Our stewardship service and spring pledge drive kick-off.
Rev. Barnaby’s United As One sermon:
Followed right afterward by the CVUUS CommUUion, our Jesus-inspired ritual celebrating all prophets known and unknown with an Earth-centered twist. This unique time of peace, reflection and shared gratitude lasts about 15 minutes.
Hebrews 10:23-25. Scholars believe Hebrews records advice sent from the region of Rome to distant Christian congregations in the Mideast some 30 to 65 years after the death of Jesus. It was a time when many of the early Christians were anxiously wondering why Jesus had not returned as expected to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Our modern reading comes from a 1999 collection of essays published by Skinner Press called “Everyday Spiritual Practice.” Rev. Rebecca Parker is quoting a young UU who told her he donates a tenth of his income to his church, a contribution based on the ancient Biblical practice known as tithing.
“I tithe because it tells the truth about who I am. If I did not tithe, it would say that I was a person who had nothing to give, or I was a person who received nothing from life, or I was a person who did not matter to the larger society, or I was a person whose life’s meaning was solely in providing for my own needs.
But in fact who I am is the opposite of all those things. I am a person who has something to give. I am a person who has received abundantly from life. I am a person whose presence matters in the world. I am a person whose life has meaning because I am connected to and care about many things larger than myself alone. If I did not tithe, I would lose track of these truths about who I am. By tithing, I remember who I am.”
United As One: a Stewardship Sermon
I had a few hours during my birthday trip to Washington DC to drop in on the Smithsonian Museum’s National Portrait Gallery – one of my favorites among our capital’s many free museums. Among other things I saw this time was a knock your socks off special exhibit of the 40 finalists in a nationwide contest for portraits in any medium of ordinary Americans – of course, the artists are so good that you end up seeing that each subject is anything but ordinary. It reminded me of my favorite quote by the painter Pablo Picasso – “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
I was feeling energized and excited when I stopped at the rest room on my way out. I encountered two young boys there who seemed equally energized. One of them said to the other, “Some of the paintings were bad,” then paused while he grabbed a paper towel. I waited to hear what had excited him. “The rest,” he went on, “were terrible.” Only then did I realize that his energy came entirely from looking forward to leaving.
It reminded me of our annual Sunday stewardship worship service reflecting on church finances, I am like the me visiting the Portrait Gallery and most congregants are like the boys. We have different perspectives on this time of year when I and your lay leaders ask you multiple times in multiple ways for a pledge of what you intend to contribute financially to CVUUS in the church year beginning next July 1.
In case you are new to this process, this pledge is not a legal obligation. It’s your good-faith estimate. The 120 or so pledges allow us to draft a proposed balanced budget for the congregation to consider, amend if desired, and approve at the annual meeting in June. Some of you will end up needing to revise your pledges downward as the year progresses but most of that shortfall will be compensated for by extra gifts from members who are prospering or from new members joining. We know from experience that the pledges received in March give us a very reliable picture of what 80 percent to 90 percent of our income will be in the coming church year. Pledging allows us to be open, prudent, and democratic in our financial planning.
I’m happy to talk in more detail about this with anyone. But I’m really here this morning to share why this pledge kick-off Sunday energizes me as your minister. The pledge drive doesn’t ask you for money. It’s asks you to consider what CVUUS does with money – which in turn is a portrait of who we are and what we value. And, if you can look at the amount you choose to pledge with the eyes of the young man in our second reading, you just might find the process inspiring.
I’ll come back to him and us as individuals later. Right now, I want to talk about us collectively. I was drawn to ministry in part because I think UU congregations are among the most remarkable human inventions on the planet – there is nothing ordinary to me about CVUUS as a community. Our relationship to money is as deeply intricate and fascinating as those of plants to soil, words to music, and soul to science. If we exist to explore our strongest feelings together, maybe we should be talking about our communal relationships to money more often and more bluntly than we do. It’s not that money’s links to spirituality elude us. It’s that they unnerve and upset us.
Stewardship can be defined as sound management of something valuable entrusted to one’s care. Money is part of it – the financial gifts you devote to CVUUS are valuable. Without them, we wouldn’t have this Sanctuary or employees dedicated to creating a physical and spiritual home worthy of your love and capable of loving you. I woke up in the middle of the night this week with a short thought forming in my head so clearly that I had to write it down before I could get back to sleep:
But we exist
That Love persists.
So what is a pledge in the coming weeks to CVUUS? It’s your testimony that under your stewardship Love is going to persist here. You are predicting that future because you know it’s in your power to fashion it. As the famous management consultant Peter Drucker often said to the corporations and non-profit groups who hired him, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
To repeat, stewardship is sound management of something valuable entrusted to one’s care. Ironically, UU communities can only exercise sound management of money by attending closely to many invaluable things that money can’t buy: justice, respecting and exploring life’s mysteries, accompanying each other through transitions like birth, the beginnings and end of intense personal relationships, and death. Churches that are rich in bank accounts but poor in fellowship and commitment to good works misunderstand what has been entrusted to their care.
