A Brief History of Hell
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Twenty years ago the Trinity Broadcasting Network broke a phenomenal story that purportedly offered proof of the literal existence of Hell as taught by some Christian denominations. Back in the ‘70’s the Russians were drilling very deep boreholes for geological research. In Murmansk Oblast, Russia they drilled a line nine miles down that broke through to a cavity. They lowered heat tolerant equipment including a microphone down the borehole. The report claims they discovered a temperature of 2,000 °F and the sounds of screaming human voices.
The truth of it is less interesting, sadly. The Kola Superdeep Borehole in Russia was in fact a little less than eight miles deep. While they did find some “interesting geological anomalies,” they discovered nothing supernatural. The temperature only reached 360 °F, hot enough to make deeper drilling prohibitively expensive. And they heard no screaming human voices.
The idea of a literal location called Hell is not something I can subscribe to. My faith, which allows science and other lessons of reality into the mix, compels me to agree with countless thinkers, theologians, and truth-seekers who see such ideas as metaphors and potent myths. Hell is not a reality that can be found by drilling deep enough into the Earth. It is instead a state of being, a metaphor of despair.
It seems to me that most people’s understanding of Hell has been influence not primarily by scripture or theologians, but instead by writers such as Milton and Dante. The gospels and the book of Revelation reveal certain messages about Hell and how one might end up there, but it is later literature and art that really breathed life into the place with greatly detailed description and sensual depiction.
Time Magazine nearly 10 years ago conducted a survey of the views we Americans hold about the afterlife. To the question: Do you believe in the existence of heaven where people live forever with God after they die? 81% answered yes. To the question: Do you believe in hell where people are punished forever after they die? 63% answered yes. The next question in this poll was a multiple choice one with five possible answers: Immediately after death which of the following do you think will happen to you: Go to heaven; Go to hell; Go to purgatory; Be reincarnated; or Death is the end of existence. And among the results they got to their multiple choice picks, only 1% said they were going to hell. Nearly 2/3 of our citizenry believe in hell but practically nobody thinks that they personally are going there!
A Universalist is one who forgoes the advantage of Hell for persons of another faith (Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary). Our Universalists heritage offers a resounding answer to the question of eternal punishment. No, they say, there is no Hell. God’s love is more powerful than your sins and mistakes. It would seem from the Time Magazine survey that Universalism is growing in popularity among people. The idea that Heaven is the final destination, that ultimately punishment is not the last word, is an idea that has gained firm foothold in the imagination of average folks.
Hell, however, is still surprisingly popular in its own right. Many people cherish this idea of eternal torturous punishment after death. While it is fair to say this theological idea is most clearly held among Christians and, by historical connection, Muslims, it is also true that neither the Muslims nor the Christians originated the idea. There is a concept of punishment in an afterlife found across cultures and ages, threading through many religious traditions. The history of Hell is not a simple trajectory beginning and ending inside Christianity!
Almost all religions speak about something after death – not all, but most. The Mayan people believed in a location under the world that held evil beings, but it had more to do with the struggle of the gods than a place of judgment and punishment for the dead. Among the Aztec, there was not a location under the ground; instead they believed the dead went on a journey to the north, a journey with trials but not necessarily of judgment.
Buddhism teaches that there are five or six realms of rebirth, and through your karma you merit rebirth into one or another of these realms, the lowest is akin to the western concept of Hell. The disciple who tried to kill Buddha three times, for example, is said to be in this lowest realm. Of course through persistence and rebirth, one may rise out of this lowest realm into eventual Buddha-nature. The Hindu tradition, from which Buddhism evolved, has a similar concept: a time between rebirths when the partial fruits of karma are meted out. It must be mentioned, however, that the earlier Vedic tradition, which serves as the root of Hinduism, has no such concept. Taoism also has no concept of hell, primarily due to the Taoist notion that morality is a human distinction. There is, it must be admitted, a very imaginative array of Chinese folklore about a realm of the dead in which earthly sins are atoned – this lore has an impact on Taoism and Buddhism as it is practiced. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell)
Hell, as a location of punishment for the wicked, seems to really be focused in the religious traditions that arose in the Mesopotamian and Middle-Eastern regions. The Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh is the earliest record of an ‘underworld’ or land of the dead. This epic-tale of a descent into the Great Below is echoed throughout literature in many traditions: Tammuz and Ishtar, Osiris and Isis, Persephone and Demeter, Adonis and Aphrodite. (Turner, Alice; A Brief History of Hell, p5-7) Nearly all the accounts of the ‘underworld’ or ‘Great Below’ share a number of common elements: A mountain barrier, a river, a boat and boatman, a bridge, gates and guardians, an important tree (Ibid, p. 5). In these traditions – as in the Eastern religious traditions and Central American native traditions, the ‘underworld’ is not a place of everlasting punishment which is the prime feature of Hell. The question I have is how this ‘land of the dead’ evolved into the ‘land of the damned.’
The concepts from the Egyptian Osiris cult held judgment for the dead. If you were deemed worthy by a tribunal at death then you were welcomed into eternal life, otherwise you were devoured. This was certainly torturous, but not eternal. Zoroastrianism has several competing ideas of punishment for sins after death. Some of them do to be eternal, or at least lasting until a final judgment time. As such this pre-Christian Persian tradition displays significant parallels to the Hell of Christianity. There is a strongly supported claim that Zoroastrian eschatology and demonology has influenced all the Abrahamic faiths.
The ancient Greek version of Hades was a place of the dead – of all the dead – but there were sections set aside for punishment, so there is a sense of a hell in this. The early Hebrew people, based solely on their scripture, did not an clearly defined concept of an afterlife. Dead bodies were considered unclean, beyond that they were not given much attention.
The Hebrew word Sheol occurs frequently in the Old Testament; sometimes it is translated as “Hell,” sometimes as “the grave,” and sometimes as “the pit,” but nowhere does it seem to indicate anything other than the place in which a body is laid to rest, except when used metaphorically to indicate depression or despair. (Turner, Alice; A Brief History of Hell, p40)
The same is the case for the word Gehenna which literally refers to the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where the bodies of criminals were thrown. The dump was perpetually burning for sanitary purposes. Rabbi Jesus and others use gehenna as a metaphor with great affect.
Which brings us the early Christians and how perceived Hell. The earliest canonical Christian writings are from Paul and he said nothing about Hell. He warned against several activities, several forms of sin, but went only so far as to say ‘the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 5:6); not eternal damnation, just death. A few of the letters written by people other than Paul (2 Peter and Jude) warn of future punishment, but make no reference to flames. In the gospels, written a little after the letters, Mark and Luke make passing reference to Hell, John’s gospel makes no mention, leaving Matthew to make up the difference (which Matthew does with a vengeance!)
