A Fresh Look at Familiar Things

This sermon was preached by Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois, on Saturday, January 8, and Sunday, January 9, 2005. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.


The first reading comes from words traditionally ascribed to King Solomon:

Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold;
For Wisdom [Sophia] is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with Her.
[Proverbs 8:10-11]

The second reading is a contemporary poem titled, “Money (That’s What I Want)”:

The best things in life are free
But you can keep them for the birds and bees

Refrain: Now give me money (That’s what I want)
That’s what I want (That’s what I want)
That’s what I want (That’s what I want), yeah
That’s what I want

Your loving gives me a thrill
So your loving don’t pay my bills


Money don’t get everything it’s true
What it don’t get, I can’t use


Now give me money (That’s what I want)
A lot of money (That’s what I want)
Wow yeah, I wanna be free (That’s what I want)
A lot of money (That’s what I want)
That’s what I want (That’s what I want), yeah
That’s what I want, well
Now give me money (That’s what I want)
A lot of money (That’s what I want)
Wow yeah, you need money (That’s what I want)
Oh now give me money, that’s what I want (That’s what I want)
That’s what I want (That’s what I want), yeah
That’s what I want

Song by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford; the “reading” actually consisted of a recording of this song as performed by The Beatles.

SERMON — “A Fresh Look at Familiar Things”

Our readings this morning give two different — I almost said “opposing” — opinions about money. In the first reading, we heard a proverb which has traditionally been attributed to King Solomon, that ancient king of Israel known for his deep wisdom and good common sense. Nowadays scholars are pretty sure that King Solomon didn’t really write this proverb, so I like to imagine that these words were spoken long ago by some great anonymous Hebrew sage.

As a follower of feminist theology, I like to imagine that these words were actually spoken by a woman sage or prophet. Carole Fontaine, a feminist scholar and self-proclaimed “Bible geek” (who also happens to be a Unitarian Universalist), writes: “The figure of Woman Wisdom may be a survival of goddess worship within the monotheistic structure of Israelite theology… At the very least, Woman Wisdom represents a synopsis of all the positive roles played by wives and mothers in Israelite society.” And so perhaps this is our collective Mother Goddess passing on her greatest wisdom to us: Choose wisdom rather than silver, or choice gold, or beautiful jewels; “and all that you may desire cannot compare with Her.”

Our second reading today is a contemporary poem or song which offers another opinion about money. The recording we heard was a fun, almost lighthearted interpretation of this poem by the early Beatles. I’m more familiar with a later recording of the song, interpreted by the Flying Lizards, which made the pop charts in Great Britain in 1979.

If you’ve ever heard that version, you cannot forget singer Deborah Evans’s deadpan rendition of the lyrics, backed by David Cunningham’s “poststructuralist” [according to Mark Allen’s fan Web site http://home.netcom.com/~logan5/], John-Cage-influenced instrumentals: “Your love brings me such a thrill/ But your love won’t pay my bills/ I want money.” This hip, postmodern rendition of a contemporary song couldn’t be more different than the words of the ancient Goddess found in the old Hebrew proverb….

…so which opinion do you find to be most true?

Now the pious among us might say, Why of course Wisdom is of more value than money. And the cynical rebels among us (that would be me) might reply, Yeah, but if you can’t pay the bills you’ll wind up on the street where you won’t have time for wisdom, so who are we trying to kid? Money — that’s what I want.

I believe there is a real and present tension between these two attitudes in our churches. Let’s explore that tension a little further. And to do that, I’d like to start with what I feel is absolutely the most fascinating branch of theology, which is to say ecclesiology — the study of how churches are supposed to work, and how they actually work in the real world.

Some of you may be familiar with James Luther Adams, who was the most prominent and best-loved Unitarian Universalist theologian of the past hundred years. Adams like to think of churches as “voluntary associations.” A voluntary association is a group of people who decide to come together to share some common bond or interests. Voluntary associations can range from the sublime, like our church — to the mundane or even silly, like the Barcroft Neighborhood Eighth Road Precision Lawnmower Drill Team, in Arlington, Virginia.

