A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 1, 2015
HEAVEN AND HELL
A Love Story
One day while walking quietly together, out of the silence the Buddha's attendant Ananda declared, "Teacher, to have companions and comrades on the great way is so amazing! I have come to realize that friendship is fully half of an authentic spiritual life." They proceeded along quietly for a while more, before out of that silence the Holy One responded. "No, dear one. Without companions and comrades, no one can live into the deep, finding the true harmonies of life, and achieve authentic wisdom. To say it simply, friendship is the whole of the spiritual life."
— Upaddha Sutta, freely adapted
Okay, some of you've heard a version of this before. But, I think I finally have it down right. So, let's see...
Jim Estey almost collapsed at our Generally Second Friday Potluck and Program last month, when he discovered every covered dish was creamy scalloped potatoes. We're a pretty big group, and while no one counted, there were probably pushing thirty dishes, all creamy scalloped potatoes. The volunteer team were jaw dropping shocked as one dish after another was uncovered, and every blessed one was, well, creamy scalloped potatoes. Not a bean casserole, not one of that old standby baked beans and bacon, not even a bachelor-brought bucket of KFC. No salads. Not one. And, not a single solitary main dish.
Janet Downing Taylor commented she'd been to potlucks elsewhere with an over abundance of something, green salads or Brussels sprouts. "But," she said, "I've never seen anything like this in my life."
The minister, who for reasons to be revealed in a moment will remain anonymous, was heard to mutter something that sounded like a prayer of despair, the call of Job to a harsh God. But as this is a Unitarian Universalist church, people who heard him couldn't be sure.
Anyone who knows Jim Estey organizer-in-chief of our potlucks knows this should never have happened. He makes that proverbial train run on time, he takes names, he assigns categories, and while there was that infamous potluck a couple of years back where every main course was chicken, although at least a variety of chicken, beyond that one incident, we've always been able to count on at least variety. But, as it turned out Jim wasn't going to be in town for the run up to this potluck, it had to do with something about delivering a paper on Eighteenth century minority religions in Tasarist Russia. So, he handed the baton on to the minister. Who it seems just told people to bring whatever they wanted and it would all work out.
So, maybe you begin to understand the anguished muttered ministerial prayers beginning at about the tenth uncovering of a plate of creamy scalloped potatoes. Although on the sunny side, it did pretty much guarantee he wouldn't be asked to monitor the run up to the potluck again.
A couple of weeks ago some researches from the Sociology Department at Brown University took up an investigation of the matter, how so many people involved could all end up with the same dish, and it was the same dish, not even creamy scalloped potatoes with ham to relieve the relentless sameness. It turned out, their researches found, that there had been a social media meme making the rounds the week before the potluck on a revival of the creamy scalloped potato among the hipster set in San Francisco. And the meme included the recipe. Looking more deeply they saw the meme with that cursed recipe was included on both the Getting Old But Still Happening Unitarian Universalist Facebook page and the Hipsters and Allies Unitarian Universalist Facebook page. If any catastrophe was ever foreordained, it was likely this one.
Now, looking to put this event into perspective music director Fred Jodry said of the sad affair, "Hey, it could have been a lot worse! Suppose everyone brought carob brownies."
Okay, maybe this never actually happened. And perhaps this anecdote look suspiciously like it is based rather closely on something Chris Carmichael wrote a few years ago for his Sacred Sandwich Blog, and which I related in a version somewhat closer to the original a couple of years ago. That said, or admitted, or something, while we are occasionally blessed with creamy scalloped potatoes here at our First Unitarian potlucks, the real truth is we are pretty darned good at doing potlucks. (Thank you, Jim!) In fact, let me say for anyone who cares to hear, Baptists, who most think own the potluck, have nothing on us in our congregation when it comes to these spiritual gatherings around food.
Now, as you may have noticed from a couple of other elements of today's service, we are kicking off our congregation's annual operational pledge drive, what for many years I've known as the annual canvass. But in the interest of trying to use plain language wherever possible, annual operational pledge drive it is. As I say most every Sunday when we pass the plate, that that moment in the service is mostly symbolic, it is largely an invitation to reflect on how we support and are supported, the secret of our coming together. The real source of our income to keep the church going, however, comes from that annual operational pledge drive.
And that's what we're about today. Of course everyone here is not a member of this community. And if you're just passing through and looking for a good word, well, I hope you're going to get one. We as a spiritual community pay close attention to living in the world. We have a lot of differing spiritualities among us, we are Christians and Jews and Buddhists, we love God, and we don't believe in the supernatural, we're all these things, brought together by the most amazing of spiritual disciplines, our presence. Our presence to our own thoughts and feelings, our presence to each other, and our presence to the world as it unfolds its great mysteries.
