“The Sermon on the Amount” – Stewardship Sunday

“The Sermon on the Amount”
A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
delivered on Stewardship Sunday, March 25, 2012
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts


“Spring Cleaning”
By Sarah Getty
Open the house.
Let the sun roar in and corner
the huddling dust.
Let the March wind tear down cobwebs,
sweep out crayon- and cookie-crumbs,
Christmas needles,
smells of Vapo-rub and smoke.
In the brisk new daylight
get things straight.
Clean the hall closet. Organize your desk.
Go through your wardrobe, your game-plan, your old loves.
Sort. Evaluate.
Throw things away.
Remove the victims of winter’s grudge,
littering the yard like a battlefield.
Haul away the big black branch that’s lurked there,
like a beached squid, since January.
Lop off its limbs and stack them.
Rake slimy leaf-rot off the tulip beds.
Let clean heat reach the bulbs.
Root out the old hurts,
the cozy unsuccesses.
Forget that your sister wasn’t at your wedding,
that your father didn’t seem to like you much.
Get rid of the birthday party no one came to
and the men who never asked you out again.
Bundle the demeaning medical procedures
and leave them at the curb.
Pile up the lost job, the student evaluations,
the ideas of what your in-laws should be like.
Burn them.
Burn the time your six-year-old came home from school
and you weren’t there.
Burn the anniversary evening that wasn’t fun.
Burn the bad poems and the rejection slips.
Be ruthless as March.
Be a lion.
Under the clean-limbed trees be fierce and neat.
Hunt out the beasties that fatten in the dark.
Let the sun scour.
Let the wind prowl and pounce.


I have preached oodles of fund-raising sermons over the years and today I will tell you what I know best is a variegated multitude of approaches that make very very little difference to the outcome. Indeed this morning you will hear some of my best but still quite ineffectual ideas about encouraging your generosity. And, yes, I also will tell you one or two things that probably still won’t make a difference, but might.

I confess that I preached a version of this sermon last Sunday at our church in Reading. Their minister is on sabbatical – actually he just returned from Afghanistan – and months ago he asked me to preach to their stewardship theme, “The Fire of Commitment” – named after the hymn we just sang.

The culture of the Reading church is somewhat similar to our own. We have about 375 members while they have fifty fewer but – interestingly – they raise a lot more money than do we. Last year we raised a little less than $360,000 while they raised $424,000. This year we’re asking for increases that would bring us up only to $380,000 while we also know that to do the things we really need to do we need more like $408,000. In Reading this year they hope to raise $450,000. Our average pledge last year was $1600 while Reading’s was more than $2100. Reading also has 11 pledges greater than $10,000, while we have – well, we had – only one as that person has since died. Reading is not a more affluent community than Bedford and so I ask, If they can do it, why don’t we?

The trouble is, I think, that all of us have a tendency to pick some number to put on our pledge card and then year after year we incrementally add, subtract or keep it the same when – what is really needed – is to each year take a fresh look and see if our pledge is consistent with our abilities, our values and our aspirations. It’s as though each year our pledge card should be like an Etch-a-Sketch which we shake up, erase, and recalculate. (John then held up an Etch-a-Sketch.) Just trying to keep your attention folks.

I really do want to keep your attention because of what’s happening to all voluntary associations, including all churches, in America. A couple of weeks ago I read to you the story of a minister in Alaska who was preaching when an earthquake hit. The lights swayed and he grabbed the pulpit, terrified. What bothered him even more, however, was the unperturbed reaction of the congregation who were accustomed to seismic shifts and just sat there. The minister said, “Something doesn’t seem right about a congregation that’s able to stay serene during an earthquake. When the earth heaves and the ground shifts beneath our feet, I want a church that’s screaming and ducking under the pews.”

I believe that today we face a huge and perturbing seismic shift. Observers like Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone have documented the decline of organizations from bowling leagues to Leagues of Women Voters to churches, groups that provide the glue and social capital that make our communities most livable.

Recently I told you the prediction that of America’s 350,000 churches, as many as half may disappear with the next 25 years: 175,000 will go out of business! This may not altogether be a bad thing or even a bad thing for us, but it is a significant thing to which we should neither duck nor scream but be awake, aware and responsive.

