Loaves and Fishes

loaves-and-fishes

Loaves and Fishes

By Rev. Fred L Hammond

This is an edited version of a sermon I gave regarding a generosity challenge to the congregation in Tuscaloosa, AL.

 

Of all the miracle stories told in the gospels, the story of feeding the five thousand seems to be the most probable. The story isn’t about yet another miracle, even though on first reading it could be and has been interpreted as such. It is instead a lesson on generosity.

Jesus’ disciples assume that the five thousand men, not including the women and children present would have nothing with them to eat. They urge Jesus to send them away so they may find something to eat in the villages. Jesus’ response is you feed them. You give them something to eat. The disciples only had enough for themselves, five loaves of bread and two fish. You can almost hear his disciples whine as they tell Jesus this fact.

If this story of Jesus multiplying the fish and loaves is in any way an historical account, then I believe that something other than the miraculous occurred. I believe it was his modeling generosity that multiplied the loaves and fish. In that crowd of people others also brought food. There is no way that the disciples were able to survey the entire crowd of 5,000 plus people to know that only 5 loaves of bread and two fish was the only food. Perhaps they were hoarding it and not letting others know they had some food. But when Jesus blessed the food he did have and began giving it away, this act was enough for others to follow Jesus’ lead in sharing the food they had brought. There was enough. In fact, they were able to fill 12 basketfuls with the leftovers. This wasn’t a miracle; it was instead how generosity works. …

The sharing of what we have does go further than when we hoard it for ourselves. Every time. And it seems to be enough. Every time.

I have noticed in my own life, perhaps you have noticed it in yours as well, that when I share of the bounty I have I am more open to the possibility of receiving… I know I have said this before, but I truly believe that money is nothing more than a symbol of the energy flow of life. It is always flowing. Sometimes it is a monsoon and sometimes it is the evaporating morning dew. And both ends of that pole are filled with challenges. I have known both ends of that pole, and when I am in the monsoon end, I have the ability to share and willingly do so from my abundance. I feel good being able to do so.

And I have known the feeling that what I have is evaporating like the morning dew and I want to cling on to every last penny. The difficulty I find with myself is that even in my clinging to the morning dew; I always seem to have enough for that movie, large soda and popcorn at the Cobb theater and I always seem to have enough for that Starbucks cinnamon dulce venti coffee but nope, nada for the church, nope nada for the food pantry, nope nada for Breast cancer research.

There is a quote I came across that states, “Don’t tell me where your values are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.” And it is at those times when I seem to have the money for Starbucks, which is not a necessity, and no money to support the micro loan program that aids the economic development of women in third world countries or the Big Brother/Big Sister mentoring program that my values, my shamefully self-centered-what-about-me-values begin to surface. Because truth is, even when I am feeling I have no ability to share my financial resources, I still find the money to purchase that bottle of wine or bag of chips or MacCafé or popcorn at the refreshment stand.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with purchasing these things. But if you are like me and feeling like money is evaporating like the morning dew, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate how necessary to the enjoyment of life are these extra non-essential items.

People in the 1% of the wealth of this country are not any happier or more fulfilled than those at the bottom 1% of wealth in this country. I know the Sophie Tucker quote, “I’ve been rich, I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” But the key to enjoying life and having happiness seems to be not the amount of money we have but the richness of our relationships with others. It is the values that we live out in our daily lives that will add to our happiness quotient.

I enjoy treating others. I am grateful that I have the income to enable me to pay my obligations and to have some money to set aside for later expenses, money set aside for causes that I find important and to be able to treat my friends every so often. I don’t live extravagantly. I am not trying to keep up with the Joneses by getting the latest iphone or wii gaming box. But I have enough. Enough to do the things that I feel are important, essential to my living my values, of how I want to be in the world.

How do you want to be in the world? I want to challenge this notion that we cannot be more generous than we are because of… name the reason. This simply is not true. We, regardless of the life challenges we are facing right now, can all be more generous than we were yesterday.

So last fall, I introduced a challenge to this congregation. I took $500 from the minister’s professional expense account and broke it into ten amounts. Four people received $25, four people received $50 dollars and two people received $100. The challenge was this: To find a way to grow this money into more money and then to give that money to a charity of one’s choosing.

