Suffering and Compassion: Sermon for November 6, 2011

Posted by admin on November 8, 2011 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

You know the story of Siddhartha Gautama. How, when he was born, a wise man  gave his father a prophecy that little Siddhartha would become either a great king or a great holy man. His father, knowing where the money was in that choice, determined that his son would never know suffering or want, never experience human hardship, never have any cause to turn to the ascetic life of a holy man. Siddhartha grew to adulthood without any wants in the world. He took a wife and started a family. One day, wanting to know what the world was like beyond the palace walls, Siddhartha asked his driver to take him out among the people. On that drive, for the first time in his life, Siddhartha Gautama saw an aged man, bent over with his years. “What is this?” Siddhartha asked Channa, his charioteer. “This is old age,” Channa replied.

Siddhartha realized he needed to know more. With Channa as his guide, he took more and more trips beyond the palace gates. He saw a person whose body was ravaged with disease. He saw a person’s corpse, decaying and open to the elements. He saw the thinnest man he had ever seen, and learned from Channa that this man was an ascetic, who had given up the pleasures of the world in order to become closer to the  Essence of Life. Realizing that he would never attain enlightenment by living a privileged and protected life within the palace, Siddhartha left his wife and family, his father and his hopes and dreams, and went into the world to become an ascetic himself.

Siddhartha Gautama, the man who was to become the Buddha, realized that he could not attain enlightenment or true happiness without understanding suffering. He had been given a life without want: a life of wealth, and love, and power; but he knew that the contentment he might have felt in that life was not the same as true spiritual enlightenment. For that, his journey had to take him into the human world of decline, disease and death; in other words, into the world of suffering.

We think of suffering as a bad thing. We try to avoid it when we can. But the word “to suffer” doesn’t exactly mean “to have bad things happen.” It means “to undergo.” We “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” whether that fortune be good or bad. We “suffer the little children,” at least before bedtime. From a certain point of view, simply being alive is an act of suffering, of allowing things to happen to us at a minimum, or of actively seeking out engagement with the world. The less fear we have of life, the more of life can happen to us and with us. And the more we engage with our own spirits and the world around us, the more we take the risk that the “suffering” we undergo will sometimes be “suffering” terrible things.

When I think about the sorrows and losses I have suffered in my life, one of my first thoughts is that I ought to be grateful that my life has been so blessed. And I am, because it has. I’m aware that the struggles and losses I have had are much less than some people face. My husband and I lost a pregnancy before I became pregnant with our oldest son, and nothing in my life had prepared me for the utter loss I felt during that time. More recently, I have realized how a career in ministry will mean an accumulation of losses, as people who I come to know and love in ministry will fall ill, or age, and ultimately die. I say “in ministry,” but I could say “in life.” The fact that some people face more loss or face it sooner does not mean my own losses and suffering do not have meaning for my life.

Last year, when members of our fellowship were facing long illnesses which were likely to (and did) end in their deaths, I imagined myself skimming over the surface of my sadness. I thought I had a role to occupy in the fellowship, a role which would be hindered if I allowed myself to become too sad or too moved by these women and the illnesses they faced. But finally I realized I would never be able to minister to them and their families if I maintained that attitude. The way for me to make meaning out of my suffering has been to go deeper into it, to enter the sadness like a room with shuttered windows, to allow myself to feel the pain for as long as it takes and then to become a new person again on the other side. Through experiencing this sadness and suffering I connect more genuinely to those around me, for we are united in our suffering as in nothing else.

I say “make meaning out of suffering,” and this is a tricky thing. Because while we have the capacity, as human beings, to make meaning out of our suffering–out of all the things we undergo, whether great or small–that is not the same thing as saying we are suffering for a reason. There is no reason for the suffering of humanity. Disaster is not visited upon us on purpose. It is not a message from on high; we are not “given what we can handle”; there is no cosmic plan. All of us suffer in our lives. If meaning is to come out of that suffering, it is meaning we, working within our communities create. We are free to fight against suffering, to try to avoid it in the future, and (especially) to try to create a world where fewer people suffer unnecessarily. This is also part of our task as meaning-makers. We can’t abdicate that task to a divine agent any more than we can avoid suffering altogether.

However, to say that our troubles are not visited upon us on purpose, and to affirm that we have done nothing to deserve our losses, or our illnesses, is not to say that there is no reason for why some suffer more than others in life. Very human differences and inequalities lead to differences in the difficulties of our lives. I am hesitant to bring illness into this, because I feel we in modern society have an illusion that a perfect life can yield a life free from illness, which is an illusion. But many suffer because of the station of life they are born to. Recent research has shown that intelligence quotient differences in children worldwide can often be attributed to childhood infectious disease (Sample). If an infant has to spend precious resources fighting off illness, her brain does not have the same capacity for growth and expansion as if she had been healthy. Poverty, illness, and war all visit suffering upon people unfairly, targeting some individuals and communities much more than others. These inequities are owing to humans, and it is our calling in life to make the world more fair and equal. Suffering is inevitable, but suffering is not fair. There is so much more hardship in the world than there needs to be.

For a long time, Siddhartha Gautama pursued the life of an ascetic. He ate very little, and wandered India, begging for his bread. He was a wise man, and gathered a group of seekers around him. Together they vowed to take less and less sustenance from the world, striving to end their dependence on a cycle of want, deprivation and satiation. But Siddhartha could not resist when a woman approached him with a bowl of milk, desiring to share it with him. Disgusted with his weakness, his friends left him. Siddhartha began to wonder if the path of the ascetic would lead to enlightenment after all.

Sitting under a lotus tree, Siddhartha almost dozed off in the warmth of a summer afternoon. His mind drifted back to when he had been a boy, sitting in the grass as the workers cut the grain in his father’s fields. He remembered the sound of the men calling to each other, and the buzz of the insects amidst the flowers. His mind detached from wanting and striving; and Siddhartha realized that recapturing this childhood moment, this detachment from the cycle of desire and loss, was the path to enlightenment. It was no more about starving the body than it was about stuffing the body; no more about seeking suffering than about avoiding it.

