Here for Good
a sermon preached by Rev. Khleber M. Van Zandt V at First Unitarian Church of Alton, March 18, 2007
My ministerial friend and colleague Naomi King tells the story of a Southern evangelist who preaches his heart out to his flock:
“Brothers and sisters,” he says, “there’s work to be done, great good work for us to be about. But it means we’ve got to get up off our tails and take that first little step. And then we’ve got to take the second little step. It means we’ve got to walk together and not grow weary.”
“Amen,” says the congregation, with which you can join in if you wish.
“We’ve got to run together and not grow faint.”
“We’ve got to spread our wings and fly!”
“But, my friends,” the preacher says, “We all know today it takes money to fly!”
After a few scattered ‘Amens’ and a moment of silence, a small voice pipes up in the back and says, “If it takes money to fly, then let’s walk, preacher, let’s walk!”
When I recite the history of this church, I realize I most often tell of the parts where we spread our wings like eagles and flew: the founding of the congregation by Dr. William Emerson; the calling of the first minister, Rev. Haley, who became a friend of Elijah Lovejoy; the building of the first sanctuary in the 1850’s and the second building in 1905; Rev. Curtis Reese cleaning up the crime in Alton around 1912; the glory days of the 1950’s and 60’s when a succession of ministers and a great number of lay leaders grew this church and its religious education enrollment to several hundred folks. I tell about the great efforts of our women’s group, the Anna D’s, and their long-time commitment to social justice. I remind people of the work of members of this church to integrate the Alton school system. I remember, mostly, the good times and the great good work done in the name of this congregation, when we were most definitely here for good.
Today as we kick off our Annual Canvass, I want to say that, yes, there have been many good times and great good works done over the past hundred and seventy-one years. But I need to be as honest as possible and so I must also say, there have been those times around here when other voices carried the day: when too many listened too intently to that small voice saying, “Let’s walk, let’s walk.” Truth be told, there have even been those times when we couldn’t be troubled to get up off our tails, when we just sat and looked at each other and said, “It’s too much. We can’t do enough, so let’s not do anything. Let’s just make ourselves comfortable right here. Let somebody else worry about the problems of the world.”
More than in most churches, it’s up to you whether we’re here for good or not. More than in most churches, it’s up to you whether we sit, walk, or spread our wings and fly. It’s not up to me - I’m only one person and I can only do so much without your active support. It’s not up to Becky, our administrator, or Jamie, our Director of Religious Education - we’re staff. That means we are here to support what it is you want to do. Some churches are staff-driven, but not this one. Here’s, it’s really up to you.
Oh, sure, it’s more exciting for us as staff to work for a congregation that is active and growing. Sure, it’s more inspiring to help people who are there when others need help. Sure, it’s more uplifting to be with people who know what they’re about.
But we understand that it’s hard work to do good work. We understand that what we are about here is not for the faint of heart. So often it seems a lot easier just to gather for an hour on Sunday morning, sit here with a few friends, and not worry about the rest of the world. So often we grow tired of the struggle and we wish that things would work out for the best without our having to put forth any effort. So often we’re tempted to go about our lives as if religion happens between 10:30 and 11:30 one morning a week. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes we have to back off a little - yesterday, I left an important meeting early because I just felt too sick to stay. But I knew, looking around the room, that there were plenty of other church people there to take up the slack - and then some.
All of us will experience those times when we need to back off, when we need others to take care of things for us. It must be okay to be broken, because all of us will be if we’re not already. What we are about here is not showing off how good we are. Our commitment is not to a perfect world, but simply to be the best we can be and to do the best we can do. That’s one of the ways we are here for good.
It’s Canvass Kickoff Sunday. When we give more, we get more, not in a quid pro quo arrangement with the powers of the universe - no one here should ever promise you a new pony or a new boat or success in business just because you give mightily to the church. It’s far more subtle than that, of course - this “giving as its own reward.” Like our mission trip to Louisiana three weeks ago, you’ve heard it said that we received so much more than we gave, and I believe that’s true. It may be the same way for you with our offering this morning to the church in Tennessee - giving to those in need is its often own reward. I think, in fact, that as a socially-conscious congregation we ought to be giving away ALL our Sunday morning offerings - there’s plenty of evidence that the more we give away, the more we receive in return. But we will only be able to give away all the offering if you prove to the powers that be that our pledges can cover the essentials. It’s up to you, but I believe that’s another one of the ways we could be here for good.
