Generosity as a Spiritual Practice

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
October 4, 2015

Stewardship Sunday II

Katharine Mary Drexel was born into a very wealthy family on November 26, 1858, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the second child and second daughter of Francis Anthony Drexel, an investment banker, and Hannah Langstroth Drexel. Unfortunately, Hannah died when Katharine was just five weeks old.

The Drexel family was committed to philanthropy. Katharine’s uncle founded Drexel University in Philadelphia. Her brother-in-law established several institutions intended to assist African-Americans and Native Americans. Closer to home, Katharine’s immediate family offered food, clothing, and rent assistance to destitute and discouraged city residents twice each week.

In 1884, when she was twenty-five, Katharine’s family traveled through the Western United States. Katharine was deeply moved by the difficult circumstances of the Native Americans.

In 1885, Katharine’s father died, leaving behind a fortune worth about $400 million in today’s dollars.

In January, 1887, while traveling in Europe, Katherine and her two sisters, Elizabeth and Louisa, had an opportunity to speak with Pope Leo XIII. Katherine asked the Pope to send some missionaries to assist with the work of the Native American missions that she and her sisters were supporting.

Just eight days ago, during his visit to Philadelphia, Pope Francis referred to this moment in the conversation between Katherine and the Pope. Here is how he described the moment: “When she spoke to Pope Leo XIII of the needs of the missions, the Pope – he was a very wise Pope! – asked her pointedly, ‘What about you? What are you going to do?’ Those words changed Katharine’s life, because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission. Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up his Body, the Church.”

While most Unitarian Universalists might prefer a theological framework that differs from the Pope’s theological framework, surely we could stand with Pope Francis on the same spiritual foundation which is a universal call to devoted service. We Unitarian Universalists might rephrase the Pope’s words in this way: “In the end, every Unitarian Universalist, by virtue of our affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, and by virtue of our affirmation of the interdependence of the human family, has received a call to service. Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the spiritual vision of a world of peace and justice and human rights and shared abundance.” As Unitarian Universalists, our theology may differ from the Pope’s theology, but we can nevertheless affirm in common a call to serve others.

Katharine Drexel was deeply stirred by the words of Pope Leo XIII: “What about you? What are you going to do?” In May, 1889, at the age of thirty, Katharine came to Pittsburgh where she entered the Sisters of Mercy convent. A few years later, she founded her own religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. During her years of active service, using her own share of the family fortune, she established fifty missions which worked with Native Americans in the Western United States. She also established many schools for African-American children in the Southern United States despite vocal and sometimes violent local opposition. Perhaps her most well-known spiritual and philanthropic accomplishment was the creation of Xavier University in 1915 in New Orleans, now regarded as one of our country’s historically black institutions of higher learning.

Katharine Drexel died on March 3, 1955, at the age of ninety-three. She was canonized as Saint Katharine Drexel on October 1, 2000.

“What about you? What are you going to do?” As we celebrate the second of our three Stewardship Sundays here at First Unitarian Church, we may want to ponder these words from Pope Leo XIII to Katharine Drexel. We may want to let them hang in the air. We may want to let them knock at the doors of our hearts. We may want to let them help us discern our sense of sacred purpose. “What about you? What are you going to do?”

Not everyone has the organizational or financial ability to found missions, schools, and a university, as Katharine Drexel did. Not everyone will choose to choose to enter a convent and live a structured religious life, as Katharine Drexel did.

Here at First Unitarian Church, in our season of stewardship, our Annual Budget Drive Committee is not asking anyone to engage in heroic spiritual philanthropy on the scale of Katharine Drexel. But church leaders are asking all of us to be generous stewards of this wonderful religious community that we all love, generous stewards with regard to our time and our effort, generous stewards with regard to our attitudes and our mindfulness, and generous stewards with our financial resources as well.

In his book The Descent of Man, the great evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin wrote as follows about the social nature of human beings: “Every one will admit that [humankind] is a social being. We see this in [our] dislike of solitude, and in [our] wish for society beyond that of [our] own family. . . . It is no argument against [primitive people] being [social animals], that the tribes inhabiting adjacent districts are almost always at war with each other, for the social instincts never extend to all the individuals of the same species. . . . As [humankind] is a social animal, it is almost certain that [we] would inherit a tendency to be faithful to [our] comrades, and obedient to the leader of [our] tribe; for these are common to most social animals. . . . [We] would from an inherited tendency be willing to defend, in concert with others, [our fellow human beings]; and would be ready to aid them in any way, which did not too greatly interfere with [our] own welfare or [our] own strong desires.”

What I take away from this passage is that while human beings are indeed social animals, we contain within us a constant process of weighing and balancing and choosing between what might be good for us as individuals and what might be good for our communities. We seek the best strategy for our own personal survival and for getting our genes into the next generation. But this optimal strategy is complex and dynamic, pulling us sometimes toward selfishness, pulling us at other times toward generosity.

