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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

From Generation to Generation

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 25, 2001

 

There actually is a website out there in the amazing world of cyberspace called “Netscrap.com”. It’s composed of dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds, of those readings and jokes and inspirational stories and inane banterings that those of us who are internetically-connected continually send around to each other. There are happy things and sad things; inspirational things and stupid things; there are things that even I wouldn’t repeat in even the semi-polite company I usually hang around in. Occasionally, there is even something there that relates to real life or that-- joy of joys!-- I can use in a sermon. I even found something there recently for today, Canvass Sunday. It’s called “Ten Things You Never Hear in Church” and it’s by that most prolific of all authors, “Anonymous” (so, I didn’t write it; don’t blame me if it offends you):

Here are those “Ten Things You Never Hear In Church”:

  1. Hey! It’s my turn to sit in the front pew!

  2. I was so enthralled that I didn’t even notice that your sermon went 25 minutes over time. {Ha!}

  3. Personally, I find Board meetings much more enjoyable than golf.

  4. I’ve decided to give our church the $500 I won in the state lottery last week.

  5. I volunteer to be the Permanent Teacher of the Junior High Sunday School class.

  6. Forget the denominational minimum salary, let’s pay our minister the same as other professionals in our community of comparable education and experience are getting. {Remember: I didn’t write these...}

  7. I love it when we sing hymns I’ve never heard before.

  8. Since we’re all here, let’s start the service early.

  9. Pastor, we’d love to send you to this Bible seminar in the Bahamas. And ...

  10. (I kid you not): Nothing inspires me and strengthens my commitment like our annual canvass campaign!

They are peculiar institutions, these churches of ours-- these churches we build and nurture; get mad at, fall away from, come back to; hold on to for dear life; work so hard to support; yearn so deeply to pass on to those who will come after us.

“Churches are particularly fragile institutions of dollars and dreams,” William Schulz, the former President of our denomination, once said. That’s a quote I’ve used in one way or another, in practically every Canvass Sunday address I’ve given for the past ten years or so. I think it sums up so eloquently the basic chemistry of this, or any, community of faith: dollars and dreams; practical and ethereal; oftentimes the highest ideals and oftentimes the most mundane reality-- meeting and merging, right here, right now, in this church we call our spiritual home.

Most of the year, in worship at least, we can bask in the glow of the heavenly side of our nature, and spend our time considering all those “Deep Spiritual Matters” and “Very Important Issues”. It used to be said that there were four things you weren’t supposed to talk about, in “polite company” at least: religion, politics, sex, and money.

Well, we’re a church, so I guess we have no choice but to talk about religion (it may seem to some people that we try not to sometimes, but the subject keeps coming up).

We’ve got no problem talking about politics in our services (and it occurs to me that if I didn’t, we’d have awfully short sermons sometimes).

As for sex: Yeah, even that subject in this post-Clinton age isn’t completely taboo in “polite company” any more-- and there are all kinds of issues that we have considered here in this church -- gay marriage; guaranteeing the civil rights of our homosexual neighbors and relatives; fighting the AIDS epidemic, to name just a few-- that wouldn’t have been touched upon by more squeamish souls in days gone-by.

But as for money... We still really don’t like to use the “M-word”, do we? We relegate it to one Sunday a year, as a sort of onerous duty. And we’re all so relieved when the annual All-Church Canvass is finally over, and we can get back to all those “deeper”, “more spiritual” matters we’d rather talk about. Remember #10 on the list of “Things You Never Hear in Church”: “Nothing inspires me and strengthens my commitment like our annual canvass campaign.” For many of us, I’m afraid, that’s hardly the case. And frankly, I think our church is harmed and weakened because of our reticence...

Here’s another quote I like to trot out on Canvass Sunday from time to time. It’s from Paul Carnes, another former President of the UUA, who died in 1979:

“It is my fervent belief that our society needs a church which can blend the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, faith and works, freedom and responsibility. We can be that church, but it is not preordained. The decision as to whether we become a museum piece of the 19th Century is ours and no one else’s. I pray that we do not fail...”

The 19th Century is over, and so now is the 20th. Yet, so many of the attitudes we have about how churches are supposed to be run-- or how they are supposed to be organized-- or how they are supposed to be funded-- come right out of those earlier times.

