What gift can I bring? In Islam, giving is a spiritual practice, one of the “five pillars,” or obligations every Muslim is expected to fulfill. The Arabic word is Zakah, which is usually translated “alms-giving” but means, literally, “purification.” It is a manifestation of faith – an acknowledgment that one’s bounty is not of one’s own making, but rather, to be shared with others, in the spirit of humility, gratitude, and recognition of life’s blessings.
I graduated with a master’s degree in management in 1980. I took a job with Coopers & Lybrand, one of the then “big eight” accounting firms. My starting salary was $24,000 a year, a 140% increase over what I earned before I got my degree. We bought a condo in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, and I moved to start my new job while my husband Booker finished his last year of medical residency in New Haven.
I was 27. Writing a monthly mortgage check for the first time felt like a rite of passage into full adulthood. And I wrote another monthly check that represented something more important. Both of my mother’s parents were still alive. They lived on my grandfather’s social security and small teacher’s pension. My grandmother’s mind and body had begun to fail several years earlier, and she was now in a nursing home. I knew my grandfather worried about the dwindling balance in their savings, about his ongoing ability to pay the bill.
My new salary felt bountiful, even after the mortgage was paid. Booker’s residency stipend covered his living expenses. So I offered to help with the nursing home costs. I don’t remember the amount. I do remember how good it felt to write the check. It was an act of homage. A way of saying thank you for the active love and support they had always given me, had given us. I felt grateful. I felt blessed.
Five years later my grandmother was gone. My grandfather had developed congestive heart failure, and was told he needed to wear those support stockings that require at least two people to put on and take off. My mother asked if I could visit him before or after work, a few times a week, to help with the stockings.
And I couldn’t do it. My job had me stressed beyond all tolerable limits. I left home for work at 6 or 6:30 in the morning, and returned at 7 or 8. Waking or sleeping I worried and fretted.
I went to my grandfather’s house to help a few times. But I couldn’t keep it up. My mother was upset. I couldn’t or wouldn’t explain to her the pressure I felt, the circumstances that had me teetering on the edge. I felt small, ungrateful, guilty and ashamed.
The Reverend Dick Gilbert wrote:
…Life provides for us unparalleled blessings:
Always we are receiving – is that a surprise?
Some gifts must be given – there is no choice.
The givers have no say in the matter.
True, but not simple. At its best giving can be a spiritual practice, a blessing and a joy. But when we can’t give, or feel pushed or coerced, we may feel resentful, or guilty, or ashamed.
There is a story from the gospel of Mark: Jesus and his disciples are outside the temple, people-watching. Jesus points out some wealthy people who “like to walk around in long robes, and be greeted in the marketplace, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” He says those people “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Mark 14:38-40 NRSV
And then, “Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” Mark 14:40-44
(The King James Bible reads, “She threw in two mites, which make a farthing,” which is why the story and the sermon are both called “The Widow’s Mite.”)
Most would say that Jesus is praising the widow for her faithfulness and generosity, her loyalty in paying the temple tax, supporting the upkeep of the temple, paying the priests.
But I don’t think the poor widow’s faith or loyalty, or maybe even her generosity, is the real point of the story. I think the point is that the system was unjust. In Jesus’ time the rich got richer and more powerful, and the poor, who had no power to begin with, got poorer.
“They devour widow’s houses.” It makes me think, among other things, of the mortgage crisis, the predatory loans marketed to people who couldn’t afford them, the foreclosures, the financial meltdown and bailouts of 2008 and 2009. It makes me think of today’s plans to dismantle regulations aimed at keeping all that from happening again. I believe Jesus was talking about hypocrisy, and grossly uneven playing fields: social, political and economic.
Among the values being further eroded in our time is the value of fairness, the idea that justice demands trying to even the playing field. Our economic system is stacked against people who have dark skins and stacked against people who are poor. Too often, the former goes with the latter. People who vehemently support inequality are now calling the shots. They’re working to ensure that the rich get richer and richer.
