Rev. John Gibbons & Doug Muder
“Make It Real”
Stewardship Sunday Sermons by Doug Muder & Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on March 18, 2018
At First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“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.”
from “Wooden Churches,” by Rick Bragg
“To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy
I am Doug Muder, representing the Stewardship Committee. Today is the beginning of the annual stewardship campaign, when we ask you to make a financial pledge to First Parish for the next church year.
This year’s theme is “Make it real.” What we’re trying to call attention to with that slogan is the difference between groups that have good intentions and groups that actually make things happen in the real world.
Fundamentally, that difference boils down to two factors: If you’re going to make real things happen, you need people who are willing to commit their time and energy, and you need money.
Money is what we can quantify, so that’s the number we ask for. But stewardship is really about a bigger question: What are all of us willing to do in the next year to make things real? How are we going to take the ideals and hopes and visions of this congregation and turn them into events and actions and things we can touch with our hands?
I can’t ask you for a number that sums up how much effort and creativity you’re going to contribute next year, or how far out of your comfort zone you’re going to be willing to push yourself to make things happen. But those also are questions we all ought to be thinking about during this campaign.
Over the next few weeks a number of parishioners are going to be up here doing what we call “Stewardship moments”. In other words, they’re going to explain in a few minutes what First Parish means to them and why they are committed to it.
Those moments have a deeper purpose than just to convince you to give more money. What they’re about is getting you to examine your own relationship to First Parish, what this community means to you, and what it could mean.
During my 23 years here and my 30 years as a UU, I’ve thought about my pledge in four very different ways. But what that’s really about is that I’ve experienced four very different kinds of relationships to my church.
The first time I pledged, I had what you might call a transactional relationship. I wanted to pay for what I used, so I tried to figure out what that would amount to. Coffee and cookies, my UU World subscription. I know it costs something to put on a service, so I invented a ticket price to cover that. I added something for all the other events I go to: classes and concerts and discussion groups. I like to talk to a minister once or twice a year about what I’m trying to do with my life and how it’s going, so I added a little more for that, and so on. Eventually I came up with a number that represented the transactional value I was getting from the church. If I contributed that much, I figured, then I was paying my way.
Before long, though, my relationship changed to what I call a charitable relationship. I started to believe in Unitarian Universalism as a movement, and I liked the idea of an institution spreading UU values in this community. So I wanted to support more than just what I used myself.
That kind of relationship means that I want this church to have good services even on Sundays when I’m not here, and I want them available to people who can’t afford that imaginary ticket. Even though I don’t have kids in RE, I like the idea of teaching UU values to the next generation. I want to support a broader array of social justice activities than I can work on myself. I want our ministers out there being a voice in the community, and I want them to be available to whoever needs them, not just to me.
That thinking led to a different pledge because it was a different relationship.
A few years after that, my relationship changed again, in a way that’s a little hard to describe. The best analogy I can think of is what happens to homeowners, when they stop evaluating improvements in terms of resale value, and start thinking: “This is my home. How do I want my home to be?”
In other words, I started to take ownership of First Parish: “This is my church. I want it to be a good church.”
So, for example, it’s not just that I want some church to give sanctuary to immigrants facing an unfair deportation order. I want my church to do it. Last year when I went to the Women’s March on Boston Common, it made a difference to me that I wasn’t just one more face out of 200,000. I was there with my people. The plan to make this building as close to carbon-neutral as we can get it — I supported it because that’s how I want my church to be.
That sense of ownership, of deep belonging, it led to yet another way of thinking about my pledge.
Originally, I was going to close with that, but as I was explaining those three relationships to my wife Deb, she pointed to a fourth: a legacy relationship.
There aren’t many things you do in life that leave a mark on the world, something that continues through the years, maybe even beyond your lifetime. Raising a child can leave a mark. Maybe something in your career will leave a mark. There are a few other places you might try to leave a mark, but there aren’t many. Most of what we do in life is stuff that evaporates almost as soon as we finish doing it.
But the people who started this congregation left a mark we can still see almost three centuries later. The people who built this meeting house in 1817 — we’re still benefitting from what they did.
And we’re continuing that work. I was pretty new in this church when I started seeing drawings of what would become the Common Room. Then we had a capital campaign, and we made those drawings real. That room will probably outlive all of us.
