“Ample Abundance for All” by Mark W. Harris

 March 30, 2014    –   First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship –  from Huston Smith

Practice giving things away, not just things you don’t care about, but things you do like. Remember, it is not the size of a gift, it is its quality and the amount of mental attachment you overcome that count. So don’t bankrupt yourself on a momentary positive impulse, only to regret it later. Give thought to giving.


Sermon – “Ample Abundance for All”

Last Tuesday I gave a lecture at the library on our former minister Arthur Buckminister Fuller.  I told the audience that the topic combined two of the great loves of my life, not including Andrea.   One is the study of UU history, which occupies many of my waking hours, and a few of my sleeping ones as well.  The other may be less well known to you, partly because a career in the ministry affords little time for the study of the American Civil War.  When I was in college and in the years just beyond, no subject was more gripping to me, and I was able to relive that in reflecting on Fuller’s life.  Like so many others, he saw the Civil War as a holy war.  He was an active chaplain allowing me to learn a great deal about what that life was like.  And he was killed at Fredricksburg, a battle site I visited forty years ago, when I took pilgrimages to many sites.  I thought I had forgotten much of what I knew, but, as Andrea pointed out to me, when someone asked if Fuller might have met Lincoln or Grant, I quickly responded that Grant was in the Western theater until after Fuller’s death, and so they probably would not have met, but Fuller might well have known McClellan, Hooker, Burnside or Pope, all failed generals who preceded Grant.  No memory lapse there.

When I was younger I liked to read those books which theorize what might have happened in history if certain events had different outcomes than those we now believe to be true. I recall one historian wrote a book called, If the South had Won the Civil War.  We have some of that flavor in the James Thurber story about Grant and Lee at Appomattox, where we see the tables are turned, and Grant, apparently due to the fact that he was drunk, turns his sword over to Lee, and surrenders.  Much has been written about Grant’s drinking habits, and perhaps it is dated humor to make light of his apparent addiction. But the more interesting historical truth is that the evidence of him being an alcoholic is weak and inconclusive. The more pertinent point may be two fold.  First, how often do we humans take the opposite outcome of historical events and ponder how it might have happened differently, and second, how often do we base our historical speculations on erroneous myths.  Here we begin with a scene where everything seems normal, but then history is turned on its head.  It may leave us wondering how history might have changed if just one thing had been different. It also may make us wonder how often our belief about something may be just that, a belief not founded on fact at all.

One of the reasons I wanted to do a lecture on Fuller is that the years 2011-2015 mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and I thought Watertown should have a Civil War program.  In May Watertown’s David Russo will help us celebrate the 125th anniversary of our building with a lecture on its architect, Charles Brigham. Anniversaries help us celebrate the past, mark how we have arrived where we are, and reflect on the meaning of things.  In this vein the first issue of The New Yorker for this year recalled how nineteen fourteen was marked by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the beginning of World War I, and the disaster that was played out when larger national powers become embroiled in local disputes; with implications for 2014 as well as 1914. Then, Adam Gopnik went on to mention an image from our collective memory. He describes a large four funneled ocean liner that departed from Southampton, England with Edward Smith at the helm. It had a reputation for being unsinkable until it came to the ice fields in the North Atlantic.  And what happened when it hit those ice fields?  And what was the ship’s name?  No, I am sorry I forget to tell you the year is 1911, not 1912. We are talking about the Olympic, not the Titanic.  Gopnik reminds us that the stories of the “Two Ships” is useful as we peer into the new year, and into the future of any life, personal or institutional.  Why does the imagination always conjure up the memory of disaster, and not remember the ordinary story of success?  Who ever made a blockbuster film about the ship that made it across?  Who indeed has ever heard of the Olympic?  Take a different turn, and the Titanic might have been the Olympic.    It might have sailed right around those ice fields, as the Olympic did.

