All That's Past Is Prologue (Winner of the 2001 Stewardship Sermon Award)


One year for the November Service Auction, [a member] asked and I agreed to have a sermon topic listed among the many items available for bidding. Offering a sermon at auction is a tradition with which I am familiar, having done this before in another congregation; but because of that familiarity, I’m always a little wary. Why is it that the people most willing and able to bid high and win always choose topics like "Asphalt vs. Concrete", or "The Relevance of Post-Enlightenment Humanism for Religious Liberals and Secular Society on the Threshold of the 21st Century, Taking into Account Not Only the Classic Traditions of Jerusalem and Athens, but Also Non-western Ideologies Including But Not Limited to Buddhism, Jainism, Nine centuries of Confucianism and Late 20th Century Wiccan Thought?" I really had to do that once, and everyone agreed: it was a dreadful Sunday morning.

This morning, though, the task is simpler -- no less daunting but perhaps more interesting. Peter N_______, who joined this church last year, was the successful bidder and has chosen as his theme "Planned Giving." He’s interested in endowments and how churches establish them. He’s interested in aggressive but socially responsible investing, not only in the market but in the future. (Later, the Endowment Committee will tell you of their progress on this work so far.)

"Planned giving" is about standing on the solid ground of the present and leaning over time to touch the future. Planned giving is about coming of age. I know something, but not much, about this. Like [this] Church. I began my life forty-something years ago on the cusp between the baby boomer generation and Generation X. Like this church, and like some of you, I am now rounding the corner of what can only be called MIDDLE AGE, with what can only be called MIXED FEELINGS. And like the church, and like many of my peers, I have given little thought until recently to the long arc of the future, my future as an older person, an old person, so involved have I been in just getting started up. But now I turn that corner, and I see that many of the things I thought I could change and influence, I maybe can’t; while others, which I hadn’t even seen before, await and beg for a shaping hand, a shove, a push, a pull, so they’ll go in one direction and not some other. I begin to see that there some few ways to affect the future, and now that I’m grown and even graying. I see that now would be the time to start.

Planned giving is about maturity. In congregations it’s about institutional maturity. As Peter has explained it to me, it’s about rounding that corner and glimpsing a future that you yourself will not be part of, but you care about it anyway, you care passionately, though you yourself will be long gone. Planned giving is about thinking of yourself already as an ancestor, somebody’s ancestor, a leaver of legacies for descendants you will never meet, but whose lives are already intertwined with yours. We leave legacies, like it or not, on purpose or by accident: stories, values, traditions, toxic waste dumps, monuments, magnum opuses, mistakes, ethical ideals, rituals..…and also, sometimes, money. (I think Peter was hoping that things would get specific here.) We leave cash, real estate, stock and marketable securities. So herewith a sermon on Planned Giving for Peter N______ (an auction item, which, I might just mention, was sold more cheaply than the trout-fishing trip offered by my [spouse] and John W______ [a member]. (Not that we were competing. Not that I was insulted.) A sermon about priorities.


This week our attention is turned again toward the Balkans, toward what remains of and what might now become Yugoslavia. Amazing events are unfolding there, and I’m reminded of a person I read about some years ago—Vedran Smailovic, the cellist of Sarajevo. In the spring of 1992 (which seems so long ago, and wasn’t) one of the last bakeries still able to make bread in Sarajevo had a long line out the door as usual, stretching far into the street. At 4:00 in the afternoon, a shell hit directly into that bread line, and 22 people were instantly killed.

Vedran Smailovic lived nearby. Before the war he had been the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera, and according to one article, "it was a distinguished and civilized life, and one to which he deeply and patiently longed to return. But when he saw the carnage that day outside his window, he was pushed beyond his capacity to absorb and endure any more. He resolved to do the thing he could do best.... Every day thereafter, at 4:00 p.m., Vedran Smailovic put on his full, formal concert attire, took up his cello, and walked out of his apartment into the battle raging around him. He placed a little stool in the blood-stained, glass-splattered crater where the shell had landed, and every day, for 22 days, he played Albinoni’s Adagio as tribute to the 22 dead. Snipers fired at him (they missed), mortar shells fell all around him, but he played that music to the abandoned streets, the smashed trucks, the burning buildings, and to the terrified people still hiding in the cellars, who heard him." [Paul Sullivan, HOPE Magazine, March 1996. I first read about Smailovic in 1992, in articles in the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.]

