Also appropriate as
Last summer, when I planned the topic for today’s sermon, I was reading
an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about a local service program
called “Share the Harvest.” It’s a
program where local gardeners can drop off fresh fruits and vegetables at
designated collection points, from which the food is sent to local food
pantries. “Share the Harvest”
brought in more than 5,000 pounds of tomatoes, beans, corn and other produce
this year for Philabundance, the region’s largest food bank. Much of that food was donated from
gardeners who tend their plots in the community garden in Rose Tree Park, just up the street. The article also reported that some area
produce farmers have now taken to planting portions of their fields specifically
to help stock local food banks.
These activities called to mind a verse in chapter 19 of the Book of
Leviticus, the chapter where God instructs Moses on how the Israelites are to
live ethically. In verse 9, God
tells Moses, “When you reap the harvest
of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the
gleanings of your harvest. You
shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your
vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” The “gleanings” are the bits and pieces
left in the field after the harvest has been gathered in, the food that is
damaged or too immature or stunted to have been collected by the regular
harvesting process. The image you
see up on the screen this morning is called “The Gleaners.” It was painted by the French artist Jean
Francois Millet in 1857, and it captures peasants in the backbreaking act of
gleaning in a field that has been stripped bare of all but the smallest grains
What better topic for the beginning of November, I thought last August,
than to talk about sharing our bounty with others. After all, this is the season of plenty,
of harvest, of gratitude and thanksgiving.
I even picked out the title for the sermon, a line taken from one of my
favorite songs by the Grateful Dead, which you heard as our first musical
offering today. “If you plant ice, you’re gonna harvest
wind.” I had it all worked out,
to speak with you about how it matters what we plant, for as we sow, so shall we
reap. You know, all that
stuff. Sure the housing market was
a little depressed, but we always have so much to be thankful for, right? I mean, doesn’t your life feel full of
possibility right now? Overflowing
like some metaphysical cornucopia, richer and more bounteous than you ever could
imagine? If it does, see me after
the service so that I can get some of the meds that you’re on!
What a difference a couple of months can make. You don’t need me to stand here and tic
off a list of all the reasons we’re feeling like the ground beneath us is
shifting and shaking. I know for a
fact that there are here with us today people who have recently lost their
jobs. People whose retirement
accounts have lost more than half their value. People who are worried about whether
they’re going to be able to pay for their heat and electricity this winter, much
less make their pledge payments to the church. People who are holding their breath
about the outcome of Tuesday’s election.
If we look at the root causes of the financial crisis our nation and our
world are facing, perhaps I wasn’t so far off with the title to this
sermon. It feels like some folks
for the past couple of decades have been planting ice, and now we’re the ones
harvesting nothing but wind. And if
that is our harvest, not even the gleanings will sustain us.
reasons for our current predicament, we have good reason to be anxious, to be
fearful, to feel like our very lives are hanging in the balance. That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t
it? “Our lives hang in the
balance.” What mental image do
those words conjure up for you? Do
you see yourself as some Olympic gymnast, standing on a balance beam that’s
anchored firmly to the ground, and gliding gracefully up and down it’s length,
occasionally leaning out a bit to one side or another, but able to catch
yourself before you fall off? If
you do, count yourself lucky. When
you hear that your life is hanging in the balance you might also see yourself in
the center of a teeter-totter, standing stock-still, nearly paralyzed because
you know that if you shift your weight just a little to one side or the other
it’s going to make a huge difference which way your life will go. Or perhaps you see the board as already
being wildly out of balance, tipping perilously, you yourself clinging to the
end of it by your fingernails, just barely holding on.
The image you choose when you feel like your life is hanging in the
balance depends, in large part, on whether you feel like you are in control or
not. Whether you feel powerful or
powerless. The gymnast has trained
her whole life for that moment up on the beam. She’s focused and in peak
condition. There is no place she’d
rather be. From our perspective,
all we can sense is the pressure she must be under. How much is riding on this three minutes
of her life. For her, though, these
are the moments she feels most alive.
She is in control of her own destiny, and her fate is entirely up to
her. While she may nail the landing
or she may fall flat on her face, she holds within herself the power and the
ability to succeed or fail.
