The $ermon on the Amount

For years, as a lay person in my Unitarian Universalist church in Illinois, I had strong opinions about Stewardship Sunday. Some years, I would forget to look at the newsletter the week of Stewardship, and I would accidentally forget to skip church that week, and on those weeks, I would literally tell visitors apologetically, “It’s not always like this. Please do come back another Sunday, because I promise, our minister isn’t a money-grubbing jerk. Not usually.” I was THE WORST!  

So, thank you for showing up today, even if it was an accident. And visitors, it’s *not* always about money, but it *is* always like this…the other parts where the people here are awesome and we love you just the way you are. So, do come back.  

“I enter a little coffeehouse with a friend of mine and give our order.” said the anonymous author of the now-viral social media post a few years ago. “While we’re approaching our table two people come in and they go to the counter – ‘Five coffees, please. Two of them for us and three suspended’

They pay for their order, take the two and leave. I ask my friend:

‘What are those ‘suspended’ coffees?’

‘Wait for it and you will see’

Some more people enter. Two girls ask for one coffee each, pay and go. The next order was for seven coffees and it was made by three lawyers – three for them and four ‘suspended’. While I still wonder what’s the deal with those ‘suspended’ coffees I enjoy the sunny weather and the beautiful view towards the square in front of the café. Suddenly a man dressed in shabby clothes comes in through the door and kindly asks, ‘Do you have a suspended coffee ?’

It’s simple – people pay in advance for a coffee meant for someone who cannot afford a warm beverage. The tradition with the suspended coffees started in Naples, but it has spread all over the world and in some places you can order not only a suspended coffee, but also a sandwich or a whole meal.”

Now, after finding this old story because I thought it might be fitting to share with you all, I was also directed to Snopes, where I learned that calling it “suspended coffee” which didn’t make a lot of sense to my ears, might just be a bad translation.  

Snopes says, “ The notion of café customers paying for “caffe sospeso” (“suspended coffees” or “pending coffees”), drinks that can later be claimed for free by less fortunate patrons, is something that has been described as an old Italian tradition, although we can’t say how old or widespread the practice might be (inside or outside of Italy).”

But that’s’ not the point, really. It’s a lovely idea, isn’t it?  

People have done that specifically for me in the drive through lane at Starbucks. I’ve been the one to pay for the guy behind me a few times, too. Granted, that’s just a feel-good measure to make someone’s day a little brighter and might not actually change things monumentally in a broken world, because it’s a fair bet that people in the drive-through lane at Starbucks already have the means to be there or they wouldn’t be in the line behind you shaving or putting on mascara or both at the same time. 

But what a lovely model of giving those Italians created for us, isn’t it? Buying a morning cup of coffee for someone who might come in after you’ve left the building and asks for a little bit of caffeinated grace.  

I will tell you that for fifteen years I didn’t pledge a penny to the congregation to which I belonged. Nothing. And that is not ideal. It is true now and it was true then that I could have given SOMETHING.  A fiver now and then. Most of us, but not all of us can do that. But I didn’t. And here’s what happened to me while I showed up for years in that place and gave of my energy and time, but not not my finances.  People with means and privilege and passion for our beloved faith kept the church open for people like me who needed it to survive. They kept it running for people like my son who has never had to grow up doubting that he is whole and holy and worthy of love just the way he is, because his church family made sure he knew it from his very first memories.  

Let’s talk about this beloved community right here.  

Our ask this year is doable, and it is ambitious, and it is exciting.  

We are expanding our building to accommodate more people, and we are expecting them to come. We are expecting them to come because this congregation is an exciting, progressive, ever-moving-forward place to be and we have good news to share with our neighbors. All of our neighbors. And all of our neighbors who show up and become a part of us will bring invaluable gifts with them which will become a part of what we’re continuously digging in and building here. Some of the gifts they bring will be in the form of financial gifts. And some of it will not. We are called here, in part, to bind up the broken, and in my experience of my own brokenness, the broken do not tend to show up with their wallets open asking us how much they can give. 

That’s where suspended coffee vouchers come in.  

Our Stewardship campaign this year, under the capable, enthusiastic, and dedicated leadership of Cameron Moore, with stellar assists by Katy Lockhart, Hannah Cowart, and the whole leadership development team… is called Architects of Our Legacy: Let’s Dig In!  

You may have noticed a few things in the lobby as you entered. Please do interact with the awesome dirt display out there.

Our pledge goal for the 2020/2021 congregational year is $250,000. Doable. Easily within reach, as you can see by looking at our projected goal from last year, and celebrate how well you all have done thus far with making those pledge commitments real. Now, here’s the breakdown by pledge unit. It’s really, really specific, which I was encouraged to round, but I like it to be precise, that way you can round up as far as your conscience, your budget, and perhaps your partner will enthusiastically consent to.  

If each current pledging unit in this congregation gives, in this coming fiscal year, $2875 we will easily reach our pledge goal for this year. If you give your share and cover for one other potential community member who cannot give, that would bring your total to $5750. Would you like to cover yourself and two others? That’s $8625. I’m going to trust you all to do the math for your projected giving that will cover four or five beloveds, or more. I promise we will not limit your generosity! 

Some of you give more than that already, by far. You’ve bought someone else’s coffee because you want every person here to stay here, regardless of ability to pay. Thank you.  

Some of you never quite know what is appropriate to give, and maybe this amount seems really reasonable and doable for you. You can pay your portion of the bills to keep this place running, and that’s what you’re going to put on your pledge card this year. Thank you. 

