“A Good Value Faith” by Mark W. Harris
March 11, 2018 – First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words – from Choose to Bless the World by Rebecca Parker
Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind’s power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Reading from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (called Sorcerer’s Stone in USA) by J.K. Rowling
‘Good afternoon, Harry,’ said Dumbledore.
Harry stared at him. Then he remembered. ‘Sir! The Stone! It was Quirrell! He’s got the Stone! Sir, quick –’
‘Calm yourself, dear boy, you are a little behind the times,’ said Dumbledore. ‘Quirrell does not have the Stone.’
‘Then who does? Sir, I –’
‘Harry, please relax, or Madam Pomfrey will have me thrown out.’
Harry swallowed and looked around him. He realized he must be in the hospital wing. He was lying in a bed with white linen sheets and next to him was a table piled high with what looked like half the sweet-shop.
‘Tokens from your friends and admirers,’ said Dumbledore, beaming. ‘What happened down in the dungeons between you and Professor Quirrell is a complete secret, so, naturally, the whole school knows. . . .
‘How long have I been in here?’
‘Three days. Mr. Ronald Weasley and Miss Granger will be most relieved you have come round, they have been extremely worried.’
‘But sir, the Stone –’
‘I see you are not to be distracted. Very well, the Stone. Professor Quirrell did not manage to take it from you. I arrived in time to prevent that, although you were doing very well on your own, I must say.’. . .
‘It was you.’
‘I feared I might be too late.’
‘You nearly were, I couldn’t have kept him off the Stone much longer –’
‘Not the Stone, boy, you – the effort involved nearly killed you. For one terrible moment there, I was afraid it had. As for the Stone, it has been destroyed.’
‘Destroyed?’ said Harry blankly. ‘But your friend – Nicolas Flamel –’
‘Oh, you know about Nicolas?’ said Dumbledore, sounding quite delighted. ‘You did do the thing properly, didn’t you? Well, Nicolas and I have had a little chat and agreed it’s all for the best.’
‘But that means he and his wife will die, won’t they?’
‘They have enough Elixir stored to set their affairs in order and then, yes, they will die.’
Dumbledore smiled at the look of amazement on Harry’s face.
‘To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to Nicolas and Perenelle, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure. You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.’
Harry lay there, lost for words. Dumbledore hummed a little and smiled at the ceiling. ‘Sir?’ said Harry. ‘I’ve been thinking … Sir – even if the Stone’s gone, Vol– … I mean, You-Know-Who –’
‘Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.’
‘Yes, sir. Well, Voldemort’s going to try other ways of coming back, isn’t he? I mean, he hasn’t gone, has he?’
‘No, Harry, he has not. He is still out there somewhere, perhaps looking for another body to share … not being truly alive, he cannot be killed. He left Quirrell to die; he shows just as little mercy to his followers as his enemies. Nevertheless, Harry, while you may only have delayed his return to power, it will merely take someone else who is prepared to fight what seems a losing battle next time – and if he is delayed again, and again, why, he may never return to power.’
Harry nodded, but stopped quickly, because it made his head hurt. Then he said, ‘Sir, there are some other things I’d like to know, if you can tell me… things I want to know the truth about…’
‘The truth.’ Dumbledore sighed. ‘It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution. However, I shall answer your questions unless I have a very good reason not to, in which case I beg you’ll forgive me. I shall not, of course, lie.’
‘Well … Voldemort said that he only killed my mother because she tried to stop him killing me. But why would he want to kill me in the first place?’
Dumbledore sighed very deeply this time. . . . ‘Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.’
