Posts Tagged generosity

Bah! Humbug!

I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 24th 2018.

This is the time of year when it’s not hard to find one of a number of traditional holiday movies on the television, from How the Grinch Stole Christmas to Frosty the Snowman, from A Christmas Story to Die Hard.  Another that you’ll find is A Christmas Carol, which, like The Grinch, has been adapted in various ways, from the Patrick Stewart’s theatrical production to Mickey’s Christmas Carol featuring Scrooge McDuck, from the modern version with Bill Murray as a cynical and selfish television executive to the 3D animation and its Scrooge flying through the air in a rather short night gown that has scarred all our memories forever.

Given all of these adaptations, we’re familiar with the basics of Charles Dickens’ novella, which was first published in 1843.

[Summary of the story…]

There has been much debate as to whether A Christmas Carol is a Christian allegory or if it’s a fully secular story.  Much like The Grinch, it’s about someone with a mean, cold heart discovering the true meaning of Christmas.  As one person has put it, “A Christmas Carol is the heartwarming tale of how rich people must be supernaturally terrorized into sharing.”  And yet, while Dickens’ novella mentions Christmas some ninety times, it does not mention Jesus even once.

This is somewhat curious, because it’s not that Dickens himself was not religious.  He was christened and reared in the Church of England, and he was at least a nominal Anglican for most of his life.  Thanks to some experiences early in his life, he developed an aversion to evangelical zeal, doctrinal debates and sectarianism in general, and he turned to Unitarianism for a while during his thirties.  Though he went back to the Church of England later on, he continued to associated with Unitarians for the rest of his life. At the time, though, Unitarianism in England — as well as here in the United States — was very much a Christian faith, so that’s not the reason why Dickens chose not to mention Jesus even once.

Even if A Christmas Carol is not explicitly religious, it nonetheless portrays values taught by Jesus: changing indifference into love, changing selfishness into generosity, amplifying the spirit of hope in humanity.  Some might argue that these are also humanistic values — and, for that matter, the redemption of someone described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” is pretty Universalist — but maybe that’s because Dickens was aiming for an important distinction.

After all, what matters about Christmas, as exemplified by those values, is the religion of Jesus, not a religion about Jesus.  For A Christmas Carol, The Grinch and other stories lifting up the true meaning of Christmas to center Jesus would make them feed into the narratives of a religion about Jesus; by centering Christian, humanistic values, on the other hand, they are demonstrating the religion of Jesus.  And that’s much more powerful and will serve the world much better.

Now there is something in A Christmas Carol that has always bothered me.  After the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has shown Scrooge scenes from a Christmas in the future, it takes him at last to

A churchyard.  Here, then; the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground.  It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation’s death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite.  A worthy place!

The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One.  [Scrooge] advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question.  Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

“Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge.  “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Scrooge crept towards [the grave], trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, Ebenezer Scrooge.

It is at this point that Scrooge gives up his defiance to Christmas past and present, making a promise to honor Christmas in his heart and to try to keep it all the year.  He says he will learn the lessons offered by the three ghosts that have visited him, if only it will change what is written on that gravestone.

What’s bothered me is that this scene is portrayed in the various movies as if it’s Scrooge simply seeing his own grave that changes him, that finally thaws his heart.  It’s as if he never thought he would die, but now seeing the evidence of his own mortality, he promises to change his ways as if that means he won’t die.

This doesn’t make any sense.  Death is as much a theme of the story as poverty and selfishness are.  After all, A Christmas Carol begins with this very paragraph:

Marley was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

And then Dickens goes on for another couple of pages about Marley being dead, in one of his apparent tangents that feeds the myth that he was paid to write by the word.  Furthermore, part of Scrooge’s time with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come involved witnessing the Cratchit family as they grieve the death of Tiny Tim. For all that Scrooge was miserly and mean and greedy and inconsiderate, he was hardly stupid, so I don’t see why he would have harbored any illusions regarding his own mortality.

