“For all that is our life we sing our thanks and praise;
for all life is a gift which we are called to use
to build the common good and make our own days glad.”
I love this hymn; I always have. But now, how much that hymn encompasses the past year especially. The needs, the services, the work, the rewards, the love, the sorrow, the failures, pain and loss, the new things learned, the fearful hours that pass – all of it, all of it has been so present for every single one of us, over and over again, and for all of us together, this community, again and again. We’ve heard so much about what that has been like in the sharing videos people contributed for this service today. Love beyond belief, in so many forms, across so many days, it’s all right there, in all the ways we’ve been reminded of this morning and so many more that were not captured for this service.
When I hear all the work and goodness and courage and creativity and spirituality and faithfulness and loving that has gone into this past year – that has been a bulwark for so many within and well beyond this church – I realize that from all the details, from all of you, the individual members and friends and ideas and efforts and commitment – comes a larger creation, all that is the life of the church as an entity, the shared, cumulative living life of First U. I sing my thanks and praise this morning for the life of this church. It too is a gift which we are called to use to build the common good and to make our own days glad.
And we have done that, in this time of massive challenge, we saw that hand in hand with the challenges came opportunities, and the church has leaned into every single challenge or opportunity we could perceive. We could have just hunkered down, trimmed our plans, done less and tried to wait it out. We did the opposite, we made the most faithful choices we could, we reached out, we added to our plans, we did more than ever before, we worked to support our values in the national election, we blazed a path towards new ways to work against racism in ourselves and in the world, and constantly we strove to change the path of this pandemic, and cushion its impact for every one we could.
Earlier in our reading, the American poet Alberto Rios reminded us that we are like rivers, and the flow of our living is giving, a current, that moves between and beyond us with myriad forms. It is multifaceted with countless experiences and understandings, wounds and hopes. The scope of it is ancient and boundless. But for all that, it all comes down, every time, to the personal, to what passes between us all, hand to hand, mine to yours, yours to mine. “You gave me blue” he writes, “and I gave you yellow. Together we are simple green.”
I don’t know what Alberto Rios meant us to understand with those lines but immediately my mind jumps to crayons, and kindergarten, when you needed someone else’s color and they could use yours. I remember sitting in Miss Mattson’s classroom, full of treasures: the rabbit, Fluffy Cabot in his hutch, and the lizard who I didn’t like so I don’t remember its name, and the plastic dinosaur models we could play with, and the graham crackers spread with molasses that we got for snack, and I remember sitting in the low kiddie size chairs, with lots of crayons strewn across the big low table. I was shy as a child and quiet, and I loved to draw and color. Because I was shy, I remember what it was like to need a color someone else had; it was an effort to ask them to share, to offer to lend, or trade. Sometimes they didn’t want to. But none of us had all the colors we needed, and sometimes there was no single crayon with the color we needed. So mostly we gave, and we shared and we learned that sometimes what we need comes from the combinations that sharing and giving makes possible. We might not even have green, but if you have yellow and I have blue, between us we have not two but three colors, not even only three but so many more depending on how we use those colors. Cerulean. Teal. Apple green. Chartreuse. Heck even plaid if we get really creative. We are limited only by our imagination and our courage.
What a common, essential lesson. Together we have so much more. We could not have weathered this past year as we have without each other. We cannot continue on the path we have carved out with such determination and love, without each other. Today we kick off our annual Commitment Drive for the life and the work of this beloved community. Mindful of the financial challenges many of us have experienced in the past year, we have worked to keep the budget for next year as lean as possible, asking for a small, 5% increase in giving from all our members and friends to cover a few critical elements we need to include. Most of them involve adding a few hours to our staffing. The volunteers who have been heroic in helping us address technology that supports worship, programs and administration have let us know they need to step back and that what the church really requires is some paid, ongoing support. We need to add a few hours for pastoral care, membership and music, so that we’re able to meet the needs within our community. We need to do a little maintenance on the Atrium in the Parish House. This year there was a small, 1.2% cost of living increase and the leadership hopes to add that for payroll, so that staff aren’t working for the church at a cumulative loss of income. We’re not looking at anything big and ambitious, these are small, necessary steps that keep us going on this path we’re already on, at the size we already are, for the priorities we already set. This is a budget that allows us to sustain the necessary work and life of our church that means so much to us.
As always, the executive leadership asked themselves if they believed the needs were worth it, and if they themselves could commit to the increase in their own pledging. Everyone involved agreed they could at least maintain their giving and a number of them agreed to increase their giving by at least 5%. For some of us, a 5% increase in our giving is a stretch, but we can do it. That’s where I fall – as many of you know, this year was rough on my family financially, my husband’s company went bankrupt and laid everyone off last March when COVID crashed the world financial markets. But things have stabilized and Tim’s back working. As your minister, I have always pledged according to guidelines, and increased my pledge according to the budget request for the year, and I will be doing that again this year. For some of us, things are still too uncertain and 5% is a bridge too far. If that is true for you, please just give what you can, knowing we will use your gift carefully and with great gratitude. Others of us can increase our giving by more than 5% – maybe 6%, maybe 10% even. If this is at all possible for you, please give something extra, knowing that in giving more, you are making a big difference, helping us balance the range of financial abilities in our church at a time when it matters so much.
What has First U meant to me in the past year? For me, you have been a source of inspiration, a channel for our highest intentions, a reminder of how much good and capacity we have in a time that has threatened so much that we – that I – hold dearest of all. The people I love most. The bedrock beliefs on which I have built my life. You gave me and Tim health insurance, immediately, when we lost what we had in the first wave of the pandemic because of his layoff. You sent me soup when I was sick. You flooded our home with holiday cards, even though I am always too busy in December to ever reciprocate. When I was tired out from the non-stop pivoting and innovating, you figured out how I could get some time to help reset my spirit.
Every single time this year that you learned about a need, you figured out a way to meet that need, no matter what it was, no matter whose it was, no matter what it took. This is true for our lay leaders. This is true for our staff. This is true for our people. This is true for our church. This is the First Unitarian Church of Providence. Amen.