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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, October 4, 2009

FILTHY LUCRE: A Meditation on the Divided Heart and Its Healing

And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words. And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it. And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar's. And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. And they marvelled at him.

— Mark 12: 13-17

Today let’s talk about money. You know filthy lucre. More deeply, let’s talk about the material and the spiritual worlds. And let’s consider whether they really are two things or one. And out of that let’s look just a little at how we might really want to live in this world. It all, I suggest, boils down to a question. But that question comes at the end.

To start let’s consider the dominant religious paradigm within our culture. I know this one pretty well. My childhood faith was a kind of fundamentalist Christianity, although with a twist. It was also a poor people’s religion. This is a variation on Christianity that has rather lost its place in American culture today. It appears to be an article of faith among many contemporary fundamentalist Christians that Jesus wanted you to be rich and more, that American capitalism is God’s plan for how to do this. Now in fact this isn’t a teaching of every Christian sect, look at Catholicism’s liberation theology, for instance. But this sense does appear to mark much of Christianity’s Protestant fundamentalist strain. The kind I was brought up within, and the form of Christianity now in our cultural driver’s seat here in America.

For people who claim they’re all about the literal, plain and unambiguous meaning of their sacred texts, this is an amazing leap from the plain sense those texts. While the scriptural condemnations of homosexuality are in fact few and vague, the passages on usury are in fact many and explicit. This is important for us here, you and me, to notice because these attitudes inform us within our culture more than we might realize. They are very much the air we breathe. So, let’s make the invisible visible. And let’s start with just a little exegesis, that critical examination of text that is a central feature of both the Jewish and Christian traditions.

In fact the term of art today, “usurious interest,” that is excessive interest, is an oxymoron in the Bible. It is explicit throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and an assumption present in the New Testament that all interest is usury. So, not to belabor the point, any of us with a bank account earning one percent is in fact by biblical terminology, practicing usury. And, let’s be clear, that’s understood to be a bad thing. And, in case you don’t quite follow what this means without a little pointer: no usury: no interest: no capitalism.

Now I’m not preaching a diatribe against capitalism. In fact I think business can be a good thing. Rather I’m more concerned with hidden assumptions. So my mean side loves how those who want scriptural support for their romance with capitalism must slip into some amazing sophistries about how the numerous condemnations of this foundation of our modern economy were only meant to be specific to Jews who under their covenant with God were to not charge interest to their fellows. Charging interest to strangers, well, that was always okay they say. And then they go on to assert we ourselves live under a new dispensation, a new covenant, where, apparently, we’re all strangers.

My people, bless ‘em, were a bit more consistent in their literalism. The Jesus saying about how it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it will be for a rich man to get into heaven meant that rich men weren’t going to heaven. And for poor people whose lot in this life wasn’t all that good; this knowledge was, if terribly harsh, a comfort to us. Our oppressors were all going to hell.

Then there’s that story about Jesus and the coin. Like the story of the camel and the eye of the needle, the story of Jesus being put on the spot about taxes and responding with his own bit of sophistry is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels. Which, at least to my mind, gives it’s authenticity as a saying of Jesus a bit more weight than those one off sayings, such as “I am the way and the truth and the life,” which only occurs in one gospel, and that one written perhaps as much as eighty years after Jesus died.

The weight of analysis over the many years of this story about the coin with Caesar’s face on it has focused in two areas. The first is how we owe the state taxes. The second is that there is a great divide between our spiritual and our material lives. Now I have to admit I find the pay your taxes interpretation pretty boring. But the yawning gulf assertion, that’s juicy. If, I will strongly suggest, enormously wrong headed. And, I suggest, it’s something we here, at least many of us, are inclined to believe, at least in some vague and unexamined sense. It is, after all, in the air we breathe.

I consider this assertion of a fundamental divide between our lived lives and our profoundest values, our hopes, and dreams that we name sacred, a great spiritual error. It is a mistake that has terrible consequences for our lives and for the lives of everyone on this planet, indeed for the planet itself. It is possibly the greatest mistake one can make in the spiritual life, and is something we must notice, and challenge.

At this point I want to step away from the scriptural tradition of Judaism and Christianity. After all for most of us here our problems are only the unexamined assumptions we’ve inherited from our common culture. I would only assert in concluding this brief survey of one aspect of the Western spiritual tradition that this hard division of the material and spiritual isn’t the only approach to be found in Judaism and Christianity, particularly within Judaism. I even think the torturous attempts at justifying a biblical base for Capitalism is in fact an attempt at dealing with the reality on the ground that we are part of this world and need to live in it. But, let’s turn to our own tradition, to us, to you and me, to the liberal religious stance, and how it informs or can how we choose to stand in this world. Let me start with the interdependent web, our assertion of some basic unity.

Of course, we would be foolish to collapse everything that we see as distinct and different into some amorphous unity where meaning and purpose, sorrow and joy all disappear. I say foolish because that isn’t what we usually experience. The world we usually occupy is filled with distinctions. You are you. I am I. Each being rising in this world is unique. And, I for one, I celebrate these distinctions. I like being me. And I enjoy your being you. Well, almost all the time.

Perhaps you feel similarly. I, and I think most of us here would agree that in some sense each of us is precious and beautiful. In our contemporary Unitarian Universalist statement of principals, which attempts to name the wisdom we commonly hold, begins with an assertion of the preciousness and dignity of the individual person. And I think that is wisdom.