The Gospel of Matthew makes repeated warnings of being ‘cast into a furnace of fire’ where there will be ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ (13:40-42; 13: 50; 25: 30) And of course there is that wild ride of a text known as the book of Revelation – a colorful description of the defeat of Satan is described, but the punishment is for Satan and a ‘false prophet’ alone, rather than for all of the wicked and damned of humanity. (Turner, Alice; A Brief History of Hell, p52-65)
So much of what we have to go on about Hell comes from a handful of scriptural verses: In Luke the scene is painted of the beggar Lazarus in Heaven looking down at the rich man caught in the flames of Hell. In Matthew we are told that the wicked are ‘cast into a furnace of fire.’ In the Apostles Creed – which is not scripture – there is the line that saying Jesus descended into Hell, which many take to be a harrowing of Hell. As time goes on, the particular descriptions of Hell and hell-related scenes from scripture are expanded upon and detailed out quite extensively. By the time Islam is born and the Qur’an takes shape with its own versions of several stories from Jewish and Christian scripture, we find the descriptions of hell quite advanced.
Along with Dante and Milton, artists from the Middle-Ages like Bosch, and theologians such as Augustine, the notion of an underground pit of punishment populated by demons and the damned became quite fixed in the imagination of the Western world. At the time of Galileo, there was an entrenchment among Christians into a literalist view to fight off the encroachment of science. At the this time in history when, according to Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God, “Kabbalists were reinterpreting the biblical account of creation in a deliberately symbolic manner,” and “Mulla Sadra was teaching Muslims that heaven and hell were located in the imaginary world within each individual,” there were Jesuit scholars proclaiming that “Hell is a subterranean place distinct from the tombs.” (Armstrong, A History of God, p290-291)
Modern science certainly served as a catalyst for traditional literal interpretation of Hell among certain Christians; and as science progressed, the other monotheistic traditions developed growing enclaves of fundamentalism as well. We are at the point that, as sited earlier, nearly two-thirds of Americans “believe in hell where people are punished forever after they die.” (Time Magazine poll) But that was not always the case. Hell began as ‘the great below.’ It began as a question of death and judgment.
And so, my earlier question about the shift from the ‘land of the dead’ to the ‘land of the damned’ is not easily answered. Clearly the shift takes place most prominently with the advent and development of Christianity, although other traditions from Zoroastrianism to Buddhism carry some form of a story of punishment after death for the wicked. Clearly part of the answer is that Jesus spoke of Hell – even if only in parable or as metaphor as I could contend – he did speak of the place. But part of the answer also is cultural: Hell is a tool of social control. When Christianity became the religion of the Roman Emperor, the threat of Hell was surely useful in convincing people to behave in certain ways. Another, more nuanced, cultural aspect is in recognizing that significant portions of Jesus’ message came out as a mixture of Jewish theology and Hellenistic philosophy. So the notion of Sheol, metaphorically a place of despair, and Hades, the unpleasant land of the dead, merge to become a location of death and despair.
Each of these ideas has a share in the answer to that great turning point in the history of Hell. One aspect I haven’t mentioned yet, however, that intrigues me well beyond the scale of this one theological point, is the aspect of the evolution of myth. Part of why the concept of Hell changed over time is because evolution is not limited to biology; things like culture and myth evolve as well. Thus the idea of Hell evolved along an identifiable pattern.
In earliest times, myths of God and creation, heaven and hell, all revolved around knowing the rituals and following the rituals in the right way to assure the world would continue to function as we needed it to function. Eventually the myths developed into dichotomies of order and chaos. God created order out of chaos. Life consisted of a struggle between the pull of order and of chaos, and death was a release back into chaos. Eventually the myths evolved to say it is not enough to follow the rituals correctly and to keep things orderly. We must also treat each other well. Morality is added to the mix and the myths develop a layer to explain right and wrong, to offer punishment and reward. This is not to say that people didn’t care about or understand morality and the difference between right and wrong prior to the development of hell. Simply that shift from the ‘land of the dead’ to the ‘land of the damned’ was a mark in the mythic evolution of morality and justice.
Today we continue to evolve. The trajectory has been developing for the past few hundred years is that the big theological ideas become internalized: God is within, heaven and hell are internal consequences, both ‘Creation’ and ‘Judgment Day’ happen now rather than at the outer boundaries of time. The next evolutionary step in the mythic patterns seems to be around interconnectedness. The myth of Hell shall continue as more metaphor than literal location and likely develop the feeling of despair into a tone of alienation and dislocation. And Heaven, as always, will be about union.
In a world without end, may it be so
Different is Good
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Jo Ann Freer wanted me to tell you that ours is not an easy path to walk. And when I say “ours” I don’t mean ‘Unitarian Universalists’ as I often do when I say things like that. I mean anyone who is willing to step away from a preordained course outlined by a traditional religion. Jo Ann wanted me to say that it is hard work to strike out on your own, to blaze your own trail of faith, to build your own beliefs and understandings rather than follow the guidance of even good and wise examples past and present. Jo Ann felt it was important for you to hear this: it is not easy, but it is worth it.
Jo Ann won the “Sermon Topic and Lunch with the minister” item at the annual UUCB Dining for Dollars Auction two years back. You may recall the sermon I preached after a ‘lunch and conversation’ with John Smigelski only a few weeks ago, “Douglas’ Revised Catechism for Skeptics and Seekers.” Jo Ann won the same item from two years back, and it needed to be postponed for various reasons. Jo Ann asked me to consider how each of us is different and the impact that can have on a person’s spiritual journey.
Jo Ann sent me to Oprah’s interview with Rev Ed Bacon from Pasadena, California. The Episcopalian church he serves, All Souls, says this on there website: “Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, there is a place for you here.” That sounds a lot like a UU church slogan. There are so many of these progressive religious communities that offer a message that are much like ours – it is a real joy to me to know that open searching communities are out there for people, that we are not the only show in town to offer that kind of gracious openness. That is, after all, part of the integrity of the message: your path is unique – here might be about the best place for you to explore your faith with others, but then again it might not be. Part of your work is to figure that out. Welcome.
