by Rev. David Usher
Today marks the official launch of UUCM’s Generosity Campaign. And what is that, do I hear you ask? Well, it is two things. It is the opportunity for you, and you, and you, for each and all of us, together to fund the dream of what we want this congregation to be. Nobody else is going to do it. Whatever we want this congregation to be is for us to dream, and then for us to make real. And, AND, it is the opportunity for us to grow in our spirits. It is the opportunity for us to experience, deeply, what each and every single religious teacher and tradition has said: that only through being generous can we feel our spirits grow.
Let me say right now, honestly and without dissembling, that I think you are an excellent congregation. No, really. You are. There are many fine things happening here, because there are many fine people to make them happen. Look around you. Go on, look around you. What do you see? Do you not see people you are glad to know and whose friendship you cherish? Do you not see people who are doing good things in the world – helping to feed the hungry and homeless, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, speaking out in the name of justice, befriending the stranger, comforting the broken? Do you not see people of talent, of intelligence, of goodwill, people with a deep yearning for peace and justice in the world and also for a resonant coherence in their own lives? I hope that is what you see. It is what I see.
But, Houston, we have a problem. It is a problem which, I am embarrassed, no, ashamed to admit. Here is two statistics which I hope will embarrass you as much as they do me. Across all denominations in this country, we Unitarian Universalists rank second in average income. And a very close second at that. Our average per capita income reflects the fact that we are blessed indeed, that we enjoy bounty far beyond our share. And where do you think we rank according to the percentage we give to our own faith? That’s right, dead last. Dead last! There is a serious non-alignment between the values we espouse, great values, noble values, values which the world is in desperate need of more of, values which we know can and do not only transform lives but save lives; and the resources we give to make those values real. Rich as we are in gold, why are we so poor in spirit?
For the sake of the world, and for the sake of our own souls, we cannot, must not let that continue.
As excellent as this congregation is, it is seriously under-staffed. Why? Because it is seriously under-funded.
We say we want a first class religious education programme for our young people, a programme which includes things like the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum, and yet we assign pennies towards it. Be in no mistake, Our Whole Lives, OWL, saves lives. It saves the lives of young people wrestling with their sexuality, and for whom OWL is the precious lifeline that reassures them that, whatever their sexual identity, they are loved, they are welcomed, they are valued for who they are. Whether or not we offer OWL might be the difference between a young person in this town, in this very congregation, choosing to end their life in despair or go on in hope, as it has been the difference for countless others elsewhere. Truly. It is wonderful that this congregation is a Welcoming Congregation, deliberately choosing to be open to gays and lesbians and bi-sexuals and the trans-gendered. But that crucial witness is not a one-off deal. That witness must be on-going.
We say we want excellent music to enliven our worship, but apart from Jim, our fine pianist, we rely on the efforts of volunteers to make it so. Music is essential to the worship life of a congregation. Music with variety, energy, passion, all skilfully executed. I mean no discourtesy to the efforts or skills of those volunteers from our congregation who do contribute to our musical life, and do so with great talent and to our great appreciation, but if we want a consistently excellent music programme, we have to pay for it.
We say we want to be a force for good in the wider community, but to be so in addition to our own engagement it requires organisation and administration, and yet we engage someone to administer our affairs on just a few hours a week. We cannot grow to be who we would wish to be without effective and adequate administration. We say we want excellent ministry, and yet we do not offer a salary which is likely to make that happen. I am not complaining about my compensation. I am in the fortunate stage in my life where I am free from most of the financial obligations of raising a family. But if you want your next settled minister to be as excellent as you want them to be, you must offer a salary commensurate with that excellence.
And all of this is possible, easily within our grasp, if we Unitarian Universalists would only match how we say we value our faith with the resources we have so abundantly at our disposal. If those in other denominations can show how they value their faith, why cannot we?
I need your help here. I am going to ask you a series of questions. To which, I trust, the answer will be Yes. A resounding Yes! Let’s practise. Here is the first question. Will you respond when I ask you a question? And the people said Yes!
Do you want this to be a place where the worship inspires your questing minds, soothes your troubled heart, worship which celebrates life in the fullness of its joy and wonder? And the people said Yes!
Do you want young people to feel a fully integrated part of this congregation, to learn the subtle art of what it means to be a person of faith, to know that their spiritual health and well-being is as important as ours! And the people said Yes!
Do you want music to make your blood pump, your heart rejoice, your spirit soar? And the people said Yes!
Do you want to be involved in the work of the world? This very weekend, hundreds of Unitarian Universalist leaders from throughout the country have gathered in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of that infamous chapter in This country’s history. Two of those white protesters murdered at Selma, the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, were Unitarian Universalists. Selma was fifty years ago. Selma is today. Just this past Friday, in Madison, Wisconsin, another unarmed young black man was shot and killed by a police officer. Tomorrow evening, here at UUCM, we will host an open meeting with our local Police Chief, to help ensure such a thing never happens here. Do we want Black Lives to Matter? And the people said Yes!
Not far from here, undocumented immigrants are incarcerated for no reason other than wanting a better life for themselves and their children, an aspiration upon which this very country was founded. Do we want equality and economic justice for all people? And the people said Yes!
Do we want a planet fit for our children, and our children’s children, to inherit? Do we want to treat this earth as our precious home? And the people said Yes!
Do we want our lives to matter? Do we want congruity between what we say and what we do, do we want to be agents for good in this world, do we want our hearts to be opened in generosity? And the people said, Yes!
Here’s a challenge I offer you. Let’s be conservative about this. Our total attendance today, at both services, will be, say, 100 people. Let’s suppose we each buy just one fancy coffee a day, at a cost of $2 a time. What if we each pledged to give up just one coffee a day during the week. We can still go wild on the weekends. If we were each to do that, that is $1,000 a week. $50,000 a year! This congregation would be transformed, if each of us would give up just one cup of coffee a day which, let’s face it, we don’t really need anyway. Our physical health would be better. And so would our spiritual health.
I mentioned in my sermon a month or so ago that I tithe. I give away to causes which are important to me, 10% of my income. I give 5% to Unitarian Universalism in its various forms, local, national and international, and 5% to other causes. I have done so for the past seventeen years, and it is the best thing I do with my money.
On April 19th, I will be making my pledge to the financial well-being of this congregation as part of my continuing attention to my own spiritual well-being. On that Sunday you are going to be asked to make your pledge to support the work and worship and witness of this, your congregation, in the coming year. When it comes time for you to make that pledge, I ask you to think about what this place really means to you. Think about how it has enriched your life, how you want it to enrich the lives of others around you, and others who are yet to walk in the door seeking a religious home as you were once seeking. Think about the debt we owe to Leal Portis and the others who, twenty one years ago, planted the seeds of this community the fruit of which we now enjoy. Think about how you match your values with your actions, your words with your deeds. Think about how you can make your dreams for this congregation a reality.
Will you do that? Will you? It is my charge and my challenge to you, that when on April 19th you are asked that question, you, the people, will say Yes! So may it be. Amen