But, as they say, wait: there’s more. We also share a deep body knowing that is rarely far from our dreams. Many of us who have followed the hard disciplines of spiritual quest have found moments where our sense of separateness has fallen away. And even without those disciplines of attention, many, I think most of us have experienced some intimation of our belonging to some greater; that we are in some very real way all connected. In our liberal spiritual way this has often been noticed in a walk in the woods. But I’ve also heard reports from people of their noticing the connections while tending to a child, or eating a hot dog, or sitting on a porch and contemplating the starry night. When people stop and consider this for a moment, many had that first intimation of our intimate connection as an adolescent, some even as a child. Talk about the air we breathe.

This is the insight of how we are created, woven actually, out of each other, out of genes and environment. Of how our very existence, and certainly our individuality is the product of many, many events coming together. Everything without exception is connected. This deep knowing of our commonality has been enshrined in our contemporary Unitarian Universalist statement of principals as that assertion we all are part of an interdependent web. Let me say this knowing of connection is the sense of holiness that has called to generations of humanity, and comes to us unbidden, unearned as a free gift of the universe.

Now here’s something that took me years and years to learn. And if I have one thing to proclaim here that might actually be useful, it is this. If we don’t attend to that insight of unity, we will only see our separateness and we are in grave danger of becoming monsters. And if we don’t attend to the wisdom of our differences, we are in grave danger of becoming dreamers without power, useless in this world in which we actually live. But the good thing about our spirituality is that we are called to bring it all together here, right here.

This whole thing is not unlike a coin, perhaps the very coin that Jesus held in his hand for all to see. Besides the tax thing and the dualistic assertion, there is a third view of that story, a minority report from our ancestors. And, I suggest, a more useful one for us. Some commentators point out that every Jew present at that conversation knew that everything belongs to God, period, full-stop. Offering Caesar what is his was in fact offering him nothing.

And more important, most important, our ability to know this one thing, this unity, whether as a vague but recurring dream or with work and grace, always with us as our continuing background, this insight informs how we can gracefully relate in the world. It makes the judgments we must make more in tune, more useful, more likely to be for the good. And in this universe in which we live and breathe and take our being, there is no falling out of it. There is no place that isn’t part of the whole. The real coin is a bit magical. On one side it reads me. On the other side it reads we. And knowing this is that famous turning from greed to giving. It is the discovery of love, the love that will guide us through the hard night.

There has been much made in the last few years about finding a purpose driven life. I’m all for that. I think we need to find our purpose in life. And our tradition gives us some signposts on the way, if we want to avail ourselves of the possibilities. And I hope we do. I hope you do. So much depends upon this.

Here’s a bit of what I’ve gleaned. I suggest we are about an ordinary wisdom. At the foundation of it all for us is the knowing that we, you and I and everything is precious, but also is temporary. However, that’s not the end of it. We belong to something big, vast as the sky. I have no problem with those who call it god, although I would caution against projecting our own human personalities onto that whole of which we are a part. Rather, I suggest, we can most healthily approach it, this big, this vast, this interdependent web of existence, by naming the human emotion we find in seeing the connections: as love. We are called to stand on the side of love.

And something more. You and I, we are the eyes of this love. We see the connections, or we can, if we stop for a moment and look. We can look at each other. We can look at the children. We can look at the lovely and the terrible and the sad. And we can know love. And, most importantly, we are the hands of love. Here’s the conundrum of real life. The universe is perfect as it is. And it can use some improvement. We, you and I, the beings that can see the connections, we have the task of doing the improving. We should start with ourselves, but quickly, to bring that work into how we choose to live in the world.

We started all this by talking about money. Let’s return to that. I suggest a very good place to start the improving is to look at your check register. That casts light on what we’re about more than almost anything. It reveals an embarrassingly detailed account of what we actually are in this world. It can be a harsh self-assessment. But I hope we do not turn away. Use that check register. Make it something holy.

And, more, more: give a little attention to the doing of this world. Help bring that love each of us has experienced in some manner into manifestation. Help to make that invisible, visible. The ways are many, but they all are about what happens in this lived life. Here. Now. No place else.

By coincidence today is our Development and Finance Ministry faire. There’s a bouquet of spiritual practices for you to consider. There’ll be tables where people will explain aspects of our common life you might not immediately see as spiritual practice, as ministry. We still breathe that air which suggests the spiritual is someplace other than here, than in our checkbooks, than in what we choose to do. But here we proclaim a new spirit, a new breath, a new life that shows us how the care of this building and grounds, how our finances and investments, how our Stewardship program, all are actually at the heart of the matter. They are at one with the contemplative practices we offer. They are at one with the social justice ministries we offer. They are, we are, about bringing the wisdom of interconnection into individual lives. I particularly suggest participating in the Stewardship committee as a juicy way to reflect on the meeting of the material and spiritual, of how money and spirit can and should be one thing.

I want to also hold up one other possibility. At 12:15 our Neighborhood Social Justice Committee is sponsoring a forum on Eviction and Foreclosure facilitated by the good folk from Direct Action for Rights and Equality. If you just want to know a little more about this terrible and important issue it will be worth attending. And they’ll offer some opportunities to be involved particularly with the hardest hit in our larger community. That is also very much what I’m trying to share today.

The bottom line is this: This life is not a dress rehearsal. What you see is what you get. We are called by the love at the center of things to fully engage, to engage with reckless abandon, our deepest selves, each other and this precious, sweet and hurt world. Now I began saying this all boils down to a question. Dear Mary Oliver sings this question right into our dreams. “Tell me,” she whispers into our heart’s ear, “what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”

What a question. What will you do with this one, one wild and precious life?

A question worth contemplating.