As Julie Kurose said last week, for nearly 200 years this congregation has stood for human dignity, a free and responsible search for truth, and equity and compassion in human relations. We stand for the inalienable full civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender-queer people. We stand for democratic forms of government that are not a sham. And we are a religious institution whose mission includes providing shelter, refuge, inspiration and comfort. We are here to build and be community for one another.
We are strong today, and we will get stronger. We’ll get stronger by thinking more boldly, raising more money, and spending that money wisely to expand and solidify our efforts.
We will become stronger because, as Lawson and Katharine and Jeannemarie and Julie have said, our witness and our action and our inspiration make a difference. Having a community that sustains and challenges us personally makes a difference.
Many of you have said “yes, I can and will give more.” Many of us want to expand and solidify our social justice witness and action, especially in collaboration with others. We want to offer more programming and opportunities to serve that connect people – new people, people who have been here for a long time, younger adults, young families. We want to strengthen the ways we communicate. We need and want to be more visible.
Is there a catch? The catch is that the money has to come from us.
It can be uncomfortable to talk about money and giving. It can be uncomfortable to talk about uneven playing fields. Jesus was not a popular guy, in the circles of people who called the shots.
I told you last week that this month we are emphasizing UU principle #3 – “We affirm and promote acceptance of on another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” That implies acceptance of one another despite, and with, our differences.
It can be a bit uncomfortable and awkward, in a community like this one, to acknowledge that our differences include differences in wealth. Uncomfortable for those who have more (do I deserve it? am I sharing enough? do people resent me?) Awkward for those who have less (am I less worthy? is it my fault? do others look down on me?) The playing field is not even. We come from different places, we have faced different challenges and been given different chances, and we have made different choices.
And – the economy has changed in thirty years. Some of us – especially if we are older, especially if we never had big student loans, if we have not faced major health crises and are not putting children through college, if we have inherited money or invested well or have been just plain lucky – some of us have and can give a lot more.
Some of us can happily double what we gave last year, or increase it by 50%, or 30%, or ten.
Some of us will and have struggled with the decision, for some it will be a stretch. And some of us are already giving as much as is possible. No one can tell, from the outside, what pressures and circumstances each of us faces.
Booker and I are among those of us who are able to make, and have made, relatively large pledges in the past. We’ve decided to increase the amount by about 50%. In addition, we’ve made a commitment to give more, on a more regular basis, to the other organizations we support that serve needs we believe are critical, and that are defending values we treasure. Because we both want, and are able, to do that.
Jon Sass is our Stewardship Committee chair. Jon and I talked about the fact that giving to a religious community is different from giving to Planned Parenthood or the Food Bank. I won’t feel resentful or hurt if Planned Parenthood values someone who gives them $10,000 more than they value me, with a $100 or $200 gift. But every member of a religious community needs to feel and be loved and valued no matter what they are able to contribute financially.
Here, every annual gift in every amount is important, whether it is near the top of the range at $10,000 or near the other end, at $100. Every gift is important because giving is a way of asserting that you belong.
My hope – our hope – is that no one feels the way I felt when I couldn’t help my grandfather with those socks. My hope – our hope – is that everyone feels blessed and grateful to give the gifts they can.
We are strong – you all are strong. You are full of wisdom, courage, compassion, commitment and community spirit. Here’s what Lynne Marie Wanamaker said here on New Year’s Day:
“Our world needs the things that we hold dear in this house of worship: Covenantal faith that calls us to be our best selves no matter what is coming at us. Our aspirational commitment to justice and equity. Our reverence for this planet. Our curiosity about and respect for and connection to one another’s theological beliefs, religious practices, and faith journeys. Our elevation of one another’s dignity and worth.
The resistance needs us: Inside the government and outside the government; in the streets and in social service agencies; at the city council and at the water cooler. The resistance needs us.
This next bit of work we’ve got to do here, in this country, isn’t about any one of us personally. It’s about the light our faith has to offer the world.”
May it be so.