Catholic and mainline churches are suffering precipitous declines, and in the annual report of one of our larger local flagship UU churches, their minister recently decried that Sunday attendance has “fallen off a cliff.” Even the appeal of big-box megachurches appears to have peaked and, in recent religious surveys, the fastest growing segment of the population are the so-called “nones” n-o-n-e-s – those who may consider themselves to be spiritual and even religious, but who feel no need to affiliate – let alone give money! – to any religious organization.

We are in the midst of an earthquake and while there is some very good news for Unitarian Universalists – we are in fact well positioned to benefit from those who are shaking off the shackles of dogma – we are by no means immune from the shaking of the foundations. There is no guarantee that what today seems stable will remain stable. We cannot be serene or complacent about the future of those organizations that best represent our values.

The “fire of commitment” is Reading’s theme and their literature says that they’re igniting their spiritual selves, and kindling their intergenerational faith, and sparking their compassionate community, and stoking the coals of our precious world…and so last week I tried to recall all the fiery metaphors I could think of.

Fiery metaphors are among the things that don’t much affect generosity but I told them – as once before I told you – about footwarmers and furnaces and I showed them this footwarmer. (John held up an antique tin box footwarmer.) Parishioners used to bring these with them in the old days when winters were cold and, with hot coals inside, each family would keep themselves warm.

Typically in about the 1840’s wood-burning stoves were installed in churches. Here there were two stoves in those corners and stovepipe ran up to two chimneys here and here and you can still see the faint ripple near the ceiling where those chimneys stood. And so people stopped bringing their foot warmers but then people contributed firewood and the church often owned a woodlot that fueled the stoves and paid the minister with a few cords of wood to supplement the hank of rutabagas and victuals that was his salary (Don’t get any ideas!).

Eventually, the stoves were replaced by a furnace in the cellar, out of sight. This was a paradigm shift, you see: instead of looking out individualistically only for oneself, to have a furnace is to say that all are welcome here; you don’t have to bring your own heat with you; the heat shall rise on the just and unjust alike. The good news is that you can come here as you are, shivering perhaps and still you will be warmed. The bad news, in a way, is that the furnace is out of sight.

Stewardship is the awareness that, however invisibly, we are still responsible for one another. Stewardship is our awareness of that which is invisible but which sustains our community life. For this community to breathe out warmth and goodness and deeds of justice, we must breathe in all our resources of good will, and participation, and contribution of energies in all-of-the-above forms we possess.

OK, I promised you some more canvass approaches that don’t work.

The all-time most ineffectual approach was the year that these T-shirts were produced (John held up a decorated t-shirt): a portrait of me with the words “fair share” next to a portrait of the singer Cher. Fair Share and Cher: it made no sense then and none today!

Jokes don’t work very well but here’s one new to me:

The visiting preacher was really getting the congregation moving. Near the end of his sermon he said this church has really got to walk – to which someone in the back yelled, “Let her walk preacher!”

The preacher then said if this church is going to go it’s got to get up and run – to which someone again yelled with gusto, “Let her run preacher!”

Feeling the surge of the church, the preacher then said with even louder gusto, “if this church is going to go it’s got to really fly” and once again with ever greater gusto, someone yelled, “Let her fly preacher, let her fly!”

The preacher then seized the moment and stated with even greater gusto, “if this church is really going to fly it’s going to need money!” to which someone in the back yelled, “Let her walk preacher, let her walk.”

In the fund-raising realm, I have also tried Ice Fishing Derbies. Don’t bother. And soon here in Bedford we’ll install this gumball machine: 50 cents and you get a plastic capsule with something good inside it. Hey, that’ll bring in the bucks! I’ve tried stories: stone soup, biblical stories, Buddhist stories, you name it.

Guilt, you bet, I’ve tried that too. Compare yourselves to your neighboring churches – Reading, for example – or, even better, synagogues or Mormon temples.

The other day, Concord’s minister emeritus Gary Smith said he had even offered, in exchange for a successful canvass, to dance on the flower table. Hey, for the right price, somebody here will do a cartwheel!

We’ve tried changing the words we use: canvass is a buzz word not everyone understands; stewardship may not be much better and originally referred to the “keeper of a pig sty” but now is synonymous with caring for one’s own wealth. The trouble is that the whole concept of one’s own wealth is spiritually suspect. (Here I’m getting into some stuff that is perhaps ineffectual at fund-raising but is nonetheless true. So heads-up!)

