“The Material Church”   by Mark W. Harris

 February 27, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown


Call to Worship     from Derek Wolcott


The time will come

when, with great elation,

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome.

and say, sit here. Eat

You will love again the stranger who was yourself.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the book shelf

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

Reading  – from Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore

Sermon –  “The Material Church”   by Mark W. Harris

            Every summer my family makes occasional trips to the redemption center in Rockland, Maine.  What, you might ask, happens at the redemption center, especially to someone who espouses the UU faith?  When you are traveling on Route 1 in mid-coast Maine just beyond the Thomaston town line, a ramshackle building appears on the left side of the road, part of a strip mall city before you get into town.  Of course this redemption center has nothing to do with any kind of salvation from sin, as the term might imply.  Instead you find salvation from beverage container overload. While the supermarkets in Maine recycle just as the ones here do, there are also these centers that exist solely for the purpose of redeeming your recyclables for nickels and dimes.  This particular redemption center has always been an attraction for my boys because they also sell every imaginable cheap trinket possible from Star Wars figures to Yo-yos to those balsa wood airplanes that always seem to break after one use.  The real attraction for me and the boys though were random packages of collectable cards – baseball, Pokemon, Yugioh and more. The state of Maine has an expanded bottle bill, so we are used to saving all manner of juice containers for redemption.  It is a kind of universal salvation  redemption if you will. It also kindles the hope that this comprehensive recycling will come to Massachusetts.

            The redemption center reminds us that much of life depends upon payments for goods and services.  I buy a bottle of juice to drink and pay for it. But the redemption means that because I have paid a deposit, I will get some money back in return.  If we were to extend that metaphor to a traditional Christian understanding we would say that humans are sinners who are redeemed from their sins by faith in Jesus.  As a child I remember the preacher saying that the wages of sin is death or a quick trip to hell, if you will.   If you don’t return that bottle, you won’t pick up the redemption.  I suppose you could say it is the environmental hell of global warming for not recycling.  But redemption is payback; it is salvation.  Now we usually don’t talk in terms of redemption from sin or salvation in a UU church. Instead we might say that our faith must be fulfilled in inspiration or motivation to action.   Sometimes we jokingly despair that we have no threat of hell as an incentive for joining the church or making a large pledge.  The orthodox can say or at least imply, pay now, or I will make you really pay later with your own personal toaster oven.  This week I was talking to someone about the Catholic faith, and they referred to the parishioners going to church in order to get their ticket punched.  They can prove that they have been faithful, and then one day redeem their loyalty for a one way ticket  or passage to heaven.

            We often say that we religious liberals do not buy into this tit for tat of swapping guaranteed salvation for your support, but I do think we sometimes make it appear as though we are yet another kind of redemption center where we want you to buy our goods and services in exchange for your pledge. We may calculate what it costs to run a Religious Education program, and remind you of what a bargain you are getting, or we may list the programs we offer, and imply that we can just provide what you need or want.  And while you are going to join a church where they uphold the values you believe in, do you really want another consumer pitch that you can buy into?  If we are always asking, what’s in it for me? – we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and failure. I don’t know about you, but I worry when I hear my children say that life is all about what you can purchase.  There is a lot of tantalizing electronic stuff out there to buy, and they want it all. We come to believe that the material life will bring total happiness, as implied when Madonna sang, “the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mister Right, ‘cause we are living in a material world, And I am a material girl.”   If we become searchers for “spiritual” goods or services, then there is nothing joint or shared about it.  The bigger payback awaits when you ask what you can give, not what you can get.

            While we hardly want a material church, like the ones that say if you get right with Jesus, you will get rich, we would be fools if we did not face the fact that it is a material world, and we need your financial support, if this RE program, these worship services, this caring community, this message of justice and equality is going to continue in Watertown. There is no free lunch.  Sometimes people assume that about the church because they remember Jesus being quoted that you render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.  They take that to mean that you pay taxes to Caesar, and give God a few prayers.  Prayers do not pay the oil bill.  Jesus may have said consider the lilies, knowing God would take care of the plants, but we will wither without your support. 

