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A sermon by Rev James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, June 6, 2010


Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.

Japanese proverb.

Back when I was preparing for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, like all such aspirants I was required to see a psychologist and undergo a battery of tests. Near as I could tell, this was mainly to make sure I was unlikely to turn out to be an axe murderer, which given the various aggravations of parish ministry, is probably a good thing. All in all it was an interesting experience. For instance it was my first actual encounter with the Rorschach test, which until that time I’d only encountered in comedy bits on television. The main course was something called the California Psychological Profile, which is an adaptation of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.

The results were printed out as a graph with a mid-line and two outer lines. Along the way were the various personality traits they tested for. In between the lines, all was cool. Outside the lines, well, it depended. As it turned out, and as many of you probably have already figured out, I’m what might be described as a strong personality. In most categories I would bounce along just on the right side of the top line. With one exception, when it came to conformity, it spiked way down. Turns out I was seriously non-conformist. Maybe that’s an “am.”

Now the psychologist who ran these tests did it for clerical candidates for a number of denominations, and was quite familiar with differing expectations. When we came to this point about nonconformity, he looked up at me and said, “You know, Mr. Ford, if you were an Episcopalian, this would be the end of the ride.” He paused and then added, “However, as a Unitarian Universalist, I suspect you may go far.”

Now, if you’ve read the order of service you know I want to talk about theft. And you might wonder why I would lead off confessing I’m seriously non-compliant? Let me be clear. This is not to confess to a penchant for stealing pens, although some friends claim I never seem to buy my own. A calumny I want to assert. Rather my point is that we can capitalize on my native suspicion of rules to look at what seems to be among the most basic rules in the human game book, and perhaps find a different angle on the near universal rule about theft, stealing, taking what is not given.

Frankly, I think ethical codes especially the one’s presented with divine sanction are often about crowd control. Now, that doesn’t mean I disapprove of them wholesale. In a functioning society we need behavioral lines, where on one side everything is hunky-dory while on the other lies deep doo doo. Decency and good order are good and decent. No doubt.

But, too often society’s rules written and implied are actually about who is in charge and who is not. I’m not massively interested in propping up the system. Rather it’s in my nature to investigate the matter, and find out for myself, what’s going on. And you all, dear ones, you’ve called me into this pulpit to do just that, and to proclaim from this pulpit what I’ve found. I know you also reserve the right to decide for yourselves what to think about what I say. That’s our deal. Still, I take this task seriously. I’m honored and I’m humbled that you give me this charge. And so, from the margins a bit, and caring more for truth and for human healing than for sustaining institutions, here’s what I see about that ancient prohibition against stealing.

Like most things of import, looking a bit closer we find a certain amount of ambiguity. Theft, taking what is not yours, and its consequences have varied over the years and in different cultures. We’ve all heard about peasants being executed for stealing bread. As recently as 1801 in England a thirteen year old was executed for stealing a spoon. If you dig into the back pages of newspapers you can find extreme examples somewhere in the world even today.

So, one might expect various criticisms of property and its defense. And there certainly have been. No doubt we’re all familiar with the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Prodhon, or at least his assertion that all “property is theft.” A more common confusion for people is who is the thief. As Woody Guthrie sang, “Some will rob you with a six-gun. Some with a fountain pen.” My grandmother, blessings upon her name, a Missouri native, believed the James boys were driven to crime by the banks. There’s a whole current of legend and fact about people who steal from the rich in order to save the poor. And, of course, there are mixed feelings about it. I have a friend who told me if someone was starving and the choice was to steal from someone, that is tax them to provide food or to let them starve, morally, one should let the person starve.

Clearly, there is a range of opinion about what actually is theft and its import in the greater scheme of things. Who owns what? And what to do about it? Well, here’s my take away. Somewhere within that mix where on the one hand ownership of things is so absolute that someone who steals should be killed, even if it is a starving person stealing bread, and on the other where property is simply a means of controlling people and for people to have dignity all things should be held in common, I believe we can find something important.

I suspect the first perspective and its variations, I think of the bumper sticker that reads “don’t steal, the government doesn’t like the competition,” has to do with our sense of autonomy, of self. Now it is my considered opinion that self, yours and mine, is in fact a construction. It has no existence outside of context. We are woven out of many things. These include genes and experiences. And out of that for mysterious reasons a person happens, out of that mix of conditions a sense of identity arises. I find us, me, you, each of us a moment where the universe sees itself, or at least a part of itself. This is a wonderment.

