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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on April 26, 2009

On Purchasing a Tie: The Gifts of Spiritual Community

Once there was a disciple of a Greek philosopher who was commanded by his Master for three years to give money to everyone who insulted him. When this period of trial was over, the Master said to him: Now you can go to Athens and learn wisdom. When the disciple was entering Athens he met a certain wise man who sat at the gate insulting everybody who came and went. He also insulted the disciple who immediately burst out laughing. Why do you laugh when I insult you? (asked) the wise man. Because, said the disciple, for three years I have been paying for this kind of thing and now you give it to me for nothing. Enter the city, said the wise man, it is all yours. Abbot John used to tell (this story, adding) This is the door of God by which our fathers rejoicing in many tribulations enter into the City of Heaven.

—Thomas Merton, translator, The Wisdom of the Desert: Some Sayings of the Desert Fathers (New York, New Directions, 1960: p. 39)

I was fourteen when Lawrence of Arabia came out. I was fractionally too old to wrap a sheet around me and gallivant around the neighborhood waving a cardboard sword. But I wanted to. And from that moment I was taken with desert things. Among the joys of my adult life was living for a time in Arizona’s Sonoran desert. Although I have to admit no one else in the family appears to have been quite so enthusiastic as I about the desert. And, okay, even I had serious pause that day at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport when it hit one hundred, twenty-one on the tarmac.

No doubt deserts are harsh places, and life there is lived a bit closer to the bone than in other environments. For instance class is pretty obvious in Phoenix, demonstrated by whether you drive in the summer with your windows open or closed. However, also, things happen in deserts. Within that difficult reality strange and sometimes wonderful things happen. Seriously crazy people wander deserts, as do mystics and on occasion, saints.

And for many reasons, some not really understandable, reality in deserts is a bit more mutable than we usually find in other places. In fact we encounter a reality that frequently is taken apart and then rebuilt. The imaginative toolbox for building these stories that on occasion can be transformative for the likes of you and me, include camels and mirages and dangerous but proud desert peoples who will grant shelter for three days, but will also kill a relative for honor’s sake. Life is complex and everything requires nuance. I can’t emphasize how much I’m taken with the stories of the mullah Nasurdin and similar trickster figures such as Khwaja Khadir, who wander the desert, encountering the unwary and leaving them different, mysteriously transformed.

Almost certainly my favorite lessons from the desert are those recorded sayings and doings of the fifth and sixth century Egyptian Christian women and men. They were hermits and tiny religious communities, who produced a spiritual literature comparable to the sayings and doings of the ninth and tenth century Zen masters of China. Plenty of stuff to work with, if we wish to look into the human heart and mind, and see who we are, and where we might go in our own lives, with a little work and some luck. I have learned so much from them that I tend to think of them as my flesh and blood family.

Well, this is a bit of a long way around the barn to set up a little story that I want to share today. Around the web I’ve found a couple of versions, and I’ve slightly adapted this one for our purposes today. A small group of friends from Providence decided they would take a holiday in Morocco. They’d all, of course, seen Casablanca and wanted to check out the waters for themselves. Frankly it wasn’t all that long ago and was among the safer places in the Arab world for Westerners to visit. Turns out it is quite a country, with cultural sites that date to the dawn of agriculture, amazing ruins starting with Phoenician and Roman and just keeping on right down to today.

At some point the band decided they needed to go out into the country, into the mountain desert area. One of their number, a professor at one of our local colleges, I won’t say which but he had a small brown bear tattooed on his rear end. (I’ve been informed by a reliable source how at that venerable institution this tattoo comes with tenure.) He said, “Let’s see this desert the old fashioned way.” And so instead of a jeep, they rented camels.

They were a couple of days into their adventure when one of those famous desert sand storms swept right through the band, scattering them and their guide. When the storm was over, the professor found himself alone in a very nasty environment. He proceeded on for days and days, aiming for what he hoped was north. Then about the worst thing that could happen, did. When he awoke that morning he discovered his camel was gone. Things were bad. But he proceeded on; heading in what he continued to hope was that northern direction, the way from which they’d come originally. It moved into really bad. That’s about when he ran out of water. It was now officially really, really bad.

Then in the distance he saw something. It looked like a little shack. He made his way to the structure and saw that actually it was a stand, the front opened up to the world. It featured a large counter and across the surface of the counter were a wide selection of silk ties. He looked at the ties, and then he saw that in the gloom behind the counter there was an elderly woman, dressed in traditional Berber costume. The professor croaked through his parched mouth, “Do you have some water? The woman replied in quite good English, “I’m so sorry, no. Would you like to purchase a tie?”

He felt his face blush red, and perhaps would have shouted if he were not so hoarse, “I don’t need a blasted tie! I want water!” (Actually he didn’t say blasted.) The woman was obviously offended, and replied, “You don’t need to raise your voice, sir. What I have to sell is ties. If you don’t want one, good day.” And with that she reached out and pulled the doors on her stand shut.

