Sunday, November 29, 2015

Stone Soup Sunday

This service was presented by Rachel Alvarez on November 29, 2015.

Reading #1:  GARDEN MEDITATION by Reverend Max Coots

Let us give thanks for a bounty of people, for children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are.

Let us give thanks for generous friends ... with hearts ... and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends, as tart as apples; for continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;

For crotchety friends, sour as rhubarb and as indestructible; for handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the others, as plain as potatoes and so good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes;

And serious friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes; for loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, but who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter.

For all these we give thanks.

Reading #2
Strange and Foolish Walls by Rev. A. Powell Davies

The years of all of us are short, our lives precarious.
Our days and nights go hurrying on and there is scarcely time to do the little that we might.
Yet we find time for bitterness, for petty treason and evasion.
What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?
Here we are -all of us- all upon this planet, bound together in a common destiny,
Living our lives between the briefness of daylight and the dark.
Kindred in this, each lighted by the same precarious, flickering flame of life, how does it happen that we are not kindred in all things else?
How strange and foolish are these walls of separation that divide us!
               At First Parish Church in Cohasset, Massachusetts, where I grew up, we had an annual tradition around the time of Thanksgiving, called Stone Soup Sunday.  The RE program would participate by acting out the legend of Stone Soup, and parishioners would contribute vegetables to the pot.  After the service, the whole congregation would enjoy a lunch of soup, prepared by the children and the RE teachers.  I always enjoyed this tradition, and it became the inspiration for today’s service, which I hope we can make an annual tradition here at the UUFHC.  At times, I feel like, as UU’s, we lack some of the ceremony and ritual that other religious denominations have, so I find it comforting to establish our own meaningful traditions.
            The story of Stone Soup can be interpreted and retold in a variety of ways, but for me, the take-away is that we, as a community, are better and stronger together than we are apart, as individuals.  As stated in the second reading, “strange and foolish walls” divide the world, as we’ve seen historically as well as in recent events, when unfortunately, we all possess unique strengths and assets that we could share with those around us, if only we could be generous, open, and caring enough to do so. 
            I would like to examine this concept from the small scale, as our congregation, and also from the large scale, as members of the global community.  In considering the small scale, I have been thinking about previous presentations by Laurie, Ashley, and Dale, in which we as a congregation are being called to come together and strengthen this fellowship, and also to consider how we can give of ourselves to others.  I found a relevant sermon, called “Covenant Power,” by Rev. Anthony Makar, which I will read from now.  In “Covenant Power,” Rev. Makar calls the members of his congregation to support one another, and take an active role in making the church community stronger and better.  He explains:
            Just like the [soldiers] in the story, Unitarian Universalism comes to us. Comes to our        village, and like the [villagers], at first we are cautious. “What? Me?” “I’m sorry, I have            nothing in the house.” Now, to be fair, this might not echo absolutely everyone’s experience. You might have grown up in some religious community and it was a good experience for you. You might have been in a place in life where you were ready again for another experience of religious community. If so, you handed over food to the stranger immediately. You already knew what was going to happen next, because you’ve been there before. And since you carried no burdens of hurt or anger, your heart was open and easy.
            For some of you, perhaps. But I suspect that for many of us, especially many people now, Unitarian Universalism came to us and we WERE cautious like those villagers. For one reason, we might have grown up unchurched, so we don’t have any first-hand experience of what we’re getting ourselves into. This is especially true with regard to being asked to make an annual financial pledge. It can take a while to understand what this means and why it’s important. Couple this lack of familiarity with what we hear about organized religion on the news—the way the news often focuses on the negative—and you bet we’re cautious. It’s no wonder it no longer works just to wait for people to find us. People who identify with no religious tradition whatsoever—don’t just show up.   We have to reach out….
            Now, maybe we did grow up in church. But what if the experience we had was not so      good? Was terrible, in fact? God is an Incredible Hulk figure to us. Religion is the last place where we seek out adventure and joy because it was always a scene of terror, no   mistakes allowed, got to toe the line and get it right or you are going to HELL! It wounded us, it hurt us. And like all wounds and hurts, our old experience plays inside us like a broken record, making it nearly impossible to hear a sound that is truly new and sweet. Making it nearly impossible to believe that religion could be anything other than brutalizing and diminishing…
            For all these reasons, and more, Unitarian Universalism comes to us, and we are cautious. What is it? Is it the same old thing as before?
            But here you are. Here we are. The story doesn’t end with caution or with the villagers      saying, “I’m sorry, I have nothing in the house right now.”
