Growing in Generosity

unnamedStory “The Gift” 

Sermon “Growing in Generosity” 

In her book, Packing for Mars, Mary Roach shares that in the very first space station,
the engineers realized they wouldn’t need tables.  Because, no gravity meant you couldn’t sit down, and the food and the plates would be floating everywhere; it would just be – a mess.  So, they decided, no tables.

But then, after the first mission, the astronauts came back and told them it was a complete mistake. It had been awful without tables, regardless of the whole gravity situation.  They didn’t like not being able to eat and gather as a group.  Put straps on the them, but don’t skip them. Without tables, they just didn’t feel fully human.

This is why I love Thanksgiving.  It’s a whole holiday, where the main practice is all about sitting at tables, and eating.  Eating and being grateful, and being with people you love, sharing freely, and…eating, and giving thanks.

There’s a bunch of readings, as we get closer to Christmas, about how much Christmas is needed in the world – I’ve preached on them. They talk about how we need hope in a struggling world, the light of a distant star….you’ve heard them…. “Come Christmas!”

These are all good, but this year, I’ve been thinking how much we really need Thanksgiving.

Because this year, it feels to me like everyone everywhere is in a bad mood. Like, the whole world has gone to a special place my family growing up used to call “crank city.”
People are unusually short-tempered, as if everyone is in that place where the next thing that goes wrong will be the “last straw” and they’ll really lose it.

It’s unusual to experience this in Fort Collins, our happy town, but I think it has something to do with our growth. The rising cost of living, the packed roads, the disappearing open space, and the ways that so many long time residents are retiring in Loveland, or Windsor. It’s not that far away, but still there’s this cumulative grief, and disorientation. Things are changing.

Maybe even more, I’ve been feeling the impact of being in year two of this chaotic and often inhumane presidency and its ripple effects.

A year ago, there was a collective sense of shock, but also we shared a powerful desire and drive for resistance, and organizing. A year later, we’re realizing what a long haul it all is, how deep the fractures are, how exhausting the daily shocks can be– how many times will we have to fight for these small scraps of a health care policy? ….and most of all, it’s sinking in how some of our long-held practices of powering through are not going to cut it if we’re going to make it.

We need Thanksgiving.

We need a chance to sit together around a table, and share the stories of our lives.  We need to linger too long over mashed potatoes while sharing the stories of the people who’ve had our backs, the places we’ve gone to feel better, and maybe even more, confessing the ones who didn’t, and our struggle to find that sense of home.

We need to pass the cranberries and the stuffing, and feel ourselves sharing, and giving, receiving and breathing, to find again, this connecting thread of life.

In this dehumanizing time, we need this to gather around a table, and remember what it means to be human, together.

Although I spoke earlier about that whole cranky-bad-mood-state as if it was about everyone else…I confess this general bad mood state was exactly where I was last Thursday as I drove to Denver for a 2-day training. I was irritated that I’d be gone all day, short tempered at all the traffic, and I was cranky about time – how impossible it felt that I’d ever be able to crack open this whole idea of generosity for this sermon that was fast approaching…especially when I needed to be in a training for two.whole.days.

How would it even be possible, I wondered, for people to feel generous right now, I mean
when the world is so freaking irritating….This training was actually something I’d been looking forward to – it was for progressive faith leaders on how to share our good news and the story of our work with the media….but….you know how trainings go – usually you’re happy if you get one small bit of new info, or you feel affirmed in what you’re already doing….

I figured, best case: I could sneak in a little work, take in some of the training–
you know, multi-task. Win-win.

So I show up and it’s a… table! with 30 faith leaders from all across the Front Range around it…the task, the trainers told us – for the day, and for the media more generally –
was to hear each other’s story and know ourselves as partners in this work, to claim a collective story. Which meant, to start, turning off tech so we could really be present…
which meant, multi-tasking, was a no-go. And thank God.

It didn’t take long for the tightness in my gut to break loose, as each person shared about their work, the impact their communities were having.

More than their incredible stories, though, what really did it was their messes. They asked us to share our biggest failures– and that shared vulnerability, and the laughter became generative, and connective – instead of depletion and defensiveness, I suddenly was feeling open, and maybe even…generous.

But it wasn’t til the second day that I realized just how connected this all was to this question I’d been struggling with on generosity.

The teacher had us pair up and share our answers to those four questions that I had us explore earlier today – and by the end, everyone was just like we were here – filled with so much energy, and joy.

It was easy to imagine how we would not just survive but thrive together in these times –
how we’d be ok, and even more, how we already were ok.

Every person in that room – and their communities – are doing so much good – they are all such brave leaders, leading brave communities stepping up for justice, gathering around tables in places that make them and whole communities feel better, dancing and singing along to joyful music, and generously unleashing courageous love in so many different ways, all across the front range. It was….it is….glorious.

All this was already true of course before any of us showed up in that room cranky and short tempered (I was not the only one), but we had been keeping it to ourselves,
striving on our own, struggling with our heads down.

It’s funny how even the most miraculous things can become mundane when you keep them to yourself – how you can get used to beauty so much it becomes – like, oh yeah, there are those mountains…whatever….I see them every day, it’s like, boring, even – how its impact can feel so – limited, isolated, tentative.