Rev. Bacon spoke about spirituality and religion, shared insight into the differences between them. He spoke of spirituality and religion from the vernacular understanding: spirituality is synonymous with your personal faith, your experiences; religion is about your beliefs, doctrines and dogma. Your spirituality is what you would live for, even what you would die for. Your doctrines and beliefs are what you would kill for. This, I would argue, is a far too simplified dichotomy to really serve, but it’s an apt dichotomy to work with all the same. Rev. Bacon said that while there are people who are spiritual without being religious and others who are religious without being spiritual, the best are those who are both. Spirituality is what you have within you; religion is what you share with a community.
It kind of makes you wonder if they could have an online quiz for this. Well, wonder no longer! Beliefnet is loaded with such silly quizzes like the Belief-o-matic. This one is called: “What’s Your Spiritual Type?” and it really seems to be a quiz to place you on the continuum between spiritual and religious as Rev Bacon is talking about. A low score will peg you as a “Spiritual Dabbler” or even a “Hardcore Skeptic.” Around the middle you have the “Active Spiritual Seeker — Spiritual but turned off by organized religion” and “Old-fashioned Seeker — Happy with my religion but searching for right expression of it.” Higher scores will get you labeled as a “Confident Believer” or at the extreme, a “Candidate for Clergy!” I did not score as a ‘candidate for clergy’ thankfully (because I think they were using that as a way to say someone is closed-minded with no doubts and very traditional.) I scored right in the middle. They called me a “Spiritual Straddler — One foot in traditional religion, one foot in free-form spirituality.” That feels right to me.
There was a sign hanging in the kitchenette at the Meadville Lombard seminary building that read “Here you do your own theology and your own dishes.” A major component of how we do things here is to encourage each other in free-form spirituality: work this out as you feel your heart leading you. Another aspect of that dichotomy that is tempting (but dangerous) is to hang emotion and intuition on the side of Spirituality and faith, and leave intellect and reason on the side of Religion and beliefs. Watch out for that. I strongly advise you, when dividing up parts of yourself, to never excuse a portion of your life from critical evaluation! Likewise, be wary of what was called be Emerson “corpse-cold Unitarianism” – always remember the experiential root of your beliefs. Heart and mind belong together. Spirituality and religion belong together in my understanding as well. But today I will tease them apart and focus on the spiritual journey.
Typically when I approach a topic like this is focused on how we can be bound together in a community when we place such an emphasis on the individual journey. But I heard Jo Ann asking for reflection not on how ‘we’ do this work together, but about how you or I do this work. So let us talk not about the communal religious work as I led us through a little of last week. Instead let us talk about the personal spiritual work involved in life. After all, all the doctrines and beliefs and different religions are vehicles to help us on our way.
There is a Taoist meditation book with a story about using donkeys to reach high places in the world. Donkeys, so sure footed and sturdy, are excellent beasts for carrying you up the mountain. When we reach the top, everyone stands in the same place, sees the same view, and the donkeys are not used anymore. The meditation is called “Dismount your Donkey at the Summit.” Of course it is a metaphor. The donkeys are the various religions and doctrines and beliefs we embrace as we journey up the mountain. “What does it matter,” the meditation asks, “which donkey we embrace as long as it leads us to the summit? Your donkey might be the Zen donkey, mine the Tao donkey. There are Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and even Agnostic donkeys.” I love that, the meditation singles out agnostic donkeys. It goes on to say, “All lead to the same place. Why poke fun at others over the name of their donkey? Aren’t you riding one yourself?” (From Tao- daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao) And then the point of the meditation is that once you reach the top, you no longer need your donkey, we will one day come to a place where we no longer need names to describe what we experience. “All religions have different names for the ways of getting to the holy summit.” Yet we must get off our donkeys when we finally get there.
Thankfully, we are each different. Every person experiences and interacts with that which is holy, with the sacred, with God, in the way that fits for that person. Each person is like a fingerprint. What fits you will not fit me. You must find the words and ways that fit best for you, as you listen to my words you’ll need to translate to the words that work for you. We vest a great amount of authority in the individual religious conscience, proclaiming that you and you alone can discern, through your own free and responsible searching, what is ultimately true and meaningful in terms of faith and religion. It is not simply that differences are honored, accepted. They are necessary. We must be different. All of life is like this.
Last year I was marching downtown with Muslims, in solidarity with a conservative faith community’s efforts to reach out and define themselves more clearly in the community. They actually asked me to be the keynote speaker for the rally following the march. They asked me to speak about unity. So I spent a little time talking about unity but mostly I spoke of diversity. I pointed to the trees around us on the lawn – there is a remarkable variety to be found. And even when you consider two oak trees, they still grow differently, uniquely. Difference and diversity is the order of life, the way we have been designed by our creator, the result of an effective process of evolution. It is just the way it is! And, elegantly, that is the best way into our unity.
The Transcendentalists such as Emerson captured the fullness of the sentiment that your personal unique experience can shoot straight to the heart of a universality of experience that harkens the unity of life.
And this, because the heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one. Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely: that the Highest dwells with him. (Oversoul)
Your expression of divinity or high principle is your contribution to the pattern. The differences among us beautify the pattern of the whole. There would be no harmony if we all sang the same note. Talking with people who sound like you do is like walking around endlessly in a cul-de-sac, the challenge is absent and the beauty fades by familiarity! It is critical to discover the divine spark within you, as Jesus said “the kingdom of God is within.” However, the real challenge is to see the divine spark, the inherent worthiness and dignity of another; to see God’s image in one who is not in our image. It is one of the great tasks of a spiritual life: to allow yourself to be challenged from time to time by the perspective of another. It is one of the best ways to stay grounded in your otherwise private spiritual journey.
The analogy of eyesight applies well. Depth perception is gained by having two eyes focused on the same object. If you close one eye, it is very difficult to judge depth and distance. A depth of understanding is gained by having more than one perspective focused on the same issue. Listening to the perspectives of others will lead you to a deeper understanding of yourself and your world. I know my own faith is deepened when I encounter another person’s faith in a way that allows me to listen and share with the other person. Listening to another person’s perspective helps me appreciate my own understanding at a deeper level.
Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies said that life is an opportunity to grow a soul. The implication in this statement from Davies is that your soul in dynamic, today we could say your spirituality is dynamic. Certainly dynamic, but not necessarily easy. Growing your soul is not about clarifying your beliefs or attending the best churches. It has more to do with clarifying your compassion and your capacity to see another person’s situation. Growing your soul is about allowing another perspective in without being threatened or feeling a need to overcome it or disprove it. Growing your soul is about welcoming diversity and seeking the unity beneath it all.