Most of us
aren’t that lucky, are we? Not only
do we find ourselves standing on a beam that tips and tosses us, where we can’t
be sure it will be under us when we land, but today we find ourselves in a
situation few of us have trained for. While some of you here may recall the
impact of the Great Depression on yourselves and your families, and you’ve spent
your lives preparing for another crash, most of us grew up in the era of “onward
and upward forever.” We boomers and
Gen-Xer’s were raised to believe that each succeeding generation would be more
successful, more educated, more secure, and even wealthier than the one that
preceded it. Oh, and happier,
too. Let’s not forget our
constitutional right to happiness.
As long as we worked hard and played by the rules, someday we’d be
comfortably residing on that shady, tree-lined boulevard called “Easy
Street.” But suddenly, when we look
at our 401(k)’s (if we’re courageous enough to do so), or we look around at the
empty offices recently vacated by our friends who’ve been laid off, we realize
that we’re totally unprepared. And
we feel powerless in the face of it.
It’s not a problem of our own making, we say to ourselves, and we don’t
have the tools or the skills to dig ourselves out of the hole. So we stand paralyzed on the
teeter-totter, hoping that someone or something will come along and put some
blocks under both ends of the board before we tip off. Or we hang on and hang on as long as we
can, in hopes that someone can pull us back up or at least move a safety net
under us before our fingers give out.
And while I’m speaking in metaphor, these metaphors are a reality for
many in our community, both here at UUCDC and in the wider community of which we
are a part.
What to do,
what to do. I’ve talked to some who
spend their days obsessively watching the roller coaster of the stock market,
checking at least hourly on the progress of the international financial markets
in a desperate search for some glimmer of hope that a turnaround is in
sight. I’ve witnessed others
literally worry themselves sick about their financial situation, people who then
self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, or who withdraw from the world, and hide
under the blanket, both literally and metaphorically. Some are in denial, continuing blithely
along with their lives as if everything is just fine, thank you very much, while
others take solace in playing the “blame game,” directing their anger and their
energies to the greed of the investment bankers and brokers on Wall Street and
the politicians who promoted deregulation.
thinking long and hard about the prescription that will nurse us back to health
during these troubling times. And
as you might suspect, I have no cure for what ails the monetary markets or our
own wallets. This crisis is
real. People are losing their homes
and their jobs and I, too, share your sense of vulnerability. After all, my livelihood is directly
dependent on your good will and your ability to give generously to the
church. But I invite you to
consider this: the meltdown on Wall
Street is not simply a financial crisis.
It has created a spiritual crisis as well. When I watch the nightly news and when I
talk to members of our community about the impact of the market’s turmoil on
their lives, I see the same looks on the faces of people as I see on those who
have received a diagnosis of a terrible disease. And I hear us asking ourselves the same
questions, too: How will I provide
for my family? What will I say to
my children? What if it never gets
better? What did I do to deserve
this? How will I ever survive? These questions are cries of pain every
bit as deep and agonizing as those uttered by anyone diagnosed with cancer, Lou
Gehrig’s Disease, or some other life-threatening illness. And thus, as people of faith, we are
called to respond to them as the spiritual questions that they are.
In his latest and last book, Rev. Forrest Church talks about what it is
like to receive such a diagnosis, living and dying as he is, with cancer of the
esophagus. Church describes our
lives as a stained glass window with many panes. Each pane, he says, “looks out onto some
aspect of our life: our vocation
and avocations; our spouse or companion if we have one; our parents, our
children, our health. At any given
time,” he continues, “some of these panes are likely to be rosy and
translucent.” We’re happy in our
work. We enjoy healthy
relationships with our partner. Our
kids are loving, kind and well-behaved.
But then he asks us to imagine that one of the panes of our window
suddenly grows cloudy, then opaque.
We receive a diagnosis of disease.
Or we lose our job.
Suddenly, we can’t see any light through that pane; it’s just black. Our tendency, Church tells us, “is to
press our nose up against that one frame, desperately trying to see through
it.” Then he points out this
reality: “When we do this, we lose
all sense of proportion. Our entire
world goes black. With our nose
pressed up against the one frame we can see nothing through, all our other
lights go out.” [Forrest
Church, Love and Death, 32-33.]