Rather, and this is a point to which I don’t believe the various movies have done justice, seeing his own grave forces Scrooge to realize he’s not leaving anything of any value behind.  For all the wealth that he accumulated during his lifetime, there’s nobody to mourn him. The only people who feel emotion over his death are a couple who are happy that they now have more time to put their finances in order.  And it is clear that Tiny Tim, a young boy whose short life had been defined by illness and poverty, leaves behind a much greater legacy than Scrooge. This stark realization is what makes him finally vow to change his ways, not so that he can somehow prevent his death someday, but so that when he does die, there will be people who mourn him because they love him, people who will be inspired by his example, people who will find meaning in their lives thanks to his legacy.  This is when Scrooge realizes the true meaning of Christmas.

There’s another part of the story that is usually overlooked in its movie adaptations.  The Ghost of Christmas Present is often portrayed as a larger-than-life figure of plenty, more Father Christmas in his origins as a Green-Man-type god of nature than a sanitized Santa Claus.  And yet, toward the end of this spirit’s time with Scrooge, the miser notices two small figures lurking in the folds of the ghost’s robes.

“They were a boy and girl.  [Jaundiced], meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.  Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds.  Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

“Scrooge started back, appalled.  Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them.  “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.  This boy is Ignorance.  This girl is Want.  Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.  Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city.  “Slander those who tell it ye!  Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse.  And bide the end!”

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol with a moral in mind, and it’s not as simply as “selfishness is bad and generosity is good”.  Though born into a middle-class family, he experienced poverty as a child, and it gave him, according to one biographer, a “deep personal and social outrage” that heavily influenced his outlook on life and his writing.  But whereas Scrooge’s attempts to ensure that he never suffered turned inward, making him a miser, Dickens’ developed a social conscience, particularly a concern for children whose families were affected by the working conditions resulting from the industrial revolution.

In the same year he wrote A Christmas Carol, his anger was fueled not only by witnessing the appallingly unhealthy and unsafe conditions experienced by tin miners, but also by the fact that those mining the tin were children.  He saw further suffering at one of London’s schools for illiterate and half-starved homeless children, and he joined efforts to change these conditions. In a speech that year, Dickens urged workers and employers to join together to combat ignorance with educational reform, but he soon realized that he would be most effective in reaching the most people not with pamphlets and essays but with a heartfelt story about the social effects of poverty and injustice.

In this scene with the Ghost of Christmas Present, the spirit is not so much making its point about Ignorance and Want to Scrooge, who, at this point, still doesn’t get it, but to the reader, both then and now.  Certainly children are no longer made to work down mines or sent up chimneys, but childhood poverty is very much a problem in our society, and public education as a means to lift up individuals and families is under attack.

The moral of A Christmas Carol is still very much relevant today, not simply the tale of a mean and selfish man who is frightened into changing his behavior, but a warning to society at large that treating children so badly is hypocrisy — indeed, nothing short of evil — when our society spends more time and effort claiming Christian values than it does actually putting them into practice.

As Dickens wrote in the surprising brief preface to the novella, “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.” As we prepare to enjoy this Christmas with friends, family and loved ones, as we celebrate the season in whatever ways fill us with joy, may this favorite story of transformation and redemption continue to haunt all of our houses.

May it be so.

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The Meaning of Membership

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on September 7th 2014.)

For many congregations, today is known as “Ingathering Sunday” or “Back to Church Sunday”.  Well, this week has been “Back to School”, it’s true, with public schools at least here in Virginia and other places on the East Coast waiting to start until after Labor Day.  But I can’t say that we’re now “Back to Church” with any sincerity, given that we’ve been here all Summer, going strong with a full slate of worship services and religious exploration programs every Sunday throughout July and August.  After all, we can’t come back if we didn’t go away.

What’s more, we weren’t just here in August: we were busy in August.  We’ve had lots of newcomers, many of them families with children, doing their Summer “church shopping” before the busy-ness of the school year starts.  A good number of you who are here this morning, in fact, came to services for the first time one Sunday last month, and I’m so glad that you made the choice to keep coming back.  And naturally, many of you who are newcomers have had questions, about the congregation, about our programs, about becoming a member.