So, welcome. Welcome to the journey you continue this day. You are always changing, and your personal faith is equally dynamic. Your religion and your community can never keep up with you and thus we do not even try. Here we eschew doctrines and creeds that we may hold open a space for your understanding to grow and develop free from any shackle or undue constraint. Be mindful, ours is not an easy path to walk. Anyone who is willing to step away from a preordained course outlined by a traditional religion will find the deeper truth and meaning to be found in life. Be warned, it is hard work to strike out on your own, to blaze your own trail of faith, to build your own beliefs and understandings rather than follow the guidance of even good and wise examples past and present. It is not easy, but it is worth it.
Along this path you will uncover a way to manage, to tame, your ego. Along this path, you will develop a strong ethic of right relation with others. Along this path, you will open yourself to experiences of oneness and unity. Along this path, you will find forgiveness and the art of forgiving others. Along this path there is peace and joy and community. Let go of the need to be right, let go of the desire to have life fit your doctrines and beliefs. Welcome a mindful attentiveness to what is happening in front of you. Welcome the perspective of others and learn to expand your compassion. Growing your soul is about welcoming diversity and seeking the unity beneath it all.
In a world without end
May it be so
Heeding the Prophet Margin
Rev. Douglas Taylor
According to an Associated Press article about the government regulations, Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve and proponent of deregulation, “calls the current downturn a ‘once in a century’ financial crisis. He says the problem wasn’t with the [unregulated] derivative contracts but with the greed of the people who dealt in them.” (from article, Pendulum swings back to financial restraints by Tom Raum; Press & Sun-Bulletin 3/27/09, 13A)
This argument has some merit. Like one of the slogans of the National Rifle Association: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The problem is not that people had access to something that could hurt another person – the problem is that they chose to do so. Or, in the financial example, the problem is not that they can, just that they do. The problem is greed. And there is something to that.
After signing a $121-million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O’ Neal was “besieged by the media asking about the preposterousness of that sum.” O’Neal retorted, “I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi and wear Reebok.” (quoted from Dick Gilbert’s How Much Do We Deserve?, p xii-xvi)
Greed is at the root of our problem. But, I don’t think it follows that we therefore should not regulate the market now that we know individuals are not self-regulating. The anxiety spurred acquisition of wealth leads us away the qualities that strengthen community.
Confucius says: To centralize wealth is to disperse the people; to distribute wealth is to collect the people. (The Great Learning chapter x, verse 9) The Gospel of Luke has Jesus saying: Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15). Gandhi, railed against the caste system embedded in his Hindu tradition. He said:
I suggest we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my own immediate use, and keep it, I thieve it from somebody else. … You and I have no right to anything that we really have until these three million are clothed and fed better. You and I, who ought to know better, must adjust our wants …in order that they may be nursed, fed, and clothed. … There is enough wealth to meet everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed. (quoted from Dick Gilbert’s How Much Do We Deserve?, p 2-3)
And the Jewish prophet Isaiah issued this warning:
Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: “surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.” (5:8-9)
So, all over the world, religion offers a warning against hoarding and greed, while occasionally presenting a preferential option for the poor. God, we may well conclude, hates rich people. But that can’t be right. Two weeks back I offered the perspective that money is, at its root, a tool of the sacred. Money is a metaphor of divine valuation and Unitarian Universalism is far from the only religion that affirms the claim that we are all valued in the eyes of God. Does that mean that rich people, how possess more of this metaphor of divine valuation we call money, are more valued – more loved – by God? God, we may well conclude, hates poor people. This isn’t getting us anywhere. Money is just a tool – its power is all in the way that we use it.
Problems arise when this tool is stuck in the hands of a few. Money is like our blood – it is best when circulation runs smoothly and regularly. When blood sits in one spot too long we risk getting a blood clot – which can be lethal. The problem is often identified as an issue of poverty – a lack of money. Religion does not really frame it that way. Religion tends to identify it as an issue of wealth stagnation – a lack of circulation or a lack of recognition of the common good. Wealth is not the problem any more that one person’s wealth causes another person’s poverty, as if there is a zero-sum gain. The problem is a disregard for the common good.
This is what the Hebrew prophets were continually reminding the people: that they had forgotten that they were one people, bound together as the twelve tribes of Israel. The prophets are not easy role models, yet we are called from time to time to act as prophets for our communities. I received many valuable insights from my mentor into ministry, not the least of which was in gaining an understanding of the location of any prophet. My mentor, Ruppert Lovely told me that a prophet must be a member of the community against which he or she prophesies. The warnings, the calls to return to faithful and just living, the critique – cannot be offered from outside the community. To offer such critique from outside will be heard as judgmental, “you people over there need to stop being unjust. You are bad and wrong.” Instead, a prophet must say, “We must stop being unjust.” But there is more to it than just this. The location of a prophet is in a particular part of the community. The prophet stands on the edge, on the margins of the community, witnessing to the situation of the oppressed and dispossessed.
And so Elijah and Amos and Nathan and Jeremiah are each, in their turn, considered to be trouble-makers and enemies of Israel as they spoke out for the poor and the oppressed against the government of Solomon. King Solomon “the wise,” we remember him as. King Solomon who recreated the Pharaoh’s administration, is who scripture truly shows.
The whole Exodus story is about the overthrow of the oppressive regime of the Pharaoh and the flight into the wilderness. The message of Passover comes out as the historical root of the Jewish people. They fled from oppression; they were slaves. In Egypt they had been oppressed social, economic, and religious. When they left that behind, wandering through the desert, they were given the ten commandments and many further laws to help them create a just government system when they arrived in Canaan. In Deuteronomy we find remarkable regulations for the economic health of the whole people.
Deuteronomy 24:19-22 says:
When you reap your harvest in our field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive tree, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
This passage in Deuteronomy is accompanied by several others that call the people to specifically not withhold wages due to the poor (vs 14-15) and to not require collateral on loans to the poor (vs 10-13). The biblical economy was concerned with private possession and earnings, wages and profit: very decent capitalist elements of an economy. But there was an ultimate goal that was NOT the bottom line, NOT the profit margin (P-R-O-F-I-T profit). The ultimate goal was the common good, the Beloved Community. It was caring for all members of the community – caring even for those who are not part of God’s Chosen People, the ‘aliens’ alongside the widows and orphans. But it was forgotten.
Amos and Jeremiah lamented the way the government of Solomon ignored the people, creating instead a gilded temple for the elite members of society, creating instead a gilded class system relegating the poor and the marginalized to remain outside of the temple. In short, the leaders forgot the work of Exodus.
