A Canvass Sermon

James Ishmael Ford

24 March 2013

First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Psalm 137: 1-6

Tomorrow evening Passover begins. And with that the great story of the Jewish people is recalled one more time. It is a story of bondage and of resistance, and ultimately it is a story of freedom. I love this story. Deeply. Of the stories of our Western religious heritage it is the one I find most tells me who I am, and what I might be.

And I love it even knowing the likelihood not a word of it is history. The best of contemporary scholarship, at least among those with no dog in the hunt, is that there was no Egyptian captivity, no Moses, no forty years wandering, and no military assault on the shores of the Dead Sea.

Rather more likely there was among other peoples living in that area we now call Israel and Palestine, a rag tag band of refugees from various conflicts and abuses that cobbled together a community in the hill country. A small kingdom grew there, not really a lot different than any of the others in that area. Until, that is, the Babylonian armies marched through. As often happened in those days, we’re talking the sixth century before our common era, the conquerors took the cream of the local crop, the artisans, the poets, the intellectuals and carried them captive to Babylon.

It was there, in the Babylonian captivity that they began to weave together the stories we now know as the Exodus. Actually, I love this story even more for not being so much a history lesson as the aspiration, as the dream of a crushed and dominated people seeking an identity and then in that creating out of their own human imaginations and hearts something quite wonderful. And, yes, the story has lots of tribal shadows, including dreaming vengeance on their enemies. As something also so human, I find warnings in that for myself, as well.

All together a great song was composed by those waters of Babylon, the beginning of a universal message, a hint at a deepest knowing that in fact, we are all born to some great promise, something beautiful and common. By the shores of the Euphrates they dreamed Zion into being. And then with the fall of Babylon to yet another empire, they returned to that hard land near the Dead Sea, and began a tradition which included in it at first as a very small light, just a flickering candle, really, a dream of human unity before the face of a universal god. Along the way it becomes a song of intimacy.

Which brings me to us, to our Unitarian Universalist experience, and to what we are up to here at the First Unitarian Church of Providence. It is another dreaming of Zion, or rather a continuation, one more step toward a wisdom way for the human heart. But, also, I hope we all see, our telling of this good news still has the contours of that old Exodus story.

Today I might sing it this way. We’re still to some degree in bondage; it seems pretty obvious. Bound by old resentments of wrongs done us, as well as our grasping after things that do not serve, but which we cling to all the same. From that many hurts continue, the bondage of the human heart continues. And, and, at the same time, wonderfully, truthfully, we are already launched on the way to our freedom, toward Zion. We have by grace and our own actions taken those steps toward release from those things that bind us. We are continuing on, making our life a journey, a pilgrimage toward something holy. And. And, and, in a truest sense of all, we have never been bound. As we look into our heats as they are, we can see all that is necessary for full lives, joyful lives, sacred lives. Everything necessary is already here, right here in mind numbing abundance. We are, in a truest sense possible, already in Zion.

That’s our message. But, what does this look like where the rubber hits the road? Let’s consider that. Here’s how I see it.

When I arrived here at First Unitarian just shy of five years ago, you’d gone through a hard decade. Following a long and generally successful ministry, through a combination of events beyond your control and others in your control, you had a ministry that ended in what we euphemistically call a negotiated resignation, followed then by a minister whose beautiful sermons turned out to be written by other people. Along the way you also had four different interim ministers, some amazing, and others not so much. This much chaos is not a formula for success. And, so, of course, I saw lots of problems.

At the same time I saw how in the midst of those troubled years you had a successful capital campaign and put up a sorely needed addition to the Parish House, launched the food pantry, and during all this time never got into seriously blaming each other for those difficulties. This church as I saw it, in what I think they say in the real estate business, had good bones. I was absolutely confident of that.

And, so I threw my hat into the ring. And, I’m endlessly grateful you all saw someone in me who might be the right minister for these particular times. When called, my first task really was pretty simple. It was to remind our community, and particularly our leadership that not only did we have a message of healing and hope, but also were a healthy institution. We really do play well together.