Grumbling to himself, the very thirsty man launched back into the desert. The sun was blisteringly hot. He felt his flesh itch with dryness and his tongue thicken in his mouth. Things were now really, really, really bad. Then he saw it. Still in the distance, and with the heat, the image was wavy, and he feared it was a mirage. But as he continued toward it, the image became ever more solid and finally he saw from the large sign above the building that it was a restaurant. The sign read “The Galloping Escargot.” He stumbled to the doorway, dragged himself inside only to be met by a French matri’d wearing a tuxedo and holding an impossibly large menu.

“Please help me,” the man croaked. “I need some water.” The waiter looked down his very long nose, as only a French matri’d can, and said, “I’m so sorry, sir. But I unable to serve anyone not wearing a tie.”

Life is filled with surprises, unexpected turns. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Life is also not unlike a desert, filled with danger at every corner. Lions and tigers, oh my. Or lost jobs. Or, divorce. Or, illness. Or, economic collapse of one shape or another. It’s a desert. And no one has bothered to give you a map. But as most any guy can tell you, we don’t need no stinkin’ map.

Instead our lives turn out to be like a fairy tale quest. We find ourselves, if we are lucky, with some companions. For most of us here in this Meeting House, this is the place we’ve found many of those companions on our own quests. And a motley crew it is, suitable for such an adventure. Some have had hard lives that show on their faces, and some have tattoos on their rear ends. Each, I suggest, is a mystery waiting a moment to reveal heart and mind. A worthy crowd, no doubt for most any adventure, but most assuredly for a wander in the desert. I bet if that professor had a few of us with him, he well might have bought that tie.

And, together, who knows what adventures await us, what good might come out of what appear to be chance encounters? Well, what by any reasonable construction are chance encounters, but with attention and care can become something real and useful. What out of coming into this strange crowd, this Unitarian Universalist congregation might we expect, for us as individuals, for our larger community, for this nation, for the world?

There are many turning points in our lives when we may either purchase or not that tie. For me one such moment happened in the mid-nineteen eighties. Jan & I had closed down our bookstore as the first step on our plan to make new lives. I’d been working for twenty years in the used and antiquarian book trade. I could at that time go to any city in this country and get a seven dollar and hour job. Jan had through her own meanders become a typesetter, a trade that was even at that time at the edge of disappearing in the wake of rapidly evolving computer technologies. So, as part of the first step, I was working in a used bookstore in Santa Rosa while also attending Sonoma State to earn the undergraduate degree I needed to get into a professional graduate school.

That’s when I received the call from my ex. She said Josh who was now sixteen was incorrigible and she was at her wit’s end. Could she send him up to live with us? Jan and I agreed and began to lay our plans. We spoke with Josh and among the conditions were that we would all go to church together as a family.

Once he agreed I had a problem. I was actually attending services at a Unitarian Universalist congregation nearly forty miles away. Many reasons. But there was a UU church much closer and actually I had a slight social connection to the minister, Dan O’Neal. I called him up, explained the situation and asked what kind of youth program did they have at the Sonoma County Fellowship?

There was a pause, then Dan asked, “Actually, what kind of program do you think you’d like to put together?” Not what I asked for. Not even slightly. I wanted water. He offered me a tie. However, confused by the desert I was then walking in at the time, instead of doing the rational thing and looking for say a nice Episcopal church with a liberal minister and a good religious education program, I said yes, I could do that. I bought the tie.

In fact Josh never settled into church life. He was following his own complex trajectory. But, me, I found amazing possibilities. The kids were wonderful. And just hanging out with them I learned a lot about who I was and what I could do. And over time I was offered other possibilities, including a couple of times, a shot at the pulpit when Dan was going to be out of town.

Now this whole time, I was also trying to decide what the next step was going to be after I finished the undergraduate degree, which was rushing up fast. I had catalogs from several schools of social work as well as a couple of doctoral programs in psychology. But, I couldn’t decide. There was a hole in this and my heart. So, I had a cup of coffee with Dan, hoping to kick around some ideas. As we sipped our coffee and I laid out my ambiguities about my choices and hopes to be at least a little useful in life. He paused and said, “You know, James. You’re not really cut out for honest work. Why don’t you check out seminary?”

At that moment I knew that was what I needed to hear, what in some spiritual traditions are called turning words. He said what I was afraid to think, but instantly I knew from the bottom of my being I wanted. I found myself in the Galloping Escargot, and the water looked at my tie, smiled and led me in. I’d entered the dream world, where everything is possible. The waiter, did I mention he had a Salvador Dali mustache, led me to the table. It had a big pitcher of water sitting on it.

I’m sure we all have these stories. We’ve all been in the desert. God knows we’ve all been in that desert. And we’ve all purchased, or on occasion not purchased that tie. Then the consequences have come home to roost one way or another. But, here’s my suggestion for you, for today. By coming into this Meeting House, you made a decision. You purchased a tie. And now wearing that silly thing, a bit askew on some of you, you are being led to a table. Then, of course, this leads to all sorts of questions, and not just whether red or white or a glass of cool, cool water.

What is that table for you? What is this table? What is this church? What is your secret dream? What is it that by coming together with this gang you are now able to do, that you were not able to do without having made that first step? That’s the question I’d like to leave you with today. As Mary Oliver asked it, and now I ask it, what are you going to do with this one wild and precious life? What are you going to do at this amazing feast that’s been set out for you?