“The Burning Wallet” by Mark W. Harris
March 4, 2012 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. . . What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobbler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.
Reading – “Fortune and the Beggar” A Russian fable by Ivan Krylov
Sermon – “The Burning Wallet” by Mark W. Harris
There is a cartoon in a recent New Yorker magazine where it shows a group of people on a roller coaster. In the scene the coaster, after descending a steep embankment, is careening towards a brick wall, and the caption reflects the reaction of a person sitting in the front seat. He says, “I heard this is the scariest part of the ride.” What does it take for people to experience a thrill? During my family’s recent trip to Florida we had many opportunities for thrill rides at Universal Studios. There was even one roller coaster that went through a building. I opted out of that one. In a theme park such as this you are suppose to experience thrills, spills, laughter and terror, all at the same time. At one point, we were in between hair raising rides, and saw a sign outside of a building for a magic show. Looking in, we saw a couple of rows of chairs, and a young man standing at a table preparing to present a show. He was beckoning us to come on in, and enjoy the magic tricks. After we sat, the outside doors and the curtains behind the magician were closed. He then asked all of us where we were from. It was a wide array of states and countries. As soon as the show began it became clear that it was more than mere entertainment. It was hucksterism at its best. There were amazing card tricks, and a levitating light. We were astounded as he made Levi’s dollar float around the room. What he was really hoping was that the dollar would float into his pocket. This was evident as he completed each trick, and then tried to sell us the kits that we could take home- the cards were $30, the levitating device $40, and so forth, and of course you could package them in various ways, and only buy them for such a cheap price at this time and place. Now was the time to purchase.
This promotion became a special challenge for our youngest son after we viewed the burning wallet. Our friendly seller of all things magical had this innocuous looking brown leather wallet, that he pulled from his pocket. When he flexed it open at the fold, it miraculously burst into flames. Asher imagined all the ways he could impress his friends. Our magician suggested that it would be an amazing trick to demonstrate to a police officer. Think of that officer pulling you over for speeding or running a red light, and you whip out the wallet to show identification, and boom, instead of a license he/she sees the wallet burst into flame. Stunning! Of course you might be arrested for being a pyromaniac or for assault. Fortunately, we were able to escape without having to purchase one of these fancy billfolds, but we did wonder how the blaze was ignited, and how our magician friend managed to not light his hands on fire. Despite the pungent odor of lighter fluid in the air, we were all impressed with the burning wallet.
Today is the day when I am asked to perform a kind of levitating trick on your wallets. How can we get the cash out of your billfold, and float it into the coffers of the church. I am here to try to set your wallets on fire, so that you will snatch the bills from your pockets or purses, and hand over that cash that is burning a hole there, because you are itching to spend it. Right? How can we set your wallets ablaze? The metaphor of money burning a hole in our pockets is one I first heard from my parents. If you were to classify the human race into spenders and savers, I would be one of the spenders. I am sure it is a trait I learned from my father who had grown up poor, but had built a successful business as an adult, and was determined to have many of those material things he had been denied. But he also believed in hard work. Thus my first job for real money was a summer job working for him cleaning oil burners and boilers. This continues our fire metaphor because the idea was to scrape that black soot from the walls of the fire box and the smoke pipe, and make the fire burn cleaner, purer and less smoky. I often came out looking like a chimney sweep, with soot clinging to me from head to toe, and burns on my arms, hands and fingers. Yet this effort also resulted in a paycheck at the end of the week. At the time my great passion was rock and roll music. I attended dozens of concerts, helped a local band in a kind of roadie capacity, and spent much of that hard earned cash on albums by my favorites. When I cashed that paycheck, and asked my parents for the use of the car, it was clear that the money was burning a hole so that I might go and spend it at the music store in Amherst or Greenfield. Because my parents paid for most of my personal expenses in those days, it was easy for me to set priorities for my spending. But still I think it noteworthy that the money burning a hole in my pocket was earmarked for my burning passion in life.