Biologist Lynn Margulis suggests there’s a tone of arrogance to stewardship: “The idea that we are ‘stewards of the earth’ is another symptom of human arrogance. Imagine yourself with the task of overseeing your body’s physiological processes. Do you understand the way it works well enough to keep all its systems in operation? Can you make your kidneys function? Can you control the removal of waste? Are you conscious of the blood flow through your arteries, or the fact that you are losing a hundred thousand skin cells a minute? We are unconscious of most of our body’s processes, thank goodness, because we’d screw it up if we weren’t. The human body is so complex, with so many parts, . . . a system which is far more complex than we can fully imagine. The idea that we are consciously care-taking such a large and mysterious system is ludicrous.”

And now to introduce the only antidote I know to all the approaches that may be true but don’t work, I’ll again tell you the story of the good church member who wrote to newspaperman Horace Greeley – a Universalist, by the way – saying that her church was in distressing financial straits. “We have tried fairs, strawberry festivals, oyster suppers, box socials, mock weddings, grab bags and lawn fetes.” She didn’t mention ice fishing derbies or gumball machines, but then she asked, ‘Would Mr. Greeley be so good as to suggest some new device to keep our struggling church from disbanding?’” To which Mr. Greeley replied (with the shortest canvass sermon on record), “Try religion.”

So this is where I’m going to end up, with religion. I suggest that all of you are trustees for the spiritual resources of this congregation. Now maybe trustee is just another buzzword but here is what I think it means: The fundamental question of anyone who is a trustee of an estate is not “how much do I give away of what is mine?” but rather “how much of this estate do I receive for myself so that the estate may grow and prosper and do good?” The language of trusteeship is the language of “receiving” first and only after does it become the language of giving.

The spiritual truth, I believe, is that all of us are beneficiaries of resources far beyond what we deserve. Of course, we earn some money by the sweat of our brow. But for many of us we also receive interest and dividends; maybe we’ve inherited some money; and with few exceptions we are beneficiaries of the serendipities of race and class and education and gender, for some of us, and nationality and a thousand twists of undeserved fate.

I read this quotation yesterday, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire!”

And so instead of thinking about all that is mine and trying to decide how freely or parsimoniously you’re willing to dole out some money to the church, I humbly suggest that you think of all your assets as belonging to the larger estate of values and purposes and aspirations and convictions, of which you are a trustee.

Once you’ve made this admittedly considerable leap, I suggest you think about what you need to live a decent modest life.

Keep what you need and do your best to re-invest the rest in what you think this world should look like.

Again, keep what you need! My pledge to the Bedford church is something in excess of four times our average. You do the math but I’m up there. Sue and I live in the church parsonage and so my cash salary is something like $59,000 and, well, I’m pretty sure there are folks with higher incomes and I’m not living off any trust fund and, well, I don’t miss the money I return to the work of this church and I feel good about it.

There are a lot of interesting things about these numbers but one of them is that wealth and giving do not always correlate. Not at the top. Not at the bottom.

And, yes, your circumstances are different so keep what you need but invest the rest.

“Freely we have received; freely give.” The spiritual truth is that we do freely receive.

Erma Bombeck was often asked if she saves up her best ideas for the next newspaper column and before she died she responded in a column, titled, “What’s Saved is Often Lost.”

“I don’t save anything,” she said. “My pockets are empty at the end of a week. So is my gas tank. So is my file of ideas. I trot out the best I’ve got, and come the next week, I bargain, whimper, make promises, cower and throw myself on the mercy of the Almighty for just three more columns in exchange for cleaning my oven.

“I didn’t get to this point overnight. I came from a family of savers who were sired by poverty and . . . worshiped at the altar of self-denial.

“Throughout the years, I’ve seen a fair number of my family who have died leaving candles that have never been lit, appliances that never got out of the box…

“It gets to be a habit.

“I have learned that silver tarnishes when it isn’t used, perfume turns to alcohol, candles melt in the attic over the summer, and ideas that are saved for a dry week often become dated.

“I always had a dream that when I am asked to give an accounting of my life to a higher court, it will be like this: ‘So, empty your pockets. What’s left of your life? Any dreams that were unfilled? Any unused talent that we gave you when you were born that you still have left? Any unsaid compliments or bits of love that you haven’t spread around?’

