A Sermon preached on April 3, 2016
By the Rev. Carol Rosine
First Universalist Society in Franklin
Reading: “On Going to Church” The Reverend A. Powell Davies
Let me tell you why I come to church. I come to church—and would whether I was a preacher or not—because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them. It is not enough that I should think about the world and its problems at the level of a newspaper report or a magazine discussion. (This was written before email or social media.) It could too soon become too low a level. I must have my conscience sharpened—sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I must feel again the love I owe my fellow men and women. I must not only hear about it but feel it. In church, I do.
I need to be reminded that there are things I must do in the world, unselfish things, things undertaken at the level of idealism. Workaday enthusiasms are not enough. They wear out too soon. I want to experience human nature at its best—and be reminded of its highest possibilities, and this happens to me in church. It may seem as though the same things could be found in solitude, but it does not easily happen so. In a congregation we share each other’s spiritual needs and reinforce each other….
We meet each other as friends and neighbors anywhere and everywhere, but we seldom do so in the consciousness of our souls’ deepest yearnings. But in church we do—in a way that is intrusive, yet leaves us knowing that we all have the same yearning, the same spiritual need of assurance and faith and hope. We are brought together at the highest level possible. We are not merely an audience. We are a congregation.
I doubt whether I could stand the thought of the cruelty and misery of the present world unless I could know, through an experience that renewed itself over and over again, that at the heart of life there is assurance, that I can hold an ultimate belief that all is well. And this happens in church.
Life must have its sacred moments and its holy places. The soul will always seek its nurture. For religious experience—which is life at its most intense, life at its best—is something we cannot do without.
Singing: “For All That is Our Life” # 128
When my children were little we lived for 10 years in condo complex that was filled with young families. Most of the fathers were off working during the day, which left the moms to watch the little ones. As we learned to know and trust each other, the neighborhood became one big playground for the kids: in and out of each other’s houses, sharing lunches and toys, creating rules for the games they played. It seemed like all of the kids were our kids and so we didn’t hesitate to set and enforce limits but we also gave them enough freedom to explore and have fun.
There was one mom, however, who could never get with the program. I’ve told you about her before because she is one of those people who always was a puzzle for me. Someone I couldn’t figure out. You see, her little girl, _____, was rarely allowed to have lunch at a friend’s house and if she did, the mother immediately set a date when the friend would come to ______ house for lunch. Same with so-called play dates. If ____ played with Kathleen for two hours at our house, then Kathleen could play for 2 hours at _____ house. Her mother was very rigid that way and I guessed it was because for her, everything had to be even. She never wanted to owe anyone anything.
You have probably heard us talk frequently about the way in which we encourage each of you to be generous with your time, your talents, and your treasure if we are to preserve this church of ours. Well, this morning when we will be urging you to be generous with your treasure, I remembered this neighbor and how stingy she really was. She didn’t have a job like the rest of us, or volunteer at school, or even attend a church. The only times we would see her outside her home was when she was sun-bathing with an alarm clock that would tell her when it was time to turn over.
A colleague, Barbara Hamilton–Holway says, “Generous people who love easily, who give the benefit of the doubt, who willingly offer their gifts and their time and their affection, are joyful. And they are a joy to be around.” My neighbor from long ago was not a joyful person, nor was she a joy to be around. I knew that she carried a lot of fear around with her, a lot of suspicion, and yet I had trouble understanding her inability to open herself up to us.
I grew up during a time and in a place where I was surrounded by generosity. Where you shared what you had. It was just assumed that you’d put an extra plate on the table for some lonely soul that my dad picked up on his way home from work or that produce from the garden would be shared. And it wasn’t just food and things that were shared, it was time as well. Helping out neighbors, volunteering at the church. We lived down the street from the Methodist Church which was like a second home to me. My parents were lay leaders and in addition to the hours spent volunteering each week, they also tithed, gave 10% of their income to the church. It wasn’t a big deal. It was just what you did. As I said, I grew up around generous people and it rubbed off on me as well.
I’m guessing that a lot of you had a similar up-bringing where you learned early on how to share, where you wouldn’t hesitate to break a popsicle in half and give it to a best friend, where your world was safe enough that you didn’t have to hide or hoard; where you learned that the universe doesn’t revolve around you; where you learned empathy and compassion and to not be afraid to give of yourself.
How do I know this? Because I hear stories of how so many of you are not only working and spending time with your families, but you’re also volunteering in the schools or on civic boards or at the Community Supper in Milford. You’re girl scout leaders and soccer coaches. You’re working with environmental groups and legislative advocacy groups and political campaigns. You’re writing letters and holding signs and taking part in rallies.
And then there is this church. I know how stretched so many of you are, and yet you give generously of your time, your talents, and your treasure so that this spiritual community of ours will remain strong and healthy. There are so many of you who come in early on Sunday mornings to get your classrooms set up or to get the coffee started or to rehearse in the choir. There are some of you who are giving so much of your time and talent to this church that you, in reality, are acting as volunteer staff. And others of you, I know, are making sacrifices so that you can make generous pledges of financial support. You are not a stingy people. In spite of economic concerns and crazy schedules, you continue to give of yourselves in so many ways.
