This is my annual every-member canvass sermon and it is unapologetically about money.
Did you hear about the two guys on the desert island? As soon as they were stranded one of them began to gather food and materials to build a hut, preparing for the long haul. The other took a swim, laid back on the beach to get a sun tan and enjoyed the day. The first one said, “Hey, aren’t you going to help, we could be here for a long time, they may never find us.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’m a member of the Unitarian Church in Westport.”
“So what!” the other declared.
“Well, this is that time of year when they have every member canvass to raise next year’s budget. Don’t worry, they’ll find me!”
Then there was the minister who said to his congregation: “I have some bad news, some good news, and some bad news. The bad news is that we need to raise $575 in pledges to can keep this ship sailing. The good news is that the money is there! The bad news is that the money is still in your pockets.”
A little humor about money may help to take the sting off the M-word. There are some wish we didn’t have to talk about money in church.
I used to think that. Then I saw congregations that had so much money that they didn’t need to talk about it, and I saw what happened in those places: people weren’t needed and they knew it.
Too much money can kill a congregation. It has killed good enough people, so why not a congregation?
So, if talking about money in church makes you uneasy, maybe it’s touching a wound you need to heal. If this sermon can help to heal some old wound, so much the better.
Most of us don’t have to dig too deep to get in touch with some wound as it relates to money, especially when talked about in church.
Let me remind you of the story of the Good Samaritan, with an unusual twist.
This is one of the most famous parables attributed to Jesus—a story he told to illustrate his answer to the question put by a lawyer: ‘what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He asked the lawyer what he thought the answer was, and the lawyer answered with a quote from the Hebrew scripture: ‘that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…soul…strength and mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
So Jesus answered, “You have answered right. Do that and you will live.” Note: he doesn’t say ‘do that and you’ll get to heaven.’ Eternal life is a quality of being right here, right now. It has to do with living.
But the lawyer pushed the point and asked, “Okay, so who is my neighbor.”
That’s the context within which the Parable of the Good Samaritan is told.
You know that story: a man had been beaten and robbed and left wounded and naked and two religious leaders walked by, looking the other way. Then a Samaritan—one who was considered an hostile to the Jews, an outcast, a heretic. That’s the irony in the parable. The Samaritan stopped to help.
The story in Luke says, “A Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.”
Now here’s what’s not in Luke’s version: at this point the innkeeper is a bit incredulous, so he takes out a pledge card and says, ‘would you mind putting it in writing so I can balance my budget?’
“Go and do likewise,” is the closing line of that parable. “Now say to thyself if there’s any good thing I can do or any kindness I can show to any person, let me do it now, let me not defer or neglect it for I may not pass this way again.”
“Go and do likewise,” is the short version.
Last Spring I had folks act out this parable in psychodrama, to get into the story, to feel it. Afterward I asked each how they felt and the innkeeper surprised me. You don’t usually think about the innkeeper in this story.
The woman who played the part of the innkeeper said, “I was very uncomfortable taking money from this person. He was helping out of the goodness of his heart and here I was taking money for helping. It made me uncomfortable.”
I said, “That’s it! That’s how it feels to be a minister! Multiply the feeling several times and you’ll know how it feels to be a minister giving his annual canvass sermon!”
Now, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I do not want to lose my discomfort about asking you to give some of your money to keep this ship afloat. I do not want to lose my discomfort about getting money for doing this work we call ministry.
But note this: I must not allow my own discomfort to get in the way. If my discomfort gets in the way—and remember, it’s an appropriate feeling, this feeling of discomfort—it it gets in my way and prevents me from talking openly about money, I’ll deprive you of something I sincerely believe you need to hear and I need to say.
We pass this way but once.
How will you respond to the wounded person on the highway?
How will we respond to the wounded person who doesn’t look wounded but you can tell he or she is wounded because of the cynicism, conceit and bad manners that are so obvious, and used as a protective barrier to keep you at a safe distance.
We sometimes forget that cynicism, conceit and bad manners are protective covering for those wounds that are way down deep, where the spirit meets the bone.
I know that on canvass Sunday I am, by and large, preaching to the choir. (Where’s the choir?)
It’s you! You are here. Most of have already made a financial commitment to this place, but you deserve to hear a canvass sermon, too. It’s a reminder.
Let me acknowledge one other thing: we all have at least some discomfort, if not a downright distaste for the canvass. I hear it every year.
I appreciate the honesty which some have risked, telling me about that distaste, and in some cases your willingness to take another look at the source of that distaste.
I wrote a letter in Soundings this week and said that the canvass is not only about money. I read that sentence so I began the next paragraph: “Yes, the canvass is about money, and we don’t need to apologize for that.”
The canvass is also a test, of sorts. You pass or fail, or get a middle grade not only by the amount of money you are willing to pledge, in proportion to your means; but you pass or fail the test in the manner in which you respond to the canvasser who volunteers to call on you.