Sermon – “A Good Value Faith” Mark Harris
Some years ago Andrea shared a story with me, and a giant light bulb went off inside my head. I thought “that summarizes my first marriage.” The story is about two couples, friends, who go out to dinner once a week. They are conventional, straight couples, who behave in some stereotypical ways, and this is told from the perspective of a man. Every week, one couple looked at the menu, and each ordered something to eat and a drink. And then the other couple would order. The man would tell the waitress what he wanted, and his wife would say, “Oh, nothing for me, thanks. I’m not really hungry.” Every week the male half of the second couple watched as his friend enjoyed his dinner and drink, and then got to finish his wife’s meal, too. Meanwhile his own wife kept taking sips of his drink and stealing food off his plate. He calculated that every week his friend got one and a half of everything, while he only got 50%. All because of his wife. Finally, he couldn’t take it any longer. So he killed her.
This is not a funny story. It is a threat masquerading as a joke. But it is illuminating in its own way, explaining men’s rage the way it does. Andrea said this story made her make sure she never acted like the wife in the second couple. My first wife behaved exactly like that woman, and it infuriated me. I always attributed it to her being cheap. She would never order a drink because they were too expensive, and if she did order dinner, it was the cheapest item on the menu. In my view, what is the point of going out to dinner unless you get what you want? But this is a multilayered issue. For some women ordering food and drink is fraught with issues because women learn they should not eat food because they should be thin and certainly not appear like gluttons. So they don’t order for fear of being labeled fat, while they suffer from bulimia or anorexia. In retrospect, I realize this was true of my ex-wife. Sometimes there are complex reasons. In an alcoholic family perhaps the father (usually) is spending all the family’s money on booze, and the mother is trying to compensate by saving some money so that they can afford to buy groceries. That’s not being cheap, that’s planning how to survive.
My father was the kind of person who ordered what he wanted when he went out to eat. He had grown up in a family that ended up on welfare, after his father’s business failed in the great depression. My dad’s business became enormously successful, and I reaped the benefits of that growing up. He wanted to create his own paradise on earth at our country home, and he identified with the Beverly Hillbillies that TV family who rose from poverty into wealth, because of a discovery of an oil deposit on their land, and oil was my parent’s business. My parents even put in their own ce-ment pond. When my Dad went out to eat, which was often, it was a celebration of how far he had come. He ordered top shelf liquor, lobster or filet mignon. They were signs that he had made it, and nobody was going to take that away from him. He liked to show emblems of his financial success, like my mother wearing fur.
I have lived a different life from my parents financially. I grew up with everything provided, and was even spoiled. College was paid for. I knowingly chose a different path financially, with a career of serving others. I also had the luxury of being able to make a choice, but I ended up poor. In graduate school I sold my blood to make money. I ate Velveeta, and owned the least expensive car available, a Chevette, and it was bought used. Yet since those early days of ministry I have lived a life that that has felt like a middle class success, too. To paraphrase Andrea’s sermon from last week, I have not wanted. My frugal wife, who orders her own drinks, has helped manage a budget that provides good food, some vacations, and college educations for our sons. Yet like so many of you, we worry about money. We think about it all the time. This is not an obsession, but a reality that bills need to be paid, or we have to see if we have enough for retirement. Can we afford dental implants or a vacation? For many of us our feelings about money often reflect scarcity, fear and limitations. It seems that no matter how much money we make, or how much is waiting in our pension fund, there continues to be the overriding question of how much is enough? Then if we are told we have enough, we invent what if questions such as what if I develop a chronic illness, or what if I need a nursing home. Even when we are confident, fear takes over. It is also true that a scarcity mindset often increases as wealth increases. If we view life through a lens of scarcity, how do we ever overcome it?
It is true that my father who lived a life of scarcity did not adopt that model for how he lived his life, and yet I who grew up with abundance seem to fear scarcity. We all have complicated relationships to money. Money makes us realize that life is unfair. Some have millions more than they need, and others have nothing. Some have opportunities to make money, and others don’t. Money reminds us that we limited by what we have and the choices we make. I can’t afford this or that, and ultimately I cannot take it with me. Money reminds us that life is full of temptations. Jesus is tempted to choose the devil’s pathway, the pleasures and greed of having everything now, but then it will disappear, gone in a flash. Money brings us seeming salvation in this life. You can have all the pleasures and comforts you want. Some take this to be a sign of God’s favor, what today we might call the prosperity gospel. Riches means that God favors you. Success is salvation, and yet we also hear that money is the root of all evil. It will corrupt you and destroy you. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. It is easier for a rich man to fit through the eye of a needle than to get into heaven. Dorothy Parker once said: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.” If we speak freely about capitalism, we know how many people are hurt by it, the inequities of it are staggering, and yet those of us with pension funds watch the market to see if it goes up.
