First, let’s look again at the words to the old Shaker hymn. In Shaker worship there were no written prayers, no liturgy-it was characterized by spontaneity. Everything about the Shakers was distinctively simple, unornamented, functional. Shaker furniture is known for its finely crafted style of simplicity. Shakers took a vow of celibacy-a simple answer to the complexities of marriage, child-rearing and population control.
The song says:
‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free,
’tis a gift to come down where we ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn, will be our delight
’till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
It sounds easy enough, this idea of simplicity. One of Thoreau’s most well-known quotes is ‘simplify, simplify.’ Homiletics professors are fond of the KISS formula: ‘keep it short and simple.’
In chemistry a simple element is said to be ‘pure;’ it is composed of only one element.
The Quakers, like the Shakers, promoted worship and life without ornamentation-keep it simple. (But not short!)
That which is simple is ‘not complicated.’
The lawyer who is questioning a hostile witness wants a simple yes, or no-don’t complicate it with the facts.
The word simple sometimes has a negative connotation: navete, or simple minded.
The positive side to the same idea of the simple is that it is not guileful, not deceitful; the gift to be simple allows one to be authentic–without exterior motives or hidden agenda. We appreciate it when a person is straightforward; it has a feeling of credibility or believability.
So we know what they meant it’s a ‘gift to be simple.’ To be endowed with an aptitude for simplicity is a blessing; a gift.
I’ve been wanting to tell you about my recent visit with Duncan Howlett, who served this congregation as interim minister during the year before I arrived. Duncan is 95 years old, he’s living alone, in Maine. His wife, Carolyn, who suffers with Alzheimer’s disease, has been in a nursing home for several years.
I had the great pleasure of bringing my grandson to Duncan’s home and we sat on his back porch overlooking the White Mountains and talked about you…about this congregation…about professional ministry, mine and his. Duncan is one of our most distinguished ministers, having served All Soul’s Unitarian Church in Washington, DC as well as First Church in Boston and the Unitarian Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts, congregations he served for 12 and 8 years respectively.
He always asks how things are going here, and he asks my opinion about the current thinking among our colleagues. I told him about our recent growth-the completion of our renovation work and so forth.
Then he offered a sensitive observation: he said, “Looking back, my favorite ministry was in New Bedford. The church was just the right size. I fed them and they fed me. Then I got kicked upstairs to Boston, then Washington, and they just wanted to know what I was thinking, so I wrote books, but I lost touch with the people in the pews…it was a sea of faces, and I realized how important it was for me to have that personal contact. I fed them and they fed me.”
I knew just what he meant, of course. Real communion is that sense of mutual care, concern and support; that sense of mutual understanding and respect.
Now, this is our annual canvass Sunday, and this is my annual canvass sermon. I prefaced it with reflections on the song, Simple Gifts, and Duncan’s comment about feeding them and being fed.
So I’ll put it simply: the annual canvass is the process whereby we raise money- or pledges- to pay for next year’s budget.
A group of lay volunteers- this year under the leadership of Gail Pesyna- are asking us to make a pledge for the 2002 budget. We get some money from rentals for the building- the nursery school, weddings and memorial services for non-members, and so forth. We do not have endowment money to balance the budget if we fall short. We’re it.
In the spirit of keeping it simple, I want to tell you about the trip to Boston last weekend. Twenty four of us went on a pilgrimage- the same trip on which I’ve taken our Coming of Age classes for the past seventeen years, but this time for adults.
It was a first, and we lucked out with the weather–it was a wonderful, bright day; we lucked out with the group–eager attentive and forgiving of the leader’s limits, faults and failures.
We left here on Saturday morning, arrived in Boston a little after noon, visited important Unitarian sites: Arlington Street Church, which was Federal Street Church when William Ellery Channing was its minister, and the so-called Father of Unitarianism in America. We went to First and Second Church, which merged in 1970; William Emerson served as minister of First Church and his son, Ralph Waldo, served Second Church before leaving the parish ministry to devote himself to the pen; we visited our UUA headquarters, King’s Chapel, the Old Granery Burial Ground, The Holocaust Memoral next to the famous Faneuil Hall, and we spent some time ‘on our own’ at Quincy Market, which borders Boston’s North End, the Italian district.