Indeed, that’s the first test. Failing that test, you might, in the best of circumstances, be told to keep your money until you are prepared to give gracefully, cheerfully, enthusiastically, and with appreciation for the opportunity to have what that Samaritan had.
Our canvassers are enthusiastic, or at least willing volunteers. They are not telemarketers calling at dinner time to get you to switch phone companies or to put your stock portfolio in their mutual funds. It’s not even like a volunteer calling for Planned Parenthood.
The canvasser are people who sit beside you on Sundays or at the Fellowship Dinner; they are the people who you’ve seen and heard lighting a candle for someone they love, they are the people who have the courage to step forward and to risk rejection or worse because they hit some deep-seated thing you may have about money being mixed with religion.
I’ve told you about my dear grandmother’s idea of religion in the sermon she delivered hundreds of times which she summarized in two words: “Be nice.”
So I’ll repeat her sermon: be nice. Be nice to your canvasser. This person is a volunteer and we want them to have a positive experience. If they leave a message on your answering machine, please…please! return the call promptly and politely.
(Now here I am, preaching to the choir. I don’t really believe there’s a person in this room today who would not be polite. So, to canvassers I’ll say this: you may have someone’s card who has at least one foot out the door, or who doesn’t have much money and feels embarrassed about it—our culture does that to people. So please, do not take it personally. And tell me or Barbara or Ed if there’s someone you think we should talk with.)
To those being canvassed I want to say, if you have comments or questions or suggestions, ask them nicely, make them nicely. Of course you should say what’s on your mind, speak your peace. But be nice.
Let me put it this way: If you are nice to your ministers but you are not nice to your canvasser you are not being a nice person.
Now, to canvassers, let me tell you a story I heard in speech class in the ninth grade. A traveling salesman got a flat tire at 3 o’clock in the morning in Idaho as he was driving to the next day’s calls. He opened the trunk to the bad news that he had no jack, but he saw a light indicating a farm house some distance ahead. So he walked toward that light knowing that the farmer would have a jack he could borrow. As he walked he realized that the farmer would not be pleased to be woken up at three o’clock when he probably begins his day at 4:30, and he feared the farmer would criticize him as one of them city folks who doesn’t know enough to carry a jack. But he kept walking, thinking to himself, “He has to realize that I have a living to make, too! Anyone could forget to put a jack back in the car.” Then he thought how the farmer would no-doubt be critical, but he kept walking, not wanting to miss out on the important call he was to make.
He reached the house, knocked on the door and the farmer opened the upstairs window, stuck out his head and asked what the salesman wanted, and he responded, “Ah keep your damn jack!”
Canvassers: you are that traveling salesperson. Give the farmer a chance to be a good Samaritan!
Remember: they are glad that you are the canvasser and not them!
“Be nice,” works both ways. Always.
We never hear how the wounded man in the Samaritan story felt. It would not be all that unusual for a wounded man to resent a Samaritan. That’s just a little ‘aside.’
Now let me read a story that was recently sent to me by one of you.
The title of the story is: What Really Counts
Twenty years ago I drove a cab for a living. It was a cowboy’s life, a life for someone who wanted no boss. What I didn’t realize was that it was also a ministry of sorts.
Because I drove the night shift, my cab became a moving confessional. Passengers climbed in, sat behind me in total anonymity, and told me about their lives. I encountered people whose lives amazed me, some who ennobled me; some made me laugh and some made me cry.
But none touched me more than a woman I picked in the middle of the night one summer. I was responding to a call from a small brick duplex in a quiet part of town. I assumed I was being sent to pick up some party goers, or someone who had just had a fight with a lover, or a worker heading to an early shift at some factory in the industrial part of town.
When I arrived at 4 a.m. the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window. Under these circumstances many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, then drive away. But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs some assistance, I reasoned to myself. So I walked to the door and knocked.
“Just a minute,” answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 80’s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940’s movie.
By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.
“Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she asked. I took the suitcase to the cab then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the cab. She kept thanking me for my kindness. “It’s nothing,” I told her. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.”
“Oh, you’re such a nice boy,” she said.
When we got to the cab she gave me an address written on a piece of paper, then she asked, “Could you drive through downtown?”
“It’s not the shortest way,” I answered quickly.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.”
I looked in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were glistening. “I don’t have any family left,” she continued. “The doctor says I don’t have very long.”
I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. “What route would you like me to take?”
For the next two hours we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she’d ask me to slow down in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.
As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon she suddenly said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.”
We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They had been expecting her.
I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair. “How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching into her purse.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You have to make a living,” she answered.
“There are other passengers,” I responded. Almost without thinking I bent and gave her a hug. She held on to me tightly.
“You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,” she said. “Thank you.”
I squeezed her hand, then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.
I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in thought. For the rest of the day I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift?
What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away? On a quick review, I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life. We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments.
But great moments often catch us unaware—beautifully wrapped in what others consider small ones.
People may not remember exactly who you were, what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember those little acts of kindness.