This is not to say that we don’t need to attend to the pane that has gone
dark. Just as it’s important to get
treatment for our illness and to fight the disease, when we face financial
disaster we must look for a new job and strategize about how we might reallocate
our investments and reduce our living expenses. But what Church is telling us is not to
lose sight of the other panes, and the light that flows freely through
them. Our fiscal ailments don’t
impair the love we receive from our family and friends. They don’t sever the relationships that
sustain and renew us. They do not
make the sunsets any less beautiful or each day we are alive any less precious
or miraculous. We can, if we
choose, use these times of turmoil and chaos to re-order our lives and to remind
ourselves of what is most important.
As our lives hang in the balance, we can work to achieve and maintain a
spiritual balance that will help sustain us through the crisis. In so doing, we may even find that the
shaky ground on which we stand is actually holy ground.
A few moments ago I mentioned the reactions we might experience in the
face of present circumstances, especially when those circumstances have a very
real and threatening impact on our personal financial condition. Fear, anxiety, despair, anger, to name a
few. These, as well as a host of
other emotions are appropriate responses when our livelihoods and our lives are
threatened. But there is one
reaction that I want to speak to directly.
When we suffer setbacks and losses, particularly if we are in the role of
“bread-winner” for our family, we might feel guilty, and that guilt can easily
translate into shame. We’ve let
ourselves and others down. We
haven’t lived up to expectations and obligations. We’ve put our families at risk. We begin to think of how things might
have been different had we only been smarter, or more ambitious, or more
risk-conscious. We may even choose
to hide the reality of our situation from those who are closest to us: our partners, our friends, our
minister. We withdraw from our
relationships and isolate ourselves from those around us, believing that we got
ourselves into this mess and that we alone need to find a way out.
If you have this tendency, or you notice it in someone around you, I beg
you to listen closely. You are not
alone. We are here for you. I am here for you. We are all here for you. I have heard folks talk of their fear
that they won’t be able to fulfill their pledges this year, and while I hope we
make our budget, I want to make one thing absolutely and abundantly clear: Do not withdraw from this community out
of guilt or shame over your inability to pay your pledge. If you think your pledge is in jeopardy,
let us know, let me know, knowing that that will lead us into a deeper
conversation about how we might support you in your time of need. We have resources that can help you, or
we can point you in the direction of resources in the community. But most importantly, always remember
that this congregation has deep wellsprings of kindness, love and compassion
that are available to each and every one of you. Do not withdraw from us at the time you
need us most. I invite you to
join with Mark Bernstein, who expressed so eloquently his faith in our
community, when he wrote, “I believe in the power of others to help heal me as I
heal myself. I believe in the magic
of relationships and the importance of connecting with others in our minds and
in our hearts. I believe in the ability of my friends to breathe life into
me. I believe that in concert with
others, all things are possible.”
The test of any community is how it responds to its members who are most
in need. I am asking you to believe
in us, to trust in us, in the power of community, the power of this
community, to help you through whatever struggles you may be facing. As Forrest Church writes, “Whenever a trapdoor swings
or the roof caves in, don’t ask ‘Why?’
Why will get you nowhere.
The only question worth asking is ‘Where do we go from here?’ And part of the answer,” he writes,
“must be ‘together.’ Together we
kneel. Together we walk, holding
each another’s hands, holding each another up. Together we do love’s work and thereby
we are saved.” [Forrest
Church, Love and Death, 82.]
let us kneel together. Let us walk
together. Let us do love’s work
together. Let us hold each other up
and let us save one another. Today,
and every day, I ask you to stand by me.
Just as I will stand by you.
If the sky we look upon should tumble and fall, and the mountains should
crumble to the sea, I won’t cry. I
won’t cry, no I won’t shed a tear, just as long as you stand by me. Whenever you’re in trouble, won’t you
stand by me? Oh now, stand by me.
[This sermon concluded with the congregation singing the Ben E. King song, “Stand By Me." As Rev. Friedrichs read the final words he displayed a segment of video from the 10/24/08 Bill Moyers broadcast, in which Moyers profiled the producer of a new documentary entitled "Playing For Change." The clip that was played had musicians from around the
world playing "Stand By Me." (You can view the segment,
starting at 4:35 minutes.)]
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association
member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship.
Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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