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If You Plant Ice, You're Gonna Harvest Wind

Last summer, when I planned the topic for today’s sermon, I was reading an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about a local service program called “Share the Harvest.” It’s a program where local gardeners can drop off fresh fruits and vegetables at designated collection points, from which the food is sent to local food pantries. “Share the Harvest” brought in more than 5,000 pounds of tomatoes, beans, corn and other produce this year for Philabundance, the region’s largest food bank. Much of that food was donated from gardeners who tend their plots in the community garden in Rose Tree Park, just up the street. The article also reported that some area produce farmers have now taken to planting portions of their fields specifically to help stock local food banks.

These activities called to mind a verse in chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus, the chapter where God instructs Moses on how the Israelites are to live ethically. In verse 9, God tells Moses, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” The “gleanings” are the bits and pieces left in the field after the harvest has been gathered in, the food that is damaged or too immature or stunted to have been collected by the regular harvesting process. The image you see up on the screen this morning is called “The Gleaners.” It was painted by the French artist Jean Francois Millet in 1857, and it captures peasants in the backbreaking act of gleaning in a field that has been stripped bare of all but the smallest grains of wheat.

What better topic for the beginning of November, I thought last August, than to talk about sharing our bounty with others. After all, this is the season of plenty, of harvest, of gratitude and thanksgiving. I even picked out the title for the sermon, a line taken from one of my favorite songs by the Grateful Dead, which you heard as our first musical offering today. “If you plant ice, you’re gonna harvest wind.” I had it all worked out, to speak with you about how it matters what we plant, for as we sow, so shall we reap. You know, all that stuff. Sure the housing market was a little depressed, but we always have so much to be thankful for, right? I mean, doesn’t your life feel full of possibility right now? Overflowing like some metaphysical cornucopia, richer and more bounteous than you ever could imagine? If it does, see me after the service so that I can get some of the meds that you’re on!

What a difference a couple of months can make. You don’t need me to stand here and tic off a list of all the reasons we’re feeling like the ground beneath us is shifting and shaking. I know for a fact that there are here with us today people who have recently lost their jobs. People whose retirement accounts have lost more than half their value. People who are worried about whether they’re going to be able to pay for their heat and electricity this winter, much less make their pledge payments to the church. People who are holding their breath about the outcome of Tuesday’s election. If we look at the root causes of the financial crisis our nation and our world are facing, perhaps I wasn’t so far off with the title to this sermon. It feels like some folks for the past couple of decades have been planting ice, and now we’re the ones harvesting nothing but wind. And if that is our harvest, not even the gleanings will sustain us.

Whatever the reasons for our current predicament, we have good reason to be anxious, to be fearful, to feel like our very lives are hanging in the balance. That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? “Our lives hang in the balance.” What mental image do those words conjure up for you? Do you see yourself as some Olympic gymnast, standing on a balance beam that’s anchored firmly to the ground, and gliding gracefully up and down it’s length, occasionally leaning out a bit to one side or another, but able to catch yourself before you fall off? If you do, count yourself lucky. When you hear that your life is hanging in the balance you might also see yourself in the center of a teeter-totter, standing stock-still, nearly paralyzed because you know that if you shift your weight just a little to one side or the other it’s going to make a huge difference which way your life will go. Or perhaps you see the board as already being wildly out of balance, tipping perilously, you yourself clinging to the end of it by your fingernails, just barely holding on.

The image you choose when you feel like your life is hanging in the balance depends, in large part, on whether you feel like you are in control or not. Whether you feel powerful or powerless. The gymnast has trained her whole life for that moment up on the beam. She’s focused and in peak condition. There is no place she’d rather be. From our perspective, all we can sense is the pressure she must be under. How much is riding on this three minutes of her life. For her, though, these are the moments she feels most alive. She is in control of her own destiny, and her fate is entirely up to her. While she may nail the landing or she may fall flat on her face, she holds within herself the power and the ability to succeed or fail.

