A SEASON OF GIVING
A sermon preached by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, November 12, 2017
My guess is that this Sunday will go down in the annals of church history as the greatest and most joy-filled Sunday ever. If you’re asking yourself “Why?” it’s because this fine morning is one that I, your newly installed minister, will ask you for money.
Yes, my dear friends, this is the church version of NPR’s pledge drive, that strange season when UUs do something they’d otherwise never do, and you all know what that is: I’m talking about that period in the year when you hear the radio host politely ask you to consider just how much Morning Edition or This American Life is worth to you and you hit that dusty old button called SCAN, choosing, instead, to listen to the same Elton John, AC/DC, GNR, REO Speedwagon playlist on commercial radio until you’re certain the pledge drive is over, when you finally switch back to your guilt-free listening to Steve Inskeep and Ira Glass.
The difference between NPR and the church, however, is that eventually we’ll call you. Heck, I might even call you up for a punishing cup of coffee or lunch. And trust me, you don’t want it to come to that, because I don’t have a scan button.
Before I get on with it I want to say, again, how touched I was by last week’s installation service and level of participation. It was a fun and emotional day for me, and I hope for those of you who were able to make it, an enjoyable morning in the least.
Basically, an installation is the ministerial equivalent of a wedding. So, this may be the point when some of you might awaken from the fog of romance wondering what the heck you’ve gotten yourself into. It is my hope that the installation is a signpost indicating to what I hope is a long and meaningful pastorate here with you all.
I tend to think of institutions, such as churches and systems of government, as large ships, which is a metaphor for the fact that it takes time, care, and knowledge to pilot them, especially when you’re sailing uncharted waters. I look forward to the work and the struggles and joys that await; and I hope there’s a part of you that does as well.
As my mentor, Earl, mentioned last week, times have changed since he started his ministry, over 40 years ago. Things were different then, of course. Church attendance, for many, was almost automatic. Most people didn’t choose whether to attend or not. Back then, the chief consideration would have about the kind of church you wanted to belong to.
The ‘40s, ‘50s, and early ‘60s were high watermarks for church attendance in America. On the heels of the Second World War, people flocked to churches for sanctuary and spirituality, seeking community in a society forever changed by the atrocities of total war, the Holocaust, and atom bomb.
I have no misgivings about church work still being important and trying, then as it is now. But there is no denying the differences, especially when it comes to church membership and financial support.
Many of us are likely familiar with what sociologists in America refer to as the “Nones”: that is, people who profess to have no formal religious affiliation.
Being a None isn’t to say one lacks spirituality, or adherence to a specific worldview. What Nones are saying is, “I do not feel the need to join a religious community.”
It’s not that Nones are somehow stronger than others, and therefore have no need for church. They’re the very same as the rest of us; like us, they’re the same people who buy more self-help books, have fitness club memberships, and interact with more people, either virtually or in person, than any group of humans in the history of our species.
One of the things sociologists point to when they try their hands at listing causation for the ongoing decline in religious affiliation is the era of the Civil Rights movement. It was during this time when activism slowly but measurably became almost exclusively an expression of one’s politics, especially for liberals and progressives. Prior to that, activism was largely an expression of one’s morality and values; put another way, it was an expression of their faith or religion.
And that same movement, if you watch closely, is happening to conservatism as we speak. No longer are fundamentalist Christians motivated by single issues like contraception and Roe v. Wade. As we saw in the last election and with the recent budged proposal, fundamentalist Christians very much care about immigrants and their rights; they also care a lot about the so-called “Dreamers,” and tax assistance for families who are brave and loving enough to foster and adopt children.
What I think people are saying is, “what I believe and what I stand for means more to me than loyalty to any political party, especially towards party leaders, even if it’s the President.
So, that old school voting bloc of fundamentalist Christians who used to be counted on to turn states purple and red are beginning to challenge the status quo; and if you’d ask me, the reason they’re doing so is precisely because of their religious ideals no longer find kinship with any one political party’s agenda.
This is also happening on the left end of the dial, too. Many religious liberals are no longer marching to the beat of the Democratic Party for different reason, but with similar motivations.
What some progressive Christians saw in the Civil Right Movement was a church too slow to change. They wanted a church that was willing to bleed with them in the streets, they wanted a church that was willing to admit it was wrong, and too slow to change; and so, they left it behind in pursuit of what they believed would achieve freedom and equality quicker: political, rather than religious, activism.
And now, different but still similar, fundamentalist and conservative Christians are questioning their political affiliation just like the people on the left did nearly 60 years ago.
Truth is, human beings are complex and confusing animals that, despite the prognostication of some, evolve over time, and start to respond differently to the world as a result. The reason we change over time is because life happens.
