Canvass Sunday Resistance
There’s a story about a mother who was trying to get her son out of bed one Sunday morning. She said, “Come on, get up, it’s time to go to church.”
“I don’t want to go there today. This is canvass Sunday, it’s all about money, money, money. I hate it. Give me one good reason I should go.”
“Well,” the mother said, “for starters you’re not 40 years old and I shouldn’t have to be prodding you and convincing you. And the second reason you have to go is that you’re the minister!”
Actually we’ve found that attendance increases significantly on Sunday mornings. They did a survey and asked people why they like to come on canvass Sunday and the majority said, “I like to see him squirm!”
This is the one sermon a year which is expected of me. The only text I’m given is next year’s budget, but you can read that on your own time.
Most clergy are sort of assigned the topic every weekthey preach from a lectionary week-by-week passages of Scripture are assigned to correspond to the Sundays of the year. The General Lectionary has a three year cyclewhich makes me wonder if that’s how long they think people with the best memories can recall the sermon you did on that passage.
The word lectionary comes from the Latin verb (legere) ‘to read.’ From that root, legere, we get words like lecture, lectern, lesson, legend, legible, legal, legitimate, legacyand a word I used in my opening sentence, colleague.
You also get the word sacrilege. Talking about money in a Unitarian church comes close to being sacrilegious.
Well, not really, but I say that to make a point: it’s necessary to talk about money and the many meanings it hasnot only the economics but the philosophic meanings and the deeper meanings, having to do with the uses of money to indicate one’s values, and the uses of money to form or move toward a deeper set of values.
Point: today’s sermon is as close to a lectionary, an assigned topic, as I come. My religious scripture is anything I find that reaches that deep place we call sacred.
Unitarian Universalist Scripture is anything, from anywhere, which ‘speaks with authority,’ or speaks to the ‘heart of the matter.’ Yes, we draw from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic writings; we draw from Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist writings; we draw from poetry and from the New York Times. Anything that speaks to the deepest part of us is worthy of the title ‘Sacred Scripture. We have a loose-leaf Bible so things can be added and subtracted as we go, and grow, and change.
I’ve added the following story to my collection of sacred literature. It was sent to mefrom heaven, I think. That’s what the email said. Cyberspace encompasses heaven, and this arrived on my screen just in time for this annual ‘money talk,’ this canvass sermon, which some of my colleagues call ‘the sermon on the amount.’
Here’s the story:
In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less than it does today, a 10-year-old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him.
“How much is an ice cream sundae?” he asked.
“Fifty cents,” replied the waitress.
The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied the coins in it. “Well, how much is a plain dish of ice cream?” he inquired.
By now more people were waiting for a table and the waitress was growing impatient. “Thirty-five cents,” she brusquely replied.
The little boy again counted his coins. “I’ll have the plain ice cream,” he said.
The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table and walked away. The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and left.
When the waitress came back and began to wipe down the table, she stopped and stared down to see, placed neatly beside the empty dish, two nickels and five pennies.
She realized that the little boy couldn’t have the sundae, because he wanted to have enough left to leave her a tip.
The Sermon on the Amount
Now let me ask you a direct question: how would you feel about sitting down with this boy and talking about the world?
There’s something attractive about a generous person. I don’t know which comes first, being a generous person or giving generously.
How does one get to be a generous person? By giving.
Something happens to the heart as a result of what we do and say. We’re creating this person we call self. I don’t know if Rousseau is right, if we’re all born with a blank slate, the tabla rosa, or maybe it’s in the genes, or maybe it’s a combinationwhat I do know is that we’re responsible for taking what we have now and making the person we want to be from it.
Now let’s talk about those two nickels and five penniesmoney talk. What’s your equivalent? What does your check book say about you? How do you feel about it?
I’ve never heard someone say that they feel badly because they gave away too much money, that they wished they could convince themselves to hold on to it.
If someone tells you how much you are supposed to give, then it’s less like giving and more like paying a bill.
Giving has something to do with free willit’s the first among the freedoms, since giving affirms the giver, gives dignity to the gift and the giver.