That’s old news, to judge by the Bible passage in our reading. Fair warning: my reading of it, like my humanist take on Jesus in our Time for All Ages and our CommUUnion, would likely be regarded as heresy in most Christian churches. Traditional Christianity stewards a salvation faith — that is, a ticket to Heaven for believers that Jesus had been physically resurrected and would return for them. But I speak with admiration rather than disrespect when I say I read in this passage the dawning of the inkling that maybe they misinterpreted Jesus. If the arrival of the promised Heaven was proving uncertain, perhaps the truly valuable thing Jesus had left was instructions on how to live in this world: they were to be stewards of beloved community. Or as the unknown letter writer put it: … And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…”
I can only imagine what reports of selfishness and lagging attendance in those early congregations might have led to this comment. You can read between the lines fear that there is growing confusion about their mission. Ours seems clear to me, even though we UU’s could debate forever what words to use to describe it. For today at least, I’d put it like this: “We gather in community to nurture our better angels, committed to finding in each other and ourselves the strength and vision needed to make the world more just, beautiful, and compassionate.”
This mission calls on us to approach stewardship with deep respect for the diversity of our interests, our gifts, and our circumstances. Some of us are at a stage in our lives where generosity of spirit and support for CVUUS is likely to be expressed primarily through financial contributions. These are genuine gifts that we need to thrive. We deeply appreciate them. Other people come here with little or no financial wealth to spare but are constantly contributing to our vitality – they do not neglect to meet together or to provoke us to “love and good deeds.” These also are genuine gifts requiring our stewardship and without which CVUUS cannot thrive. Stewardship in this realm might call on us to provide childcare so that young parents are freer to participate in CVUUS fellowship, governance, and social action. It was fellowship stewardship rather than financial stewardship that called on us to provide all the pizza makings Friday night in the Fellowship Hall so that anyone who showed up could participate in making and eating our dinner, from the well-off among us to the homeless person trying to survive the winter sleeping at Charter House. .
This might seem rather granular for such a big word as stewardship. But stewardship is one of those big things grounded in details. It’s all in how you see them – just the way I told you two weeks ago that religion is less about what you believe than how you see. When Michele and I returned home from Washington Monday. we found a package addressed to me from Michele’s cousin Marion and her husband. The unexpected gift was a new book by Brian Greene, a Columbia University physicist, that seemed hefty until I read the title: Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe.”Wow,” I thought. “All that crammed into a slim 386 pages – or 326 if you exclude the 60 pages of footnotes!” Anyway, I began reading through chapters like “The Lure of Eternity” and “Origins and Entropy” and “Duration and Impermanence.” As dinner time approached I wandered over to the table where Michele was absorbed in a magazine article. I ask what had grabbed her attention. “It’s the history of KitchenAid, the company that made my mixer,” she said.
I laughed at the disparity, which Michele initially suspected was some kind of a put-down of her interests. Far from it, I assured her. I was struck by how much more connected her reading was to our actual lives. Financial stewardship at CVUUS is like that. Deeply connected to our actual lives at CVUUS. Worth our sincere attention.
The Pledge Drive is the occasion for talking about it today but our annual operating budget is not the whole financial stewardship story. There’s the question of building an endowment for the future and, as we know from recent experience, capital campaigns for major projects. And here’s one more example that, in the lingo of my old profession, is hot of the presses. Recently, Michele and I decided to join the ranks of those buying carbon offsets for our travel. We knew there was an environmental cost to our visiting our children for my birthday. We wanted to pay it. My plan was to contact NativeEnergy, a group in Burlington with an app that calculates the dollar value of your emissions based on method and distance of travel. NativeEnergy accepts donations based on your calculations that it bundles into grants for projects like wind turbines providing green energy to homes and businesses on Native American tribal lands.
But our plans came together just as I was learning that CVUUS’s pellet boiler needs to be retired. Replacing that boiler with a greener energy source – most probably heat pumps – is likely to be very expensive if it is even technically feasible. So I decided my carbon offset donations are going to be directed into a new CVUUS reserve to help with the costs of our congregation doing the right thing environmentally. Steve Maier heard about it and he has already decided to do the same. I don’t pretend this approach to offsets is going to be a major funding source for the new boiler – my offset for the trip to Washington totaled just $8. But if all of us start doing this, a piece of what we need will accumulate, and we will learn more about the environmental costs of what we do personally and as a congregation. Whatever happens, this too is stewardship – seeing problems as sound management not just of these facilities entrusted to us but also of the Earth itself.
In closing, I want to address the elephant in the room for many pledge drives – how much are you asking me for? First of all…I’m not asking for a particular pledge increase from any of you. This is ultimately about what the congregation asks of itself. In my prayers, though, I’d like to see two things happen this year for the congregation as a whole. First – I hope our pyramid can broaden. An extra $10,000 coming from 20 of you – that’s an average of a $500 pledge increase or roughly $10 a week more – is a more encouraging sign of good stewardship than the same sum arriving in the form of a gift from one of our top donors or a new contributor. Tracey and her team will have more to say about this.
More importantly though, I hope that all of us can encounter the spirit of tithing as the young man did in our second reading. Not that I am asking for a tithe – a contribution of ten percent of income is a standard few of us are in a position to attain at any time in our lives, much less year after year in an annual operating pledge. But I love that his contribution practice with regard to his church community left him feeling the opportunity to remember who he really was:
a person who has received abundantly from life….a person whose presence matters in the world…a person whose life has meaning because (he’s) connected to and (cares) about many things larger than (himself).
I’m biased of course now that I have evolved from being a congregant into serving you as a professional UU, but I do believe that participation in a congregation like ours, including financial participation, is more than a charitable act. It is testimony that you belong as either member or friend to a community whose purpose is nothing less than enabling Love in all its diverse forms to persist in a world where death insists. May you find the level of pledge that meaningfully reflects back to you the image of who your best self is. May that blessing be yours to receive as you give this year and for many years to come.