Unitarian Universalist theology has taken this discovery to heart. A few years ago, two theologians who are also women, one a Unitarian Universalist and one a Christian, wrote the book Proverbs of Ashes about the dangers of thinking we need to suffer in order to be spiritually whole. They especially took aim at what is called “atonement theology” in Christianity, which is the belief that people must suffer as Christ suffered on the cross in order to be in right relationship with God. The authors, Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima-Brock, pointed out how a theology of suffering asked people who were being abused by other people to accept their abused in the name of religion. They also pointed out that such a theology turned God into an abusive parent. They held up healthier models of relating to God within Christianity, models that affirmed human life and well-being, models that celebrated God’s love. Suffering is not a path to enlightenment.

But we must also remember where Siddhartha started, because avoidance of suffering is not a path to enlightenment either. It is not hard to see that poor people suffer more than the rich in our society. Both can lose loved ones too soon, both can fall ill, but the rich have many more resources at their disposal to avoid suffering and to cope with it. But their efforts may still be futile. The social scientist Richard Wilkinson has found that the healthiest human societies are those where the gap between the rich and the poor is small, and where cohesiveness and social capital are thick. We all prosper when we have a sense of “being in it together.” Our health and longevity comes not from the objects we acquire, or even the services to which we have access, but from our connection to our neighbor. In the United States today, where the gap between the rich and the poor is so great and so stark, we are all opening ourselves up to greater suffering. Neither Siddhartha the pampered prince nor Siddhartha the ascetic found enlightenment. Once Siddhartha embarked upon the middle way, seeking connection to his fellow beings, he became the Buddha.

So how do you make meaning out of your life? How do you understand the losses and struggles you have suffered through? I liked the invitation in our reading this morning, by the late Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church. Church invites us to consider what we would put in a time capsule for the children we love today to open in 100 years. What of our lives would we bequeath to them? We could give them money, or the shares of stock, or the secret to financial success, if we have it. But would that really be the best of us? What if we could give them the sense of being loved? What if we gave them the compassion we have learned to have for ourselves and others? We could give them a memory of time shared with people we love. We could give them their own memories of our embrace. We could bequeath to them the meaning we have learned to make in our own lives, in the hopes that it will help them and their grandchildren make meaning of their own. These are the things that sustain us in this life and which will carry us forward into the deep. Our children, and our children’s children, will no more be able to avoid suffering than we have. Our greatest gift to them can be the love we have known which carried us through, in the hopes that their own hearts will open wider than ours ever could.

Sources

Church, Forrest. Lifecraft: The Art of Meaning in the Everyday. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Nakashima-Brock, Rita and Rebecca Parker. Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

Sample, Ian. “Lower IQs found in disease-rife countries, scientists claim.” The Guardian.  29 June 2010, online ed., main sec.: 13. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/jun/30/disease-rife-countries-low-iqs.

Wilkinson, Richard G. Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Is There Room at the Table for the People Who Grow Our Food?: Sermon for October 16, 2011

Posted by admin on October 26, 2011 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

If I can start with a little plug for the Fundraising Committee, which has just been doing an excellent job for our fellowship, one of the things you will be able to bid on in our spring service auction will be a sermon topic of your choice. I offer this item every year. Last spring, Joe Kelaghan won the sermon topic. He knew right away what he wanted me to preach on. Joe is a man who puts his values into action.

Joe asked me to preach a sermon which the Rev. Rob Hardies, minister of All Souls UU Church in Washington, had suggested but never had the chance to preach, and it had the same title as this sermon: Is There Room at the Table for the People Who Grow Our Food? Joe takes ethical eating seriously as a vegan, and he is also concerned with the human workers who grow, harvest and process the food we eat.

He tells a story about being in Traverse City, Michigan with his spouse Thad at a family wedding in a vineyard. It was late in the season; the grapes had all been harvested from the vines. No workers were in sight. But for all the homage paid to the beauty of nature and the setting, and all the enjoyment of the food afterward, no mention was made of the human laborers who must have harvested the grapes for the wine and all the food the party enjoyed that day.

The workers who grow and harvest our food are largely invisible. Up here in rural New Hampshire, we are fortunate to have easy access to family farms where we can (if we are willing to pay a premium) buy food grown and harvested by our neighbors. However, even if we choose that option (and we recognize that not everyone can pay the higher prices), we can’t eat New Hampshire-grown vegetables year round. At some point all of us participate in an unfair labor market for getting the food we eat.

How unfair? Take the example of tomatoes. Most of the tomatoes eaten in America are grown in south Florida, on the border of the Everglades, in a climate and location completely unsuited to the growing of tomatoes. The environmental and food safety travesties aren’t our focus here, though, so let’s just consider the workers. Tomatoes, unlike many crops, must be picked by hand. In the name of keeping tomato costs low, some growers have actually enslaved their Central American pickers to force them to pick tomatoes. By 2010, nine slavery cases had been brought against Florida tomato growers for the way they treated their laborers, including forcing them, on pain of physical punishment, to work all day for very little pay, and not allowing escape (Coalition).

The Florida tomato pickers, through a collective bargaining and rights organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, named after the region of Florida which is the hub of tomato production, has recently won rights for tomato pickers. The tomato buyers, such as Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell and KFC restaurants; Burger King; Subway; McDonald’s; and food service providers such as Sodexho and Aramark; have agreed to support an additional penny per pound in the cost of tomatoes, which is to be passed on to the workers. They have also agreed to buy only from growers which promise to afford their workers basic human dignities like taking breaks twice a day in the shade,  a time clock to ensure they are paid for all the hours they work, and being allowed to use the toilet.

However, one major sector of tomato buyers has refused to sign on to the Immokalee agreement: grocery stores. Wal-Mart, Kroger, Publix and even Trader Joe’s have all refused to sign. In a statement, Trader Joe’s said that its refusal to sign stemmed from the technical language of the agreement and not from the substance of more rights for tomato pickers. Of course, that technical language did not stand in the way for major fast food chains and food service providers. Trader Joe’s is a haven for liberal, urban grocery shoppers, but here they are, taking a hard line on fair practices in labor in order to protect their prices and their competitive edge. When it comes to tomatoes, shoppers would be doing more to support workers’ rights by eating at Burger King or McDonald’s than by shopping at Trader Joe’s. The tomato example shows how hard it is, as individuals, to use our purchasing power to influence the greater good. The path from the food in the ground, through the grocery store, to our table is circuitous and far-removed from us. So are the lives of those who grow and harvest it.

