Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 16, 2008
“Enriching Our Programs, Enriching Our Lives
Rev. Catherine Torpey
Horace Greeley published the New York Tribune, ran for president against Ulysses S Grant, and was a dedicated Universalist. Sometime in the middle of the 19th Century, a woman wrote to him about the distressing financial predicament in her church. Secretly hoping that her letter might induce him to write a check, she explained that they were running out of money, and didn’t know what to do. They had tried “fairs, strawberry festivals, oyster suppers, grab bags, and lawn [sales]. Would Mr. Greeley be so good,” the woman wrote, “as to suggest some new device to keep the struggling church from disbanding?”
Mr. Greeley replied: “Try religion.”
The word “religion” comes from the Latin “re” and “ligare”—ligare is to bind or tie, and it’s where we get our word “ligament” from. Religion is the means by which we bind ourselves into community. And community isn’t something that just happens; it must be actively chosen, enjoyed and nurtured. Each March, as our Financial Commitment Drive gets under way, we are given the opportunity once again to actively nurture this community in the most concrete of ways: by giving financially.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s been a lot of talk about the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic party’s nomination. In one of the reports about high turnout at a recent primary, one local citizen said that this is “the first time politics has mattered since the 1960’s.”
The first time politics has mattered since the 1960’s? Mattered? I can’t agree. If he thinks that politics only matters when it’s fun, then he needs to “try religion.” Politics has always mattered. All those years between the last time that gentleman was excited and now (when he’s excited again)—all those in-between years led to this year, this circumstance, this critical moment in time.
Just as not all elections are equally glitzy even though they are, indeed, all equally important, so too, not every year will you be equally jazzed about the particulars of a SNUUC fundraising campaign. But this is what Horace Greeley meant—that if we want to sustain a religious community we care about, we need to “try religion.” Just as true democracy cannot sustain itself without those who work the elections year in and year out, our little democracy here needs those who’ve got religion: those who stick it out through the ups and downs, not giving up on something that is deeply meaningful and needed in our world.
This year at SNUUC, we are enriching our programs and our lives—that is the theme of this campaign: Enriching Our Programs, Enriching Our Lives. And for me, this is one of those exciting years. It’s a year when your board and finance committee have been working diligently to increase clarity and improve procedures around financial operations, so that we are being the best stewards we can be for all the resources we have at our disposal. That, to me, is exciting. I am excited by the progress being made, as I hope you are. We are setting the foundation to move forward into the future with confidence and clarity. There is a way to go before the habits of many years are completely turned around, but there is steady progress and many very dedicated people spending many an hour helping make this shift. I am excited about seeing the congregation depend less on income from the Thrift Shop and more on a strong pledge base. The more we rely on the money that comes out of the pockets of members—that is, the more we try religion—, the more committed and engaged each member will tend to be. We are pulling this vessel along by the strength in our own bodies and souls and bank accounts—it is our work in the world, our spiritual home, the expression of our highest values. It is our religion.
Just as the leadership of SNUUC has been increasingly vigilant about the budget, so have all of you been doing an impressive job of being more and more generous each year in the financial commitments you have made. And, yes, this year, your canvasser will ask you once again to push yourself a bit further, to give a bit more, to grow and stretch and work together to shape this institution, just as our forebears shaped it for us.
“Try religion,” Universalist Horace Greeley admonished. What would trying religion look like in our day, at our congregation, in our effort to maintain our fiscal strength? How can our religion be reflected in our financial life? Galen Guengerich, the minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, wrote in an article in our UU magazine, the World, that:
religion is constituted by two distinct but related impulses: a sense of awe and a sense of obligation. The feeling of awe emerges from our experience of the grandeur of life and the mystery of the divine. This feeling becomes religious when a sense of obligation lays claim to us, and we feel a duty to the larger life that we share….
The defining element of our faith must be a daily practice of some kind, [and I believe that] our defining discipline should be gratitude. In the same way that Judaism is defined by obedience, Christianity by love, and Islam by submission, I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by gratitude….
The ethic of gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return. It is our duty to foster the kind of environment that we want to take in, and therefore become.(1)
This year’s Financial Commitment Drive is an opportunity to “try religion:” to exercise the religious discipline of gratitude; to make a financial commitment as a concrete expression of gratitude both for SNUUC and for all that life has given us. There is no separation between our religious selves and material selves; so what we do with our resources—whether it be resources of money, time or energy—is an expression of our religion.
Let the financial commitments we make in the next couple of weeks be part and parcel of the dreams we dream for SNUUC.
I have many dreams for SNUUC, as I know you do. Your dreams may differ somewhat from mine, but let me list for you the dreams that I believe we hold in common.