Noted Jewish political philosopher Michael Walzer noticed a universal trend in all revolutions in the modern world. He noted that the Exodus narrative is the taproot for all of them. He put it like this:
So pharaonic oppression, deliverance, Sinai, and Canaan are still with us, powerful memories shaping our perceptions of the political world. The ‘door of hope’ is still open; things are not what they might be – even when what they might be isn’t totally different from what they are. This is a central theme is Western thought, always present though elaborated in many different ways. We still believe, or many of us do, what Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about meaning and possibility of politics and about its proper form:
• First, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;
• Second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;
• And third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.”
There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching. (Michael Welzer, Exodus and Revolution; p149)
The memory of Egypt faded, the leaders imagined they could create a system similar to the one they’d had in Egypt. As the Hebrew people built up their kingdom throughout the centuries after conquering Canaan, they lost sight of what they had left behind in Egypt and began to become a near replica of their former oppressors. Solomon’s empire is a vast acquisition of wealth and power. And so the prophets rise to cry out for the poor and the oppressed: “remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” Remember that we are connected to each other and the common good is our goal.
During the class I just finished, Spirit of Life, there is a session devoted to justice-making as a spiritual disciple. The starting point for the session is a story by Robert Thurman, Professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. It goes something like this:
Imagine you are on the subway. In your subway car are all sorts of people, the kinds of people who would normally ride on the subway in a big city. A mix of working class, wealthy, and middle class people. People speaking many different languages, people of many skin colors and cultures, people of many ages. Some people who are clean and polished looking, others who are smelly and unkempt. Some who are quiet, some who talk too loud, some who talk to themselves. Some who annoy you terribly and some who you find attractive. All sorts of people are on this subway car, heading to their destination.
All of a sudden, Martians come and zap the subway car. And soon you figure out that as a result of this zap, everyone on the subway car is going to be together—forever.
How does that change the way you act? Think about it. If they’re freaking out, you’re going to try to calm them. If they’re hungry, you’re going to try to feed them. If they’re arguing, you’re going to try to figure out what’s going on and seek resolution. If there’s injustice, you’re going to try to make it just.
You do it because suddenly, these assorted people on the subway are your people. The ones you will dwell with forever. You care about them in a whole different way. What we do and what we care about matters. When we allow ourselves to see the bigger picture, we can see that we are all already on that subway car—Earth.
We are absolutely interconnected and interdependent. How we are, what we do, they ripple out. What ever happens “over there,” happens “over here,” too. Because these people are your people. My people. Our people.
Like the kingdom period in Hebrew Scriptures, we have lost sight of the best way to build our wealth as a people, namely to take care of all the people first, to see that everyone needs to be accounted for. There are no disposable people.
Where does this lead us? Yes, a safety net is needed, but more than that we need to create meaningful jobs, we need to give the transitional support needed to allow people to work, to make work a viable option. Most people do not want a hand out, they want a hand up. I keep thinking I am going to out myself one of these days when I preach about money or about the economy. Not all Unitarian Universalists are middle class. This question of poverty is not simply academic, not simply a question of ‘us’ helping ‘them.’ There are people in this congregation living near or below the poverty line. Certainly this congregation, like most Unitarian Universalist congregations, is predominantly middle-class. But we do have economic diversity.
I know of what I speak. In the past I have earned below the poverty line. As a young family we received WIC and food stamps. At one point I worked four part-time jobs to try and make ends meet. I know what it is like to ask for help from the government, from family members, from a minister’s discretionary fund. One analysis found that roughly 40% of Americans will temporarily fall below the poverty line at some point (Zweig, Michael (2004); What’s Class Got to do With It, American Society in the Twenty-first Century.) I imagine there are several people in our community who have at some time in their life been near or below the poverty line.
Poverty is not something to shrug off as the unavoidable consequence of a robust capitalism. We are all in this together, these are your people. Heed the warnings you hear from the margins of the community, for it is by our care for the stranger that we will be known – by our care for the alien, the orphan and the widow among us, for those is need, for the oppressed and dispossessed in our society – our attention to the voices from the margin will help us stay true to our goal of a Beloved Community. It’s long past time to heed the prophets and leave Egypt, the plagues have begun. The only way is into the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to the Promised Land except by joining together and marching.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Douglas’ Revised Catechism for Skeptics and Seekers
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Ok, usually the sermon title I publish in the Beacon is a good title that leads us right into the heart of my topic. Usually. Today’s title is so far off I will break rule #1 of public speaking by beginning the sermon with an apology. I thought a revised catechism would be interesting. As one who grew up Unitarian Universalist without the experience of catechisms, I though the Question and Answer style of theological exploration would be insightful. However, I have now looked at a few catechisms and detect a major flaw in the plan. A catechism’s purpose is to indoctrinate – to supply the exactly correct answers to pointed questions. That just is not our style. A Unitarian Universalist catechism of questions would have all the same answer: It depends. What is the nature of God? It depends. What is the purpose of humanity? It depends. A UU catechism would be filled with a lot of ‘yes and no,’ and ‘some see it this way, others see it that way.’ So I may someday take up the challenge of using a catechistic sermon style, today is not that day. Although what I will speak on is close enough.
The second and more important reason I am backing away from my title is that this is John Smigelski’s sermon. He was the top bidder at last year’s Dining for Dollars “Sermon Topic and Lunch” item. (The Dining for Dollars auction will be happening again this spring – see the bulletin board for more information or to sign up to offer an item.) So John and I had lunch. He told me about having learned about Jesus and the Bible through the Baltimore Catechism. John told me about how interested he was whenever I preached from the Bible because it tended to be rather different from what he’d been taught by the nuns as a youth. He wanted to learn more about the Bible, specifically about the stuff the nuns had not told him. Without further ado, I now step into what some consider to be a long, proud history of either biblical scholarship or biblical heresy, depending on who you ask.
Part 1: What the nuns probably did not tell you during catechism lessons.
Having grown up without hearing Biblical stories on a regular basis and, more importantly not hearing these stories interpreted for me on a regular basis, I have been curious about them since adulthood. Being more of a skeptic than a believer as a young adult I initially sought out the discrepancies and problematic passages. For example, Adam and Eve have two children initially: Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel and their parents have a third child, Seth. At this point, the total human population is still four. Then Cain and Seth each marry and have children. Where did their wives come from?