Migrant workers are laborers who travel from state to state following the harvest, picking fruits and vegetables for our grocery stores and restaurants. The readings we heard this morning, one a prayer by Cesar Chavez and one an essay by an 11-year-old migrant worker, date from the 1970s, when Chavez’s United Farmworkers Unoin successfully protested the terrible working conditions on California’s large farms. Yet thee conditions persist today, partly because of a surplus of labor owing to immigration, both legal and illegal. According to a 2000 survey by the Department of Labor, among migrant workers today:

  • 88 percent are men, many of them in the U.S. on their own so that they can send money back to families in their home countries.
  • 55 percent are married. Of those, 71 percent are not living with their spouses.
  • Their mean age is 31. Many start the migrant life in their early 20s and return to their home countries within a few years to live in the homes that were built with U.S. money. “They may return to the United States several more times before they are too old to work such hard jobs.
  • They have a sixth-grade education, on average.
  • 93 percent are foreign-born, up from 88 percent 10 years ago.
  • 65 percent are here illegally, up from 62 percent 10 years ago (“Migrant”).

Migrant workers used to be Americans–think of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. But when hiring Americans came to mean  dealing with a unionized labor force in the 1970s and 1980s, employers and owners were happy to turn to illegal immigrants desperate for a better way of life.

One of the arguments against mass deportation of illegal immigrants is that such a move would cripple our economy, depriving many industries of the labor they rely on. Arizona businesses have pushed back against that state’s efforts to pass ever stricter immigration laws which would imprison undocumented workers. It’s why immigration laws like the one Alabama has just enacted are so insidious, laws which make it illegal for undocumented workers to seek basic services, and which even pressure children who are American citizens to out their parents as undocumented immigrants to the schools. Laws like these threaten to create a permanent underclass of workers here outside the law, not forced to leave, not welcomed in, and not allowed to participate in the basic goods and right of our society.

Or perhaps this underclass already exists. Although the people occupying it have changed, the existence of a group of poorly treated people who pick our agriculture has always been with us. In the colonial era they were indentured servants. In the early decades of our nation they were African American slaves. Then they were sharecroppers like the Joads, strapped to the land by crushing debt. Now they are illegal immigrants. We have never wanted to create the society necessary to pay agricultural workers a living wage.

Joe Kelaghan, in talking to me about this sermon, told the story of getting pizza at a pizzeria in Norway during a vacation once. The restaurant wasn’t fancy, just a place to grab a pizza and a beer. It wasn’t that much different from Pizza Hut. The big difference was that the pizza cost $40 and the beer $15. Norway has organized its economy so that the workers all along the line of the pizza’s creation are paid a living wage. And they’ve put social safety nets into place to help those in need buy food–even if those in need can’t go out to eat pizza. In such a system, local farms would be more competitive, and home gardening might become more attractive. Our economic system, in which food subsidies for the poor are meager and the gap between the rich and the poor is vast, relies upon labor so cheap it is almost free to tend, pick and often serve our food.

We sing a hymn which begins, “Earth was given as a garden…” In the ancient myth of the garden of Eden, told two ways in the Hebrew Bible, the first humans are given the earth to tend and work. God gives them instructions: in one version of the story, God says, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food (Gen. 1:29).” Even after Adam and Eve have been expelled from the garden, God cures Adam with working the land by the sweat of his brow. Neither in paradise or out of it, in this founding myth of Judaism and Christianity, are people given the fruits of the earth by the labor of other hands. Buddhism exhorts us to recognize the sacred nature in all living things, and certainly in other people. Islam demands fair treatment of members of the community, one of the most sacred concepts of that faith. All the world’s major religions demand fair treatment of one another and stewardship of the Earth’s resources.

These are hard questions, but our commitments as Unitarian Universalists require us to grapple with them. Part of what we affirm as Unitarian Universalists is the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Having inherent worth and dignity means that a person should not be condemned because of the honest work which occupies her days. The right of the democratic process means workers should have the right to organize and work together for greater justice in the workplace. Honoring the interdependent web of all existence means that we acknowledge how we are tied to migrant workers in American fields, even if we have never done that work; even if we never know them; even if they are Central American; even if they have come to this country illegally. Our Unitarian Universalism requires us to see in these workers a common humanity with us, a common human spirit and dignity which cannot be bartered away. May we work toward a social system where the labor of all is given fair value.

Please join me in a Blessing Prayer, used by the National Farm Worker Ministry.

Bless the hands of the people of the earth,
The hands that plant the seed,
The hands that bind the harvest,
The hands that carry the burden of life.

Soften the hands of the oppressor and
Strengthen the hands of the oppressed.

Bless the hands of the workers,
Bless the hands of those in power above them
That the measure they deal will be tempered
With justice and compassion. Amen.

Sources

All Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

“Blessing Prayer.” National Farm Worker Ministry. Accessed 15 Oct. 2011. http://nfwm.org/education-center/worship-resources/prayers/.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers. “CIW Anti-Slavery Campaign.” Accessed 14 Oct. 2011. http://www.ciw-online.org/slavery.html.

“Migrant Labor in the United States.” Politics and Economy: On the Border. Now. 28 May 2004. Public Broadcasting System. Accessed 14 Oct. 2011. http://www.pbs.org/now/politics/migrants.html.

Forgiveness: Sermon for October 9, 2011

Posted by admin on under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Coming about a week after Rosh Ha’shanah, the New Year celebration, it bookends the beginning of a new sacred year and a new reading of the Torah in synagogue. Rosh Ha’shanah is a day of celebration and good wishes for a new year. Yom Kippur, by contrast, is much more sober. During the week between Rosh Ha’shanah and Yom Kippur, faithful Jews are supposed to find a chance to talk to anyone they have wronged in the past year and ask forgiveness. Finally, during the Yom Kippur service, worshipers say a prayer titled “Kol Nidre,” meaning, “All vows.” The prayer releases them from vows they may make to God in the coming year which they will not be able to keep. It reads:

All vows, obligations, oaths, and anathemas
which we may vow, swear, or pledge, or whereby we
may be bound, from this Yom Kippur until the next
(whose happy coming we await), we do repent.
May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and
void, and made of no effect;
they shall not bind us nor have power over us.
The vows shall not be reckoned vows;
the obligations shall not be obligatory;
nor the oaths be oaths (Craughwell 95).