            Many of us carry a stereotype about the church and poverty.  We all think of monks and priests as taking a vow of poverty, and expect that all clergy will be concerned with spiritual things as somehow opposed to material things.  Unitarian Universalists often fall under this same rubric, which seems a little strange, since for most of us the spiritual and the material are one and the same, meaning what goes on in the natural world, and in this life.  So the real question is not about separating the two , but about finding the spiritual within the material. Now think about that vow of poverty.  Have you ever visited a monastery?  Did those monks look like they were suffering for their next meal?  Hardly.  They may live simply, but they do not have to fret over the amount of food or the warmth of their shelter.  They are taken care of.  The larger point is that monastic poverty is not about scarcity of money or the spiritual person who must fast or wear tattered clothes in order to see God.  We all know they often live in beautiful surroundings on valuable real estate.  The purpose of the vow is to promote community by owning all things in common. And that is the larger spiritual point about this community, too.  You own it, and by becoming a member you bear the responsibility of commitment.

            There is nothing romantic about starving or being poor, but there is something deeply spiritual about a vow of poverty if we understand its true purpose. One of the problems with the accumulation of wealth or money is that it only serves an individual’s needs.  I want something. I own something. I buy something. That does not fulfill any obligation to anyone else.  I believe we become more deeply spiritual as people by taking a symbolic vow of poverty together.  With a vow of poverty we realize a larger responsibility for each other.  Without it we are not concerned with taking care of the poor, taking care of those who have no health insurance, taking care of the immigrant, or ultimately taking care of the land, sea and air.   So the vow of poverty is not about my suffering so that I can see God, but it is about all of us sharing more in the goods and services that we all need to enjoy in this material world, and assuming a mutual sense of responsibility and proprietorship for taking care of each other and the earth.  This has national political ramifications, but we are especially concerned today with the vows we are making to ensure our own communal well being. 

            Thomas Moore suggests that money has a soul.  That soul is lost, he says, when greed and cheating are common.  Money is made to be exchanged, and not to be hoarded or obsessed over. Adam Smith who wrote the famous Wealth of Nations (1776), believed that creating prosperous societies was rooted in the social, where haggling, bargaining and interacting reflected our search for happiness, and that no one would be happy in a nation where wealth was confiscated and held in a few hands.  But personally, money becomes a problem because it is fraught with such fantasies and emotions.  I think of all the things I can do. I think of all the things I cannot do.  I will do anything to get it. I come to believe it is all I need. Money is a harsh reminder of the sins and demands of the world, but the restoration of a dream of harmony or unity or fulfillment is found with the vow of poverty.  A church needs to be aware of the need for money, and it needs to ask for it. But there is a shadow side to it as well.   We can fall apart as a society, and as a church if we become too obsessed with money and use it purely for our own purposes, if we have too much debt, or if we live too much on what has been given in the past.  We may lose a sense of that larger world that we are connected to, or that inheritance that we are called to be the stewards of into the future.  We may lose that sense of common obligation if we think someone else is going to do it, either among the living or the dead.

            In the reading for today, Moore talks about how much of life in the monastery is designed around work.  This is part of the spiritual discipline.  Moore relates the story of feeling resentful about pruning a tree when he thought the novice monk was suppose to be learning Latin and reciting prayers.  What it reminds us of is that work profoundly affects the soul.  It is not some secular venture apart from spiritual development, it is a reflection of who we are as spiritual beings.  There is the passion and commitment we bring to our work. There are the values we learned about work from our families and traditions.  There is also a sense of presence and prayer we bring to the everyday devotion we give to this work.  This reminded me of how my chaplaincy supervisor approached the profession of ministry many years ago when I took my chaplaincy training at what was then the Memorial Hospital in Worcester.  Before we were allowed to put on the name tag that identified us as hospital chaplains each of the students had to work for a week as an orderly or an aide. We were called upon, after a brief training, to lift patients, to give bed pans, provide baths and other types of simple care that responded to the basic human needs of those who were ill.  This was not about dispensing wisdom or proving our professional mettle, but was instead a test of human compassion for another person.  This exercise taught humility, and connected us to other people on a very basic level.  Part of the lesson was that all work, even the most physical labor, connects us with deeper sources of meaning and identity. There was this sense of physical presence and care for the other person that went much deeper than words or knowledge.

