New address: 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1409.
Earlier this week I was speaking with a member of the church
about the sermon I was going to deliver today. She said to me, “What’s the big
deal?” This one’s easy. All you have to say is: “You have
money. We need money. Give us your money. Then we can all go home.” So, you have money. We need money. Give us your money. Our closing hymn is…
The task of writing what’s commonly called the “annual
Canvass sermon” or what is sometimes referred to as “the sermon on the amount”
is loathed by some ministers. They
aren’t comfortable discussing money with their partners in the comfort of their
own living rooms, much less talking about it with the whole congregation in a
worship service. These ministers
feel that it is unseemly to discuss such mundane matters from the pulpit. Some feel that church finances are best
left to “the experts,” those members of the church who work in business or
accounting, who serve diligently on the finance committee. Some feel that it’s disingenuous for
ministers to get involved in the annual fund drive, since their salary depends
on it. Other ministers, apparently
calling upon their long-forgotten Puritan roots, would rather not get their
hands dirty. In our UU churches you
frequently hear that ministers are much more comfortable talking about sex than
we are talking about money.
Well, just in case you’re wondering, I’m not one of those
ministers. In fact, I fall squarely at the other end of the spectrum. Not that I don’t like to talk about sex,
mind you. Maybe it’s my background
in the law and working for a large company, but as a minister I’m not at all
ashamed to keep my eye on church finances and to talk about the power of the
almighty. The almighty dollar, that
is. So instead of dreading it, I’m
actually excited about today’s sermon.
Last week I was at a meeting of our local Unitarian Universalist
Ministers’ Association and the topic of the Canvass Sermon came up. After listening to a few of our
colleagues moan and groan about it, my dear friend Patrick O’Neil stood up and
said “I can’t believe all this griping!
This sermon is the easiest one to write all year long. If we can’t talk about what the church
does for people and why they should support it, we should all find a different
line of work.” I couldn’t agree
I think that much of the discomfort that Unitarian
Universalists experience around the topic of money is an indirect result of our
commitment to egalitarian principles.
As a covenantal community we agree that everyone should be treated
equitably, that no one should be given preferential treatment over anyone
else. Because some people have
either earned or inherited greater material wealth than others, or conversely,
some people have been less able or less fortunate financially than others, money
is seen as a potential point of divisiveness. And we see this divisiveness in our
society every day, where the haves and the have-nots are pitted against each
other in a struggle for limited resources.
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We fear that the rampant classism we see
in our larger world, with all its attendant problems, will encroach upon our
community here at church.
It is right and good to be conscious of the power of money to
come between us, to undermine our commitment to equity and compassion in human
relations. But it is not healthy
for any community, in seeking to affirm the value and worth of every individual,
to refuse to recognize the gifts of its members in whatever form they may
take. Some of us have the ability
to create a special bond with the youngest members of our community, while
others don’t. Some are adept at
rallying people around social justice causes, while others can’t organize their
closets. Some people in this
community have the talent to cook elaborate meals for pot-luck suppers, while
some of us have trouble making toast.
And some of us have attained a level of financial security that enables
us to give substantial sums to the church, while others struggle to pay their
monthly heating bill. As a
community we readily recognize and celebrate our RE teachers and our social
justice organizers and our caring committee members, and we thank them for their
contributions. In so doing, we
don’t fear alienating or dismissing those who have not taught our children,
organized a rally or fed the hungry.
Similarly, so should we feel comfortable expressing our gratitude to
those who are fortunate enough and willing enough to make significant
contributions to the financial well-being of this institution.
We each have just three gifts to offer one another and this
church: our time, our talent, and
our treasures. Each of us possesses
each of these in different measure.
For some, a few spare hours a week are as precious as gold. Some are blessed with unique talents
that others lack, talents for music, or for leadership, or for empathy. And some here are blessed with financial
security. None is more nor less
valuable than any other, and all three are equally needed to sustain our
religious community. Fortunately,
many of us have more than just one of these in some measure. We have some time, some talents and some treasure. The danger, I suppose, is that at this
time of year there is such an emphasis on money that those who struggle
financially feel under-appreciated or ashamed. So let us not lose sight, during our
annual fund drive, that treasures are but one of the gifts that we share with
one another and which are needed to support our community.
It is not enough, of course, to simply possess certain
degrees of time, talent, and treasures.
Hoarding these and holding onto them for ourselves does no one, least of
all ourselves, any good. And here
is a truth that we often overlook.
