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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 6, 2011

A Meditation on Money and Spirituality

And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury; and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast more in than all they, which have cast into the treasury. For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.

— Mark 12:41-44

When they had come, they said to Him, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and care about no one; for you do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?” But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why do you test me? Bring me a denarius that I may see it.” So they brought it. And he said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at Him.

— Mark 12:14-17

As I think most here know; I’m expected to come up with sermon titles well in advance of actually writing them. Often, okay, pretty much always, I have no idea where that title is going to lead. It’s more a distant beacon largely obscured by fog. I just glimpse that far away dim light, and start out on a journey of discovery. I’ve found that journey often reveals small and large things about our human condition that makes the enterprise worthwhile. And, if not, I just tack left and see what’s there. So far always something comes up.

So, following this principle, way back when, when I had to produce a title for this Sunday, I knew I’d be talking about the canvass kick off and with that how swimming around my subconscious is pretty much the entire King James Bible, the obvious title that popped was something about the “Widow’s Mite.” Way better, it seemed to me than the traditional title for such a Sunday, “The Sermon on the Amount.”

Then, a few weeks later Fred tells me he has a spectacular piece of music turning on the “Render Unto Caesar” passage, and the next thing I knew I’m down the rabbit hole. Jesus and money. With those words I began to focus my attention. It turns out Jesus says a lot of things about money. And almost none of it is good. Those few places where it is approving, well, there’s serious doubt in some academic circles about whether he actually said those things. For instance, while the rendering unto Caesar thing is well attested, many scholars doubt Jesus said any such thing about the Widow’s mite, and if he did, they tend to concur it was probably meant more along the lines of a comment on another passage where he says those in authority are inclined to take even a widow’s last possession.

This all reflects Jesus’ jaundiced view about the world. Which if you’ve read the New Testament makes sense. Jesus was all about the kingdom, which was right around the corner. In fact he had relentless harsh words for people who put any hope in this world. Actually this is a recurring theme in many religions. I’ve seen similar expressions of dismissal about the world in most every religion, except perhaps the two great indigenous religions of China, Confucianism and Taoism. And, I’d add, in our times, Unitarian Universalism, which I believe, is arguably in many ways a Western Taoism, with a dash of Western Confucianism to give it a little spice. But, I digress. Of the great world denying faiths, there’s the greatest urgency in Jesus’ message, more than is found in most other of the world’s faiths.

As one friend observed that urgency and what it means makes a big difference between Jesus and Buddha, another of the great world deniers. Jesus’ ministry, depending on which source you prefer, lasted only one or three years. Then he was killed and his admirers were left to pick up the pieces. The Buddha, whose ministry lasted forty years moved from a similar disdain with the matters of the world, to eventually accepting a gift of property where he and his monks could go each year to spend the rainy season. But, whether with the relentlessness of a brief ministry of its founder, or an extended period of time where the founder himself has to deal with what actually arises in this world, each community had at some point to deal with what it means to live within history.

The style of all this reminds me a little of David Lloyd George, who many ages ago wryly observed how, “A young man who isn’t a socialist hasn’t got a heart, (while) an old man who is a socialist hasn’t got a head.” Now, don’t get confused about what the old boy was saying. He’s the most important figure in establishing Britain’s welfare state, creating a social democracy that provided a way through the twin perils of communism and fascism. He knew the need for heart and the need for head.

What I find in all this is a warning about idealism untempered by pragmatism. And with that the cascade of problems that emerge when our ideals are cut off from the world of which we are such intimate parts. The question for us here might well be how do we support our spiritual ideals while living fully in this world? And with that the questions that immediately follow, what should this full living look like? And what does it actually look like? In sum what does it mean to be spiritual and worldly at the same time? What does the work of love look like?

Well, I think it might look a lot like us here. We’re a gathering of people who have a sense of urgency. We know our kids need attention right now. We know justice calls right now. We also know we live in a building put up by people long dead, and we are partially supported by an endowment put together by far sighted people over many generations.