Burning passion are not usually words we associate with this rational faith tradition of ours. After all, we even did away with the concept of hell. No burning for us. Dante’s nine levels of inferno became instead a speedy elevator ride to the top of heavenly bliss. But it is also true that we have a tradition that shunned passionate, emotional conversions in favor of rational, slow, and educational paths to salvation. We learn what it is to be a good person. We follow Jesus by acting in concert with others in compassionate and just ways. But we try to do so by not railing at others or proclaiming too loudly that we have the right way of doing things. While the turtle proclaims that slow but steady wins the race, we have never seen the results of that in religion. This lack of noticeable passion was a concern for the Unitarians right from the beginning. In his “Sober Thoughts,” Henry Ware Jr. characterized the Unitarians as unable to articulate a positive faith, being “anti-everything severe and urgent in religion.” Emerson, who we might add, quit the ministry, even went so far as to call the faith, “corpse cold.” But is that fair? And why should we accept that characterization?
To keep the fire metaphor going, I want to focus on the flaming chalice that stands as the symbol of our faith. Two stories are often told about the origins of the chalice. The first predates Protestantism itself. It is the early 1400’s in the city of Prague. There is a priest there who has become increasingly unhappy with two Catholic traditions. The first is that the mass is recited in the language of the church, which is Latin, and this priest, Jan Hus, feels that the service should be in the vernacular, or Bohemian, so that everyone can understand the words of faith. Second, a tradition has developed whereby the congregation only receives the bread or wafer when they celebrate the eucharist, but not the wine, what the church characterizes as the blood of Christ. Only the priests receive the wine, thus setting them apart from the people. Hus believes that everyone should receive the cup of salvation, and that there should not be a privileged class of believers. He is challenged on these views by church authorities, refuses to back down, and is ultimately burned at the stake for his belief in the communion of all believers. His followers became known as Hussites, and influenced the first church reformers. It is said they wore robes with the flaming chalice emblazoned on the back. Here begins a tradition of sacrificing a life for the higher principles of justice and equality, and of being unwilling to live under the yoke of oppression. Freedom to pursue the truth was often denied over the centuries, but the vision to remain open to new truths continued even as the first Unitarian, Michael Servetus died at the stake, as did one of Andrea’s ancestors, John Greenwood, executed in England (1592) for the heresy of congregationalism.
So there is a passion in our history for free souls to not be cowed by church dogmas, but to rebel and continue to seek truth. There is a passionate flame in the second story of the flaming chalice. When our Unitarian headquarters in Boston learned that Jews and others were being persecuted in Czechoslovakia during the early days of World War II, they recruited a minister named Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha, to go on a rescue mission to Prague, where the largest Unitarian church in the world then existed. Waitstill and Martha ended up rescuing hundreds of children and others, who would have otherwise been sent to Nazi death camps. Their passion for our faith meant they felt called to risk their lives to reach out to those who were persecuted and attacked for racial or ethnic reasons, judged as inferior beings not even worthy of life, to say nothing of liberty. Their passion resulted in the formation of the Unitarian Service Committee, which ever since has tried to promote justice all over the world. Its symbol became the flaming chalice, so that those in need all over Europe were able to recognize this compassionate organization – that brought the light of hope, and the light of truth to those who were denied freedom and opportunity. Growing from the lamp of knowledge, it became a beacon for the pursuit of truth, and the understanding of all. From the 1400’s to the 1900’s there were those who lived with passionate hearts that others might live in freedom.
In her sermon last week, Margaret mentioned the burning bush, as described in the Book of Exodus. In the story God calls out to Moses from the bush, and tells him to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. There are a couple of things to note about this story. First, when God calls to Moses, Moses hides his face. He is humble in his faith rather than self-righteous. So perhaps we might see that while we may not be exuberant in our expression of faith, we can still emboldened by our principles to do what Moses does, which is to have a vision of a new world, a new community for his people. The second thing about this story is that the bush was on fire, but was not consumed by the flames. It is just like that burning wallet. In fact it is a steady passion or fire that does not burn itself out, but continues to give inspiration to live in freedom and in truth. Fires do not have to be showy and continuous, but rather they can burn with a slower, warmth that is ever present, but still faithful and enduring and powerful.
