Investing in Our Beloved Community

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, February 17, 2019

As we expect of a work by Oscar Wilde, his play Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) is chock full of witty lines, such as “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Or “Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes.” And just a couple of lines away from these, the character Lord Darlington famously answers Cecil Graham’s question, “What is a cynic?” with the answer, “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Price versus value. Hard-nosed quarterly profits and bottom-line management versus something that looks at a longer arc of relevance and sees dollars and pounds as one way among many of establishing relative worth or value.

We are entering the time of year here at this Fellowship when each of us is going to make decisions about what our appropriate individual giving level will be for the coming fiscal year. The pledge campaign is upon us! And then, based on the total of the pledges we choose to make, the board will spend a few months carefully considering what we are able to pay for, what our mission and the activities of our ministry teams call us to do, and whether we are able to pay for something beyond the bare outline of church and, if so, what. Let me assure you that in every year I’ve been here, your board has taken this duty very seriously. Those months culminate in the congregation’s vote on a proposed budget in June. It is a time of year when we must be sensible. We must pay attention to what our resources are and are not. And this is good.

And, yet, as I wrote for the blurb about this sermon, “We know how much it takes to keep the power on. But what if we changed our focus from cost to investment and asked ourselves the question, how can we invest in our future?” In other words, if dollars is all we talk about this pledge season, we can get the bills paid or trim back expectation and think about it in simple or crass ways. There is nothing unworthy or anti-spiritual in doing our best with what we have. But it is a matter of proportion. As we plan for the future, what drives our willingness to give? What drives our willingness to add money to the budget in spending lines that have changed little over time? What do we use to gauge whether we are putting the appropriate amount into what we do?

All year long, as the board meets, one of the prime drivers of discussion and decision making is, how does this decision advance or impede the fulfillment of our mission? You remember our mission, right? You participated in crafting and approving it in 2017. Together we decided there were five things that were important enough that we were willing to say they were the core value we are all about. Mostly, they point us to activity and action that don’t have to be primarily or exclusively financially driven. But I want us to talk about the last one for a bit: “Invest in the future of our Fellowship through personally significant commitments of our time, talents, and resources.” The money doesn’t stand alone. It is paired with our time, our talents, our commitments, and various non-financial resources. But money is included in what we voted to call on ourselves to contribute – not because we can buy spirituality or happiness or caring community or meaningful changes in the world but because it is one way we reach beyond merely knowing that we can get by with a ream or two less of printer paper or a degree Fahrenheit or two lower on the thermostat in the winter, beyond merely saving money, to making the best use of our many resources. “Invest in the future of our Fellowship,” it says. Invest!

Americans have more investment opportunities than the world has ever known before and a great many people who find it difficult or impossible to sufficiently invest. Invest in the future of the Fellowship. What does it mean to invest in the future of an entity? In simplest terms in means to put resources in with the aim of getting what is desired or needed in the future. For an individual, we might invest in order to have a secure retirement, a retirement in which we can live at a standard that is acceptable to us. We hope for years free from some of the worst drudgery we’ve put in, perhaps free from the obligation to work for pay when our bodies or minds are not as quick and agile as they once were, free to see the world or attend the theatre on the schedule we prefer, freedom to follow young grandchildren across the country to remain or become a more active presence in their lives than work schedules had allowed. Many want more than anything the ability not to be a burden on those we love. We want to leave a little – or if we are lucky, a lot – to help our heirs and the organizations doing the work we care about to secure their own futures. And to accomplish these goals, we can choose among several methods of growing a portion of our income now to draw on later. We sacrifice now for security or even a touch of luxury later. If our income is sufficient to allow it, we can invest in 401(k)s or IRAs. And with a little more income, we can set up and fund brokerage accounts, buy real estate, fund a business that we will later sell or pass down to our heirs.

Investment always means using a portion of today’s resources to make tomorrow better. And even if you don’t have sufficient earnings to set aside what some do, there are Social Security and Medicare that you contribute to through all of your working life to provide some bare minimal degree of security. And perhaps you have invested in the care of another, who will be independent when your future resources are at their lowest. Before today’s fancier methods of investing, people understood their children or their extended families as the locus of their investment for future stability. Of course, individual investment is always based on a finite life. The human body, if kept in health, has the potential to live, perhaps, to 100 years of age or so. Nevertheless, eventually our life will end. We may not like it, but we know it is the way of things. Our need for what we have built and protected to provide for us and all we care about will end. Even if we fully retire at 70 and live in good health, we need resources that will do all we need for maybe another 30 years without significant addition of new labor. There are so many variables we have no control over. And at some future date, our needs are over.

