Saturday, January 17, 2015

Why Not Celebrate?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 23, 2003

Angus McLean was the Dean the Theological School at St. Lawrence University, and one of the leading Universalist theologians of the twentieth century. He used to tell the story about an Englishman, and Irishman, and a Scotsman who were once shipwrecked, and who had to cling together for dear life on a broken spar out in the middle of the ocean. They were quite literally at the end of their ropes; their hope was fading fast; so, of course, they decided to try prayer.
But the Irishman wasn’t much good at praying, and couldn’t produce anything that didn’t sound like swearing. The Englishman, who was Anglican, knew that he had learned some prayers a long time ago, but he was darned if he could remember any of them now. So, finally, with little hope perhaps, they turned to their comrade, Sandy, the Scotsman for a prayer. And Sandy, good Presbyterian he was, ushering forth all of the years of his upbringing in the Church of Scotland at this hour of need, came up with: “The morning offering will now be received.”
We are not shipwrecked. In spite of a winter that has blown our snowplowing and heating budgets sky high, we are not desperate (at least not yet), and seldom it is around here that we resort to prayer, but we have decided to take up a collection this morning—our great big all-church collection, our fundraising drive, which we call the All-Church Canvass.
If you are new to this church, or to Unitarian Universalism, maybe I should explain a few things first. We are a self-governing church that owns its own building, selects (and pays) its own minister, hires its own staff, shovels its own snow, makes its own decisions, and yes—pays its own bills. What you see here it what you get; we are the church and the church is us. The people of this church run this church—and thus, it is the people here who are primarily responsible for meeting its financial needs. Every year, at about this same time, we remind one another of that fact, and consider why it is that our church is worth supporting.
Asking for money is never easy, for most of us at least. It might be, in some ways, the “last taboo” around some of our churches. Sex we can talk about; politics—all the time! But money? That’s a different matter; a more awkward matter, in some ways. A minister in one of our churches once remarked that he noted that attendance on Canvass Sunday at his church seemed to go up from year to year—kind of “counter-intuitively”-- and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why that might be the case. Finally, he asked one of the members he didn’t usually see around church much why he came on Canvass Sunday, of all weeks. And the man replied, very straightforward and honestly: “Because I like to see you squirm.”
Well, I’ve been in this ministry business long enough now that Canvass Sunday doesn’t make me squirm all that much anymore (if it ever did). It’s just another part of the church year, to be faced, to be dealt with—and then to be out behind us so we can get on to more “spiritual”, more “enjoyable”, more “profound” matters, perhaps…
Perhaps that’s the attitude we have toward the yearly canvass sometimes. But maybe—just maybe—that’s part of our problem around here when it comes to money. Maybe—just maybe—our lukewarm attitude toward Canvass Sunday points to something deeper.
Why does it have to be chore, this raising of money? Why do we have to look upon it as a burden—a “necessary evil”?
Why not celebrate the fact that we have been given the opportunity to support—freely, of our own volition—this religious institution, this home for our spirits? Why not celebrate?
This past holiday season, I was at the Christmas party for Elizabeth’s company, and had just a fine time. There was good food, and enjoyable companionship, and joyful conversation—and there was dancing, lots and lots of dancing. (I am a simply terrible dancer, as you might imagine-- but I like to dance if there are enough people on the dance floor, and I can hide myself in the crowd!)
It was a real celebration—a joyous time, where people could let down their hair, and forget about work and the burdens of life, and simply en-joy the moment, en-joy being together.
And it was there that I had a vision—an epiphany—or, at least, an “ah-ha!” moment: “Why don’t we approach more of our lives in this spirit of celebration?” I asked myself. Why do we only act this way on “special occasions”—at parties, or at other times demarcated as “celebrations”? We human ones were meant for play, as well as for work; for joy as much as for sorrow. We are meant for celebration as much as for arduous labor. It is the angle from which we look at something—from which we approach it—that changes everything.
“Why not politics as a celebration of our civil life?” I thought to myself. Politics doesn’t have to be a burden—a constant struggle for one-ups-man-ship—a heavy and odious responsibility. It can be a dance: a festive dance of community-building and problem-solving and envisioning new possibilities.
So it is with church, too: Why not faith as a celebration of our commitment to our highest ideals and deepest aspirations? Why not see our faith as a dance? Church doesn’t have to be a burden—a bore – an irksome irrelevancy. It can be a dance of the Spirit moving within us. It can be a gradual unfolding of the gifts of life within our very souls.
You know, for things to be important—for them to matter—they don’t have to hurt, or make us feel as though we have sacrificed more than we’ll ever, ever get back. They can be fun. They can be sweet. They can bring smiles to our faces more certainly than frowns. It is our attitude which changes everything.
Take chocolate for instance. Now, we have been told over and over that anything as good as chocolate—anything that sweet and appealing must be, ipso facto, BAD for us, right? And certainly, if we gorge ourselves on pounds and pounds of chocolate every day—if we eat very little else—and don’t eat those things which our bodies need—then we’re going to be pretty unhealthy (not to mention pretty large) sooner or later.
But do you know what? Studies by the School of Public Health at Harvard have shown that people who eat chocolate (in moderation, of course) actually live longer than people who don’t! That’s because chocolate not only has antioxidants that strengthen the immune system, but also because it produces pleasure, which promotes good health as well.
Joy leads to better health, and a joyful attitude toward life—an attitude of celebration toward life— enhances life, and deepens its wellsprings of meaning and creativity.
Think of your pledge to our church, then, not as another one of those damnable duties we all have, but as a joyful celebration of your commitment to this church—as a celebration of your faith—a celebration of your hopes and dreams for our dear church.
Nothing deepens the spirit and gladdens the heart more than generosity. Life has blessed most of us with so many of the choicest cookies of life. When we give to something bigger than we are—something important in our lives like I hope this church is to each of you—then we share one of those blessed cookies with the whole world. We share a bit of the sweetness that life has given us, and we make the world a sweeter place—a more joyful place—more a place of celebration—in so doing.
In the Jewish Talmud, there is an old story of two brothers who shared a field and a mill. One brother lived alone, and the other had a large family.
Each night, they divided the grain that they had cut evenly between the two of them.
One day, the single brother thought to himself: “It isn’t really fair that we divide the grain evenly, because I have only myself to care for, but my brother has a family to feed.” So, each night, he secretly took some of his grain and put it in his brother’s granary.
But then, the married brother said to himself one day: “It isn’t fair that we divide the grain evenly, because I have children who will provide for me in my old age, but my brother doesn’t.” So, every night, he would take some of his grain and sneak it into his brother’s storehouse.
Then, according to legend, one night they happened to meet each other halfway on the path between their two houses, and they realized what had been happening. And they wept tears of joy, and embraced each other in love.
It is said that God witnessed their meeting, and decided then and there that his first Temple in Jerusalem would be built on that spot. “For this is a holy place,” God said. “And here it is that my temple shall be built.
May we, too, pledge to our church out of our abundance—out of our deep and profound celebration of this life we have been given. And may we build the temple of our own spirits here on the pathway of our deepest generosity. 

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