That, of course, is the natural progression.  A first-time visitor enjoys what they experienced or likes the people they met — hopefully both! — and plans to come again.  That makes them a newcomer, when they get to know the place a bit more and figure out if this is where they feel they can belong.  And, in time, they receive a letter from me, inviting them to a Membership Orientation, like the one we have planned for late October.  That’s where we talk about what it means to be a member, what’s involved in joining us in creating a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, and why that matters.  (For those who cannot attend an orientation given their schedules, there’s also the option of meeting with me.)  And then for those who choose to become members, who have made the decision to embrace the rights and responsibilities that come with that commitment, they demonstrate that by signing the membership book.

Now joining a congregation is rather different from joining almost anything else.  It’s not like being part of a book discussion group that meets at Barnes and Noble.  It’s not like being on a mailing list or Facebook.  It’s not like going to talks offered by the Sierra Club nor is it like sending a nominal contribution to the World Wildlife Fund and getting a newsletter.  It’s not like dropping children off at an after-school program at the Y nor is it like being part of a life-long learning course at CNU.  It’s not like having dinner or coffee with friends nor is it like getting together to watch a TV show and then talk about it.  It has aspects of all of those things, of course, but it’s rather different from all of them, and with more and more of the people who find themselves here never having had much prior church experience, we’ve found ourselves being very intentional, when it comes to membership orientations, to explain what it really means to be a member.

I want to give you a couple of perspectives on why this matters.  Here’s the first.

Back at the beginning of May, I began my sermon on the topic of understanding ourselves in relation to those around us by reflecting on how many non-members benefit from the presence, here on the Peninsula, of this congregation.  Between those who pledge their financial support as if they were members without actually being members, those who participate in programs and put money into the offering basket but have made no formal commitment otherwise, those who might only come to special services such as on Christmas Eve or to special events like the Luau, as well as those who might simply visit in the course of a year, there are, by one estimate, something like four hundred non-members as compared to some 160 members.

Beyond that, of course, if we guesstimate the number of people we serve at St. Paul’s or PORT, the number of people we impact through our Share-the-Basket partners like LINK, and the number of people we reach through other outreach efforts, we may well be talking about a few thousand people whose lives benefit from the presence of this Fellowship, from what this congregation is and from what it does.  That’s something in which we should all feel quite a bit of pride.

So here’s the obvious question:  If it’s possible to be almost as much a part of the life of the Fellowship as a member without actually being a member, if it’s possible to be connected to or supported by the congregation without even being here in person, then what does it mean to be a member?

Here’s another perspective on why this matters.  Whenever I’m at another Unitarian Universalist church, whether to preach or just to be part of their services, I like to check out the materials they give to visitors.  I know I’m not alone in this.  One such item I came across recently was this bookmark, produced by the Unitarian Universalist Association and sold to congregations in packs of twenty-five to hand out to newcomers.  It’s entitled “Ten Good Reasons for Joining a Unitarian Universalist Congregation”, and I was intrigued to see what those were.  Here are some of those reasons.

Because here we join with open hearts and minds to worship together, seeking what is sacred among us.

Because here we honor our Jewish and Christian roots, and also reach out to know the great truths found in other religious expressions.

Because here we nurture our children’s enthusiasms and encourage their questions.

Because here we join our strength with others to create a more just society.

Because here we encourage each other to be true to ourselves.

Now, without doubt, those are all good reasons to participate in the life of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  They’re all great reasons, for that matter, why such things as UU churches should exist.  But reasons for joining a congregation as a member?  Compelling, necessary reasons?  I’m not so sure.  Again we come back to the obvious question:  If we welcome non-members to come to worship services, to learn about our tradition as well as other religions, to give our children a religious education, to work with others to make a better world, even to help one another become our best selves, if we welcome non-members to all of that, and we do, then what does it mean to be a member?