Why do you suppose this is? In our reading this morning, A. Powell Davies told us that he needs the church to remind him that he needs to have his conscience sharpened until it goads him into the most thorough and responsible thinking of which he is capable, that he wants to experience human nature at its best, that he needs to be reminded that we all have spiritual yearnings, that life must have its sacred moments and its holy places for the soul needs nurturing. We could all make our own lists of why we come to church, but my suspicion is that even when time is scarce and money is tight, one thing you might have on your own list is that coming to church reminds you of how much abundance there is filling your lives, abundance that is yours for the taking.
A colleague of mine, Kendyl Gibbons, who is minister of the UU Church in Minneapolis, shares this story: “San Ysidro creek starts somewhere high in the Inez Mountains above Santa Barbara, California, and it falls through a boulder-strewn stream bed down to the bay and the Pacific Ocean. It is a dream of a creek, bubbling, dancing, pouring; sun-dappled and butterfly-haunted, laced with blossoms and grasses for which I have no name. In February, which is when I know it, it is in spate (like a flash flood), swift with the melted mountain snows. The first time I saw this creek, my immediate thought was, “They must turn this off at night, when no one is looking at it.’ Realizing how silly that was, I still had to wrestle a bit to wrap my mind around the idea that this pouring forth was continuous; that the stream flows all the time, splashing over the rocks and into the tiny pools constantly, whether I was watching it or not. And it struck me that the creek, in its careless fullness, in its unceasing abundance is a kind of model for the ceaseless creative energy of the universe, which is also pouring out and over us all the time, whether we see it or not. So I go back to the creek every year to remember; to remind myself that we stand always in the flow, that the waters of life are washing over us in a springtime torrent every day we live.”
“There is a Sufi teaching story that explores the nature of abundance. It tells of a seeker who was meditating in the forest and observed a bear with a mangled foreleg. Unable to run or to hunt, the bear seemed destined to die of starvation, yet as the seeker watched, a fox came with its prey of that day, and after eating its fill, it left the remainder of the meal for the bear. Several days the seeker observed this same pattern, saying to himself, ‘Behold, how good and generous is God, who feeds the bear by means of the fox, how He provides for all His creatures! I, too, will put my trust in Him utterly.’ And the seeker retired to a cave, to await the arrival of his provision, but days passed and nothing came. Finally, on the fifth day, as he was fainting from hunger, a voice said to him, ‘O thou who art in the path of error, repent! Stop imitating the injured bear, and go out and follow the example of the fox!’”
Kendyl Gibbons says that “We can understand the abundance of the universe in two ways: as an invitation to complacency, or as an invitation to generosity. Much depends upon that choice. For if we respond with complacency—if we merely accept all the creative energy and all the love and sacrifice that have made our own lives possible, then the abundance of the universe comes to a stop in us. If we choose to receive what we have concluded is our due—and even, perhaps, to complain that it is not given exactly as we would have preferred it—then we make ourselves something outside the process, something other than the ever-flowing stream of life, something transitory and futile and ultimately trivial. It is when we respond to the abundance of life with gratitude and generosity that we become a part of that universal creativity. When we contribute our own energy to the flowing stream then it fills us and pours out of us to others, so that the stream is enhanced.” (CLF Quest 201107)
We know within this religious community that sometimes we’re on the receiving end, that sometimes we’re like that wounded bear, in need of someone to come and feed us. But most of the time we’re more like the fox, able to not only take care of our own needs, but to share what it is that we have, whether it’s an hour of our time or the ability to write a generous check in support of a cause that’s consistent with our values or to our church. But complacency? Being on the receiving end because we deserve it, because we’re entitled to it? And not giving back? Or making sure that you’re not giving more than what you’re receiving like my old neighbor, the mother of Kathleen’s friend? Being pretty stingy?
Another colleague, Tom Owen-Towle lists some of the virtues that he thinks are essential for character development: things like love, hope, acceptance, courage, joy, forgiveness, humility. But he says that the longer he lives, the more he realizes that it is generosity that underwrites all the other virtues. Open-heartedness he calls it. The ability to give of yourself to others and the world around you. Because, he says, “without generosity, one loves sparingly; without generosity, one acts for justice rarely; without generosity, one withholds, hides-out, hordes—one simply grows stingy of gift and time and soul.”
There is something deeply religious, deeply spiritual about cultivating a generous spirit. “It’s really rather basic,” according to Tom Owen-Towle. “To be part of a liberal religion is to be generous at the core: open of heart, open of mind, open of spirit, open of hand. Being rigid of thought, being miserly of soul, being closed of conscience lies in direct opposition to what it really means to belong to the free and liberal religious tradition. It’s just not who we are!”
And so if I had a hat on, I’d take it off to all of you generous souls that I see spread around me this morning. And how do I know you are generous souls? Because you are a joy to be around.
Barbara Hamilton Holway who talked earlier about generous people being joyful people goes on to say:
Not only is it true that as you give, you will be replenished,
Not only is it true that what you give returns to you,
Giving truly brings you back to life.
Giving, more generously than you imagined you could,
gets the old heart beating.
Giving makes you feel vital and connected.
Giving opens you to love of living.
You are a person who has something to give.
Live abundantly and delight in giving.
Sing: When Our Heart is in a Holy Place # 1008
Benediction Rev. Marilyn Sewall
When we give we feel the depths of our powers—to create, to heal, to love. These are spiritual powers which, when exercised, enlarge our souls. When we give, and when our gift is received, both giver and receiver are blessed.