What Can Give Us Wings

Want to start out this morning with the story about a preacher talking about money with his congregation. Now I know that is shocking. Preachers talking about money!

This preacher was going at it. “Brothers and sisters, there’s work to be done. Great good to be got. But first we got to take that first little step. And then the second. Then we got to walk together, and not grow weary.”

Now how do you think the congregation responded to that? AMEN!

The preacher said, “We got to run together, and not grow faint.”

He said, “We got to spread our wings like eagles and fly!”

“But,” he said, “we all know today it takes money to fly!” Now at this there were a few scattered Amens, but mostly it was silence. And then a voice from the back of the congregation: “Then let’s walk, preacher!”

Oh, preachers. Talking about money. Talking about generosity. Talking about what can give us wings…. Won’t they ever learn?

But they can’t help it. It’s in their blood, in their DNA. The Preacher of all preachers, Jesus of Nazareth, did it too. Thousands of years ago, he sees the crowd of people, his heart breaks for them because he senses how they merely walk upon this earth when they could be flying, and so he gathers them to himself and begins speaking, and history knows this as “The Sermon on the Mount”:

“Blessed [he says] are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

“You are the light of the world. A city built upon a hill cannot be hid.”
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”
“Pray in this way:
Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come, your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread…”
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven….. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

And from here Jesus goes on just a little bit more, and then he’s done, and he steps down from the mount he stands on, and is still. The Preacher of preachers.

So preachers today can’t help themselves. They can’t stay away from the topic of money, or treasures on earth. They just can’t. It’s as important as “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” It is as important as “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It is as important as “Give us this day our daily bread.” What we do with our treasure—how we think about it—has everything to do with our spiritual wellbeing and health. An abundance mentality liberates. A scarcity mentality imprisons.

Brings to mind this story from a colleague (another preacher!) about a friend and his embarrassment in childhood when forms were passed out in elementary school for government subsidized lunches for children who came from poor families. My colleague’s friend requested one of the forms. After all, his father complained constantly that there was not enough money. The family was broke; there wasn’t enough to pay the bills; there wasn’t enough to pay the taxes on the house, the two cars, the boat, the vacation home. When he got home, his mother was mortified when she saw the free food form, and had to explain to her young son that his father was a prominent physician, one of the wealthiest men in town.

God, I so relate to this story. This was my story growing up. My Dad, a physician too, was just like that.

There is a reason why the preachers preach. Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

The question is—and always has been—what can give us wings? Liberate us from the fears that drag us down and make us so small. Free us up, lighten us up, make us like the birds of the air?

Science asks that question too. (And preachers love science, by the way, especially the Unitarian Universalist variety!) Check out this recent article in The New York Times by social scientists Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, entitled “Don’t Indulge. Be Happy.” It asks, “How much money do you need to be happy? Think about it. What’s your number?”

Jesus would want to read this article!

One of the things it says is that [and I quote] “our ideas about the relationship between money and happiness are misguided. In research [conducted] with a national sample of Americans, people thought that their life satisfaction would double if they made $55,000 instead of $25,000: more than twice as much money, twice as much happiness. But our data showed that people who earned $55,000 were just 9 percent more satisfied than those making $25,000. Nine percent beats zero percent, but it’s still kind of a letdown when you were expecting a 100 percent return.”

How many of you are surprised that more money does not necessarily mean more happiness?

What the data show, according to the article, is that the beneficial effects of money taper off completely when family income reaches $75,000 per year. That’s in America, by the way. Would be different in a different country. “Why, then,” asks the article, “do so many of us bother to work so hard long after we have reached an income level sufficient to make most of us happy?” (Within this question, can’t you just hear the echo of Jesus’ own question: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”)

But now the article says something even more profound. “Interestingly, and usefully, it turns out that what we do with our money plays a far more important role than how much money we make.”

“Imagine walking down the street to work and being approached by our student Lara Aknin, who hands you an envelope. You open the envelope and find $20 and a slip of paper, which tells you to spend the cash on something for yourself by the end of the day. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Now imagine instead that the slip of paper told you to spend the cash on someone else. Being generous is nice, sure, but would using the money to benefit someone else actually make you happier than buying yourself the belt, DVD or apps you’ve been dying to get?

“Yes, and it’s not even close. When we follow up with people who receive cash from us, those whom we told to spend on others report greater happiness than those told to spend on themselves. And in countries from Canada to India to South Africa, we find that people are happier when they spend money on others rather than on themselves.

“But what about individuals who are notorious for their struggles with sharing? Surely the emotional benefits of giving couldn’t possibly apply to very young children, who cling to their possessions as though their lives depended on it. To find out, we teamed up with the developmental psychologist Kiley Hamlin and gave toddlers the baby-equivalent of gold: goldfish crackers. Judging from their beaming faces, they were pretty happy about this windfall. But something made them even happier. They were happiest of all when giving some of their treats away to their new friend, a puppet named Monkey.”

