Stewardship Sermon: “The Math of Potlucks”

NOTE: I learned, after I wrote this sermon, that a few extremely generous people who raised their pledge during our Stewardship Sunday, and gave more than they already had decided they would. I want you to know this is the greatest, most inspiring, gift an outgoing minister can receive – to know that I’ve been a part of something that people will continue to support after I’m gone. Thank you so much. It means more to me than I can say. 

Generosity: The Math of Potlucks”
Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
The First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
April 6, 2014

“Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.” – Theodore Parker

The first few flowers of the spring,
Have turned my soul to everything,
Have brought my love back to your door,
And I can’t hide it anymore.

I’m just gonna preach my heart out here this morning, if you don’t mind. Because I’m not here very long. And I mean that in the sense of an outgoing minister, as this is my last year here; and I also mean it is in the larger sense, that none of us are here very long. How many glorious springs do we get to witness? How many wonderful, lazy summers, how many autumns and winters. Far too few. And yet, enough: enough to live with boldness, appreciating how amazing it is to be alive with every day. Enough to live generously, savoring our lives in joy and then passing that joy along in the form of service. We’re here for long enough.


I want to preach to you today about why I give, and I’m tremendously excited to tell you why I give to the congregation. Especially because, even though I’ve pledged every year here, this is the first year where none of my pledge is going toward my own salary. My term here ends June 30th and my pledge begins on July 1st. So I’m in the same position as all of you, for once: my pledge goes toward paying somebody else. Only, unlike all of you, I won’t be involved in congregational life or attending services at all next year. That’s not a reflection of the quality of the services or the greatness of the congregation: it’s part of our Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association covenant, to steer clear of involvement to allow the next shared ministry to blossom and thrive.

Now, I’m incredibly grateful that you have paid my salary all these years. It is a humbling thing to know the people who pay your salary. You are the ones who, these last eight years, have put food on my table (sometimes literally). You have provided for me and my family. And you have allowed me to be a minister. Ministry is a challenging occupation, but it’s an immensely rewarding one. To be paid to seek my truth, and share it; to be there in your most difficult times, times of life and death, as well as times of joy; and to help create community and cast a vision together about how we’re going to change the world. It is an amazing privilege to be your minister. You have made me a better person, you have taught me how to love better, and I will always be grateful for my time here. Thank you.
But in order to tell you why I give, I need to explain it via the math of potlucks. I googled the term, and though I did not create it, this may be the first sermon explaining it, so I believe we just might be treading new mathematical/theological ground here. Which as the former co-captain of my high school math team, I can tell you is pretty exciting. (just wait ’til Melissa Huang hears about this!)

There’s something remarkable about the math of potlucks, and that’s what I want to share with you today. And the amazing thing about potlucks is the fact that they always seem to work out. Now, I’m sure many of us, experienced in potlucks, can think of a counterexample: that time when there was six types of potato salad and nothing else, or that time that everybody forgot it was a potluck and nobody brought anything. But let not the mind be polluted by these negative occurrences. Let us not obfuscate the proposition with these deleterious anomalies. No, let’s get back to the fact that almost always, basically always, potlucks work. Oh yes they do. And that’s amazing. Because – and think about it for a sec here: the idea is that everybody brings one dish. Everybody brings their own dinner – in theory, though really it is to be shared. But everyone brings their own dinner, and then you divide it up, and share, so there’s the equivalent of one dish for everyone. BUT – it never works like that, does it. I mean, it’s not that simple. A large enough potluck, somebody always is cooking a bunt cake in the oven, and it’s a new recipe, and it gets burned 10 minutes supposed to leave the house so they’re empty-handed. And somebody else is going through a truly awful time at home, and life is hectic to the point of nervous breakdown, and they need to be in beloved community, but the last thing they have time to do is even pick up cookies on the way in. And then you have people who are a much, much better minister than they are a cook. And so on.

So it’s not like everybody brings something to a potluck. A lot of people bring something, and many people don’t. And then you get there – and you wonder if there’s gonna be enough for everybody – there’s always this moment when you think, if you think about it at all, “this is NOT gonna work.” And somehow – it all comes together. Beautifully. AND it’s delicious. I mean, some of it may be out of this world, four-star culinary-highlight delicious, and some is just – well, how do I put it nicely – filling. But it is good, right?, it is good to be at a potluck. You’re walking around with your little paper plate and your plastic spoon, ladelling out this and that, and there’s just so much! You turn around, and there’s more. And not just the food, but people, wonderful people, bubbling over in conversation, simmering with warmth and good cheer. And you think, wow, have I ever been provided for. There is enough. More than enough. My cup runneth over. It’s a spiritual feeling, being surrounded by food brought by the people in your community. You realize that you live in a world of bounty.

