16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
The Wisdom of Generosity
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 03/11/2007
Every religious tradition has stories of people who had little but gave it away to someone else who needed it more. The story about the widow’s mite in the New Testament tells of a poor widow who gives the only money she has which is two mites, the equivalent of two pennies, to help others who have nothing. In Buddhism, while the Buddha is meditating he eats very little and becomes very weak. A young maid sees how ill he is and goes home to get him a bowl of milk and rice. She brings it back to him and saves his life.
I want to put your minds at ease. Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in making others feel guilty. Each of us carries a ton of guilt ourselves about not doing enough for humanity, saving the world, and cleaning up the environment. So, we certainly don’t want to add to someone else’s guilt. We figure you’ve already got enough of that and we don’t want to add to it.
So, guilt is not the motivating factor for giving in our congregations. So, what is?
James Baldwin, an African American writer, writes about how giving anything should come from oneself, and doesn’t come without risk. (This excerpt is taken from Rev. Virgina Safford’s sermon, “All That’s Past is Prologue”, 2001)
It is rare indeed that people give.
I hear in this statement two major new ways of looking at giving. First, that what prevents us from giving is a feeling that we are keeping ourselves safe within our own “system of reality”. In other words, giving something away somehow makes us afraid that we won’t have enough. That we have to hold onto what we have, in order to make our own lives safe. And secondly, that in giving something to others, we risk something. What we risk is that we will change with our gift.
This is what I think is revolutionary in our Unitarian Universalist communities. Most of our communities expect people to risk. We don’t ask them to follow a certain set of beliefs. We don’t ask them to follow prescribed rituals or a set of commandments. But we do ask people to get involved in their spiritual community. We expect people will risk themselves enough to give a little of themselves, enough to become transformed by community.
Now that is risky. That is very risky. It’s risky because congregations are made up of human beings. And human beings are not perfect. We are all flawed. And try as we might, when we try to love and accept each other as we are, we sometimes make mistakes. And sometimes, we hurt each other. So, in joining a congregation where community is at the heart- not religious beliefs, not blind faith, but becoming part of a community, we can get hurt.
We are asked to give in such a community. We are asked to give our time, we are asked to get involved in some way, we are asked to give our money, and we are asked to give ourselves to become a part of the community. This isn’t like a cult where you are asked to give up yourself to become part of the community. Not by any means. We want to know you as you are and to let us share in the rich gifts which you bring to this community.
John C. Morgan, one of our UU ministers said, “A true community does not ask us to give ourselves up to a greater cause, but to bring ourselves to the cause and share. And therein is the true radical nature of forming a community: a process whereby we are introduced to one another as we are.” (Morgan, John C., Awakening the Soul, Skinner House, 2001)
And this is a little risky. Because becoming a part of a community where people are asked to come and participate “as they are” means we need to come and offer our selves. Not some phony part of ourselves. We don’t expect people to be “holy” or “religious”. We don’t look to see if people are coming every Sunday, if they are bowing down to the right gods, if they are morally righteous. We simply say “Come on in, be a part of our community. Bring who you are and share in our Beloved Community.”
Giving to something that you believe in does change you however. And that’s a little risky.
Someone who knows about risk in giving is Victoria Hale, founder of the worldwide non-profit drug company One World Health. Victoria was an executive at an American drug researcher, Genentech. Genentach was one of the first companies in the industry to use genetic manipulation to develop drugs. She worked for them in licensing and marketing drugs. She had previously worked in the Food and Drug Administration so she was familiar with the bureaucracy involved in getting a drug licensed.
Hale visited India one day on a business trip but took extra time to explore the kinds of sicknesses that were rampant in India for which drugs were almost non-existent because Western drug companies didn’t waste their time developing drugs for illnesses that mostly existed in third world countries. Hale saw the affects of these illnesses first hand. She was in a cab going to the airport when she told a cab driver that she worked for an American drug company. He laughed out loud and said that she was working for people who owned all the drugs and all the money in the world. After that trip, she came home and quit her job.
She wanted to find a way to develop drugs that could be used in third world countries that would either go around the drug companies or would use their discards. She studied many diseases and finally decided on Black Fever as the disease that she wanted to tackle.
Black Fever is caused by a bite from the tiny sandfly and the outcome is nearly always fatal. The drugs available had become ineffective in fighting this disease. There was another drug for fighting Black Fever, but the drug companies hadn’t bothered to manufacture enough of it since third world countries couldn’t pay for it. Hale decided to work with the drug industries to get them to change their ways. Founding One World Health, she got backing from no other than Bill Gates. She has been successful in developing the needed drug in house. Hale has not only changed the way drug companies work with non-profits but she has gotten the attention of the rest of the world to the problem of market driven drug manufacturing.
This career change was extremely risky. Hale and her husband used all of their savings to attempt to find the right drug for Black Fever. And she might not have been successful in finding funding. She transformed not only her own life and how she feels about her place in the world; she transformed a whole industry.
