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Keeping the Faith While Losing the Farm

I am keenly aware that many of you came here this morning expecting to hear an entirely different sermon. The advertised sermon topic is one of great importance to me, personally, and I look to speaking about that one day. But not today.

As important as that subject is, there is a more immediate and real concern that I know is weighing on many of us here today. That subject is the fierce and frightening financial upheaval that is sweeping across the globe and intruding on our own sense of peace and security. With that in mind, I decided that it would be best to change the focus of this morning's sermon. I know that many of you are exhausted by the dire financial and economic news with which we have been bombarded for the past week. Some of you may have relished the notion of brief sermonic distraction from that subject, and I am sorry to disappoint you.

But I believe that the church has got to be engaged with culture and society at all times. Its mission is to help us cope with and equip us to face the reality of life, unpleasant though it may be at times. A church that fails to do so runs the risk of being irrelevant; a chapel of isolated, disconnected piety that serves the dubious cause of denial.

Denial is a familiar coping mechanism in life, employed when we don't want to face the reality of an ugly situation; but, it's not a particularly helpful coping mechanism. The reality of this week is that the global financial markets are teetering on the brink of disaster and—in fact—disaster may already have arrived at some of our doors. Friends, that is the reality of the day . . . so let's talk about it and, more importantly, talk about how we might cope with this reality in a healthy, constructive way.

The expression “Losing the Farm,” which I have employed in this new sermon title, is rich in meaning, even as it points to deep loss. Those of you with roots in rural cultures know that a farm is both a family's home and source of income. It is very often their inheritance from preceding generations; literally their heritage. It represents stability and security. Owning one's own farm also confers a certain social standing and prestige within a community. To “lose the farm” is to be torn up by the roots . . . loss of home, job, prestige, community, and history. It is a traumatic experience.

But, of course, one does not need to live on a farm to experience such traumatic loss, and it is fear of just such loss that is gripping many people in this country . . . perhaps even some of you.

I was reading emails on a ministers' chat this week, and some of my colleagues—particularly those trying to raise money in their churches right now—gave voice to their anxiety these days. One of my particularly witty colleagues volunteered the following: “I'd say the mood here is short of panic, though like Palin's Russia, we can see it from our houses.” Thoughtful man that he is—and I've known him for years—he employed just the right word to describe the situation: “panic.”

Like so many words in our lexicon, panic comes to us from ancient Greek. It refers to the Greek god Pan, whose was half man and half goat. We think of him prancing around on cloven hooves, playing a flute. But Pan was best remembered for his instrumental role in the victory of the Olympian gods over the Titans. As the Titans were storming Olympus, Pan blew his conch horn, the sound of which so terrified the Titans that they fled, thus securing victory for the Olympians. So Pan is the Greek god known for inspiring sudden fear, especially in lonely places.

If you consult Webster's dictionary you'll find two principal definitions of panic: (1) a sudden, unreasoning, hysterical fear, often spreading quickly. (2) a widespread fear of the collapse of the financial system, resulting in an unreasoned attempts to turn property into cash. This second definition reads as if it was written for us this week.

Now, let me digress for a moment. You amateur etymologists out there may be wondering whether the word pandemonium refers to Pan as well. It does not. Pandemonium, while also a Greek word, has entirely different roots. In Greek the prefix pan means “all” and demonium refers to a “demon.” So pandemonium implies that all the people are in the grip of a demon. Perhaps if I had a different theological perspective, this sermon might be founded on a different proposition and I might be preaching a different message. But I don't and I'm not. I'll leave that religious view to some of my more conservative colleagues.

But panic is very much central to our experience this week. On Friday I spent 45 minutes on the phone with a good friend of mine, trying to calm and reassure him. He is self-employed and his livelihood is contingent on companies investing in projects that require his professional skills. He hasn't worked in four weeks, he has a mortgage to pay, his savings are being whittled away, and he's watching his modest investment portfolio evaporate. After looking at the quarterly statement from his mutual fund, he called and asked me, “Do you think that I should sell?”

Now, I am neither an economist nor a financial expert, so please, seek wiser counsel than mine on these matters; but, I told him, “Just sit tight. Whatever you have lost to date has been a loss on paper. The minute you sell something, the loss is transferred directly into your wallet. But the real question—the implicit question—that he was asking was, “Is it time to panic?”

Perhaps some of you are asking yourselves that very same question right now. Perhaps some of you have real fears about the consequences of this crisis in your own lives. Perhaps some of you are afraid that you will lose your house—perhaps some of you already have and I don't know it. If that is the case, then I want to know.

Perhaps some of you are worried about your jobs. I know that some of you, with teenagers looking forward to continuing their educations, are deeply anxious about the college funds that you have been building for your children.

