Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

March 12, 2006

 ““A Magic Penny”
a sermon for the canvassing season”

Rev. Catherine Torpey


Friends, it is canvass time! This is the venerable tradition in churches all over the country, where we search out those magic pennies filled with love. Our Stewardship Committee has been meeting diligently since January, and let me tell you that this is one of the finest collections of people I’ve ever seen anywhere. They held focus groups and discussed all the priorities you brought up. They have sought to define the campaign in a way that reflects your priorities. Seeing that so many of you expressed a desire to improve our physical space, they made a formal recommendation that the Planning Committee re-visit the possibility of a capital campaign in the near future.

Having done all that foundational work, this dedicated committee solicited our own talented graphic designer, Diane Hawkins, to create this wonderful banner, and Ralph Daino of our Public Relations committee was kind enough to print the banner for free. I argued forcefully that the banner should simply say, “Fork it over,” but the committee decided that “Support our Faith” was more appealing. Ellen Zaehringer-Gach had offered the suggestion that the sign could read, “I’ve upped my pledge this year—up yours!” but that was also, sadly, rejected. I think it turned out pretty nice anyway.

PBS aired a program a few years ago called Affluenza. The word, “affluenza,” is obviously a play on the words influenza and affluence, and so it captures the idea of the sickness and contagion of the wealth of our American society. The statistics are sobering. We spend money more on shoes, jewelry and watches in this country than we do on higher education. Seventy percent of Americans will go to a shopping mall this week—not nearly that many will stop by a house of worship.

The host of Affluenza, Scott Simon, visited the Potomac Mills mall outside Washington while filming the television program. All of the people he talked to seemed infected by shopping fever—often the first symptom of affluenza. Two women from Dallas, TX said they’d been at the mall for three days straight. A man with a cart full of merchandise said that he hadn’t come in for anything in particular; he just wanted to shop. This mall divides its areas into what are called “neighborhoods,” a sorry reminder of what passes for community in America today.

When I was a college student in Chicago in the early 1980’s, one of the most salient features of going from high school to college for most of us was that we no longer watched television at all. In my dormitory, there was one student who had a TV, and once every couple of months a bunch of us would pile into his room to watch a specific program. It was a festive communal event. The lounge in the hallway was where many of us sat to share dinner, chatted with people not necessarily in our social circle, and stayed up all night typing our papers so as not to disturb our roommates. Fifteen years later, when I began working at Manhattanville College, I was sad to see that each student brought a television and a computer with them, so that each dorm room had two TV’s and two computers, not to mention two stereo systems. The TVs, computers and stereos were all on at all times. Students stayed in their rooms, communicating with one another through their cell phones and by instant messaging one another on their computers. The lounges were always, always empty. The goods that surround us, that are so plentiful, so accessible, and which have been marketed to us with such determination—these goods which seem to be things that we need in our lives, may in fact at times be precisely what our souls need for us to refuse.

The film Affluenza refers to our lives as a work-and-spend treadmill. Over the decades of the twentieth century, we have added more and more hours to our work weeks and have purchased more and more things. We spend far less time actually interacting with our family, friends, or neighbors. The sizes of houses in America have grown exponentially over the years in order to accommodate more and more things that we own. We come home and each of us goes off to our own space, where we play with our own individual electronic toys—our computers, our TVs, our iPods. And yet, surveys show that as our accumulation of stuff has grown, we are less and less happy as people.

When I moved back to New York from Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1996, I came back with no job lined up and very little savings. I had, in my twenties, gotten myself in big trouble with credit card debt, and so I made a determination that I would not allow myself to get into financial trouble again—even though in my circumstance, I would have found it all too easy to charge up everything I thought I needed on my credit cards. So that there would be no temptation, I did away with credit cards in 1996, and lived without them for ten years. I got my first credit card just five months ago when I was forced to buy a new laptop in a pinch, since my Dell laptop was stolen. Back in 1996, I made the determination that I would see it as a spiritual discipline to live modestly, within my means, so that I could be appreciative of the wealth that I already had, and so that I could be genuinely generous with what was truly mine to give. I did not buy a car. I made my way around Westchester County for three years on my $400 bicycle. I was known by everyone as “that woman who rides the bicycle.” I rode my bike to the grocery store and I rode my bike to work. The headmistress of the Catholic school where I taught was worried about my riding in the dark and bought me a good pair of headlights. I also lived without a television set for most of those three years, and although I did own a laptop computer, I did not have an internet connection. What did I do with my evenings? I connected with human beings.

I was living on the campus of Manhattanville, and I found that, without the distraction of TV or the internet, I tended to go walking in the hallways to see what was going on. One evening, a young man I was chatting with ended up coming out to me; it was the first time he had acknowledged his homosexuality to anyone at Manhattanville. Another evening, I happened upon a young woman named Marta who was beside herself because another student had just pushed her way into Marta’s room and called Marta a “Spic.” When I came upon Marta, she and a friend were contemplating how to get a gang of friends together to beat the girl up. I was able to persuade Marta that the other student’s behavior had been a serious offense that the dean of students would be more than willing to discipline, and that her scheme of getting the girl beat up would only result in Marta getting kicked out of school. Happily, she took my advice and chose the non-violent course of redress. If I’d been behind my doors with the TV on, I would not have had the opportunity to serve those students’ needs. I would have been too distracted by The Simpsons to hear the call of community and connection.

Those were a couple of moments where I was able to give to others because I had chosen to live simply, but there were the countless other times that those walks on campus yielded relaxing moments of fun and the simple joy of conversation.