James Luther Adams believed that voluntary associations are the cornerstone of democracy. You see, in a mass democracy, one person’s voice doesn’t go very far — but when a group of people join their voices together, then they can be heard over the din of mass democracy. Adams also discovered that totalitarianism hates voluntary associations, and totalitarian governments always try to either shut down, co-opt, or severely limit, voluntary associations.

Here in the United States, churches and other religious groups are voluntary associations. For example, our Unitarian Universalist churches are not run by the government — nor are they run by multinational corporations — we run ‘em ourselves. So James Luther Adams says that our free churches open up space within mass democracy where your individual voice can be heard. Our free churches open up both a literal physical space — this beautiful building — and, metaphorically speaking, we also open up a figurative space where we can talk openly and freely about religion.

It is only by creating this open space that we can truly become seekers after truth and goodness — so I believe, anyway. Let me put it another way —

If you wanted to, you could leave this church and go off to become one individual seeking after truth and goodness on your own. But if you did try that, you would face two big problems. First, you would have only your own resources to draw upon. I think it would be hard to do all the reading on your own, to gather the insights, to check in with other people to be sure you weren’t deluding yourself,– all this to seek truth and goodness on your own. Given all that effort, it seems easier to simply return to church. Second, and more importantly, you would have to have enormous self-discipline to create a space for yourself — both a metaphorical space and a real, literal space — where you could carry on your search for truth and goodness.

This church creates that space where we can seek after truth and goodness. We have this space where we can come and sit and listen to sermons and stories and music, and sometimes we even get to enjoy a little silence together. And in the other spaces in this building, we get to have informal conversations over cups of coffee, and we get to meet in small group ministries, in education programs and study groups, and in support groups. This church gives us the space to engage in our search for truth, to receive help and guidance from others, and in our turn to guide and help other people in their searches for truth and goodness.

When you come right down to it, that’s what we spend our money on. The money we give to this church — and of course, the only place this church gets money is from us — our money pays the salaries of the ministers and staff who work as hard as they know how to keep this space physically open, intellectually open, emotionally open, religiously open. Theologically speaking, that’s what our money does in this church — and in my view, it’s really a balance between those two attitudes towards money with which we started.

I’m here as an interim minister. As a result, I am particularly curious to know whether or not people understand where their money goes, when they give money to their church. So I have been listening hard to try and hear what you all have to say about money. And I can sum up what I’ve heard very simply:

[SILENCE for 10 seconds]

Exactly. This congregation really doesn’t talk about money much at all. Except to say one of two things: “We don’t have enough money!” Or: “Good grief, why do we always have to be talking about money?! I’m not going to talk about money any more.”

Here’s how I have experienced this playing out in practice. When I arrived here six months ago, I immediately began to hear talk about how this church doesn’t have enough money. Yet although I came here expecting to be asked to pledge to this church — yet although I came here wanting to be asked to pledge to this church — no one would ask me for money. After two months, I brought this up at a Board meeting, and I asked for someone to canvass me (in other words, I asked for someone to sit down with me and talk about the church, and how much I might be able to give). Nothing happened. I asked the members of the Finance Committee to canvass me. Nothing happened.

Then Kevin O’Neill sent me a letter in October asking me to donate to the capital campaign, the fund drive to raise money to pay of the extensive restoration of the historic exterior of this building. At last! Someone had asked me for money. I carefully read the guidelines Kevin enclosed, and calculated that I should give $800 to the capital campaign, and sent my check in to the church.

But I still hadn’t been canvassed for my regular pledge. I asked the Board, I asked the Finance Committee, seems to me I asked the Membership Committee at one point, I began to ask random people in social hour. Somebody — take my money, please!

As you can gather from this little story, there is a certain reluctance here at this church to talk about money.

But if this church is so reluctant to talk about money, you may ask, why is it that people here report that they are sick of hearing talk about money? That same question came up for me, and I began to listen hard to what people were saying, and to ask a few questions.

And I got a good, solid answer to this question. People have told me again and again that they get tired of constant, ongoing, small demands for money for all sorts of programs and other things.