Now some might say that the reason to be a member is to pay for those services and benefits.  That’s a reasonable claim, particularly since that’s the way our culture works as a whole.  After all, in almost all other areas of modern life, it’s the case that you get what you pay for.  So let’s think about that for a moment.

In any other setting than a church, what would you pay, if you’re a parent, for someone to not only look after your child for an hour, but to teach them about what it means to have an open mind, a loving heart and a helping hand?  Even if it were just baby-sitting, it might be ten dollars for the hour, probably more for actual teaching, and more still for youth.  For Sunday school over the course of a year, then, and assuming all but one Sunday each month, that’s at least four-hundred dollars a year.  That’s probably a good ballpark figure for an hour or so a week of quality adult programming, too, such as the Sunday Morning Forum that takes place over in the Office Building.  For comparison, registration in the LifeLong Learning Society at Christopher Newport University is $235, and that’s with CNU’s own subsidies and the sponsorship of some local businesses.

Or what about coffee or tea plus assorted snacks, sandwiches, cakes, fruit and other food?  Well, those are unlimited here as part of hospitality, and though some places might offer free refills, go to Panera or Starbucks for coffee and a brownie and you’d pay $5 or more.  Again, consider being here more often than not each month and that adds up to a couple of hundred dollars each year.  And what about the price of Sunday service?  Well for the music alone, a professional musician could reasonably expect to be paid, so Robin has told me in the past, at least a hundred dollars per service.  And the going rate for a professional speaker, according to the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, is somewhat more than that, making it in all, again, a couple of hundred dollars per person each year.  Add it all up, for the average person, and we’re talking about something like a thousand dollars each year if you went somewhere else and paid for what we offer here, freely to everyone and gladly to everyone, every single Sunday morning.

Now for those of you checking your calendars, no, it’s not pledge drive time, and no, this is not the Sermon on the Amount.  I’m simply offering you these back-of-the-envelope numbers to show you that the idea that someone become a member in order to pay for the services and benefits they receive, well that idea is hogwash.  We’re not here as consumers, and in most cases we’re not getting what we pay for: we’re actually getting much more than we pay for.

So if someone isn’t a member because they must be a member in order to participate in our services and programs, and if they’re not a member in order to simply pay for those services and programs, then what does it mean to be a member?

Well I put it to you that being a member means wanting this to be a place where those services and programs are and will always be available, not only to members but to everyone.  It means a commitment to this congregation so that it can be a place where, member or not, anyone can join in seeking the sacred, in learning about religion, in nurturing our children’s souls, in striving to make the world a better place, and in encouraging one another’s authenticity.  It means promising to make that possible through the direct contribution of volunteer hours and, yes, volunteer dollars.  It means investing one’s mind, one’s body and one’s spirit in the vision of this congregation as a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.

That’s no small order, of course.  As I say on those occasions when we welcome our newest members of this Fellowship, “joining is easy, but membership is not”.  Joining is, after all, a matter of attending an orientation, or otherwise meeting with me in person, and then signing the membership book.  Sure, the orientation is three hours long and takes up a whole Saturday morning, but we feed you a great breakfast!  And there are plenty of congregations out there that have a much more involved process of joining, in one case that I know taking one whole year to be accepted as a new member.  But if joining only takes a Saturday morning, membership takes a lifetime.  We do expect our members to actively participate in the life of the Fellowship, in whatever ways are appropriate, and to contribute financially, to whatever extent is reasonable.  That’s the easy part, though: something else that I say when we recognize new members is that “a member accepts responsibility for continuing and sharing the faith journey that brought them to this place, and also covenants to live in community with others whose journeys may be different.”  And that is the work of a lifetime, because it’s what life is actually about.

