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 more.
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 stinginess.
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 moment.
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 possible.
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 beyond measure. 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 possibility.
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].