Generosity

Generosity
10-22-06
Rev. Douglas Taylor

There was a tradesman, a painter named Jack, who was very interested in making a dollar where he could. So he often would thin down his paint to make it go a wee bit further. As it happened, he got away with this for some time.  Eventually the local church decided to do a big restoration project. Jack put in a painting bid and, because his price was so competitive, he got the job. And so he started, erecting the trestles and putting up the planks, and buying the paint and thinning it down with turpentine.

Jack was up on the scaffolding, painting away, the job nearly done, when suddenly there was a horrendous clap of thunder. The sky opened and the rain poured down, washing the thin paint from all over the church and knocking Jack off the scaffold to land on the lawn.

Jack was no fool. He knew this was a judgment from the Almighty, so he fell on his knees and cried, “Oh, God! Forgive me! What should I do?”

And from the thunder, a mighty Voice spoke, “Repaint! Repaint! And thin no more!”

So, I begin by making the point that generosity is not limited to the concept of money.  I promise I will talk about generosity in terms of money, but let me make this point first.  Generosity is about your willingness to share or give of yourself in many ways.  It is a mark of unselfishness.  An ungenerous person, like the painter in the story, will thin down what is offered rather than giving the full amount.  An ungenerous person will usually sacrifice quality to make a buck rather than sacrifice the buck to achieve quality.

And I want to let you know (especially if you’re a little new to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton) that this is a generous congregation … mostly.  But I am sure that isn’t surprising because isn’t that how it is with your personal life?  Most of the people I meet around here are generous in the ways they can be and in other ways they hold back or try stretch things to make it work.  We’re each like that and this congregation is a reflection of us.

By and large, this congregation is generous.  We don’t thin down what is offered.  Consider this: every week, I and the other guest clergy and lay worship leaders pour out our best work for you, no shirking!  We offer the real stuff here.  What I preach will not wash off in the rain storm.  The music that fills the worship services, whether from Vicky on the piano, the choir in harmony, Gail on organ, a guest musician, or a youth from our congregation, all of it is offered with care and passion and none of it is thinned down.  The music around here is amazing.  And it is generously offered week after week!  Consider this, week in and week out this congregation generously produces quality worship services.  We would never consider thinning it down, offering less that the best we have together, or holding back in case we needed to use it later.  We unselfishly pour out every bit of really good stuff we can every week.

The same could be said of other aspects of the life of this congregation.  People generously pour out their resources for this community on a regular basis to create coffee hour, the weekly focal point, our phenomenal Sunday school program, our caring committee, our Social Responsibility actions, our Small Group Ministry and Adult Religious Education offerings, our new labyrinth out in the courtyard, and on and on and on.

And the exciting thing is that our current vision as reflected in our long range plan is leading us to capitalize on our strengths and our generosity (by increasing our vitality, expanding our concept of worship, enlarging a critical component of our justice-making work, and making improvements to our physical plant.)  Where does it all come from?  The generosity of everyone involved.  All the time, all the talent, all the energy, all the money, all the dreams, all the vision comes from those of us gathered as members and friends of this congregation.  Everything going on here is yours, ours; every bit of it.  And what we’ve decided to do with it is to give it away as a gift to whomever shows up each week.

Does this happen in other places in your life outside of this congregation?  I bet it does.  Perhaps when you host a party, or invite friends to visit for a weekend.  Perhaps you turn yourself inside out to create a generous holiday experience – maybe Thanksgiving or Christmas?  How are you generous in your life?  Do you think of yourself as generous?  Usually when we say someone is generous we mean they willingly give money when there is need.  But generosity is not limited to money.  Generosity is about giving and sharing your resources, one of which is usually money.  So, maybe you are actually really stingy when it comes to money, but are generous in other aspects.  In what ways are you willing to share or give of yourself?  Do you sing, bake, laugh out loud?  What gift do you offer the world?  You could draw up quite a list I am sure of ways in which you are generous.

