One river gives
Its journey to the next.
We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.
We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.
We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—
Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.
Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:
Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.
You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me
What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made
Something greater from the difference.
Second Reading A Buddhist Wisdom Tale
A wise woman, a teacher, was passing through a forest. There, among the leaves, was something shiny. She wiped away the leaves and dirt and beheld a beautiful, large gem. “My, this is pretty,” the wise woman said. She put the jewel in her pouch and continued on her way.
When the sun was high in the sky, she sat down under a tree to eat her simple lunch. She was barely settled, when she saw a figure approaching. It was a man and, to judge from his dress, a poor man. “Kind and gentle lady, do you have any food to share with a poor beggar?”
“I have plenty,” she replied with a smile, digging into her small sack. She pulled out the gem that was on top, a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese. She offered the bread and cheese to the beggar. But the beggar’s eyes had grown big at the sight of the lovely gem.
“Sweet lady, that is a magnificent jewel!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, do you like it? Here, take it, too.” And she gave the man the gem, the bread, and the cheese. The beggar could not believe his luck! He wrapped the gem in his cloak and quickly scampered off. The wise woman arose and started off on her way again.
She was surprised a few minutes later to hear footsteps behind her. She turned and saw the beggar before her again.
The beggar held out the jewel. “Wise woman, may I give this back to you. I don’t want it!” “What do you want?” she asked.
“I want whatever it is you have that allowed you to give it away.”
I like tomatoes. In fact, I ran into a Westminsterite in the supermarket not long ago who happened to notice the solid 2 pounds of little cherry tomatoes I had perched atop the other groceries in my cart. And as many of you know, I became farmer Ellen this summer with a crop of 8 well-loved cherry tomato plants in my garden.
In fact I like tomatoes so much I have them with my lunch almost every day.
You may be wondering why I’m talking about tomatoes in a sermon on attention and stewardship.
In this month of attention, I’ve been paying closer attention, to everything. And at the beginning of every meal, I do what Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has called the three bite practice. First bite, offer the food in your mind to a teacher a guide or someone who has offered you wisdom. Then, second bite, imagine offering the food to someone who has been kind to you recently. And finally, third bite, offer the food metaphorically to someone who is suffering.
But here’s the thing. I caught myself, one day, idly thinking that I didn’t want to do the three bite practice with the tomatoes. I wanted to do it with the carrots, which I also like, but not as much.
I, apparently, wanted to keep the tomatoes for myself. For the part of the meal that’s all mine. That I don’t have to share.
Now you may be thinking, because you are paying attention, wait wait. You know you’re not actually physically sharing anything, right? You know that even if you do the practice, you’re still the one eating the tomatoes, right?
Yes, I know. Yet there I was, resisting it anyway. My inner three year old strikes again.
Resisting giving something away, even if it’s all in my head.
But then again, I suppose that’s where generosity begins. In the head. Or maybe in the heart.
I share this humbling story with you today not so much because I want you to rethink your relationship with tomatoes, but as a window into part of the human condition, because maybe you, too, sometimes have a nay-saying 3 year old showing up at the conference table of your inner decision-making committee.
Maybe for you that’s not wanting to share the TV remote. “Mine,” something in you says, insistently. Maybe for you that’s an inner voice telling you: I’m going to get this (new smartphone, new sequined dress, new car, new power tool) without entirely checking the finances totally, 100%, to see if it actually fits the budget or might have an impact on someone else. Maybe for you it’s refusing to let annoying drivers with their insistent turn signals merge into your lane because, hel-lo, I’m trying to get somewhere too and this is my lane.
However that might look for you I think there’s something worthwhile, in a sermon on generosity, in giving some air time, paying some gentle attention, to the part of us that does not always want to be generous. That wants to hold on to something. For whatever reason.
Not all of us were afforded that opportunity growing up. When we were 3 or any other age. Many of us were taught to just give, whether we liked it or not. I encountered one story this week of a woman whose parents would insist that she share, whether or not she felt ready. She recounts an incident as a 5 year old when her friend’s younger brother grabbed her plush stuffed Barney toy out or her hands. And was told to gift it to him. She already understood that from her parents perspective, holding on would make her bad, giving it away would make her good. Recognizing the repercussions of the decisions, she did the math, and reluctantly gave up her favorite purple dinosaur. But. What a choice.
Still, many of us, by the time we are adults, we frequently do that kind of thing to ourselves. We hit 3 year old override – we metaphorically put our hands over our ears, we squeeze our eyes shut and just force ourselves to do whatever we think is the right thing. Because then our parents, or someone, will think we’re good, right?
We let all those annoying drivers cut in front of us. We force ourselves to give (to something or someone) because we feel guilty. We give up control of the remote or the movie choice or the vacation destination decision to someone else because they want it.
Although we may exude a long suffering sigh, under our breath.
Not exactly a heartwarming experience, for anyone.
Or maybe we allow that part of us that’s looking out for us to finally assert itself. We just do it. We’ll decide. We’ll spend the money. We’ll go where we want. We will not let anyone into our lane. Ev-er. Ahhhh.
That can feel good. For a while. But is also not terribly heartwarming.
So, paying some attention. To what goes on underneath the surface when it comes to being generous. Or not.
For me, I have discovered it’s not just a 3 year old sitting at my conference table, I, at least, have other outspoken voices in here too. And, frankly, some of them have a point.
Like the one that says, if I just gave everything away, or let everyone around me have whatever they wanted, I’d have nothing left. If I always give, where does that leave me?