“And, I will answer, ‘I’ve nothing to return. I spent everything you gave me. I’m as naked as the day I was born.’”

It’s not the one who dies with the most toys who wins but rather the one who bounces their last check.

In Reading I finished with yet some other fiery metaphor but I’m not going to tell you that story because, what difference would it make? Instead I’ll tell you, repeat to you really,

“…the tale of a man who might have been me, for I dreamed one time of journeying to that city. I arrived early one morning. It was cold, there were flurries of snow on the ground. As I stepped from the train to the platform I noticed that the baggageman and the red cap were warmly attired in heavy coats and gloves, but oddly enough, they wore no shoes.

My initial impulse was to ask the reason for this odd practice, but repressing it I passed into the station and inquired the way to the hotel. My curiosity, however, was immediately enhanced by the discovery that no one in the station wore any shoes. Boarding the streetcar, I saw that my fellow travelers were likewise barefoot, and upon arriving at the hotel I found the bellhop, the clerk and the habitués of the place were all devoid of shoes.

Unable to restrain myself longer, I asked the ingratiating manager what the practice meant.

“What practice?” said he.

“Why,” I said, pointing to his bare feet, “Why don’t you wear any shoes in this town?”

“Ah,” said he, “That is just it. Why don’t we?”

“But what is the matter? Don’t you believe in shoes?”

“Believe in shoes, my friend! I should say we do. That is the first article of our creed — shoes. They are indispensable to the well-being of humanity. Such chilblains, cuts, sores, suffering, as shoes prevent! It is wonderful!”

“Well, then, why don’t you wear them?” I asked, bewildered.
“Ah, said he, “That is just it. Why don’t we?”

Though considerably nonplussed, I checked in, secured my room and went directly to the coffee shop and deliberately sat down by an amiable-looking gentleman who likewise conformed to the conventions of his fellow citizens. He wore no shoes. Friendly enough, he suggested after we had eaten that we look about the city. The first thing we noticed upon emerging from the hotel was a huge brick structure of impressive proportions. To this he pointed with pride.
“You see that?” said he. “That is one of our outstanding shoe manufacturing establishments.”

“A what?” I asked in amazement. “You mean you make shoes there?”

“Well, not exactly, said he a bit abashed, “we talk about making shoes there, and believe me, we have got one of the most brilliant young fellows you ever heard. He talks most thrillingly and convincingly every week on this great subject of shoes. He has a most persuasive and appealing way. Just yesterday he moved the people profoundly with his exposition of the necessity of shoe-wearing. Many broke down and wept. It was wonderful.”

“But why don’t they wear them?” said I, insistently.

“Ah,” said he, putting his hand upon my arm and looking wistfully into my eyes, “that is just it. Why don’t we?”

“Just then, as we turned down a side street, I saw through a cellar window a cobbler actually making a pair of shoes. Excusing myself from my friend, I burst into the little shop and asked the shoemaker how it happened that his shop was not overrun with customers. Said he, “Nobody wants my shoes. They just talk about them.”

“Give me what pairs you have already,” said I eagerly, and paid him thrice the amount he modestly asked. Hurriedly, I returned to my friend and proffered them to him, saying, “Here my friend, some one of these pairs will surely fit you. Take them, put them on. They will save you untold suffering.”

But he looked embarrassed; in fact, he was well-nigh overcome with chagrin.

“Ah, thank you,” he said politely, “but you don’t understand. It just isn’t being done.”

“But why don’t you wear them?” said I, dumbfounded.

“Ah,” said he, smiling, with his accustomed ingratiating touch of practical wisdom. “That is just it. Why don’t we?” (A story told originally by Welsh author Hugh Price Hughes)

I expect that story may mean many things in your life, as it does in mine. I also believe we live in an era of seismic shift and that this community can continue to thrive if – and only if – we all do all of which we are capable. This is not a time for serenity. This is not a time to keep our candles unlit, our appliances in the box.

Remember to keep what you need.

We can do good and we can do well.

That’s just it. Why don’t we?

Freely we have received.

Closing Words
I think we can memorize these words of Anais Nin. Repeat: “And then the day came, / when the risk to remain tight in a bud /was more painful /than the risk it took to Blossom.”