It may seem unusual to ask ahead of time for vows to God to be annulled (and this prayer only applies to vows made to God, not those made to other people.) But the Jewish people have often found themselves living under the rule of hostile religions and regimes; Jewish people and communities have often been faced with a coerced choice between forced conversion and slaughter. This prayer is an up-front agreement with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that any such vows made to foreign gods or ways of worship will be annulled even as they take place. It has allowed the Jewish community to stay whole even in the face of terrible persecution.

In modern times, Yom Kippur has become a time focused more on interpersonal forgiveness. The Jewish tradition asks us: how can we come into sacred community together for a new year if we have not torn down the barriers between us? A member here asked me last summer if I would consider a sermon on forgiveness, and I realized that even though I have preached on forgiveness before, I could certainly do it again. Indeed, there are probably a few topics which all sermons could be about: love each other, the importance of human compassion and kindness, the role of imagination and acceptance of diversity in religion–and forgiveness would be high on that list. We are all failing to live up to our expectations for how we will treat each other, all the time.

The moral weight of forgiveness does not rest only on our interpersonal reactions. The Jewish tradition, which sets such a high bar for the righting of personal relationships, also requires an economic forgiveness when debts become too big. We heard a passage from the Torah this morning, specifically from the revision of Jewish law adopted in 622 BCE under King Josiah. The “sabbath year,” observed one year out of every seven, had already existed, and had involved clemency toward strangers and allowing the land to lie fallow.

But in this revision, the seventh year came to be a time for the forgiveness of monetary debt, as well. Debts could be held and interest collected for seven years–but then, in the seventh year, the debt was to be forgiven. This law probably did not cover debts to foreigners, but only debts within a small and tightly-knit community (Atwood 48). The law even specifies that creditors should not become reluctant to lend as the seventh year approaches. It’s so different from how our society handles money, it’s hard to imagine how the Deuteronomic system even worked.

Really, though, is our system working so well? Before and during the housing meltdown, there was a lot of handwringing among commentators and civic leaders about the high levels of household debt in the United States. By 2009, the ratio of debt to household wealth in the U.S. had reached 65%–households in America owed more than half their collective wealth to others. Why had so many people spent beyond their means, our leaders asked. What can we do about it?

The government tried to help homeowners who were struggling with mortgages worth more than the houses they had helped to buy with the TARP program. This program, with the hopes of many riding on it, has failed to help very many Americans because families needed to be pretty financially healthy to participate in it, and banks were reluctant to work with even those families. We heard the phrase “moral hazard” a lot, both in relation to banks which had become “too big to fail,” but also in reference to American households which had borrowed more than they could afford to pay. “Writing down the loan principal for homeowners underwater on their mortgages creates a moral hazard,” a commentator might say. People not stuck in such a situation nodded wisely.

A countering voice among us says that the moral hazard lies in allowing the gap between the wealthy and the poor, between the employed and the unemployed, between the debtors and the creditors to yaw so wide we cannot cross it. Margaret Atwood, in her essays for Radio Canada on indebtedness of all kinds, writes about the danger of overburdening the people, which has often taken the form of overtaxation. She gives the example of the 1381 rebellion in England, started by a poll tax intended to raise war funds, and to return the poor to serfdom at a time when the Black Death had killed many agricultural laborers in England and made the value of their labor much higher than the king intended to give them through a feudal system. Atwood writes, “[The rebels] did kill some people before being defeated and executed in horrible ways, but they mainly assaulted the tax collectors and burnt their records. Without memory there is no debt, and a written record is a form of memory; and whenever there’s been a tax-and-debt-inspired uprising, one of the prime targets has been the tax and debt records (141-42).”

In our country, we are not perhaps having the taxes ground out of us to enrich the government. Many in our country are, however, having debt payments ground out of them to enrich the already wealthy. And even though the bottom 40% of earners in the United States don’t pay income tax, they do pay payroll taxes, property taxes and (in most places) sales taxes. These taxes don’t necessarily fund the programs they would like to receive in return. Movements like Occupy Wall Street, and even the phenomenon of people walking away from mortgages they can no longer afford, are a kind of debt uprising. We might even put the Tea Party in this category, although it is calling for less taxation and fewer services, instead of redistributed taxation and more services and fairness. These popular movements demand a fundamental change in how money moves around our economic and political systems. It demands an end to the outrageous level of indebtedness required of so many people who want to get an education, live in a house or receive medical care.

Our financial world is a world without forgiveness. Debts live as long as we do. Some can be traded through a process called bankruptcy, in which a family discharges its debts (ideally while keeping the home they live in) in exchange for a very poor credit rating for seven years. (There’s the seven years again, moving across space and time from ancient Hebrew law to ours.) The credit rating might keep them from borrowing any more, but could also interfere with trying to rent a new home or get a better job, so it’s a serious trade to consider. Student loans cannot be discharged even through bankruptcy. We are fortunate that debts do not follow us after death: creditors may try to get repayment out of the estate of a deceased relative, but they cannot come to us unless we co-signed on the loan. People no longer have to go to debtor’s prison, although we could argue about whether poverty drives our hugely increasing prison population. In financial terms, there is very little forgiveness.

So where does that leave us with interpersonal forgiveness? It’s strange to me that we live in a world that suggests that it is better to forgive than to bear a grudge forever when we’re talking about interpersonal, emotional relationships, but not when we’re talking about money. Which way is better? Sometimes it’s easy to forgive someone, because the thing they did that upset you is something you are able to get over. Your friend forgets the date you had planned and leaves you high and dry. You loan something precious to your cousin and it is lost; even if she offers to pay for it, she can’t quite make it up to you. We have to forgive these slights as a matter of course just to get through our lives with other people. They may let us down sometimes, but they are there to support us and help us at other times. Besides, we are all guilty of letting people down ourselves. We all require forgiveness from time to time.

