Monday, February 13, 2012


This is the twin exploration that Thomas Collier and I shared at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church this past Sunday.  It was our Canvass Kick-Off, and it was the second week of the month in which we're looking at the theme of Justice.  Made for an interesting pair of sermons!

Thomas Collier
Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah has a beautiful image that we are ALL shards of the divine.  God made a vessel and filled it with a divine emanation but the emanation of the divine was far more than any vessel could hold and it shattered.  We, our world, everything is a shard of the divine.  Unity, therefore is the real goal of humanity. 
Now if we, if everything, is divine or shares in a divine nature or shares in a collective spirit (however it is that you apprehend our unity), if unity is a spiritual goal, then Justice is critical to our path. 
Justice – not blame.  In blame, we assign the label wrong-do-er and if necessary we punish.  In real justice, we seek out the problem and we try to help ameliorate or fix the problem.  This may seem simple, and sometimes it is, but frequently it is not. Why not just fix the problem? But we don’t. Deporting the illegal, even if he or she has gotten into gangs and violence will not help fix the problem of why some people will do anything to get here. OUR incarcerated have been put in jail, but where are they helped back into society.  Blame will not help our politics.  Blame won’t help you or me with any of our  interpersonal relationships.  Blame, most surely won’t feed the hungry, or house the homeless.  Only justice, real justice, will. 
Justice is spiritual, holy work because justice re-unifies US.  It brings a face to homeless and it brings humanity to the wrong-do-er.  It brings US back into relationship. 
I mention this on the first day of canvassing week because this church does A LOT of justice work. From the people IN our church who have protested, so that the 1% hears and sees the 99% to the work BY our church to feed and shelter the homeless.  And many many more programs through our church.  Pledging the church is about financially supporting this work.  Financially supporting the justice work of this church. 
But when we think of Justice work we usually think of external work.  Working with or for others.  But we need to always remember the other type of Justice work that this church does an amazing job at:  Doing Justice to ourselves.  We come to church every Sunday, we come together here to help re-unify our selves, to push past the superficial self and re-connect with the divine “I”, the spiritual “I”.  We come here because we appreciate the hint, the push, the reminder, the nourishment that we get out of being here.  Justice is the work of healing our separateness and that may be towards others or it could be towards our self – our highest, truest self. 
Supporting this church is about supporting this work, outward or inward.  Supporting this church is about supporting our re-union, with each other and with our true self.  Supporting this church is supporting the work of healing our separateness.  Supporting this church is supporting our whole-ness. 