Here are some of the things people have told me they are tired of:– I have been told that people are tired of church school registration fees that keep going up (and as a result, I lowered them this year). A few people have said they are tired of registration fees for adult classes. Some people said they did not like to be asked to pay for coffee at social hour (and as a result, we have done away with the basket asking for donations for coffee money). Above all, I have heard that people do not like constant fundraisers during social hour. A number of people said they stopped going in to social hour because in the past there were always people selling something and it could cost you twenty bucks or more if you knew whoever was running the fundraiser. (And I am glad to report there has been far less fundraisers at social hour this church year — so if you are new, don’t be scared off by this story from the past — and furthermore, I tell you that with whatever power is invested in me as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I hereby empower you not to feel guilty when you say “no” to fundraisers at church.)

In short, people are correct — there have been too many requests for money here at this church. Theologians have a technical term for this phenomenon — it’s called “nickel-and-diming.” When your church constantly asks you for nickels and dimes, you tend to become cynical, and you tend to wind up giving far less money than you otherwise would give.

I believe nickel-and-diming is ending here at church. And I see signs that people are increasing their giving. Last weekend, even with low attendance due to the holiday, this church donated an astounding $2,849 for tsunami relief. We are a generous people. But we still don’t know if this increased generousity will in turn be extended to this church itself. How will you, the members and friends of this church, respond to the annual fundraising drive this spring?

Being a plain-spoken New England Yankee, let me give you some straight talk about my own pledge to this church. Because Rick Veague at last heard my plea, and agreed to canvass me — to ask me how much I’m willing to give to this church. Here’s what I told Rick:–

I make fifty thousand dollars a year. My goal for this year has been to give five percent of my annual gross income to my church — I’ve been working up to this level for about four years now. I particularly want to increase my level of giving to the liberal church this year because I feel our liberal voice is being drowned out by some strident voices from the far religious right.

Now, as an interim minister, I belong to the Church of the Larger Fellowship, or CLF. CLF is a Unitarian Universalist congregation that serves isolated and peripatetic Unitarian Universalists around the world, including those in the military or foreign service, other expatriates, those who live too far to drive to a Unitarian Universalist church, as well as people like interim ministers who have to move frequently.

I already pledged $900 to CLF this year. Since five percent of fifty thousand dollars is two thousand, five hundred dollars, that means I should pledge sixteen hundred dollars to this church. That’s what I told Rick Veague, and that, my friends, is the amount of my pledge.

I do not particularly care how many dollars you decide to give to this church. I do not even particularly care what percentage of your annual gross income you decide to give to this church this year. In practice, the calculations are not that simple. If you are out of work, or have recently been out of work, obviously you cannot give as much money to the church this year! If you are in your twenties, you are not likely to be earning much, and so you might give less. If you are still paying off loans for education, again you will wind up giving less.

Similarly, if you are in your peak earning years, with a stable job, you should be giving more to the church, in part to help out those who can’t afford to give right now. And if you are retired and on a fixed income, your ability to give cash may be limited, and so you may choose to work out some kind of planned giving or future bequest. There is no single, simple calculation — no easy equation that generates a firm dollar amount.

I said I do not particularly care how many dollars you decide to give to this church. What I do care about is your level of commitment. To my way of thinking, if you are trying to achieve financial stability soon with the hope of being able to give something to the church in the future — then you have a high level of commitment to the church. I am more impressed by your level of commitment, than I am by some specific dollar amount, or by some percentage of income. Your commitment is revealed to you in your heart of hearts; not in some arbitrary numbers.

By now, you may be thinking:– Oh, so that’s where Dan stands, he agrees more with the song: “Your love won’t pay the bills, I want money”; Dan stands opposed to the Proverb, where Wisdom is more important than jewels.

Well, maybe. But remember, we’re not taking a stand somewhere, we are trying to balance between these two.

We live in a world dominated by money; a world where you and I are judged by how much money we have. One of the reasons I come to church is to be in a space where people care less about my money, and more about my humanity.

We keep this church as an open space where we can seek truth and goodness, where we can be more authentically human. No wonder we don’t want to talk about money here. We don’t want to sully our sacred, open space. But it takes money to keep this space open, to hold back the money so we can come here to get away from money and be more authentically who we are.

We have inherited Wisdom from our ancestors. We have inherited this open space where we can meet Wisdom. We can continue to use money to keep this space open —

Or not.

You get to choose.