            Last week I spoke a little about our work around the house, snow shoveling and our attachment to the world.  Doing simple tasks like laundry and cooking can be mundane and boring, but if done with a focused mindfulness, they can also be a meditation. What is especially vital is how it provides that simple connection to the work of the world that everyone must do.  This was true when the chaplain had us physically labor to care for others.  You need to know this, she implied, because there is a very real understanding of pain and loneliness and realization of life and death that needs to inform you as a human being.  And you will help alleviate the common vicissitudes of life by being there for someone else, and by contributing to their life helping to heal them or at least ease their time of trial.

              Sometimes we can lose sight of what we gain spiritually by our relationships with others in the work we carry out, if we are only focused on writing the program or finishing the sermon, teaching a class or doing something successfully.  We may see our work as a list of tasks to be done  or accomplishments to add to our resume rather than something that truly feeds the soul.  I sometimes worry about this at church, where committees focus on the task, but may lose sight that one of the reasons people choose committee work is to know others more intimately, to be in community, to try out things they feel strongly about.  The other night at our Parish Council meeting we all clearly understood that preserving our building was vitally important, as it is our church home, but the building is only a means to an end, and that end is building community, nurturing relationships of love and care and acceptance, bringing our values into the larger world, and ultimately handing our faith on to the generations who follow.

            There is a story in the Hindu tradition called The Bag of Gold.  The divine couple Shiva and Shakti are in heaven watching over the world.  They are moved by human existence, especially all the suffering they see.  As they are watching, Shakti sees a poor old man stumbling down the road.  His clothes are shabby and his sandals are tied together with a piece of rope.  She is touched by his struggle, and turns to Shiva, and begs him to give him a bag of gold.  Shiva looks at his wife after a few moments of contemplation, and declares, “My dear, I cannot do that.”  She was astounded, “What do you mean you cannot do that, you are the Lord of the universe. You can’t do that simple thing?”   Shiva said, Well of course I could do it, but he is not ready to receive it yet.”  Shakti became angry, “Do you mean to say you cannot simply drop a little bag of gold in his path to ease his suffering?”  “Surely I can,” he said, “but this is another thing.” “Please,” said Shakti.  And so Shiva finally relented, and dropped a bag of gold in the path.  In the meantime, the man stumbled along, as it was beginning to get dark.  He wondered, “will I be able to find dinner tonight, or shall I go hungry again?”   He went around a bend in the road, and saw something in the path.  “That looks like a large rock,” he said.  “It is fortunate that I have seen it.  Otherwise I might have tripped over it, and hurt myself, or torn my sandals even more.” Moving carefully, he stepped over the bag of gold, and continued on his way. 

We all have stepped over bags of gold in our lives, and often we do not recognize them.  We step around them, and don’t see them for what they were until long after the fact.  We may say, why didn’t I thank that professor of mine, or why didn’t I tell those people what they meant to me.  Recalling a past experience, we say, I loved being there or doing that, but only years later do we see that. There is gold in negative experience, too. Did you ever have unfulfilled dreams or talents you never pursued?  Our canvass reminds us that, yes, we live in a material world, and we need your gold to survive and prosper. Like much of life, we find that in trying to fill committees and do the work of the church, we can sometimes miss the bags of gold that are everywhere in our midst.  In January, a child from our church school placed a card, an invitation to the MLK breakfast, in the offering plate.  After church I looked at the card sitting amidst all the dollar bills.  It said, “I know this isn’t a gift you can play with, but it is important.  I love this church so much because you people make everyone feel so special, and I wanted to say thanks.”  That is the gold we must never step around.  Our gold is not our success or what we each get, but what we all give to a shared community – working together in a common cause, and belonging to something larger and more lasting than ourselves.  Long ago, a band of radicals called Universalists said that redemption was universal. There is no hell, and you don’t need to have a ticket punched. Your ticket is already punched.  You are not a worthless sinner, but someone God loves who deserves happiness, and has ultimate worth. Our mission is to tell everyone – you have the gold – that child who gave her offering, the poor, women, GBLT, people of color, immigrants.  We will let you give the gold as long as you believe with all your heart that there is gold in everybody, and everything. Those who others banish to the sidelines are invited to our table. Come to the feast.



Closing Words –  from David Whyte


I want to write about faith,

            about the way the moon rises

                        over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades form fullness,

            slowly becoming the last curving and impossible

                        sliver of light before the final darkness.

But I have no faith myself

   I refuse it the smallest entry.

Let this then, my smallest poem,

            like a new moon, slender and barely open,

                        Be the first prayer that opens me to faith.