Generosity as a Spiritual Practice

by Rev. Jonathan Rogers

Delivered at Northwest UUC

March 4, 2018

One Sunday, a pastor asked his congregation to consider giving a little extra in the offering plate. He said that whoever gave the most would be able to pick out three hymns. After the offering plates were passed, the pastor noticed that someone had contributed a $100 bill. Extremely grateful, he wanted to personally thank the generous giver in front of the whole congregation. A quiet, elderly widow shyly raised her hand, and the pastor called her up front. He told her how wonderful it was that she gave so much and asked her to pick out three hymns. Her eyes brightened as she pointed to the congregation and said: “I’ll take him and him and him.”

Now, as much as I love this story, it is not quite what we mean when we talk about how giving generously enhances one’s relationship to the congregation. Rather, the effect that generosity can have on us is one of spiritual enrichment. Our Mission Statement here at Northwest calls us to inspire joy and spiritual growth, and an important way to achieve and amplify those goals is through cultivating one’s generosity. Rev. Thomas Rhodes lays out why in a poignant reading:

“Some of us need to make a (pledge) 
not only because the congregation needs our support,
but because we need to remind ourselves of our own generosity.
Because the act of giving something away
is a tangible way of acknowledging the gifts we have been given.
If we don’t have enough for ourselves,
we may be poor in material wealth.
But when we don’t have enough to share,
then we are truly poor in spirit.
And none of us should leave this place
feeling poor in spirit.”

When we don’t have enough to share, then we are truly poor in spirit. There are lots of good reasons, both tangible and intangible, to make a pledge of support to Northwest, some of which I will talk about specifically. But it is also possible to attend and participate in the life of our congregation without contributing one’s time, talent or treasure. We don’t have barriers that prevent anyone from doing what a colleague of mine calls “eating out of another person’s lunch box.”

However, this is a community that seeks the spiritual growth of all who participate in it, and I sincerely hope, not for the congregation’s sake but for yours, that no one is depriving themselves of the opportunity to contribute generously to the life of this community. That’s how crucial the acts of giving of ourselves and our money are to our spiritual lives. It is one thing to be poor in material wealth, which can happen to anyone, but let us not be a community where anyone is poor of spirit.

Here is an example of the importance of giving that we can especially relate to here in Atlanta. In her sermon that won a UUA stewardship award, Rev. Erika Hewitt writes:

“Why are we called to give of ourselves? When my car and I are idling at the exit ramp, it might be prudent to ask myself, ‘Is this guy really homeless? What will he do with this money? Does he really need help?’ I’d hate to waste a dollar, after all—right? After careful consideration, it’s a gamble I’m willing to take, more often than not. I would rather hand him a dollar bill than sit with the uncomfortable grain of knowledge that I looked away from someone declaring himself in need. What, after all, is the true cost of purposefully looking through, or past, someone who’s asking for help? When I pretend not to see another human being, it exacts a steeper cost—a dram of my soul—than a measly dollar.”

Reasonable people can disagree about the advantages or disadvantages of giving a homeless person a dollar. I have witnessed a number of conversations between people whose opinions I respect where one will say “They’re just going to spend it getting drunk” and the other will say “If I were living on the streets, I’d probably want to get drunk too!” But what Rev. Hewitt describes as “the uncomfortable grain of knowledge that I looked away from someone declaring himself in need” rings true, and that is because each of us has an inner call to be helpful and generous. When we feed that call, we feed the part of our consciences that are oriented toward helping others, and that help us to become the people and the communities that we want to be.

I hope that you all very much feel the impact of your support for Northwest, because there are a lot of reasons to be proud of it. There are the thousands of dollars and volunteer hours that Northwest as a congregation gives to local community organizations doing the vital work of social welfare and social justice. There are the many hundreds of children and youth who are now adults who have been shaped by Religious Education here and are now doing important work to make our world a better place. And there’s the fact that this congregation exists, a place where people can literally and metaphorically take a breath and recharge each week before going out and doing what needs to be done. North Georgia can feel like a mighty lonely place sometimes for those of us who seek to come together and be good global citizens and stewards of the environment. It’s rare to find a place where we can be our authentic selves, and so can anyone else. For many of us, it’s hard to picture being who we are without having a sanctuary like this one to come to.