There are two accounts of creation. In one God creates humans after having created all the other creatures while in another God creates one man, followed by all the animals, birds and fish, and finally the second half of humanity: a woman. So which order is accurate? There are two versions of Noah loading the animals on the ark. In one there are two of every animal while in the other there are two of every unclean animal and seven of every clean animal (so Noah would have enough to sacrifice when the voyage was completed.) Why are there two different versions of what happened?
The Gospels are even worse in terms of internal consistency. In one Gospel shepherds visit the birth of Jesus while at another there appear wise men. In one version Jesus walks across the water, joining the disciples in the boat. In another version he walks past them and meets them on the shore. In yet a third version Jesus is joined by Peter and both of them walk on water before climbing into the boat. And the fourth gospel makes no mention of this at all. The Bible is full of small discrepancies like this.
Eventually I learned that the Bible was the product of many voices: many authors as well as many editors. The bible is not a single text, it is a compilation of several books written by many people over a quite a span of time. The different perspectives, the discrepancies, the occasional moments of contradiction are the product of bringing the multiplicity into a single unit. What we call the Bible was put together largely in response to the social and political pressures of the times. The Hebrew Scriptures as we know them today, what the Christians call the Old Testament and Jews call the Tanakh, was pulled together as a canon less than two hundred years Before the Common Era (B.C.E.). The New Testament was not finally solidified until sometime in the 300’s C.E.
Jesus and Paul referred to the scriptures, the sacred writings. For them this was the Torah and the Prophets. The version they used would likely have been something called the Septuagint, a famous Greek translation begun during the third century B.C.E. The legend is that a certain king asked 72 Jewish scholars, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, to translate the Hebrew text into Greek for the common people. This was soon after the conquests of Alexander the Great, so Greek was the common language of the people. An additional element to the legend has it that the 72 Jewish scholars took exactly 72 days to complete the translation of the Torah and that all 72 Greek translations were identical! It is more likely that the translation work went on for well over a hundred years before it was declared complete. The word “septuaginta” is Latin for 70. Why a Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures translated by 72 individuals would be known by the Latin word for 70 escapes me – but there it is. When the Gospel writer of Matthew quotes Isaiah, (Mt 1:23) he uses the phrasing from the Septuagint. When Paul invokes the Bible he is referring to the Septuagint.
The name of the first book of Hebrew Scriptures is the Greek word for ‘creation’: genesis. Likewise, exodus is Greek for ‘going out.’ So when Paul mentions ‘sacred writings’ to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:15-16), he isreferring to the Law and the Prophets, not the Gospels because they had not been written yet. Following the death of Jesus, the first things considered to be ‘sacred writings’ by the early Christians would have been the letters of Paul. Within a few decades there were written accounts of Jesus’ life, teachings, and death; dozens of them in fact. And it is only over time that it was narrowed down to four.
And all of the New Testament Gospels, letters and such were written in Greek. And while Jesus and the apostles would have read their Greek translation of the Hebrew scripture, they spoke a Semitic language known as Aramaic. And we now read all of this in English. It has been said that to translate a poem into another language is to write a new poem. The work of translation has been a critical point of concern in Bible studies. Things can go afoul in translation and the scholars have worked hard to catch what they can. As with the King James Version of the English Bible, the Greek word Agape was translated several ways. Do any of you remember ‘faith, hope and charity?’ We now read it as ‘faith, hope and love.’ There is significant scholarship about the translation of a prophecy in Isaiah about a certain ‘virgin’ – or was it a ‘young woman’? One should always wonder about translations.
In a Paris hotel elevator the English sign reads: Please leave your values at the front desk. Outside a Hong Kong tailor shop a sign said: Ladies may have a fit upstairs. On the door of a Moscow hotel room: If this is your first visit to the USSR, you are welcome to it. And the sign in an Acapulco hotel: The manager has personally passed all the water served here.
It can be difficult to translate at times when you have a pair of words like “Now here” and “No where.” If I tell you in Aramaic “the Kingdom of God is now here!” and someone 30 years later writes this message down in Greek, and others copy the text over and over until a few hundred years later they are attempting to translate it into Latin and begin to wonder: did he say ‘nowhere’ or ‘now here’? A simple textual error can lead to significant theological differences.
Knowing about the culture in which the original words were spoken or the earliest text were first used will help clarify a lot. We don’t need a catechism telling us exactly what a scripture passage means. Learning about the original context, the way people understood the world, will help us learn to hear what is offered more clearly.
Part 2: Exploring a particular example.
One scripture passage I have explored several times in the past but have not yet used in a sermon is from Chapter 5 of Mark’s Gospel. (Mark 5:21-43) This is a passage you are not likely to hear from a UU pulpit because it is not about a parable. It is about a healing.
When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him.
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’
“But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
While Jesus was still speaking, some men came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher any more?”
Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue ruler, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him.
After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” ). Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5:21-43)
This passage has always fascinated me. Not only for some of the little details that show up, like when the author has Jesus say the magic words “Talitha Koum,” which is simply a transliteration of the Aramaic for “Little Girl, arise.” But the whole event would have transpired in Aramaic and so all the quotes should be like that. Except the author is writing in Greek to Greek-speaking Christians which means the singling out of this phrase in Aramaic is the author’s attempt to add flair. But that is only one of the details that capture my interest, what really fascinates me is the juxtaposition of these two healing stories.
We are meant to connect them; two women seek healings, one who is twelve-years-old another who has a twelve-year hemorrhage. Yet the two are so different. One is an innocent child whose father, a temple leader, presents himself to Jesus in just the proper way asking for a healing for his child. The other is a woman who is ritually unclean, who sneaks up behind Jesus and steals a healing for her own. According to Jewish law a woman having her monthly menstrual flow was considered unclean. It was the height of medical knowledge at that time to know that blood could be contaminated, but there was no distinction beyond that. For example, the man left beaten and bleeding on the Jericho road was avoided by priests and temple leaders because he was bleeding. They didn’t want to catch anything! They were following their sacred laws concerning hygiene. But the Samaritan was good enough to stop and help. Jesus was good enough not to whirl around and say, “Eeww! That unclean woman just defiled me. I must go to the temple and cleanse myself. Meanwhile why don’t you all here stone her to death.” He could have done that. Instead he heals her and blesses her. Or, by some interpretations, she heals herself and he then blesses her. And the first thing he says to her is “daughter.”