The most famous story about the corruptions of money in the context of the life of Jesus is when he shows righteous anger driving the traders from the temple, a story repeated in all four gospels. He sees those who are money changers and sellers as robbers, and this story gives us the impression that he is cleansing the temple from this corruption and greed. Because of the exorbitant rate they charged we would see the traders as taking advantage of or cheating others and by doing so they hindered God’s intentions for justice. People all around us are hurt by profit makers and cheaters. As a child of the 60’s I saw this as a story that affirmed that God had a preference for the poor, and so this was the spin I gave to the story. Yet preceding generations before me interpreted the story to fit their own perspectives on the time they lived in. This meant that Protestants saw the story as a reflection of the corruptions of the Catholic church, with the priests selling indulgences to buy your way into heaven. Another interpretation of the story can be seen in several paintings by El Greco. The Greek who lived in Spain became a voice of the Counter Reformation, meaning he saw the story as the resurgent Catholic church driving the heretic Protestants out. It is all a matter of perspective.
I have always been interested in perspective and El Greco’s art. I have a framed print of his “St. Martin and the Beggar.” What is true of this painting like so many by El Greco is that the beggar, St. Martin, and even St. Martin’s horse all appear in a very elongated fashion, like one of those carnival mirrors that stretch your face and body tall and skinny, as if you were made from elastic. Art critics once thought there must be a reason for this, and so early in the 1900’s one expert theorized that El Greco had a severe astigmatism, which literally stretched the world as he saw it. I remember learning that in art history, and yet if he did perceive a stretched out world, then he would have also seen his canvas as stretched, and they would have cancelled each other out. El Greco also sketched his subjects with standard proportions first and then elongated them in his paintings. And it was only certain figures, so angels for instance are taller and thinner than people. Well, maybe you reach for the sky a lot, and don’t eat much. It seems the lengthening was an aesthetic choice. Douglas Adams once wrote, “Everything you see or hear or experience in any way at all is specific to you. You create a universe by perceiving it, so everything in the universe you perceive is specific to you.” Stop for a minute and scan your surroundings. Then pick an object you hadn’t noticed before, and focus on it. When you focus, the object seems to get brighter, and more real, than when you hardly noticed it as background. Now, try to focus on your surroundings from the point of the object. Perception shifts when you view the world from a different perspective. It is hard to do, and takes real concentration. Hopefully your perception changed, even if only for a second. What is your perception? If you are not conscious of it, someone else will be trying to create it for you.
Belief, desire and abilities shape our vision of the world. It is sometimes said that a person who is wearing a heavy backpack will see mountains as steeper. Was this my experience as I looked up at Mt. Kathadin a couple of years ago? The mountains didn’t literally grow, but chances are, the overwhelming feeling made my perception alter. I felt like I was seeing an even larger mountain because of my emotions. My God, look how tall it is, and the enormity was exacerbated by the weight I was carrying. Some say having darker thoughts or thinking about those times when we have done something unethical, makes the room look darker. The room does not literally darken, but there is a perceptual distortion. Something higher, or more emotional is making me feel and then see that way. My feelings make things seem darker around the edges. Depression, maybe? Marketers, of course are trying to get us to see things the way they want us to see them.
How is perception and money then, relevant to faith, or more specifically to the church? A couple of things are true. Generally speaking churches have a scarcity perception about money. Eeyore like, we often hear, we are falling short. It is never enough. We need to put in more. For most of us scarcity about money, and indeed, anxiety about our very existence are commonplace. As I get older and have had struggles with some health issues, I often obsess: will I have enough money in retirement, will my children be okay, and will I have reasonable good health, or at least the resources to address the issues I encounter? Yet like most anxiety, most of these things cannot be answered. Who knows? We prepare the best we can. I have done pretty well so far, so what’s the fear? It is really mostly about perception. How do we perceive the gifts we can make to live a more fulfilling life?