The potluck is not a bad image for our spiritual community, and how it works. We're a bright crowd here. So, I won't unpack the image for you. Other than pointing to the core of it; we find our power and joy, comfort and challenge within our coming together. And we trust the process, even if once in a while it means we get a bunch of creamy scalloped potatoes.
Now many, many years ago my internship supervisor the Reverend Lindi Rasmden, who is mostly known for her years running the amazing Unitarian Universalist legislative ministry project in California, and is today a professor at Starr King, our seminary in Berkeley, was in those days fond of saying a UU church was a spiritual co-op. Our approach to spirituality and community as Unitarian Universalists is all about throwing our lot in with each other, sharing food on occasion, sharing time with some regularity, supporting each other and our institution with our care, work, and yes, money.
We are embarked on a very important canvass, excuse me, operational pledge drive. As you know, I am retiring at the end of this church year. You, as a community, are in for some changes. Well, so am I. But, I want to draw your attention to the additional challenges of the next two years for the church. In addition to the regular running of our congregation, of all the things we have done for near three hundred years, and want to continue to do, we have to set ourselves up for healthy running this coming year, and to lay the ground for an exciting and dynamic ministry in the following years. This church is a cooperative. But it also needs a face, a leader who is just the right fit. And getting that person takes among many other very important things, some actually even more important than money, it really also takes money.
So, we're trying to stretch this year. Make our budget just a little less lean than it is.
Want a good word? Well, this is just as it should be. We are all about the real world. Our spirituality doesn't pretend we are someplace other than here. We follow the rhythms of life, we are supported, and we support.
And now is our time to consciously engage in the financial support of our community.
Okay, here's one more story. I don't believe I've shared it among us here at First Unitarian ever, although it is an old chestnut within our larger Unitarian Universalist world. You probably have heard it, maybe if you participate in our religious education program. I think it speaks to our deep purpose, both in our gathering in general, and to our concerns on this annual operational pledge Sunday. And, so forgive me for repeating it, again, slight adapted to our purposes.
Once Mary Frapier, well known in heaven as well as here on earth as a good and wise person was gifted with a visit to the spiritual realms. Her guide was no one less than our own sainted UU Margaret Fuller. You may recall her, she's the one who William James said once declared, "I accept the universe!" and about which Thomas Carlyle responded, "Gad! She'd better." And, more telling for our purposes, once said to her mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, "you are intellect, I am life!" So, this sage of our liberal tradition who totally accepted the universe, and who manifested life itself, took Mary Frapier on a trip to the spiritual realms.
They ascended through some clouds, past the outer planets, and the nearer stars before coming to their destination. It was a lovely planet, it looked something like ours, and as they came down to ground, they were in front of a spectacular building set in the midst of an amazing garden. The two women walked through the doors and down a long hallway and then turned into a banquet room. It was filled to overflowing with the most spectacular feast. It looked amazingly like one of our potlucks. Yes, there were creamy scalloped potatoes, and double chocolate brownies. No carob in sight. Pretty much anything you think delicious, well, it was there.
However, everyone had these long spoons tied to their hands. You've heard this one? That's okay. It's worth hearing again. The handles of the spoons were three feet long, much too long to put food in the bowls of the spoons and then to put them into their mouths. The people were screaming and crying and generally making a scene of despair.
Margaret whispered to Mary. "This is hell."
"I know," Mary replied.
They left and walked across the hall to another banquet room. Yes, I know you know. Inside the same sort of situation, same feast, same spoons tied to everyone's hands. But, with that one difference: they were feeding each other.
"Heaven," whispered Margaret.
"I know," replied Mary.
As Zorba the Greek put it, "Boss, I say to you, and I say it again, God and the devil are the same." We humans have it all in our hands. We can and often do create hell. And, we have the opportunity, at the very same time, to create heaven.
I suggest that's our project here. That's our spiritual cooperative. That's our coming together in the various ways we do, within our covenant of presence.
And this sharing, this looking out for each other in all the different ways we do it, is the secret of our spiritual lives. This is the secret that holds this building up, and the one right behind. Last year Lisa Sampson told us how every year our congregation falls apart, and then with the annual operational pledge drive, is built back up.
She was speaking of something powerful and true. She was talking about our covenant of presence. And the magic that happens as we choose heaven, as we choose of our free will to make this place what it is.
So, that's the deal.
We're all welcomed to a feast. But there is only one way to enjoy it. We have to share.
Personally, I think it's actually a love story.
I hope you agree.