Given from the Heart

Ritual “makes the caring of the community visible, tangible and real.” 

Stewardship Sunday and the stewardship campaign are both rituals.  Not exactly the same kind as the one Rachel Naomi Remen describes for patients facing a cancer treatment,[i] but rituals nonetheless.  Rituals that, as she says, make the caring of the community visible, tangible and real.

That’s what stewardship is about.  People connected by bonds of the heart, making the caring of the community visible, tangible, and real.  Gratitude, generosity, giving what we can.  Giving from the heart.

Giving from the heart because this community matters.  It matters when we’re facing a crisis or tragedy, and when we’re just living our lives as best we can. 

When we are discouraged and dispirited about the state of the country and the planet – this is a place that helps us come back to center.  This is a home where others can hold us when we need holding, or encourage us, when we need encouragement, to go back to work.

It’s important to remember all of that, as we enact our stewardship ritual.  Money of course is part of the ritual.  We do need to grow the amount of money that comes from all of us – our pledge commitments – if we want to sustain the level and quality of all that this Society does.  80% of what we spend goes to salaries and benefits for the minister and the staff.  We have gifted, dedicated, and committed staff who really do make it easier, who help make it possible, for the holding and encouragement and centering to take place.

Coincidentally, to balance the budget, almost 80% of our funding needs to come from our contributions.  There is no Big Sibling in Boston who sends us money.  It actually works the other way around.  We send money – about $20,000 this year – to help fund the programming support and national leadership the people there provide.

James Baldwin claimed, in a powerful essay in his book Fire Next Time, that giving requires a willingness to risk. How do you understand that?  What do you make of it? 

Here’s what he actually wrote:
It is rare indeed that people give. 
Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.

One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself; that is to say, risking oneself.  If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving.

The mother in our story[ii] cuts up her tablecloth, one of the few beautiful things she owns and treasures, in order to make an apron for the woman whose home has burned down.  James Otis, her son, doesn’t understand – why doesn’t she keep the one thing she owns that she treasures and that is beautiful?  Instead of guarding and keeping, she gives something that matters to her – risks its loss.  And possibly, she risks – gives up -  a way of looking at herself as someone who is poor, with nothing to offer.  That’s a gift she gives her son James Otis.

I think Baldwin is getting at something about a mindset of sharing and generosity.  He is saying that giving means letting go of guarding and keeping.  That it is not merely about our possessions but about ourselves.  That giving fully requires us to approach both what is given and to whom or what it is given humbly, and with fresh eyes.  That doing so means being willing to risk our comfort and examine our assumptions about who we are, and how we are connected to one another. 

Giving means letting go of guarding and keeping.  Giving is not about our possessions, but about ourselves in relationship to others.  Giving – giving from the heart – requires us to approach both what is given and to whom or what it is given humbly, and with fresh eyes.  Giving means being willing to risk our comfort and examine our assumptions about who we are, and how we are connected to one another.

Think again of stewardship as a ritual enacted by and for people connected by bonds of the heart.  A ritual that makes the caring of the community visible, tangible, and real.  A ritual that asks us to consider our relationship to this religious home, and how we’re connected to it.

Some of you will be lucky enough to sit down with one of your fellow members to talk about the Society and how you hope to support it.  Embrace that opportunity.  It is a chance to connect, to deepen your connection.

Others of you will get a letter.  Either way, you’ll be asked to think about what you are able, and moved, to give.  Maybe you’ll also think about what James Baldwin says about giving.

How do you figure out what to give?  What is the connection for you between giving and risk?  Is there something you are unwilling to risk? 

I don’t mean money when I speak about risk.  Is there something, some belief about yourself, or others, or what your commitment and your gift represents?  Is there something you are guarding and keeping?  What does it mean for you, to give from the heart?

This is a story from another UU congregation – it could have happened anywhere.  One Sunday the chair of the stewardship committee got up to talk about that year’s campaign.  He told a few jokes.  He mentioned how many members – or pledging families – there were.  He mentioned how much they had raised the previous year.  And why they needed more. 