Now from time to time, you’ll hear on a Sunday morning a member testimonial.  Though they tend to be associated with the aforementioned pledge drive, for obvious reasons, we ask those members who give testimonials to speak to the same matters regardless of whether they’re doing so at pledge time or not.  We ask them to speak about why this congregation is a special place.  We ask them to speak about what it means to them to be a member.  We ask them to speak about why it’s important for them to be here.  We ask them to speak about how they have been transformed by being part of this Fellowship.  What I’ve noticed is that rarely do any of these members describe membership as a static state, where they joined, met some nice people, liked the music, and they’re done.  Rather — and of course this is particularly noticeable when, over the course of a few years, a member gives more than one testimonial — being a member is a dynamic reality, where there are always opportunities to grow our own souls while also growing the soul of the congregation so that together we may grow the soul of the world.

So if you are one of our many newcomers who first visited over the Summer, or perhaps even before that, and you’re interested in becoming a member here because you’ve found that this is a place where you feel you can belong, then I encourage you to continue asking questions about what it really means to be a member.  Or if you’re one of our newer members, who, within the last few years, attended an orientation and signed the membership book and was welcomed by the congregation one following Sunday morning, then I encourage you to think beyond your current participation in congregation life to consider some of the many ways in which you can get the most out of becoming a member.  And if you’re one of our members who’s been here for some larger span of years, who has served on some committees and taught some classes and led worship from time to time and taken on any of a thousand responsibilities large and small, I thank you for being one of our “long haul people” but I also encourage you to reach out to our new members and to our newcomers, to bring them into the work of making this congregation a spiritual home for our common endeavor.

I’m going to close with a reading I happened to rediscover this week.  Talk about good timing!  It was written by Unitarian Universalist minister Clarke Dewey Wells, and was read right here thirty-four years ago, as part of the service dedicating this very Sanctuary building in 1980.

This is the liberal church:

a place to go where you know you belong;

where the mind is free to soar beyond the coercions and crudities that inevitably beset all orthodoxies;

where the heart is free to extend that larger love to all, unencumbered by notions of dogma, tradition, race, religion, country or class,

where the rights of individual conscience and action are guarded with vigilance, out of belief in the fitness of diversity, the liberty to be different, out of eternal hostility to every form of tyranny;

where the hands are free to work and create for the cause of community and the hope of peace;

where the soul is free to open, stretch, discover, develop, change and grow, always, continuously and progressively;

where human promise is nurtured, supported and blessed, and never cursed, degraded or despaired of;

where people are invited to be themselves in joy, in sorrow, in the struggle of the deeper self to be born, in the resolution of some great issue, in the witnessing to high ideals, in living and dying, seeking, finding and serving.

A place to learn, to grow, to sing, to stand.

A place to encounter, reckon, judge, accept, and be accepted.

A place to be challenged by new insight, and be reminded of what one already knows.

A place to go where you know you belong.

This is the liberal church.

To these words I would add the following:  This is the liberal church that was built by those members who were part of that building dedication service thirty-four years ago.  This is the liberal church that those members here today are building through the dedication of their minds, their bodies and their spirits.  And this is the liberal church that will continue to be built in the years and decades to come, in ways that we expect, in other ways that we may only dimly see, and in some ways that will surprise and delight the world.  This is the meaning of membership: to be the past, the present and the future of the liberal church, a place to go where you know you belong.

So may it be.

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The True Measure of Our Gifts

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 17th 2013.)

The King James Version has been the most influential English translation of the Bible for most of the four-hundred-and-two years since it was first published.  During that time it has contributed hundreds of proverbs, sayings and other phrases to the English language, more than any other single source, including Æsop’s fables and the complete works of Shakespeare.  When someone claims that “the writing is on the wall” or asks if “a leopard can change its spots”, when they describe something as “a labor of love” or say that their “cup runneth over”, they’re actually quoting the King James Bible.  (If it has a “thee” or a “thou” or a verb ending in “-eth”, that’s usually a clue.)

Now there had been a couple of earlier English translations but some mistakes had been pointed out by the Puritan wing of the Church of England.  The Puritans were concerned with the purity of their faith, after all, so they wanted any version of the Bible to be as true to the original as possible.  (Not that anyone at that time had the originals of any of the Biblical texts, but never mind.)  So when King James took the throne of England, one of the first things he did was convene a conference of scholars and clergy of the Church of England, charging them with the task of producing a new, more authoritative English version.  He also gave them specific instructions to make sure that certain Hebrew and Greek words were translated in ways that matched the organizational structure of the Church of England, so as not to give the Puritans any further fodder for their complaints about how the church wasn’t doing it right.  For less political reasons, it also used contemporary weights and measures in place of ancient terms that were unfamiliar.

