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Today’s service grew out of a learning group in this congregation devoted to stewardship. They met throughout last year, and as you heard in our meditation today, their experience was much more than just memorizing facts from books and videos. These dedicated members of our community learned as much about themselves and each other in their shared journey as they did about expanding their visions of what it means to build, sustain, and care for this congregation and the work it does both inside and outside its walls.
This, to me, is a living example of the Buddha’s message from our choral prelude today: Be ye lamps unto yourselves; be your own confidence; hold to the truth within yourselves as to the only lamp. Live your lives with love and passion in a world that craves to heal. With your hearts warm and embracing, care for those who long to feel. Truth and light and understanding help us mend a world of woes. From our hearts and from our souls be ye lamps unto yourselves; be your own confidence; hold to the truth within yourselves as to the only lamp.
And then, in our reading today from James Baldwin, we are reminded that while each of us hold the truth of our own lamp — the lived experiences and sustaining beliefs that help each of us navigate our lives — we do not exist in vacuums. One of the base elements of our historical Universalism is the radical idea that since we would all be equal in heaven, therefore we must, we must, strive for equality in the here and now. Today in our tradition, we do not share a communal belief in heaven, or even any afterlife at all, but we do share the legacy of that communal value — that this community gathers to change lives and make the world a better place for all. We do it with our bodies, with our minds, with our hearts. And, since none of us can remove ourselves from the currency-based society in which we exist, we also do it with our money.
And now, I wonder, how many of you cringed when I said that last line. Maybe even winced. Don’t worry — this isn’t a stealth kickoff to the pledge drive. That’s still in February. But talking about money openly is often taboo. The dominant culture teaches us that it is uncouth, inappropriate, that we open ourselves up to judgement and shame if we venture into that territory. I would offer up to you that this money taboo, so pervasive in our modern lives, is born out of a culture of wealth and privilege that did not want to be held accountable for hoarding their resources at the expense of those who had less than them. And I am not speaking of individuals here. I am talking about the systems at large. By creating a culture of stigma around talking about money — how to earn it, how to save it, how to spend it, how to redistribute it to serve the greater good — entire generations have been cut off from learning the best possible ways to care for themselves and for others. When we cringe at the mention of money in church it is because we have been taught we shouldn’t do that, when in fact the opposite is true. This congregation exists entirely on the generosity of its members and friends — unlike other many churches we do not receive money from a governing body — and so we need to talk about what that means year round.
And this is what the stewardship learning group has been doing — they have been engaging in the work of undoing the entrenched systems that keep us from being the best people we can possible be — with our treasure as much as our time and our talents. Your household budget is a moral document. The church’s budget is a moral document. This congregation is an employer of staff, really excellent staff with whom I am proud to work, and our salaries are a moral statement about the value of sustaining this community.
The church is not the building and the building is not the church, but the House and the Sanctuary are where the church does its work. The choices we make about caretaking our beautiful and historic buildings make moral statements about who we are and how we live into our values. When this congregation built the Sanctuary, an elevator shaft was put in. There is still no elevator — we keep putting off that expense. This means that two entire floors of our space are inaccessible. This is heartbreaking for those already among us who struggle with mobility. It is devastating to a church that wishes to be welcoming, and yet cannot welcome a child using a wheelchair to join their faith development group downstairs. And the only way we can ever change that, the only way we can ever learn to be better in all parts of our lives — not just our minds and hearts — is to talk about it openly. Without shame. Without judgement.
Because what I really want to tell you today, is that you are amazing. Our newcomers who came here for the first time — you came here into a group of strangers for a new experience, and that is amazing. Our visitors, who have been here more than once, offering more of themselves to this community. You’re amazing. Our congregational friends, who find themselves coming back, again and again, engaging with the precious Unitarian Universalist idea that diversity is our strength, and that makes each service a little different. You’re amazing. And our members. The lifeblood of this community, the spiritual and religious heirs to three congregations and 125 years of Unitarian Universalism in Winnipeg. You bring your joys and sorrows, your blood, sweat and tears. You bring your voices, in speech and song and poetry. You bring your senses — not just ones of our bodies but also those of our hearts — sense of justice, sense of bravery, sense of covenant. You are amazing. I moved here, bringing my family on a journey of over 2000 kilometers, because you are amazing.
And amazing doesn’t mean perfect. I’ve spent many years, a lot of therapy, and a lot of spiritual direction on letting go of my tendency towards perfectionism. Perfect is the enemy of good. Perfect is the enemy of better. I want to return to the words of my dear friend and colleague, the Rev. Theresa Soto from our opening this morning:
I know that people
Have told you that before you can give
You have to get yourself together. They
Overstated the value of perfection by a
Lot. Or they forgot. You are the gift.
We all bring some broken things, songs
and dreams, and long lost hopes. But
here, and together, we reach within.
As a community, we begin again. And
from the pieces we will build something new.
There is work that only you can do.
If we spend all our time working towards perfect, we will wither and die, having done nothing at all. The real work is in our relationships with each other, which will be always changing and shifting, as life does. This congregation will not always look and feel like it does today, but if we commit ourselves to a culture of stewardship, we can ensure that it will inherit our shared values and the legacy of our covenants, our promises to each other. And this is the real test of sustainability in a community — are we willing to devote ourselves to the lives of people we have never met, and may not ever meet? Whether they are people suffering and in need in our community today, or the generations to come after us in this congregation — how are witnesses for them, as Baldwin tells us we are? How are we creating now a safe harbour for them away from the roll, as in the anthem sung by our choir? What is the work that only you can do, your precious gift to the world, and how can we help you do it?
Ultimately, though, a culture of stewardship and giving — in all aspects of our lives, not just our wallets — comes back to us in a sense of fulfillment. No matter what some people have tried to claim, human beings are not actually hard-wired for selfishness, and that way of life is not how we thrive. Pervasive, unrelenting selfishness may allow some few to control others through hoarding wealth and the power that wealth offers in our modern culture, but it stunts our growth and limits our potential. And I’m not talking about living an ascetic life, like monks, unless that appeals to you. I don’t want people to give up much-needed vacations or other opportunities for joy. I want to help people thrive, not just survive. And it has been proven that the more people talk about money and how to handle it, the more resilient they are when it comes to making good decisions about it — finding a balance between their needs and the needs of others. And when we give to others, as we are able, we are forging a connection with them, we become part of their story and they become part of ours. Without connections, we are nothing.
And, “as you are able” means something different to every person. For some, five dollars is a drop in the ocean. For others, five dollars might be the difference between the luxury of a bus ride home one day or paying rent this month. No matter where you fall on the financial spectrum, you are welcome here, and you are welcome in how our community lives into the circle of gratitude into generosity into gratitude, and on and on. Let us be intentional in learning how we care for ourselves and each other, and always remember that together, we can be better than any one of us alone.
May it be so.