First Unitarian Church of Providence
worship & spiritual practice
about sunday services


Canvass Kickoff: A Charge to the Congregation
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 6, 2016

Click Here to Download or Use the Audio Player Below to Listen to This Sermon.

Our first reading is from the Book of Matthew in the Christian Scriptures:
As evening approached, the disciples came to [Jesus] and said, "This is a remote place, and it's already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food." Jesus replied, "They do not need to go away. Give them something to eat." "We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish," they answered. "Bring them here to me," he said. And he [invited] the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate, and were satisfied. And the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was [more than 10,000].
Our second reading today is a quote from retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor:
We don't accomplish anything in this world alone... and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.

There's a prophetic little story about a minister who stands before the congregation to announce the start of the annual pledge drive. He confidently declares, "I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is – we already have all the money we need for this year's canvass campaign! The bad news is – the money is all still in your wallets and purses, and in your bank accounts. All that's left to do now,” he assures them, “is to redeem that money, to move it from where it's just sitting to where it's most needed."

The truth of it is, I come to you today with a couple of stories that have both good news and even better news. I love the tradition of telling stories in our community gatherings. From the beginning of human awareness, we have gathered around the communal fire and told stories that might help us to find and make deeper meaning and stronger connections in and with our lives, individually and as a part of the societies we keep.

The first story is the one that you just heard from the Book of Matthew, the story of the loaves and the fishes. I know that a lot of people enjoy getting their knickers all in a twist over the validity of Bible stories. The Bible can provide people with a map for living; it’s not the terrain itself. It's filled with rich symbolism, and metaphor, and stories of myth that can help us to find both value and direction. Renowned mythologist Robert A. Johnson speaks of myth as a means of passing on invaluable truths. They're not necessarily true on their outside, he suggests, but they hold great truth on the inside.

That's how I see the story of the loaves and the fishes. There are folks who want to believe that Jesus was a great magician, capable of doing all kinds of parlor tricks. I don't believe that the story has anything to do with magically creating thousands of loaves of bread and thousands of fish out of just a few. That would be cheap. The story doesn't even say he changed the one into the other. It says that he blessed them and then had them distributed.

What I think happened on that hillside was that Jesus knew those people would be getting hungry, and he knew that they weren’t fools. In those days there weren't a lot of restaurants around, so people carried food with them. When the people saw that Jesus and the disciples were distributing what they had, it was okay for them to share the food they’d brought as well. The food was there all along; the people just needed to be led by generosity to know that sharing their food was a good thing for everyone. That was the miracle!

Think of our potluck dinners here; people don't just bring food. They bring their best food. When we work together to fulfill our wants, we find that we are all more able to get the best of what we need. When we each do our part, there is always enough for everyone.

There’s another layer to the metaphor in this story that I'd like to mention. There is a very physical need that is being met by the sharing of the loaves and fishes. And more, there is a very spiritual need that's being met through the generosity that is being expressed by those who share what they have. It's a story of the Flesh and of the Spirit.

There's another story that I love, an old Buddhist tale. In it, a person moves to a new village. Soon after his arrival, he learns that there is a bodhisattva who lives in the town. A bodhisattva, some of you may know, is a nearly enlightened person, on the threshold of Buddha-hood. So this man goes to the bodhisattva and says, "I've just moved here and I'm very curious. I'm wondering, if you can tell me what the people in this town are like? What might I expect from them?"

The bodhisattva looks at the man and replies, "Before I answer your question, let me ask you one. Tell me, what were the people like where you used to live? What could you expect from those people?"

"Well, I guess I would have to say that they were not very nice; they were not kind. People were nasty to each other. Truth is, I wasn't sorry that I had to leave that place. And so I'm wondering, what are the people like here?"

With a very solemn expression, the bodhisattva replied, "I'm afraid I have some bad news. You’ll find the people you meet here to be very much like the ones you left behind."

Several months pass, maybe years. Another person moves to the town. She, too, learns of the bodhisattva who lives there and goes to visit the compassionate one. "I've come to ask a question," she began. "I've just moved here and I'm very curious. I'm wondering, if you can tell me what the people in this town are like? What might I expect from them?"

The bodhisattva looks at the woman and replies, "Before I answer your question, let me ask you one. Tell me, what were the people like where you used to live? What could you expect from those people?"