In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin wrote, “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.” So we think we are giving ourselves away, and that makes it that much harder to be generous. I struggled with this last year when our intern Jolie Olivetti was leaving. I thought: Jolie is great, and I love working with her. I want to give her a gift. The gift I had in mind was a worship book that had been given to me by my mentor in Oakland, California. It in turn been had been autographed and given to him by Aurelia Reinhardt, the first woman moderator of the American Unitarian Association, and now I was thinking I might give it to Jolie. Yet I agonized over this issue because the book was mine, and as a historian, I felt an even greater attachment. I can’t give this away, I thought, it is part of my collection, my books, me! But in the end I gave it to her, because my perception with this one item changed. It was gifted to me as a sign of ministerial relationship, and now the gift needed to be passed on to continue the depth of relationship and the faith. It was a gift, a sign of my gratitude that she would carry on what I had been given. It was not about me, it was about love, my aspirations for a better world, and my care for the unfolding of my faith tradition in another.
There is a Zen Buddhist story called “The Threadbare Coat.” A woman whose husband died faced terrible financial burdens and challenges. Creditors came after her taking everything away from her and her son. She had one valuable possession, which was a priceless jewel that had been handed down for generations. Fearing she might lose it, she sewed it into the sleeve of an old coat, that no creditor would ever want. Unfortunately, her troubles weighed on her to an extreme, and she died. Her son never knew about the jewel. The boy ended up homeless, with the old coat as his only inheritance. He had a bare minimum existence finding work where he could and living outdoors. He ultimately believed that life was unfair. But one day he was chopping wood, and his sleeve caught on a branch and tore open. The priceless jewel spilled out on the ground before him. The story tells us that our true source of wealth is our birthright, something we carry with us whether we remember it or not. We are rich, the story reminds us, even when we feel deprived., because the jewel represents the true nature of the self, not our possessions or wealth. Upon finding the jewel the man realized that he had been rich all along. The more we identify with our hidden treasure, the more we will be able to find peace and gratitude, which will then in turn flow into the lives of others. When we identify or perceive our possession as ourselves we will never understand the true jewel of the gift of life. Jesus turned over the money changers tables because they lived on scarcity, and resentment that they never had enough, like the second man in our opening story. A scarcity mentality breeds fear and anger. The story tells us to have the courage to risk seeing life not from the perception of what you lack, but from the perception of what you have been given, and how your faith’s mission is to share what you have been given with others, so that a dream, a vision, a hope continues. You feel abundance rather than scarcity. Look how far we have come. Look how much we have.
In the Harry Potter story Quirrell, because of greed and ambition shares his soul with Voldemort, and meets a disastrous end. He could not touch Harry, who had been given the gift of love, and was thus marked by good. Churches, like people, often fail, or give in to power and control. We are made up of humans who often feel anxiety and scarcity and fear. But in the right moments we can perceive that life is a gift, that we are not meant to hoard or keep, but to pass it on. It is a good value faith, because faith is the embodiment of your values. Our vision to is to behold and create the good. You help make that happen by making a pledge to the church. Dumbledore says name the evil – Voldemort, by his true name. We sometimes make money into an evil, but it is what we all live by. What we live by, but it is not us. It is created to give away, to pass on. Created to help us see what abundance we have when we share it in a vision of the good. As William James once wrote: ”The great use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.”
Closing Words from Huston Smith
Practice giving things away, not just things you don’t care about, but things you do like. Remember, it is not the size of a gift, it is its quality and the amount of mental attachment you overcome that count. So don’t bankrupt yourself on a momentary positive impulse, only to regret it later. Give thought to giving. Give small things, carefully, and observe the mental processes going along with the act of releasing the little thing you liked.