The scripture we read this morning from Luke contains at least 6 sermons, but you’re in luck: I’m only gonna give you one. Jesus says to us today to love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.* Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful
In other words, we should give without expecting anything in return because that’s what God does.
The truth is, let’s be honest, you and I don’t always give without expecting anything in return as a rule. We’re conditioned not to, which is the nature of a capitalist economy and a country that prides itself on individualism more than Commonwealth. If we want something for ourselves, we pay for it, and expect an excellent product in return. We don’t value things we don’t pay for. I am far more apt to haul my kid to gymnastics when she doesn’t want to go if I’ve already doled out 125 bucks for it…you know what I mean? It’s very rare that I give money without the expectation that I will get something in return, or, at the very least feel good about it.
So it is a relief to me that our scripture today also says this about giving:
“Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. The measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
You get what you give.
Last year around this time, I told you that our spending—both of our money and our time--reflects most accurately what we are currently worshipping. And I asked you to take a look at your bank account and your calendar, and to ask yourselves whether your spending reflected your deepest held values.
I tried this exercise myself, and after weeding through the basics like food and shelter, (and monumental student loan debt), I saw a slavish devotion to clothes, going out to eat, apple products and gel manicures. I am spending a lot of money on all that stuff…far more than I spend on the things I most value. Because I say with my lips that I value God, Love, justice, feeding people, ending poverty, my relationships, my husband and family, my children, your children, world peace.
And I pay for iPads and drinks and oysters at Sole Proprietor. And my nails.
I don’t expect you to have noticed this, but I used to always have my nails perfectly manicured. For Jesus, of course. OK, largely because this was something I did for me. And incidentally, there is nothing wrong with that. Self care is important. My “self-care” consists of going over to Serenity Nails and Spa in West Boylston every few weeks on a Friday and getting a manicure and a luxurious spa pedicure with hot wax. The nail polish industry invented this new manicure a few years ago that lasts two weeks, and probably causes skin cancer. It’s called a gel manicure. They last forever, even if you wash a lot of dishes. Truthfully, I was addicted to them. Every time my nails started to chip and peel, I’d go get another one. They are so shiny. They’re kind of expensive, too. But you get what you give.
I’ll tell you the truth: I am distracted at times by the cultivation of my appearance. I am heavily marketed to as a woman, in a way that plays on all of my fears—about being ugly and fat and old, as if any of those things are the wrong way to be, as if any of those things should be a measure of one’s self worth. This marketing plays on my fear that I will be unlovable if I fail to “fix” myself. It makes me less grateful for what I have, more focused on myself than others. Men and people outside the gender binary: you are marketed to, as well. Cars, home security systems, guns, Viagra. Whatever. In different ways, but ways that play on similar fears. And maybe some of you are immune to it, but I will admit that I’m not.
And so beauty and fashion become an idol for me: I need to have new make up, new clothes, new products, new haircuts, new throw pillows on my couch and new kitchen counters, in order to “keep up” with the latest fashion, to mask the dark circles I have under my eyes from working full time and mothering full time—to look younger, better, to impress people with my beautifully appointed home, to mask the mostly-chaotic inside of my family and the fear of insignificance inside of my heart.
We women are the reason God invented Pinterest. And it’s making us crazy, and its making the world worse because we are distracted from making it better.
Glennon Doyle Melton calls this “the Tyranny of Trend” and says, “we certainly aren’t going to get much world changing done if we spend all our time and money on wardrobe and kitchen changing.” Amen?
Henry David Thoreau, in his book “Walden”, declares: “I say beware of enterprises that require new clothes, and not a new wearer of clothes.”
The church is an enterprise that requires not new clothes, but a new wearer of clothes. And so this is an enterprise worth supporting, in my book. While I know that a gel manicure costs $40, and so does a spa pedicure with hot wax, I can’t put a price on my transformation from the inside out. The nail and fashion industry decorates my body, the Church enterprise changes my life, changes OTHER PEOPLE’S lives. This enterprise requires new wearers of clothes for the purpose of creating heaven on earth. This church supports my most deeply held values: Love, justice, education, feeding people, children and youth, the worship of God in the spirit of Jesus. More. Do you know that $30K of our operating budget goes to charity?