Investment in an organization is rather different. It still means growing resources and capacity to cover future needs and desires, but it does so without end. The organization needs revenues to continue, even as they fluctuate with conditions. But the organization maintains and replaces assets as needed and never stops building future capacity. In the old model of the family farmer, one buys land and equipment, builds buildings, grows operations, improves capacity with new technology, constantly adding labor and thought and new education to prepare for tomorrow’s realities that will sustain oncoming generations who similarly invest in this family enterprise to sustain generations yet unborn. An aspiring businessperson gets their MBA, works hard, builds capital toward a down payment on their dream. They work long hours. They adapt to new conditions. They learn new technologies and practices that keep their business relevant in a changing world. They adapt their products and services to the tastes and needs of the time. Maybe what they start mushrooms into something large. Maybe it remains a single factory, a single store that supports the labor of a few. But through adaptation and learning, a business maintains and builds its capacity to make an impact in the world, its capability to impact lives.

Guan Zhong (720 – 645 BCE), a politician in the Spring Autumn era of China who lived about 200 years before Confucius, wrote these words about investment:

The best investment for one year is to grow grains; the best investment for ten years is to grow trees; the best investment for a lifetime is to educate people. What you gain from one year’s growth will be grains; what you gain from ten years’ growth will be trees; what you gain from a hundred years’ growth will be people.

So if you have been wondering what all this talk of investment has to do with the spiritual project that is a religious congregation, this ancient Chinese politician gives a strong answer. Short-term goals fill our bellies. Mid-range goals put roofs over our heads, heat and cool those spaces, build us furniture and an array of utensils, give us the plethora of stuff that fills our days. But investing in long-range goals – putting today’s resources into care for the future – nurtures, builds humanity, supports lives, gives meaning to our existence, ennobles our mundane actions. Educating and growing people’s minds, their hearts, their souls, building a world that looks beyond survival to thriving in rapidly changing conditions – this work is work that lasts. This is the work that brings meaning to individual lives and builds community for future in uncertain times. The greater the uncertainty, the greater the need for long-term investment and building capacity for the future.

The last point of our mission statement is to “Invest in the future of our Fellowship through personally significant commitments of our time, talents, and resources.” We have called on ourselves to invest. And part of that investment uses financial resources. Part. We should never think that our investment in our future can be done with money alone. And we should never think of our future in terms of heat and light bills, the cost of printer toner, expenditures to keep our internet presence up, salaries and wages. Those are like Guan Zhong’s one-year plan for rice. Necessary, yes. But alone, they do not grow the soul of our Fellowship or our larger community. Keeping the lights on and the minister out of the poor house are not the reason we exist.

In the fall, we had a capital campaign to replace old, inefficient windows in the Chalice House, to air condition this Fellowship Hall, to fix foundations and drainage systems, to insulate the attic, to acquire a sound system that better allows all who would hear to get full value from our services and programs, an ADA-compliant restroom in Chalice House, and safety upgrades. We made pledges to take care of our buildings and grounds in a way that maintains or improves our ability to interact with the world in this space. In a few short weeks we raised commitments to do important work that allows us to continue here into the future. It has been heartening to see you all commit to keep the physical plant in viable condition after some years of not being able to fit the capacity for capital repairs into separate annual budgets. We long knew about the projects, and what we needed was a program for raising resources. With the program in place, we stepped up according to our ability. We did well! And this is like Guan Zhong’s growing of trees. This is mid-range investment. Necessary. Good. Something to be proud of and feel very good about. Yet, ultimately, this Fellowship does not exist to maintain buildings and grounds. Rather, we maintain buildings and grounds in order to build community and bring to effect the mission of this Fellowship.

Rice. Trees. Education. Taking care of daily essentials. Maintaining, building and restoring facilities. And finally building human souls and hearts and minds. It is ultimately moral capacity we are aiming for.

Are we aware of our hundred-year plan? Our mission? We think about it sometimes. We wordsmithed. We voted. We committed ourselves to a mission that we would support with substantial individual and communal investment of time, talent and resources.

How will you invest toward our Fellowship’s ability to: “Grow a loving, active and welcoming community, practicing grace and understanding in all we do?”

How will you participate in “Contribut[ing] to the creation of a kinder and more just world through consistently courageous action as an ally and defender of the marginalized and oppressed?”

How will you help this community to “Expand our commitment to the stewardship of our planet for future generations through personal and congregational action?”

How will you contribute to “Build[ing] our fellowship into an essential resource for liberal religion in the Valley by providing for the spiritual development of adults and children.”

To be sure, money is required. There are so many things listed in those statements that cannot happen through good intention alone. Action has financial need and impact. But equally certain, the mission of our Fellowship is not essentially about money and there are many ways each of us can contribute in addition to whatever financial commitment we are able to make. Over the coming weeks and months, you will hear from members who value something here, who hope for increased capacity to make a difference in the building of humans. You may hear about potential educational and growth opportunities that require some financial resources but are primarily about building capacity for more than we have now long into the future.

So the question you might ask yourselves is whether you are willing to be a Wildean cynic, worried about the light bill, or, instead, are willing to step with faith into growing a stronger future. This is a time of opportunity.

Amen and Blessed Be.


© Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley