This is the text of a talk I gave at my church on February 25, 2007, as part of our Stewardship Speakers Series, itself a part of our annual Canvass.
Some people said they liked it in other places I've posted it...so I figured I'd post it here and see what you think as well.
Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.
Malachi 3:10, KJV
When Nola asked me to speak before the congregation as part of this speakers series, I said, "Sure!", having no doubt that I would eventually think of something useful to share with you this afternoon. And then I realized…that I would have to think of something useful to share with you this afternoon! What could I possibly have to tell you about stewardship? Well, what immediately popped into my mind was the verse that I read to you a little while ago, from the Old Testament book of Malachi. This verse was recited in the church of my youth on just about every Sunday, immediately before the offering was taken. In the language of the NIV: "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it." Not only was there a single offering, but usually there were two—a tithing offering, and a special offering to raise funds for particular purposes. On certain occasions, there may even have been a third offering! Can you imagine a Sunday morning where the offering is taken, counted, and deemed insufficient enough for the minister to call for another round of giving? Right. And then afterwards came the doxology, or hymn of praise to God: Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below, praise Him above ye heavenly host, praise Father Son & Holy Ghost! Amen. When Nola approached me last week to ask what my topic today would be, I hadn't fully thought it out, but was haunted by this verse from Malachi, so I told her that I would be talking on Malachi today; but going back to the text, I realized that going over my juvenile understanding of what happened on Sundays in my old church would not be much help in explaining why I support this church today. For this reason, I will briefly touch on what this verse in Malachi meant to me and then move on to sources which have greater resonance in my life today, sharing readings from Sufi mystic Shamsuddin Muhammad (bka Hafiz, which means 'memorizer', and is an honorific bestowed upon those who can recite the entire Qur'an by heart), from the Tao Te Ching, and from our very own UU worship resource, the hymnal "Singing the Living Tradition".
First, let's return to Malachi. Understand first that I am no Biblical scholar, and that the following is simply my understanding of the text coupled with some historical background from the student Bible I used when I was younger. The book of Malachi is a portrait of a people who have grown lax in their faith. Having become well-to-do and comfortable, they have forgotten the origins of their practices and become careless in their worship and ritual. Eventually, their rites became empty, being performed by rote (and with some disdain) because of tradition, and void of any present meaning. In short, they couldn't see the point in what they did, so their heart was not in it. No one would flinch if their neighbor offered their most diseased cattle as an offering – it was no good to them anyway, and what was the point of giving their best to a God whose presence had grown more and more questionable. Why not keep the best, and give the leftovers? Oh, but the God of the Hebrew Bible is a jealous God, and was swift if reprimanding His people. Chapter 3 verses 6-7 says "I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away form my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you," says the LORD Almighty. And then the calling for the tithe. A tithe means 1/10 of your possessions. I'm not sure whether verse 10 is some sort of statement of Biblical karma, but essentially God says to his people, "Give! So that I may give you! Go ahead and try it, and see how abundantly you will be blessed in return!"
It was from this context that I got my understanding of what it was to give at church. I actually had this image in mind: God really needed some money. Our job as Christians was to pay God. Every Sunday, we would give our offering, which would then be taken away to the storage room (aka 'storehouse'), where it would sit until God needed to make a withdrawal. Imagine – Donald's uncle, Scrooge McDuck, swimming through his piles of gold coins. And THEN, we got to sing a song thanking Him in his goodness for allowing us to give money that we couldn't afford, and for…God-knows-what purpose. It was such a mystery to me then, as was the whole idea of 'stewardship'. In my church, then, a Steward was one of several people with special ranking in the church. They had their own set of pews in the front near the altar. They all wore white [see note 1]. They had liturgical functions. I didn't know until later that they, or a subset of them, made the financial decisions for the church, or that they had other responsibilities and authorities. Honestly, I still don't know for certain what their exact roles were. They might have functioned in a way similar to our church's Board of Trustees, but I don't know. Ah, the mystery. In any case, the word steward is used rather differently in our Unitarian-Universalist tradition. We tend to see the word in its root meaning of "keeper of the hall", from the Old English stig (akin to the Modern English 'sty') meaning 'hall', and weard (related to ward, warden, guard, and guardian) meaning 'watcher' or 'keeper'. Here, we are all charged with the upkeep not only of our 'hall', this building, but with the upkeep of our community, and supporting it in its work to change the world. As you may have seen, we stewards of the church are encouraged to give a 'UU tithe' which is 5% to the church and 5% to other worthy causes. Personally, I think I've made it to 2% for church and 1% for others. But we are not competing against each other for the wink and nudge of a jealous God, we are here to do the work that is set before us, and each of us does what we can.
Despite my childish ignorance, I had always delighted in being able to give something when the plate was passed by me in churches of my youth. Like the other little children, I brought change (or else I was given some by my parents) that I could toss into the plate as it passed. It wasn't until much later when I began to question the purpose behind everything that I was told to do that I began to ponder the reasons for giving so much money that could be better used, in my opinion, for things other than sitting in a room waiting for God to come get it (what did He need the money for?). Not only did these thoughts occur to me, but I also began to notice what happened when you let the plate pass by you. You felt guilty. Everyone watched, and everyone knew if you didn't give. Giving was compulsory, if only because of the pang of guilt you would feel if you didn't participate. It's amazing to me in hindsight how important my perception of things was in the formation of my beliefs of how they were actually. But my perceptions were all I had, and because I didn't feel comfortable enough to question things openly, and no one was offering satisfactory answers to questions I couldn't pose, I became increasingly uncomfortable in the church. There were many reasons why I later decided to leave the church altogether; but essentially, my discomfort was my motivation.
Here's a short poem by Hafiz:
#198 Damn Thirsty
First the fish needs to say, "Something ain't right about this camel ride—and I'm feeling so damn thirsty."
So this is the point in the story where I realized that I was so damn thirsty. Not only did I then withdraw my giving (of my parents' money, yes, but my giving nonetheless), but I completely removed myself from the community. Upon finding out that I'd stopped going to church, my aunt, a Jehovah's Witness, chastised me. She was dumbfounded. "Adrian? Adrian doesn't go to church?" "Don't you know that you need that weekly spiritual nourishment?" The fact of the matter is that I didn't. As far as I was concerned, church gave me nothing and I repaid church in kind. But I was still so damn thirsty. Eventually I came to understand that there wasn't anything wrong, per se, with the camel ride. But being a fish leaves you ill-equipped, at best, for survival on such a journey. So I left the vast desert in search of a small pond.
Another poem by Hafiz:
#160 Now Is The Time
Now is the time to know that all that you do is sacred. Now, why not consider a lasting truce with yourself and God. Now is the time to understand that all your ideas of right and wrong were just a child's training wheels to be laid aside when you can finally live with veracity and love. Hafiz is a divine envoy whom the Beloved has written a holy message upon. My dear, please tell me, why do you still throw sticks at your heart and God? What is it in that sweet voice inside that incites you to fear? Now is the time for the world to know that every thought and action is sacred. This is the time for you to deeply compute the impossibility that there is anything but Grace. Now is the season to know that everything you do is sacred.
Everything you do is sacred; which brings me to the point of all my rambling storytelling. I, obviously, didn't stay away from church too long. I became a UU! And I occasionally would give…money…to churches I was involved in, yet I still didn't quite get it. Not until I joined FirstUnitarianChurch, right here in Baltimore, Maryland. Talk about finding a spiritual home! Well, I moved to Baltimore with a duffel bag full of clothing and a job waiting for me. Not much money at all; I was going to start over from scratch. After about 4 weeks I found my first apartment. After about 8 weeks here I joined the church. It was a last minute decision – I felt moved during the New Member Ceremony to get up and sign my name; and so I did, going through the Beginnings Class after the fact. I just knew in my gut that this was a community that I wanted to belong to. My very own little pond in which I could swim and grow and be free! I still didn't have much money, and in fact I often had to request assistance from my mother, or friends (maybe one of you…) to make it by from month to month. I gave the church $0. And I didn't feel bad about it. No one was here to judge me. In fact, I actually felt like people wanted me to be here. You all welcomed me in a way that I'd needed to feel welcomed in quite a long time. I quickly joined different classes, discussion groups, COMMITTEES! I began to weave my life into the fabric of the church, and to make the church an integral part of my life. The first live experience I had of a UU church was the Annual Meeting of the Unitarian Church of Montclair, NJ, in the early summer of 1999 I believe. It was such an eye-opener to see the membership of a church working out issues in the open, like electing officers and agreeing on the budget. These functions were out-of-sight, at least to me, in the UnitedMethodistChurch; and episcopal polity is just not considered as a topic for Sunday school, so I was clueless. In the UnitarianChurch (which has congregational polity), however, things were made clear to me. In our Beginnings class here, you learn that the money goes towards things like membership dues, bills, salaries and the like. The offerings are also taken for special projects, like our annual Thanksgivings appeals, and our relatively new Change-for-Change program. We can all see the benefits of our support. And the more support we have, the more we can do. The church benefits from all types of support, and I was as valued as a member before I gave monetary contributions as I am now that I do. I feel as though we are all strengthening the community with our time, talents, and treasures. And that is why I give. Because we are good stewards, we have been able to call a DRE (director of religious education), we have our first Ministerial Intern in years, we are growing in several ways, and there are so many opportunities[see note 2] for you to choose from in deciding what part you want to play. I feel privileged to be present at this exciting time.
