This reading comes to us from Black Elk, a renowned holy man of the Oglala Lakota people. Black Elk’s vision was written down and published, with his permission, by John Neihardt in 1932 in the book, “Black Elk Speaks.”
“I was still on my bay horse, and once more I felt the riders of the west, the north, the east, the south, behind me in formation…and we were going east. I looked ahead and saw the mountains and there with rocks and forests on them, and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight…And I saw that it was holy.”
SERMON: “A World Made of Gifts”
I was five when my parents bought their first house. Up until this time we lived in small apartments, so with this new house came a yard, and even better, a yard that housed three massive (I am talking 30 foot tall) fully mature orange trees, right at the front of the property. California navels. The best. And each of these trees offered a ton of oranges from November to March. Yes, for five months out of the year these three orange trees were bursting with fruit; the branches literally sagged because they were so heavy with juicy, tennis-ball sized, electric orange navel oranges.
I think I am comprised, partly, of oranges. Like, it’s in my blood. I ate and drank so many of them in my growing years–how could I not be part California Navel? I feel grateful to have had a relationship, for that is what it was, with those three trees. This is a rare thing these days. Where nature’s plenty is so often never known up close, or even given a thought.
I didn’t realize how important this relationship with those orange trees was until I read the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Many of you know this book–we read it together last year and it has been on the bestseller list for five years now. To date it has sold over 1.4 million copies and has been translated into 20 languages.
What a hopeful bit of news–see, humanity isn’t sunk! It’s hopeful to know that so many have been, and continue to be, so moved by this slow, prayerful, read. A book of Earth wisdom at the hand of its author Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a scientist and professor of environmental biology at Syracuse, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Braiding Sweetgrass is a compilation of stories from Kimmerer’s childhood, and the childhoods of her ancestors, stories passed down from her people and their original lands, stories told to her by the Earth herself–plants, animals, trees…a book of knowledge and wisdom and wonder. A book of love.
And as I readied myself for this our season of giving here at First Parish, I was reminded of this book and a chapter called “The Gift of Strawberries.” In it, Kimmerer writes:
“Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, it is free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears (like wild, sweet, bright red strawberries in your yard). Your only role is to be open-eyed and present…” She goes on to say, that gifts, ultimately are “passed from hand to hand, growing richer…in every exchange–that this is the fundamental nature of gifts: they move, and their value increases with their passage.”
Now, this is very hard to grasp–for most of us this is a foreign, strange and impractical concept. The reason is because each of us have been reared up in a ‘market economy.’ In a market economy, the underlying principles are scarcity and maximizing return on investment; gifts are accumulated for personal benefit and personal benefit alone. The greatest status and success come from accumulation. Stockpiling. This has made consumers and merchants of us all.
In a gift economy, which is how the indigenous people of this land lived for tens of thousands of years, wealth is understood as having enough to share. In fact, status is determined not by how much one accumulates, but by how much one gives away. Security is ensured by nurturing the bonds of relationship and reciprocity.
So, Kimmerer teaches us something important here. That the outcome of a gift economy (reciprocity) is a consistent multiplying of energy and abundance with every exchange. For those wild strawberries that Kimmerer has a deep kinship with, she says: “I accept the gift from the bush and then spread that gift with a dish of berries to my neighbor, who makes a pie to share with their friend, who feels so wealthy in food and friendship that she volunteers at the food pantry. I return thanks to this ever-widening gift source by watering and weeding, letting my body spend a day in the sun, which increases its abundance at the next harvest, and nourishes my soul in the tending. And on and on. A multiplying of value and energy as it passes from hand to hand.”
Kimmerer says, “To name the world as full gifts is to feel one’s membership in the web of reciprocity. It makes you happy—and it makes you accountable.” This is what Black Elk meant by the world being a great and wondrous hoop. Widening circles of exchange. Each touching one another. Increasing in value as they spread out and out. Circling back again and again…Reciprocity in all its glory.
And friends, as I considered those strawberries I thought, well, this is who you are. What we are. Here, in this church: an ever-widening circle of exchange working so, so hard to be a reciprocating economy of gifts and relationships in a world that teaches us to think in terms of worth, ownership, and profit. But we say No. Not. Here.
And this is why I will now confess to you that I, in my short time serving as your minister, have become an insufferable First Parish of Watertown boaster and braggart. I can’t help it. And I can’t help if this bothers or bores my friends and colleagues and acquaintances and random people who work at the grocery store or who I am standing in line with at the post office. I brag about you all the time. All. The. Time.
I brag about how you welcome people into this church;
I boast about how many brave and wonderful newcomers are in our midst;
I brag about your music and the band and the concerts put on to raise money for our Helen Robinson Wright Fund;
I brag about how much that fund gives to this community every year;
I brag about your variety show and your trivia nights and your social hours and your delicious food and cookies;
I brag about how we adopted the 8th Principle last year;
I brag about how we are engaging in really difficult conversations about our colonialist history and racism and we don’t know how this is going to unfold, but we are staying in it and not giving up;
I brag about how many people show up here–that you are bucking the trends–that last week we ran out of orders of service at a time where most churches are printing too many;
I brag about our blossoming tech ministry and those who faithfully join us week after week on Zoom from different time zones;
I brag about our unbelievable staff who feel loved and appreciated here and who, again bucking all trends, are paid fairly and given raises to meet the growing cost of living;
You are so generous I say boastfully;
I brag about your leadership and volunteers, who are so talented, so giving of their time and passion;
I boast about how much you love your ministers–how much love you give me, how you make sure I have what I need to succeed;
I boast about how often we laugh at ourselves when we make mistakes, I brag about how deeply you share with one another and me, how you take care of one another when losses and crises descend;
I brag about your memorial garden and this building that is so well looked after and loved;
I boast about all that you do to put your faith in action–environmental justice, racial justice, LGBTQIA+ justice, food justice, indigenous justice, oh God I could keep going and going. I boast about it all;
And I have been particularly insufferable when it comes to bragging about the fact that you paid BIG BUCKS this past year to bring in an interim religious education consultant to guide us through introspective, visioning work so that we could dream big and commit to giving our kids and youth what they need to thrive here. I have been bragging about how many of you showed up you showed up and shared and listened and now, now–here I go boasting again–we are expanding this position and given it a new name: Director of Lifespan Religious Exploration and we are taking a leap of faith because our program is small, and this role is designed to meet the needs of something bigger. But we know this is where we are going. So I brag about how brave and faithful you are;
I brag about how giving you are with your pledges and donations and how every month we give our collection plate to a local justice effort and it’s like over a thousand dollars.
I brag that somehow, despite only have 130 members and not being an uber-rich demographic like some of our neighboring UU congregations…we are rich. In love and faith and generosity. Our cups runneth over. Our branches heavy with oranges. Wild strawberries for everyone!
I boast and I boast and I brag. And nobody is going to stop me from doing this or evangelizing the GOOD NEWS on Church Street.
See? We are practicing being a gift economy here–we don’t always get it right, but not one of isn’t committed to the trying.
“Enter, rejoice, come into this place,” we say. “Rest.” “Eat.” “This is your spirit’s home.” “Nobody arrives without a gift or leaves without a blessing,” we say. “Give what you can, take what you need.” “We have plenty.” “And we are better off because you are here,” we say. And we mean this here.
And this our giving season isn’t about saying, “did you hear all the things Rev. Sophia just listed and bragged about–these cost money–so pay up.” NO. I want you to resist the urge of thinking about this with your market economy hats on, and instead consider this time as an invitation towards participating in a reciprocating gift economy that moves and swells with each passage of hand and heart. Where each of you ask yourselves how this place has touched your heart and fed your soul. And when you make your pledge, which I hope all of you will do, I want you to trust that every penny, and maybe for some of you it will only be pennies, that each penny is imbued with your love for the plenty here, and imbued with your longing for others to feel the same love and plenty, and because of your gift given in this way, it will be more than enough. Like a wild strawberry seed–pushed into the ground and then watered and weeded and harvested and fed to someone who you will most likely never know–whose life might be saved by their sweetness.
Back to those California navels. So, we became the orange people in our neighborhood. Because every year our whole block was lined with baskets and baskets of oranges free for the taking. We even leaned ladders against the outside fence so that people could climb up themselves and pick them. Sometimes there would be whole families just hanging out in those trees on a Saturday morning. And this made us so happy. And the more we picked and ate and gave away. And the more we cared for those trees, the more they yielded. As if thanking us for finally letting them unleash their plenty! At the time I had no idea that we were a part of something long forgotten and decimated: the life-saving joy that was participating in an energy-building exchange of gifts that connected us to Earth, and to our fellows. To this day, I can safely say that those orange trees were the source of the most meaningful and formative memories that came from living at that house.
I am asking you this year to take a breath before you settle on your pledge amount, or before you consider pledging at all. Take a breath and consider the unknowing souls whose lives will be saved and fed and sweetened by your gift–the value increasing with passage. Growing richer in every exchange, returning to you with an abundance immeasurable.
Robin Wall Kimmerer ends the chapter on strawberries by saying, “a great longing is upon us, to live again in a world made of gifts. I can scent it coming, like the fragrance of ripening strawberries rising on the breeze.” Let us know ourselves to be a fragrant church made of gifts, for we are. For we are.
And so, your boasting, bragging pastor says to you: Amen and thank you for the gift that is YOU.
Lean on me. And I’ll lean on you. A song of reciprocity for us all. Let’s sing #1021 Lean on Me.
Reverend Sophia Lyons
Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.