The lesson in our pledge drive this year, and perhaps in next year’s capital fund drive as well is beware the predictors of parallels of disaster, while failing to see parallels of hope.  Good planning and believing we can do it may not seem like perfect predictors,  but there are no perfect predictors.  We won’t really know how a pledge drive will turn out until you make your commitments, and we won’t know how much money we can raise in a fund drive until we see the numbers.  But if you say our history has no precedent to raise that kind of money, or we are too small to do that, or that is too much money to raise, what is your presumtion based upon? Small? How many times does someone characterize this church as small?  Well, we have about 125 members.  Do you know that 51 % of UU congregations have less than 100?  Are we small by UU standards?  Do you suppose a $301,000 budget is small?  We have people, we have resources and we have history.  Many years ago you the membership decided that you would not be dependent upon an endowment, but made the commitment to raise the lion’s share of the budget yourselves, and now nearly half of the budget is raised through pledges.    One of our members at Margaret’s ordination saw what another church was doing in their capital fund drive and said, “Hey, let’s shoot higher. We can do that.”  Does someone out there really know where we are going?  Did the church know in 1975 when they tore down the building next door? That sure looked like a surrender. We surely will never get there unless we have the faith, the will and the commitment to get there.  We might get there, and we might not.  We must put ourselves on the prow of the good ship Arbella, and believe we can get to the new world.

Having a successful pledge drive means we need more than a positive attitude.  While a gloomy understanding of history may not be true, and we can find as many predictors of hope as we can of failure, we still cannot be sure. Most of us are well removed from the Great Depression that started with the economic crash of 1929, but the stories told by parents and grandparents still seem to resonate for some. Many people seem to be afraid they will not have enough. As we contemplate how much we will pledge to the church this year, how can we come to see the financial resources we have as living with abundance rather than scarcity?  My father grew up in abject poverty.  He went on to be a successful businessman, and no longer had to live from a perspective of scarcity.  Life was good to him, and he wanted to give back to his children, to his community, and to the workers who labored in the world, just as he had. Because he embraced a life of abundance rather than fear, he was able to be generous with others.  But it is not always true that those who have abundant resources live without fear.  Some are generous and some are not.  If we cultivate generosity in ourselves, then we will see whatever what we have, as abundance, and not scarcity.  And the more generous we become, the more abundance we will feel.

I am trying to learn how to be a generous person.  I think generosity is something that can transform each and every one of us. There is a piece of it in what we have already talked about. We can’t really be generous if we always see the negative predictors.   Second, if we think we have no resources, then we can’t give from whatever abundance we have.  So you start with the idea of hope and trust that we can do it, and you believe that you have enough to make a difference.  Now everyone is generous to some degree. Maybe you cooked a meal for someone, or coached a child,.  But you may not think you are a generous person. It is not a way of life for you, or you do not reach the high standard you have set for what constitutes generosity.   Maybe you don’t think about it very deeply, but give when asked,  to those institutions that matter most to you.  That’s good, too.  But it may not reflect a spirit of generosity that pervades your being, or can make a true difference in the world.

One of my reasons for having student interns is to learn how to be generous. Any teacher must cultivate a spirit of generosity to be a good teacher. With student interns, the obvious challenge is that they take up ministerial air space. Without a student minister, I am the only show in town.  I have no one to compete with me for sermon accolades, pastoral needs, love, attention, affirmation, you name it  Having a ministerial intern also  means I have to give up some control of the exclusive ministerial position.  It is not all mine.  It can cultivate jealousy or envy.  What if I perceive that the intern is better than me, or seems to occupy the attention or affection of a certain segment of the congregation?  Does it feel like a competition some times?  And so having an intern means that I have to share.  I have to share you the congregation.  I have to share my job.  I have to share all my wisdom on what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist minister.  I have to give away myself so that someone else can be successful at my profession.

