Radical Hospitality: Being Five Generations Together

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
August 20, 2017


By David Herndon

20 August 2017

First Unitarian Church

Pittsburgh, PA

Throughout the month of August, our spiritual theme here at First Unitarian Church is Radical Hospitality.  This morning, we are going to explore what it means to be a multigenerational religious community -- that is, what it means to be five generations together.

Consider the following story about connections between the generations:

A man visited his minister toward the end of August.  He was feeling vaguely depressed, but he was not sure why.

The minister expressed sympathy.“Have there been any sad events in your life recently?” she inquired.

“Last fall, my grandmother died,” he reported.

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” said the minister.

“Thank you.  But she was ninety-seven years old.  And she left me a hundred thousand dollars.”

“I see,” said the minister.“Anything else?”

“Last winter, my great-uncle passed away.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” said the minister.

“Thank you.  But he was ninety-eight years old.  And he left me two hundred thousand dollars.”

“I see,” said the minister.“Anything else?

“Last spring, my great-aunt died.”

“Once again, I’m very sorry to hear that,” said the minister.

“Thank you.I appreciate that.  But she was ninety-nine years old.  And she left me three hundred thousand dollars.”

“I see,” said the minister.“Anything more recent?”

“No,” said the man.  “And maybe that is why I am depressed.All summer, nothing!”

Despite the entitled attitude of the depressed man, this story nevertheless points toward one practice that binds generations together.  Members of one generation often work and save and give in the hope that the next generation will have a better life.  This attitude of generosity from one generation to the next is expressed in a number of common sayings:

Lifting as we climb.

Pay it forward.

I would like to give something back to the community.

Each one teach one.

I want to give others opportunities I never had.

I touch the future.I teach.

We give today so that tomorrow will be better than yesterday.

Here at First Unitarian Church, we are blessed to be the recipients of many gifts that have come to us from previous generations.  Perhaps the most obvious of these gifts is this lovely and inspirational Sanctuary.  It has been entrusted to us from previous generations of generous people who could only dream that parishioners unknown to them might still be sitting in these pews more than a century after the building was constructed in 1904.  Another obvious gift is the classroom building, which was constructed fifty years later in 1954.  If it is more utilitarian than lovely and inspirational, it has nevertheless served us extraordinarily well, for thousands of children have trustingly learned values from adults who have cared for them in those classrooms, and additional thousands of adults have come together for meetings and conversations and support groups and presentations.  The people who put these buildings up are personally unknown to us, and we are personally unknown to them.  We cannot thank them directly; we cannot repay what they gave; but we can follow their example; we can be generous toward the future.

This summer, those attending worship celebrations in this Sanctuary have enjoyed the cool and dry comfort of air-conditioning for the very first time in the one-hundred-and-thirteen-year history of this building.  In previous years, summer temperatures in this Sanctuary have regularly exceeded eighty degrees and sometimes even ninety degrees.  Sometimes it has been hotter inside the Sanctuary that is has been outside, with the unblocked sun baking down on the roof and the walls and windows.  But starting about a year ago, we installed a geothermal heating and cooling system.  Wells were dug six hundred feet down out in the front yard so that we could pump water down into the earth.  Using heat exchange technology, our heating and cooling system can keep the building cool in the summer and, presumably, warm in the winter.  We have achieved a green solution, in accord with that Unitarian Universalist principle that calls us to respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

As I understand it, the total cost of our geothermal hearing and cooling system is about $650,000.  Who do you suppose paid for that project?  Where did we get that money?

This will probably sound a little like the story you heard a few moments ago.  We received two generous and substantial bequests from long-time members of First Unitarian Church.  Both of these generous donors were well into their nineties when they died.  The value of each gift was somewhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000.Both gifts were restricted for capital projects, which meant that we could not use this money to cover annual personnel costs or annual utilities costs or annual office supplies costs.

One gift was from Marion Schnurer, a progressive activist who was originally from North Carolina.  After her husband died, Marion lived alone for a number of years in a small home that had no air conditioning.  One summer, two people from our pastoral care team felt quite concerned for Marion’s well-being as the temperatures climbed into the high eighties day after day.  They wanted to bring Marion a window air conditioner to ensure that she would not fall victim to heat exhaustion.  But Marion would not hear of it.  She refused to let these two well-meaning individuals install any sort of window air conditioner in her home.  So it is extremely ironic that we have used most of her bequest to install air conditioning in our Sanctuary.  At least we installed a geothermal system; Marion would have appreciated that.