There is something deeply, deeply spiritual about potlucks. Potlucks have been a part of church life for centuries. And not just because they’re convenient. Potlucks are a perfect example of the beloved community. Everyone brings something to the table. We’re all together in one mosaic of giving and receiving. We make the world possible through everyone bringing something.

I love the story of the loaves and fishes. You know the stories in the Gospels, about Jesus feeding the 5,000, with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fishes. Now, you know that was a potluck story. Jesus gathered everybody on the mountain, and they were so excited about meeting, about this great spiritual event, they almost plum forgot about eating. And they were hungry – these were people who did not eat very much, who did not have enough to eat. Jesus noticed the hunger, and then said, well, what do we have? What do we have here? And then there’s a silence. And a brave, poor soul stepped forward, and said, “Master, I have nothing. I brought nothing.”

No,” said Jesus, “No. You did not bring nothing, you brought yourself. And it is good that you’re here. It is deeply meaningful that you brought yourself. You’re not nothing.”

And so the next person, encouraged by her brother, steps forward to admit she has nothing, and Jesus tells her the same thing – you brought you, that is enough, that is a precious gift. Until someone, inspired by all this love and honesty, pulls out a loaf of bread! Hallelujah! There is much rejoicing.

But, I mean, one loaf of bread? The apostles are asking, how are we gonna feed 5,000 people on this? So Jesus keeps asking, one by one. “Nothing, nothing – that’s fine, you’re here, that’s what counts. You don’t have nothing, you’re here.” Let’s see: nothing, nothing, bread! Great, one more loaf of bread. We’re starting something. Nothing, nothing, nothing , nothing – fine, you’re here that’s what matters, we have a loaf of bread so we’re good in any case, nothing, nothing, bread, great, nothing, nothing, glad you’re here, nothing, and then some generous soul, with more than enough to share, has two loaves of bread! Wow! Great! Now: does anyone have anything besides bread? Because man doesn’t live by bread alone…fish! Great, and you’ve got a fish, too. And so I guess that’s it? Well, good enough. Hopefully, this’ll be enough.

Now, if you’ll forgive a little midrash, here, a little extra-biblical interpretation of the story, it’s clear to me that that’s not the end of the story. See, I don’t know from miracles, but I know people. As soon as Jesus said, “five loaves, and two fishes, guess that’s it”, and he starts dividing up the food, somebody pipes in: “well, I do have some nice baskets to put them in.” Because presentation matters, doesn’t it. And that makes someone else think of something: well, I always have a few herbs in my garden, I know it’s not sustenance, but if we’re going to eat, why don’t you add those in. And somebody else said, there’s a guy I know I sometimes get mullet from, but I don’t know what you would do – “Mullet!” interrupts another. “I know a great recipe for mullet! And the conversation heats up, and the old folks are telling stories about the other times there wasn’t enough to eat, and everybody has a suggestion, and someone swears they once shared a fish dish with the Shah of Persia, and people are stirring the pot, and kids are looking for fruit trees off in the distance, and somebody finds some fruit, and they add a little of this and a little of that – and before you know it, 5,000 are fed. And fed well. And there’s plenty left over. The story in the Bible says that: there’s plenty left over. When people share what they have, when the spirit of generosity enters the room, there’s always more than enough.

Now, it may be a stretch to compare an ordinary church potluck with the miracle of the loaves and fishes. But I think the story is pointing at the miracle of congregational life. When you gather together, to form a group to think about the nature of meaning and to change the world, there will be times when you think, “we don’t have nearly enough.” Thre will be times when people say, 5 loaves, 2 fishes, 5,000 people? I don’t think so. We’re cooked.”

So many times here, I’ve had a conversation with a new person I call the chopped liver conversation. It’s where they describe how amazing and talented everyone in this congregation are, and doubt they have anything to contribute. You know what I mean? “People here are so intelligent, they read books, they’re all so articulate, I don’t know.” Well, we’re not all Ph.D’s don’t worry. “Yeah, but pastor, I just want to help, to do my part, but I’m so busy with work, I can’t serve on every committee.” Sure, we don’t expect you to. “And I know you’re looking for a treasurer, but I’m lousy with numbers.” Yeah, we don’t really want you to be treasurer. But we’ll find something for you. We know people are busy make what you can. Yeah, but I can’t pledge very much, times are tight. Sure, pledge what you can, it’s great that you’re pledging, that’s important. Some of us who can will pledge more, everybody will peldge what they can. And don’t think those of us who are pledging thousands of dollars aren’t impressed and inspired by the folks pledging a few hundred dollars, who are just scraping by. That’s inspiring. That’s heroic. “Yeah, but, I would love to be on membership, but I’m so not outgoing…”And the conversation will go on like this, with the person genuinely worried that they won’t pull their weight in this congregation. That they have nothing to bring to our potluck. That they’re chopped liver.