I have a dream that we will enrich our budget to truly reflect our deepest values—that we will know what defines us as a meaningful, purposeful community, that we will know what our highest priorities are, and that we will fund well all the programs that reflect those values and priorities.
I have a dream that we will enrich our Religious Education program and know that it is an essential ministry of this congregation—that it will be one of the highest priorities for each member, whether a parent or not. I have a dream that we will be generous in our compensation package for whoever next year’s Director or Interim Director may be, seeking for this congregation to be a leader and an example to other congregations, pulling others up as we pull ourselves up.
I have a dream that we will declare ourselves to the world, encouraging all those who would covenant to walk with us in the spirit of love, generosity and peace into our congregation—all ages, all races and ethnicities, all physical shapes and sizes, all sexual orientations and gender expressions—all are welcome to try this religion that they may be enriched.
I have a dream that every person who is lonely, looking for a community, where they can be honest about who they are, and be encouraged and called to their highest self, to live a life of meaning and value—that every such person will find us. I dream of reaching out and seeking out those who have the same need for spiritual community that drew us here.
I have a dream that we will reach out into the communities of Freeport, Baldwin, Merrick, Bellmore, Roosevelt, Wantagh and all of South Nassau, in order to let them know that in this place, we educate our children with faith in their inherent abilities. We raise them to learn for themselves to know what is right, to foster within themselves love of goodness and justice, to value community over dogma, and to love people more than things. I have a dream that each child that comes to us will have their souls nurtured to be strong and healthy and resilient in a world that is not always nurturing.
I have a dream that we will ever enrich our hospitality to one another, that we will have more informal time together, more ways for newcomers to make friends, more laughter and relaxation among ourselves.
I have a dream that we will commit ourselves to honest conversation with one another, never gossiping, never repeating negative stories about any other, but instead addressing one another one-on-one when we have concerns, having courage in our ability to speak our truth and faith in our ability to hear what others want to say. For this is where communities fail or thrive.
I have a dream that we will create ever more enriching worship together, with everyone offering their talents selflessly in order to minister to others.
I have a dream that we will grow and change and always look for the next horizon together.
I have a dream that we will show ever greater appreciation for one another—for the Board of Trustees, for the Stewardship committee and the Ways and Means committee and the Religious Education committee and every other committee, large or small, which takes up a ministry and does its very best to enrich this congregation conscientiously. I have a dream that we will look for opportunities to thank one another for the work that we do here.
I have a dream that the Thrift Shop will be lauded for its amazing foresight in squirreling away hundreds of thousands of dollars, enriching the future generation—that is us—so that when we encountered lean years, we would have funds to tide us over while we steadily increase pledging to meet all expenses. I have a dream that the Thrift Shop will continue to be an enterprise that offers a real ministry by providing low-cost items for sale and that it continue to make money—and that we use that money not for the operating budget, but for outreach to the community.
I have a dream that as we work steadily toward clarity in our finances, we will have a sense of humor and compassion for ourselves. We don’t have to do things perfectly.
I have a dream of each of us supporting each other through hard times, and celebrating with one another during good times, thereby enriching our relationships.
I have a dream of enriching our programs so that each of us feels renewed and refreshed by our involvement at SNUUC, and buoyed up by the programs offered here and the people we meet here and the inspiration we find here.
I have a dream that mean-spiritedness and destructiveness will be named, rejected and repudiated—in our own hearts and in the behavior of others, for our sake and for theirs, that this community may be truly safe and hospitable for the human spirit.
I have a dream that each of us will have our lives enriched both by what we get here and by what we give; that our giving and our receiving will be blessed.
I have a dream that we will know the truth of ourselves: that we are a financially sound congregation; that we need to plan so that our financial soundness continues, but that we do currently have the ability to afford all the basic needs of a congregation and more.
I have a dream that we will dream; we will want a lot, that we will sacrifice a lot for it; that we will see the need in our own souls and in the souls of so many out there who want a place where their minds and hearts are respected, challenged, and engaged.
In other words, I have a dream that we will try religion.
All these dreams are not only doable; they are already happening, and becoming more and more true as we nurture them. Our generous spirits are all that it will take for us to achieve everything we want to be; everything we can be.
The great minister of Riverside Church, William Sloane Coffin, once declared that “Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined life but the uncommitted life that is not worth living.”
This year, as in every year, let your financial commitment to SNUUC—and all of the financial commitments in your life—be expressions of your deepest gratitude, your highest commitment, your religion. When you receive the visit from your canvasser, talk about what you most value here and what your dreams are. Allow it to be an opportunity for you ponder afresh how much you can give, how great an investment you are able to make, how willing you are to try religion, that your dreams for this congregation and Unitarian Universalism may come true.