            Because what happens is that the soldiers say, “Not to worry. If we just use a few stones and if you will let me put it in a pot of boiling water I’ll make the most delicious soup in the world.” They have a vision. We can create something amazing, if we are all engaged, if we all contribute.
            The most delicious soup in the world. Not the same old thing as before, but something      truly different. That’s why we’re here. We want it! Soul food! Soul soup! Unitarian Universalist style, which tastes of fundamental sacred Mystery and many paths into the Mystery and truth about the Mystery that takes a lifetime to encounter and we are changed and changed again and it is savory, it is just the best thing, it is GOOD!
            Unitarian Universalism says we can have this, and we are curious. Can it be true? So, just like the villagers, we give into the possibility. Someone brings out a big pot filled with water, another brings out potatoes, a third adds tomatoes, then another adds onion, then comes the celery… We do this. It happens because we give our gifts, we create the common meal.   How otherwise can the most delicious soup in the world be made?
            There has to be a vision that makes all the work worthwhile. And then, there must be the power of WE to make it happen. Which is so very different from the very American emphasis on the power of ME. For some things, yes, power of ME. OK. But when you want to bring a little slice of heaven down to earth? When you want to do that? NOT power of ME. It takes power of WE. How do we channel and support the power of WE?
            This big question resounds throughout all aspects of our life together. The most obvious    case of this has to do with our theological diversity. We are atheists and we are theists in         worship together. We are atheists and theists and Buddhists and Pagans and Jews and           Christians and New Agers and star-bellied Sneetches and plain-bellied Sneetches and I- don’t-know-what-I-am-but-I–know-what-I-don’t-like and on and on and on. "Whaaaat?" says most of humanity. Whaaaat? How do we do this? How do we work this miracle?
            How do we get anything done? How does it all hang together?
            The answer is one of our Unitarian Universalist essentials. Covenant. If you open up your hymnal to the pages right before the first hymn, you will see: “WE, THE MEMBER   CONGREGATIONS OF THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION,             COVENANT TO AFFIRM AND PROMOTE?” See that? “Covenant” is a word you need to know if you are a Unitarian Universalist. It’s one of our essentials. Because it tells us how we come together and stay together, and this way is different from what you might see in many other religious communities.
            Go back to the story. The soldiers want to engage the village community in making the     most delicious soup in the world. But they don’t care what you may believe about God or the afterlife or any of the other key religious questions of life? All they want to know is, will you contribute something good to the making of the soup? Will you protect the space of our common meal? This, as opposed to such things as:
            • bringing something rotten and insisting that you have every right to add it to the pot       (freedom of speech you say! inherent worth and dignity you say!) even though it spoils             everything for everybody;
            • gossiping about what someone else brought, behind their back;
            • if you feel there’s only one way to make the soup and it’s your way, and you aren’t        getting your way, then you take your particular contribution out of the mix and go home;
            • pushing the pot over;
            • getting into fights around the pot;
            • getting so caught up in conversation about the soup that nothing actually happens about actual soup being actually made.
            What the soldiers want—what Unitarian Universalism wants—is not this. We dare not      have this, if we want to channel the power of WE in constructive, creative ways.
            Therefore, we Unitarian Universalists say that the best way for individuals to journey        together in community is through covenantalism, not creedalism. Creedalism basically says that the best way to organize as a group is everyone believing in the same things, down to the details. To this way of thinking, you can’t really have a religious identity otherwise. Identity means uniformity.
            Covenantalism, on the other hand, is when a group organizes itself around the deep           promises people make to each other about how they are going to treat each other and work together, and this leaves the details of particular beliefs to individuals themselves. Thinking alike is not the point, but loving alike is. That’s where we get religious identity from.
            The practice of covenant runs deep in our way of religion. Trace it back, for example, to    1568 and the first and only Unitarian king in history, King John Sigismund of Transylvania.  The reason why Transylvania looms large in our history is that during the 16th century and beyond, Unitarians were pretty much murdered everywhere else in Europe. Transylvania was one of the only safe zones for people like us. This is what he said, this Unitarian king: “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied….” Essentially this says that the preacher in our tradition gets to say what his or her heart moves him or her to say; the pulpit is free. But it also says that the congregant in the pew doesn’t have to swallow it; they are free too. They can agree or disagree, as their own reason and conscience and heart dictate. What gathers preacher and congregant together is not agreement on everything but respect. That is the spirit of covenantalism. That is what makes what we are doing right now work.
            Not thinking alike, but loving alike.
            The answers to questions we have about the future are unknown. But getting to the           answers I think is a lot like making soup. Promising we will all contribute something good. Promising we will protect the common space of our common meal. Don’t bring something rotten. Don’t gossip. Don’t insist that it’s my way or the highway. Don’t push the pot over. Don’t get into fights around the pot. Don’t get so caught up in talking that we never get to doing.