Erik Walker Wikstrom
The annual canvas sermon.  I’d say that if you were to poll my clergy colleagues you’d find that this particular preaching opportunity ranks in the top one or two percent of least favorite.  “The Sermon on the Amount,” it’s often called.  Hard not to sound like an NPR host telling y’all that you know you like our services, you know you count on your programming, so it’s time to pony up and contribute your fair share.  “The Sermon on the Amount.”  I once preached a canvass sermon titled, “We Don’t Need Your Money,” but I’ll save that for another year.
Because this year – this particular canvass kick-off sermon – presents a couple of interesting twists.  For one thing, a lot of you have already given in your pledge cards!  This idea of publically receiving the congregation’s pledges during a ritual moment of a Sunday service?  I’d never seen that before, but I like it.  As Bob Gross said in a different context, “We don’t have a lot of altar calls in the UU church.”  If you ask me, though, I’ll tell you that I think that they’re good for the soul – coming forward, your gift (or at least your pledge of your gift) in hand, declaring in front of the community your commitment.  Martin Luther King, Sr. once said that “anonymous giving leads to anonymous non-giving.”  It’s hard to disagree.
So I don’t have to inspire you – most of you, at any rate – to pledge.  You’ve done it.  Thank you.  Congratulations.  Feels good doesn’t it?  Now I’m sure that there are ways for you to increase that pledge if you’re so moved after my little soliloquy here, but I don’t have to make a heavy pitch for pledging.  That’s a difference from the norm.
And this year’s canvass sermon comes during the middle of the month when we’re exploring the topic of “Justice.”  (And thank you to Thomas for making sure we stayed rooted in our theme.)  It’d be more typical to preach a canvass sermon during a month we were focusing on, say, “generosity.”  Or in November when we looked at “gratitude.”  Or even in June, for goodness sakes, when our theme will be “letting go.”  But it’s here in February – Justice Month.  Not the usual connector points, I gotta tell you.
When the Worship Weavers were discussing this sermon last month we started talking about the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  Did you know that in New Zealand, just to pick a place out of a hat, CEOs make approximately 50 times what the average worker earns in a year?  Did you know that in the United States that figure is more like 325 to 1?  To talk about money, especially in this day and age, is to talk about justice.
Interestingly, I once did a search of the resources represented on the UUA’s online worship resource database – The WorshipWeb – and discovered that the only time “money” was referenced in a sermon, or a reading, or a chalice lighting, was to support the church’s asking for it.  There were no resources related to money that weren’t also related to the canvass.  I’m happy to say that that’s changed now, because money matters.
It matters because yes, fundamentally, as I’ve often preached before, money is a symbol of energy, a representation of what we care about, but it’s also how we put food on the table and clothes on our backs.  It’s how we pay our rent, get new sneakers for our kids, and help our aging parents navigate what used to be called their “golden years.”  Money matters.
And for so many people times are hard.  Times are hard for the people in our congregations, too; it’s not just folks “out there” who are hurting.  There used to be a commonly repeated statistic that Unitarian Universalists, as a whole, had the highest per capita level of income of all other religious groups in the United States.  (We also recorded the lowest per capita charitable giving, too, but that’s for a sermon in another year.)  It used to be fairly common – and oft repeated – knowledge that we UUs had the highest levels of income and education of any religious group around.
But that’s not true anymore.  The perception remains in a whole lot of people’s minds – even people within our own congregations – but it’s just not true.  I was really proud – and this might sound a little odd – but I was really proud earlier this year when we announced our efforts to make up food baskets for Thanksgiving and Christmas and it was noted that we would be giving many of them to our own members in addition to folks-in-need in the wider Charlottesville community.  Now, I wasn’t proud that some of our own folks are having such a hard time of it, but I was proud that the TJMC community wasn’t ashamed of it.  Would acknowledge it.  Was even aware of it, frankly.  Times are hard, and there’s no way to talk about money – and especially to talk about the giving away of money – without setting it in that context, not with any kind of integrity, anyway.
And yet once a year the members and friends of this congregation are asked to give away some of their money in order to support the work of this congregation, to support its very existence.  Even more than NPR TJMC depends on donations.  And this year our canvass committee is asking people to consider giving “110%.”
Now I’ll admit – and my apologies in advance to Adam Slate and the canvass committee – I’ll admit that when I first heard this I flashed back on junior high school where I had a friend who had a stock response whenever a coach, or a choir director, or a band leader would ask us to give “110%.”  He’d say, “but we can’t give 110%!  Once we’ve given 100% there’s nothing less for us to give!”
Mathematically, though, it’s quite possible and, as has been noted in the letter you’ve hopefully all received, in this particular context it’s not only possible but necessary.  We need people to increase their pledges by an average of 10% so that our overall budget can increase by 10%.  And this is really a minimum reflection of the growth in financial resources that are necessary to be who and how we want to be as a community.  (And if all of this talk about 10% makes you feel kind of uncomfortable because it sounds too much like tithing, don’t worry – you can increase your pledge by 15% or 20%.  I’m sure that that’ll be okay.)
But there’s a mixed message, I think, in this year’s canvass theme of giving 110%.  It implies that folks didn’t give 100% last year, that there was something left over that could have been given to the church but wasn’t.  Perhaps, “implies” is the wrong word.  I think I want to say, “recognizes,” because it is just true that there are folks who are giving far less to the church than they could.  I’ve known people who’s annual pledge to their church was less than what they spent each year on their daily half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.  And if that is the relative relationship of the church and their coffee in their life, well, then, I guess that’s okay. 
But I’m also guessing that for a whole lot of the folks here this morning the church means more than that.  It’s been said that you can tell what a person values by looking at their checkbook.  (Or, I suppose, now, online bank statement.)  So I can understand why our wonderful canvass committee is encouraging us to give 110%.  But I don’t want anyone to get caught up in the numbers. 
Because while this canvass effort is all about the money, it’s not about the money at all.  It’s about growing our budget to fit the reality of what we’re trying to do and be, and it’s not about that at all.  What I’d say it’s all really about is each of us, and all of us together, getting better and better at living lives that align with our values, at living lives that proclaim to the world what matters most to us, at living lives that really reflect who we are and who we want to be.  This is not easy, by any means, but thankfully our faith community provides us with myriad opportunities to practice and encourages us to look for – and step up to – the opportunities we can find all around us in our daily living.
So, for those of you who haven’t yet made your pledge – and even those who have – I encourage you to think about the place of this community in your life.  Think about who this place helps you to be.  Think about what it has done for you, is doing for you, will do down the line.  Think about the other people in the congregation, and what this community has done for them.  Think, too, about Charlottesville and Virginia and, for that matter, the country and the world – think about what it means that there is a Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church.  Think about what it could mean in the days to come.
And then, with all of that in mind, look at your life as it really is.  Look at the way(s) the economy has impacted you.  Look at the resources you have at your disposal, as well as the very real needs that are competing for each and every dollar in your wallet and each and every hour of your day.  Mix it all together and from out of that mix, make your pledge to the church.
And I want to be so bold as to encourage you to give what my old friend would have called 100%!  I’m not talking about selling all you have and giving it to the church, but I do want each of us to consider giving everything we honestly can to support this place which gives us so much.  Forget the numerical goals, for a moment, and think, more simply, about giving all that you can, all that you should, all that this community is worth to you.
For some this will be 110% of what you gave last year.  For some it will be more like 200% or 300%.  (And that might sound shocking to some folks but you know it’s true.  We didn’t earn the reputation of having the lowest level of giving of any religious movement for nothing, folks.  In every congregation there are people who are giving woefully less than they could, especially considering what they say of the place of the church in their lives.)  All that said, for some a true reckoning would have this year’s giving at 95% of last year’s – times are hard for many of us.
The church, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, should be “an audiovisual aid showing how the world should be.”  And our lives, Mohandas Gandhi once said, should be our message to the world.  This is really the meaning behind the church’s annual canvass.  Let’s do it justice.

~ Benediction ~

A Franciscan Benediction
May God bless you with discomfort …At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,So that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger …At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,So that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears …To shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war,So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them And turn their pain to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness …To believe that you can make a difference in this world,So that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
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1 comment:

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