Because this is our stewardship sermon AND is part of my series entitled, “We R UUs,” challenging myself to preach on themes starting with the letter R- I chose the title for this message to be “Responsibilities and Rewards,” for certainly we think of those things when we think of giving to our congregation. And I remembered that Jesus shared a parable about Responsibilities and Rewards – the parable of the Talents - and I thought I could use that. But I never really liked that Parable. Shhh –Don’t tell Jesus. So, I thought – maybe if I retold it in a modern-day story, it would be better. To do that I had to rely on google to determine what a “talent” in Jesus’ day was worth – then get out my calculator to see the approximate equivalent today. So, with that in mind, I share with you the Jane Page adaptation of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents.
A successful businesswoman was taking a government position. which would require her to release the management of all of her business operations to others.
To her most talented executive, she assigned holdings equivalent to two million five hundred thousand dollars
To another executive, she assigned holdings equivalent to one million dollars, and to a third holdings equivalent to a half a million dollars.
When her term of office with the government agency ended, she returned to her business and asked for their reports. The top executive shared data indicating the investments and risks took with their holdings doubling in value – now worth 5 million dollars. The businesswoman said, “Well-done. You’ve proven you can handle these holdings, and you are worthy of a promotion.”
The second executive was also successful in doubling the value of holdings which now were valued at one million. The businesswoman said, “Good for you! You’ve shown you’ve got what it takes and I’m rewarding you with a promotion.”
The third executive shared with the business owner. “Pardon me, but I knew of your tough businesses dealings – and that you would be hard on anyone who did not take care of your possessions. So, I dared not take any risks that might devalue your holdings. But they are still here at approximately the same value as before.”
The businesswoman said, “Well, I’m ashamed to have you and your laziness as part of this company. You’re fired.”
Well, translating it into a modern-day parable doesn’t make it feel any better, does it. I mean, she entrusted them according to their capabilities, so she perhaps should have been more lenient with her expectations of the third employee.
Why did Jesus tell the parable of the talents? And why am I repeating it? Well, because there are some lessons here.
First – whatever we possess in terms of time, talents, and treasure doesn’t really belong to us. Regardless of your theology – you know that you can’t take any of it with you. What you have been given or earned or won in the lottery is like those talents given to the servants, or those holdings given to those business executives. They really belong to something bigger. Some may say God, others may say humanity, and still others may say the Universe. We are STEWARDS of these possessions. How we share or invest our time, talents, and treasure should be something that can make a positive difference in not only our own lives, but the lives of others, and this world we live in.
Folks – that’s why we call it stewardship!
And today is when we kick-off our stewardship drive with me giving what some call “the Sermon on the Amount.” Now, of course – not all our members use zoom, and they are not all here to HEAR this. But -it’s like the two guys who were in an airline crash and ended up marooned on a deserted island. One man paced back and forth worried and scared while the other man sat back and was sunning himself. The first man said to the second man, “Aren’t you afraid we are about to die.” “No,” said the second man, “I make $10,000 a week and tithe faithfully to my church every week. It’s Stewardship Month at my church. They will find me.” And, indeed, we will find a way to get this word to all our members and friends, because we don’t want any to miss out on the opportunity.
SO – back to our theme- What IS our responsibility to this congregation and Unitarian Universalism? And what is our reward? Because we are Unitarian Universalists, the responses to these questions aren’t as clear cut for UU ministers as they are for some others.
The idea of tithing – or giving one tenth of your income – is an ancient one, showing up in not only ancient Hebrew scripture but as a practice of other near Eastern Ancient cultures as well. Some say Jesus opposed tithing since he criticized some who did. But his criticism was that they did this very publicly but then lived unrighteous lives. In fact, he lifted up those who gave all their possessions away.
In the year 567, there was a council of Bishops at Tours, France that reinforced tithing as “in accord with divine law since they were instituted by God Himself. Constantine and others made supporting the church part of the tax structure. And some other churches tied in with the governments began to collect mandatory tithes through taxation (and some still do.) Our spiritual ancestors in the New England Churches did the same until laws were established separating church and state. The idea of Tithing then became voluntary. Some religious organizations, however, withhold certain privileges of the church (like entering a Mormon temple) until you “settle up” with the Bishop – and they use your income tax records to determine that. But I’m not here to lift up or condemn any particular practices, just to say that we certainly have a lot more freedom in determining what we will share to be members of this congregation, and I applaud that.
At the same time, I think many are missing out by not giving as a spiritual practice – and giving to this faith tradition in the “first fruits” tradition. Not what’s left at the end of the month. I, and many others who follow this “first fruits” practice – have checks that come automatically to this congregation. I set up my check to be sent shortly after my biggest check (which is my pension check) comes into my account.