I will be blunt (words that you’re probably not accustomed to hearing from old “laid back Rev. Jeff” up here too often, but which I find I tend to use more as I get older. (Maybe it has something to do with pushing hard on the age of 50).

I believe we are nearing a critically important stage in the life of this church. My deeply considered opinion is that, if present trends continue, we will have important questions to face in the not-too-distant future as to how we will function as a church: whether we will continue to offer the full-array of services we do now; whether we will continue to finance a full-time ministry; or whether we will have to scale back or consolidate, and thus, lower our expectations of what this church can provide.

None of this is preordained either. It might seem that small, struggling churches like ours have insurmountable obstacles to face along the dark, unknown road into the future. But we don’t. We don’t need to be rescued from our predicament by some great superhero-like savior from on high. We don’t need magic. We just need deepened and widened commitment. And we just need to update some of our attitudes about our annual giving.

The little brochure put together for this year’s canvass (and I do hope you will all read it over carefully; it contains lots of really important information, that might be really useful to you as you consider what to pledge to our church this year) reminds us that some religious groups require their members to “tithe” up to 10% of their incomes to their churches each year.

It could also tells us that to belong to any Jewish synagogue one is required to pay annual dues-- so much per family, cash (or check, or increasingly, credit card) on the barrel head . A synagogue’s dues are figured by taking the estimate expenses for the synagogue for the next year and simply dividing it among the number of members, and-- presto-- there’s your dues: If you want to be a member, you pay this much each year. Simple, straightforward, and very efficient.

But that’s not the way we do things around here. We don’t tell people what to think religiously, so we don’t tell them what to pledge financially, either. That’s just who we are. Instead, we tell people, there in canvass brochure, that “A pledge of approximately 1% to 3% of one’s total income is considered giving at a fair share level,” and we leave it at that. People should be free to decide for themselves, we say-- and rightfully so.

According to the Federal government, the median family income for Norfolk County, where we live, was $56,500 last year. Looking out at this church, I think we fall pretty close to that range; our average family income probably doesn’t vary that much from people in the county at large.

Now, I don’t usually do bluntness, and I don’t usually do math. But for this special occasion, I’ll try both:

If our “median family income”, here in this church, is somewhere around $56,500, and we all pledge at 1% of that, that would yield $ 565 per year (a little over $10 a week), times (say) 50 pledging units, for a total canvass amount of $ 28,250. We’re actually a tad higher than that in reality: last year’s total was about $32,000. And obviously, we ain’t on Easy Street-- not by a long shot.

But now, here’s the interesting part: Look what happens if we all bring our pledging up just a notch or two, so that the average pledge from all of us is (say) 2% of our gross family income. Just 2%. Not tithing. Not annual dues. Not 5%. Not even the 3% we set as the outer range of our “fair share” scale-- just 2% --, an overall increase of less than 1% of income in all households.

That would yield an average pledge of $1030; times 50 units; for a grand total of $ 51,500-- or about $19,000 more than we raised last year!

The moral of the story is this: If you bring your family’s pledge up just a notch, and if everybody who can does the same, then we will be able, right now, to secure the financial base of our church, and move from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance, and move into the future confidently and creatively, and hand down the precious legacy of this wonderful church to the next generation in significantly better financial condition than we received it.

Here, very directly, is Dr. Jeff’s prescription for our church’s financial health:

If you’re giving at 1% of your income, bring it up to 2%.
If you’re giving at 2%, bring it up to 3%.
If you’re giving at 3%, bring it up to 4%.
If you’re already pledging at 4% or more (and I know that some of you are), then ponder in your heart how much more of your abundance you can share so that our church’s future may rest secure.

I would also ask you to cast your financial commitment to our church not in light of what spare change you might be able to afford week in, week out, but in light of what other goods and services in our society cost these days:

Movie tickets (in honor of tonight’s Academy Awards): Two adults go to the movies, and it’s close to $18. Take along two kids with you, and it’s almost $30 (and that’s if you sneak in your own popcorn, too).

Cable TV (“one hundred channels and nothing on” all too often) can easily cost, at a minimum, $40 a month-- $10 a week. Just for cable TV.