But then, someone asks a question, asking you to tell them a story of hope in the community you serve, a story of generosity, and you realize, your only issue is in choosing which one to tell….

Food Bank, or One Village One Family;
Faith Family, or Sanctuary;
Climate Justice or our caring team;
small groups or our campus ministry;
our relationships with our neighbors, our partnerships with other organizations –
or the way that a stranger told me recently that our church by way of our signs out on Drake, had really changed the whole city, for the good?

Suddenly in our sharing, the precious jewel we each were carrying became so clear. The only thing that had been missing was giving it away. And in the giving, I realized, it wasn’t actually just our story, the Foothills story, that I had to offer, and everyone else wasn’t just offering their stories, it was all, all of ours there in the room, our gifts, our treasures already – because it was all parts of this bigger story we were all a part of – our shared, connected, interdependent life.  And the only way we could really feel this
connectedness, this one ness – was in the sharing, the giving away, the opening up,
and the letting go.

Buddhist writer Sharon Salzberg reminds us that this is what generosity actually is.
It is an active choice to let go.

To let go of our attachments and to release ourselves – realizing that in holding on, and hoarding, we uphold a dualistic notion of life – a sense of division between ourselves, and others. But in the giving away, we live into a deeper reality that everything is everyone’s, that nothing is truly just “ours,” that there is so much more power and joy; hope, and strength made possible in the sharing.

There was one story of hope, and generosity that I didn’t tell that day because I saved it to share with you today.

A couple of months ago, at the end of the summer, a terrible thing happened.  White supremacists marched openly with torches, protesters chanted Nazi slogans and
stormed the streets of Charlottesville. Pain welled up across our nation, and the sense grew again that perhaps everything is lost.

I was in my office, we were in the final stages preparing for the sanctuary vote, when one of you came to see me. You were heartbroken at Charlottesville, the way that hatred and just plain evil were gaining power. You wanted to do something. You’d been thinking about it.

Not too long before, your family had received a gift, you found yourself with an unusually large sum of money….$100,000 to be exact. You’d never had that kind of money, and you’d probably never have it again. Like most of us, I’m sure you had all sorts of ideas about what you’d like to spend that money on.

But this thing happened in Charlottesville, and it would’ve been so easy to just take it all as evidence that the world was doomed, and you should, hunker down, close off…. But you didn’t do that.  Instead, just like the woman in the story, you realized, that this money was a precious stone, that would only really find its worth when you gave it away.

And so you came to see me. Because when you thought about the best way to make the biggest difference – to have the most impact on all these unleashed forces of hate, you realized, that would be here, in this congregation, where our whole mission is to unleash courageous love.

And most of all, you confessed, the whole idea of giving this money to this church, it would just feel good, joyful, happy.

So friends, this is the story I bring to you today.  It’s a true story of generosity, and hope.
And it’s our story.  One among you, received something surprising, and precious, and when there was this moment, they decided to let it go, to give it away to support our mission and our partnership here.

It was given freely, without strings, with just two hopes:

The first:  to use it to make an impact – as directly as possible – to further our mission and magnify our ministry; to remove some of our longstanding barriers, and set a foundation for our next leap forward. The Board, in collaboration with the staff, and the finance team, has already been crafting a plan to align with these hopes.

And second: they hoped we’d use it to inspire others to discover their own generosity – which of course is why I decided to share this story with you today – in hopes that it will inspire everyone to consider their own precious stone that they have been holding on to,
or that might arrive suddenly – and to invite them to imagine that they could simply give it away.

It’s powerful, right? To take this story in. To take in what it means for this community,
and our mission, to be worthy of this kind of generosity, to be THE thing that feels like it has the most hope of countering those forces.

Because what I realize is that if it wasn’t already true – if we weren’t already giving of ourselves and being there for each other and the community in all the ways I listed and so many more, if we weren’t already generous, then this gift wouldn’t have happened.

An ungenerous people does not inspire more generosity – generosity grows generosity;
joy inspires joy; delight grows delight.  So this gift is delight, in response to all of this delight.

And also let’s just take in that the source of this gift is here, among us. Not some fancy donor with a foundation.  Not even some closet billionaire that’s been slyly flying under the radar. Just a regular person who loves this place, who is committed to our mission,
and who received a gift, and decided to give it to this church.

So I want you to once again, look at the person right next to you, again, not a person you came with. Imagine that they are the person who gave this gift.

And then, imagine it’s you. Imagine that you received this money, and then you decided to just share it.

Breathe in this generosity this hope that is everywhere – this huge energy, and joy.

What’s powerful in all this is that “they” didn’t give a big gift. We did.
There’s no “they.”

And there’s no “them” to receive it.  We receive it.  It’s all here, it’s all our story.

We together create what is possible, what joy, what goodness we are willing to share, and receive; what divisions we’re going to refuse by our continued and growing generosity.

As we gather around tables in this coming week, my hope is that we’ll each be generous with each other. Ask generous questions, offer generous responses, let laughter overtake us.  Be not afraid of tears. Feel ourselves already filled with this richness, this deliciousness, these precious jewels of life.

For all of the blessings we receive, and see – let us hold them all close, and when the time is right, let us turn to our hungry, aching world, and let it all go. Giving thanks, as the joy grows.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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