Point two. I, like many good Dutch kids, many New Englanders, and many others, was trained in the fine art of paying as little as possible for as much as you can get. That’s just good business sense.
Point three. The fact is, most people are trying to scam you. Watch out.
Apparently, my less generous self is also a little bit cynical. But sincerely protective of me.
Still, it’s not a very pretty picture of the world. Or my place in it. This worldview based on wariness, shrewdness, and skepticism.
How many of us have been conditioned, under the surface, to feel shrewd, wary or skeptical ?
And when we act on those beliefs, when we’re always on the lookout for a scam, always trying to squeeze the most out of the least…. what kind of a life experience does that create?
What impact do our beliefs about life’s treasures have on our hearts?
How does our relationship to our money, our time, our treasure, affect how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about the world we live in?
But then there’s the parable about that wise woman. While it’s a little radical – afterall she gave everything away… It points, I think, to something important. It points to a very different way of seeing the world. And being in the world. A way of being that, apparently, is more valuable even than the jewel this woman gave the beggar. A way of being quite different from what most of us have been taught.
This woman is not about business sense. She is not acting on good business principles. She does not appear to be wary about who’s trying to scam what from whom. She seems to be living from some spiritual place of sufficiency, abundance, and kindness.
How crazy is that? How heartwarming is that? How heartwarming would it be, if we could do that, consistently?
Now, inspiring as that image may be, most of us do not live in a forest or a fairy tale. Much as we may not want to live in a world as dark as our worst fears/greatest skepticism, we also do not live in a utopia. We have to deal with grocery bills and college bills and medical bills. We have to make wise decisions about our resources in a world that is not quite as simple as this parable…
So we are left with this dilemma. What do we choose to see, which viewpoints do we choose to listen to, how do we choose to live. How do we navigate between our spiritual ideals of who we want to be and the mundane facts of our real lives. How do we pick and choose between our dreams and our realities?
One thing I have noticed, in paying attention to all the many viewpoints that live inside my mind, is that some of them pipe up immediately, sound more adamant, grab me by the shoulder. They’re the ones along the lines of, I can’t, I don’t wanna, I don’t have enough, I won’t have enough, or the slightly suspicious: why are you asking anyway. Or they’re the kind of thoughts that insist I give – overriding me with a heavy “you should” or “you must” or “you have to”. Either way, I’ve noticed what tends to drive those very first, most outspoken thoughts is some kind of fear, or some kind of negativity.
But then, I have noticed, if I sit with it long enough without moving directly to action, other thoughts begin to surface: Maybe, I do have enough. Maybe I have the time or the money. Maybe this is worthwhile. Maybe I actually want to do this.
Then those different viewpoints have a heart to heart. What’s really true? What’s just a feeling? What’s actually too much? What are my values telling me? What do I really want? In that mix I realize I don’t have a direct line to some objective truth. I have come to the conclusion that none of the thoughts I have fully describes the whole picture.
What I have noticed, is that when I reactively follow my first impulses, when I keep my tomatoes, my highway lane or any treasure all to myself, I feel a little more isolated, a little more alone. I’m more apt to believe a skeptical worldview. And, that reactive part feels empowered, just a little. When I take a moment, on the other hand, and step back, when I experiment with the kinder, more generous ideas, I learn things that I otherwise would not. Sometimes I learn, hm, yup, that was too much – that left me exhausted or with not quite enough for the rest of that month. Lesson learned. Other times, I find, I did have enough and more and, not only that, I feel good about me, I feel good about the person I was generous with. The world feels a little kinder than it did before. And so do I.
Now, you may be thinking, this is a stewardship sermon, when does the other shoe drop, when will she tell us what to give and how to give it?
So here’s the thing. I won’t and I can’t. Only you can have that conversation with yourself and your family. Only you know the shape of your dreams and the realities of your obligations. Only you can discern between the voices in your head that feel true to you and the ones that are painting an unnecessarily wary picture of your world. Only you can decide what you want to try, what you want to risk, and what it is you hope for.
I can’t tell you what to give, but I can tell you what I do, and why I do it.
When I first started regularly attending church I decided, somewhat arbitrarily, to give about $15 a week. As I’ve come to understand more about the many confusing and competing viewpoints that can factor into financial decision making, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of a simple percentage guide for giving. And as I’ve learned more about what it actually takes to run a church, I have, over time, increased my giving, in line with, over time, my increased commitment. Now, I’m giving a little over 5% of my income (or about $400 a month), because I want to invest not just my time and energy, but my money, in what I most deeply and most passionately believe in.
Which is the values embodied in this faith. The values embodied in this place. This place, with our calling to help others. Where we nurture the children we love in dozens of different ways. This place where we believe in democracy and practice it, all the time. This place where the relationships we nurture among all ages can last a lifetime — relationships that change lives. Maybe even save lives. I want to invest in this place where we’re not perfect and we know it and it’s okay because we can keep coming back into covenant with each other even if, as the poet Rumi assures us, even if we’ve broken our vows 1000 times.
I believe in this place, where the aspirational, inspirational and the material meet. Right here in on this property. Where the beauty of our dreams and the cost of our heat literally intersect. Right here in this space that holds us, right now. This place whose future rests in the hands of those who care for it.
I can’t tell you what to give, or what to do, or how to live. But I do invite you to reflect. I do invite you to pause, to take a step back from the negative, fearful or pressured messages inside or around you and consider: Your dreams, the world you hope for, how this place might help you make it happen.
Where does your heart live? Where do you want it to?
What might happen in the world or right here if we all put our treasure where our hearts want to be?
Where Your Heart Is
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
November 3, 2019