When I was growing up, my parents attended services at the United Methodist Church. I spent most Sunday mornings there. I attended Sunday school and the worship service which followed.
That meant I was in the pews for the sermon and the offering. When the offering plate was passed during the service, my mother always added a few dollars. She usually gave me a little money in advance to add to it. My mother liked to remind me of a time when I was a little girl, when I struggled mightily to open the clasp on my small purse to add money to the offering. Very intent, I finally took a different approach and said abracadabra in a too-loud voice. That got some looks, as you might imagine. I guess I was destined to be a Unitarian Universalist.
I never asked my parents why the church took an offering or why they put money into the plate. And I had no idea my family was also expected to make an annual pledge that would be fulfilled monthly or weekly. I do recall hearing my father grumble a lot about how all the church ever cared about was his money. I never really understood that, since my parents didn’t have a lot of money. At least I didn’t understand until more recently.
In the last months of my father’s life, he had advanced dementia and was living at a nursing home. My mother had died four years before that. While visiting him, I noticed that a package had arrived from my parents’ church. Do you know what was in it? (pause) I opened it and found a year’s worth of pledge envelopes. I looked at my father sleeping on his hospital bed, already in hospice care. And I tossed the package in the trash.
I did it because I felt wounded and even angry for him. And also for me. What kind of a religious community sends pledge envelopes to someone in a dementia nursing care unit? If anyone had reviewed the address or better yet bothered to visit him, they would quickly have known not to send those envelopes. Perhaps they might have taken the time to visit instead.
Today on this Sunday when we are talking about why we give, why I give money to the church, that story may seem like the anti-pledge sermon. It’s the “why I don’t give” sermon.
The thing I realize is that we may never get to the point of talking honestly and openly about what it means to build a vibrant and generous religious community without talking honestly and openly about the pain some of us associate with giving financially to religious institutions.
This morning when we talk about our pledge drive and why we give, the reasons why we don’t give hang heavily in the air. And they are worthy of our attention. Because they have the power to dampen our spirits and enthusiasm for a truly generous embrace of this church.
Unfortunately, in religious life as in the rest of life, there can be a lot of anxiety and pain related to money and finances. Some of the discomfort is rooted in the mistakes religious institutions have made – mistakes like the one my parents’ church made. The pain may relate to feeling that the church doesn’t really care about us as a person. It may relate to having been excluded from community or to family history.
The temptation to regard money as falling outside the realm of the spiritual life is also great. Some individuals would prefer not to talk about money at church - ever - because it seems crass or mundane. While for others, talking about money at church can be embarrassing - maybe because of a lack of financial resources, experiences of financial loss, financial mistakes, or generally having a sense of scarcity. These attitudes can hold us back from being the generous people we want to be. They can hold us back as a religious community that aspires to change the world.
I believe that none of us would be here today if we didn’t value this religion and value this spiritual community. We share a love for this congregation. The reality is it takes more than magic to confront feelings and attitudes that constrain us. It takes more than magic to build the kind of vibrant spiritual community we have together. It takes more than the utterance of an abracadabra to create a community where we love one another and shape a better world.
It takes commitment. It takes passion. It takes money. The truth is, we don’t want anyone as a member because of their money. We want members who have searched their souls and chosen to make a commitment to join with others to live our ethical principles in our daily lives. That commitment consists of time, talent, and money. I make that commitment because I have personally experienced the love and passion of Unitarian Universalism. I have witnessed this religion’s ability to transform people’s lives.
Those pledge envelopes my father received in the mail didn’t make me want to give less to this spiritual community. It made me want to do more. It reminded me how crazy in love I am with Unitarian Universalism, head-over-heels for the ministry of our faith. By ministry I mean the values, principles, practices, programs, and commitments of this religion. I mean what we do together – both here locally and across the country and world.
I make a commitment not because I am an ordained minister. If anything I became a minister because of that love. I give generously to our church because there is no other religion that offers what ours has historically offered and continues to afford.
We offer the freedom to choose one’s own spiritual path. This religion values the minds, hearts, and creativity of children and youth, as well as adults. Individuals are encouraged and inspired to discover their best selves and to heal their spirits through song, love, kindness, and justice work.
The list of reasons I give is long.
I give to nourish the bodies of those who hunger for physical sustenance. I give to provide a safe place for families without homes to sleep at night. I give to build the beloved community we long for. I give to support our yearning for an anti-racist and multicultural world. I give so that we can be a voice for human dignity. I give to be a good steward of the earth.
I give so that there will be a safe space for laughter and lament and risk-taking and mistakes and forgiveness. I give so that there will be a community of care and compassion when individuals are lonely, hurting, and when they come to die.
I give because it matters to me not only that Unitarian Universalism exists but also that it thrives. Our liberal religious voice is needed in the public square. I for one refuse to sit idly by and allow the conservative religious perspective to be the only one we hear. Immigration, environmental justice, gay rights and marriage equality, anti mass incarceration, reproductive justice, a living wage. Pick almost any social issue and you will find that ours is the religion that is consistently and steadfastly standing on the side of love. We have good partners of faith, don’t get me wrong. But we are unique among religions. There is no other religion quite like ours.
In the next few weeks, you will be asked to consider your annual pledge to support the ministries of this congregation. Many of you are extraordinarily generous and steadfast in your financial support. Others may be able to do more and sincerely want to do more, but for various reasons don’t. This is your opportunity and your call to stretch yourself.
There are three things I ask of you as we embark on this year’s pledge drive.
First, reflect on your own relationship to money. How are your attitudes about money impacting your ability to be generous to your spiritual community?
Second, reflect on your relationship to this church. Give serious thought to what this community means to you. Do you love this religion? Do you love this spiritual community? Is it part of who you are? Part of your identity? How has it changed you and the world? How does Unitarian Universalism manifest your values and your principles in the world?
Third, make a pledge. Your financial commitment to your spiritual community matters. It’s a lived expression of your faith and determines our future. Our annual budget is developed based on these pledges.
So, as you are preparing to make your pledge, attend one of the potluck events. You can sign up today during coffee hour.
When considering the amount of your pledge, be sure to review the giving guidelines. They will be provided in a pledge brochure. These guidelines are reasonable and clarify what it takes to support the ministries of this congregation. If each and every one of us gave according to these guidelines, we would easily support the ministries we collectively envision. The guidelines are based on percentages of income. We do that because no one is expected to give to the detriment of their own financial well-being. Our mission is to heal the world, not encumber our members. Giving based on a percentage is fairer than asking for a flat amount from each person or household. The guidelines also ask that you give a higher percentage as your income goes up.
As an example, an individual or household with a monthly income of $2,000 is asked to pledge 3 to 5 percent or $60 or more per month. An individual or household with a monthly income of $5,000, on the other hand, is asked to pledge 5 to 9 percent or $250 or more per month. The guidelines help to demystify pledging, especially for those who are newer to our community, and for those who have not been sure about what it takes to ensure a vibrant religious community.
Three things: reflect on your relationship to money, reflect on your relationship to the church, and make a pledge. This congregation needs your financial commitment, and the world needs Unitarian Universalism.
The world needs our love, compassion, and justice. You need only watch the news or read a newspaper or walk the streets of Reading or your neighborhood to know it’s true. It is a beautiful world and also one that cries out for gentle, loving, and firm hands to heal it.
Together we can live our call to truth and meaning, nurture the spirit, and serve the cause of love and justice.
This is why I give.
Amen. Blessed be.