Some folks suggested we try to find a place to eat together. I had thought about calling ahead to make reservations somewhere, but that was one of my faults, failures and limitations.
So I walked over to the North End and found Francesca’s, a nice looking Italian restaurant, a step up from La Familia, where I’ve taken groups of kids just about every year, more concerned about the right hand column on the menu than fine dining.
I told the folks at Francesca’s that there were twenty four of us, and I said we could come by 5:30. They said they would give us a room all to ourselves downstairs. It was great. We sat at two tables; sixteen and eight. We had a nice meal and the waiter said he would put our meal on one check for each table. I was at the table of sixteen, and he handed the check to me, since I had been the guy that made the reservation.
I looked at the check, gulped, and asked everyone to pay for what they ordered, and include a tip. (Actually the tip might have already been included, but I didn’t think of that until I was writing this sermon!)
The bill was $430, including the tax, so I suggested we come up with $500. Now we could have simply divided the bill evenly-which would have been roughly $32 each; but I assumed that people read the right side of the menu, and had remembered, roughly at least, the prices.
People passed money down to me–I do not know how much each person paid–except for a couple of folks who handed money to me directly. I felt a little anxious, wondering if we would, in fact, get the $500 we needed.
We got the $500, plus an extra $25 which somebody suggested could pay for my meal, since I was the leader of the group–and probably because of the minister status. I said I had put my money in but would use the extra money to buy a box of cannoli’s over at Mike’s Italian bakery. The price of cannoli’s has jumped, like everything-they were $2.50 each, so I got a dozen-the generosity of the person who suggested my meal be paid for only cost me an extra $5, which may or may not be relevant to the point I’m about to make. It’s relevant, actually.
For most of my adult life I have ordered from the right side of the menu. I’m very aware that there are people who do not even look at the right hand column. Their frame of reference is simply different from mine; it’s more like my children’s frame of reference, and my grandchildren’s experience.
So here’s the canvass sermon point: we’re simply passing the hat to raise the necessary budget for the coming year!
Our canvass needs to raise $600,000; there are 460 of us at the table-that’s 460 pledging units, which are either individuals or families. That comes out to roughly $1,300 each.
Now, here’s the rub: there are families and folks for whom $1,300 is simply not possible. Fortunately there are others who are able to make significantly higher contributions. One of the people at our table of sixteen handed me three $20 bills, just about double her share. I looked down the table at her and said, discreetly, mouthing the words more than saying them out loud, “You gave me too much.” She said, simply, “It’s alright…I want to.”
I put $31 on the table at the restaurant. My personal pledge for this coming year is exactly 100 times that amount. The $3,100 pledge is 10% more than last year, and, quite frankly, it is a stretch.
I mention this for a couple of reasons. One, quite honestly, is suggested by the person who wrote the book ‘creating generous congregations.’ I’m not asking anyone to do what I’m not doing myself.
But I can honestly say that my motivation for that pledge is that it serves me in a more personal and direct way- it makes me feel good. It’s the first check I write each month, and it reminds me, every time, that you are writing a check, too. It reminds me, as Duncan put it, that we are feeding one another. I feel good about that, and I want to encourage you to give until it feels good.
Our annual every-member canvass is simply a time to look at the right side of the menu.
It’s a time to acknowledge the cost of having an adequate staff, and if you’ve been around for more than a Sunday or two, I think you’ll agree that we have an excellent staff- with Ed, Barbara, Jamie, Bob, Jan, Bobby and Sally. It’s lean and mean, as they say- we’re fully occupied, and at the same time, we feel a sense of mutual support with one another and with lots of volunteers who keep the place running so we can do the work we’ve been called to do.
The canvass material asked you to think about your gift to the church. Simply put, it’s a gift; it’s a voluntary contribution. There are no dues, no bills sent out for religious education or counseling and so forth.
‘Tis a gift to be simple.’ But it’s not free, in the same way that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The money you contribute to the church, whether you are a member, a friend or a visitor, is a necessary gift without which this would be a much different place.