A new member did some quick arithmetic in her head.  X thousand dollars divided by Y pledges.  She hadn’t been part of a religious community since childhood, and was surprised at how low that average was.  She concluded that this must be the church for all the people in town who didn’t have very much money. 

She and her husband realized that they were people who could give a lot more.  They didn’t mind.  They didn’t know many other members there yet, but had already experienced the caring of the community:  especially through the RE volunteers who were watching their child for their weekly hour of respite in the worship service.  They were grateful for the way that hour fed their souls. 

Later, as they got more involved, they realized that many of the members were much better off than they had initially assumed. But that didn’t really matter to them.  They were giving, still, and by then more deeply, from the heart.

“Would I be a fool,” asked the monk,[iii] “if I had two gloves on my left hand and none on the right, to take one of the gloves off the left hand and put it on the right?” 

Suppose that hands have wills of their own.  Suppose it’s very, very cold. The hand with two gloves won’t be quite as comfortable if it gives one away.  How does it decide what to do?  Does it look around to see what other hands wearing two gloves are doing?

In this world, some are wearing two or three gloves on each hand, with a closet-full of gloves back at home, half of them by high-fashion designers.  Some are lucky when they have one threadbare glove that gets shifted from left to right and back.  Others are arrayed along a glove-possession spectrum in between.

My husband Booker and I don’t have closets full of extra gloves, but we have plenty.

Our annual contribution to this Society has been more than $8,000 for several years. 

“OK, Boomer.”  I can hear my son Eliot saying that.  Yes, it’s true.  We both work, in professional jobs.  Both Eliot and his older brother Dan are out on their own.  When Booker and I retire, our savings will support the way we choose to live. 

This congregation, and Unitarian Universalism, matter deeply to us both.  So we are happy to contribute at the high end.  And to give from the heart.

Would I be a fool, if I had two gloves on one hand and none on the other, to put one of the gloves on the hand that was cold?

Was that couple in their new UU church foolish, to give more than was expected?  To give more than many of the long-time members did?

What about those who put a few dollars in the jar when they have lunch at Haymarket?  Haymarket Café has a program aimed at feeding homeless people.  They charge $3 per meal to those who ask, and those meals are subsidized by donations from customers who contribute a few dollars when they come in and pay full-price.  The only requirement for the homeless guests is that they eat in the café.  With the full-pay customers.  No take-out. Do you see any risk-taking, or giving from the heart? Is there a fool in this anywhere?

The monk and thief story suggests that just as the monk’s left and right hand are connected, so are the monk and the thief.  Both have needs that deserve to be met.  We are connected to and responsible for what extends beyond ourselves.  Including this religious home – the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence.

The following comes from something written by the Reverend Scott Alexander.  He quotes a man who was taught to tithe in the church of his childhood.  Tithing is the practice, required by Mormons and many evangelical congregations, of giving 10% of one’s income to the church. 

This man wrote, “As I matured in my faith: I came to my own reason for giving. …I do it because it tells the truth about who I am. …I am a person who has something to give.  I am a person who has received abundantly from life.  I am a person whose presence matters in the world.  I am a person whose life has meaning because I am connected to and care about many things larger than myself alone.  If I did not give, I would lose track of these truths about who I am.”

We heard this, at the beginning of the service: 

If you are proud of this religious home, become its advocate.
If you are concerned for its future, share its message.
If its values resonate deep within you, give it a measure of your devotion.
For it cannot survive without your faith, your confidence,
your enthusiasm, and your generosity.[iv]

And if there is risk – whatever risk may mean for you – take courage! 

Please give from the heart.   The good we do depends on it.


[i] Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, page 151ff.

[ii] Patricia McKissack What is Given from the Heart

[iii]“The Monk and the Thief,”, told by Steve Eddington

[iv] Rev. Michael Schuler,