For example, there’s a story told in both Mark and Luke where Jesus is in the Jerusalem Temple and sees a poor widow donating a couple of small coins.  In the Greek, both Mark and Luke use the word “lepton” to name the type of coin the widow is donating, the lepton being the smallest unit of coinage in the Greek-speaking world at the time.  (If you know your particle physics, you’ll realize this is the origin of “lepton” as the name of that class of fundamental particles which includes the electron.)  Of course, the scholars working on the King James Bible needed a word more familiar to their contemporaries, something even smaller than the farthing, which, at a quarter of a penny, was the smallest coin in England.  In the end, the translators went with the name of what was then the smallest coin in Europe: the mite of the Netherlands.

Here, then, is the King James Version of that story, as found at the end of chapter twelve of Mark.

“And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.  And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.  And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:  For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”

The last sentence can be a little hard for us to grasp when written in the over-punctuated and spelling-optional English of King James, so here it is again in the modern English of the New Revised Standard Version:

“This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

When it comes to sermons on generosity and giving — particularly in congregations that have some sort of annual pledge drive in order to fund the next year’s budget — the story of the widow’s mite is an obvious text.  I first heard it as a child, in fact, staying in services one time rather than going to Sunday school, my sister and I asked by the minister to help illustrate the point of her sermon.  One of us got what looked like a big bar of chocolate — it was actually made of cardboard, which was probably just as well or it wouldn’t have lasted until it was needed in the service — and the other got a considerably smaller fake bar of chocolate.  The minister’s point was that even if we each gave away the same amount of chocolate, whichever one of us had the smaller amount to begin with was actually being more generous.

And that seems to be implied message in the words attributed to Jesus.  “Look at this poor widow,” he says to his disciples.  (And according to Mark in particular, Jesus is constantly pointing out even obvious things to the disciples, since they otherwise spend most of their time clueless and confused.)  “Look at her,” Jesus says.  “She only has two coins to rub together — literally! — two practically worthless copper coins, but she gave them both to the Temple anyway.  There are all these rich people making a big show of putting lots of silver coins into the treasury, but this widow — disowned by her family after the death of her husband and living without any income — she puts in all that she owns.  She’s actually giving more than they are.”

It’s certainly a story that’s tempting to preachers who want to sway the hearts and minds of their congregants, at least in those traditions that proclaim the importance of what is known as sacrificial giving.  But is that really the point of the story, that church members should give until it literally hurts?

I was recently introduced to a method of trying to figure out what is going on in a given situation, particularly the context is an unfamiliar culture.  It’s natural, of course, to view any situation through our own cultural lenses, so it requires a lot of intention to not do that, whether it’s something that we see happen between two people across a room or something reported to have happened almost two-thousand years ago.  The method is known as Describe, Interpret, Evaluate, or D.I.E. for short, and those name the three stages.

The Describe stage requires naming what happened as clinically and objectively as possible.  In the case of the story of the widow’s mite, that’s done for us: Jesus sees people putting money into the treasury; some rich people put in quite a lot of money; a poor widow puts in two tiny copper coins.

The Interpret stage asks us to name how we understand what happened, based on the assumptions arising from our own experiences.  That’s done for us, too, in Jesus’ words interpreting what he saw: the widow put in all she had, and so in relative terms was giving more than the rich people.