How do I know that this is right for me? A reading from the Tao Te Ching:
What is well planted cannot be uprooted. What is well embraced cannot slip away. Your descendants will carry on the ancestral sacrifice for generations without end. Cultivate Virtue in your own person, and it becomes a genuine part of you. Cultivate it in the family, and it will abide. Cultivate it in the community, and it will live and grow. Cultivate it in the state, and it will flourish abundantly. Cultivate it in the world, and it will become universal. Hence, a person must be judged as person; a family as family; a community as community; a state as state; the world as world. How do I know about the world? By what is within me.
How do I know what, or how much, to give? Two short readings from the back of the hymnal:
#457 Edward Everett Hale
I am only one.
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
#463 Adrienne Rich
My heart is moved by all I cannot save: So much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
In supporting this community, we help it to reconstitute the world. There need be no guilt, and I can honestly say that it gives me joy to do what I can for this congregation.
It is fitting that today's worship service focused on the telling of stories. Now that I have told you a few of mine, I will end by sharing a story I read in a book called Everyday Spiritual Practice: Simple Pathways for Enriching Your Life. It concludes the chapter on giving, and is a tale from the Jewish Talmud. But before I tell it to you, let's look at the word worship. It comes from Germanic roots meaning 'that condition of being worthy', and in a UU context, worship is what we do when we set aside time to actively assign worth to some idea or activity. As you listen to this story, think about what is most representative of this 'condition of being worthy', and decide for yourselves what type of steward you would like to be.
Time before time, when the world was young, two brothers shared a field and a mill. Each night they divided the grain they had grown together evenly. One brother lived alone, and the other had a large family. Now, the single brother thought to himself one day, "It isn't really fair that we divide the grain evenly. I have only myself to care for, but my brother has children to feed." So each night he secretly took some of his grain and put it in his brother's granary. But the married brother said to himself one day, "It isn't fair that we divide the grain evenly—because I have children to provide for me in my old age, but my brother doesn't." So he began every night to take some of his grain and put it in his brother's granary. Then, one night, they met each other halfway between their two houses, and they realized what had been happening. And then, what could they do but embrace each other in love? The legend is that God witnessed their meeting and proclaimed: "This is a holy place. And here it is that my temple shall be built." And so it was that the first temple was constructed in Jerusalem.
The author goes on to conclude the chapter, saying "If we understand that everyone is brother and sister to us, then we will always want to pour some of our grain into the granary of the world. And when we do—and where we do—that is a holy place".
May we assign worth to our values, to our stated principles, by living them out as these brothers did. May we be so generous in the giving of our gifts as to sustain this holy place, this beacon of hope, social justice and liberal religious values in Baltimore and in the world. I leave you with this thought, again from Hafiz:
#34 The Sun Never Says
Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, "you owe me." Look what happens with a love like that, it lights the whole sky.
[note 1] Actually, they wore black, because they were supposed to be 'in mourning' for the church. I think they only wore white on Sundays that Communion was being taken, which made them stand out even more and which is why I remember them this way. It's been so long now that I can't rightly recall the details.
[note 2] This talk was given during an 'Opportunity Fair', where the church's different committees and groups had set up tables explaining their work, with the goals of increasing awareness and potentially gaining new members as a way to boost involvement.