READING AND REV. STEVE’S SERMON REGARDING PLEDGING, MARCH 22, 2020I do not mean to say that our culture is necessarily more materialistic than those that have preceded it. I am saying only that money now plays an unprecedentedly powerful role in our inner and outer lives, and that any serious search for self-knowledge and self-development requires that we study the meaning that money actually has for us.
It will not be an easy task to cut beneath the surface of this issue. The fact that money enters into everything means that we have to look at every aspect of our lives from the point of view of money and the force it conducts in the life of present-day civilization. Love and hatred, eating and sleeping, safety and danger, work and rest, marriage, children, fear, loneliness, friendship, knowledge and art, health, sickness and death: the money factor is a determining element in all of these–sometimes plainly visible, sometimes blended into the whole fabric like a weaver’s dye. Think of our relationship to nature, to ideas, to pleasure; think of our sense of self-identity and self-respect; think of where we live and with what things we surround ourselves; think of all our impulses to help others or serve a larger cause; think of all our psychological and biological needs; think of where we go, how we travel, with whom we associate–or just think of what you were doing yesterday, or what you will be doing tomorrow, or in an hour. The money factor is there, wrapped around or lodged inside everything. Think of what you want or what you dream of, for now, or next year, or for the rest of your life. It will take money, a certain definite amount.

Money and the Meaning of Life by Jacob Needleman, Prof of Phil, San Francisco State

The Future is Now
March 3, 2019
Some of you know that I lived in Maine for 15 years, went to seminary in Bangor and over the years, served three churches up there. I want to tell you a story I learned.
Ethan and his wife Martha, they were up to the State Fair, you know up to Fryeburg there. Well, they was havin a wicked good time and they walked around and they come to this place where this fella was giving airplane rides, you know in one of them old planes with the two wings and open seatin’. Well, they’d never been up in a plane and they thought as how it might be fun, but they took a look at the sign, “Airplane rides, $50.00.” Ethan looked at Martha and Martha looked at Ethan and they shook their heads and started to walk away.
Now the fella givin them rides, he wasn’t havin a very good day, he was feeling kinda drastic, so he says,“ Hold on there!” He didn’t want to let ‘em get away see, so he says, “You think $50.00 dollars is too much?” and Ethan says “Ayuh” so he pilot he says, “I’ll tell you what, Mistuh Man. You get up in there and let me give you a ride and if you don’t say a word, not so much as a peep the whole time, the ride’s free. But if you say anything at all, even just a word, then you pay me the $50.00.”
Well, Ethan looked at Martha and Martha looked at Ethan and they said, “We’ll do her,” so up they clumb into the back, kinda wedged in theah, ya know. The pilot clumb in up front and he had the evilest look on his face you ever see. He took off and he did everything he could think of. He did climbs and dives and loop the loops everything he could think of to scare them two but nary a word did he hear from that back seat. Well finally he give up. He broughtt her back down and as he’s rollin’ down the field he says back over his shoulder, “Well I got to hand it to ya,” he says, “I did everything I could think of to make you talk and you didn’t say one word.” And Ethan says, “Well, I almost did when Muthah fell out….but $50.00 dollars is $50.00 dollars!”
Well, there you go. A silly story, but like all good humor, it points with an exaggerating finger to a kernel of truth. Fifty dollars is fifty dollars or five hundred or five thousand, whatever it may, and how large the figure may look to each of us depends on the context.
Some of us will remember when you could actually buy things with coins, pocket change, and prices were set to the penny—$1.69, let’s say. (It now costs the government more than a penny to mint a penny, BTW.) In those halcyon days, young people seldom had folding money and fifty dollars in your pocket, just as walking around money, was unusual even for adults. In fact, a fifty-dollar gift to the church was not an uncommon annual amount. Nowadays, twenty-dollar bills are the new one-dollar bill and coins are often a nuisance.
Now my point is not—ah, the good old days! (In many ways, the “good old days” were not so good, especially if you were a person of color, or a woman uninterested in the roles prescribed for you at the time.) I say all this simply to remind us that context is crucial and context changes, more quickly in recent years than ever before. So, we must each decide what our metaphorical fifty dollars means to us here and now in 2020.
And since we are all sitting here staring at our computer screens or listening on the phone, instead of sharing our physical presence in our beloved sanctuary, we know for sure that context can change rapidly and radically. Just a week ago, we were planning to meet once again in the Parish Hall, with appropriate precautions, and then it became clear that it was no longer safe or responsible to do so. In consultation with the Board, I made the decision to gather as we are now—virtually–for the duration of this crisis based on the following principle: If we err on the side of caution, if we over-react and over-respond, we will never know for certain if we were right. However, if we err on the side of carelessness, if we under-react and under-respond, we will surely know, to our sorrow, that we were wrong. This is the new normal, the new context of our world so far in the year 2020.