There are deposits and there are checks written against the depositshouse payments and car payments–insurance, taxes, food, clothes, entertainment. Most of those things are decisions you’ve made and they determine your values; or do they ‘follow your values?’ Which comes first?
Fifty or a hundred years from now a great-grandchild picks up a box of your old check books and is fascinated, the way we are fascinated when we hear about how much things cost a hundred or two hundred years ago.
The old saying, “Money talks,” usually refers to the influence that someone with money can have. There’s another connotationthe way we use our money says something about who we are. The way we use money helps to determine who we are. Which comes first, a generous person, or generous use of money?
Hold that thought
Field of Dreams
Remember the film “Field of Dreams”? The line that came out of that film was, “If you build it, he will come.” The he in this case wasn’t the Messiah, just Shoeless Joe Jackson, who, along with the Black Sox team of 1919 infamy was accused of throwing the game.
So they built a baseball field on a farm in Dyersville, Iowa, 20 miles from Dubuque and 200 miles from Chicago…and he came…and they came.
He didn’t come to save the world but to restore his tarnished reputationand to hit a few balls and remind us of a simpler time when baseball was less industry and more game. And he answers the question, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” And he answered, “It ain’t.”
That baseball field became a metaphor for that essential human characteristic we call ‘vision,’ or the old-fashioned word, ‘hope.’
When we Unitarian Universalists find ourselves getting too complicated, or embroiled in controversyinternal or externalwe do well to remember a simpler time, and to be reminded why this place was built here in Westport, and why we’re part of our association of 1,000 congregations.
The farmer in the movie left the big city life and when he was working the farm he heard a voice: ‘Build it and he will come.’
Who would you like to have show up here from the past? I’d like to hit a few with Thomas Jefferson who declared that he was a Unitarian and whose proudest accomplishment was the Virginia freedom-of-religion statute. For Jefferson that was a more significant accomplishment than the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.
He didn’t even include serving as President on his tombstone…
I’d like to take a stroll with Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman…but most of all I’d like to sit with Theodore Parker and catch him up on what his influence has meant to me…and let him know that this congregation is a living tribute to his Boston ministry…
While we have pride in claiming Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, Theodore Parker lived his vision, remaining in the trenches of parish ministry year after challenging year at a time when those in power didn’t want to hear his message of liberation…
We have a dream that we share as Unitarian Universalists. We’re not alonewe don’t have a corner on the ‘vision’ market; but we do share the deep and sincere hope that we can help to make this a better world.
We’re talking about basic things here, aren’t we; things that are basic to us as Unitarian Universalists, but things that are basic to what it means to be human…as well as things that are basic to our vision of this nation.
Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that he thought every ‘young man in America today will die Unitarian.’ He saw the Unitarian vision as synonymous with his vision of Americaour shared vision:
Jefferson wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all are men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
He wrestled with the issue of slavery, declaring it to be wrong, even when he was the second largest slave holder in Virginia.
He didn’t live long enough to see its abolition. He wrestled with the question of women’s rights but didn’t live long enough to see the birth of the women’s movement, or the gay rights movement that is still in its early stages.
He said, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.”
He said, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of the day.”
He was a little off in his assumption that Unitarianism would sweep the country. We compromise about a tenth of one percent of the population.
But wait a minute: haven’t the basics of Unitarianism and Universalism become the common core of religion in America, in all but the most narrow or fundamentalist religions?
It seems clear to this observer that the core values of America, as embraced and expressed by our Unitarian and Universalist forebears, now permeate religion in our country, and are knocking at the door of all faiths the world over.
And what are those core values?
They have to do with the freedom of each person to think, to gain access to information by learning to read; the freedom of expressionto say what one truly believes out loud without fear of excommunication or execution.
We have lessons to learn about using our freedom responsibly.
If only we could find a way to prevent unsolicited and unwanted advertisements and pornography on the internet without violating rights we hold dearbut those are topics for other times.
We have to break through the conspiracy of silence we sometimes have around certain difficult topics. The money-in-church talk is still considered a sacrilege by many well-meaning Unitarian Universalists, because they were burned by being told in former religious groups how much they were supposed to give.