While the burning wallet in the magic show was intriguing, it is also true that it was merely another trick to get us to buy the item, and all the others tricks that went along with it. In fact, as I noted in the newsletter, I was surprised to see that nearly every single, venue, ride, or carnival stand was there to entice people into spending their money. You could buy a memory of every single experience you had there. This kind of consumerism makes living and saving and spending in America difficult for all of us. Perhaps we sometimes feel like the old beggar in our reading today. A fortune is laid before us. When do we say we have enough? All of us struggle with money. There is much to desire when it is all laid out before you, and so there is a constant struggle for parents to say no over and over again, “you cannot have everything you want.” Yet our culture seems to promise just that. We may think we are different than the next person, just as the beggar did, but once the opportunity is presented to him, he cannot say no, and he ends up as poor as he was before. One thing the theme park underscored is how inadvertent spending can be, just as the beggar could not bring himself to know when to say no. We may not even notice what we are spending, especially when it is right in front of us. It may be the daily coffee or lunch that could come from home, or it may mean the books that could come from the library. While I am still inclined to spend, many of my old habits have changed. I don’t jump quickly at the burning wallet.
Recently there was a powerful example of inadvertent burning that relates to this inadvertent spending. In Afghanistan several Korans were mistakenly thrown into a burn pit, and consumed. While not burned with evil intent, like the burning of books in outrageous acts of censorship, such as we once saw in Nazi Germany, this was simply an oversight. But it was an oversight that occurred because people were not paying attention, or being focused on what they were doing. Sometimes when we don’t notice what we are doing we do things or spend money in unintentional ways, and so we don’t think through what we are spending it on and for. There is no value that goes with this spending such as, does this hurt me, or my community? Is it wasteful or hurtful to the environment? Is it something I need? Does it support the things that are ultimately valuable to me? Does it support my passions?
The inadvertent burning of the Korans may truly have been an accident, but not paying attention meant we ended up showing disrespect and a lack of understanding or compassion. When we do something unintentional, whether the slight is misinterpreted or manipulated, we are usually quick to add “I’m sorry”. We seek to defuse the situation before it becomes a bigger problem. The President was quick to apologize, but some of the Republican candidates said the apology showed weakness. Let’s hope their imperialistic tone was for political effect. I say that because we cannot simply brazenly act or spend without thinking of the reason why, or moreover to what end. Our very nature should implore us to apologize if we have not paid attention, and caused hurt or pain, or acted totally unaware of what we are doing. As James Baldwin once said, we cannot live with “universal indifference to the fate of another.”
I am going to suggest that this is a church that deserves your intentional and generous support. We have sometimes implied that liberal religion is not something people are passionate about. Yet we can see that we have a heritage where those endowed with the spirit of freedom and compassion were on fire to see the world transformed into a different kind of place – a place where the light of truth and understanding and justice are a given in every life. And this does not happen by accident. We cannot merely sit around and say, oh it would be nice if people loved one another. If we who carry this universal message of love do not preach it with intentionality, then who is going to do so? The Biblical passage Proverbs 29:18 has frequently been quoted when churches are trying to dream about their future. The King James Version said, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” As we move into canvass season, each of you is being asked to consider what inspires you about this faith, and what dream you have for it? You may say music or religious education or community, and you may dream of solar panels or a new office wing or a memorial garden. Those would all be wonderful things to dream about, but the fire has to burn broader than projects and money to fund them. It has to burn in our hearts that this is a faith that the world needs right now, and we must be consumed by the desire to see more people living by this great faith, a faith that lives by love, and love alone that we know and experience here, and then help make manifest in the world. If the fire is in you, and you want Unitarian Universalism to be known in Watertown and in the world, then you will have wallets to burn, and they will open to support this church in very intentional ways. If there is no fire, and we support in inadvertent ways, what we happen to give will be an afterthought. Which will it be? Do we have a dream for this church in which we could help it fulfill its great potential? Stand by this faith. Show the fire. Give in generous intentional ways to the future unfolding of our great faith.
Closing Words – from Nothing Personal by James Baldwin
People are defeated or go mad or die in many, many ways, some in the silence of that valley, where I couldn’t hear nobody pray and many in the public, sounding horror where no cry or lament or song or hope can disentangle itself from the roar. And so we go under, victims of that universal cruelty which lives n the heart and in the world, victims of the universal indifference to the fate of another, victims of the universal fear of love, proof of the absolute impossibility of achieving a life of without love. One day, perhaps, unimaginable generations hence, we will evolve into the knowledge that human beings are more important than real estate and will permit this knowledge to become the ruling principle of our lives. For I do not for an instant doubt, and I will go to my grave believing that we can build Jerusalem, if we will. (May we begin, here and now)