How to grow the money was entirely up to the person. They could simply choose to match the money and give it to their charitable cause. They could use the money as an entrance fee to a walkathon for one of their causes. They could make something to sell and the profits could then go towards their cause. There was no restriction on how they were to do this. I gave them six months to do this. I did not keep track of who received the envelopes and I had shuffled the envelopes so I did not know who received what amount. The only thing that they had to do was to then report back to me in April with a report of what they did with the money. How they came up with the process of growing the money. What was the amount they began with and ended with, and something about the charity they gave the money to.

There were some interesting lessons learned along the way. Three of the projects are still incomplete and the reasons for the incompletion are interesting. They required the work, the generosity to be done by others. Generosity, it turns out, cannot be delegated. Even if it seems to be in the best interest of the other, generosity has be initiated by the self. One person realized after waiting several months for a group he was involved with to implement his idea, began to grow the money by himself and was able to increase the funds that he is giving to Breast Cancer Research. This project at last report is still ongoing. We will wait and see if the other projects will be completed.

One family did something interesting. The daughter took one of her art projects for school, a yarn picture of a butterfly and made this into note cards. Then she sold these cards. They turned their $50 dollars into $260. The daughter learned about the international women’s organization, the Soroptimist, which helps women to rise out of poverty and abusive situations. She is also very committed in the beautification project here at the church. So the money is being divided between two organizations, one being the church. The other is FINCA.

The family writes, “For some time we had been considering donating to a charity that does micro-loans to promising entrepreneurs in developing areas. We learned about FINCA, which supports women’s small growing businesses. When the loan is repaid, and some of the profits are saved, the entrepreneur has the possibility to apply for a second and larger loan. In this way a donation to FINCA can actually be used over and over again, helping to provide food, housing, schooling, and other basic support.”

The donation this family is making to FINCA will continue to grow with each new micro loan that is made to a woman in a developing country. This international charity has consistently for the past seven years received 4 stars for excellence as being one the best run charities in the world and in achieving its desired goals.

There are Unitarian Universalist congregations that have as a congregation chosen to help FINCA establish and support new micro loan banks in new communities in third world countries. This is something we too could do as a congregation.

It is no secret that [Name removed]  loves to shop for clothes and shoes. You may be wondering what her secret is to her wonderful and attractive ensembles that she wears. Well, she shops at the various charitable consignment and thrift stores in the region. So she is already supporting the services that many in our region need to receive. Yet, with this challenge, she took this to another level.

She writes, “I made a deal with myself that whenever I wanted to buy clothes or shoes I would instead put that amount in the envelope or, if I bought something, I would have to match the amount and put it in the envelope. I came upon this idea because I’m a woman who likes clothes (or should I say “one of those women”) and have more than I need, and don’t need anymore. So, deflecting that desire to spend on clothes into a fund for charity seemed like a good lesson for me.”

This became a spiritual practice of generosity. Her practice grew her $25 into $320 and she decided to give this money to our congregation as a gift.

Another lesson that was learned is sometimes life gets in the way of our good intentions. Frequent business travels, family concerns, and the ever ubiquitous procrastination can derail our best efforts. But even with these barriers generosity can rise to the fore.

Two years ago, a couple visited their daughter in Mexico. She was working as an encargada or caregiver at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos orphanage in Miacatlán Mexico. They were very impressed, not only with the service their daughter was providing but with the orphanage as well. This organization, started by a priest in the 1950’s, has grown into an international organization that has served close to 16,000 orphans. The initial $25 was used towards paying for the initial month of support to one person. They write, “[We] will contribute an additional $30 per month until the student graduates, providing funding for the purchase of clothing, school supplies and personal items. We have recently been given the name of our “godchild,” who has just celebrated her 15th birthday. We will support this student until she graduates in approximately three years. In addition to the monetary contribution, we will be corresponding with the young person and can visit the home in Mexico.” The $25 will have yielded approximately $1,080 in generous support. …

The generosity challenge was, in my opinion, a wonderful success. Lessons were learned. New experiences are unfolding. And the grand total of money raised for charitable causes from the $500 to date is $2,575. Margaret Mead stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Blessed Be.

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How would You Feel?

Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 11:19 am  Comments Off on How would You Feel?  
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Alabama’s constitution: a reform long overdue

Alabama’s state constitution has not been seriously reviewed since it was implemented in 1901.   Yes, that’s right 1901.  Now changing constitutions are not something that one should enter into lightly.  Yet, there comes a time when constitutions no longer serve the best interests of the people.  However, this constitution was never written to serve the best interests of the people of Alabama only a few select white people of Alabama.  So the constitution was flawed from day one.

John Knox president of the 1901  constitution convention stated in the record it was the intention of the convention to “establish white supremacy in this state.”  This constitution deliberately institutionalized racism.   And the constitution as written has ensured that people of color be cast down by deliberate oppression. 

One of the ways this is done is by the  constitution keeping all of the decision making out of local control.  No municipality, no county can decide for itself zoning issues or even mundane decisions like rodent control or burying dead farm animals unless so amended in the constitution.   According to Alabama Citizens  for Constitutional Reform, 50% of state legislators time is spent debating local issues that should be decided by the people affected by these issues.  70% of all amendments  made to the constitution apply to a single municipality.  This makes the state constitution the longest on record.   It also limits the autonomy of municipalities to make decisions and the ability to make said decisions are unequal per amendments to the constitution. 

The constitution has locked in unfair tax codes penalizing the poor to pay a disproportionate amount of income and sales tax.   The wealthiest in the state pay about 4%  while the poorest pay 11% and begin paying income tax after $12K.  Even Mississippi, which Alabama is oft to cry “Thank God for Mississippi” when comparing its ratings in the nation, has a starting thresh hold of $19K  for a family to begin paying state income tax.

The money raised in Alabama has little flexibility as to how it can be spent.  According to the Alabama Citizens for Constitution reform, most states earmark only 22% of their budget allowing the governor and finance officers to develop a budget allocating funds to the areas of greatest need.  Alabama constitution requires that 90% of the budget be earmarked limiting that flexibility and causing huge problems.  The education budget has been pro-rated eight times in the past 17 years.   Pro-ration is when the budget which must be balanced is reduced by the percentage of the deficit.  Meaning that if the deficit is 10% then the education budget must be pro-rated back 10% as well. 

It is due time that Alabama streamlines the 799 amendment constitution by surrendering democratic control to the municipalities and counties to allow them to determine what to do with their dead farm animals and where to build their firehouses.  State legislators have larger and more important issues to deal with than waste their time and our money on such localized problems.   This constitution is the epitome of micro-management gone wild.

There are now two bills in the legislature. But they are facing a tough fight.  HJR 91 was briefly discussed on May 6, 2009 but was tabled to some undetermined time.  It is important that our state representatives hear from us to not allow this racist and archaic and convoluted constitution to continue to guide us in the muck  of red tape.   We deserve better treatment and respect from our state government than this.  Blessings,

Published in: on May 21, 2009 at 12:44 pm  Comments Off on Alabama’s constitution: a reform long overdue  
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The present as shifting point

 

“In every age the present is merely the shifting point at which past and future meet, and we can have no quarrel with either.  There can be no world without traditions; neither can there be any life without movement. There is never a moment when the new dawn is not breaking over the earth, and never a moment when the sunset ceases to die… 

In the moral world we are ourselves the light bearers, and the cosmic process is in us made flesh. For a brief space it is granted to us, if we will, to enlighten the darkness that surrounds our path. As in ancient torch-races, which seemed to Lucretius to be the symbol of all life, we press forward torch in hand along the course.  Soon from behind comes the runner who will outpace us. All our skill lies in giving into that hand the living torch, bright and unflickering, as we ourselves disappear in the darkness.” 

Havelock Ellis as quoted in Ronald Knapp’s  reflection at the UUMA Convocation on Ministry 1995.

I came across this quote this evening while preparing for tomorrow’s sermon on the Prophetic Sisterhood.  I found it quite profound in contrast to these amazing women of the late 19th and early 20th century in our Unitarian movement.   There were several torches that they passed on to us.  Some were more directly passed to us from their hands  like the right for women to vote as many if not all of these women were active in the suffragette movement.  A few lived long enough to be able to cast their ballot.

But one torch seemingly skipped a generation or two.  When these women clergy were forced out of their ministries by the Unitarian desire to masculinize the movement [indeed there was a nationwide desire to masculinize all of America during this time], very few women were ordained from the 1920’s until the 1970’s.  It became the rare woman who was able to fill a pulpit during that period, less than 2% of women were clergy in our movement.