The fourth principle in our list of seven says that we covenant together to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Now we usually interpret that in the vein of theology or philosophy, meaning that we will not consider ourselves to be bound by religious dogma or statements of belief that might be imposed upon us, that our minds and hearts will always be free to question and explore. That is certainly true; as inheritors of a tradition formed by those who sacrificed, suffered and sometimes died for that principle, we hold it dear.
Yet, in a less rarified way, it also means that we try to see the everyday world clearly and rationally so that we can make responsible decisions. That’s why we’re sitting in front of our computer screens today instead of bathing in the wonderful light of the Good Shepherd window, because our free and responsible search for truth and meaning has led us to believe the medical experts. We are choosing to be guided by them and not by impulses of wishful thinking and denial. I believe with all my heart that, even though it is disruptive and difficult, we are taking the right course.
As you may know, I sit with the Board monthly. Some part of every meeting is always devoted to issues of budget, finance and expenditures. Over the years I must have worked with twenty-five or more church boards, several district boards, several minister’s association boards and the boards of the UU Christian Fellowship and the UU Heritage and Historical Society. I am a board veteran; a member of the Order of the Folding Chair, as many of you are, I know. I’ve worked with no finer board than yours, none more responsible and none more concerned faithfully to carry out the charge you have given them, to both serve and lead this modest miracle known as Hopedale Unitarian Parish. It is a privilege for me to work with them. They and all of your leaders are working hard for you and are worthy of your trust.
This is the time of year when all members and friends are asked what Hopedale Unitarian Parish means to them. One of the ways we can think about that meaning is thoughtfully to consider how we may be able financially to support the Parish in the year ahead. In a normal year, the Parish leadership would evaluate all of your needs, balance them against the assets, craft a budget proposal and then bring it to you for your consideration at the congregation’s annual meeting. That’s how we do it in our system of self-government. For Hopedale Unitarian Parish, there is no higher source of authority than you, the congregation. We’ve been doing it that way for many decades.
However, as we are painfully aware, this is not a normal year. For the foreseeable future, this is how we are going to be doing things. Now this will pass. I believe firmly we will get a handle on this, as we have other pandemics of this sort and there will come a time when we will gather once more as we want and need to do, but it’s not going to be soon, almost certainly not in time for the annual meeting in the month of May. Therefore, in order to fulfill its responsibility to you, the Board has decided, with my support, to carry on by presenting the budget essentially unchanged from last year, both in expenditures and projected income. Now of course, like any church budget in any year, this is the best estimate for the year ahead and may well need to be adjusted or changed. However, this will be our starting point. The Board will be sending along soon all the information you’ll need, by way of budget projections and recommended pledging levels.
All of that is important and necessary, but in the end, spreadsheets, numbers, charts and graphs are just data, just tools for your use. As a veteran of the Order of the Folding Chair, I submit that people do not give to pie charts and columns of figures; they don’t give to a budget; they give to an experience and they give to hope.
Part of our experience is what is happening right now–common worship. Even though it’s very different than we’re used to and not what we wish, yet we are together in spirit as best we can be in this challenging time. We opened our worship by listening to and singing, “Where Is Our Holy Church?” and friends, we know the answer to that: today our holy church is on a number of phones and computer screens but no less holy and no less church, because the church is not the building. We love our building; we do. I love sharing worship with you while bathed in the light of the Good Shepherd window behind me, having been called to worship by Fred on the Tower Bells and Carol at the keyboards, listening to our choir, looking out at your faces and the Beatitude Windows, gathering afterward to share fellowship. I am uplifted and moved every time; sharing worship there with you is the highlight of my week. I miss it today and I will miss it every day until we return. But the church is not the building. The church is you and I and the Spirit. It will probably be right here next week, too, and for some weeks to come, but I have faith and trust that soon the church of you and I and the Spirit will be restored to our beloved Sanctuary and the warmth of our physical gathering. Yet for now, we will do what we must.
So, as we consider our metaphorical fifty dollars, we know that it represents a lot. It represents time and skill turned into power. It represents education and knowledge; it represents early mornings and late nights and lunches eaten at the desk; it represents overtime and lots of plain old everyday work of all descriptions. It represents responsibilities for family, now and into the future. It represents all of those things and more, that metaphorical fifty dollars, and now it represents the occasion for choice, for how to allot what we choose to give to experience and hope.