And within this sense of awareness of that partness, of self, of myself, we also tend to see our boundaries at our skin. But, in fact, in our actual experience, that’s not completely so. Our various senses extend who we are, our actual boundaries, if you think about it, go well beyond our skin. While the boundaries are fuzzy the sense of self is not, at least if we’re lucky and healthy, usually not. And our sense of possession, of ownership of things, I find simply to be part of our sense of self, extended beyond our skin. Our ideas of property, of things we own, have a lot to do with that extension of who we see we are.

Similarly, because we are woven out of many things, in fact, out of each other and out of the world itself, when we look even more closely it is often not at all clear where any lines are, where anything is that is not connected, deeply and truly. This is because, actually, there are no lines. Our farthest extension of who we see as ourselves touch and blend and connect without end. The whole blessed cosmos is connected. We are all one family. And actually that extends beyond the biological. We are all related period. We are sisters and brother to each other. We are cousins to lizards and microbes. And, and we are cousins to stars, and to the dirt.

And at some level we all know this. At various moments in our lives we may well have flashes of intimation, small and sometimes grand encounters with how everything is connected. But, for the most part the sense of oneness is weaker than our sense of separation, of self. Without serious attention, often requiring serious spiritual disciplines, we tend to forget, or simply to be unaware of this part of us. Still, I suggest even when this reality is far from our consciousness; it informs us at the body-knowing level. It is the great source of our need for harmony and the idea of fairness that seems to be held common by human beings.

The separation part, as I said, that comes easier. In the normal course of things we are pretty aware of being distinct, of having boundaries. Although, we are pretty fragile creatures, throughout our lives we are in constant danger of breaking apart. So we can be pretty ferocious about that protecting. Hence stealing bread, and killing the person who stole my bread.

And, I suggest, strongly suggest, we are about more than simple survival. We are about more than continuing genes, or accumulating more stuff. I want to draw our attention back to something I said a moment earlier about our sense of possession, of ownership of things. Property is our sense of self, extended beyond our skin. How we encounter the things of our lives, particularly those we feel to be “ours,” is the ultimate spiritual discipline. How we treat things informs how we are as individuals, and becomes the basis for our engagement with the whole of the world. How we deal with things, particularly the things we see as ours, is the pivot point, the meeting of self and world.

The title for today’s reflection is “Theft, a Love Story.” It’s the title of a novel. Because that title says it all, I stole it. If the things of our lives are the nexus, the meeting point of self and other, of our sense of self and our sense of oneness, well, theft is in fact a love story. We desire. We long for. We need. We want. We all need things. We need food. We need shelter. We need attention. We need others. No one is an island. And this need and how we engage it is the meeting of the sense of separation and the sense of oneness.

The practice, however, is to hold this all in a creative tension. We need to loosen up a bit. Ain’t that always the truth? Start by letting what is, be. Appreciate things as they are. Bread as it is. A pen as it is. A person as she or he is. To encounter our longing for each other and the world as it is without hasty action. Engage with appreciation, rather than mere grasping, mere accumulation, mere aggrandizement.

From that point we can deal with the harsh realities where one person can’t get any bread and another has so much it spoils. But we need that perspective at the beginning. It opens our hearts and gives us the vision we need. Vision. There’s an old Japanese proverb. Without action vision is a daydream. Without vision action is a nightmare.

So, one small example of what this can look like, a story from Japan, from the beginning of the nineteenth century. There was a Zen monk, a poet of some renown named Ryokan. After his formal training ended he returned to his home village. Just outside of town he built a small hut and took up residence. He particularly liked it because it had a lovely view of the countryside and the sky loomed large. By our standards he had nothing. But actually he had a lot. The villagers thought he was holy and they made sure he had food and when he looked too ragged they gave him clothing.

Well, one day he returned from a walk and found a thief inside his hut. The thief was just leaving seeing nothing he wanted to steal. Ryokan stopped him and said there must be something you can use. He rushed inside and saw, well, maybe there wasn’t a lot. But he did have a blanket. He grabbed it up and he pushed it into the thief’s hands, apologizing for not having more. The thief, embarrassed, clutched the blanket and ran away.

That evening he sat inside his hut, looked outside the window, and inspired by his wealth, wrote a poem.

The thief left it behind: The moon at my window.

Understand this. Own the moon and you will be rich beyond all reckoning, you will have the vision, and everything you do will be a blessing.

Truest true.