There is Room at the Table (this service includes a surprise!)

Story: In God’s Hands by Larry Kushner and Gary Schmidt


It might have kept going that way indefinitely, the story tells us.  Jacob, the rich man, coming to synagogue, falling asleep, waking up and walking home. And David, the poor man, coming and cleaning and going home hungry.  Neither, looking for miracles. Both, empty of spirit, empty of hope that things would ever change.

Except that, one day Jacob woke up, just for a moment. He woke up and paid attention in a way he had not done before.

It was enough to move him to action.  To offer something. Challahs.

And, one day, David, the poor man, gathered within himself enough hope/chutzpah to be willing to pray, willing to believe, that help might come. He mustered enough hope to ask, and find. Challahs.

A miracle from God?

Not exactly.

But yet it is still, somehow, a miracle. As Jacob is inspired to give and keep giving, as David is heartened to know that he is loved, cared for. Both, the story implies, feel no longer empty of spirit.  Both understand their hands are God’s hands. Both understand God’s spirit or, we could say, Love, is at work within and between them.

It lines right up with our Unitarian Universalist theology. We each have a spark of divinity within us William Ellery Channing wrote. We each have a spark of God inside.

And we get to remember that everyone else does too.

I’m reminded of the song made popular by Joan Osborne some years ago, “What if God was one of us,” she sings,

Just a slob like one of us

Just a stranger on the bus

Trying to make His way home?”

And in the song we just heard by Carrie Newcomer – there is room at the table for everyone. Let our hearts not be hardened, to those living on the margins, she sings, there is room at the table, for everyone.

And these days, in our current societal climate, making room at the table is more important than ever.

But perhaps, also more difficult. Studies show, Rev. Robin Bartlett writes, that when people are under stress, not unlike the kind in our society right now, we are less likely to love the stranger, less likely to find a spark of divinity in others or ourselves. When we are worried about things like losing wealth or status, when we are in fear of climate change, worried about poverty or illness, we are less likely to open our hearts, more likely to want to close our eyes.

And yet, our spiritual values teach us love one another. To honor the inherent worth and dignity of everyone. To bring compassion to all.

It’s a calling, but it may even, in a world that feels upside down, help us turn right side up, ourselves.

Recent research shows, in fact, that reaching out, sharing of ourselves, loving other people, generosity,  are actually an integral part of our human nature. Part of what makes us feel whole, and happy. Part of what sets us right. Even as we set things right for others.

In one study, with toddlers, researchers offered them sweet treats and asked them to share with a cute stuffed monkey. Then they made note of when the children smiled, assuming this offered insight into positive emotions. Given these youngsters hadn’t yet learned rules being generous, you might expect them to be naturally selfish. But what researchers discovered surprised them.  The children smiled significantly more when giving the candies away than when just receiving treats themselves.

In another experiment, researchers worked with adults. Giving them all some amount of money, between 5 and 20 dollars. They chose some people to spend it on themselves, and some to give it away. Then they asked them how they felt, at the end of the day. There too, you would expect, giving someone the chance to get something nice for themselves would put them in the better mood. And there too, it was the people randomly selected to give the money away who reported feeling happier. Significantly so.

In yet another study they actually did MRI’s of people being generous, and found there was activity in the parts of the brain connected to our reward centers. Connected to happiness, joy, love.

The evidence is in, giving something of ourselves, making room at the table  lines up with our values, helps others, and lifts us up, too.

We knew this, of course. We know this. We do it, already. We do it here, all the time. At Sharing Locker, through our Social Justice team. Through Lunch on the Hill, through generous service to this place and all the values we live out here, every day cornbread baking, leaf raking, teaching in Religious Education, serving in so many ways right here. We do it all in spite of a world that tells us we should hunker down and focus only on ourselves, we do it, even though we might feel anxious, afraid, or like we need to keep our time or money to ourselves.

At Westminster we don’t just come to church to listen and reflect, we come to *do* something. We come to grow ourselves and change the world. We come, to live our values together.

Today, we’re going to do something a little out of the ordinary, in this upside world we’re going to turn one part of this service upside down.

We let you know there would be a surprise at this service and, where is a drum roll when you need it, would our unveilers please come forward to unveil what is now veiled! [show pictures on screen, too]

Today, instead of asking you for money during our offering, we are going to give it away. We’re going to give it to you. We’re going to invite you to be emissaries, to be carriers, of the love and values we strive to live every day.

One of the things I get to do as a minister, is to give money away. I have a fund, just for that, the Minister’s Discretionary Fund. You all contribute to it at Christmas times and other times, and I contribute to it, when I receive payment for memorial services or weddings of church members.  Those funds are earmarked to help others in need, and I think a lot about how that money can be used to do the most good, both within and beyond these walls.

Today we’re going to offer to you between 3 to 20 from that fund and ask you to do something good with it. You get to decide what “something good” is.

You can do this on your own, you can pool the money as a family, as a group of families, you can do it in two’s or threes, with a good friend or with someone who may yet become your good friend as you do good in the world together. Sometimes, when we give together, the warmth spreads.

You can magnify the power, if you want, by using the money to purchase supplies to make something to sell in order to multiply it before you give it away. You can match it if you want. You can simply use it for yourself if it is you that is in need.

Everyone is invited to participate, of every age, but no one is required.

You can tell them its from us, from Westminster Unitarian, if you want, or not if you prefer.

The one thing we ask, is, if you take one of our “rolls of cash” we ask that you tell us what you did with it. Tell us the story. What did you think about doing, what did you ended up doing, and how did it make you feel? Did it feel good? Awkward, weird, fun? It’s all part of your story.

You can send me an email, you can post it or twitter, or instagram or on facebook – we’ll put up a facebook post for you to respond to specifically for this, or you can use this handsome postcard which has, on the front, all kinds of inspiration about what you might do, and on the back, room for you to tell your story.

You can also send us a picture, if you want, of what you did.

In a week or two we’ll start posting postcards and photos on a bulletin board in Smith Hall so we can all witness the good we’re doing, inspire each other, and share the love.

We ask that you complete your mission by December 15th.

And, here we go. We have three receptacles, each with little rolls of bills, some of the rolls total $3, some  $5 dollars, some $10, some $20. Life is full of surprises. I invite you to come forward now, let’s say children and families first, and then everyone, I invite anyone who feels called to participate to come forward in some orderly fashion, and take a roll, unfurl it and see what you might yet do.


[Concluding words] And so with that, the next part of the adventure begins. I will take one too. May we be blessed in all that we receive, may we feel blessed too as we give. May we hear and answer the call of the spirit, in all the good it may call us to do.