In our story today, we heard of a Spider who wanted to be at every feast. He wanted to live life to the fullest, gorge himself on the good things, never miss a moment. But in the midst of all that joie de vivre, he missed the whole point—you see, he let himself thing for too long that the point of the celebration was the literally in the feasting. Or, I guess, the point of the party was actually the party.
Honestly, I kind of get where Spider was coming from. The little creature was not unlike our own congregation at times—he had a desire to do everything, experience everything, dive headlong and, as Thoreau said, "suck the very marrow out of life." But in the end his pursuit of everything meant he missed out on the one thing that mattered, the people with whom he might have shared that meal in his village. Of course, it was never about the feasting. It was about the fellowship, and the real reward just passed him right by.
What if we, as a community, were to claim the gift that is truly ours? The fellowship of souls? The deepening of relationship? What if we, as individuals, were to see the treasure laid out before us and open that gift again and again and again because this particular gift is uniquely ours, do grow, to serve, to work for, to love?
Spider couldn't do ten feasts in one day. He couldn't do everything he wanted to do, but had he stopped and noticed the one thing he could be... a member of a beloved community, the story would end entirely differently.
Community is not just about what we do together, all of the activities and meals and events and committees. It's about how we choose to be together, how we live into respectful, challenging and life-altering relationship with one another. Like the people of the village, we share the food and do the work and attend the committee meetings not just because we want to eat and work and sit around conference tables, but because our relationships matter and because the real sustenance that comes from the feast is the presence of every one of us—us, and those we love and those we do not love, woven together into something like a whole.
We've been talking a great deal about our visions of growth for the bright future ahead here at River Road and the strategies it takes to get there—how to build a more thriving and courageous religious education program, what spiritual depth really looks like for us, how social justice will look in the coming generation.
Out of our visioning process, we've called ourselves to grow especially in fellowship, spirit and service. And that first one—fellowship, is what it all comes down to today, for this sermon on the Amount, at the kickoff of the pledge campaign. To grow in fellowship is to know and to be known. To be a part of something so much bigger than myself, and to give what I can to build that for my family and for others.
And just as the village feast wasn't really about the food, our congregational growth isn't really about numbers. It's not about a desire to do more things and be pulled in more directions. Our congregational growth isn't about a desire to somehow "move up" in numbers or bolster our budget so that we can feel special
It is about one thing and one thing only—love. Love for those who are here and for those who are not here. Love for all those who are hungering for a place to call their own, for all those who have found such a place here. Love for all of those whose isolation cries out for some semblance of an answer and love for all those who woke up this morning and just thought showing up at for a Sunday service might not be such a bad idea after all.
We don't necessarily need to do more things together, to tally up our feasts and count up our numbers and watch the line-items rise. What we need, and what we are reaching for boldly in this budget, is a commitment to being more to one another and to the world around us, because that—that depth of relationship, has the power to change absolutely everything.
Being together in such deep and honest fellowship does in fact make the impossible possible. It stretches the edges of this cynical world. It translates strategy into possibility. I'm reminded of this by a story about the people living, of all places, on Martha's Vineyard, before it became the Martha's Vineyard we know today. The Vineyard is, of course, a resort spot just off the coast of Massachusetts. But back in the 1830's and before, Martha's Vineyard was a pretty isolated place and in rural populations some genetic anomalies can crop up.
On the Vineyard, the specific anomaly was the fact that almost one in a hundred people born on the island were born deaf. Since most communities have something like one in five-thousand, the number of non-hearing persons was enormously high in the small population.
When sociologists first started to study the culture of the island, they found, to their amazement, that everyone on Martha's Vineyard spoke sign language. Everyone. Their own specific dialect of sign language was so remote from the mainland culture that they imported it from England, and all people, both hearing and non-hearing, were fluent.
Looking for the usual differences between statistics for hearing and non-hearing persons, the sociologists were amazed to find that some ninety percent of non-hearing islanders married and settled down, compared with some ninety-two percent of the hearing. The hearing and non-hearing held down the same jobs, had similar rates of election to positions of influence in the community, and had identical income levels.
Just a few miles away, on the mainland of Massachusetts, the sociologists studied Boston, the city best known in the entire nation for its services to non-hearing persons. The Boston schools were known as the absolute best schools in the country for deaf learning and multiple social service agencies reached out to deaf residents in new and exciting ways.
But even with all of those programs. Even with all of those agencies and funding streams and success stories, the marriage rate among non-hearing persons barely exceeded fifty percent, incomes were severely restricted, and non-hearing persons very rarely held positions of civic authority.
With all of the programs and progress in the world, with all of the things that the city of Boston could DO to support deaf persons, nothing could top the simple and ultimately effective way that Vinyarders chose to be with one another. They all spoke one another's language.
All of our programs, all that we do, every line item of our budget and strategy for continued growth, is nothing if not an invitation to be together in love, to grow in depth of relationship to one another and the world around us. And yes, we spend money on programs, but those programs themselves point to a vision of how we can be with one another.
And every line item in that budget we are called to fund translates directly into another opportunity to be together and be in this world in a different, deeper, more loving way. When you pledge to this congregation, and make your social justice outreach gifts this time of year, you don't give to an abstraction. You don't even really just give to a program that serves you well. You give to the person in front of you and behind you, to the person next to you and the one who has yet to walk through the door.
And while we speak of money today, we must remember that those financial resources are translated into depth of relationship, into a common language that uplifts us all. That's what I'm giving to as my family rises to the challenge of raising our pledge by significantly this year—in a year when we've bought our first home, expecting another baby, will have two in daycare—we're raising our pledge 20%. Because we know who we're giving it to. To you. Because you're not an abstraction to me. You're my community. We speak the same language, and for you, we'll give what treasures we can.
We have a bold vision here at River Road that our relationships call us to. We believe that justice begins at home, and so this year's budget includes truly just healthcare coverage for the staff for the first time in this congregation's history—that's at 80% of premiums for our staff, some of whom went without coverage in the past. So when you give to this congregation, you're stating that we can't advocate for justice in the world that we don't live out here. We can't expect the kind of honest and committed relationships of others that we don't live out ourselves, so we give literally so that they people next to us might live.
We believe in the future, so this budget includes investment in this building that holds our hopes, and when we keep the furnace running and the windows working, what that means is that there's heat when the people for the AA meeting come in late at night, it means there's light when the widowers and widowers gather to begin again. It means there is a room to sit in that reverberates with an Ohm that could shake the foundations of the building on Wednesday night when the Insight Meditation society is meeting.
We believe in the power of our religious education program to change lives, so this budget funds it for the dreams we share, translating directly into more time for the staff who serve the volunteers who serve, without exhaustion, our children, and when my kid gets up in the morning, she wants to come to Spirit Play and hear a story about courage.
We believe in justice, so our outreach pledges are targeted to the places they can make the most difference—to sheltering the homeless population in this center of great wealth, connecting congregations for greater advocacy and opening our hearts to the world around us.
And all of this—it only works because the money serves to point to the real purpose. It's not the stuff we can do together, but the way we can be together. Won't you pull up a chair and come to the table for the real feast—the one where you and I and every one of us is transformed?