SERMON: Hundred Dollar Stories

OPENING WORDS

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There is no beautifier of complexion, or form, or behavior, like the wish to scatter joy and not pain around us.”

This morning, as we gather, may we scatter joy among us. May we scatter love in our families, goodness to our neighbors, and hope for the world. May we give good gifts to one another and receive the gifts of others with open hearts and hands.

May we make the world more beautiful by scattering our joy, our talent, our vision–generously, even extravagantly—wherever we go. As we gather this morning for worship, let us scatter the seeds of life and love, knowing that they will take root, sometimes in unlikely places, and grow.

MEDITATION

Walt Whitman said, “When I give, I give myself.”  How true that is here, among this community of passionate seekers and compassionate companions.

Today, we say thank you to all those who have given so much of themselves so that we might flourish here: those who have come before us, digging wells, planting trees, scattering seeds that have become part of the very earth that nourishes us. There is so much for which to be grateful.

Today, we open our hearts, knowing that to be in community is to give of ourselves—our hearts, our minds, our soul, our strength—to the greater good. We take up the call of Mohandas Gandhi to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” There is so much to do. Let us be the ones who do it.

Today, we take a moment to send thoughts of hope and healing to all in our community who are worried or ill or grieving. We send love to the lonely and strength to all who suffer. As we imagine in our mind’s eye these precious friends and strangers, help us to widen the circle of our compassion until it embraces all. . Let us offer our love to the grieving, our hope to the desperate, our generosity to the suffering. Let our hearts be stretched and softened so that we may truly respond to all who need us.

Let us also be unstinting in our joy for and with those who are celebrating today. May their happiness be a gift that we receive with open hearts and may we love each one well as they celebrate the milestones of their lives. Let us scatter joy with whole-hearted abandon as we celebrate the births, anniversaries, and successes that are with us in this community.

Today, as we take a moment of silence, help us return to a place of reverence. Help us remember that which we have found to be sacred, and honor it again. Help us touch the holy and feel it touch us.

Spirit of Life and Love, who scatters joy to the four corners of the earth and compassion with every breath of wind, help us have the strength and the will to live with our hearts open. Help us embody compassion. Help us be part of what brings hope into the world. Help us be Beauty. Help us be Hope. Help us be Love.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be

SERMON

Some of you may remember that in mid-October I did something unusual. In the middle of a sermon, I asked for volunteers who would take, sight unseen, something I called the “South Valley Challenge.” Our congregation had just lost one of our own, Pete Williamson, and we were just beginning to grieve the loss. Pete was a stalwart Unitarian Universalist and member of the South Valley community, always ready with a hug, some honest advice, or whatever might be needed. I’d asked Pete in the weeks before about my idea and he’d told me “It’s just crazy enough, it might work.” So in Pete’s honor—or as the sign says on our altar, “for Pete’s Sake”—I went ahead with the challenge.

Ten people came forward that day, not having a clue what they were getting themselves into: Lance, Maureen, Matt, Luci, David, Linda, Antoinette, Peter, Lyn, and Addi. Each of them received a small envelope that contained a small slip of paper and a crisp one hundred dollar bill. On the paper were these words:

“Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.” And “It is fascinating how much people can do with so little and the difference it can make.”

The South Valley Challenge was simple: take the $100 and make it grow for South Valley. There were no rules or conditions, just a chance to make a real difference for South Valley.

Today, we get to hear the stories of those hundred dollar bills. We get to hear some of the ways that a simple challenge empowered and inspired people to do something they may not have done before. I don’t know all the stories, nor do I know exactly what the results will be, but I do know that the $1000 I gave away that day is not only safe, it is planted on fertile ground. Before we hear all the stories, let me take a moment to talk about why I would give away hundred dollar bills in the middle of a service.

First, let me explain that I have a very simple and very heartfelt philosophy when it comes to money and church: I think that our congregational community offers something unique: a place where we can talk about, think about, and be honest about money. Contrary to faith traditions that think money is “of the world” and therefore should never be spoken of in church, I contend that there is no better place to learn about money, what it means, what it can and cannot buy, and how it communicates our values and principles.

So when we found ourselves in a tough financial situation this year, I was determined to deal with it openly and creatively. When a conversation about money started among UU ministers, I was intrigued by how many ministers said, “I’ve always wanted to try this crazy idea, but have never had the courage.” Only one minister—not a UU—said they’d ever offered their congregation such a challenge. They gave away several hundred ten dollar bills one Sunday, and when all was said and done, those ten dollar bills had grown into hundreds of thousands of dollars. I knew, as crazy as it seemed, that at South Valley, the way to make money was to give it away.

One of many things I have faith in is the integrity of this congregation. I knew that I could trust you to take the church’s money—which is really your money—and invest it wisely and creatively. I knew that the money would grow and the community would be enriched—literally and figuratively. Now that I’ve heard and seen some of what these ten brave souls have done as they rose to the challenge, I know that I was right.

This morning, you’ll get to hear three of these Hundred Dollar Stories. But before Maureen, David, Linda, and Peter share, I want to summarize for you some of the things that the other seven participants have done. These stories are sermons in their own right: each of them weaving dedication and commitment into something real and solid—a gift for the congregation and inspiration for each of us. Listen well, and you will hear them as stories of Love.