However, there are those events in life that are not so easy to forgive. There are transgressions that violate the basic rules of the relationship we have with others. The unfaithful spouse. The parent who doesn’t do right by us when we are children. The friend who lets us down or betrays us in our hour of need. A friend recently pointed out to me that what we ask, again and again, when faced with these betrayals is “Why?” We want to know how our trust could have been so broken. But the answer, my friend said, is that even the person whom we need to forgive does not know how to answer our “why.” Our relationship with them is only one part of who they are, and they weren’t paying attention to that relationship when they violated it. Who they are is more multifaceted than we had known it to be–they are, in fact, a different person than we thought they were. We had trusted them beyond their ability to commit.

This does not make betrayal less painful. But it does present us with questions we might be able to answer, unlike that anguished “why.” One question is: knowing what we know now about who our loved one is, can we rebuild a relationship with that person? Can we accept them as a more broken person than we knew them to be? Can we recognize our own brokenness, and the ways in which we need to be understood by them? Are they still a person we can love and trust? Many times, the answer to this question is “no”; the betrayal was too deep or the potential for future pain too great. But even if we decide to break it off with someone who wounded us, another question remains.

This question is: whether or not we can enter into relationship with the person again, can we let the pain and resentment of their hurt go from our hearts? For a while after trust is broken, hurt is an unavoidable response. But there can come a point where we hold on to our hurt in the place of the relationship we used to have. That relationship has been broken and we’re not sure it can exist anymore; and in its familiar place, close to our heart, we have this hurt. Too often, we cherish the hurt instead of looking for new relationships, whether with the same person or with someone else. The naked truth about forgiveness is that it’s not for the other person at all. It’s a task to be done for our own spiritual health, to open us up to enriching relationships with other people and move beyond our own suffering.

In the United States, this is the question we face with regard to the staggering debt and unemployment so many Americans face. Regardless of the mistakes those Americans made that got them where they are today–and regardless of the mistakes our society made that created a staggering gulf between the rich and the poor–can we repair our community to allow human relationships to flourish again? Can we do the work that would take, even if it will benefit ordinary Americans along with major corporations? Even if we are people who have held onto our jobs and kept up with our mortgage payments, I believe we would be a stronger country if we found it in our hearts to create structural change for our neighbors who are less well-off. Our neighbors create our communities with us, and they and their children will be our help and support in the future. The same forgiveness we try to find in our hearts should be what we search for as a country.

As we come together in prayer, I invite you to join hands.

Feel the warmth and the grasp of the hand in yours. Picture the face of your neighbor. This person–whatever the color of their skin, whatever the gender of their spouse, whatever job they have or have had, however much money they have–this person is your fellow and neighbor in this fellowship and in our community. Feel your common humanity together.

Together, as a community, help us support one another and have compassion toward each other. Help us come to each other with a simple heart when we need to forgive and when we need forgiveness. Help us to see that the path we walk on must be broad enough for all our brothers and sisters together.

If we have wronged someone, give us the strength to ask forgiveness. If we have been wronged, give us the clarity to let go of endless hurt and anger. May the spirit of this community be with us as we build relationships founded on honesty and loving-kindness. Amen.

Sources

Atwood, Margaret. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Toronto: Harper, 2008.

“Kol Nidre (All Vows).” Every Eye Beholds You: A World Treasury of Prayer. Ed. Thomas J. Craughwell. New York: Harcourt, 1998. 95.

Money Talks: Sermon from May 30, 2010

Posted by admin on June 8, 2010 under Uncategorized | Comments are off for this article

The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

Sometimes it seems like it’s hard to see clear examples of classism.  We try to avoid looking at the markers of class, try to pretend that differences in class don’t exist, that while there may be poor people or rich people “out there,” everyone we know is just like us.  But class differences are all around us, and we confront them at a personal level and a societal level all the time.  We confront a diversity of family incomes and personal financial backgrounds in this congregation alone.  Apart from diversity of belief, diversity of class may be the way in which Starr King Fellowship is most diverse, but we may not even be aware of all the differences among us.  Class differences can be covered up and ignored if we wish to.

As you probably know if you have been reading, watching or listening to the news at all lately, New Hampshire’s legislature has been working to close a budget gap of nearly 300 million dollars (Fahey).  Our state makes almost all of its money from a very few sources.  We pay property taxes to the state–all of us, since those of us who rent have landlords who pay property tax, and landlords presumably pass that cost on in rent.  If you’re a business owner, you pay taxes on your real business property as well.  Individuals can be subject to an interest and dividends tax.  There’s a rooms and meals tax, a gasoline tax, and a business income tax.  The current budget is trying to extend the business income tax to limited liability corporations.  The state liquor stores make money off the sale of wine and the exclusive sale of hard liquor.  There are fees on everything–fees for parks, for hunting licenses, for car registration.  We don’t have sales tax or a personal income tax.

Much of the budget gap has been closed with cuts and new revenue sources in the tens of millions.  Services will be cut by thirty-two million dollars.  The state will seek private development of the rest areas off I-93 in Hooksett in order to bring in more revenue.  The government will sell bonds and sell some other pieces of property .  The two biggest items, however, which could have brought in more revenue, are the most controversial: an income tax and expanded gambling (Fahey).

I’m not going to talk about an income tax this morning.  I support a broad-based, progressive, fair tax structure for our state, and I personally would be willing to pay more in taxes in exchange for more services from the government.  But the possibility of a new broad-based tax is far from the legislature’s mind and will right now, in part because they have been seduced by another possibility: expanded gambling.

It took me a while to figure out what I thought about expanded gambling.  Then I had a personal moment where I came face to face with my own classism, and I began to figure it out.  I was stopping in the convenience store at one of the gas stations on Holderness Road, by the entrance to the freeway.  Standing in line to buy my drink, I saw two women come in, talking to each other about what they were making for dinner.  I made two assumptions about them right away, as soon as I saw them and heard their conversation: they were coming from office jobs (judging from their clothes) and they were native New Englanders (judging from their accents).  Then they headed to the lottery ticket side of the counter, and I added one more assumption: unlike me, in my enlightened state, they didn’t understand the futility of the lottery.