He played concerts elsewhere after that (one in the middle of the ruins of the beautiful National Library), and now he lives in Belfast, Ireland, and he plays in Irish streets and Irish craters, and all around the world. I heard him in a concert just before we moved, and was surprised to see he is an ordinary person—an extraordinary cellist, but an ordinary person: long hair, cowboy boots, joking, friendly, a regular guy, not at all other-worldly, except for this way that he chooses to use up his life, to spend it. In Sarajevo he left a legacy, but in a strange container. This was no grand stage; no one even knew who he was at first. And music is fleeting, the notes are heard only for a second, and only by a few. Yet the power of the gesture carries on. This cellist is just an ordinary person, but his passion lingers; his courage, his defiance, his imagination, his playfulness, his art, his intention, all of these live on. The container for the legacy is memory, and when memory fades, when everyone who knows this story finally dies, it will become something else, part of a people’s way of being, part of humanity’s humanity. Such for us is immortality. And probably it is significant that the cellist of Sarajevo grew up in a distinguished family of musicians. His father, a famous violinist, founded a family ensemble called Musica ad hominem, "Music for the People," and he brought his children, including young Vedran, to play in poor villages and neighborhoods all over Yugoslavia, bringing live classical music to people who otherwise would hear none. His father’s generosity of spirit does live on. "All that’s past is prologue": what’s happened in the past, what happens in the present, has bearing on the future. (And this reminds me of our own "people’s music" here this morning, this folk tradition carried on and passed along, another kind of musica ad hominem. And of course a large portion of the American folk tradition is just outright fun, plain and simple, but a larger portion is about hope, fear, solidarity, justice, peace, oppression, slavery, dignity, faith and freedom, freedom, freedom.)

In an interview once, Smailovic said: "I worry. I am afraid. Are you? It is not enough just to pray, to whatever God, for a better future. It is necessary that we take urgent, healthy action to return ourselves to the beauty of a life without fear." Healthy, urgent action (creative, generous action) restores our lives to beauty, even if and perhaps especially if that action involves risk (if not life-threatening risk, then at least the risk of never knowing if your action is the right one, or whether it will matter, or how things will turn out).

Ours is a movement that from its first beginnings has survived and thrived on the edge of risk. For over 300 years in this country, and much longer in Europe, Unitarian Universalism has been part of a liberal religious tradition that to some extent defines itself in terms of risk, living on the edge, the frontier, the fringe. From its earliest incarnation as the far left wing of the radical Reformation, when to dissent from the Roman Church, the Lutheran Church, the church of Calvin, was to risk your life, to risk imprisonment or exile or burning at the stake (and our movement has its martyrs, whose hymns we still sing and writings we still read for clues about our own humanity)—from those early generations of religious freedom fighters to these later times, when seekers come to our congregations (most often) leaving the traditions of their childhood and all that that implies (all the pain and struggle that implies), ours is an enterprise involving risk. Being here, I like to think, involves healthy, urgent action to restore ourselves to the beauty of a life without fear.

Ours is a saving church, and by that I mean that lives are saved within it. People say that. They use that old vocabulary. They say: "I never knew there was a place like this, where I could be accepted." They say: "I never knew there could be a congregation that believed as I do." They say: "I walked out of the church as soon as I was old enough, but until I came here, I had no idea how deeply I was longing for connection, to other people and also to the sacred." They say: "I was a spiritual shipwreck, and I’m still drifting, but at least, at last, I have a home." For me, it was astonishing to discover this tradition: I was a young adult flailing around at large out there, and when I accidentally stumbled upon the works of William Ellery Channing one rainy afternoon, a door opened to me. Here was someone in print, someone who wrote in 1819, asking the unspeakable questions I’d been asking, doubting the "truths" that I’d been doubting, clearly defining the moral ideas, the theological ideas that I had harbored all along as crazy. Here was a religion welcoming science and reason, while honoring mystery and wonder. Here was a religion concerned more with deeds than creeds; a church that in its Sunday Schools, apparently, taught children to think and act and feel—to know their hearts—instead of to recite. I felt not as if my soul were saved, but as if my self were somehow integrated—my integrity restored, as mind and heart and soul were reunited, as if after a long, strange, unnatural parting of the ways.

Ours is a saving church, and it is a church that acts. (I’m still talking about risk here, and healthy, urgent action that transforms fear into beauty.) This week one of you brought in a flyer about a march and vigil to be held in [a large nearby city] on racial profiling and violence, what some in the neighborhoods there are calling the crime of "driving while black." Does this concern us, this inner city, urban issue? Does this concern us way out in the whiter wilderness of [our town]? It absolutely does, and we will be there. Last week I heard from a parent news of a deeply disturbing homophobic incident that occurred in a high school in a town not far from here. Though the call to respond went out to many, it’s been members of this congregation who actually came forward, adults and youth, to speak out and offer resources and see what healthy, urgent action they might be called to take. One parent, when asked whether his work on gay rights in the school might be hard to explain to his middle-school child, responded, "Yes, it will be. We haven’t talked about this stuff before. But it would be harder to explain to her later if I just did nothing."