Quite a number of you are retired and relying on a lifetime's careful investing to secure a comfortable retirement. I know that my own 80 year old mother is. Of a sudden, the security you enjoyed is threatened. And even for those of you with sufficient resources to weather this storm comfortably, you may be watching your children struggle or you may be thinking of the legacy gifts you were planning to leave behind for your children, your grandchildren, your favorite charity, perhaps even this church . . . and wondering whether the plan you had laid out will ever unfold as you had envisioned. You might be asking yourself, “Am I experiencing a dream deferred or watching a dream destroyed?”

And for some of you, like me, working and saving toward retirement, you're seeing years of disciplined saving washed away. Early in the week, I came to the conclusion that I would have been better off burying my savings in the backyard for the last 10 years, rather that invest my money in the stock market. And that was early in the week.

So, you see, we all have reason to worry. But, as the English clergyman William Ralph Inge wisely observed, “Worry is interest paid on trouble before it falls due.”

But still, we are human beings and emotional creatures by nature. The emotions of fear, anxiety, helplessness, confusion, and anger come easily at some such as these. It is also easy for us to second guess our decisions and wonder whether we have brought trouble upon ourselves. In some households across the nation, people are facing the grim reality that they did, indeed, make some unwise decisions. The consequence of that realization can be an overwhelming sense of guilt, embarrassment, and—in some cases—shame. It's an awful feeling.

But, friends, we all make mistakes. Unfortunately, some of them can be significant and have serious consequences. We need to remember that failure is an event, not an identity. We can either learn from our mistakes, which is the path toward real wisdom, or we can let the memory of them rule our lives and, sometimes, ruin our lives. Rabbi Benjamin Blech, in his book Taking Stock, wrote that in the wake of our own mistakes, “we . . . can become better [people] or bitter people.” In the same vein, the great Chinese philosopher Confucius famously observed, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

I carry with me in my wallet a simple prayer, to which I return repeatedly. Written by the late Reinhold Niebuhr, It will be familiar to many of you:

God grant me the serenity
to accept things I cannot change,
the courage to change things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

I wish that I could tell you that praying for a financial miracle would be helpful, but I can't. The God that I believe in doesn't deal in real estate or financial transactions, and isn't short of cash . . . contrary to what some televangelist might tell you. Now, don't misunderstand me, that doesn't mean that we don't want you to pay your pledges. We do! But praying for Divine intervention in the stock market isn't likely to change things. But I can tell you what I do pray for. I pray for:

patience in trying situations,
for wisdom gained from hardship,
for strength in difficult times,
for a sense of gratitude at all times,
and for a compassionate heart that I might be aware of and attuned to those whose hardship, loss, and suffering are far greater than my own.

And I have found in my life that prayers such as these do yield results.

When all is said and done, the issue will not really be what we made or lost on the stock market, but rather what we made of the experience of living through this historic period of upheaval in the global economy. More than anything, I hope that our losses will sharpen our sense of gratitude for all that we do have. Because the majority of our fellow human beings live very modest lives, to say the least. That we can lose so much, ought to remind us how much we have in the first place. The real test of our spirits—the real expression of our faith—is to not dwell on what is gone, but to savor what we have. And the most important thing that we have is each other.

It is easy to feel alone, isolated, and adrift when we are at the mercy of powerful forces beyond our control that we don't really understand. It has been my experience that—when crisis strikes—many people retreat into their private pain, embarrassed by their hardship, ashamed of their loss, and afraid that the people around them will callously judge them for the hardship they are experiencing. I worry that people slip away from their community, precisely when they need their community's support the most.

Friends, you may lose your house, but don't lose your spiritual home. You may leave your neighborhood, but don't abandon your community. Don't surrender the one asset that no one can take away from you, and that is the community of faith that is here to support you in good times and bad. However this economic downturn is affecting you, there is one investment that always offers a high return, most especially when we are at the lowest points in our lives . . . and that is this church.

If you are struggling, if you are sinking, if you feel like you're drowning . . . call us. Call me . . . call Rev. Virginia. Let us know and let us help to the best of our ability. Don't suffer in silence, don't agonize alone, don't fall away from the faith community that is here to help and support you. In this house, we observe the law of love, we strive to manifest a community of caring, and offer everyone a structure of support through the trials of life.

Because, ultimately, “this too shall pass.” The storm will blow over and we will do what human beings have been doing for countless millennia. We will emerge from shelter to survey the damage, we will bind up the broken in our midst, and we will set about the task of rebuilding . . . together. That is our real heritage as human beings in community. And we will do so wiser and stronger for the experience, and—one hopes—with a still greater sense of gratitude for the riches that really are the wealth of our life: our families, our neighbors, and our community. The people we care about and who care about us.

Rabbi Blech cogently observed that, “Perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with all that we have left.” What we have—and will always have left—is each other. That's what we have today and it's what we'll have tomorrow. Let that be our source of comfort, confidence, and faith in the trying times of our lives.

And with the rabbi's words in mind, let us turn in our hymnals to Hymn #108 “My Life Flows On in Endless Song” and lift our voices in song together.

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