If you’ve watched a loved one or a friend lose everything because their father or mother came down with a murderous bout of cancer, then it should come as no surprise that they may believe healthcare to be more than an entitlement, but rather a basic human right.
When you learn that over 80% of children who are adopted out of foster systems require mental health services it shouldn’t surprise you to find out that some people take seriously tax breaks for families who adopt.
And if you’re wondering why I’ve chosen to linger so long on the institutions of party politics, political affiliation, and economics, the reason is this: each of these vital areas are based upon systems of belief.
And similar, but wholly different and of more import, religion is exactly the same: a system of belief.
You see, before we believe in something we pay close attention to it.
You don’t just look at a politician running for President and think, “yep, he’s shaped about like a president should be.”
You don’t send money to charitable organizations just because they have a really cool website, even though that totally helps.
Of course, you don’t.
You drill down and do the research. You look to see if what you believe, what you stand for, what your hopes and dreams are, are in alignment; and then you devote your time and money to it.
This is the beauty of voluntary associations: they don’t ask, simply, that you contribute financially or by volunteering alone. They ask that the truest measure of your support comes from the heart, that you believe in what it stands for.
The church is, quite simply, the longest standing voluntary association left in our great nation. And especially for us in the Free Church, participation is something wholly determined by you.
The difference between the Free Church and other voluntary associations is that here we take seriously your wellness. I’ve been giving money to Doctors Without Borders for about a decade and never once did someone from their board of trustees or even a call to see how I was doing after my mom suffered a heart attack. They never took me out for coffee when I sunk into a deep depression in my mid-20s; nor have Steve Inskeep or Ira Glass asked me how I like living in Wausau, and if I’ve bought enough long underwear.
One of the tasks of the church is to take seriously one’s well-being, to call on you when you’re sick, to cry with you when your children struggle with addiction, and to cheer you on when all you need is a place to exhale.
The church is here to serve as a reminder that often we are painfully slow to change; that we often fall short of our ideals, and that deep inside each of us is someone broken and hurting. But at our best, the church is a place where our hearts and minds are nurtured and inspired to give to the world and others the best of who and what we are.
The church is where you will learn that deep down, even if you think your problems too complex, or yourself too damaged or too addicted or too complacent, that who you are is enough, because the truest measure of who we are isn’t what we achieve or consume, but rather, what we share and contribute to others.
I suppose now’s a good time to remind you that not only does the church shape one’s inner life, thus inspiring and empowering us to face the world with deeper purpose and meaning, it’s also been scientifically proven that church attendance makes you live longer.
Yes, dear friends, people who attend church lower their mortality rate by 55%; furthermore, it lowers stress. People who go to church feel better, have fewer addictions, and actually have more friends. So, it turns out that by going to church, developing compassionate thinking, and seeking ways to positively contribute to our communities is not only good for the world, it makes our own lives better.
But maintaining a church is difficult. Charitable contributions are what keep us going; and since the demographic changes of the ‘60s, finding the necessary financial support is harder than it’s ever been.
For all of us here at UU Wausau, we get to be a part of a congregation that is over 147 years old. This is a heritage church that is just as much a part of Wausau as it is to the association of which we are now part (the UUA).
But is has remained a part of this community and our spiritual ancestors’ lives because of people like you, people who believe, in their hearts, that Wausau is worthy of their particular brand of loving compassion.
We give to charities and non-profits not because it makes us feel are warm and fuzzy, but because it is the right thing to do. It is right and good to help people get access to health care; it is right and good to ensure that news on airwaves is honest and mostly unbiased; and it is right and good to uphold a place where people can find refuge from the world, strength to face the day, and inspiration to give back in the ways they’re willing and able.
And like church attendance, scientists have verified that generosity not only makes the world a better place, but that it actually makes the person who is generous live a happier life.
The word love is thrown around a lot in churches, and that’s okay. But with anything, when you say or hear it a lot the meaning and its import tends to lose its power. What I mean when I say the word “love” is this: love is first an effort to learn how to enjoy your inmost self, to behold yourself in all your bravery and frailty and find not only peace, but acceptance and gratitude.
Love is also an acknowledgement that the world doesn’t just deal out compassion. Therefore, to love is to believe in the power of redemption, not only of self, but of the world also.
But mostly, love is how we feel when we are with others. Love isn’t just a feeling within one’s self, it is an inspiration to walk humbly, live honestly, and a mandate to live our lives large.
For thousands of years people have gathered in sanctuaries just like this one, sharing their lives with one another because it brings them joy. It reminds them that they’re so miraculously and temporarily alive, and that with this gift of life comes great responsibility; responsibility to gift what we can to the world and to the people who need our loving hands.
In this season of giving I ask that you consider just how much this church and its work is worth to you, and then to give what you will.
Dear friends, you are a gift. Now go, be that gift for the world. Amen and Blessed Be.