This is a saving church and a church that acts. It is also a church that asks, and wonders, unafraid of questions that may go unanswered, unafraid of answers that may challenge its assumptions. In Channing’s words, it will not "content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, but opens itself to light whencesoever it may come. It does not mechanically copy the past, but listens for new and higher monitions of conscience..." This is a church that asks how it might possibly continue to be relevant, so that when N. [the baby who was dedicated this morning] comes of age, he might wish to be a part of it. This is a church that asks how it can serve that baby well, now today while he is a child and right on into his old age (which none of us will be there to see). How will we encourage his unspeakable questions, how will we nurture his sense of justice, his love of freedom, his faith, his spirit, and most of all his hope? What songs will we teach him to sing? What prayers will we offer from our own hearts as examples? This is a saving church, a church that acts and a church that asks. These are some of the reasons why some of us are part of it, and contribute to its thriving in whatever ways we can.

How do you make a legacy? What kind of healthy urgent action in the present has any bearing on the future?

There’s a story told by a colleague about a woman on a subway train in New York City. "The station’s crowded, and as she leaves the train she realizes she is holding only one of her gloves. She looks back into the car and sees the matching one on the seat, but it’s too late to rush back and retrieve it. Suddenly, as the doors begin to close, she flings out her arm, and tosses the remaining glove on to the seat alongside its mate. The doors shut, and the train pulls away." [Phyllis O’Connell, quoted in Quest, CLF, 11/97]

That looks like a frivolous gesture -- gratuitous, spontaneous, spur of the moment. But you know she must have lived a long life of generosity, a life of wild and creative generosity of spirit to be able to think so quickly, to act so urgently and healthily, to know precisely in that moment what would bless the world right then and there. It happened in an instant, but that was planned giving, through and through. Something in her past, or everything in her past, prepared that woman for her gesture—habits of living and giving practiced and refined her whole life long. All our past is prologue, and prepares us for these opportunities.

How do you make a legacy? Some people play the cello in extraordinary venues. Others risk their lives, their selves, their souls in congregations, struggling against the odds to be who they are and who they are called to be. Some toss the other glove, deliberately, and gladly, and regularly (with no regrets). All this is planned giving: it does not occur by accident, however spontaneous it looks. These acts are intentional. They require effort and choices about spending. How will you spend, or use up, your life? Some who have it give their time, or give their money, mindful that these substances, like music notes, are fleeting, and as the people said two weeks ago, you bless them (these gifts) by the use you put them to.

Last year here, when this congregation sustained a hard succession of losses, the deaths of several beloved members all in a row, people made contributions in their honor before we even had an endowment vehicle in place. They sent gifts and enclosed notes saying in one way or another, "Please make this money a memorial to that person’s life. So that all she gave us, all he gave us, might continue and blossom, and thrive for people who will never know him (or her) or me. Please make this money a memorial, an inheritance for future members of this congregation and the causes they will someday serve." They didn’t mean "balance out the budget with my check," "Buy paper clips and pay the bills and pay the staff and let that be that." They meant: "Let these funds be a gift from the ancestors to the descendants. Out of our grieving and our gratitude, let this gift live on."

That is planned giving, planned living. Placing oneself in the camp of the ancestors, and imagining the descendants.

Some who can give time, or money. Some teach their children old and simple songs of old and not so simple struggles -- the musica ad hominem that’s sung in every language -- so that when new struggles come those children will have something to fall back on, a tradition of freedom and justice. Some support the congregation they believe in (the congregation that believes in them) simply with their presence, which is all they can give, and which is enough, and which in and of itself makes the place a holy place.

And somewhere this morning, there is a child, perhaps in Sarajevo, perhaps in Belgrade, maybe in a far off place she was brought to as a refugee. She is 10 now, or 11, or maybe 12, and in her mind she is remembering a phrase of sad and wondrous music, which she heard when she was very small and very scared. And she is wondering how she’s going to learn to play the cello, how she will take lessons -- because this gift was given to her, on purpose, with intention, by a man she doesn’t know, who received it from his father who received it from someone long go. They passed it on as she will pass it on—and all of this by their love and their integrity was and will be planned. There is no such thing as unplanned giving.

James Baldwin, African American philosopher and novelist, wrote

It is rare indeed that people give.
Most people guard and keep;
they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping,
whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.
One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—
that is to say, risking oneself.
If one cannot risk oneself,
then one is simply incapable of giving.

Delivered at White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church of Mahtomedi, MN

About the awardee: The Reverend Victoria Safford was called to be minister at White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota in 1999 after a ten-year ministry at Northampton, Massachusetts. A graduate of Vassar College and Yale Divinity School, she lives in Mahtomedi with her husband, Ross Safford, and their daughter, Hope.