Those who do the canvassing- all of whom are volunteers -are there to empower you, so that you can give what’s right- what’s appropriate for you in terms of the number of dollars pledged, and what makes you feel good.
I am not unaware that it is difficult for some people to give, not because they lack the financial resources- that difficulty goes without saying, and no one should feel ‘second class’ here because they cannot afford to give as much as they feel they should.
I’m thinking about the people Charles Dickens was talking about with his famous stingy character, Scrooge. Do you remember how the story begins?
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner.
And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.
The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
Something inside Scrooge was dead. He was unable to give…to let go of a few pennies. He was even proud of his stinginess, which he misdiagnosed as being ‘careful’ with his money.
But Scrooge went through a transformation when he looked at his dreams, recalled his childhood and the source of his anxiety. After the transformation he was a happy man- he was able to give and feel good about it.
Now let me tell you one more story, a personal story. During my second year as minister here I got a telephone call from Maddy Sayles, a long-time, generous member, asking me to bring his pledge card when I visited next. We had a few nice visits by that time- they weren’t able to attend services, so it was my way of getting to know them.
I told Maddy that I didn’t canvass people…I didn’t ask people for money…other people do the asking, they do the canvassing.
Maddy said, simply, “I want you to bring our pledge card.”
So I did. I knew that Maddy and Dolly had done lots of canvassing in their time. They initiated the United Way of Norwalk, and they were active in building the Norwalk Hospital, the building of this church, and so forth. So I brought their pledge card.
Maddy and Dolly, in their 80’s at the time, were wealthy, but they lived simply. They loved their modest farm house; Dolly was still selling eggs from the chickens she kept, and they had a Christmas tree farm on their land, and Maddy was a gentleman farmer.
We got ourselves comfortable in front of their Count Rumford fireplace- it was early November, and they loved to have a fire going.
Maddy said, almost challenging me, “So, did you bring our card?”
“What did we do last year?”
“Well, Maddy, you pledged $1,000. But I know that you gave a lot more…” Indeed, just a few months before this visit Maddy handed me a check for $35,000 to make up for the shortfall in the previous year’s canvass. So I reminded him that he had given a good deal more than the $1,000 on his pledge card.
He cut me off and said, “That’s all we pledged? Dolly, don’t you think we could do better?”
You see, he was training me to be a canvasser. Then he asked, matter-of-factly, “How much do you think we should pledge?”
I said, “I know you could pledge as much as you decide, but I don’t think the congregation should be dependent on any one person, or even a small group of big contributors.” Then I said, “There’s one pledge of $10,000. It would be great if you could do that.”
“Dolly,” he said with a wry smile, “Will you give five if I give five?”
Dolly was knitting. She was letting Maddy work me over. She said, with a smile similar to Maddy’s, “That’s fine.”
“There,” Maddy said, “it’s done. Put us down for $10,000 and let me sign that card before we have a drink. I’m afraid you might get more out of us if we wait until we have our drink!” He laughed.
He poured the drinks and we settled into the comfortable old chairs with the two dogs, Tag and Summer, for ‘tag Sayles and summer Sayles.’ Then Maddy looked at me with some satisfaction and said, “So, how does it feel?”
I knew what he meant- he meant how does it feel to be a canvasser. I said it felt great- wouldn’t you feel great with a pledge ten times the previous year? So he slapped his knee and said, “Then by gosh you better get out there and do more of it! You’ve got to make sure that place stays alive- you’ve got to help raise the money…” And he laughed again.
I cherish this place now more than ever. I have not taken it for granted, but I’m more conscious of the contribution that this religious institution makes to the religious community, as well as to the individual members and families. I’m more aware of the sacred ingredient here- the freedom we’ve inherited, and the responsibility to preserve that freedom.
These are trying times. Our freedom is costly. Bishop Tutu said, “Liberation is costly. It needs unity. We must hold hands and refuse to be divided. We must be ready…let us be united, let us be filled with hope, let us be those who respect one another.”
Reading: Keeping Quiet, by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about…
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems to be dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.