16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Giving the Gift of Community: Stewardship Sunday
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 03/07/2010
It is my belief that every community needs to hear their story. They need to hear it again and again, at different times and phases of their development, because the same story will have different meanings at each of those times. A community needs to hear their story to remember who they are, and to help them decide who they’d like to become.
I think Sugarloaf needs to hear a story of its own today, a story from the recent past. If I were to put a title on this story, I would call it “A Miracle Happened Here: Sugarloaf Congregation, 2009.” That’s right, I said 2009. I’m talking about the miracle that happened here over the course of the last church year.
“What!?” I imagine many of you are thinking. “Last year? Last year was horrible! It was heartwrenching, full of betrayal and shock and conflict and fear and hard work! I didn’t think we’d ever get out of last year, and I have spent all of this year trying not to think about it! I can’t imagine a worse year for a church than the one we had here last year!”
And of course, there’s a lot of merit to that thought. Last year WAS hard – it was emotionally hard and it was hard work and it is hard to think about and I’ve encouraged all of you, this year so far, to simply catch your breath and think peaceful thoughts and enjoy being together and so on. But make no mistake – last year was a miracle year for SCUU.
There was the miracle that happened in the midst of the conflict that occurred as a result of a founding member’s arrest, when confusion and conflicting feelings turned into outright conflict and some nasty behavior. Your leadership, including the minister at the time, your board, and you as a congregation took the steps you needed to take to quell the problematic behavior that escalated that conflict to dangerous levels. As a culmination of that leadership, you voted in your annual meeting in June to support a form of communication with each other that respected your covenant, that respected the democratic process, that respected the Unitarian Universalist ideal that even when we don’t agree we can still remain in relationship. You voted to say that in this community, behavior that destroys relationship needs to stop. You voted for that, and that hard work of last year is what has enabled this year to be one of recovery, of breathing, of coming to terms with what happened a little bit, at least on the individual level if perhaps not quite yet as a group.
As important as that work was, however, that is not the miracle to which I am referring when I talk about the Miracle of 2009. I’m talking about the other miracle.
See, Sugarloaf was founded (almost 15 years ago) with a lot of attention from the Unitarian Universalist Association, because the UUA was interested – at that time – in starting churches with the potential for numerical growth. What that means, practically speaking, is that Sugarloaf through its history has been given substantial financial grants to run – grants to start up, grants to hire a full time minister, grants to move to a new property. And when grants weren’t available, what are known in SCUU financial circles as our “angels” stepped in – mostly people, and also our parent congregations such as Cedar Lane and River Road - filling significant gaps in our budget with gifts of their own.
I’m sure everyone in this room can imagine what can happen to an organization that is substantially funded by time-limited or one-time grants. Eventually, the grants vanish. And that happened to Sugarloaf, right in the middle of the chaos of last year, right in the middle of a search for a new minister – the news came in that the grants that had been sustaining the congregation had all trickled away, leaving a hole in the budget pretty much the size of the yurt.
I was watching all of this from the distance, I want you to know. I was on the other side of the search process from you all, hoping to find a congregation that I could fit into, that I could lend some skill to, that I could help as it navigated the work it was called to do. I had my eye on Sugarloaf, and I often checked in with Myron – who was the interim minister here for two years - to see how things were going. So I heard about your conflict, and, more ominously, I heard about this budget gap and the ways in which you set about trying to figure out what to do with yourselves.
Conflict is bad, and it’s hard to deal with – but having no money is worse. Having no money means the doors have to close, and your options as a church really become limited when that happens. There is no possibility of redemption when your congregation ceases to exist. You can’t forgive or move on or learn if you haven’t got a church anymore. So for those watching from the outside, like I was last year, the financial situation here at Sugarloaf superseded the conflict situation, becauseeverything was going to end and SOON if you all didn’t figure something out for yourselves.
I was so impressed with how you as a community went about deciding what to do about your budget gap, with your four town hall meetings and your careful laying out of options for vote – so proud, really, even though I wasn’t a part of you yet.
Because there are two easy solutions to a yurt-sized budget hole, and one hard one. The two most expensive things a church pays for is their minister and their property. So the two easy – and I say easy because they are so obvious – the two easy solutions for Sugarloaf would have been to stop your search for a minister, or to sell this rather expensive piece of land that the congregation owns.
And I, an outsider who didn’t know much about you yet, assumed you would take one of those two easier paths – I think most of us ministers in the area and the district leaders and the denomination as a whole just assumed you would do one of those two things, forego the minister or let go of the property.
In so doing, in my opinion, you would have really hurt Sugarloaf’s long term prospects. Not because I or any other minister would personally be so great, and not because this particular property is so defining or important, but because having a minister and a place to meet is a way of signaling to yourselves and to the world that you are a functioning church, not just a group in a holding pattern waiting for something to change down the line.