It wasn’t until the women’s movement of the mid-60’s and 70’s that women in numbers once again began seeking ordination as ministers.  That 2% ember had once again flared as the beacon torch it once was in the Western Conference of the late 1800’s.  Today Unitarian Universalist women ministers comprise over 50% of our clergy. 

But the present as shifting point is a shaky precipice. It can tip backwards or tip forward into the rising dawn.  It seems to me that it is important for us as the carriers of the flame, that we decide here and now how this flame will burn in the next moments of our lives even as our sunset blazes behind the horizon.   Blessings,

Help Somebody

I was introduced to Susan Werner’s song, “Help Somebody” at the MidSouth District Annual Assembly by Sarah Dan Jones who performed this song with choir at one of the services.  It is a powerful song. Thank you Sarah Dan!

Published in: on May 8, 2009 at 9:09 am  Comments Off on Help Somebody  
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UUA End Statement raises concern

At Mid-South District’s Annual Assembly in Nashville this past weekend, our UUA Trustee Lyn Conley shared with those present at the meeting the proposed UUA end statement and it caused some concern for me and several of my ministerial colleagues who were present. 

The end statement that was originally presented to the UUA Board  meeting in April 2009 stated the following: “Grounded in our covenantal tradition, the UUA will inspire people to lead lives of humility and purpose, connection and service, thereby transforming themselves and the world.” 

By the end of the Board meeting, the proposed end statement that passed and that Lyn Conley read to the District was the following: 

“Grounded in our covenantal tradition, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association will inspire people to lead lives of humility and purpose, connection and service, thereby transforming themselves and the world.”

There is a vast difference between stating “The Unitarian Universalist Association will inspire people to”… versus “The member congregations of the UUA will inspire people to… ”    

The first wording is an appropriate end statement for the Unitarian Universalist Association, the second is not.  Perhaps it is a subtle difference.  But in my experience of doing policy governance work, I do not believe so. 

Policy Governance is a model for how a board works in achieving its ends as a board and as an entity.  It is a helpful tool in guiding CEOs in fulfilling the mission of the agency. The UUA is an agency set up to serve the member congregations.

The second statement is a directive to the member congregations and the subset ends that follow contain possible criteria for enforcing that directive. If we had a presbyterian form of polity then the directive would also be appropriate but we do not have a presbyterian polity, not yet anyway, and therefore in order for the second wording to succeed it would require that each and every congregation in the association to buy into / or covenant with this end statement as their own in order for it to be implemented and aspired to by the congregations. 

The difficulty with this as an end statement for the UUA is that it is really an end statement for congregations that are supposed to be able to determine their own destiny through congregational polity. It is instead akin to parents developing an end statement for their child’s future: ‘Grounded in our family values, Mary child of Tom and Wilbur will major in medicine to become a doctor.’  While the goal of the end statement is laudable and perhaps very desirable by many congregations, to state that “member congregations … will inspire” is not within the UUA’s decision or even within their perview to decide. That decision of whether the congregation will inspire rests in the congregation.

The original wording is the UUA’s end statement. The revised and adopted end statement is the member congregations’ end statement, which is not in the UUA’s authority to develop. 

How will the UUA inspire congregations to be places of transformation?  What will the UUA do to assist that to happen?  All appropriate questions that the UUA will need to discuss and develop policies and parameters for the next President to then follow in fully answering these questions. As currently worded, however, the UUA is saying that the congregations will do this and that is not in the UUA’s control and once it is out of the UUA’s control it can no longer be the UUA’s end statement.  Nor is it in the parent’s control on how their child will decide to unfold her life. 

I do not question the laudable vision of inspiring people to living lives of humility and purpose, etc…. But I do question who will take responsibility and accountability for it happening… Placing it on the member congregations is the UUA abdicating its role in serving the congregations.  And while the UUA ‘s membership is made up of congregations, it is still an entity separate from the member congregations.  End statements are for the board of an agency to implement through its staff and not its member constituents.

Let me see if I can put this another way… I was the executive director of an AIDS Ministry for over 10 years.  My board developed end statements for me to work towards.  It was not the responsibility of the people with AIDS  who we served to implement these end statements, it was my responsibility and the staff I supervised to implement these end statements.  Hopefully by working towards these end statements it meant that the people with AIDS were living healthier lives because of them.   