Of course the delay costs the innocent daughter her life. But that is part of Jesus’ message, “I come for the sinner, not the saints” (Mark 2:17), the oppressed and dispossessed not the rich and powerful like Jairus and his daughter. But here is what I most love: Jesus does help Jairus’ daughter too. It’s like he is turning even his own rules upside down sometimes. The early Universalists would have found this to be an elegant message of God saving everyone, of Jesus’ love and care extending to both the powerful and the powerless. But without more of the context, the woman with the hemorrhage looks like a powerless peasant rather than a courageous woman who took control of the awful situation her culture dumped on her. When you re-read passages with women in them, keep your eyes open to the insidious interpretative overlay of submissive inferiority that is not really there in the text itself! Knowing the context of the text can free you.
There is a style of Bible study, I learned it as ‘the Wink method’ named after Bible scholar Walter Wink, whereby you look at a text and imagine yourself as one of the characters. Many people can imagine what it is like to be the long-suffering woman who has founded the courage within to tap into a healing power, many can identify with the distraught parent, or even the confused and slightly sarcastic apostles (what do you mean, somebody touched you? Everybody is touching you!) But this little girl who ‘sleeping’ and told to arise; all of us can identify with that. The Buddha wondered if we could wake from sleeping, when awake could we become awaker-still? Can we arise from what Thoreau called our “lives of quiet desperation”?
In leaping toward interpretations such as this, attempting to apply some lesson or perspective to your own life, it is helpful to have explored the original context, to hear old words in a new light. Knowing something about the Greek and the Aramaic context of these words will help. Knowing something about the sociological context of these stories will help. A richer connection to your personal deepening is possible. This is why I use a broad definition of scripture as not simple the official sacred writings of a religious tradition but as anything that offers you life-giving truth. This, I believe, is the power that can be found in any scripture – new understanding of how to live your life well.
In a world without end
May it be so.
As a Tool of the Sacred
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Have you ever tried to give money away? There are so many ways to do so, but I’m thinking particularly about the people who will secretly ‘play Santa’ around Christmas time by randomly handing a stranger a hundred bucks. I’m thinking about people who pay for the next three people in line behind them at the coffee stand or who slip a twenty under a random door at an apartment building. Random givers fascinate me. I understand the urge to give money to a homeless person on the street or to a charity that has mailed you a letter. Certainly giving gifts to loved ones makes sense. It is the urge to give money to the random stranger that interests me. Have you ever done it?
A few years back in The Sun Magazine there was a story about a young man, Poe Ballantine, who had developed a unique practice of giving money away. (September 2006, “God’s Day” by Poe Ballantine) He created for himself a holiday that included prayer, fasting, repentance, and the like. But it had no consumerism or Hallmark cards. He called it “God’s Day.” One aspect of “God’s Day” involved giving money away. “I always throw money away on God’s Day,” the author wrote, “walk with a twenty-dollar bill into the darkness and leave it somewhere.” Some year’s he will drop it over the fence of a house in disrepair or tuck it into the slates of a bench frequented by winos. Other times he will leave it in a particular book at the library like Charlie and Chocolate Factory. He experienced trouble the year he left it in the path of a particular homeless man, the year he shifted away from the fully random and tried to give to a particular person. The author watched as the homeless man walked past the twenty-dollar bill several times ignoring it. The young man had trouble sleeping that night, knowing the twenty was out there unclaimed.
In the morning he went by and saw it “still there,” he wrote, “bold and flagrant as a whore waving a handkerchief at a train.” He talked himself out of claiming it for himself (Oh, look, $20!). He almost blurted out the story to a neighbor who was complaining about a shortage of cash, but to do so felt wrong according to the rules he’d set up for “God’s Day.” It had to be found, not given. So it sat there half under a stone for four days untouched. He finally gave up a rescued the bill when it started snowing. It was day or two later that he eventually disposed of it in a church’s poor box, bringing the young man’s weeks-long “God’s Day” to an uneasy conclusion.
Why do people give money away like this? Most of us give money away as a form of supporting a relationship. There is often a connection between the giver and the receiver. Even when giving is anonymous, there is some connection: The young man in the story really wanted the twenty dollars to go to that particular homeless man and felt unsatisfied when he ended up giving the money to a church’s poor box where the money might go to help people such as the homeless man. The young man who authored this story has deep ambivalence about money and about faith.
Certainly the vast majority of Americans are ambivalent about money, and mixing money and faith is tricky. Colleague Dan Hotchkiss writes: “Money is a medium through which we act and are acted upon. A spiritual life that does not concern itself with money can have little effect on our daily lives.” (from Ministry and Money, p46) Both money and faith are seen as private. It is considered rude to probe too deeply into the faith or the finances of a friend. And even when there are natural points of connection between money and faith such as a congregation’s annual pledge drive, the conversations that arise are tricky.
For kicks, I went back to another sermon I delivered last year on a private and tricky subject: sex (Sex and Spirit, 5-4-08). I wanted to see if I could find a sentence about sex and spirit in which I could swap in the word “money.” Here is what I found: “[Money], when released of its shackles and allowed to be sacred, is natural, joyful, and beautiful – and indeed can be a path to grace, empowerment, and wholeness.” We keep bumping into the guilty section of our minds that tell us this or that is bad or dirty. Money is no more the root of evil then sex. Each, when viewed through the lens of faith, opens us up to the fullness of life. And yet we are constantly pushed to view both sex and money as things that are tainted, negative, something we must distance ourselves from if we are to live truly spiritual and blessed lives. But really it’s all in the way that we use it. The quote from the biblical letter from Timothy says that the love of money is the root of all evil. As one money-guru wrote, “Money itself isn’t our problem. Money itself isn’t bad of good. It is our interpretation of money, our interaction with it, where the real mischief is and where we find the real opportunity for self-discovery and personal transformation.” (from The Soul of Money, by Lynne Twist)
The problem is in the way that we use it. When I get anxious I hold tight to money, squeezing it with miserly fervor. But it isn’t long before I slip into the more normal state for me: denial. When I’m like this I’ll throw it around like I don’t care about it, like I don’t respect it, like I’m trying to get rid of it. Surely a healthy relationship with money is found between these two extremes. At my best I use my money to communicate to the world my values. At my best I use my money to bear witness to my values. At my best I let my faith make demands of my money.
From the first, this was the intent of money. Back when people used shells and stone disks, cattle, salt and feathers to do the work of money, what they were doing was using the tangible things to mark the divine meaning that actually happened in any transaction. Money began as a metaphor of divine valuation. The shells and stone disks did not matter; they merely represented the deeper reality. According to sociologists, early cultures needed these representatives of divine value “to bestow prestige, settle psychic or material debts, or placate enemies and so on.” (from Webster Kitchell Howell’s “Money” in The Abundance of Our Faith, p119) Over time, the tangible metaphors needed to hold common recognizable value across various cultures. And today we have metal coins and cloth bills which are steadily giving way to plastic cards.