But obviously I didn’t know you well enough yet to know what you would do. It didn’t occur to us on the outside that you would skip the two easy solutions entirely and you as a group would choose to do the hard thing instead – pledging enough money to fill the financial gap yourselves, turning yourselves into, possibly for the first time in your history, a self-sustaining congregation run with the ongoing financial pledges of your membership. But that’s what you now are, and that’s the Miracle of 2009: The Miracle that Happened Here. You substantially raised your pledges, and you cut the hell out of your budget, and you carved a little space out of the chaos of the storm where we could all get in together, pretty much crisis-free.
What does it say about a place when people work this hard to save it? There is something happening here in this congregation that you didn’t want to let die. The catch-all term for it is “community.” In fact, when asked as a group last year what you valued the very most about Sugarloaf, you most often said the word community, which is why it looms so large on that wordle on the back of the new black SCUU t-shirt that you’ll see folks wearing here and there.
But community can mean many different things. It can be the people you see everyday at Starbucks, or the other parents at the PTA meeting. It can be the crowd at Panera in downtown Germantown at lunchtime, or the kids who hang out by the library. The word community can refer to the accidental grouping of folks who find themselves doing the same things in the same place. That’s one way of doing community, but it’s not what we do here, and most folks wouldn’t go to extreme measures to save that sort of community if it were in danger.
The kind of community we have here is different than an accidental grouping. In asking what sort of community we have at Sugarloaf, I invite you to reflect on some differences between here and the world outside.
What happens differently when you meet someone new here that doesn’t happen when you meet someone new at work, or at a coffee shop in town?
What makes singing in the Sunday choir different from singing in the shower?
What makes hearing this sermon sitting next to people who went through all the horror and hard work of last year a different experience than it will ever be for someone simply reading the sermon online at some time in the future?
And what made all of you, last year, simply refuse to let this place die or even be substantially damaged when you were very much down for the count? What made you buckle down and offer your own sweat and blood, your own hard won treasure, to keep us here and moving forward?
What makes a congregation, THIS congregation, substantially more meaningful as a community than many of the other communities to which we belong?
I’ve been quoting Martin Luther King many Sundays lately, and he has something to say to us about this, too: he writes that “creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community... He who works against community is working against the whole of creation…” And agape love – the sort of compassionate love we do in church - “[a]gape is love seeking to preserve and promote community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community.”
Any length – that’s where I have learned that Sugarloaf is willing to go. I saw it last year from a distance and I’ve experienced it this year up close and personal. I have learned how great a length the membership here is willing to go to maintain our community – not an accidental community where people find themselves together because of circumstance, but an intentional community where people find themselves together because they choose to work together towards a brighter future, a future filled with spiritual depth, solid relationships, and doing good for others.
If you’ve been listening carefully to the story I’ve been telling, you’ll remember that the pledging work that you did last year enabled us to survive for another year, to carve a small safe place out of the storm so that we could take a moment and get our bearings. That work is not done, not yet. The 2010 Pledge Drive mission is this:to sustain our vision of ourselves with a half-time minister and a growing, beloved community. In other words, in order to maintain the hopeful place where we are, in order to give us a foundation from which we can launch, we need to do this: We must continue to pledge we promised last year, and also increase it by 15%. That’s what we need to keep on the self-sustaining track that we put ourselves on last year, the track that led to my being here and us all still here on this hillside and our budget being merely strained but not riddled with holes.
I know times are tough. I know few of us are swimming in extra funds. But I remind you of what we’re supporting, what you couldn’t let die when it would have been easy to last year: your religious Community. The kind of community markedly different from any other community you’re a part of. The kind of community that is not accidental, but intentional. The kind of community where we sing together and learn together and work together, not alone. The kind of community where who youare is deepened and fulfilled. The kind of community you’d go to any lengths to restore. The kind of community that so many of you have already gone to great lengths to restore. The kind of community that leads to this [indicate Giving Tree]. The kind of community that, frankly speaking, cannot BE, not without your help.
The miracle within the Miracle that Happened Here last year is that in churches, we are always restoring, always renewing, always replenishing. We don’t yet know what more we’ll be able to do here if we try. But we know we need to be here to do it, whatever it may be.
This week is pledge week, and a pledge captain will be contacting you about what you’ll be able to offer to support your congregation this year. When that happens, please do your part, once again, to maintain this, your most Beloved Community. Because there are so many questions at Sugarloaf yet to be answered, so many places still to go. What do we want to do with ourselves, now that we are here and relatively crisis-free? What potential do we want to live into? How can we take this religious community we’ve chosen and created and use it to do the most good for the most people? How do we deepen ourselves way down while we spread our wisdom out wide to the world that so desperately needs us? These questions are before us now in a way that they wouldn’t have been but for last year’s miracle, but they need us to live them into reality this year.
These Sugarloaf questions need you. They need you to say that although you don’t know all the answers to the questions quite yet, at some level, all the answers are this: Yes.