It is the same with whatever end statement that the UUA Board develops.  It is the President and the staff of the UUA who will and ought to be responsible for working towards these end statements.  Hopefully, by working towards these end statements the member congregations will indeed be places where transformations happen.   The UUA can inspire us to be these places of transformation with their resources, their services to the congregations, their advocacy work for justice in our nation’s capital and in their holding the member congregations accountable to our covenant with one another.   Blessings,

Pew Survey: Give Them Hell…

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 54% of those who attend church regularly said that torture used against suspected terrorists is “often” or sometimes “justified.”  The survey only included white Evangelical, white non-Hispanic Catholics, and white mainline Protestants.  Those individuals who did not attend church regularly or were unaffiliated religiously were more likely to respond that torture was rarely or never justified. 

I find this curious as it contradicts the very basics of Christian teachings of Jesus.   Jesus, himself, was considered a terrorist of his day and received torture by his captors.   But Jesus never condoned torture in his teachings.  “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your enemies” and “forgive each other not just 7 times but 70 x 70 times” and “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword”  and other phrases appear over and over again through out the gospels of the Christian scriptures.  These are not the tenets of someone who sees torture as justified. 

What is it about 21st century Christianity that rejects the very premise of Jesus’ teachings?  Could it be that those who call themselves Christians have rejected the Jesus of the scriptures for an apocalyptic Christ?  An image of a  Christ that is full of vengeance and hatred against a world that rejects him? 

The popular Left Behind novel series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins proclaims an apocalyptic vision of the end times that is filled with terror for the unbelieving.  This is a Christ that prepares a Hell for those who refuse to accept Christ’s message.  It is geared towards using torture as a means to bring about salvation, albeit salvation under duress.  Not the ‘love your enemies’ Christ of the Christian scriptures but the wrathful twisted apocalyptic Christ of the 21st century.  The apocalyptic Christ accepts torture as a means for the victims of torture to then possibly receive Christ’s message of love.   It is a twisted and disturbed interpretation of the gospels.

Someone needs to proclaim the message regarding torture that is in alignment with the message of the world’s sages; Buddha, Jesus, Rumi, Gandhi, and King.  

The National Religious Coalition Against Torture is proclaiming June as Torture Awareness Month.  The UUA’s Mid-South District  has received a grant to enable  MSD congregations to participate spreading the word that Torture is morally wrong and is never ever justified.  If your congregation would like to be part of the proclamation that Jesus meant it when he said “Love your enemies,”  contact the National Religious Coalition Against Torture for ideas and resources.  If your congregation is part of the UUA’s Mid South District contact the district for more information on the availability of  grant monies to assist you in proclaiming your prophetic voice. 

Let us  join with Rev. John Murray who said, “Give them not Hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God. ”

 

Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church, Ellisville, MS

Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church, Ellisville, MS

Prayer for the Beloved Community

I wrote this prayer to be offered at the Mid-south District Assembly in Nashville, TN this evening at the “Service of the Lively Tradition”.

Spirit of Life that binds all of creation together, May our thoughts focus on this connection that weaves between us here in this gathering and with those at our home congregations, and even with those lives we may not even be aware of in distant lands.  Yet, we are all of one fabric.

Let us learn the lesson of the new patch on old fabric.  Like a new patch, if we are without wisdom, without compassion, without empathy for the threads that connect us, then we tear at the very fabric that makes us whole.  May we today find ways to recommit ourselves anew to peacemaking within our lives, within our congregations, within our country, within our global community. May we recognize the power that we as single threads have in binding our hearts and minds together towards this fabric of common cause. 

Spirit of Life lead the arc of Justice ever forward in all of our actions.  May our community grow ever firm in its convictions for a world of equitable justice, equitable economies, equitable relations.  May the beloved community be more than just an ideal to strive for but one that manifests in our midst by our daily actions in thought and deed. 

Spirit of Life that binds all creation together may we honor you in caring for that creation.  May we be caring for the creation sitting next to us in these pews, and caring for the creation beyond these walls whose very existence adds life and enjoyment to this planet.  May this be so.  Let the people offer a resounding, Yes Indeed.

Published in: on May 1, 2009 at 8:52 am  Comments Off on Prayer for the Beloved Community  
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