I’ve talked to older members who were on the search committee that decided that this young John Gibbons guy might do OK as our minister. What if you did something like that? You think you might still be proud years and years later?
First Parish is a place where you might try to leave a mark. That is a different relationship from paying your way or supporting UU values or even taking ownership.
So today we’re starting a stewardship campaign like we do every year. In a few days you’ll get a mailing that has a pledge card in it. We hope you’ll write a big number on it and send it back. In the coming weeks, you’ll hear all kinds of numbers from us: how many pledges we’ve received, what they total up to, and how much we still need to make our goal.
But through it all, I don’t want any of us to lose sight of the lesson of the stewardship moments: that numbers are just the surface of this campaign.
The deeper point is to get you thinking about the relationship you have to First Parish now. And even more important, thinking about the relationship you want to have.
And to leave you with a question: In the coming year, what might you do to make that relationship real?
Rev. John Gibbons:
The predecessor organization to our Unitarian Universalist Association was the American Unitarian Association, and it was founded in 1825. On the back of your order of service I have reproduced a page from the AUA’s first Annual Report.
The American Unitarian Association celebrated their first Anniversary on the evening of June 30th, 1826, in the Pantheon Hall in Boston. The Meeting was opened with prayer by Rev. Dr. Bancroft, the President of the Association. The Treasurer (Lewis Tappan) read an abstract of his Report, which is here printed with more detail.
To the following sums expended by order of the Executive Committee, viz.
Travelling expenses of Mr. W. Burton, obtaining subscribers and collecting subscriptions. $104.45
To sum allowed Mr. Burton, as compensation for his services. $12.66
Counterfeit bill, taken by Mr. Burton. $3.00
Whaaat? In the first tender year of the AUA’s existence, some con artist grifter slipped them a fake, phony, bogus, no good, counterfeit three-dollar bill!
Doug’s and my sermon this morning are titled, “Make It Real.”
Yes, this is a Sermon on the Amount, encouraging you to be thoughtful and to be generous when you estimate the amount of your giving to First Parish. Yes, we do some variation on this every year – it cannot be taken for granted. And, yes, we’ve tried most everything: There have been skits and songs, poems. We really don’t do guilt, but we’ve tried being serious, being funny, being playful, being spiritual (last week, not this week, we sang a hymn with the words, “Our world is one world: its ways of wealth affect us all: the way we spend, the way we share, who are the rich or poor, who stand or fall?”). We always try to be respectful (these are personal decisions); we try to be direct and transparent.
Our goal is to raise $465,000. Were we able to share equally, this would be an average gift of $1768. As it is (let’s be real) there are some people who can give little or nothing. Last year there was only one person able to give $10,000. That person was not me, though I’ll say I was breathing down their neck.
These numbers are good and not-so-good. They’re good in that we’re not dependent on a bunch of high givers who may die or move away or get mad. Almost all of us pitch in and that’s good. These numbers, however, are not so good in that, given our demographics, we really could have more high givers. I mean, my salary is public knowledge and for me to be one of the top givers – I mean really? – uh, there’s something wrong with that.
So, yes, we’ve tried most everything to get your attention and have yours be, not a rote decision – let’s-pick-a-number to put on the card and get this over with – but a considered dare-I-say prayerful by which I mean an aspirational value-driven – and purposeful decision.
We have, I must admit, tried some far-fetched approaches. A long time ago there was a “fair-share” theme. And there were t-shirts made with my face and the face of Cher (you know C-H-E-R). Fair share. I don’t know what we were thinking. And, yes, there were fake 2½ dollar bills with the images of Washington or Jackson or Franklin or whomever replaced by images of me and the aforementioned Cher. Counterfeit bills are never the solution! They solve nothing!
So let’s make it real.
What’s real, first of all, is all that we’ve inherited – we’ve inherited this place, this institution, this ethic that “love is the spirit of this church” – we’ve inherited all of this from the generosity of the past.