While all of that is priceless, it also costs money. To be specific, it costs $400,000 to be the Church you dreamed together we could be. And though I do believe God is rooting for us, he ain’t paying the bill. You and I are.
And so, I gave up gel manicures so that I could raise my pledge by $1,000. That is $20 more a week than I already give, because I want to be one of the 65 people that helps us reach our dream budget by raising our pledge $20 per week, which will fund ongoing transformation of this community, this town, my children, this world: into a place that is a little more like heaven, a little less like hell. We do this because my family has committed to putting God and this God kissed community first, and having our bank accounts reflect that.
And every time I look at my sad, dull and colorless nails, I rejoice remembering that the church has made me new, and that this organization doesn’t care one whit if I have shiny nails in the latest fashion colors. Just like God doesn’t care because God made me in her image. My giving back to the church is in gratitude for what you have given to me and to my family, and in gratitude for the grace of God, which challenges me to change and grow.
The measure you and I give will be the measure we get back, running over, put back into our laps.
And friends: this place is not a product to be bought and sold. You get out of this community pretty much exactly what you put into it. We are unlikely to get much from an endeavor that we don’t give a lot to—time, money, our whole selves. You know this, but it bears repeating. The measure you give will be the measure you get back.
This week, I was looking at this church’s congregational profile that was up on the internet when you were searching for a pastor. It’s still there, and I was curious to read it now that I’ve been here for awhile. It’s fascinating to do this two years into my ministry here, because you get a sense of how the church was selling itself then, and how it’s doing now.
So the thing I noticed when I was looking through your congregational record was the membership numbers and attendance numbers, which they ask you to record and present for something like 40 years. Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they tell a part of it. Turns out, back in 1985 you had 700 members, and an average weekly attendance of 100 people in worship. In 1990 when you had 432 members, an average of 132 people in worship, so that’s a better percentage. In 2005, you had 402 members and 100 people on average in worship. Your membership was not showing up to church—at least not all at the same time. And your giving reflected your attendance.
And that’s not atypical, and it is also so fascinating because, well, you get what you give. Because the truth is, it doesn’t mean that much to you and to me to just be a member of a church that you only go to if you have nothing better to do, or you only go to on Easter and Christmas. It’s just like putting something on your resume for the pearly gates, like how our kids join the Spanish club so they have something to put on their transcripts for the ivory tower. Our average attendance in the past two years has been higher than all of the years in that recorded history, about 140 on average and climbing, which is about half of the membership. People are engaging more and more with the church. And our giving reflects that. We raised $60 thousand more in stewardship last year than the year before. And we can do it again, because we can do hard things.
You get what you give.
So it matters that you come. I want to tell you that I miss you—we miss you--when you’re not here (and that’s true, but it sounds a little whiney…like, “wah, we missed you Sunday.”) So instead I want to say what’s really also true. YOU miss something when you’re not here. You miss a chance to connect, a hug, a moment of profound beauty, a friend who needed you, a friend you needed, the choir’s soaring sung prayer, a child’s rite of passage, a testimony, those surprising snatches of time we didn’t plan for when we notice God shimmering among us. Sometimes you even miss a good sermon.
You get exactly what you give.
Do you want to get more out of this experience, of this church? Step it up. Give more time, give more money. Do you come once a month? Come twice. Do you leave without going to social hour? Go today. We have treats. Do you want to become a member? Join us March 6th after church for a class. Do you wish to deepen your relationships with each other and God? Come to Eat, Pray, Learn or Pub Theology or Aging Gracefully or the book group or our retreat in the spring. Do you want to be inspired? Teach our children on Sunday morning in one of our Sunday school classes. Would you like to act your values in the world with us? Join us on a mission trip, volunteer with IHN.
This church is not my church, it’s not the choir’s church, it’s not the deacons’ church. It’s yours’. The church is made church by your presence and your investment. And it is only as good as you make it. It is only as valuable as what you pay for it. It is only as meaningful as what you add to it.
So beloved, you get what you give. If you want to be transformed, you need to show up. If you want this community to make a difference in your life, you need to INVEST in it. Only then a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.
Only then can we become the community God calls us to be.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.