Our association provides a giving guide that is helpful and is based on income and how you see yourself and the support you want to give. It moves from supporter to sustainer to visionary to tither. I’m hopeful that most of you would want to be at the sustainer level or above. We’ve done a good job of stretching our funds and giving for special needs – but we need gifts that will sustain us for the future as well.
As you may have heard, this weekend marks the 15th Anniversary of my ordination and installation as your minister. Now sometimes when ministers have these Anniversaries that end with a 0 or a 5 – their churches give them a gift or a trip or something. Well, I need neither a gift not a trip. If you want to show any appreciation, I ask instead that you consider raising your pledge by 15% of what you currently give. Do the math and see if that’s possible. And if it’s not – see what you can do. And what will be your REWARD?
We are not a “prosperity gospel” church that claims your gifts to us will bring you greater financial wealth! Your reward may be your Joy in giving. Or perhaps you are beyond that --- and you give like that myrtle tree in the reading we heard by Gibran – who states that some give “as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.” It’s just what we do.
Now I know you are called on to give to lots of charities. I am too. And I have favorites. But though I give to other good causes, I find that my greatest blessings as a giver come when I give to that greater good that this congregation and Unitarian Universalism represents as we Side with Love in this community and in the world. This is the place where we receive spiritual sustenance and grow those values in ourselves and in our children that make us better givers with other causes. This congregation should be where we give our greatest gifts.
And most Unitarian Universalists have the resources to make meaningful gifts. But unlike other faith communities, many Unitarian Universalists treat their congregations as just another charity – like NPR or something. Although Unitarian Universalists are near the top in average income, we are dead last in our giving.
Say what? Yes!
Although Unitarian Universalists are near the top in average income, we are dead last in our giving among 23 major faith traditions in the United States. (From Spiritual Truths, General Assembly Providence, RI – Rev. Val Weller)
Statistics show that folks with lower incomes give a greater percentage to charity. (See Bama Group Research) And while most faith traditions challenge folks to tithe, we have very low expectations. We tend to have a fatalistic view of what we can do. But I’m an evangelist for the LOVE that we stand for!
So like the prophet of old—I’m going to Side with Love – and shout out that we can do better. We can be a part of a congregation that truly can live our principles and values.
I truly believe that in a time when so many folks need a welcoming home, we truly are standing on the edge of something great. We can be more than a little light in a tiny chalice. We can be a lighthouse – a beacon of Love shining out in this community. But for the light to shine, we need your gifts.
Whatever you give will be honored and appreciated. And if you have very little money to give – that’s okay too! Because we also need for everyone to give of their time and talents as they are able to do so.
Now we have to be careful when we ask folks to give of their time and talent. Because some folks readily give and give and then get burned out and leave us. We’ve seen that happen during this pandemic. We are stretched thin with folks who feel they can step up. But we don’t want folks to leave!
We want them to stay with us and be renewed by others. You know – some folks say that leading Unitarian Universalists is like herding cats. But I don’t like that analogy. I prefer referencing a flock of geese as a metaphor for a UU congregation, because there are lots of lessons we can learn from geese. I’ve shared this before – but it’s worth repeating these lessons (originally shared by Milton Olson. (http://www.uww-adr.com/blog/lessons-from-geese-by-milton-olson#.VBc7thawVZw)
As each goose flaps its wings it creates an "uplift" for the birds that follow. By flying in a "V" formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.
People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another
When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front of it.
If we have as much sense as a goose we stay in formation with those headed where we want to go. We are willing to accept their help and give our help to others.
When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies to the point position.
It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership. As with geese, people are interdependent on each other's skills, capabilities and unique arrangements of gifts, talents or resources.
The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.
We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. In groups where there is encouragement, the production is much greater. The power of encouragement (to stand by one's heart or core values and encourage the heart and core of others) is the quality of honking we seek.
When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then, they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock.
If we have as much sense as geese, we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.
That’s the congregation we need to be and that we CAN be. But we need us some good soup to nourish us. And I have a STONE for the soup. This STONE is magical because this represents our vision of what we can be. We can BE that liberal beacon shining in southeast Georgia. We can BE a congregation that folks KNOW exists because of our visibility – both in terms of our meeting place and in terms of our good works and advocacy for justice and peace. We can BE a people that teaches our strong values to our children and reinforces them in us as well. We can BE a community of faith where we can nurture and heal ourselves and receive the nourishment to nurture and heal the world. But this vision –this stone, by itself, will not make the soup. We need for each of us to go back and look into our cupboards --- and perhaps see what we are hoarding there in terms of our time, talents, and treasure, and bring them to share in the soup pot for the greater good. And when we do, we will know – that it is a good and joyful gift. I can just smell that wonderful soup now. Mmmm mmm good!
May it be so! Honk Honk