Livestreamed service

Psalm 1:1-3
Deuteronomy 26:1-11

        A few weeks back I received an email from a clergy colleague in the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ. Turns out the conference was putting together a sort of time capsule of what some of its member churches had done during the pandemic, and he wanted to talk to me about what First Church Amherst had done.

        I wasn’t sure why the conference would want to include us in its time capsule, and I couldn’t think of anything particularly remarkable that we had done—other than, say, completely revamp our worship style and medium and manage to keep the church going without meeting in person for a year and a half—that most other UCC churches hadn’t done.

        But when the time came for our Zoom call, I wracked my brain to think of something.

        And so I told him how during the first three months of the pandemic—a time when churches and schools and businesses had been forced to close their doors, a time when many people had lost their jobs and were struggling to make ends meet—our church had proposed, discussed, prayed about, and then decided to give away $27,000.

        I told him how our members were extremely eager and immediately ready to give $17,000 to a mutual aid network that hadn’t even existed a few months earlier and that many of them had never heard of because all that money would go directly to individuals and families in need of help with basic necessities, and because many of the recipients would be people of color, including some immigrants.

        I went on to tell him that our proposal to give $10,000 to an Amherst fund offering grants to locally-owned businesses had received a very different reception but that, after much respectful conversation, listening, and discerning together, that we had also made that gift.

        My colleague was overcome by this account of our church’s generosity in a time of great upheaval, uncertainty, and need. And in perceiving his amazement, I realized that whatever amazement I may have felt at one time had long since been replaced by a grateful sense of inevitability.

        Of course, we had helped our neighbors! Of course, we had given generously! Of course, we had prayed and researched and talked together about how best to use our resources to respond to a truly unprecedented situation and lots of heartbreaking need.

        And the more I reflected on what we had done, the more grateful and amazed I was. I realized that we had lived out the promise of Psalm 1.

        Over the years we had tended and fortified the common soil in which our congregation is grounded. We had planted ourselves, our ministries, our purpose, and our vision by the river of life that is God’s love and grace as embodied in that troublemaker Jesus of Nazareth.

        And so it was that when drought and disaster struck in the form of a deadly pandemic, when so many people, families, and institutions around us were withering and dying, we were bearing fruit. While so many around us were hunkering down and trying to survive, we were planting seeds.

        Let me explain.

        You see, we were able to freely and joyfully give $27,000 to our struggling neighbors because, long before those specific needs arose, we had asked you to give money to our church.

        But it was more than that. We had asked you to make a major, multi-year gift to our campaign to make our building more accessible and, therefore, more welcoming to all.

        But there was more to it than even that. Even before we knew how much our Widening the Welcome capital campaign would raise, we had made a commitment to set aside a full 10 percent of everything we raised to give to non-church projects, organizations, and individuals. We called them gifts of peace, justice, and compassion.

        As a church we pledged to give away 10 percent of all the money we raised—not because we expected to raise 10 percent more money than we needed, not because we didn’t think we could trust ourselves to give the money away as needs arose, but because we shared the value of generosity and we shared a commitment to doing good, loving our neighbors, promoting justice, bearing fruit, and planting seeds with the gifts we would receive.

        We were able to do that, in part, because we trusted that there would be enough. Not that there would be enough to do everything we could possibly ever want to do, mind you, but enough to meet the goals of our campaign and our commitment to sharing God’s extravagant welcome.

        If we had not put that money aside, if we had held onto it for fear of not having enough, chances are that when a great need arose beyond our members and our doors, we might have felt that we didn’t have enough. Instead of opening our hearts and our hands to give, we might have held on all the tighter.

        But we did put that money aside—gratefully and joyfully—and we ended up having more than enough. Enough to meet our needs, plus more to give away. And then we had the joy of sharing that money with our neighbors, of bearing fruit and planting seeds of generosity and grace, peace, justice, and compassion.

        And this is why we ask you every year to pledge some of what you’ve been given to the church—not only so we can grow in faith and love together, not only so we can continue to be a source of welcome, justice, and hope for our community, not only so we can pay at least some of our bills, but also for your benefit: So that you, too, will discover that there is enough and more than enough, so that your generosity, too, will bear much fruit, so that you, too, will know the peace of mind that comes from making a commitment to giving, and so that you, too, will know the joy of giving.

        Which brings me back to our scripture lessons for today. You see, I noticed that when speaking of people who delight in God’s ways, who ground themselves in God’s teachings, the promise is not mere survival. The psalm does not say only that trees planted by God’s life-giving streams of water will not wither and die. Rather the promise is that those tree-like people will prosper and bear fruit—which is, after all, how trees propagate and live on.

        When they are healthy and strong and well-grounded, they put forth apples and pears and peaches, acorns and cones and nuts and pollen. And those fruits bear still more fruit. And then more trees pop up through the soil and grow to bear still more fruit. And on and on.

        And so it is with us and our lives. So it is with our generosity and our giving.

        It turns out that our scriptures contain no fewer than 293 mentions of fruit, fruits, and fruitfulness, which is not surprising coming from an agricultural society. When the children of Israel were told to give to the Lord their first fruits, this was a way of describing the first and best of their harvested crops and livestock. The point was to give not from what they had left over, but from right off the top of everything they had produced and received. They point was to seed an entirely new cycle of life from the harvest of their own lives.

        And so it is that we ask you to pledge your annual contribution to the church—not only so that we can have some sense of what will be coming in, though that is important, but especially so that you can reap the freedom and peace of mind that comes from knowing how much of your God-Given resources you will give away and how much you will have to spend however you wish.

        Personally, I love this way of giving. I think and pray about it once a year. I have no need to re-do the math or make new calculations every week or month, because I have already set the floor of my giving. Anything I choose to give above and beyond that is a bonus that brings me still more joy.

        This is they joy I pray that you will know, the joy I pray we all will share.

        So let us ground ourselves in God’s love and goodness. Let us give with intention and purpose, in joy and with great generosity. Let us give so freely and in such difference-making amounts that when others learn of it they will be amazed and blessed.