Not entirely futile, as it turns out: one of the women had won 40 dollars on a scratch ticket, and had it with her to turn in for her prize.  She didn’t even take the money from the clerk.  She waved him off when he reached to open the cash drawer and used her winnings to buy more lottery tickets instead.  I couldn’t believe it.  Forty dollars!  Once you’ve won forty dollars on the lottery, you should stop playing forever.  It will never get better than that.  I began to think of all the things I could do with forty dollars, paid for my soda, and left the store feeling very self-righteous.

It didn’t take long to deflate that sense of righteous indignation.  I told the story to my husband that night, and I began to think out loud about what I would do if I won forty dollars.  Let’s assume that I don’t need to spend it on necessities like housing or food.  I might buy a book or two.  I might buy a board game.  I might go out to eat.  I might buy yarn for a knitting project.  In other words, I would spend it on entertainment.  I assume the woman in the convenience store didn’t need the forty dollars for necessities, either.  I had already made the assumption that she had a job she was coming home from, and she didn’t hesitate to spend her winnings on more tickets.  So it stands to reason that I should see her lottery purchase in the same way I would see my own purchases: entertainment.  She had forty dollars to spend, and she spent them having a good time.  Who am I to judge what she does with her entertainment dollar?

Now, as entertainment goes, it doesn’t matter to me if one person spends her money on yarn and another spends it on lottery tickets.  Learning this has been part of getting rid of one piece of my class blinkers.  It is easy to deride the choices of different groups simply because they are not the same as our choices.  More lower-income people play the lottery than higher-income people.  This doesn’t mean that I should look down my nose at options other people choose.

That is not to say that there are not problems with gambling.  The kind of gambling New Hampshire already has–a state-run lottery, horse-racing, and bingo–and the type that senators, especially Senator Lou D’Allessandro, are proposing to close the budget gap–video slot machines–are favored by poorer people.  In addition, video slot machines prey especially on lower-income groups.  Video slot machines are more likely than other forms of gambling to promote addiction, and, according to a study on the relationship between demography and gambling addiction, disadvantaged neighborhoods are ten times more likely to experience gambling addiction than wealthy neighborhoods.  In the poorest, most disadvantaged neighborhoods the researchers studied, ten percent of the residents were found to be problem or pathological gamblers, compared with less than one percent in the richest, most advantaged neighborhoods (Welte 418).  This same study found that a person’s chance of being a problem or pathological gambler was more than twice as high if a casino was located within ten miles of his or her home (419).

Still, as a society, we condone making some forms of discretionary behavior available to everyone, even though a minority abuses those behaviors.  Alcohol and cigarettes are legal, for instance–and much like the proposed expanded gambling, the state regulates and benefits from the sale of liquor and wine, and taxes the sale of cigarettes.  Coffee, a substance much more addictive than alcohol (although much less harmful in its addiction), is not only legal–we build temples to it on street corners all over the country.  Non-addictive, but potentially dangerous, activities are also legal: riding motorcycles, using chainsaws, climbing Mount Washington, hunting, eating raw fish, even driving a car.  So it’s clearly not in the state’s interest to ban all potentially addictive or all potentially dangerous behavior.

The difference here is that Senator D’Allessandro and others are proposing to balance the state’s budget on the back of expanded gambling.  Instead of considering a broad-based tax, whether a progressive tax like income tax or a regressive one like sales tax, expanded gambling would create a tax base dependent on compulsive and addictive behavior, used more by poor people than by rich people.  Our state, the place where we all live and contribute to the welfare of the whole, would be saying that it was willing to finance its shortfall on the backs of the poor and the addicted.  This would be in addition to the thirty million dollars in cuts already made to state services, including the Department of Children, Youth and Families and the state child care subsidy.  My yarn and my books–the ways I spend my entertainment dollars–would continue to go untaxed.  As a non-gambler, I would not be asked to make any greater contribution to the state’s welfare than I do now.

Understanding the dangers of expanded gambling asks us to look at class difference clearly and without prejudice.  It is easier than ever for households to acquire the trappings of a middle-class life.  Consumer goods once thought to be luxuries, like DVD players (or even televisions), cable service, and electronic gadgets of all kinds are now easier and easier to purchase.  Ironically, these “luxuries” are priced within reach of people living on a tight budget–or perhaps, are priced within the credit limits of their credit cards.  These consumer goods make poorer people feel like they are part of the next class up, part of the America they see represented in commercials.  They allow many people to “pass” as a member of a higher income bracket than they are.

In the meantime, investments in a secure future and a future for one’s children are increasingly out of reach.  In 1960, minimum wage was one dollar per hour, or two thousand dollars per year (U.S.).  A color TV cost $500, or 3 months’ wages (Genova). In-state tuition at University of Minnesota was $213 per year, or only 1.2 months’ wages (“University”).  (I’m using the University of Minnesota as an example of a state university because their tuition information is available on-line.)

In 2009, minimum wage was $7.25 per hour, or $14,500 per year (U.S.).  A LCD HDTV, a state-of-the-art TV comparable to a color TV in 1960, still costs about $500, or two weeks’ wages. In-state tuition at the University of Minnesota, however, has risen to $10,320 per year,  or two-thirds of a minimum wage worker’s gross annual salary (”University”).

When I preached on class a year and a half ago, I framed this problem in terms of a society that did not reward frugality and good choices.  But now I see our problems go beyond that.  A person used to be able to pay for college with a summer job; now it takes debt and the sacrifice of an entire family for one person to get an education.  Consumer culture is built on the idea that you can get what you want.  Credit is easy and toys are cheap.  Businesses don’t profit if people say to themselves, “Nah, I can’t afford that.”  But our state is not in the business of making a profit.  Our state ought to represent the best interests of the people who live here, rich and poor alike.