            Unitarian Universalism comes to us. Our congregation comes to us. All there is at first is   a stone. But if we fulfill our deep promises of respect to each other: that is how we can know we are living in the truth of our spiritual way. That is how the most delicious soup in all the world is made.
            On a more global scale, I wanted to share some thoughts from a sermon titled, “Not in Isolation,” by Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray.  She states:
            Obviously, giving is a central part of the holiday season. This is one of the most charitable times. But the story of Stone Soup is not a story of charity, but a story of common wealth, the abundance we have when we work together. The soldiers appear at first as beggars, but turn out to be wise men. They remind the people what they find when they come out of their homes, out of isolation, and raise their concerns beyond their own families, to really share and live together.
            This story is in deep contrast to so many of the stories we are told, and that we tell            ourselves, about how we are to live. Arising out of the American dream itself, we have told (and often tell ourselves) that we need to do everything for ourselves, provide everything to our children, be completely self-sufficient, self-sustainable, in need of no one. This is the success we celebrate as the American dream, money, power, and the idea that we are independent and solely self-reliant.
            Now, some of this is good--self-reliance encourages individual creativity and innovation. It fuels new ideas, new technology, new art. It is a powerful motivator. But it is also not  entirely true. When we move too far down the path of valuing the myth of isolated self-sufficiency, we are deceiving ourselves, and more than this, depriving ourselves.
            Now I’m going to add in a little side note: With the recent events in the news, and the horrifying backlash against refugees, I have been reading and hearing a lot of this rhetoric—that we need to worry about ourselves, our own people, etc., rather than open our doors to those from other corners of the globe, who are feared as threats to OUR security, when in reality, they are fleeing the same violence we also fear.  I won’t get into the politics more than that, at the moment, except to connect this current issue to Rev. Frederick-Gray’s assertion that, “We are all dependent and interdependent on one another and on the larger system.”  She continues to say,
            “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the    universe.  It is the same with our own lives. We are all dependent on one another and on our system of community. To deny the value of the ways in which our lives can be enriched by widening our understanding of independence and common wealth, and turn instead to a one-sided story of independence and self-sufficiency, leaves us hungry as a people for the riches that lie beyond money.
            Fundamentally, when we all try to each have everything we need--our own swimming       pool, TV’s for every person in the house, personal computers for each person, a playground in the each backyard--we have far more than we “need.” When we have all this we rarely have a need to go out and do things with our neighbors. Taking care of all our needs in our own private homes depletes our community’s strength. It minimizes or eliminates our relationships of sharing, socializing and depending on our neighbors.
            At the same time, it has an environmental cost -- and that cost is coming around in such a way that we are realizing we cannot solve the issues of climate change, food shortages, and water and energy issues by each person doing their part. We have to work together, locally, nationally and globally, to really address these issues.
            For my money, the key, the wisdom, the path to sustainable lives and the path to a            satisfied life is a balance: a balance between our individual dreams, desires and concerns and our attention and contribution to common life with our neighbors, our community and one another. One without the other is not sustainable. When each of us feels like we have to provide alone for all our families’ needs, the pressure is intense and we can feel like failures when we can’t do it all. Yet, without nurturing some of that spirit of independence and personal dreams, our spirits languish as well.
            Chuck Collins, and economist, an activist for the commonwealth, a Unitarian         Universalist, and an heir to the Oscar Meyer fortune, who at 26 years old gave his entire trust fund away to charity said:  “Do you build a wall of money around your life to   protect yourself, or do you invest in the commonwealth? You can't be too rigid or ideological. So you put money in a college fund and give to the United Students Association so they can work toward making tuitions lower. I want to cast my lot with everyone else I know. I would rather work for a society where people take care of each other and not one based on whether you can amass a small fortune to provide basic care. I believe you shouldn't have to be rich to have a decent life in this society." From Riches to     Responsibility: Defending the Estate Tax by Kimberly French, UUWorld. March/April 2003, (12.5.09).
            During this holiday season, let us remember our dependence on one another, and the interdependent web of existence.  We must care for one another, and remember our own vulnerabilities.  Our community, whether that be our congregation, our city, our region, our nation, or the whole world, will be stronger if we can work together and share what we have to improve the common good.  In the words of Rev. Frederick-Gray, “In this season, may we all be called out of isolation and into the common life, finding true wealth in common wealth.”

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