Dry cleaning: You can pay $8 or $9 to have a suit cleaned.

Two people can go to a so-so restaurant and pay over $60 for dinner. Have a single cocktail, and your bill is over $70!

Basic babysitting: Two kids, two hours-- How much is that? (I have to ask because I am-- hooray!-- past that stage of life now...) {About $20, according to members of the congregation.}

You see what I mean: “Nuthin’ costs nuthin’”-- and most things cost more than we realize-- and significantly more than they did 5 or 10 or 15 years ago. Why should the Church be different? Why should the Church have to go on scraping by, mired in a financial mindset from generations gone-by ?

Here’s another figure I share almost every year at Canvass Time: It costs about $100,00 a year (or a little more) to run this church-- to run its entire program: that’s five salaries; a whole year’s utilities for church and parsonage; all building upkeep and maintenance; our annual dues to our district and denomination; all supplies-- every piece of paper, every paper clip, every staple, every crayon for the church school; all of our social outreach, all of our publicity, insurance, workmen’s comp, payroll taxes and social security, coffee on Sundays and fuel for the furnace.

$100,000 to run an entire institution that seeks to meet the spiritual and religious and emotional needs of something over 100 men, women, and children. Sometimes we do it well; sometimes we do it not so well; sometimes we do it exquisitely well.

$100,000 in this day and age is not small change, but it is also isn’t really that much money. It’s the salary of perhaps one single middle-range manager at a major corporation. Yet, we run our entire program on that amount of cash. So, rest assured, when you give to our church, the money’s not being wasted. One positive value that we have inherited from our frugal forebears is the virtue of thrift!

And we have inherited so much more, as well.

These churches of ours are peculiar institutions. Precious, fragile institutions of dollars and dreams, of dust and stars, of memories of times past and hopes for times ahead, of high ideals that warm our hearts and damned dailies that have to get done if the wheels are to keep turning.

Our intrepid Religious Education Director Susan O’Connor and I were talking after the Worship Committee meeting the other night, catching up on a whole range of matters.

First, we talked about Easter, and the best way to approach it from a Unitarian Universalist perspective, and the proper way to integrate the texts of the Gospel narratives into our consideration of the theological importance of Jesus of Nazareth. High fallutin’, intellectual-type, explicitly religious stuff...

Then, a few minutes later, in the blink of an eye it seemed, we were talking about next year’s Fair Dinner, and making beef stew for it, and we were trading recipes, and debating the relative merits of using frozen or fresh carrots.

It occurred to me then (as it has many times before) just how precious this church of ours is: How it is the place where so many things come together-- and so many people-- people I would never have met had this church faded away like so many other small, struggling, priceless churches that have come before.

And that’s why I love this church: Because it’s the place where the practical and spiritual dance together so closely... Where no one is too old and no one is too young, and everyone is cherished for the person who they are... Where no one is too poor or even too rich... too black or too brown or too white or red (racially or politically, perhaps)... where no one is too straight and no one is too gay... and where we yearn to hear different voices and see people not like us even more, and whom we like even more (even love) because they’re “not like us”.

Such a peculiar place. So different, in many ways, from the society around it. So out of step with the times, so slow to change.

Or perhaps, the church is changing us-- and changing our world-- slowly, surely, in deeper ways we even imagine possible. Perhaps it is pointing out to our world at large the better way that can be, when we are true to the best that is within us.

And that better way is worth paying for, along with all those other things that claim our time, talent, and treasure. It deserves at least its fair share.

Gas for the church for a year: $ 4980.

Religious education supplies and materials: $ 419.

The sound of our children today, tomorrow, and ten years from now scampering down to their classrooms on Sunday mornings: Priceless.

The church’s water and sewer bill for a year: $ 381.

Insurance on the building: $ 3017.

The sound of a friend’s laughter across a table at a church supper: Priceless

The church’s telephone bill for a year: $ 1,300.

Rental of the church photocopier for a year: $1,995.98.

Words of comfort at times of loss; words of inspiration and encouragement at times of struggle; words of celebration at times of joy: Priceless.

But remember: Nothing costs nothing. Even priceless things sometimes have a price. But it’s a price which blesses us at least ten-fold each time we pay it.

 

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