"Well," she began, “I would have to say that the people there were as good as any I could imagine. They were kindhearted; they would look for occasions to do things for one another, opportunities just to be nice. It was hard for me to leave that place, but this is where I live now. And so I wonder, what are these people like?"

The bodhisattva spoke through a gentle smile and said, "I'm delighted to say that I have some very good news for you."

To a very significant extent, my friends, we do create and re-create the world that we live in. In this world, there is everything that we need. The question is – are we willing to expend what we have in order to promote what we need? For a congregation, we might frame the question as – are we willing to utilize our individual resources in order to promote our common quest, our shared vision? Are we willing to give what we have, to do our part in securing this community for ourselves, for our children and for the untold generations yet to come?

Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, "We don't accomplish anything in this world alone... and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something."

We are here to be intentional in the weaving of this tapestry that holds us all. We are here to join together in support of answering life's call to find and make meaning in and with our lives. We are here to support this institution for ourselves and others. We are here to create and to be co-creators in the beloved community that we want to enjoy, that we want to be a part of in this world. We are here to be the change and the agents of change that we know to be needed in our lives and in our world.

Your pledge drive co-chairs and their committee have come before you today in the practice of the time-honored, annual tradition of the pledge drive. They've asked you to join them, your Prudential Committee, your Search Committee and your Deacons in promising to be good stewards of this church community that you all love so well.

It would be very nice if you could just do what you've always done and that would be enough to pay the bills and help you grow into the future that you are seeking. The truth is, there are more things that must be taken into consideration. Your Pledge Drive Committee will lead this effort, but whether or not it is successful is up to all of you.

Herein begins the charge I offer you this morning.

When I delivered a sermon on stewardship a month ago, I mentioned some things that I didn't want to talk about at that time. Now it's time to acknowledge them:
  • your staff is underpaid and, given its size, this congregation is understaffed;
  • given the demographics of this congregation you have much lower than average high pledges here at First Unitarian;
  • you even have substantially low average pledges;
  • finally, your church has, for a long time, been operating its day-to-day budget by borrowing from the bequests left by those now gone, who wanted to secure the future of these facilities for you and for those who will come after you.
There isn't time or inclination in a short sermon to go through data from the budget and a breakdown of who needs to do what in order to put the future of this congregation on as solid a foundation as the one left to you by those who came before. Your pledge team is asking for very moderate increases in order to have a successful drive. They're the ones doing the heavy lifting here and I trust we all appreciate their service to the congregation. I would suggest that a way of expressing that appreciation might be to exceed the modest increases that they are suggesting. Radical increases would enable you to pay for the present and endow the future, bringing an end to raiding the interest of the endowments so that it can be used in the way it was intended.

I need to reiterate a caveat that is essential. This church needs those of you who live under stressed financial circumstances to recognize that you are not in a position to provide the financial support that might be available from others. This church needs you to recognize that your presence provides substantial support for all the aspirations that this congregation holds. That’s what you bring to the table, and we are grateful for it.

That said, there is much more that many here are capable of doing. Your church needs for those of you with deep pockets to dig even deeper. It needs those of you with more modest means to consider seriously the value and the potential of this congregation in your life, in the community and in the future, and then to support it at a level which shows your gratitude, your faith and your hope. Perhaps that level is 100% to 200% higher than what you might be contributing at this point. To get where I think you want to be as a religious community, it is time to think of stewardship in a whole new light.

As Jesus did when he called forth the loaves and fishes from his disciples, your Pledge Drive Committee has called upon the Deacons, the Search Committee and the PruCom to join them in beginning the miracle of myriad gifts, and they are now asking you to join them. It's time to think about what your congregation can do, can be, if everyone shares according to their ability to share..

And more, it's time to think about what is the very best dish that you can bring to this feast? What kind of community do you need, do you want to participate, as best you can, in creating? We are talking about the very real physical demands of running an operation such as this. And more, we are talking about the spiritual needs that are addressed and met when our grateful response to what we have, to what can yet be, is generosity.

The truth of it is that I come to you today with some very good news and with even better news. The good news is that we already have all the money that we need for this year's drive. The even better news is that those resources are still at your disposal. The possibility of transformation is what lies in the balance. All that's left to do is to move that money from where it's just sitting to where it's most needed. All that's left to do is to redeem what is for what yet can be.