My first couple of years here we gave attention to making sure we weren’t just inward looking. We did this in two ways, mostly. One, was to make sure we were involved in the needs of our larger community, ranging from being active in things like our food pantry to taking public stands for justice for those who have been marginalized in our culture, addressing racial inequities and immigrants rights, and most notably because of time and place throwing our hearts into the struggle for marriage equality. Something, by God, we’re going to win, and I believe, win within weeks. The other is to be genuinely welcoming. We’ve thrown our doors wide open, and people have walked in. It’s hard to miss the energy here on a Sunday.

I dream of Zion. We dream of Zion. This dream manifests as a spiritual center, this place, this community, where we can look deep into our hearts, and from which, renewed and inspired, we can act in this world with more skill and grace than would otherwise be possible. We are a rest for the weary, and we are a goad for those who need a push to action.

So, let’s talk about how we support this dream and its manifestation. We need two things from our members. We need your time. We need actual commitments to participate, both in fun things, and in harder things. We need people willing to step up and work. And here’s a report on that: We’re doing a fine job of volunteering time, skill, and energy.

Now, as far as I can tell nearly the last big structural thing we need to address that keeps us from fully manifesting what we really are, turns on money. Sort of natural, I think. We humans, even when we reject dualistic notions where the spirit is good and above the yucky material, which is money, still can get squeamish when money and church are spoken of in the same sentence. So, we tend to put this sort of conversation off.

But, we need money. Flat out. Straight up. Money supports this church, money makes our projects happen. Money allows us to live into our vision. I admit I’ve always been reluctant to talk about this from the pulpit, in part because it’s so obvious I’m a direct beneficiary of our pledging. My salary comes from you. And, by the bye, thank you. But, this point is something bigger than me. Much bigger. For us to fully be what we want to be, we must talk about money.

Of course, many of us are just keeping our noses above water. And our way is to never push someone beyond their abilities. Also, I want to acknowledge those with fewer financial resources who give generously of time and talent. But, also, I can’t let us acknowledge those things and then too quickly turn away from the subject.

One of our structural problems is that we’ve never gotten a really healthy pledging culture going. As I read it this is partially historical. Right into the nineteen sixties we were relying on a couple of business men who would get together about now over at the Hope Club and divvy up the costs. Those guys are all gone, but our general membership has never quite gotten that. Also, people can look at the Meeting House and think we must be doing okay, maybe better than okay. And, there’s some truth to that.

We have, thanks to our ancestors, a healthy endowment. And, because of that, the truth be known, we have been able to live a bit beyond our actual means. A healthy church, at least as is said by those who study these things, suggest endowments should be for three things: For emergencies, for the care of the property, and to seed new projects. No significant amount of that money should go to ongoing expenses. The living congregation is responsible for this. But in fact too much of our budget is covered by the endowment. An endowment, by the bye, that was hit hard by the Great Recession. And with that our budget has taken some hard hits in recent years. More importantly for the long haul, the endowment is not being used for what it should be.

Here’s the situation we’re dealing with. If you take all Unitarian Universalists across the country, rich and poor, and average out their pledges of support for their communities, that number is fifteen hundred dollars. Our average pledge is a thousand. We have poor and we have rich in our numbers, and I don’t believe we should be that far off our national averages. And, and knowing this opens a whole range of possibilities.

What I am asking for us as a congregation is a reset on our financial commitments to this church. It is time for us to fully claim our ministry, for us to make sure we continue on the path we’ve undertaken of healing and of hope. If we just raised our average pledge to our denominational average, there is so much more we could do, so much more we could be. This is very nearly the last big part of what we need to do to set ourselves on a path of health and vision for years to come. This is my dream for us.

And, so, I am asking us to do that reset. I understand for some of us it will be a struggle to pledge a hundred dollars a year. If that’s you, and having looked at your situation and our vision, and you make that commitment, I cannot sing your praises high enough. Thank you. For some others among us, well, truthfully, a ten thousand dollar pledge might not be a real inconvenience. You might consider giving more. I hope you will. What we need, what we really need, is for all of us to set aside what we’ve done in the past, and to reflect anew about what this community is, what its promise is, what your part in it is, and to make a pledge from that place.


Our call is to something great, to a new possibility, to a new Zion.

Let us live into that possible world.




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