It’s a strange thing, isn’t it. If you are told how much you have to give, then it’s not really giving, it’s paying, as in ‘paying taxes,’ or ‘paying tuition,’ or ‘paying the cashier at the supermarket,’ and so forth.
We have to have this money talk not only to break the barrier of silence that too often surrounds it, so we can raise the money to keep this ship sailing, but we have to have this talk so we can affirm that thing we refer to as ‘giving.’
The highway robber of old pointed the pistol and said, “Your money or your life.” There are other, more subtle threats made: ‘Your money or your soul.’
In Martin Luther’s day the church said, “Your money for eternal salvation,” then you were offered the opportunity to pay for a loved one’s soul after the fact, in order to lighten their time in hell. This was called ‘the selling of indulgences,’ and was a leading cause of the Protestant Reformation.
Now I want to return to the reference to The Field of Dreams: built it and he will come.
We have a dream. We have a shared vision of a world where children are not threatened with God’s rejection, or conditional love.
We have a dream of a world where children are informed about the various religions of the world, where they develop a genuine appreciation for diversitythe diversity of religion and of race and ethnicity; where they learn to respect people of diverse life styles, rather than being told that gay and lesbian men and women are wrong or bad.
We have a dream, where children are not told that our religion is better than theirs…where they come to realize their own responsibility for helping to make this a better world.
We’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go. We’re in this together, and that’s what this money talk is really about.
Our $700,000 annual budget pays the salaries for the senior minister, the associate minister, the minister of religious education, our co-directors of religious education, our sexton and youth advisor, our office staff. It pays the bills for heat, light, telephone, postage and the upkeep of this wonderful building, and for the beautifully renovated Meeting House with space for a Youth Room and space for classrooms, and space for all kinds of meetings. It pays for the upkeep of our beautiful grounds, our memorial garden and parking lots.
Your Board and Finance Committee run a tight ship.
This money talk is intended to encourage you to give generously, and it’s also intended to express appreciation for what you’ve done to keep this ship sailing full steam ahead…for the renovations to the West Wingfor the great kitchen and bathrooms after years of living with less-than-ideal facilities…and for the renovations to the office space…
We have a lot of very generous peoplepeople who want to assure that a quality program continues…people who aren’t paying for a front row seat in an imagined hereafter but want to contribute to making this place, this here-and-now place, the best possible world we can make together.
There’s something sacred about real generosity.
The ancient mythology says that ‘in the beginning the earth was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep and God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.
Then it says that God took a piece of clay and formed a human being and God blew into this being the breath of life and the mythology says, ‘Man became a living soul.’
We are more than the clay. We are part of Nature, but we have consciousness…we’re aware of ourselves…and we’re becoming more aware of our responsibility here on earth.
We are the hands of God – the creation story didn’t end on the sixth dayit’s an ongoing story, it continues. It’s up to you and me, now, to work together to provide better, more livable housing, better, more humane schools, better, more healing hospitals and health care for those who can’t afford insurance, and so forth.
We’re participants in the creation story. We’re co-creators. We participate in the ongoing process of creating the world. We are the mind and heart of God when we feel compassion for the children who are hungry and who are suffering, not only within our own borders. What kind of God would put a border on sympathy or a fence around compassion?
We are the mind and heart of God when we feel compassion for the animals with whom we share this fragile planet.
We are the mind and heart of God when we step back and look at creation and marvel at it, saying prayerfully, ‘It is good.’ The story in Genesis has the voice of God pronounce His works good at the end of each day. We need to be able to look at ourselves and one another and say, ‘It is good.’
With Whitman we can say:
Allons, we must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however
convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,
However sheltered this port, however calm these waters,
We must not anchor here…
We will sail pathless and wild seas,
We will go where the wind blows, waves dash and the
Yankee clipper speeds under full sail
Allons! with power, liberty, the earth, the elements,
Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity
Listen, I will be honest with you
I do not offer old smooth prizes but offer rough new prizes. These are the days that must happen to you.
You shall not heap up what is called riches but you shall scatter with lavish hand all you earn or achieve.
Allons! After the Great Companions, and to belong to them. They too are on the road.
They are the swiftest of men, they are the greatest of women.
Comerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law.
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?