We must recognize that whatever a person’s standard of living looks like from the outside, there are real differences of means between the lowest and highest earners in our society.  For high earners, college for one’s children is a foregone conclusion, and gambling is likely to be an occasional entertainment.  For low earners, valuable goods like college may be completely out of reach, and gambling may be seen as a form of investment, however unlikely the payout.  We cannot, as a state, balance our budget on the backs of the least fortunate among us.  Gambling as entertainment is a personal choice.  Gambling as public policy is predatory and unfair.  We owe ourselves better than that.

Please join me in prayer.

Our hearts are charged with the spirit.  We reach out in thought, and love and warmth to those around us, sharing our spirit with others.  Together, we extend the spirit of this community beyond these walls and out into the world.

We ask for the courage to see those struggling in poverty as our kindred, not as a nameless “other,” but as brothers and sisters to our own hearts.  We ask for help with our own financial worries and struggles, that we may be freed from the cycle of want and debt, and that we may find the means to pay for the necessities and investments in our lives.  We ask for a spirit of generosity, that we may give out of our abundance of wealth or spirit to those who have less.  We ask for strength as we continue our various works for justice and equality in our communities.

We ask the leaders of our nation and our state to feel this same compassion when they exercise their power and make choices for us all.  We ask that the fire in our own hearts burn brightly for justice, helping us to do our civic duty.  We ask that they, and we, have strength to remember our sacred calling: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Eternal.

We ask that this community remain united in its zeal for justice beyond the divisions of politics.  Let us work together in common cause for the good of all the people in our community, our country, and our earth.  Many things seek to divide us: politics, class, race and geography.  May we ever seek to overcome these divisions and live as a more complete humanity together.  Amen.

Sources

Fahey, Tom.  “Deadline Approaches for Budget Negotiators.”  Unionleader.com.  26 May 2010.    Accessed 28 May 2010.  http://www.theunionleader.com/article.aspx?headline=Deadline+approaches+for+budget+negotiators&articleId=da82e104-8240-48dd-b9ef-1b407ecacb05.

Genova, Tom.  “TV Selling Prices.”  Television History–The First 75 Years.  Accessed 29 May 2010.  http://www.tvhistory.tv/tv-prices.htm.

U. S. Department of Labor.  “Federal Minimum Wage Rates, 1955-2009.”  Infoplease.  Pearson Education.  Accessed 29 May 2010.  http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0774473.html.

“University of Minnesota Annual Tuition Rates: 1960-61 to 2009-10: Twin Cities Campus.”  University of Minnesota, Office of Institutional Research.  22 July 2009.  Accessed 29 May 2010.  http://www.irr.umn.edu/tuition/.

Welte, John W., et. al.  “The Relationship of Ecological and Geographic Factors to Gambling Behavior and Pathology.”  Journal of Gambling Studies 20.4 (2004): 405-423.

Giving Gifts: Sermon for December 20, 2009

Posted by admin on December 22, 2009 under Uncategorized | Comments are off for this article

Economics is called the “dismal science,” and while I like economics news, every once in a while it deserves its reputation. I heard on the radio a week or two ago a report on the economy of gift-giving. The economist, Joel Waldfogel, has written a book titled Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays. In his book (and in the interview) he argued that people never value gifts as much as the giver does in paying for them. In fact, there’s a loss of value of about twenty percent in the process of giving a gift. In other words, if I give my husband a twenty dollar book for Christmas (and politely cover up the price on the dust jacket), and then you asked him how much he would pay for that same book, he would, on average, say sixteen dollars. This seems to be true across the board, regardless of the price of the gift. So don’t give gifts, Waldfogel advises. Give cash instead (Waldfogel).

Dismal. It’s the delight of gift-giving reduced to barest economic utility and efficiency. But Waldfogel does have a point. Last year, during the depths of the worst recession in America since the Great Depression, the average American spent $616 on gifts. This was a disaster for the retail sector, because $616 spent per person represented a 3.4 percent decline over 2007. Forecasts are mixed for this year. A Gallup poll found that people plan to spend slightly more this year, $638, on holiday gifts. However, the Conference Board, a non-profit marketplace think-tank, estimates that American households will spend an average of $390 on gifts this year, down from last year’s average of $418 per household (Adams). Any dip in American spending–really, any delay in returning to pre-recession levels of spending–is disastrous for our economy, which is driven by consumerism. The spiritual gifts of this season, like spending time with family, enjoying good food and good songs, and maintaining our families’ financial security, do nothing to keep the engine of the economy moving along. For the marketplace, it’s all about the dollars.

Now, the author Waldfogel probably does not hate the holidays. His economic wake-up is trying to get us Americans to examine the value of all that gift-giving. It runs the economy! It’s part of the season! But it doesn’t make your loved ones as happy as you think it will. If you have turned on your television during the past month, or gone out in public at all, you have been bombarded with marketers trying to get you to buy, buy, buy for the holidays. Some things are not as expensive as you think, according to advertisements for discount retailer Target. Other retailers try to convince us that some things are worth the splurge, like a new car or diamonds. If you believed your television, overspending on gifts is what the holidays are made out of.

Wise families know this is not true. Marketplace, the same radio show where I heard Waldfogel interviewed, has also featured a family who have paid off $100,000 in debt over the past five years. The Hildebrandts have won the Professional Achievement and Counseling Excellence 2009 Graduate of the Year Award for their work in finding financial stability for their family. They had $89,000 in credit card debt and another $17,000 in a car loan. Their debt came from a combination of unnecessary spending and medical bills. To pay it off, Russell Hildebrandt, an industrial chemist, took a second job as a janitor. His wife, Kandy, took on all the management of their home, on a tight budget and with one car for the family of five (Kroll). They continued to give Christmas gifts to their children, although not to each other or other family members. They continued to tithe to their church. Now, the family is debt-free except for a mortgage on their three-bedroom home. They say that they continue to spend less, buy fewer things and buy things used, even at Christmastime. The quick high that spending brings cannot compete with the good feeling of being debt-free. This Christmas, even though they could afford more gifts, Russell says that the thing he looks forward to the most is spending time with his family without being exhausted, a luxury he did not have when he worked two jobs (Hildebrandt). The Hildebrandts have learned that the riches of the season are not found in any store or bought at any price, but are at home, with family and friends.