Let me start with the youngest participant. Matt came to church that Sunday expecting it to be “just another boring Sunday.” What made that harder was that it was Matt’s birthday, and let’s face it, most teenage boys don’t really hope to spend their birthday morning in church. But Matt came and not only that, he listened to the sermon and was one of the first people to stand up and take the South Valley challenge. When I asked everyone to open their envelopes, I think Matt was the first to find the hundred dollar bill. I heard later that he told someone, “Wow, church wasn’t so boring today after all.”

I haven’t had a chance to talk to Matt directly, but I imagine that he thought long and hard about his project. He opted to do something he is very, very good at: using his considerable acting, production, and voiceover talents to record an audio book.

He, and possibly some other young actors and friends, will be producing a cd in the next few weeks of one of Matt’s favorite stories. That cd will be offered for sale here at church, but in other places too—and if all goes well, will sell out its first printing and soon after, go platinum! We can only hope that when he wins the Grammy, Matt will mention South Valley in his acceptance speech!

As Matt gets his recording project underway he will undoubtedly make us all proud. In fact, thing I like best about his project is that he found a way to invest not only the hundred dollars, but his own interests and strengths in his project. That’s exactly what I was counting on. I knew that this community is full of amazing people like Matt and if they put themselves into their projects, we’d find that not only the money grew, but our respect and admiration for each other would grow as well.

Matt wasn’t the only one who recognized his own strengths and decided to put them to use for our community. Luci has used her considerable skills and connections to arrange a concert by local musician, Kathryn Warner. On March 11, Kathryn will fill this sanctuary with her powerful and beautiful music. Luci told me that she saw Kathryn perform at First Church a few weeks ago and she brought the congregation to tears. With that in mind, Luci expects lots of First Church members to join us for the concert. She expects to sell a hundred tickets and grow her hundred dollars into a thousand! What a wonderful set of gifts: the investment of Luci’s time and energy, Kathryn’s amazing music, a wonderful event that will bring our community together, and a windfall for our church budget. (UPDATE: the concert made over $1000!)
I don’t have time to tell all the stories, but I want to list for you the things I know about that the South Valley Challenge has inspired: Besides Matt’s audio book and Luci’s concert, there has been a Turducken dinner that brought together all sorts of people for food and good conversation, dessert sales after church that made our coffee hour even sweeter, an application to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to get our kitchen and downstairs bathrooms remodeled, and a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner. Those are just the things I know about! How enriched we all are by these events!

Which leads me to the three people who volunteered to tell their own hundred dollar stories: Maureen, David, Linda, and Peter. At this time, I invite them to come forward to share with us their own hundred dollar stories.

(sharing)

There is one more story I want to tell about this project. It’s a story Lyn told me. When I called to ask about the status of her Hundred Dollar story, Lyn told me that the envelope with the hundred dollar bill in it sat in a place where she saw it every day. Whenever she sat down to work, she’d see the envelope and it would, in her words, “nag at me.”

She had hoped, when the challenge was revealed, to get our youth involved in some kind of project for the congregation. But the Social Action Con we were scheduled to host in December got postponed and then canceled and her own life got busier and busier.

Even so, that envelope sat there as a reminder. She didn’t have time to create a huge event or plan a fundraiser. But as the holidays drew near, the hundred dollars had another effect. It kept reminding her to “put her money where her mouth is.”

Lyn sent out an email in December inquiring about a social justice project that South Valley used to do every year—a mitten tree where people could give warm winter scarves, hats and mittens to people who needed them. When she realized that no one was coordinating a mitten tree this year, Lyn decided to do it herself.

A tree went up in the foyer. At first it had only a few hats and gloves on it. But by Christmas Eve, the mitten tree was overflowing. Blankets, sweat suits, and other warm clothing showed up under its branches. Mittens, hats, gloves, and scarves covered it with warmth and color. Lyn’s passion and leadership led to an outpouring of generosity in our congregation.

It is true that Lyn’s particular project didn’t raise any money for the church, but in a way it was more important. Lyn’s commitment to “put her money where her mouth is” inspired many others to do the same. And because of that, there are people in this Valley whose heads, hands, bodies, and hearts are warmer this winter.

In the sermon I gave the day we handed out the hundred dollar bills, I said:

The goal isn’t the biggest payoff. The goal is to take a risk for Love: to get creative, try something new, to make the world a better place, to help this community thrive.

There is something about South Valley that lets us do crazy things like this challenge… We are becoming the community and the people we want to be. We are responding to the call of Love, and that can sometimes look crazy. We do it anyway. We affirm life in the face of death, we affirm hope in the face of fear, we affirm our connection to one another in the face of isolation, and most of all, we affirm the power of Love in each and every face and in this community. We are the body of Love, at work in this world. May we do the work well.

All I can say is you did not let us down. Thank you to each and every one of you: those of you who took the challenge, and those of you who have helped their response grow with your own. You responded to something deeper than the South Valley challenge, you responded to the call of Love itself, and helped to scatter it into the world and make miracles happen. May we continue to scatter joy, love, and generosity throughout this community and the world.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

CLOSING WORDS
adapted from Jean M. Rickard

Spirit of life, of principle and compassion,
Breathe through us this day.
As we leave this gathering of companions,
Let us be the embodiment of the larger life
In all the little things we do —
As we listen and ponder and deepen and explore,
As we laugh and play, and touch one another,
As we live this day in the integrity of our own souls,
As we live this day in the community of precious people.
Breathe through us as the wind caresses our bodies,
Let us live the fullness of this day.

Amen.

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