We are generous people. Let
me say that again: We are generous
people. Do any of you sometimes
feel like you have a tape recorder playing in your head, one that plays over and
over and over again in an endless loop, some old message that you were taught as
a child. “You’re not smart
enough.” “You’re not pretty
enough.” “You can do better than
that.” One of the tapes that
Unitarian Universalists often have playing in their heads – and at this time of
year the volume is turned up pretty high – is that Unitarian Universalists are
stingy. We hear about members of
conservative Christian congregations, and maybe we even know some, who tithe,
who give ten percent of their annual income to their church. Then we look at ourselves and our level
of giving, and we feel uncomfortable and inadequate. That tape blares in our heads. I know that I hear that message pretty
loudly when I’m staring at the blank pledge card, considering how much to give
in the coming year.
So let me say this again: We are a generous people. I have witnessed countless acts of
generosity among members of this congregation since I arrived here, and I have
experienced your generosity personally.
UUs generally and you
specifically possess a generosity of spirit that is unmatched in other religious
institutions I have experienced.
This generosity is revealed by the way we take care of one another when
one of us is ill, or grieving the loss of a loved one. It shows its face through the open arms
we extend to those beyond our doors who are not welcome in other churches
because of their sexual orientation.
It lives and breathes in the covenant we share, committing ourselves to
the task of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every
person. To bring our principles to
life, to teach them to our children, to live in this covenantal relationship
with each other, requires a tremendous generosity of spirit. We are generous people. And at this time of year we are asking
all of you to demonstrate your generosity in a tangible and measurable way. Far be it from me to discourage you from
tithing to the church, but whether you tithe or you “two-the” as you consider
your annual pledge to the church, I encourage you to hold yourselves in the
light of generosity and abundance rather than in the darkness of scarcity and
Some of you know that in one of my prior lifetimes I enjoyed
dabbling in magic. As a child I
enjoyed the little shows that my dad presented to me and my friends on my
birthday, and as a father myself I enjoyed entertaining my kids. But I will admit that I enjoy watching
magic much more than performing it.
For several years I attended a magic convention on Cape Cod, where hundreds of magicians would gather to
perform and attend workshops. The
highlight of these weekends was the stage shows presented on Friday and Saturday
evenings. The conference attracted
some of the biggest names in magic, and these headliners would perform miracles
for two nights on a small stage at a nearby high school. I saw women sawn not just in half, but
in quarters, just as close as I am to you right now. I saw live doves and parrots and rabbits
appear from empty glass containers, and full-sized palm trees pulled from
briefcases. And if you remember the
old Addams family movie from a few years ago, I even saw “Thing”, the
disembodied hand, dance around the stage.
But the ultimate experience came for me one night watching
Harry Blackstone, Jr. perform his signature illusion. Standing on the darkened stage, he
produced an old, oversized, brightly-glowing light bulb, the kind Thomas Edison
first invented. Blackstone first
let go with one hand, and then with the other. The light bulb danced around him and
then, to my amazement, it floated away from the stage and out over the audience,
half-way up the auditorium. The
climax of his presentation came when the great magician walked down from the
stage and up the aisle. I was
sitting on the end of the row and he stopped right next to me. With a wave of his hand he summoned the
floating light bulb toward us, and he asked me to put out my hand. Slowly, gently, the bulb descended down
to my hand, resting there gently for a few brief seconds before taking flight
over the audience once again. It
was truly a magical moment.
My mind knows that the floating light bulb, like the dancing
hand and the lady in pieces on different places on the stage are all
accomplished by complex illusions.
The object of an illusion is to make something that we know to be
physically impossible seem real.
And in my experience there are two types of people in the world: one type just has to figure out how an
illusion works, and the other chooses to suspend his disbelief and to live in
the magic of the moment. I am
firmly in the latter category. I
have never wanted to know how Blackstone floated that light bulb, and I don’t
care to find out how David Copperfield walks through the Great Wall of China or how Lance Burton makes an airliner
disappear. I choose instead to
simply enjoy the magic.
When we look at our lives, at the world around us, and
consider the future, we have a tendency to sort our thoughts into
categories: Is something real or is
it an illusion? Is it possible or
is it impossible? Could it have
happened or was it made up? Can we
do it or not? I read you the story
of the loaves and fishes today to highlight this proclivity. I would venture to guess that many of
you, hearing that story, thought to yourselves “That’s impossible. It could never have happened.” Obviously, I cannot prove to you that it
happened just as it was reported in the Bible, nor would I try to convince you
of the literal truth of the story.
But what if we let go of that reaction of “did it happen or didn’t
it? Could it have happened or not?”
and suspended our disbelief? How
would we hear the story differently if we simply lived in the possibility? Just like when we’re trying to figure
out how the magician does the trick, when we focus on the perceived “reality” of
a situation, we miss out on the experience of the event and the meaning of the
Whether Jesus actually fed 5,000 hungry people with five
loaves and two fish, or whether it was some grand illusion performed by a master
magician, is irrelevant. The story
of the loaves and the fishes is a story of the victory of faith over fear. The disciples thought they would have a
riot on their hands if they were unable to feed the hungry horde. They were convinced that the needs of
the people far outstripped their resources and capabilities. “Send them away,” they urged Jesus. “We’re a bunch of fishermen in the
middle of a desert and we don’t see a way out of this predicament.” But Jesus showed them that it was their
vision that was limited. He showed
them that unknown possibilities exist beyond our knowing. The story of the loaves and the fishes
is a lesson in moving from a mentality of scarcity, where we believe that there
isn’t enough to go around and that many must inevitably go hungry, to an
attitude of abundance, where all our needs will be met and where all things are
What would it be like to live in possibility? If we believed that all things are
possible? How would that change our
thinking and our lives? What is
possible here in the church? What
would the church be to you if all things were possible? Would we have thousands of members while
still retaining a friendly, family feel?
Would we have a 150-voice choir with an equally large children’s chorus
that would tour the world spreading the good news of our faith? Would we operate a shelter that houses,
feeds and clothes hundreds of people in need? Would we sponsor world-class forums with
famous speakers that promote the rights of the most oppressed in our
society? Would we send scores
of volunteers to New
Orleans to rebuild that ravaged city? Would we adopt families in war-torn
regions of the world and make sure that their children got a good
education? I would submit to you today that no
matter what you hope, no matter what you dream, no matter what you desire for
yourself and for this community, all things are possible. All things are possible.
Let me be clear that, although I am encouraging us to live in
possibility and to experience the magic moments that this wonderful community
creates each and every day, I’m not suggesting that we engage in “magical
thinking.” I have a plaque on the
wall of my office that says “Faith makes things possible. It doesn’t make them easy.” There is hard work ahead for us to begin
to live into our possibility.
Changes, transitions, and even conflicts will be inevitable. And we must first do the hard work of
discovering and articulating our visions of the future. But I am convinced that, with the firm
foundations on which this church is built, our future is one of limitless
possibilities and potentialities.
I’ve heard some folks say that our goal for the pledge drive
will be a stretch, that we’re asking too much of people, and they’re
concerned. I appreciate that we’re
looking for a substantial increase over last year. But living into our future requires us
to act boldly and to move forward with faith. Marianne Williamson famously said, “Our
deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful
It is our light, not our darkness, that most
frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and
fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing
small doesn't serve the world.”
As you make your pledge for the coming church year, I invite you to live
into the possibility that is our church, however you may envision it. Because all reality begins first in
In closing, let me say that one of the best things about
giving money to the church is how it comes back to you in ways that are
surprising and unexpected. I could
talk for hours about what the Unitarian Universalist faith has given to me. But you’re probably tired of listening
to me by now and are anxious to get to the coffee. So instead, let me give you a visual
demonstration of what I mean.
[Here I show them something that appears impossible, but that
actually happens before their very eyes.
I describe it below:]
May I please borrow a dollar bill from someone? [Waving the
dollar in front of the congregation]
There are a lot of things you can do with your money. [Begin folding
dollar in half, then half again]
You can put it in the bank, where it will earn interest. [Continue
folding bill] You can spend it on a
new car, or to pay your bills.
[Hold folded up bill for all to see] But it’s hard to get excited over that.
[Unfold bill and wave it
around] But think what your money
can do when you give it to the church!
[Begin to fold bill again as you continue talking] It can support our programming, so that
we have vibrant lifespan religious education. We can use it to support our social
action and outreach projects. We
can use it in all sorts of wonderful ways. [Show folded up bill to everyone]
And you know how that will make you feel,
when you give your money to the church?
[Unfold bill and show that it has magically been transformed to a
$1,000,000.00 bill!] It’ll make you feel like a million
bucks! [Hand the $1,000,000
bill to the member who gave you the dollar].
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association
member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship.
Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Tuesday, February 19, 2013.
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