Mostly these thoughts do not enter my mind, and I do not find the personal threat difficult when working with interns. This challenge is an unspoken and probably even unrealized part of working with students.  It is a joy to share ideas and reactions and motivations with a fledgling colleague, but it also means cultivating a generous spirit – sharing, listening and supporting them. This last line also points to the most difficult part of bringing this wonderful thing called generosity into action.  This year my life has changed once again because I share the pulpit with my wife, Andrea. Mostly Andrea has had to forego her career to raise our three boys, and I have had to earn the living, but also received most of the affection the congregation gives to its ministers.  It seems like it should be the easiest thing in the world to share the pulpit with her. She deserves it.  Yet having said that I must add that his crafting of sermons is the most visible and most rewarding and most affirming thing we do.  It often elicits positive feedback and love and support.  In my vision of cultivating a generous heart, I would always say I want her to do well.  I want people to tell her how great she is, and what a wonderful writer and wise soul she is.  I want to say to her, I am so happy that you can receive this affirmation and love. But honestly, I don’t always feel that way.  Sometimes I think she is better than me. Or a good response makes me feel jealous.  It means I have to give up control of my pulpit.  I feel selfish and mean spirited when that kind of reaction pervades my heart, but it reminds me that I don’t have a generous heart just yet.  If I had that generous heart, I would be thinking about her not me.  But I would also realize what a greater impact we have together.  In the context of the church, I might ask, what does it need, how important is this community in the world, not does it do what I want it to.  If I think of the larger whole, or what all the ministries here provide, then the sum is much great and more beautiful than I could ever do alone.  And isn’t that true of the strength of the whole church when we give to it with generous hearts?

We grow from the ability to give ourselves away. I want to feel glad for her, and not bad for me.  When I feel glad for her, I don’t have to worry about what I have lost, but can feel a greater abundance. You love her, too, as well as me. Together we can give more, and with an intern even more love can be given and received, and together it is powerful.  It does not mean that any one of us is inferior.  We are just different.  And if something is said or done that is not from my perspective that is good, because it means that many points of view and many modes of expression can be welcomed, and not merely one that becomes threatened when it is done a different way.  I think this has implications for church life, too. Are we of generous spirit enough that we can see the other side of an issue?  Does it have to be your agenda becomes the agenda for the church?

Historically congregational members have sometimes based their donation to the church on the whether the minister was worthy of their esteem. In my hometown of New Salem, the church records show the congregation reduced the salary of the minister in the late 1700’s  “ in order to restore harmony to the parish.”  Even here in Watertown, a Mr. Biscoe in the 1640’s decided he would withhold his tax money, and spoke at public meeting with “high words, and to much disturbance” to get his way. While I struggle with those questions in my professional life, perhaps it is worth considering those same questions with respect to congregational behavior, too.  Can we all cultivate a spirit of generosity, where we fulfill the religious impulse to be part of something larger than ourselves? Can we see the other person or the whole for its own beauty, and not as a reflection of my, your or our needs?  Our church life together is not a competition or an accomplishment or something to control, it is about a journey together, and a shared vision for the world.  While my voice is the ministerial one, it is not a solo act, it is a choir, or a congregation that lifts many voices and heals hearts. If I worry that Andrea has a sweeter voice than mine, or Tracy has more wisdom, or Chuck more power then we have diminished the voice of the collective spirit.  We are in a circle of voices, and our generous hearts must create the holy landscape of our congregation – our mountains of hope, our valleys of sorrow, and the ever flowing stream of love that helps save us from spiritual dead ends of self absorption and mistrust.

Generosity can be confused with giving. There are many ways to give, and giving is not always done with a generous spirit.  You may give because you want acclaim.  You may give to get what you want.  You can give to benefit yourself, to create a certain outcome, or to impress others, or you can give money, time, talent, and sermons even, because there is a place in your heart that says this is what is needed. . This community is important enough in the world that I must see it flourish. It has such love.  It does such good.  How would you envision yourself as a generous person?  How would you envision this congregation as a center for generous people.  Together we would not be thinking about what we could get personally, but instead we would be thinking about who we could be as a people, and what kind of impact this religious community could have on the world if we really lived by “love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.”  Your generosity in this pledge drive can help this church live its covenant. I am trying to cultivate generosity in me.  I hope you do the same.  Together our generosity can bring the compassion of our faith into action.


Closing Words – from Kahlil Gibran


You often say; I would give, but only to the deserving, The trees in your orchard say not so , nor the flocks in your pasture.  Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and nights is worthy of all else from you.  And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream. See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving. For in truth it is life that gives unto life-while you, who deem yourself a giver, is but a witness.”