For the past 100 years or so, Unitarianism has shied away from miracles. For example, when we consider the life of Jesus, we focus on his gifts as teacher and as one who lead an exemplary life. So when we look at stories of Jesus’ miracles, we are not looking for proof of Jesus’ divinity, we are looking for a lesson, a teaching that we ordinary humans could take into our own hearts, our own lives. Do you remember the story of the Loaves and Fishes? (Luke 9:12-17)
The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.’ But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said, ‘We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.’ For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, ‘Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ They did so and made them all sit down.
And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.
A Unitarian Universalist might look at that story and says “what if that was not a supernatural miracle, but a natural one?” What if, when the people saw Jesus and his disciples giving away the only 5 loaves and 2 fish they had for the good of their community, what if each was called to higher generosity? Maybe the generosity lead to more generosity until after everyone had eaten, 12 baskets of broken pieces were left over. The gift multiplies.
Some of you remember that when this congregation spontaneously started feeding our neighbors after the flood, we started with just a few rolled up sleeves and a couple of pots of soup. But once folks found out what we were doing, donations from inside the church and from the larger community poured in and allowed us to continue feeding flood-survivors and cleanup-helpers for weeks. The gift multiplies. And when they heard about us and what we were doing, the Ohio Meadville district of UUA, not having a chalice lighter grant to give this year, sent us and the Binghamton church a check that enabled us to pay for the mold treatment in our basement. The gift multiples. Ten-year-old Megan Striff-Cave from West Hartford Connecticut who has grandparents in this area came on down to bring donations form the fifth grade class in her UU Sunday school and Megan, with her brothers and sisters and parents, dropped off the first of the class donations in person last fall. Her family helped pack lunches before Megan went door-to-door with church members to deliver the lunches. In just a couple of weeks over 20 volunteers are coming from that church as their yearly mission trip to help folks still cleaning up and rebuilding from the flood, and we are opening our doors and our kitchens to them to support them in their work. The Gift multiplies.
Because I am a Universalist, I believe that everyone has gifts to offer their community-- everyone has something to give. That’s why we send out a pledge form to every member of our congregation. When the canvas team gets together every year to plan the canvas they always worry about being inclusive. They want to be clear to everyone that giving is very personal thing- that what we have to give is as unique as each of us and our life circumstances. That’s why we think of pledge time as not just a time to consider our financial commitment to the church for the year, but also to think about other gifts we have to offer. Furthermore, I believe that helping people discover their gifts is part of the role of beloved community. Giving helps us remember our inherent worth, and helps us remember that we are part of the interconnected web of life.
Maybe it’s a Universalist thing, but I don’t believe that giving is just for some small portion of humanity. A friend of mine who lived on the streets off and on for years said he found there that homeless folks were the most generous people he knew. He said that if they had only 2 cigarettes, they would give you one. Indeed statistics about financial giving bear this out. A 2010 NY times article noted that how much folks gave was inversely related to their income, that is to say -- folks who earned under $25,000 a year gave more as a percentage of their income than those earning over $75,000.
All around me I can see that giving is part of the mutuality of our life together, giving and receiving are as natural a part of life as breathing in and breathing out. Every living being has something to give. Consider that in nature every system has inputs and outputs. The Plant gives off fruit and seeds and oxygen. The oxygen, though precious to us, is given off by the plant as waste. But those beautiful summer fruits? A plant puts plenty of itself into the fruit and the seeds. Now not every fruit will create offspring. The gift of that fruit to us and to the other critters is part of evolutionary design. When you or a squirrel take the fruit far from the parent tree to eat, you help the parent tree spread its seed far and wide. We give to this church, or to the food pantry partly out of altruism but also because we know that we need this church, and we know that if we don’t need the food pantry today we may need it someday. And because we are able to imagine ourselves using the food pantry and the church, we can imagine the other people who will benefit from our gift; we can put ourselves in their shoes and feel our very real connection to them.
Each year about %20 of our operating budget comes from the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention. 200 years of generosity among Universalists gathered into a common endowment helps fund Universalist congregations all over the state of Pennsylvania. Sometimes this generosity happened under sad circumstances, like when a church had to close its doors, but each of those churches was built by the generosity of its members and friends. And their generosity when their church closed their doors helped them know that Universalism would continue here into the future. Now Sheshequin was one of the first Universalist Churches in Pennsylvania, and the first one here in the valley. Do you think any of those folks who contributed to the building of that church 200 years ago knew that we would still be enjoying that building today, that the donations they made to the PUC would someday be used to help keep Universalist in this valley strong? Their donations kept this little church going in good times and in bad. Their donations enable us to feel confident as a church, and to create more vibrant programs than we could otherwise. It’s like the songs says “it’s just like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won’t have any. Lend it spend it and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor.” The gift multiplies.
