This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn, NY on 11/18/12.
In this season of Thanksgiving we hear so many competing stories of gratitude and self-interest; of plentitude and scarcity. My home back in Manhattan, hard hit by the Hurricane, is completely back to normal while neighbors in the Rockaways and Staten Island are still without gas, heat, or power – or even a home. The makers of Twinkies is going bankrupt, and chief executives are blaming Union pay as the reason – even though they gave senior managers and executives 300% pay increases while simultaneously declaring bankruptcy. We’re rapidly coming up to Black Friday – the day where Americans go crazy buying things we don’t have after spending 24 hours expressing gratitude for the things we already do have. Petitions have been sent to the White House from almost every state (including New York) seeking to secede from the Union in response to the re-election of President Obama — not getting what we want, some of us want to take our cookies and go home. Whereas, prior to the election, many a liberal considered moving to Canada should things go differently. (mmm hmm.. that’s right.. I heard you…).
What are we doing? Collectively, I mean? Has the spiritual center of our country fallen away? Or have we just strayed from the path? Where exactly did we give up our identities as Citizens for the role of Consumers? Where did politics shift from differing philosophies to differing identities? I can’t answer all these in the space of a sermon, but combined they resonate with an existential angst that frames the scope of our spiritual short-comings as a people. Whether there’s an actual need – like those in crisis in the Rockaways and Staten Island, or there’s a perceived crisis – “they got the last widget on sale at the store,” there’s a question of a balance that’s off. Collectively, we’ve lost our center, we’ve lost perspective, and we have to find our way back.
There is such a sense of emptiness that many of us experience. Sometimes it’s severe and obvious. Depression, addiction, a break-up, the loss of a loved one. All are ways that we legitimately feel less whole. They’re not easy to fix, and we’re off-kilter to say the very least. Sometimes it’s fickle, and small. ‘I just bought that new iPhone and two weeks later they announce the latest model is about to come out.’ (Not that that’s happened to me before…. twice.)
Our Hunger Communion this morning ritualizes this challenge. Representing the world, some of us get all the bread we want, and others are grabbing a nibble. Taken out of the metaphor, some of us are eating for survival and some of us are eating to excess – and this truth is a spiritual crisis. The goal must be shifted away from survival and excess and to a discipline of eating for fullness.
Our reading by Thich Nhat Hanh this morning prays, “…let us fill our hearts with our own compassion – towards ourselves and towards all living beings.” He asks for us to fill ourselves, not with things, or desires, or excess but with compassion. It can sound like an airy-fairy wish that’s easy to make. But if we go deeper, it’s neither silly nor easy. There are clear, concrete ways in which our excesses cause, directly and indirectly, the strife others must face. Anyone that has lost their home to Hurricane Sandy, appreciates the depth of crisis our planet faces regarding Global Warming. National commuting choices, manufacturing choices, waste disposal choices all have direct and indirect impacts on anyone living near a coast. Our eating habits, and our food transportation systems, impact hunger in the world. We have all the land we need to produce all the food we need to feed all the people in the world. And yet souls go hungry. Some of this is tied the economics of supply, stocks, and transit. Some of this is tied to huge proportions of land being devoted to animal stock – something far more taxing on land usage than fruits and vegetables. What we choose to eat, adding up with all the choices of all the other people around us, impacts world hunger.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s prayer is not easy either. If you’re a huge meat eater, reducing your intake is probably not something you really want to do. If you have a family of 5, taking the subway rather than a car to church in the morning, is probably not convenient. And returning high real estate value coastline to its original use – marshland and swamp – is clearly not going to happen.
But religiously, focusing on filling our hearts with compassion – for ourselves and all living things – is the spiritual answer to the crisis. That mixed with the responsible search for truth. If we know what needs to be done, and compassion is at the heart of our actions, the rest will follow.
Knowing our priorities, however, is a huge challenge in eating for fullness – not eating for excess or for survival. I want to share with you an old story that found its way back as a meme on Facebook this week.
“A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.
The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full.. The students responded with a unanimous ‘yes.’
The professor then produced two Beers from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.
‘Now,’ said the professor as the laughter subsided, ‘I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things—your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions—and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car. The sand is everything else—the small stuff.
‘If you put the sand into the jar first,’ he continued, ‘there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness.
Spend time with your children. Spend time with your parents. Visit with grandparents. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18. There will always be time to clean the house and mow the lawn. Take care of the golf balls first—the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand. One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the Beer represented. The professor smiled and said, ‘I’m glad you asked.’ The Beer just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of Beers with a friend.” Now, I imagine that beer could be replaced with coffee or tea if you’re so inclined, but I know you get the meaning.
When our lives become fixated on the small stuff, the iPhones, the tiny grievances of strangers, the hunger for more, then our jars are filled with dross. They may be filled, but they are not full. All the little things still can find their way, but fullness comes when we craft the space for the more important things in our lives first. When we don’t allow work to take precedence over our family and friends. When we pause to enjoy our home, and not just to use it as nightly hotel. When we set our priorities for religious community, raising our children, making connections with those from other generations and serving the world’s needs from our place of giftedness. These golf balls all make the jar full – first.
For some of us, this will fit hand to glove. For others, family and community are places where we’ve known pain. I have a favorite line from the Marge Piercy poem, “To Have Without Holding.” “Learning to love differently is hard, love with the hands wide open, love with the doors banging on their hinges, the cupboard unlocked, the wind roaring and whimpering in the rooms rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds that thwack like rubber bands in an open palm.” Filling our hearts with compassion, means this too. It sometimes means pain. Living our lives with an openness of reach; with the wind making crazy all through our lives; with the sting of the rubber band – is uncomfortable. And it is necessary. Openness is sometimes a discipline.
The love, the sting, the possibility, the self-restraint, the attention to those we care for, the hands wide open – can all be expressions of eating for fullness. Apathy, scarcity, gluttony, vocational distractions, grasping – can all be expressions of eating for excess. Intuitively, we know how they feel different. And each of us are known for both at different points in our lives.
Let us end this service with where we began. The Hunger Communion bread that we shared this morning was baked by our families at our Fall Retreat at Murray Grove, the birthplace of Universalism in the US. When they started the bread baking they began it with a prayer. The prayer ended with these simple words, “May we treat this blessing as the gift that it is. And may we have fun along the way!”
Fullness is a blessing, a gift, and a cause for joy along the way. Whether we have much, or have little, fullness is just as near to us.