There are at least two ways to look at your pledge to this church. One is simply financial, the other more personal, even spiritual. First, the financial: there has been a tradition in this church for people to somehow look at a budget and decide how much they need, how much the church needs them to pledge. This year again, I learned this morning, a preliminary budget has been produced that says we need to ask you to raise your pledge 10%. What that doesn’t tell you is, that budget basically assumes we’ll do nothing different: we’ll add no new ministries or programs or outreach. It assumes there is nothing more for us to do. It’s a sitting budget, or at best a walking budget - no thought is given to spreading our wings and flying with your 10% increase.
If you are someone who wants to look at a budget before making a commitment, then I want to offer you this thought: look at your last year’s pledge and add an amount that will take us to where you want us to be - again, it’s up to you. You might want us to go from our present roughly $100,000 budget level to, say, the $110,000 level - just a $10,000 difference. You might want to take us there yourself. And if you did that, you know we’d work that much harder to spend the extra $10,000 wisely and effectively. If you need to add several thousand dollars to your pledge to be comfortable, go ahead, bring it on - challenge us to do that much more.
Another way of looking at giving to the church is personal and spiritual. The world’s great religions teach that giving of one’s resources is good for the gift-giver. Many religious traditions suggest a ten percent level of giving. I said this last year and I’ll say it again this year - if you’re not yet at the 5% level - just half of what the sacred texts suggest - move towards it as best you can. If you give 5% to the church, that leaves you another 5% to give to your favorite community organizations - the Sierra Club, American Cancer Society, local food pantries and shelters, people in need. It was mentioned at the leadership meeting yesterday that some churches give out small stickers so members can indicate on their nametags that they give at the 5% level. That’s not about whether you give a hundred, a thousand, or a hundred thousand dollars, it’s about the level of your commitment to what we are about here, your commitment to making sure we are here for good.
In an effort to break through the veil of secrecy that sometimes surrounds our commitments to each other I’ll tell you that Linda and I are pledging at what we’ve figured to be our 5% level this year - $260 a month, or $3120 for the year. (That’s a 33% increase over last year, if you’re looking for another sort of benchmark for yourself…) It’s a fact that it’s a lot of money for us, but we both figure that the work of this community is worth it, we both believe that the more we give the more we receive, and we both want this place to be here for good.
I want to read you two notes I’ve received in the last week. I think they say something about our work here and the unexpected dividends of it. This first one is from someone I don’t believe I’ve met. She’s a lady in Arlington, Texas, and it reads:
“I want to tell you I admire very much the unusual and inspirational Civil Marriage is a Civil Right and A Church of Open Hearts and Open Minds banners I saw at your church… I’ve since shared a photo of the banners with my children and grandchildren in Saint Louis and with family and friends around the country and in Texas… I cannot imagine a more explicit expression of universal fairness than I’ve seen from your church…”
“…in Saint Louis, in Texas, and around the country” - pretty far reaching, I’d say.
What we are about here is not for the faint of heart. What we do and what we say here is important. And we can do and say only as much as we can support monetarily. Banners like this woman is talking about cost money, but it would be a travesty not to use the space and the resources and the courage we have to make public statements supporting those who are oppressed, those who are denied access, those who are in need.
A second note comes from the young lady who showed up to work with us in Louisiana. You may remember her in some of the photos we shared as the person in a yellow Cub Scout t-shirt. Her name is Bristol, she’s a member of a Lutheran congregation, and she recently graduated with a theology degree from Loyola University of Chicago, a Jesuit/Catholic institution. She stopped to work in New Iberia for two weeks on her way to Ecuador where she is to spend a year helping among the poor there. She writes to us:
“Thank you all so much for your kindness while working (in Louisiana). I would have been lost without you. I am so glad we ended up there on the same week because it was wonderful getting to know all of you. I appreciate your generosity and willingness to let me part of your group. The annex was lonely without you there (after you left).”
“I would have been lost without you.” “I appreciate your generosity.” “The annex was lonely without you there.”
What we are about here is not for the faint of heart. What we do and what we say here is important. And we can do and say only as much as you want to support, monetarily and otherwise. There are many out there who are lost and lonely and need to hear the clarion call of religious freedom. Our generosity - YOUR generosity - makes a difference in people’s lives by making possible a clear and public voice for our free faith. What we do together when we’re here for good transforms lives; it changes the world.
Before we leave this worship space, I’d like you turn and look at the people in the pews near you. Look closely. The time, the talent, the treasure that make possible what we do here come from you and the person next to you and the person next to them. There is no source of funding except you, our members and friends. And so it may be your choice that we will sit; it may be your choice that we will walk. I hope you remember as you’re filling out your pledge card what a blessing it is to ourselves and to others when we spread our wings and fly.
It’s up to you, but I say, “Let’s fly!”
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