For Darwin, evolutionary fitness meant securing a place in the next generation for as many of our own personal genes as possible. One of Darwin’s followers, William Hamilton, expanded Darwin’s idea of evolutionary fitness into something he called “inclusive fitness.” Hamilton observed that since we share genes with our brothers, sisters, and cousins, securing a place in the next generation for their genes is just as good as securing a place in the next generation for our own genes. They are, after all, the same genes, since they come from the same parents and grandparents. Thus, from Hamilton’s perspective, altruistic behavior among closely related individuals is an effective survival strategy.

But how do we make the leap from altruistic social behavior in groups of a few dozen closely related individuals to altruistic social behavior in groups of hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of not-so-closely-related individuals? Our social instincts may extend as far as the boundaries of our families, but what promotes loyalty in larger groups?

Whatever it is that may be responsible for our ability as human beings to live in larger groups, it is still highly imperfect. The metaphor known as the Tragedy of the Commons in one way of characterizing our highly imperfect social abilities. In 1833, the British economist William Forster Lloyd noted that the ancient practice of grazing cows and sheep on land owned in common was vulnerable to the practice of overgrazing. From the perspective of one individual farmer, the individual economic benefit of grazing additional cows and sheep outweighed the negative economic consequences for the overgrazed land, since the negative economic consequence was shared among many farmers. In 1968, the American ecologist Garrett Hardin restated Lloyd’s insight in a widely-published article. Nowadays, we see the Tragedy of the Commons playing out with regard to other resources we hold in common, such as our air and water, our natural landscapes, our urban landscapes, our public schools, and, perhaps most significantly and dramatically, our climate. The Tragedy of the Commons thus illustrates our need as human beings to push beyond our instinctive balance between personal survival and group survival. The Tragedy of the Commons suggests that we need somehow to instill in ourselves larger loyalties that may go against the grain of our instinctive tribal loyalties but which are essential to our survival as human beings who are now moving into a global society where our interests have become interdependent.

Here at First Unitarian Church, in this season of stewardship, we have an opportunity to transcend our ancient instinctual impulses to act in accord with a narrow view of what is best for ourselves and our extended families. We have an opportunity to close the gap between what our ancient instincts tell us to do and what is needed to sustain this religious community. First Unitarian Church is something we hold in common, like the grazing fields shared by farmers in England, or like our planet’s climate that we share not only with all other human beings but with all life on earth. Acting in accord with our biologically inherited instincts, or acting as rational economic agents focused on our individual prosperity, we may say that it makes sense for us to maximize what we take from this community while minimizing what we give. We can attend Sunday worship celebrations, send our children to religious education classes, participate in covenant groups, attend adult faith development gatherings, and so on. But if we can do all this while contributing six hundred dollars instead of eight hundred dollars, well, doesn’t that make sense? Or if we can do all this while contributing twelve hundred dollars instead of fifteen hundred dollars, well, doesn’t that make sense? But that is Tragedy of the Commons thinking. That is like the farmer saying, “Well, if I graze one more sheep it is good for me; never mind the degradation of the land due to overgrazing.” And it is like so many instances where someone has said, “Well, if I pump more carbon into the atmosphere it is good for me; never mind climate change due to excessive greenhouse gases.” Like so many other public goods that we all share in common, First Unitarian Church works better for all of us when we give our fair share of financial support, and it does not work so well for all of us when we take advantage of the situation. Nobody is saying that we need to enter a convent like Katharine Drexel and give away all of our economic resources for the benefit of others. But church leaders are saying that our church will be healthier and more enjoyable for all of us if we can each contribute our fair share. Our Board of Trustees has defined a fair share as three percent of our household income, with allowances for special circumstances such as paying college tuition or providing care for a family member.

In his book The Generosity Path: Finding the Richness in Giving, Mark Ewert offers this description of generosity: “It implies giving freely, so the giver holds a choice and control – and freedom always feels good. It is about giving more than necessary, so it is not limited by being required or indispensable. It is more than expected, so it goes beyond the obligation to give or what is anticipated by the recipient. Finally, generosity ennobles us; it makes us great souls.” Mark Ewert concludes with this question: “Who would not want to feel that they are a generous person?” Mark Ewert even suggests that generosity can be a kind of spiritual practice, something you can do every day, something that puts you on a path or journey.

Here at First Unitarian Church, as we enter into our season of stewardship, every one of our members and friends here this morning will have an opportunity to take responsibility for this beloved religious community that we hold in common. Every one of our members and friends here this morning will have an opportunity to practice generosity. If you simply wandered in here this morning as a guest for the first time to check out this congregation, you are welcome to participate, but what we are about to do is primarily for folks who already feel that they are part of this church, this religious community. Our Annual Budget Drive Committee has placed pledge forms on the pews throughout the Sanctuary, and you are invited to complete these pledge forms here and now, this morning here in this Sanctuary. You can use this as an opportunity to take responsibility for this religious community that we hold in common. You can use this as an opportunity to practice generosity. And you can use this as an opportunity to provide a partial answer to the question that Pope Leo XIII addressed to Katharine Drexel many years ago: “What about you? What are you going to do?”

© 2015 by David Herndon


Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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