And sooner or later – it’s a miracle! A glimmer of light comes in. Maybe it’s in that first conversation, or maybe much later.” Something is revealed. Some hidden talent, or quirk of personality. They’ll say it in an off-hand way: “oh I was a professional yodeller for ten years.” And I’ll go, “yes! Professional yodeller! That’s it! Why didn’t you say that before? Wow. Nobody else has that talent!” And my head is thinking, “what the heck are we going to do with a professional yodeller.” But my heart says, “yodelling is going to be a part of this congregation. I don’t know how, I just know it.”

Fictionalized exmple, but I see it so often. Hidden talents. The person who is very quiet, who says, ‘leadership? Not me.” is the person of incredible patience, who, when you have lost your mother and are bawling your eyes out, will sit with you for an hour, not saying a word, just beng present to your pain. The person who has been on the sidelines of the congregation for years will step forward and say, you know what, it’s time we save the Delaware River, and will lead the congregation in making that happen. Stuff like that happens all the time.

So I want you to step into your particular greatness here. Your congregation needs you. Your world needs you. There is nothing ultimately to be gined in hiding what you’ve got from the world. That’s not humility. That’s a refusal to play ball. It’s a refusal to come to the potluck. And we need you. Whatever you’ve got, we need you.

And of course, that’s true monetarily as much as anything. It is my hope that I will give more to this congregation that I receive from it. That’s a longshot, because I have received so much from this congregation, that’s a bar I probably won’t reach. But I am willing to try. Now I get to pledge without getting anything back next year – which I’m very happy about, actually, because I get to pay it forward. So many people here have paid it forward, now it’s my turn. Every week here, the service is already paid for. Think about how significant that is for a second. How often, do you go to a movie theatre, you go up to the counter, and the cashier says, “go right in. The last people paid for you. They really loved the movie, they thought you should see it.” That never happens! And yet it happens here every single week.Oh sure, we have our offering, we practice generosity. But the congregation is over 90% paid for by people’s pledges. The movie’s been paid for, folks. Somebody said, you know, this is so important, I want somebody else to experience this.

Which is really the secret to the math of potlucks, isn’t it. Everybody brings a little extra. You’re making that pot roast, and you think, well there’s no point making a small pot roast, is there. You think you’ll make a small cake for six and halfway through, you start putting in a little more milk, a little more flour, and before you know it it’s a cake for twelve. You give more than you “should”. You get excited by the potluck, and decided you’re going to make it a good potluck.

I could tell you that you’ll get out of this congregation what you put in. And in many ways, that’s largely true. Our biggest givers will tell you they get a lot from this congregation. But it isn’t a mathematical certainty. Could be, you give $10,000 to your congregation and it lets you down. That happens all the time, if you’re in congregational life long enough. So, though it tends to even out over the years, you don’t always get out of your congregation exactly what you put it. You want to know what is a mathematical certainty, though? This congregation will be exactly as meaningful as you make it. If you want your congregation to be meaningful, and collectively you put in the time, talent and treasure to make it meaningful, it will be meaningful. And if you don’t, it won’t. It’s as simple as that.

So let’s go out there and feed the 5,000. This afternoon we’ll be looking at our visioning work we’ve done as a congregation, and you’ve done some amazing work. At our dessert visioning parties, you’ve expressed beautifully what you love about this congregation: the sense of welcome you received when you first came here, how this is a spiritual home for you, how this community accepts you as you are and inspires you to be your best self. And you’ve set a vision for the future. You’ve said how you want to reach out to the community, widen our circle of love, find others who may need this place as much as you do. So I’m asking you today to support that vision. Support it boldly.

A lot of the research suggests that giving goes down during times of ministerial transition. People pull back, they want to wait and see what they’re getting before commiting. If you love this community, do not let that happen here. If you pull back from committing, it means the congregation cannot reach the bold dreams you have for it. I know it can be anxiety-inducing to be between ministers. But first of all, a congregation is about much, much more than the called minister. If you count our kids – and I certainly do – we have hundreds of ministers in this congregation. And secondly, when you do get that new minister, called by the congregation, and you’re ecstatic with that person, and what’s more this congregation is doing even more amazing things than you ever imagined, you want to be able to say – I helped make that happen. I gave at our tough times, the time some folks weren’t sure, because I believe in this community. Always have.

I believe in this community. That’s why I’m sustaining my pledge to a community I will no longer be involved in. Because I’m a potluck giver. I want to give so somebody else can eat. My heart is full of gratitude, and the way I have to express that gratitude is to pay it forward. Let’s welcome somebody who’s not in this room yet. Let’s extend the circle. Let’s bring enough food to the table to feed an army of compassion. This is our chance to make the world a better place. Let’s give it all we got.

The love we share within these walls,
We freely give to each and all,
May peace and joy reign everywhere
To grow the fruits of our care.

Thank you for your generosity, and AMEN

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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