And so the first point of what I share with you this morning is that we are a generous congregation in many ways, and you are a generous person in many ways.  Now I will talk about money.  There is a Buddhist teacher who said, “You are perfect just the way you are, and you could use some improvement.”  Last spring this congregation passed a deficit budget for this current year.  This caused me concern.  I don’t know much about the ways of money.  On a scale from one to ten, one being totally clueless and ten being amazingly savvy, I would rate myself low, perhaps a 3.  I am generously compensated by this congregation yet I find I stay only a few steps ahead of the bills and I feel constrained by a lack of money.  It occurs to me that my problem is less about how much money I have and more about my perspective of that money, my attitude toward that money.  According to analysis I’ve read, I am far from unique.  And so I wonder if something similar is happening with the congregation and our attitude toward money.  Maybe, maybe not

Consider this: Financial Consultant Robin Bullard Carter, featured in an Alban Institute magazine issue, sees five money-types, five sets of traits that broadly characterize attitudes toward money.  The spectrum of money-types ranges from Mindless to Obsessed, from those who exercise no control over money to those who exercise extreme control of money. Usually in church, the message is “money is the root of evil – and please give some to the church. Don’t be so controlling of it because it is really controlling you.”  But the piece that I like is that she counsels people to move toward the healthy middle perspective.  Don’t over control or under-control – “Balanced” is the title Robin Carter gives this type.  Balanced money-types see money as not central to any question in their lives.  Balanced money-types “pay bills on time, save adequately, and are reasonably generous,” but they see money as only one aspect of decision making.  Other, less balanced perspectives, avoid thinking about money, or blindly trust that it will just get taken care of, or cling to it and hoard it up in case of disaster, or worry about it and let every decision rest on whether or not there is money enough.  The underlying relationship we have with money when we are not balanced is based in some degree on fear and shame.

Now, there is no correlation between how much money you have and what type of relationship you have with it – according to Carter, at least.  But I’m not so sure about that.  When I was fresh out from college, working three low-paying jobs, living on WIC and food-stamps, and supporting a family of four, I had a great deal of  control over my money.  Every decision began with money rather than need; I knew where every dollar came from and where all of it went.  On the spectrum of money-types I was a worrier trying to control my money.  Now, I work one job and make three-times what I made then, I own a mortgaged house, a student loan, a car loan, five credit cards, and I have now a looser sense of where all the money goes.  I have become more careless and no longer hold tight control.

So, for me there is a history demonstrating a correlation between how much money I have and my attitude toward it.  Of course, a correlation is not a ‘cause and effect’ relationship, so I can’t conclude that the amount of money I have effects my attitude, or that my attitude effects the amount of money I have. Of course, Financial Consultant Robin Bullard Carter would tell me neither perspective is balanced, and a balanced attitude is the goal.  But that is my second major point.  Your attitude toward money, our attitude toward money as a community, may not necessarily impact how much we have but it will directly impact how we deal with it.  And further, a balanced attitude is the goal.  My second point is that generosity is about not how much you have, but what you do with what you’ve got.

Most responsible money management people will tell you to save 10%, give 10% away, and live on 80%.  Most people however, especially younger folks, will save nothing, give to charities only under rare circumstances, and live on 110%.  If that is true for the individuals in the community, might it have an echo effect on this faith community?  Are we saving some money, giving some money away, and living within our means?  Or are we in debt?  Even though we passed a deficit budget for this year, the congregation is not currently in debt and we will not be in the foreseeable future.  Thankfully the leadership of the congregation has consistently been thrifty with spending.  To be thrifty and generous is not incompatible.  You can, for example, be generous with the big picture and thrifty with the details!  There are surplus funds in the congregation’s bank account to cover one year of deficit, but it is not something we want to see again next spring.  And we promised ourselves we would look at the issues surrounding why it happened and what we could do about it.  We seem to be living beyond our means as a congregation.  There are two ways to deal with that, reduce expenses or increase income.  A thrifty response would be to reduce expenses.  A generous response would be to increase income.  Back in the spring we promised ourselves to do both.  The congregation trimmed a few places in the budget.  And we are looking to find ways to increase income.  Chief among the ways to do that is to help ourselves increase our pledging.  We’ll talk more about that during the campaign as it unfolds in the spring.

