Sunday, July 17, 2011

To Be of Use

(Note: The Story for All Ages and the Reading are included since these are vital to the sermon.)

Discovering Happiness
Story for All Ages

An adaptation of an Islamic Hadith by Jane Page

Long, long ago, there was an old woman who lived in a country far away. And this old woman had never been happy. She was a sour old woman and could not understand the laughter and smiles of others. Behind her back, the children called her Horrible Hag.

One day she was walking and saw a dog that was lying down panting with terrible thirst. Now she normally did not like dogs at all – but for some reason, she decided that she needed to help this dog. There was a well nearby with water, but she had no rope or bucket. So she took her long scarf – and used that for a rope – and tied her shoe to it, and got some water in the shoe. Then she walked carefully over to the dog with the shoe, dripping with water – complaining as she limped along the way about the rocks on the ground hurting her bare foot.

She lowered the shoe with the water in it to the dog, and the dog lapped it up eagerly. Then as if saying thank-you, the dog licked the woman’s foot. And the woman felt a warm feeling – and she smiled and said, “This must be what it means to be happy.” And she thought, “I just need to help others and I, too, can be happy.” So she went home to get a rope and bucket so she could give the dog more water. Then she took water to the children at play – and smiled as they grinned their thanks. They invited her to play with them and she began to laugh as she played.

The boys and girls decided they could no longer call her Horrible Hag – and instead called her Happy Hag – for you see – her name was Hagatha – and Hag was her nickname.

And THAT is how Hagatha discovered Happiness!

Reading
"To Be of Use"
by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

TO BE OF USE
Rev. Jane Page
July 17, 2011

I recently had a discussion with some of my family members regarding what to do with my body after I die. I used to be pretty clear about being an organ donor – and then being cremated. But as the probability increases that I’m going to live to be even older – and perhaps my organs won’t be that good – I’m wondering if it would be better to leave my body to the Medical College, so students can use it for practice. You know, I’m just not sure what would be the best USE of my dead body – and I’d like to be of use, even when I’m dead.

I love that poem “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy that we shared for our reading this morning. Perhaps I take it a little too far, I’ll admit that. But when the program committee decided to have folks share this summer on what “nurtures your soul – or spins your zen” – this poem and that phrase – “to be of use” immediately came to my mind.

As we common folks say: “I got it honest.” Both of my parents emphasized a strong work ethic. It never occurred to me that I would not always WORK both in and outside of the home.

My mom is 84 now – and she’s had to adjust to not being able to work in the ways she used to do. She’s had to slow down. It was hard for her at first – not to be as “productive,” but she’s adjusted pretty well now. She says she’s decided not to wait till she dies to “rest in peace.” She’s doing it now. Sometimes I call up and say – “Whatcha doing?” And she says… “I’m resting in peace.” But the other day I went by to see her and she said, “Oh, I had the most fun yesterday – and she was beaming.”

“What did you do mama?”

“Well,” she replied, “I found a needle that was big enough for me to use – with these arthritic hands, and I was able to mend some of our old spreads and quilts – and I had the best time just pulling those old quilts out and mending them – because they didn’t need to be stitched that well – and I could do it! And now we can use them again!”

My Mama was happy – because she had been “of use” in a productive way. I’m trying to convince her, though, and myself – that one can be “of use” in other ways that may not seem as productive. And we are both making progress on that! Sometimes our “work” may just be working on ourselves, working on resting so we can get better if we are sick, working on having a positive attitude and accepting things we cannot change, and working sometimes on not working.

AND, we can also “be of use” using some of our resources that we’ve achieved through our working to help others. Ah, you were not expecting a stewardship sermon today, were you? I usually share about giving our time, talents, and treasures – just once a year, when we do our annual canvass for pledges. But today I’m sharing what nurtures my soul – and giving surely does that. Like the old hag in our story, it makes me happy to help some somebody.

Of course, the opportunities are vast for sharing with others, so I have to be thoughtful about this. Thoughtful, yes – perhaps even cautious, but not too anxious. In the cover article of QUEST, the publication of UUA’s church of the Larger Fellowship, Rev. Roger Jones notes that we can actually look to the Bible for some guidance in this area. And he’s right – there is a lot in there about financial morality. So, since I’ve decided to use contemporary sacred texts as my sources of inspiration for this program year beginning in August – I’d better squeeze some goody out of this ancient text known as the Bible for you before then. Here are some goodies Rev. Jones shares in this article.

“Of the 38 parables or stories told by Jesus in the Christian Scriptures, 16 deal with the relationship between what you say you believe and how you use your money and possessions…. One out of eight (Bible) verses talks about the relationship between faith and the use of our wealth. Of the Ten Commandments, three provide instructions on how we relate to money and possessions."