Still, I can’t help but think with dismay on some of Waldfogel’s holiday economics. He places a value on gifts according to what the giver spent on them, and on what the receiver would spend on the same item with his or her own money. He says studies show that twenty percent of the item’s value is lost between those two figures. He admitted freely on the radio that economics cannot place a value on the simple act of giving and receiving a gift. While I usually have a budget in mind when shopping for holiday presents, money is not primarily what I look for. For me, both as a giver and a receiver, the value of holiday giving is not in the money. How can I find out what a family member would like without asking them directly, to delight them with just the present they want? How can I show my attention and give time to those I love? This year, I’ll give my aunt for Christmas a counted cross-stitch piece I have been working on for her for years. I probably spent sixty dollars on materials five years ago, and will spend perhaps that much again to have it framed. But it is by far the most valuable gift I will give this year, because I have put about a thousand hours of my time into it, and because it is unique and irreplaceable. And I have no worries that my aunt will not like it or will value it less than she should (she chose the pattern, after all, and the gift is not a surprise). The gift is full of my love for her, like all the best gifts. Love has no value in the marketplace, yet has infinite value in our hearts and our homes.

I am also put off by Waldfogel’s suggestion of cash as the ultimate holiday gift. There are times when giving money is the right thing to do–when financial support is the way we want to show our love and attention to members of our families who could use it. The holidays even make that kind of giving easier, since gifts are expected and the recipient has a way of understanding the money as a gift and not as charity. During graduate school, my parents usually gave me a plane ticket to Michigan for Christmas, so that I could spend the holidays with my family. When I received these tickets as a gift, I knew I was also receiving the gift of time to spend with my family and friends.

But however useful money can be as a gift, because of its fixed value between the giver, receiver, and the marketplace, it is not the only thing that shows our love and appreciation and understanding of another person. The delight of gift-giving is to discern what the other person would like, and what we would like to give. Treating the exchange as purely utilitarian misses the spiritual value of giving gifts entirely. Gift-giving at the winter holidays is largely a tradition found in celebrations of the Winter Solstice. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia from December 17 through 24, a festival including the giving of gifts. In Judaism, even before the minor holiday of Chanukah had become, by necessity, a rival to Christmas, parents gave children gelt, or chocolate candy, to use in playing dreidl. According to the Christian myth, the wise men brought gifts to the infant Jesus, although this story almost certainly already reflects borrowing from pagan traditions. We have been giving and receiving gifts at the winter solstice for millennia.

We are accustomed to think of generosity as a virtue. I think of the children’s song, “Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away, then you’ll end up having more.” Giving moves money and resources from people who have more than they need to people who do not have enough. Nothing makes us feel good like giving does. The Hildebrandts continued to tithe, or give ten percent of their income, to their church while they paid off their debt. To some, that may look foolish, but there must have been a reason for that generosity. I imagine their church supported them and their family during the hard times. Their church may have been a place where they were accepted for who they were, regardless of their financial means. I also imagine that giving helped the Hildebrandts feel good about themselves while they endured the shame of past mistakes and the burden of doing without. I think that the joy we get from giving to others is what keeps the cycle of holiday gift-giving going. It’s that joy the retailers are trying to latch on to when they encourage us to spend more and buy more gifts. Too bad the joy comes from the act of giving, whether it is a child’s handmade card or a pair of knitted mittens. It does not come from spending more.

Yet there is a companion to the virtue of generosity, and it is the virtue of gracious acceptance. It’s telling that we use the word “graciously” to describe the ideal way to receive a present, when “grace” means “gift.” By accepting gifts with grace, we are indeed giving a gift back to the giver. A society can’t have gift-giving without gift-acceptance, as well. This is part of what we teach our children about good manners. The right response to receiving a gift isn’t, “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” but, “Thank you.” Instead of saying, “Please don’t get me anything. There’s nothing I need,” receiving gifts reminds us that there is always something we need, even if it’s not a thing. Receiving gifts reminds us that we are all, at different times, in need of something that someone we love could give us. None of us is so self-sufficient as not to need any gifts at all. By receiving gifts with grace, we affirm those good feelings the other person has for doing something for us. We show our basic humanity and neediness. We become vulnerable–and human–and connect with the person giving us the gift in the best way.

Giving and receiving gifts at its best is not about status, or wealth, or bargains. It is about showing our love for each other and reaffirming our basic, shared humanity. I am all for reducing the presence of the marketplace in holidays that are fundamentally about family and faith. But I don’t think it’s helpful, either, to try to take the exchange of gifts out of the holidays. Gifts do not need to be expensive, or even purchased, to be meaningful. The best thing about giving a present is thinking of the other person, and the best thing about receiving one is knowing the other person thought about you. A year ago, it looked like we were in danger of the collapse of our system of credit and banking. Even if our economy had come to a halt, families and friends would still have shared the joy of gifts at the holidays.

Please join me in prayer.

Spirit of the waiting dark–the dark that cradles the unborn child, the spark of winter’s chill, the dark against which our candles burn–hold us in your comforting embrace. Remind us of the joys of your season: the giving of gifts to show our love, the lighting of candles in our windows and on our tables, the meal, however modest, which can always be shared with one more. Give us your blessings for the new year which is to come. At this moment of solstice, let us pause before we turn back towards the light, and revel in the mysteries of winter. Amen.

    Sources

Adams, Katie. “Christmas 2009 Vs. 2008: What Can We Expect?” Financial Edge. 1 Dec. 2009. Investopedia.com. Accessed 19 Dec. 2009.

Hildebrandt, Kandy and Russell Hildebrandt. “Celebrating Christmas Debt Free.” Interview. By Tess Vigeland. Marketplace. APM. W217BH, Plymouth, New Hamp. 18 Dec. 2009.

Kroll, Karen. “The Biggest Losers (of Debt): How a Family Shed $106,000 in Debt.” Financially Fit: A Guide to Saving Smart and Living Well. 18 Sep. 2009. Yahoo! Finance. Accessed 19 Dec. 2009.

Waldfogel, Joel. “Rethinking the Idea of Gift-Giving.” Interview. By Kai Ryssdal. Marketplace. APM. W217BH, Plymouth, New Hamp. 24 Nov. 2009.