Some of you hear that number and, like me and my little indigent family for many years, you have no idea how in the world people can afford the luxury of such generous giving. Maybe you can give ten percent of that, if your car doesn’t break down or if the pets stay healthy. Been there. These are the days for which the folks who can afford to cover your share were made. These are exactly the days for which beloved community was made. Stay. Be fed. Share whatever gifts you have in abundance, and that may not include very much money. Maybe next year will be different. It is consistently true that the most generous among us are often not the ones with the most to give. And so, thank you. 

Money is a very touchy subject in beloved community. We don’t have a pay to pray situation going on here, and I will also tell you that your minister is deliberately ignorant of how much you pledge. I do not know. Not knowing keeps me from ministering differently based on who could be considered a powerful agenda lobbyist if I knew who they are.  

But let me tell you why I was so excited to get to be here preaching the sermon on the amount this year. First of all, it’s a great pun, and there’s no way I was not going to use it at least this once. But also because I am a woman who grew up working class poor, became much poorer as an adult, but-for-the-grace-of friends with spare couches and basements, my son and I would have been homeless for a while at the beginning of my seminary journey. I have lived through domestic violence, I have used my white privilege to walk right into Walmart and steal things I needed for my baby and not get caught, and I have picked up dropped coins on the ground around toll booths in highway exit lanes so that I could buy enough fuel to get to where I needed to go.  

I know about beloved community holding me up when I couldn’t do it for myself.  

In the summer of 2014, people from the Unitarian Universalist congregation in my hometown pitched in and paid the security deposit and first months’ rent on an apartment I could not acquire on my own, hauled their own used furniture and household supplies over in their own vans and pick-ups, and set up a home for my son and me when we were suddenly in need of a safe place to stay. And later that same year, they were the people who loved me right into my first semester of seminary. 

And so I know how it feels to be the guy in the shabby clothes walking into the coffee shop asking if anybody has paid it forward to somebody like me yet today. I know the indignity of “I’m sorry, but no.” And I know the grace of YES. 

Today, maybe you can be the grace of yes for somebody. I encourage those of us who have been blessed with financial security and abundance to consider these numbers. If $2875 pays your tab, could you think about doubling it, to cover for someone else? How about triple? If you already had an amount in mind that is more than that, could you consider doing the math to round up and cover one more pledge unit? It’s not hard math. Use the calculator feature on your smartphone.  $2875 times how many people you want to serve by covering theirs. 

For my beloveds who can pledge 10 dollars, your ten dollars is mighty and it is enough. And I already know that your other gifts will be as important and as precious to this community as our financial gifts. 

Put your amount just as confidently as anyone here, knowing that-in all cases- the numbers are confidential, and only our stewardship and finance folks will be reviewing them.  

We have big goals. We have exciting plans. We will need furniture for our larger space, we will need sprucing up to be the best host possible for beloved little ones in our impending pre-school. We will need to keep fairly compensating our staff. Our new larger space will result in higher utility bills. 

We will so very much come out better for all the work we are putting into this beloved community. Yes, even financially. Preschool revenue, added rental revenue, and the additional pledges from the people who will join us in community as we grow. And in the meantime, while we stretch through the growing pains, we will need all the support we can get.  

This morning Kyle texted me at around 5:30 about something that could totally have waited until daylight. But, he knows his mom, and it’s Sunday, and I was for sure going to be up doing something to my sermon that I said was finished ten times already. So, he asked me what I was preaching about today, and I said, “It’s Stewardship Sunday! What should I say to all the nice UUs about pledge money?”   He responded ever so helpfully, as I might have imagined, with an unrelated and completely inappropriate Bernie Sanders meme. But, he’s not completely off-base, because, much like in grassroots political campaigns, it will come down to all of us pitching in what we can. This is NOT a political endorsement. But the support comes from us. Only from us. No Superpacs. No billionaire investors. Ain’t nobody sweeping in from headquarters in Boston with a fat wallet and an open checkbook.  We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are our own saviors. We are the miracles.

Have you done the suspended coffee math yet? Have you considered rounding up from what you came in considering already? Have you considered the battered single mom who doesn’t know where she and her child are staying next week, but just might end up getting accepted to seminary, getting through it somehow, and go on to serve a scrappy, feisty, growing beloved community one day, if you can just be the one to cover her church pledge coffee for a few years? 

I know that there is financial anxiety in the world, and in our little microcosm of it. I could list you the things that might have to be cut from our budget if we have a shortfall. That’s always a reality that your financial and stewardship folks, and your whole board grapple with constantly. That’s not new nor is it going away. But, what is also true is vast possibility. Look what you are already doing. Feel the excitement and the energy of healthy change and growth that meets us here every time we gather. I can feel it, and I hope you can too. Struggles are not over. Some struggles are just beginning. But hope and beauty and growth and creative engagement are popping up all over this place.  

It is time now! It is time now that we thrive! 

This year we are inviting you to fill out your pledge sheet right now.  I’m sure you have already noticed that this pledge form is not just about the money, although it is about the money too! I encourage you to think as seriously about the other pieces of this form as the monetary one. What time and talent do you have to share, in addition to your treasure? We need, want, welcome, and are excited about YOUR engagement, no matter how you can best serve. Please take some time to talk to those in your family who are here and with whom you make some of these decisions jointly, if that applies to you. Please take some time to complete this form and keep your gift pencil as your official swag of the day. And as Jim plays us some celebratory music, I invite you to bring your pledge form up here to this basket with as much flourish and whimsy – dance, bounce, skip, twirl, saunter, swoosh, sway, samba, scoot, tip toe – Somersault…carefully and with great wisdom about your own body…and place it, toss it, drop it, slam dunk it, present it on an imaginary fancy platter… into this basket.

Let us begin the celebration collection of our stewardship of this place and people, for all that is our lives.

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

February 23, 2020

© Rev. Misha Sanders