What is not in the Bible’s text is the Evaluate stage, where we are called to bring our own sense of values into play and arrive at a value judgment based on cultural expectations.  If we’re only focused on making sure there’s enough money to pay the bills and employ enough staff to run programs and fund committees sufficiently for their work, then it’s natural that we’d evaluate the story as meaning that people really should give until it hurts, that there’s virtue in someone giving away more than they can really afford.  If, on the other hand, we’re focused on making sure that everyone has enough to live on, that the people who don’t have a lot to begin with aren’t expected to give beyond their means, that the people who have more can make correspondingly bigger contributions, then perhaps what Jesus was actually doing was criticizing a corrupt system where poor widows were expected to give up everything they had in order that the privileged could maintain their status in an unjust society.

(Immediately before the story of the widow’s mite, Jesus tells the people listening to him in the temple: “Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”)

So why am I talking about the story of the widow’s mite this morning?  We are, after all, heading into our annual pledge drive, the weeks each Spring when we canvass our members and ask them to pledge their financial support to the congregation for the next church year.  The story of the widow’s mite is, as I say, a common text for sermons on generosity and giving, but I’ve just explained why any preacher who uses it really should stop and re-evaluate it.  What’s more, I realize that while many Unitarian Universalists may have some academic interest in better understanding a well-known Bible story, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be convinced to behave one way or another just because somebody behind a pulpit quotes chapter and verse — even if it’s one of the stories that Thomas Jefferson left in his version of the Bible, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, when he took a razor blade to the Gospels and cut away anything he considered unnatural or miraculous.

No, I chose to talk about the story of the widow’s mite for a couple of reasons, one pretty specific and one more general.  The specific reason is easy to put into words: I want to note that generosity is relative.  The usual understanding of the story is correct in that sense, at least.  That’s why the pledge card that we ask all of our members to fill out at this time of year has a handy chart on the back that describes different levels of “fair-share” pledging in terms of percentages of income rather than absolute numbers of dollars.  And, of course, how any individual or couple defines their income is completely up to them — we’re not in the business of expecting to see anyone’s tax return form 1040 so that we can check what’s on line thirty-seven!

But this does take us to the more general reason for talking about the story of the widow’s mite: we need to take a look at the fact that the Unitarian Universalist relationship with money is, well, weird.  And it’s weird — even, some might say, dysfunctional — for reasons that have little to do with whether we’re good, well-meaning, hard-working people or not, but have a whole lot to do with our culture.  For just as the poor widow’s behavior had been conditioned by her culture, so has ours.

In the case of Unitarian Universalist congregations, in fact, we’ve been conditioned by two cultures.  The first is that of being middle-class.  Most people in America think of themselves as being middle-class, even if, technically, they’re not, and an even higher proportion of Unitarian Universalists claim a middle-class identity.  Why?  It’s safe to be in the middle class.  It comes with a built-in modesty where we don’t talk about money because it’s considered, well, rude, somehow.  Members of the poor and working class, on the other hand, have no choice but to talk about money because it’s a constant concern.  When you have to decide whether to pay the heating bill or buy food for your child, modesty kills.  And members of the owning, ruling class are expected to talk about money because it’s the way they assert their place in the socio-economic hierarchy.  But for members of the middle class, it’s simply not nice to talk about money.  We’re certainly conflicted about it.  The middle class looks up and wishes it had more, but then looks down and feels guilty about what it already has.  Or feels angry about not having more.  Either way, it’s just better not to mention the subject in the first place.

Then there’s the fact that Unitarian Universalism was profoundly shaped by an experiment in growth that took place in the 1940s and 50s and 60s.  That experiment was the Fellowship Movement, which birthed hundreds of small, lay-led congregations across the country — including this congregation — as a way to spread the good news of our liberal religion.  What was, at the time, the American Unitarian Association hired a man by the name of Monroe Husbands to travel the country, visiting cities that fit a certain profile, advertising in the newspaper for people who might be interested in forming a fellowship, and then bringing them together to try to get them to agree to start a new congregation.  One of the points that convinced many potential lay-leaders to commit, in fact, was that, though they would, as volunteers, need to give quite a bit of their time, they were promised that they would not need to give much money since their new congregation had neither a minister to pay nor a building to maintain.  This played right into the ideals of the modern middle class that was emerging after World War II, in large part thanks to the GI Bill, and it probably explains a lot of the success of the Fellowship Movement.