In the Wiccan tradition, they talk about the Rule of Three (also Three-fold Law or Law of Return or threefold return) “everything you send shall return three times over” (circle round p. 395) The principle is that whatever you put out into your world will come back to you threefold. So if, for example, you are meditation about or creating the intention for the health and wellness of your friends and family, you don’t really have complete control over that energy, that intention – it kind of gets away from you. “Fate has notoriously bad aim” says one of my favorite books Circle Round: raising children in the goddess traditions. If you are working to manifest more healing in the world, you might accidentally create conditions for your own health and healing. People might say to themselves, doesn’t it feel nice to hang out with her? I just feel better when she’s around. The same is true for negative intentions. If you spend a lot of energy saying “Oh, that so and so politician! I hope they fail!” and working toward that failure, the political structures that fail might not be just the career of that one politician. If enough people did that they might create kind of a negative mood in the country, a climate where it might be harder for folks to come together to make the important changes we all need.
Think about the great heroes of the 20th century- Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I’m sure men so charismatic as that could have created violent uprisings if they had so chosen. They could have spread hate far and wide, but they chose the path of non-violence, even though sometimes the costs to them were high. Maybe Gandhi could have foreseen that he really was able to change the tide of imperialism in India, but could he even have imagined that he would inspire the American Civil Rights movement? The ripples of what he did flow out and out and out. The gift multiplies.
I suppose I’m asking you to take a leap of faith with me here. I have no empirical evidence that the gift will multiply. I certainly don’t mean that we can count on this principle in a literal way. We can all think of examples in our own lives, I’m sure, when we gave something of ourselves that was not appreciated, or fell on infertile soil. I think about all those fruit trees excited by that 70 degree weather who budded and bloomed a couple of weeks back, and then the frost came. I hear farmers saying we may loose whole orchards full of stone fruit this year. But what if those trees, feeling burned, said –okay next year no buds, no flowers, no fruit! What if Susan B Anthony had put her head down on her desk in frustration and despair and just given up? Once we give a gift it is no longer ours to control. We have to trust, not only that our gifts will be received but that they will grow and multiply.
When I was a new mom, I had just come to serve the congregation in Palo Alto. They did not have a lot of new moms there, folks most joined when their children were ready for preschool, but they did have one new baby born into the congregation the year before I came. This birth inspired them to create some thing called the “Baby Café” whereby members of the congregation would sign up to bring the new family a hot meal once every couple of days so that the sleep-deprived new parents would not also have to worry about feeding themselves. It was a lovely way to show the love and caring of the congregation. As a minister I thought this was a great idea that fit with my ideas about shared ministry and pastoral care. But then it was my turn, and I was sleepless and recovering from a 5 day labor and then an emergency surgery. And those folks started showing up at MY door with good hot food… it’s hard to even describe how overwhelmed I was by their generosity. Day after day this outpouring of care changed something about how I look at the world. As more and more members of our congregation started having babies, I always wanted to be part of the baby café. One time I was late to sign up and the list was full- too many people wanted to bring dishes to the new family- I pleaded ministerial privilege “Please, I have to bring them a dish. I’m the minister! Just tack me on to the end of the list.”
A couple of years back a new friend of mine in Ithaca had her first child. Her community rallied with hot food and piled her with all the things you need when you first have children in your home. I passed on to her some gear Nick had used when he was a baby. “Can I pay you for that?” she asked “No”, I said, “this is just how it works with babies. You take all the help you can get now while you need it most, and pass it on as you are able.” We both knew it could take a lifetime of giving to pass on all we had been given. The Gift Multiplies.
That’s what I love about the PUC. They provide a substantive support for this church and it’s ministries from that endowment built by 200 years of the generosity, built by Universalists just like you and me, some of whom sat in this same sanctuary. That grant is a real help in hard times, and I know it has kept Universalist churches in this state from closing their doors in the lean hard years. But that other 75% comes from you and me, from the gifts we give our church each year. For me that PUC grant provides inspiration for my own giving. Because I know this church will be here for a long time, and so I know that my own giving will make a difference here in this valley, providing roots and wings for my son’s generation of Unitarian Universalists and all those around the valley who have yet to find us. My gifts will make sure there is a place where we know that each and every person is precious -- a beloved community where the gifts we see shining all around us inspire us to reach out to our neighbors when they are hungry, when their homes are flooded, when they experience discrimination, or when they feel lonely and disconnected and need a tangible reminder that they are part of a web of life that will never let them go. The gift multiplies.
What if this is the miracle of the loaves and fishes; whatever we give grows in ways we may not even imagine, and ripples out into the world, some say for 7 generations. As with all miracles, we have to make a leap of faith that this is so. Each of us has gifts to give, and though there may be only five loaves and two fish, we believe that the gift multiples. May our loaves and fishes feed 5000 and when what left over is gathered up, there may be twelve baskets more.