After about a year of living TV-less, my parents bought a new TV and gave me their old one. Although owning a television set doesn’t require one to watch it, I found that it sang to me its seductive siren song, and I often turned it on out of habit. But my quality of life was so obviously diminished by having the TV there, that after only a month or so, I gave it back to my parents, saying, “Lead me not into temptation.”

Nowadays, I cannot make the same claims. I have a TV with a VCR and DVD player, and my father and I each have our own laptop computers. Right now, my spiritual journey does not consist in being abstemious about these particular gadgets. But I invite you to consider with me the many, many ways in which we fill our lives with goods and services that are alluring, that make us feel good, and that are not in and of themselves an evil, but which have the effect of keeping us disconnected from our family, friends, and neighbors, and which might even keep us disconnected from our own souls.

To use the old Quaker word, What are the cumbers of our lives?

As we enter into the season of pledging, I ask you to consider what material sacrifices would enrich your spiritual life. What are the magic pennies of our lives that it’s time to lend, to spend to release into the world until they roll all over the floor?

I am rich. I do not mean that I come from wealth. In fact, I spent most of my elementary school years living in public housing. My parents both came from impoverished homes and worked faithfully all their lives to build up enough money to pass a little something on to my sister and me. The most I anticipate owning in the near future is a very modest house in Freeport. By many Americans’ standards, I am not rich. But I know that I am surrounded by a thousand supports and that, although my wants might be endless, my needs are very few. I have no fear of going without food. I have no fear of having to sleep on the street. I have no fear that I will need medical care that I cannot afford—at least not in the near future. I have a strong body and a good mind. I have friends and family who love me and all of you who would support me should something unforeseen afflict me.

But there are those among us who do not have the riches that I have. There are those right here among us in Freeport and in this sanctuary—perhaps you know yourself to be one of them—who face truly terrifying prospects of losing their homes, or losing the ability to care for their own health and basic well-being.

I believe that this place, the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation, is the place for me to foster my joy and gratitude at the enormous riches I have in my life. And I believe that the best way for me to foster this joy and gratitude is for me to live a life where I choose to give freely of the very things that I cling to most.

This past year, my pledge to SNUUC was one hundred dollars a month, or $1,200 a year. Having come off a lean year last year, I felt the need to be conservative in my pledging, but I wanted very much to do what I have been asking all new members to do, which is to commit to one hundred dollars a month. Our new board president, Jean Smyth-Crocetto canvassed me just yesterday, and challenged me to give $3,000 for the coming year. I have decided that for the coming year, I will tithe my salary. The salary portion of my package here at SNUUC is $36,000, and so I am announcing my pledge today to be $3,600.

I can’t tell you how good this feels. Tithing has been a commitment I have wanted to make over the years, and I am finally going for it. For me, this is a spiritual discipline. It is a concrete manifestation for me that I already have all I need; that I do not need to cling tightly to every penny that comes through my fingers, but that I can lend it, spend it, and I’ll have so many that they’ll roll all over the floor. For centuries, our spiritual ancestors have told us that ten percent of each dollar we earn needs to go into savings [another commitment I am making to myself], and ten percent needs to be tithed, and that eighty percent is plenty. I have a number of friends who have made it their lifelong practice to tithe, and I have always admired those people and observed that they are both spiritually and financially healthy.

I don’t believe in a quid pro quo from the universe or from God. I had one minister friend who said that there was a couple at his church who tithed their income because they believed that if they didn’t, God would not bless them. I believe that this is an unfortunate twisting of this spiritual discipline. I do not believe that one ought to give as some kind of business deal. I do not deserve something for giving my pledge. I don’t deserve to prosper because I am giving at what, for me, is a somewhat scary new level. And, I don’t deserve to have my voice count at SNUUC proportional to the amount of money I give. As I give this pledge to SNUUC, I do so knowing that sometimes the congregation will make choices about what to do with the resources that come in that I might not agree with. I don’t give as a means of controlling. I have chosen to give because I believe that I will gain spiritually far more than I will lose financially. I am excited to give at a level that makes me feel truly invested in this institution. I am excited to give at a level that I hope can make a real difference in the fiscal year to come.

I believe in SNUUC. I have chosen to serve here as the minister because I believe that this congregation is something worth putting my life into. There is no end to what SNUUC can do and be in Freeport and in the world. We can put money into developing leaders. We can put money into making a few simple aesthetic changes that will make our physical space more beautiful. But beyond these basic changes, we can become the center of all things good in Freeport. We can reach out to all the beautiful spectrum of cultures and ethnicities in this town and come together in caring and in freedom, sharing our wisdom with one another and seeking a deeper, more right way in the world. We can become the center of civic debate in Freeport, sponsoring talks about health care concerns, or voting rights or prison reform. Imagine if we ended up expanding so that we had clasrooms that community groups could use, so that there was a constant hustle and bustle, not just of our members, but of neighbors who find this a place where are always warmly received. What if this congregation paid for and built a Habitat for Humanity house all on our own? What if there were a fund here so that if you had a passion about a ministry that you wanted to start—whether a small spirituality group, or a huge mission trip to Haiti—what if there was a fund available to allow you to immediately implement your grand idea?

I am excited about tithing my salary because I want a way of life that is worth living. I want to give sacrificially to this, my house of worship. I want to revel in the riches that God has given to me. In faith, I choose to share my bounty with those around me. I look forward to watching my magic pennies roll all over the floor.