or a thousand other names which attempt to understand, or perhaps, reach the mystery, to feel as though we are all part of the One. It should be about reaching out to those who need us and don't even know that we exist and it should be about our own spiritual growth.

        What is the mission of this church, if it is not to learn how to be more loving? To serve one another, the world, the sense of what we consider sacred or holy? To come together in worship of the spirit of life and love? To provide a place of 'sanctuary' for our souls as well as our bodies? To work toward the transformation of ourselves into better people as well as the world into a more loving, just, and peaceful place? To comfort one another? To work and play together? To be all that we have the mind to be!

        But do we know what the mission of this church is? We have a mission statement from some years ago, but it's not easy to sum up in a sentence. For many of us, coming together for Sunday morning worship is the main mission.

        My vision for this church starts with a hope that we blossom, that we grow in both numbers and spiritual depth, that we begin a theology of abundance where we develop the generosity so we are able to fund a variety of programs, religious education for all ages, dynamic worship services with a variety of music, contemporary, classical, Folk, Jazz. That we 'staff for growth,' which would include a part time bookkeeper/CPA to help us get in better financial footing, a part time Director of Congregational Life/ or membership coordinator, who would help us coordinate committees, activities, adult RE, Orientations, etc. That's what the growing congregations are doing.

        I envision us doing estate planning for folks, to help us develop a planned giving program which would include endowments and give people the confidence that their money will be used wisely.  We can start by making sure we've included the church in our wills; perhaps we can't tithe now, but could in our estates.

        I envision us reaching out to the community more with social justice projects, so we become known for that generosity of spirit as well as hands on work.

        I envision a beloved community with a behavior covenant that helps us treat each other with love and respect, especially when we disagree!

        I envision us realizing that if we truly want to grow, we have to be willing to make some changes even as we grieve for the parts of the past that we so dearly loved.

        I envision a religious community, a spiritual oasis, a true beacon of hope, tolerance, love, peace, environmental, social and economic justice, deep worship that comforts us as well as challenges us, that gives us inspiration for daily living, a place for lifespan religious education and, mutligenerational activities, and dynamic church leadership

        I envision us becoming more involved in district and denominational activities, remember the General Assembly, the denomination's Annual meeting and revival of congregations from all over the US.

        I envision us as transformers of lives as I know we have been, and a place for the spiritual or religious milestones in our lives, from child dedications, Coming Of Age Ceremonies, Membership recognition, weddings, sacred unions, renewal of vows, and yes, finally, memorial services.

In Spiritual Literacy is a reading from The Buddhist psychotherapist and inspirational writer–Jack Kornfield, from his book, Roots of Buddhist Psychology: ‘The call to service is a yearning from the heart to live and move beyond ourselves. Love, compassion, and gratitude lead many to a life of service.

        We all have, without exception, a very deep longing to give 'to give to the earth, to give to others, to give to the society, to work, to love, to care for this earth.  That's true for every human being.  And even the ones who don't find it, it's because it has been squashed or somehow suppressed in some brutal way in their life.  But its there to be discovered.  We all long for that.  And there's a tremendous sorrow for a human being who doesn't find a way to give.  One of the worst of human sufferings is not to find a way to love, or a place to work and give of your heart and your being.'

Come all you who are heavy laden, and put down your burden, and be blessed, be blessed. You are loved here. Come be part of this community which we make beloved and holy. Be of generous and abundant spirit.

Peace, Love, Shalom, Assalaamu Alaikum, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios

From Victoria Safford, excerpted from her sermon, ‘Caution Church Ahead,’ in The Abundance of Our Faith: Award-Winning Sermons on Giving, Edited by Terry Sweetser and Susan Milnor, Skinner House Books, Boston, 2006, 105-106.

“Our desires and our decisions may be boundless, but our needs, if we’re honest, are really pretty basic. We need shelter and food and clothing.
And beyond this, we need friendship.
We need comrades in the struggle.
We need art. We need a way to hear music often.
We need noble work, paid or unpaid, in the home or out of it; we need, each of us, a calling.
We need trees and grass and water fairly close by.
We need religious grounding. Some of us need a mature and sustaining experience of God.
Some need prayer. Some need glimpses of the transcendent, a sense of something larger than themselves. Some of us need ethical clarity.
We need religious grounding.
We need solitude.
We need community.
We find the sources of these things we need, and then we choose to sustain them, to nurture them, not by willpower, not by some sense of duty or obligation, but because we care passionately about them and find them central to our lives.”

Sam Trumbore

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.
Faithfully yours, Sam Trumbore