What if we still used money with this original intent? As you handed coins and bills over to the cashier to buy a meal or as you swiped your debit card to purchase an outfit, can you imagine it as ‘divine communication’? As an expression of your deep values? Probably not. Most of the time when I use money it is for utterly mundane purposes. I actually tried to think like this over the past few weeks. Whenever I wrote a check to pay a bill or buy groceries, I thought: “divine communication – what am I saying about my values?” I would say to myself, “This is a sacred transaction.” Most of the time, it felt very silly. Our lives are so saturated with money that the use of it has grown meaningless.
Other times I would catch a hint of what I thought I should be finding. The check I write to pay for college classes or ice skating lessons for my children: I know that I am using my money to say something important. I am saying something to the teachers and to my children, and to myself. I am investing my money in my children as a demonstration of my values. When I paid for my membership to NPR or wrote a check toward my pledge to this congregation – it is easy to see that I am using my money to demonstrate my values. But when I actually had that thought in mind as I wrote the check it felt different. So I’m standing in the grocery store check-out about to swipe my card and I think, “This is a sacred transaction.” I have found that it really does sharpen the impact of your choices when you think of money this way.
Poet and Playwright Henrik Ibsen said, “Money may be the husk of many things but not the kernel. It brings you food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; acquaintances, but not friends; servants, but not loyalty; days of joy, but not peace or happiness.” Money is just a tool. What you do with it is the question worth asking. With the current economic troubles in the world, many people are prioritizing their spending. They are thinking about where there money goes more than they were in previous years. People are paying attention. I can only see that as a good thing for people. I believe we will discover this attention to priorities to have a positive impact on the congregation and on each of us individually. We may not end up with more money, but I think we will come through with a clear sense of financial priorities.
If you are new to this congregation or visiting, this may be the point when you zone out. I’ve given you plenty to think about for your own spiritual growth; now I’m going to talk about funding for the congregation. But, then again, perhaps if you are new or visiting it will interest you to hear that the annual stewardship campaign is an integral part of this congregation. Not because we need funding to meet a budget goal. No. This conversation is integral because of the way we are a faith community together. Every aspect of this congregation is in the hands of the members.
Last year I spoke about how different cultures and different faiths manage the work of funding their institutions. I didn’t script that sermon so I only have my memory. I suppose I could have watched the video recording, but I hate watching those. Anyway, my memory is that I spoke about the mandatory 10% religion tax that the German government collects to fund religious institutions. I spoke about the ‘orange aisle’ in the Thailand grocery stores so you would know what you can give to the begging monks in orange that come by your back door each day. I used a version of the quote, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all others,” saying that our pledge drive process is the worst way of funding a religious institution except for all the others. The institutional element of our congregation is the mere framework needed to hold the vibrancy at the heart of our congregation. The best part of this congregation has nothing to do with our financial records and is nowhere to be found on our budget sheets. The best part of our congregation in the care we give each other, the warmth we share. Our Small Group Ministry, our Social Justice work, our fellowship events, our Sunday school teachers, our potlucks, our forums and workshops – these cost us practically nothing in themselves. Yet they are created and supported by the institution that exists only because each year we fund it. And then, all the worship, the music, the Sunday School Curriculum, the staff – these are essential pieces that are exactly what we fund when we create our annual budget.
Budgets are moral documents. Each year this congregation makes choices about what it will fund and what it will not fund. Our budget is a reflection of our values and for the few years that I have been here I must tell you I have been proud of this congregation and of the choices we have made. I know that every year we begin our campaign with moderate to high hopes and a plan for fund our mission a few steps further than we currently are. And every year, so far, we have had to fall back from that plan, reformulate and create a budget that can still meet the needs and expand our mission in some ways. We give ourselves a hard time about that. Yet while it is always a little painful to do that, I tell you I am proud of us. Every year we demonstrate to our staff that we value them. We pay the staff of this congregation a decent wage recognizing the regular cost of living increases. Every year we fund our fair share support to our district and the association, which doesn’t sound exciting – but it is a big deal. And every year we fund the programming goals a little bit more. You should be proud of the budget you help shape each year. In June when it is time to vote on the budget I want you to look at it and say, “We created that. It is a sacred transaction, a divine communication of our values as a people.” Barack Obama, speaking recently about budgets and spending, said a budget is the “intersection of reflection and action” where “your good intention meets your respectful action” and “demonstrates how you are with others.”
I want to share with you a story I heard over the summer. (Rev. Alison Cornish told this story at UULTI 2008) There was a Unitarian Universalist congregation that launched a capital campaign – a major fundraising effort – that asked members to make a pledge that would be paid over several years. There was one member, an older woman, who was in a quandary. She wanted to support her congregation’s efforts, but she had few assets. She was retired, and lived on a small pension. Though her income was small, so were her needs and expenses. Problem was, there just wasn’t much left over for the church. She studied all her expenses, trying to decide what she might be able to do … and then she saw it. Every Friday, for most of her adult life, she had had her hair done at the beauty parlor. Just a trim and set – nothing fancy. It was her small luxury – her gift to herself. But after much thought – and no little anguish – she decided that, for now, she would care for her hair herself, and pledge the money she would have spent each Friday to the church. And so she did, letting her hair grow for the years of the capital campaign. No one had ever seen her with long hair, and they admired her new look when it grew in full and white and silky. The old woman actually enjoyed trying it in different styles, twisting it this way, curling it like that.
At the end of the campaign, she headed straight to her beauty parlor to have her hair cut in its old style again. When her hairdresser saw the woman’s long, beautiful hair, she tried to convince her to keep it – she told the old woman how lovely she looked. “No,” she said, “it was a nice change, but I’m ready to be my old self again. Cut it off.” But the hairdresser had still another idea – did the woman know that she could donate her hair to make a wig for someone going through chemotherapy, someone who had lost her own hair? Would she be willing to donate her long, white hair? The woman caught her breath – she had never thought of her hair as something someone else would want – or as something she could give away. And so she said yes. And after having her hair cut in its usual style, she walked out of the salon, and didn’t return again until her hair was once again long enough to donate for a wig for someone recovering from cancer.
May each of us here discover again and again the ways in which we can offer the sacred gifts that are ours to give. May we see that our money can be a tool of the sacred, communicating our values and our care to the world.
In a world without end
May it be so