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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
 

Leaping Forward or Fading Away?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 29, 2004


This story isn’t about a chicken and an egg, but about a chicken and a pig:

One day, it is said, a chicken and a pig were gazing at a new billboard by the side of the road near the farm where they lived. It featured a plate of ham and eggs. The chicken asked: “Are you proud to know how much we contribute to humankind?” To which the pig responded: “Well, I’m not so sure. With you, it’s a contribution. With me, it’s a lifetime commitment!”

Well, on this Canvass Sunday, let me assure you that while we would like all of you to make a total commitment to our church, we hope you won’t end up stripped and frazzled like that poor pig there!

It is Canvass Sunday again, of course—on this fifth Sunday in February, no less (we don’t see many of those). It is time that we gather as a church community, to reaffirm our commitment to this church by deciding how much it will be that each of us will pledge toward its support in the coming year. It is not the most esoteric and spiritual of rituals, perhaps; there’s something very this-worldly and practical about it; many ministers (and many members, no doubt) don’t like Canvass Sunday at all. But it is, in truth, something more than a dreaded yearly necessity.

Very simply put: We are a democratically-operated church, where the people rule. We receive no funding from “outside sources” to keep the wheels of this institution running. No one subsidizes us. We exist and operate through the generosity of past generations who remembered the church and made some provision for it. Even more perhaps, our church exists through the generosity of this generation of the people of this church, who support it through their financial pledges and contributions.

Even more simply put: If this church is to survive, and function—and even more, if it is to flourish, and grow—it is up to us to support it as best we are able.

It might seem at first glance that fundraising is not the most profound and moving topic of which to speak on a Sunday morning. But there is something very important about our considering how it is that we will spend our money. The choices we make in this regard say a lot about us. As Senator J. William Fulbright once said:

“Priorities are reflected in the things we spend money on. Far from being a dry accounting of bookkeepers, a… budge is full of moral implications; it tells what a society cares about and what it does not care about; it tells what its values are.”

It’s true: Just as our family budgets tells us what our families value, and our national budget tells us what we truly value as a society (I could go on all day about that one!), so our church budget tells what we value as a religious community.

Our church budget is no trivial thing. As my friend Diane Teichert of the UU Church in Canton has put it: “My pledge, your pledge, our pledges represent our hopes for what we, as individuals and as a congregation, will be and do because of the values and visions nurtured here.”

How we pledge to our church represents who we would be—and what we would have our church become. To a larger extent than we sometimes realize, we determine—day in, day out, in each and every decision we make-- what kind of person we will be. Someone once said that, in order to write a decent and truly accurate biography of anyone, the author needs to have access to his subject’s checkbook. There’s a lot of truth there. Character is as character does, and our true values are not those which we merely profess, but those which we live out in the real world.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart is as well,” Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew. How we spend our money is a clear indication of what we truly value—what we really treasure—in our lives. At Canvass time, we, as supporters of this church, are called upon to consider where our church falls along the continuum off all the things we value in our lives—where it stands in relation to our family, our clothes, cars, leisure activities and vacations, pets, entertainment, other causes we support. We are asked to consider whether our level of commitment to this church accurately reflects its importance in our lives—our commitment to it, what we draw from it, our hopes for its future. At Canvass time, we each consider on a very basic level what we can do to give an institutional form to the values we profess.

You’ve heard the expression, “It’s only money.” What is money, really? Mere paper? As Tim Golly, a fifth grader at the Winnebago Elementary School in Winnebago, Minnesota, has put it, in a poem called “What It Is To Be Money”:

Some days crumpled up in billfolds,
Sometimes locked inside cash registers.
Now and then people try to steal me.
Most don’t but some do.
In a few years I’ll probably be
shredded for insulation.
Then I’ll be stuffed in some building
to rot away forever.

There’s a lot of wisdom in Tim’s little poem. What is money? It is just paper, eventually. But think of all that paper represents! How we spend our money can be a sacrament: an outer symbol of some deeper meaning and purpose. “Money talks,” they say. How we allocate our resources, however humble or grand they might be, tells the world so much about what we truly value in our lives.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus said. In that same gospel reading, he also said: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in…”

I wish that I could tell you that your contributions to our church guarantee you either real estate in heaven, or at least fire insurance from the torments of hell. But I cannot.

But your contributions to our church do offer you other timeless, heaven-like treasures, which I believe are worth supporting, and which I hope you do, too:

Your pledge is a chance to put real life behind your values. It is your chance to offer the gift of hope and courage to a world which needs those things so very badly. It is your opportunity to affirm, in deed and not just in words, the inherent worth and dignity of every man, woman, and child—in a world where the worth and dignity and humanity of us all is under assault more than ever. It is your opportunity to continue to support this free and open religious institution which has stood on this church green for 260 years now, offering its vision of a faith free of dogma, and repression, and narrow-mindedness. It’s your chance to pass the gift of this free faith down to the generations that will come after us, through our wonderful program of religious education. It is your chance to support this oasis of the Spirit in an oftentimes dry and barren world.

As Bob Dylan reminds us: “He who’s not busy being born in busy dying.”

So it is for churches, as well.

I believe that we have reached the point in the life of our church where “muddling along” isn’t good enough any longer. In this day and age, muddling along has become, in fact, fading away. And I don’t want to “fade way”, and I don’t want this church of ours to fade away, either. It’s time for a new leap of faith:

It takes a leap of faith to get things going
It takes a leap of faith you gotta show some guts
It takes a leap of faith to get things going
In your heart now you must trust…

I hope that you will want to continue supporting this church generously, from the fullness of your heart and soul—not just for what it adds to your life, but also for what it adds to the life of our communities. Now, more than ever, it is critically important for our Unitarian Universalist community of faith to survive, and to prosper.

The catalyst for this leap of faith is our own generosity. As the Quaker founder George Fox once said, “The riches we have are not our reward for being good, but our opportunity for doing good.” Or, as Confucius said: “It is generosity which creates the soul.” Our generosity grows and nourishes our souls. Generosity is the first spiritual principle—all the others follow. Our generosity toward our church is the foundation upon which our church’s future growth must be based; it is the spark which kindles the burning fires of our faith.

There was once a man named McGregor, who owned a famous vineyard that produced wonderful wines, and especially, a much-prized cherry brandy. But the minister of McGregor’s church was a rabid and severe teetotaler, who would often given long and passionate sermons about the evils of drink, the curse of alcohol. McGregor wasn’t pleased; but he didn’t take it personally.

When McGregor’s daughter got married, there was, of course, a great reception—a wonderful party—at which the minister accidentally sipped some of the prized cherry brandy—and then a little more, and little more—and took quite a liking to it. So, when he got McGregor alone, he asked him if he would send a case of that wonderful brandy to the parsonage.

McGregor agreed—but on one condition: The minister would have to acknowledge the gift in a letter in the church bulletin (as sort of a way of undoing all the damage he had done with those sermons against booze). The minister said he would, and when the next bulletin came out, McGregor picked it up quickly to see if the parson had kept his part of the deal. The minister’s note read: “I would like to thank John McGregor for the wonderful fruit he gave, and the spirit in which it was delivered.”

May you all pledge to our church with a generous spirit, so that our precious religious community might continue to bear wondrous, enchanting-- even intoxicating-- fruit.

 


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