This is a sermon I gave at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside on 5/18/14 on generosity and gratitude.
Last Sunday, I was in a parking lot when a man approached me as I was heading to my car. He asked if I had some spare change so that he could get some food. He offered to wash my windows. I told him that I would give him some change, but he didn’t have to wash the windows. It was freely given and I don’t ask for or expect people to “earn “my generosity. He begged my pardon but said he came from a working class family and would much prefer to wash the windows and do what he could. While he washed my windows, he told me a bit of his life. He turned 60 on that Saturday before. He’s been in and out of the hospital with health issues. He’s on SSI and would get more money if he could hold out until 65, or even 62, but he has 4 ruined discs in his back and he’s broken his neck in the past. I was feeling really bad for him by this point, when he said that he feels blessed because he “could have woken up in a 3rd world country today.” Now at that point I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh, no, what is he going to say next’ because you usually have to brace yourself with those sorts of openings. But he continues and says, “half the world woke up without clean water today. Half the world woke up without food. I wake up every day and think about that. Despite all this, I can still walk and do something. I’m blessed. That’s what keeps me going.” He then thanked me for the change and went on his way with his napkins and Windex in an old water bottle. I just stood there, overcome with awe and affection.
One of the reasons why this encounter made me pause, physically and spiritually, is because our theme for this month is gratitude and I have been having a really hard time lately finding anything to be particularly grateful for. Because the thing is, when we are usually told to count our blesses or be grateful, there’s an assumption, a judgment sometimes, that you have all these good things in your life that you are just taking for granted and how dare you not recognize that. But sometimes, maybe often times, there are seemingly no good things in your life to be grateful for. Or they are especially hard to see through your tears and pain. We all know that there are, generally speaking, those less fortunate than we are; we just sometimes want our moment to think of ourselves as that person once in awhile. And I think that’s okay. But in the story I just related to you, I think the universe put me directly in the path of one of those ‘less fortunate’ people in the flesh, not as a statistic or a hypothetical, but as a Teacher. When the student is ready, the teacher appears, right? This man had practically nothing, and was in pain, but he was grateful just for life and felt sorrow for those that had even less.
In Matthew 6:25, Jesus says, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what will you put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” It has been my experience that some of the most grateful and hopeful people are those that have the least. Some of you know that you have to sometimes lose everything to learn the value of what you had. And have. In that same section, Jesus goes on to say, “…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Basically, take it one day at a time.
I don’t have much right now, but I was able to give that man what I could. People have been put in my life who have been able to give me what they could, when they could. And I, admittedly, like a lot of you, have trouble accepting people’s generosity. I am often too proud and I feel guilty for needing help, because maybe if I made better choices, I wouldn’t be in this situation, even as I know that most of that isn’t true. It’s so hard to admit that you need help and then to take it when offered. Recently, a friend offered to help me with money after hearing some of my troubles. I turned her down, politely, because I know some of her troubles, too. She doesn’t always have steady work and these last few years have not been the easiest for her. But she said ‘No. I have a few gigs right now and I’m kinda steady for the moment. I’ll gladly share the little I have with you’. Learning how to take someone’s outstretched hand is an act of the deepest faith, I think. To trust that they aren’t going to snatch it back at the last minute or later lord it over you. To believe that people just want to pay it forward and help where they can. Trust falls of faith is a thing we need to practice.
“So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver” 2nd Corinthians 7. So many of you are “cheerful givers”! I have a book called “Dancing with God: Americans Who Have Been Touched By The Divine.” A man, a photo-journalist I suppose you could call him, Steve Wall, travels across America, mostly in the Deep South, and talks to people about their experiences with the divine or a spiritual “other”—which covers a lot of definitions and experiences and takes pictures. Most of the people he encounters are poor, have had tragic lives and have, to quote a favorite song of mine called “Cry Ophelia,” ‘come to a little wisdom through a whole lot of failure.’ In the first story, Mr. Wall talks about going undercover in a homeless shelter to see what the experience is like and how the people who rely on those services feel about life in general. He has a not only completely dehumanizing experience dealing with apathetic staff, poor conditions and inadequate supplies, but it’s a genuinely terrifying one as he experiences how the world sees him and treats him when he’s perceived to have nothing. And yet. And yet he meets some of the most generous people in the truly homeless he meets. Men who offer him their little bit of money for bad coffee because it’s cold outside. Who offer him a place to stay because they can. Even though they just met him a couple of hours ago. One of the men he meets is “crazy” Little Willis, who is like a guardian angel to these men and who has a knack for getting the other homeless what they need, be it medicine or a coat in the winter. Steve Wall asks him why does he do these things for the others and Little Willis says, “I ain’t no man of the cloth, no nothing like that. I be just a plain child of the Almighty. We’s all God’s children, and I just gotta do what the Almighty expects outta me. Makes no difference what all the reverends say ‘bout heaven someday. That’s holy talk. Peoples gotta have a little help from time to time in the here and now. The rest the Almighty’ll take care of. These men are my family, man.” Steve later walks into an upscale, suburban church, still pretending to be homeless, and has yet another terrifying and eye-opening experience. As soon as he walks in, he becomes an example, a teachable moment for really bad theology, and a project to the “good” church folk as they try to blame his lack of means on his perceived lack of faith. Later, in the car with his partner, after he’s literally run out of the service, his friend has a revelation and says, “For them, you weren’t a Christian because God blesses those who follow Jesus. You were poor and dirty. You were homeless. God doesn’t let that happen to His people. In their mind God was not listening to you, so you must not have been one of His own. Otherwise, you would have earthly material goods. They didn’t want anything to do with you,’ cause they didn’t want any of you to rub off on them. I call it ‘bump-and-run Christianity.’ It was real easy to run up and shove God in your face, try to get you ‘saved.” And when you wouldn’t, they could clear their conscience with, ‘Well, I’ve done my part.”
I want to contrast that religious community with ours. So many of you open your homes to stray animals and people in need; you give a dollar when you only have two; you volunteer 10 minutes when you only had 5 to spare; you offer your whole hearts and hold nothing back. Why? What makes you all so generous? Reverend Tom Owen-Towle says in his book “Theology Ablaze: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary Year of Unitarian Universalism that, “the sensibility of gratitude” and I would say generosity because they are two sides of one coin, “is bedrock to stoking the flame of our liberal religion.” We UUs are gracious people. This is built into our faith and our faith communities. It’s no accident that so many of us are in “helping” professions. You are: counselors, teachers, social workers, nurses, caretakers etc. Rev. Owen-Towle points out that “[n]one of us asked to be born. There’s no special merit involved with our arrivals. We didn’t earn the privilege of life. We were lucky. Whether we look at existence scientifically or religiously, it’s a miracle, a wonder, a gift of grace.” So why give? “The Hebrew religion says that we do genuinely good deeds out of neither guilt nor fear, neither to impress our neighbors nor gain heaven, but we lead moral lives mainly because we hanker to say thank you to God, to the Creation, to Life itself for our very existence, for being freed from all sorts of slaveries, and for being loved ongoingly. “ Our faith calls us to take stock of what we have, to be grateful for it, then to share that generously with others. The flame of our chalice is to be used to light paths in dark places and to be used to light other candles. You don’t diminish a flame by sharing it. You just increase light, exponentially. So let us hold, in our left and right hands, that we must have gratitude and generosity. We must experience both to be fully human. Giving with one hand and accepting with the other is a spiritual and sacred act that we should consider ourselves lucky to be able to do. So may it be so today and all our days to come.