We’ve been conditioned, both by the wider American culture and by the organizational DNA of our own congregations, to feel shame when it comes to talking about money, particularly when it comes to talking about the money we’re personally pledging in support of those very congregations.  Unfortunately, it is absolutely essential that we do talk about money.  While we exist as a religious community in order to fulfill a particular mission — celebrating life together, growing a caring community together, searching for truths together, making the world a better place together — doing so is something that takes money.  Having staff to help fulfill that mission — because there are limits to what volunteers can and should do — that’s something that takes money.  Owning grounds and buildings as a customized space where we can fulfill that mission, that’s something that takes money, too.

So, inquiring minds want to know, how much money?  Well, about $1,200 per member each year.  I generally avoid stressing numbers in sermons, but let me repeat that one: $1,200 per member.  And I don’t provide that number to make anyone feel guilty, but because I think you should all be aware of it.  Obviously not everyone can pledge that much, given their own household financial realities.  Most members pledge less than that.  Some pledge more.  And generosity is relative, remember.  We also hold a number of special fund-raising events like the Casbah and we have a few other sources of revenue such as re-selling used books through Amazon, but the vast majority of what it takes to support the congregation in fulfilling its mission comes from pledges.

But, the inquiring minds continue, fulfilling a mission like ours is rather hard to quantify; what is that money actually doing?  Well, it’s giving us fabulous music on Sunday mornings, with more musicians and singers of all ages and abilities.  It’s giving us a better sound system in this Sanctuary, enabling more people to hear rather than being left out.  It’s giving us a variety of Sunday morning Adult RE programs that fill the room.  It’s giving us excellent children’s RE programs from Spirit Play to Our Whole Lives.  It’s giving us more programs at other times and on other days of the week, and space to hold those programs.  It’s supporting ministries to military families and LGBTQ individuals and college students.  It’s bringing families and young adults and our elders together in community.  It’s helping us care for our own members and their families through surgeries and other challenges.  It’s helping us to help the wider community, from our involvement with the PORT Winter Shelter to our responsibilities at the St. Paul’s Weekend Meal Ministry.  It’s giving us greater visibility, too, from our sign on Warwick Boulevard to the service we’re doing at Christopher Newport University next Sunday.  It’s making us known as a powerful voice for Unitarian Universalism, within the Tidewater Cluster, within the Southeast District, and within the Unitarian Universalist Association.

In doing all of that, every pledge counts.  Every pledge matters.  The Children’s Focus this morning nicely illustrated how even apparently small amounts of money can make a big difference in the life of this Fellowship.  We certainly need large amounts of money for the more costly parts of running a congregation — things like electricity bills and insurance premiums that are harder to have on hand to show the children than a bottle of glue or a roll of toilet paper — but the good news is that every pledge, big or small, goes into the congregation’s budget in exactly the same way.  Remembering that generosity is relative is one way that we can affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, as is thanking one another for whatever we are able to do, for whatever we are able to give to make this Fellowship such a special place.

So when you get that e-mail or that telephone call from another member of the congregation, when you’re asked to meet with that person as part of this year’s canvass, please don’t be shy.  Please don’t succumb to that middle-class modesty that merely serves to stifle the splendor of this tapestry of life.  A canvass visit is a special opportunity to better know a kindred spirit, something that is to be embraced rather than feared.  Being canvassed, in fact, is a right of membership as people who have committed to grow this beloved community together.  When it comes to your pledge, of course, I urge you to be generous, but remember that you’re the one who gets to decide what generosity means for you.  If you can pledge a four-figure amount or more, thank you for your leading support of the congregation.  If you can’t pledge as much as you’d like, thank you for what you can pledge.  If you can only pledge what seems like a small amount, thank you for your steadfast willingness to be part of a larger community.  And whatever your income, I hope that, unlike the poor widow, you won’t pledge until it hurts, but until it feels good.  Whatever it means to you, your generosity will be received most gratefully, and may your giving bring you joy!

So may it be.

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