The Offering Is a Great Teaching Moment

Students and student ministers of mine know that I like to emphasize the fact that the Offering is not a throwaway moment that should be dispensed with as quickly as possible in the service so that we can get to the “real” religious stuff. Stewardship is (or could be) as spiritual as prayer, and I believe that ministers should put as much care and thought into making the offering words meaningful as they do their prayers and sermons. If people hear the same phrase week after week, their giving can also become rote. What a shame that is, for the offering is part of the liturgy during which we actually mingle our life energy in a tangible way, through the sharing of our financial gifts. There’s no reason to mumble something brief and euphemistic (The wag in me always wants to look around in exaggerated consternation when visiting at churches where they do this and say in a stage whisper, “Excuse me, is this the part where we’re supposed to throw money in the basket?”) and “get it over with.”

The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver, so I like to start my Offerings with jokes, when I can get a good one. SweetieBang gave me this one and I’m using it tomorrow. You have my permission to do the same, just please attribute:

“A time-share salesman and a priest die at the same time. The time-share salesman gets hit by a bus; the priest dies in his sleep of natural causes. When they end up at the pearly gates, St. Peter calls forward the time-share salesman and says, ‘What did you do with your life?’ The time-share salesman guy says, ‘I sold time-share.” St. Peter checks his notes, he looks in a big book, he says ‘I see here that you are correct’ and he says, ‘You see that mansion made of solid gold, with the crystal blue sea on one side and the purple ski mountains in the back? You go there.’

So the priest is thinking, ‘Wow, if the time-share salesman gets that, I’ve got it made.’When St. Peter calls him up and asks, ‘What did you do with your life?’ the priest says, ‘I gave food to the hungry, clothing and shelter to the poor’ — he goes on for half an hour about all his good works. St. Peter looks in his book and says, ‘I see that this is true. You see that stone cottage in the meadow with the sheep in front of it? You go there.’ The priest says, ‘Well, begging your pardon St. Peter, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but how come the time-share salesman guy gets the gold mansion and all that?’

And St. Peter says, ‘Oh, he only gets that for a week.’

Jesus said, ‘Where your heart is, there shall your treasure be also.’ Our hearts are with this community – not because it is perfect, not because it is easy to be in community, and not because we are always happy here, but because here we are called and recalled, again and again, to our highest aspirations and ideals. The Church at its best provides not only the comfort of fellowship and care, but the spiritual stretch we need to go beyond the littleness of our own lives and grow in moral maturity. Let us now share our a portion of our financial treasure where our hearts are. Pledges and free will offerings to [name of congregation] will now be gratefully received.” – (Rev. Victoria Weinstein, Norwell, MA)

Fourth Principle: Free and Responsible Search For Truth and Meaning

I am working on a sermon on the fourth UU Principle: “we covenant to affirm and promote…A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

In agreement with Paige Getty’s fine essay on the principle in the new collection, The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, I am focusing on Unitarian Universalism’s love of freedom in religious inquiry and practice but lack of understanding or agreement about what constitutes “responsible.”

In the older six principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the free search for truth and meaning was the first principle. It read,

To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship.

Now isn’t that interesting? What I love there is the use of the word “disciplined,” which, to my ears, rings with a kind of integrity and commitment that the murkier “responsible” does not evoke.

For those who see UUism as a smorgasbord of world religions, this seems a particularly important principle. For instance, how do we “responsibly” or in a disciplined way engage with Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Sufism, Native Americans spirituality in our congregations and as individuals? Is it responsible for me to include a Muslim reading in worship? I like to think so. However, it is important for me to take responsibility for the fact that many Muslims would vehemently disagree with me. Therefore, as part of my religious discipline I am obligated to study and try to understand more about the various religions I am quoting or referencing of a Sunday morning beyond convenient “we are the world” sentimentalism.

It’s hard work. And it’s work we don’t do well enough.

It seems to me that UUs have yet to acknowledge the fact that while we have made it our “good news” to affirm and proclaim the essential harmony between world faith traditions, we have done so with little or no input or consultation with adherents of those faith traditions. We therefore operate on the assumption that religions “belong” to everyone and anyone who wants to claim them. I wish this was so, but it is not. Religions can only be responsibly understood in their time, place and cultural context. If we want to be a world religion religion, we must take the study of them far more seriously and make education in world religions a staple of our adult religious education offerings. I know that some congregations do this, but not many. Nor has the UUA provided curriculum to help with this knowledge deficit.

While much of the religious world is entering into dialog based on an assumption that the specificity of tradition means something real which no parties to the conversations desire to minimize or ignore, Unitarian Universalist liturgical materials are still a happy mash-up of phrases, readings and sound bites taken entirely out of a context we neither have the time nor the interest to fully study. Our worshipers go away with the sense that we are a delightful Chinese buffet of beliefs respectfully culled from all the world traditions. It would be more honest to say that we have rather taken attractive bits and pieces from various traditions and employed them in the service of our liberal vision.

Is this wrong, unethical, and sinister, as our opponents charge? Or is it merely optimistic, creative, and charmingly anachronistic?

For all the Unitarian Universalists out there who define our faith tradition as a kind of new world religion among world religions, how can we responsibly theologically educate the next generation of UUs (both youth and come-outers) to participate in that vision?

I ask because I do not see UUism as a world religion, but as an essentially humanistic religious community that gathers in covenanted community to do the work of individual and societal transformation guided by its foundational liberal Christian values, more contemporary Humanist wisdom and the theological insights of various world religions. The insights of various world religions, in my opinion, comes primarily from serious students and practitioners of those world religions, not from the general UU community.

I’ll stop there and let you comment.