Most of us aren’t that lucky, are we? Not only do we find ourselves standing on a beam that tips and tosses us, where we can’t be sure it will be under us when we land, but today we find ourselves in a situation few of us have trained for. While some of you here may recall the impact of the Great Depression on yourselves and your families, and you’ve spent your lives preparing for another crash, most of us grew up in the era of “onward and upward forever.” We boomers and Gen-Xer’s were raised to believe that each succeeding generation would be more successful, more educated, more secure, and even wealthier than the one that preceded it. Oh, and happier, too. Let’s not forget our constitutional right to happiness. As long as we worked hard and played by the rules, someday we’d be comfortably residing on that shady, tree-lined boulevard called “Easy Street.” But suddenly, when we look at our 401(k)’s (if we’re courageous enough to do so), or we look around at the empty offices recently vacated by our friends who’ve been laid off, we realize that we’re totally unprepared. And we feel powerless in the face of it. It’s not a problem of our own making, we say to ourselves, and we don’t have the tools or the skills to dig ourselves out of the hole. So we stand paralyzed on the teeter-totter, hoping that someone or something will come along and put some blocks under both ends of the board before we tip off. Or we hang on and hang on as long as we can, in hopes that someone can pull us back up or at least move a safety net under us before our fingers give out. And while I’m speaking in metaphor, these metaphors are a reality for many in our community, both here at UUCDC and in the wider community of which we are a part.

What to do, what to do. I’ve talked to some who spend their days obsessively watching the roller coaster of the stock market, checking at least hourly on the progress of the international financial markets in a desperate search for some glimmer of hope that a turnaround is in sight. I’ve witnessed others literally worry themselves sick about their financial situation, people who then self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, or who withdraw from the world, and hide under the blanket, both literally and metaphorically. Some are in denial, continuing blithely along with their lives as if everything is just fine, thank you very much, while others take solace in playing the “blame game,” directing their anger and their energies to the greed of the investment bankers and brokers on Wall Street and the politicians who promoted deregulation.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about the prescription that will nurse us back to health during these troubling times. And as you might suspect, I have no cure for what ails the monetary markets or our own wallets. This crisis is real. People are losing their homes and their jobs and I, too, share your sense of vulnerability. After all, my livelihood is directly dependent on your good will and your ability to give generously to the church. But I invite you to consider this: the meltdown on Wall Street is not simply a financial crisis. It has created a spiritual crisis as well. When I watch the nightly news and when I talk to members of our community about the impact of the market’s turmoil on their lives, I see the same looks on the faces of people as I see on those who have received a diagnosis of a terrible disease. And I hear us asking ourselves the same questions, too: How will I provide for my family? What will I say to my children? What if it never gets better? What did I do to deserve this? How will I ever survive? These questions are cries of pain every bit as deep and agonizing as those uttered by anyone diagnosed with cancer, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or some other life-threatening illness. And thus, as people of faith, we are called to respond to them as the spiritual questions that they are.

In his latest and last book, Rev. Forrest Church talks about what it is like to receive such a diagnosis, living and dying as he is, with cancer of the esophagus. Church describes our lives as a stained glass window with many panes. Each pane, he says, “looks out onto some aspect of our life: our vocation and avocations; our spouse or companion if we have one; our parents, our children, our health. At any given time,” he continues, “some of these panes are likely to be rosy and translucent.” We’re happy in our work. We enjoy healthy relationships with our partner. Our kids are loving, kind and well-behaved. But then he asks us to imagine that one of the panes of our window suddenly grows cloudy, then opaque. We receive a diagnosis of disease. Or we lose our job. Suddenly, we can’t see any light through that pane; it’s just black. Our tendency, Church tells us, “is to press our nose up against that one frame, desperately trying to see through it.” Then he points out this reality: “When we do this, we lose all sense of proportion. Our entire world goes black. With our nose pressed up against the one frame we can see nothing through, all our other lights go out.” [Forrest Church, Love and Death, 32-33.]