Once a few years ago leading up to a pledge drive Sunday service I asked my two oldest children, out of curiosity, what they would do if either of them suddenly had a million dollars.  After paying off the house and things like that, they figured they would give about half of it away to help other people have places to live.  Money can’t buy you happiness or love, but it can buy you things that make you happy or things to show your love for others.

Consider this: some financial gurus talk about money from a spiritual perspective saying it is not something to hold onto – to possess, but something that will flow through you.  In some ways it makes perfect sense: money talks, and mine is always saying ‘goodbye.’  When I didn’t have much money I totally understood how money was always flowing through me from my employer’s bank to my landlord’s bank.  It was a steady flow.  I couldn’t have stopped the flow if I’d wanted.  But that isn’t quite what the experts meant.  That’s not all there is to this idea of money as a flow.

As Lewis Hyde writes, “Whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept.  … The gift must always move.”  When you think of money as one thing among many that constitute our resources, it is easier (at least for me) to grasp this concept.  I wouldn’t think of holding back my resources of singing or preaching or laughing.  These are resources that are only any good if I spend them.  Tangible gifts such as Christmas presents or boxes of chocolate are meant to be received and reciprocated in some fashion!  Send a thank-you card; offer a gift in return,

My third point is that money must move or it losses its meaningfulness.  Putting your money in a bank is a fine thing to do, to save up for major expenses or the possibility of hard times, that’s fine.  But so long as money is flowing in, it should also be flowing out.  Otherwise, what is the point?  We have money so we can use it.  Like the story of the Buddha’s disciple, if your hands are full of treasures that you won’t put down, how will you scratch the itch when it arises?

This congregation exists by the generosity of its members, and the generosity of its members is fueled by the desire to lead meaningful lives, fueled, if you will, by the spiritual itch to live lives of meaning and service.  Money is a flow, what do you have to offer to the flow?  Our monthly special collections are a great example of this.  Our regular collection is income for the general fund.  But we know that we cannot raise money only for ourselves.  At some point our generosity must spill over to others.  Typically a special collection will bring in between $400 and $600.  This is money we give away to local charities and organizations doing good work out in the community.  The money flows through the congregation and is given away in the name of the congregation.  Everybody here could, if they wanted, simply pick an organization in the community and send it ten bucks every month. But that probably wouldn’t work because one of the functions this congregation serves is to be a channel for individuals to realize their generosity.  Together we bless the world in ways that would be difficult to do alone.  As I said a few weeks ago, goodness must be organized to see greater effectiveness.

This is your organization.  Everything around here is yours.  You are not here as someone stopping in to see a show or buy a cup of coffee.  You own this place, it is yours.  Much of it was bought and paid for before you even showed up, and much of what you contribute will not be anything you directly use for yourself.  William James wrote:  “The great use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.”  All of the sermons are yours, the candles and the beautiful music too.  Every drop of coffee and the stones that mark the labyrinth; our echoing laughter, the leak in the roof by the bathrooms, and the big blue banner out front are all yours; yours and mine and ours because hundreds of individuals have generously poured their resources together to create something greater than each part.

Do you want to be a generous person?  You already are generous in many ways.  How many ways do your share yourself with others, how many ways do you give your gifts and resources for the benefit of others?  Can you imagine being that generous with other resources that you usually hold back?  Do you want to belong to a generous congregation?  Recognize the multitude of ways in which we are already a generous community and imagine what you can do to free up our generosity in those places where we typically hold back.  Imagine our vision and our goals coming alive through the balanced and generous use of our money together.  What part can you play to make that happen?

In a world without end,

May it be so.