The Needful: The Lost Laws of Thermodynamics

a stewardship sermon

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

March 6, 2022

If we want a garden, we’re going to have to sow the seeds

That’s what today’s anthem sang

If we want a garden, we’re going to have to sow the seeds

So, if we think about our congregation as a garden, what kind of garden are we talking about?

A garden where everyone belongs?

A garden where we experience the Holy in our coming together, in our celebrating together, like in our skit about Sophia’s Guest?

A garden where we find ourselves, because when we are together, we are stronger?

A garden that feeds a crowded table (ideally, one free of covid worries)?

A garden cultivated where we let our roots run deep, aiming for growth, not satisfaction?


Because if you want this garden ~ this congregation ~ to be here year after year, it requires that we do the needful.

What is the needful?

The needful requires generosity that does not fit neatly into our secular economic system, with its demand of knowing what we are getting when we pay for a thing.

The needful relieves you of some of the dollars in your bank account or your wallet, yet does not make you poorer. In fact, it makes you wealthier.

The needful is not pledging just what you can, but what you can PLUS a little more ~ because the needful isn’t comfortable. The needful doesn’t get by without notice. The needful sometimes raises the goosebumps on your arms, sometimes can feel like a thorn in your side. The needful makes itself known, makes itself felt. The needful requires that you do more than is easy, more than is simple, more than is convenient.

The needful can feel nearly impossible, particularly in this late-stage capitalism, the one that layers outrageous student debt on top of hellish housing prices on top of unethical healthcare expenses, on top of the diminishing middle class, on top of….

The needful is a stretch that asks you to stretch more each year, because it takes more each year to operate a congregation, to pay staff an ethical wage, because we believe we have something to offer this aching world and it must be funded.

Pledging at the needful level takes into account that there are some members who cannot afford to pledge as much as others, and that collectively, we carry each other in many ways: sometimes we are the one who carries, sometimes we are the one carried.

Pledging at the needful level isn’t based on whether you like the minister or don’t; whether you like the sermon or not; whether you like the music or not.

Pledging at the needful level never assesses how much to give based on what you get, as if congregational life were a fee-for-service situation or gig economy thing.

Though, it is true, that the more you put into shared congregational life, the more you get out of it. I guess that is a form of repayment, but the currency is so very different than what we are used to, that we sometimes don’t recognize it. I think that might be the first of several lost laws of thermodynamics.

It is worth noting, that no matter how tired you are from how much you already give, either at TUS or in other parts of your life, the less you put in, the less we all put in collectively, the less we get out of it. That must be the second lost law of thermodynamics.

On a related note, the third lost law of thermodynamics is if you don’t show up for this place, it will, eventually, stop showing up for you.

Pledging the needful requires more than money. This year it requires your attendance at one of the canvass small groups. Some are online. Some are in-person.  Even if it’s not convenient, even if it’s socially awkward, even if you are out of the habit of socializing with other congregants, even if you have to be in a group with people you don’t know well, even if you are uncomfortable talking about money. This, too, is the needful.

After two pandemic years, and the challenges this congregation has experienced, these are the ways we grow this garden. These are the ways we are stronger together.  

If you are giving what you can AND each year, you set aside time in your life to go through an intentional discernment and have established that you cannot give more, that’s good. And fine. And proper. And we cool. I love you.

And if it is not your practice to set aside time, to truly discern not what is comfortable, but what is possible, when it comes to your pledge, it is time to figure out how you can grow your pledge to the needful. It’s time to figure out how to sow more seeds.

And I reminder: love comes no matter what you pledge or how many seeds you sow.

Friends, this pledge year feels more important than others.  As I shared in my State of the Congregation speech at our congregational meeting just three weeks ago, because the pandemic wiped out most of our reserves, the structure of our budget will soon force the leadership to confront some hard decisions. Maybe not this year.  But likely next year. What you pledge this year, and how you look to increase your pledge every year for at least the next three years, will be a message to the leadership of what just is possible.

Because a needful pledge is a promise to the future congregation. The near future congregation (next year) and the next future congregation (years and decades to come).

Because a needful pledge says we are choosing to be good ancestors, rather than dutiful descendants, having our vision on the future and how we provide for it, rather than on the past, and how we might falsely worship it.

Because if we want a garden, we are going to have to sow the seeds. If we want professional staff at our current levels, we are going to have to grow our needful pledging levels.

If we want to grow our roots down deep, we are going to have to stretch to the needful level, knowing this is different for each of us, but required, nevertheless.

Because ~ and I am thinking here of our Sophia’s Guest skit ~ if we want to come face to face with god, upper case or lower case, or with the Holy, or with That Which is Greater Than Ourselves, (all different names being for the same thing) we need this place, this coming together, so that we see it in each of them, see it in all of them, that very thing we are seeking, that very thing we are co-creating.

And that, my friends, leads to the fourth and final lost law of thermodynamics: we are stronger together.

So be it. See to it. Amen.

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