Read Sharon McDonald’s still-new history! The names of those three upstairs rooms – Blinn, Bacon, and Page – all were families who kept First Parish alive when it really could have died. That chandelier was from the Bacon Family. The bell in the steeple was given by Clara Blinn and inscribed, “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.” There is in almost every hymnal a bookplate honoring one of our forbears. The embroidered hymnal covers – all were a gift from our partner church in Transylvania (where this week, by the way, they have suffered devastating river flooding). Sometime, take a look at all the names on that legacy tree in the corner, all of whom have remembered First Parish in their estate planning (As have I and as might you.) And when you go to community hour, remember Elizabeth Goodale (whose parents were Alice and Bernie Webber). Elizabeth gave, I think, $200,000 which, with gifts from many of you as well, made everything from here and behind me possible.
These people made all this real for us.
Fast forward to today. We are a strong church. Here is a strong choir! We can be stronger still and there is room for improvement. We’re working to strengthen our religious education, our youth groups, our programming for young families. Remember the 16th century Polish Unitarians who weren’t trying to be funny but who said, “We ought not be ashamed if in some way our church should improve!”
Nonetheless, we are strong and a model for others. Regularly, people come and want to know about our accessibility projects, about our eco-conservancy, about our advocacy for solar panels and renewable energy. Last week an area minister came to see me because she wanted to know about our efforts in climate justice, and racial justice, and social responsibility. She wanted to know our secret! I know, we think we’ve barely scratched the surface but we are a model of strength. Brown Pulliam is one of our octogenarian rabble-rousers who was the front-page story in last week’s Bedford Minuteman, and we can attend his and Diane Martin’s trial for environmental civil disobedience next week! There will be more arrests to come.
And just so somebody stays out of jail, we’ve now interviewed four very promising candidates for our second minister position and without exception they have expressed genuine admiration for our reputation as a “spiritual center with a civic circumference.” And they were for real, they weren’t pulling our leg. They said what they meant and the meant what they said; First Parish is a real place 100%. And even the imperfect parts are real.
I will close, however, by reminding ourselves of a reality which is so real we really don’t need to be reminded. We are a sanctuary church. We are quite literally responsible for the life of our guest and we have significant responsibility for her family. We are one of only three churches with guests in greater Boston. To my knowledge we are the only such UU church in New England. Though there are 800 sanctuary churches in this country, nationwide there are only 30-40 with guests. The immigration crisis is vast and our government is shameful beyond description. We can protect but one person, but as is said in the Talmud, “ To save but one life is to save the world.”
Our congregation has trained more than 200 volunteers who are here 24/7. (We need more, by the way.) Nine congregations, including two Jewish congregations, have entered into formal supportive covenant with us. For years we’ve talked about collaborating with other UU congregations a few miles away. It’s never really happened. Until now. Until there came into view large and unacceptable realities such as the inhumane immoral and un-American treatment of immigrants and until we realized we must meet such realities with realities of our own. And until there are common purposes greater than any of us individually and we realize we cannot accomplish our purposes only by ourselves.
Every week recently we get offers of help and financial contributions from congregations and individuals, some of whom we’ve never heard of but who have heard of us. This is fund-raising and friend-raising.
Richard Rhodes, one of the ministers at Grace Chapel, emailed me about sanctuary, “This is beautiful, faith-filled work! Way to go in marshalling the troops to do, in my faith tradition, exactly what Jesus called us to do!” Grace Chapel telling us that that we are doing what Jesus called us to do? Really??
Last week Maria was visited by an American nun, Sister Peggy O’Neil, who lives and works in El Salvador. She does justice work, she said, so that Jesus did not die in vain. So do we, she said. She is and we are, she says, “afflicted with hope.” We’re making it real.
This is very humbling. Our sanctuary work, however, is not supported in our budget. That’s not what your pledge, your stewardship gift, goes to. Sanctuary costs money but it’s raised separately. Someone asked me last week if sanctuary has been a drain on our resources. I said no, sanctuary has amplified our resources of energy and passion and purpose and solidarity.
I tell you about sanctuary because our being a sanctuary is made possible because we are a strong congregation. We are a strong congregation for many reasons, not least of which is that we are financially healthy, that we can meet our goals, and that we will be financially generous to the very greatest extent to which we are capable.
Make it real. Keep it real.
Accept no counterfeits.
Money is a kind of poetry.
– Wallace Stevens
Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.
Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.
To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.
It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.
Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.
Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.
by Dana Giolia