Here are some other examples: "Hebrew prophets in several books condemn the oppression of the poor by the powerful, and Jewish Scripture prohibits lending money at high rates of interest, the way credit card companies and payday lenders do today. It speaks of the jubilee year – a celebration every 50 years in which land was to lie fallow, all property was returned to its original owners or their heirs, all debts were forgiven and indentured servants released. (Contrast this with debtor prisons that existed in Europe and the U.S. until the mid-19th century.) In one New Testament scene, Jesus of Nazareth praises the poor widow for her generous offering while scolding the rich donors for their pride and lack of equal sacrifice.”
(Jones, Roger. “Money, Anxiety, and Abundance.” QUEST. July/August 2011)

So, why does the Bible talk so much about money and possessions? Perhaps it’s because the number one reason for family conflict – is money!! Jones reminds us that money was a major source of family quarrels long ago and still is today. That is why we spend time in our premarital counseling sessions talking about financial priorities and habits and planning with couples about how they will handle finances in their marriages.

One of the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures and practices of the Hebrew tribe was the giving of “first fruits.” The idea is that you don’t wait till the season is over and see what’s left – you give of the first and best. Now as most of you probably know – I don’t use the Bible as an ultimate authority source. I filter these teachings like any other guidance I might get to see if it makes sense. And sometimes my pragmatic self will just see if some teaching seems to work for me! And boy, this one sure does. Thankfully, current technology makes it easy for us to make sure our gifts are, indeed, first fruits. My gifts to our congregation, as well as to the UU Service Committee and other organizations important to me, are automatically rendered soon after my paycheck enters my account. And while these “first fruits” are automatic, I share other fruits throughout the month as well. Some of these are gifts of my treasure (meaning money) and others are gifts of time and talents.

What I’ve tried to do – and what I’ve tried to encourage – is that we all give from a spirit of abundance, gratitude, and generosity rather than a spirit of scarcity. Now I’m not measuring “abundance” in the usual manner when I talk about giving from a spirit of abundance. I’m going to use a definition by Munah Fashah, the director of the Arab Education Forum. He uses the word abundant to refer to what people, the community, and culture have; i.e., to what is available to people fairly easily, if they live that abundant kind of life that lifts up and uses what is available to make life good.
(See http://www.almoultaqa.com/news_view_en.aspx?NewsId=80 )

Fashah tells an interesting personal story as an analogy. During the year 1997/1998, Fashah was a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. He had no income and his wife’s salary was not enough for them to live on. In order to survive, they had to change the way they lived and they way they consumed. He began to include dandelions in his daily diet. Yes, dandelions – that frustrating plant that we believe ruins our lawns. It’s a wild plant, abundant almost everywhere – and it just so happens that it is very rich in nutrients and every part of it is edible (the leaves, the flowers, and the roots).

Fashah’s American wife Carmen was not exactly understanding at first. She continued to dig it up as an undesirable weed and had a hard time just letting it grow in the yard for them to harvest as food. Then when she noticed him picking the leaves and eating them directly from the ground she said, “Don’t let the neighbors see you. They will think you are weird.” Fashah said the image that popped into his head when she said that was of the neighbors eating potato chips. And he said, “I see them opening shiny colorful little bags and eating something that looks weird. Who should be embarrassed: I who eat something which is natural, healthy, organic, and abundant, or they who eat something which is unnatural, unhealthy, artificial, manufactured, and costly?”

Fashah notes that our modern institutions are built around the scarcity perspective. He says, “scarcity is basic in the functioning of institutions and professionals, in a world governed by the values of control, winning, profit, greed, and elitism.” Now I’m not trying to get us to all go out and eat a Sunday dinner of dandelions today – although I am going to try them. But I think this dandelion / potato chip story does help us differentiate between the abundance perspective and the scarcity perspective.

This congregation knows something about the spirit of abundance and generosity. We are enjoying the service in this building today because a small group of hardy souls pushed their own limits of giving with faith in the possibilities of the future. And we are so grateful. Others took the risk of calling a minister (that would be me) when the operational budget would only support a third of my small half-time salary – with the other part borrowed from our savings – and with the goal and necessity of being able to fund the position from the operational budget within three years, by increasing our membership and our own gifts. And we did. We’ve continued to move forward in our financial gifts so that we can have a part time Director of Religious Education to help us provide wonderful experiences for our children and youth. And we’ve given generously of our time and talents in many community projects.

We don’t do these things from a spirit of scarcity and anxiety. Oh, in all honesty, we sometimes fall back into that place. And lately, it’s a little easier to catch ourselves moving in that direction. In today’s world, especially with today’s economy, we too often allow fear to control how we live and how we give.

But you know, we all have plenty and then some of SOME things – if not money, then perhaps other resources; our time, our talents, our hugs, our smiles, and our words of encouragement. And I have found that I even have more MONEY to give when I adopt a lifestyle of living a little more simply. And living more simply helps me to have more money to support the kinds of things (like the Farmer’s Market) that are important to me. It’s another way that I can be of use. And that nurtures my soul, spins my zen…it makes me happy and joyful! But as much as I like being happy, that should not be the reason for my giving. I’m reminded of these inspiring words of Kahil Gibran in his book The Prophet.

“There are those who give little of the much which they have - and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.
And there are those who have little and give it all.
These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.
There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.
And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.
And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.”

That line is worth repeating: “They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.”

The myrtle gives it’s fragrance naturally and freely.

Oh may WE give as the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.

Amen and Blessed Be!

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