Luckily, I don’t think you need to give up your job, and found a charitable organization in order to transform your lives. Being a part of a spiritual community like Sugarloaf will change your life enough.
One way that I think life changes when we join a spiritual community is that we are given opportunities to examine our values. Every week we come together and we often talk about values, what is important to us, and what isn’t important. I am continually amazed by the balance that I often see in your lives. In your busy lives, filled with families, friends, your involvement in this community, your work, and your fun time, I often see people who seem to know what they value. Your values are reflected in what you do with your time, and what you do with your money.
Rabbi Harold Kushner said, “The purpose of life is not to win. The purpose of life is to grow and share. When you come to look back on all that you have done in life, you will get more satisfaction from the pleasure you brought to other’s people’s lives than you will from the times you outdid and defeated them.” (excerpted from Maxwell, John C., Today Matters) When I look around at the people in this congregation, I realize that you know this concept better than most people. I don’t see materialistic, striving to succeed, consumer driven people here. I see people who care about each other, who want this community to strive, who want to create more opportunities for others to learn about Unitarian Universalism.
When I thought and thought about the best example to give about generosity, I kept coming back to you. You all are the most incredible examples I know of personally of people who give their time, their money, and their shared commitment to building something of value for others. You do this over and over again.
When we think again of James Baldwin’s definition of giving as being a risk for giving oneself. The building of our new yurt and Sugarloaf House is an incredible example of risk. You all risked the possibility that this project would not succeed. You all risked that the time you all put into it would be all for naught. And you all risked considerable financial contributions in attempting this.
And now, we see the result. In our hymnal we have these words from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” In your commitment, you took a risk, and now not only is the work done, but we are transformed by what we have done.
Giving yourself changes you. We are all transformed by what we commit to. We commit to the people we love and we are transformed by their love. We commit to our jobs and we are transformed by what we learn every day about ourselves when we work. We commit ourselves to this community in various ways, everyone in different ways. And we are transformed by being a part of a Beloved Community.
Everyone gives in different ways. Some of you give your talents to various committees. The Finance Committee has a deeply committed group who also like Scotch. The people involved in RE are very serious and professional in what they do every day for our children. You can tell who they are- they are the ones covered in red and green paint and whose fingernails are a little scraped by a serious chair project they’re committed to. The music people are a wonderfully creative people who give their time every week to creating wonderful contributions to our Sundays services in ways that transform our services spiritually. And the Board- you tell them by the circles under their eyes. They attend endless meetings and do a lot of our worrying for us.
How are we transformed by the experience of being a part of this community? Let me tell you about someone who came to this community when she was in her most difficult days. A year ago in the fall, an older woman came in our front door not knowing to come to the side door. She came in in the middle of the service, not being sure when our service started. And when I saw her out of the corner of my eye, I smiled. She sat down in front and stayed through the service. After the service, I went up to her and welcomed her. She told me that she lived in Gaithersburg in the summer, and usually traveled to Florida in the fall to live for the winter. She wasn’t a part of a UU congregation here, but she was very involved in her congregation in Ft. Myers. But this year was different. She and her husband weren’t traveling to Florida because his cancer had progressed to this point that they knew that he would die in a matter of weeks. She had heard about our congregation from her minister in Florida and she was coming so that she would have somewhere to go for support during what she knew would be a difficult time.
This was Mary. She started coming every Sunday and she would occasionally do to lunch with the lunch bunch after church. She started coming to Spirituality Group, too. When I would go to visit her and her husband, she told me that it meant the world to her that she had a UU congregation that she could be a part of at that time. I asked Jim Wyckoff to go with me one of the times I was visiting, and Jim visited with Mary’s husband while I took Mary out for lunch.
After about six weeks, Mary’s husband died. She came to church that Sunday and told us at Joys and Concerns. She was surrounded with people giving her hugs and offering their help.
Mary stayed in the area for another two months, during which some of us felt quite close to her. When she left to go back to Florida, she told me that she just didn't know how she would have gottten through this time without us. We represented for her people she could trust that she could lean on like a family, which she no longer had. Even though we were relatively strangers, we became her Beloved Community since she was away from her own. We held her and cared for her as one of our own. We risked ourselves and she was transformed by our care.
All of you do something to add to the kind of community we are. A little of this and a little of that. It all comes together to create a community. A community that reaches out to others and offers comfort at a time of need. A community where people can come in and be accepted for who they are and what they need.
The money that we pledge as a part of our annual stewardship campaign allows this community to be able to pay our mortgage, pay your staff, and eventually to heat and light our new buildings. It enables this community to do what it does so well.
So earlier I asked, guilt is not the motivating factor for Unitarian Universalists to give to their religious community. So, what is? I think it’s because of our commitment to a Beloved Community. A community that transforms us as we give of ourselves. A community that transforms others by what we give.
You are a giving, generous congregation. And I know you will continue to be this. I’m continually amazed by the way you each step up to the table and give what you know you must to keep this thing going. I am inspired to be a part of you. I have been transformed by knowing you. As I know you each are transformed by the generous commitment you each make for this Beloved Community.