This is not to say that we don’t need to attend to the pane that has gone dark. Just as it’s important to get treatment for our illness and to fight the disease, when we face financial disaster we must look for a new job and strategize about how we might reallocate our investments and reduce our living expenses. But what Church is telling us is not to lose sight of the other panes, and the light that flows freely through them. Our fiscal ailments don’t impair the love we receive from our family and friends. They don’t sever the relationships that sustain and renew us. They do not make the sunsets any less beautiful or each day we are alive any less precious or miraculous. We can, if we choose, use these times of turmoil and chaos to re-order our lives and to remind ourselves of what is most important. As our lives hang in the balance, we can work to achieve and maintain a spiritual balance that will help sustain us through the crisis. In so doing, we may even find that the shaky ground on which we stand is actually holy ground.

A few moments ago I mentioned the reactions we might experience in the face of present circumstances, especially when those circumstances have a very real and threatening impact on our personal financial condition. Fear, anxiety, despair, anger, to name a few. These, as well as a host of other emotions are appropriate responses when our livelihoods and our lives are threatened. But there is one reaction that I want to speak to directly. When we suffer setbacks and losses, particularly if we are in the role of “bread-winner” for our family, we might feel guilty, and that guilt can easily translate into shame. We’ve let ourselves and others down. We haven’t lived up to expectations and obligations. We’ve put our families at risk. We begin to think of how things might have been different had we only been smarter, or more ambitious, or more risk-conscious. We may even choose to hide the reality of our situation from those who are closest to us: our partners, our friends, our minister. We withdraw from our relationships and isolate ourselves from those around us, believing that we got ourselves into this mess and that we alone need to find a way out.

If you have this tendency, or you notice it in someone around you, I beg you to listen closely. You are not alone. We are here for you. I am here for you. We are all here for you. I have heard folks talk of their fear that they won’t be able to fulfill their pledges this year, and while I hope we make our budget, I want to make one thing absolutely and abundantly clear: Do not withdraw from this community out of guilt or shame over your inability to pay your pledge. If you think your pledge is in jeopardy, let us know, let me know, knowing that that will lead us into a deeper conversation about how we might support you in your time of need. We have resources that can help you, or we can point you in the direction of resources in the community. But most importantly, always remember that this congregation has deep wellsprings of kindness, love and compassion that are available to each and every one of you. Do not withdraw from us at the time you need us most. I invite you to join with Mark Bernstein, who expressed so eloquently his faith in our community, when he wrote, “I believe in the power of others to help heal me as I heal myself. I believe in the magic of relationships and the importance of connecting with others in our minds and in our hearts. I believe in the ability of my friends to breathe life into me. I believe that in concert with others, all things are possible.”

The test of any community is how it responds to its members who are most in need. I am asking you to believe in us, to trust in us, in the power of community, the power of this community, to help you through whatever struggles you may be facing. As Forrest Church writes, “Whenever a trapdoor swings or the roof caves in, don’t ask ‘Why?’ Why will get you nowhere. The only question worth asking is ‘Where do we go from here?’ And part of the answer,” he writes, “must be ‘together.’ Together we kneel. Together we walk, holding each another’s hands, holding each another up. Together we do love’s work and thereby we are saved.” [Forrest Church, Love and Death, 82.]

Friends, let us kneel together. Let us walk together. Let us do love’s work together. Let us hold each other up and let us save one another. Today, and every day, I ask you to stand by me. Just as I will stand by you. If the sky we look upon should tumble and fall, and the mountains should crumble to the sea, I won’t cry. I won’t cry, no I won’t shed a tear, just as long as you stand by me. Whenever you’re in trouble, won’t you stand by me? Oh now, stand by me.

[This sermon concluded with the congregation singing the Ben E. King song, “Stand By Me." As Rev. Friedrichs read the final words he displayed a segment of video from the 10/24/08 Bill Moyers broadcast, in which Moyers profiled the producer of a new documentary entitled "Playing For Change." The clip that was played had musicians from around the world playing "Stand By Me." (You can view the segment, starting at 4:35 minutes.)]

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