If it’s hard for you to picture life without an open, and inclusive, and loving community, I want you to take a moment and ponder that there may be others in our area whose lives could be changed by such a community, but who have not found it yet. There are more people, many more people here in Atlanta who could benefit from the saving message of Unitarian Universalism. This congregation is one where it’s important for everyone to be able to know each other and to know the minister. That’s a good way for a congregation to be, and an OK thing for members and friends to want.

At the same time, spiritual generosity is also about being generous with the fruits of our faith tradition, which we are called to share as widely as we can. And I can tell you from experience it is a lot easier to solve the problems that come with a congregation becoming too large, than it is to solve the ones associated with becoming too small. Your contributions in the coming year of time, talent and treasure are necessary for us to be able to truly share our tradition in the way that Atlanta and world needs us to right now.

At the same time as we seek to broaden our presence in the world, let us seek also to deepen our connections to one another and to our community and faith tradition. This year’s budget will include some important aspirational items that will only be possible with increased financial generosity. Specifically, it would be great to expand the age levels at which we offer the Religious Education curriculum “Spirit Play,” which is a popular and engaging class that requires teachers who are specially trained as Spirit Play instructors or as Montessori instructors. Our Religious Education program is growing rapidly this year, and hiring an additional paid teacher will help make sure it can continue to do so. Leadership development work and the work of anti-racism, anti-oppression, multiculturalism are also stated and exceedingly worthy priorities for our congregation; I can tell you what the best paths to achieving those goals are, and they each involve trainings and resources that cost money.

So yes, there are good and important things that will be possible because of your pledges this year, and each of them will help to leverage and amplify the tremendous spirit of volunteering and pitching in that exists here. But the number one reason I hope that you will all pledge this year, is that I care deeply about the spiritual and emotional well-being of each and every person in this room, and a vital way to nurture and enhance that well-being is the practice of generosity. Let me tell you how I know.

A couple weeks ago on the podcast “With Friends Like These,” host Ana Marie Cox described herself as having been poor enough at one time in her life to realize she had never really been poor. “Just poor enough to realize I have never actually been poor” is also how I would describe my financial status in my early young adulthood. During my age 23 year, I had no full-time job and lived in Berkeley, California. I had three housemates and my bedroom was a repurposed utility closet, of which my bed took up half the space. I had my education and my middle-class privilege, so I didn’t think that was going to be my permanent situation, but I worried about money a lot.

One of my favorite places of worship that year was the First Congregational Church of Oakland, a small community that was growing rapidly at the time, thanks in large part to its addiction ministries. They worshipped in the Black Church tradition, with gospel music and services that ran at least a couple hours, and one Sunday, man, I was really feeling it. The songs and the sermon really spoke to me, left me feeling light-hearted and carefree for the first time in months. And when it came time for the offering, I have to admit, I hesitated for a moment because all I had in my wallet was a $20 bill. And that $20 meant the difference between pizza and beer for dinner versus a peanut butter sandwich and water. But I went for it, I put that $20 into the offering plate and it helped me amplify the good feelings I got from that service, it helped me feel like not only did that service mean something to me, but maybe I meant something to that service.

When I feel lost or confused on my life’s journey, that day is one of the times I look back on to remind myself of what spiritual and emotional wellness look like, and that my well-being is less dependent on how much security or status I have accumulated, than it is on how generous I am being with what I have. $20 isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but what made me feel like a generous person that day, what made me feel rich in spirit was that I gave an amount that mattered to me, that represented a sacrifice I could be proud of making on behalf of a community that was feeding me.

The amount that I can afford to pledge has changed a lot in the last decade, along with my life circumstances. But I still judge my contributions by what represents a sacrifice in my life, and an amount that is responsible to my family’s needs but also means I am giving up something else in my life in order to support a community that means something to me. I’ve decided that currently, such an amount is represented by 5% of my salary and housing, and that is the amount I will be pledging while I am here. I hope you will join me in considering a pledge that is responsible to your family’s needs, but that also represents a sacrifice that you will feel, and that will help to grow and amplify the feeling of spiritual and emotional well-being that you get from our beloved congregation.

Peace, salaam, shalom, and may it be so.