The other gift was from Albert Goldsmith, a gay man originally from right here in Pittsburgh who loved music and art.  Albert lived a thoroughly unconventional life, not because he wanted to be unconventional, but simply because he was far more interested in following his interests and passions than in ruminating about what other people thought of him.  One portion of Albert’s bequest was unrestricted, and we have used that portion of his bequest – about $100,000 – to provide a most level of support for our two concert series, SongSpace and Tapestry.  But the remainder of his bequest was restricted for capital projects.  Given Albert’s love of music, it is very appropriate that we have used most of his bequest to upgrade this Sanctuary.  Before this summer, we could not have presented music events in our Sanctuary in June, July, and August.  But now we can.

I have singled our Marion Schnurer and Albert Goldsmith this morning because their gifts have enabled this congregation to complete the long-awaited geothermal heating and cooling project.  But others have made generous gifts as well.  Bill and June Mullins and Herbert and Dorothea Simon – both families with deep connections to Carnegie Mellon University -- made restricted gifts to our church that permanently support our operating budget.  In fact, when you add together what I would call legacy income, that is, income from our endowment plus income from building rentals – that is about twenty percent of our annual operating budget.  Twenty percent of our day-to-day expenses are covered through the generosity of people from past generations.

You may or may not have the financial means to make a bequest to First Unitarian Church.But you can understand your day-to-day contributions to this religious community as a practice that binds generations together.  Both financial support and volunteer service are contributions that touch the future.  Both financial support and volunteer service are contributions that make tomorrow better than yesterday.  Both financial support and volunteer service are contributions where you can pay it forward, taking what you have received from generations in the past, adding your own unique creativity and effort, and then offering something valuable to generations in the future.

I would like to focus for a moment on volunteer service.  Practically everyone in our church is a recipient of ministry.  This may take place in a small group here at First Unitarian Church.  Or it may take place right here in the Sanctuary on a Sunday morning.  Or it may take place in a hospital room.  Or it may take place in a one-on-one conversation.  But however it happens, we may find that our lives are changed because of what we experience here.  We may find that we grow deeper spiritually.  We may find that we have a more insightful and compassionate and impatient conscience.  We may find that our hearts become a little more loving and a little more forgiving.  We may find that we lower our barriers between ourselves and something larger than ourselves.  We may find that our priorities more closely reflect our values.In all these ways and more, our lives may be changed for the better because we are recipients of ministry here at First Unitarian Church, ministry that is widely shared among both parishioners and staff members.

Practically everyone in our church is a recipient of ministry; but the other side of the coin is that most of us, ideally, are also willing to be resources for ministry.

In some organizations, there is a very clear boundary dividing those who provide a service from those to receive that service.  In a theatre, for example, the actors on the stage are very distinct from the audience.  In a hospital, those who provide medical treatment are very distinct from those who receive medical treatment.  In a grocery store or restaurant or a car repair shop, the employees are very distinct from the customers.

In a church, however, the same people are both recipients of ministry and resources for ministry.  The structure is circular.  One day, for example, someone comes to visit you in the hospital; another day, you are visiting someone else in the hospital.

You are a good citizen of this church when you take being a recipient of ministry seriously, that is, when you open yourself to having your life changed by the shared ministry of this church.  You are also a good citizen of this church when you are a resource for ministry, that is, when you are willing to bring your gifts and your sense of purpose to the shared ministry of this congregation.

Sixty years ago, in 1957, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology introduced two companion theories of human motivation in the workplace, Theory X and Theory Y.  Church consultants Gil Rendle and Susan Beaumont describe Theory X in this way:  “Theory X assumes that people are essentially lazy, irresponsible, passive, and dependent on the leader who must be able to break work down into manageable pieces and then direct, control, evaluate, and motivate the workers to make them productive.”  On the other hand, they describe Theory Y in a different way:  “Theory Y, however, begins with the assumption that people essentially want to do well – that they seek meaning in their work, will take responsibility for their jobs, wish to grow in their work, and willingly seek excellence.  Under Theory Y, the leader’s role is remarkably different – resourcing rather than directing; challenging; offering both support and accountability rather than evaluation; and often simply getting out of the way.”

These researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were recasting the two sides of an argument that had taken place just a couple of miles away at the Harvard Divinity School one hundred and fifty years earlier in the early 1800s.  Known as the Unitarian Controversy, this argument contrasted two very different views of human nature.  On one side were the orthodox Calvinists whose theological tradition was originated by the Protestant theologian John Calvin, who lived from 1509 to 1564.  Their beliefs about human nature are concisely summed up in the so-called Five Points of Calvinism:  Total Depravity, which means that human nature is thoroughly sinful; Unconditional Election, which means that some people are saved for eternal life, but not because of their good deeds; Limited Atonement, which means that all human sins have been paid for; Irresistible Grace, which means that if God chooses you to be saved, there is no way to get out of it; and Preservation of the Saints, which means that once you have been saved, you cannot become unsaved no matter how badly you behave.  The rather cheerful acronym for these rather gloomy theological views is TULIP.  In the workplace, Calvinism becomes Theory X.

One the other side of the Unitarian controversy were more progressive religious thinkers who had a much more positive view of human nature.  William Ellery Channing, who lived from 1780 to 1842 and who was perhaps the foremost spokesperson for the more progressive side, often used the phrase “likeness to God” to characterize the basic unity between the virtues of God and the virtues of humankind.  More recently, Unitarian Universalist minister Roy Phillips has used the image of a seed to characterize the view of human nature that was set forth by these early Unitarians, suggesting that like seeds, human beings have an inborn desire to grow and flourish and fulfill their potential.  In the workplace, this more hopeful view of human nature becomes Theory Y.

The point of this excursion into theological history is to offer the reassurance that when we ask you to become a resource for ministry, we operate in the context of Theory Y.  That is, we begin with the assumption that everyone in our church wants to be a good citizen, open to being a recipient of our shared ministry but also open to being a resource for ministry.  I have found it quite fascinating to observe the way that people make the transition toward being willing to contribute.  On your first Sunday, it is unlikely that you will be asked to help out with anything.  You may simply be trying to figure out what kind of church this is!  Eventually, however, if you continue to show up here on Sunday mornings, someone may decide that the time has come to ask you to help out with something, and you begin to make the transition from being only a recipient of our shared ministry to being both a recipient and a resource for our shared ministry.  With that transition, you become much more a part of the community.

This morning I said that I would be exploring what it means to be a multigenerational community – that is, what it means to be five generations together.  I could have spoken about the importance of occasionally having multigenerational worship celebrations where people of all ages can find something enjoyable and meaningful in this Sanctuary on a Sunday morning.  I could have spoken about the importance of providing adequate resources for our religious education program for children and youth.  I could have spoken about the importance of transmitting our progressive values from one generation to the next.

Instead, somewhat to my own surprise, I have spoken about stewardship and the way that generosity can link generations one to another when each generation seeks to make life better for the next generation.  This can happen in momentous ways, when someone leaves a substantial bequest to our church.  But it can also happen in more modest ways.  Every day this church is being handed on from one generation to the next.  And therefore every day this church needs to be nurtured in countless small ways.  Every time you attend a ministry team meeting, every time you provide financial support, every time you offer a warm welcome to a guest, every time you step up into a leadership role that you have not had before, you are linking the generations, you are giving something to the future, you are making tomorrow better than yesterday, you are building up an organization not only for the benefit of those who are here now, but also for the benefit of countless unknown people who will follow you as members of this church ten years from now or twenty-five years from now.  Good stewardship of this religious organization means ensuring that many different generations can have the opportunity to be good citizens of this church, both as recipients of ministry and as resources for ministry.

In the fall, we will begin our annual budget drive to gather financial support for our 2018 budget.  But you need not wait until then to practice good stewardship.  Every contribution, whether financial support or volunteer service, builds up this church and makes it possible for each generation to be linked to other generations.  Every day you can practice good stewardship.Every day you can touch the future.

© 2017 by David Herndon


Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
605 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
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