And that’s the article that Jesus would want to read: a scientifically-validated way of increasing happiness: giving money away. There’s a puppet named Monkey out there for you—and giving your goldfish crackers to it is gonna make you feel gooooood…..

So what does your Monkey the puppet look like? (Once again, AnOTHer question you probably weren’t expecting to hear in church this morning…. )

Think back to our responsive reading from earlier. In fact, let’s read it together again. Number 444 in the back of the hymnal. A reading by Kenneth Patton (yet another preacher!)

This house is for the ingathering of nature and human nature.
It is a house for friendships, a haven in trouble, an open room for the encouragement of our struggle.
It is a house of freedom, guarding the dignity and worth of every person.
It offers a platform for the free voice, for declaring, both in times of security and danger, the full and undivided conflict of opinion.
It is a house of truth-seeking, where scientists can encourage devotion to their quest where mystics can abide in a community of searchers.
It is a house of art, adorning its celebrations with melodies and handiworks.
It is a house of prophecy, outrunning times past and times present in visions of growth and progress.
This house is a cradle for our dreams, the workshop of our common endeavor.

People, just listen to that! Giving to this house, giving generously, is gonna to make you feel goooood. [Say it with me GOOOOOOOD.] Officially UUCA is a non-profit organization, but lemme tell you, there’s other kinds of profit to care about—SOCIAL profit and SOUL profit—and UUCA creates it like crazy. Invest your money in it, and of course you yourself will get a big bang out of your buck, but what also happens is that your money is multiplied to create good things for the hundreds of people here and the thousands beyond who are impacted by what we do. When you pledge to UUCA, you are most definitely spending your money on others. It is the opposite of selfishness, the opposite of scarcity, the opposite of fear. You are building up the house. You are firing up the Spirit.

This morning, this preacher wants to encourage you to make UUCA your primary recipient for charitable giving. Lots of others groups to give to, but none are like UUCA.

Here’s how I decided on my pledge. I already knew that, at the very least, my annual pledge would be more than the average pledge of $1,200, because I know that I can afford at least $25 a week. That’s the cost of a nice meal at a restaurant, or two lunches out, and if I have to sacrifice that to support my spiritual home, I will.

I want to emphasize this because, as I look at the giving data of our congregation, I see that we have 97 pledge units who give less than $250. We have around 350 people who give less than $1,200. Our stewardship consultant tells us that for congregations to really thrive, we need to have the largest segment of our congregation giving at least at the $1,200 level—and we don’t have that …. yet.

Brothers and sisters, there’s work to be done.
Great good to be got.
But first we got to take that first little step.
And then the second.
Then we got to walk together, and not grow weary.
We got to run together, and not grow faint.
We got to spread our wings like eagles and fly!
And it takes money to fly!

Now I know I am being challenging here. I know that there are some people for whom even a pledge of $50 might represent 5% of their adjusted annual income (and to give at 5% IS generous!) But if this is not your story, and you are one of the 350 who give less than $1,200, I want to challenge you to reconsider your giving.

We got to spread our wings like eagles and fly!
And it takes money to fly!

Here’s how I decided on my pledge. I looked at the fair share giving guide at the bottom of my pledge form; I calculated my adjusted annual income (net income, minus any nonnegotiable fixed expenses that reduce available income, like the cost of paying for a parent’s stay in a retirement community, etc.); and then I determined what my monthly payment at 5% would look like. Could I give that? You bet.

It takes money to fly.
To fly as a congregation.
To fly as individuals.
“The feeling of wealth,” says yet another preacher, Robert Thurman, “is enhanced when you give, since subliminally giving means you have enough to share, while taking means you may not be getting enough. Giving is a relief. Taking is a burden.”

Do you know the joke about the 100 dollar bill, the 20 dollar bill, and the one dollar bill? How they met up at the shredder at the end of their lives? The 100 dollar bill says, “I’ve seen the whole world during my lifetime. Why, I’ve been on cruises in the Caribbean, safaris in Africa, and vacations in Europe.” The 20 dollar bill says, “Well, I’ve not done quite as well, but I have been to Atlantic City, Disneyland, and Starbucks.” They both turn to the one dollar bill and ask, “How about you?” The one dollar bill, not wanting to be outdone, says, “I’ve seen the whole country as well. I’ve been from church to church to church to church…”

It’s that person in the back of the congregation, what he says when he hears the preacher talk about money….
“Then let’s walk, preacher!”
People, that’s not the way to relief.
Walking is unworthy of us.
Walking is not the way to happiness.
Science proves it.
Preachers like Jesus have been saying it for thousands of years.
Walking is unworthy of us.
It takes money to fly.
Do you want to fly?
Let’s fly!