Additionally, we here in this Meeting House have come together for any number of reasons, many of which would not be recognizable by those who founded this community. We are, after all, the original Open Source Religion. Our faith is dynamic and questing. We count among us as beloved members people who are all about the spiritual and others who can’t quite figure out what that word is supposed to mean. The deal we’ve cut when we sign our covenant is to remain present to each other, to learn from each other, to grow deep together. It is a dynamic manifestation of love, for each other, for ourselves, for this world. And from that place we find here, to act usefully in this world.

So there are challenges for all of us. It just comes with the territory. One we ignore at our peril is to what degree do we need this community to continue? This question matters for ourselves, for those we care about, for those who have yet to find their way through these doors. We need, every once in a while, to wrestle with this. Why are we here? And, what is it worth to us?

I think of when my mother died. She had been ill for a while and we lucky that she was able to die at home with us. I was serving our community in suburban Phoenix. It was the church reaching out that meant so much in that hard time, before her death, and very much after. I think of how I’ve been allowed to join with a number of you to do some real work for justice, because you all feel this is important, right now. Also, I think of how a well placed question or challenge, sometimes even a word of encouragement has allowed me to go another step forward on my own spiritual journey, words that almost certainly would never have been spoken in another place than this. I hope you’ve had similar experiences. I know if you put yourself in the right places, you will. For me I cannot overstate my love for our Unitarian Universalist community writ large, and for the specific communities and people that make it what it is, and specifically for the First Unitarian Church of Providence.

This historic landmark building is a wonder to behold, a lovely shelter for the birds of paradise that gather here with all sorts of colorful plumage. The programming that goes on within these walls and within the walls of the Parish House immediately behind is strong, we can grow deep here. We have a vision of the world that is at once hurt and beautiful. We see our human condition as one that is marked by wounds, some quite deep, and yet is capable of healing here, right here. This way is not world denying, it is life affirming. We see a need for a larger vision of the world than we’re just in this life for ourselves. And we, each in our own way, each as best we can, give of ourselves to make it happen.

So, the point of this reflection is another question. What are we willing to do to support the mission, to support this church? In this place where our spiritual aspirations are given a cradle, where they are nourished, and from which we can go out into the world, inspired and prepared, what are you willing to do to support it?

We need your time and your energy. This community can only exist because you care and you are willing to take on the various tasks that make us who we are.

And, let’s not be shy about it, we need your money. Today, as I speak to you already we’ve collected nearly a hundred thousand dollars in pledges, about a quarter of what we need to just keep even with our current program. The average pledge to date is about twenty two hundred dollars. That’s good news for those who care about our mission, who think what we’re doing is worthwhile.

Now, whatever Jesus actually meant about the Widow’s mite, those who have little, but give generously out of what they have deserve being held up ever as much as those who give larger amounts but smaller parts of their income. There are members of our community for whom a hundred dollar pledge is an incredible expression of commitment. And if that is your situation, thank you so much.

All we are asking is for people to be as generous as is reasonable considering your circumstances. And, so, if you’re not in that position of terribly straightened conditions, I’m asking you to seriously consider a much large pledge. If you’ve been sitting at three or four or five hundred dollars, and really can do better, please do. Consider doubling that number. We need for each of us to give from where we’re actually at, seriously supporting what is going on here. We need to increase our average pledge from its current level of just over a thousand dollars, just to keep the program going as it is

And, if we could move from this plateau, we could do so much more. And no doubt, there is much more to do. So, I’m asking you to think about that, and what you might actually be able to do to support the mission, to support our work, to support this community.

(Neil Bartholomew explains nuts and bolts here)

The great Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies sang to us about who we are and what we’re up to, when he told us, “When… individuals meet, so do… private worlds. None of our private worlds is big enough for us to live a wholesome life. We need the wider world of joy and wonder, of purpose and venture, of toil and tears. What are we, any of us, but strangers and sojourners forlornly wandering through the nighttime, until we draw together and find the meaning of our lives in one another, dissolving our fears in each other’s courage, making music together, and lighting torches to guide us through the dark? We belong together. Love is what we need. To love and to be loved.”

This is our project. This is our mission.

Please allow this work not just to survive, but to flourish. These times are hard. What we do is more needed than ever. Please give it your heart. Please give it your time. And, please, support it with the most generous pledge you can.

Thank you.

And, amen.