The work of Rev. Jude Geiger, a Unitarian Universalist minister

A People of Gratitude

This sermon looks at the priorities we keep, and the community we build. 11/18/18.

This past Friday night, we were coming back home from dinner out with friends in the City, when we wound up missing the better train home, and had to grab a train to Hicksville and get a car back, or wait another hour for the next late night train back. At the Hicksville station, they had a sharp mural of the train station with the town’s motto engraved in it reading, “Hicksville is a community that has time for you.” My first reaction was, “oh, how sweet.” And then I shifted, as I realized that that’s a rarity these days. How often do we all lament that we have no spare time for anyone or anything. I love that motto, and I’m sad that a Chamber of Commerce knew it was probably necessary to say aloud.

I know that’s a challenge for our religious community as well. Many of us are raising kids; most of us have two income homes; having to bring work home, and longer-than-preferred commutes – and for our kids – school and sports, seem to make for longer and longer days. With the holidays coming up, even figuring out where we will be can be a challenge for those of us with families in multiple states. For years we tried to go from NY to NJ and to Connecticut and back in a day for Thanksgiving before we gave up and declared we were splitting the holidays – we’ll see one half on Thanksgiving and the other half on Christmas.

Everything is worthwhile, how do we prioritize and still find time for a cup of coffee with a friend?

It’s in that spirit, that I want to challenge us to see our Fellowship as a religious community that has time for you; and it will take all of us. In my time here, I’ve seen strong friendships that have been built over decades of care and commitment. One thing they each had in common, was that at some point, people said yes to opening up; to asking for help, to offering to care for one another. It’s kind of a radical counter-cultural idea these days. I know I was raised to be self-sufficient, to handle adversity defiantly; to not share with my neighbors our struggles – sort of the opposite of keeping up with the Jones’, more like merely “keeping up with the appearances.” It’s a really bad way to do community, and it’s a really bad way to do religious community; and it’s really exhausting.

I want to begin by telling a story – one that I’ve told before maybe five years ago – so it may be familiar to some of you.

“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 cups of coffee 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 coffee represented. The professor smiled and said, ‘I’m glad you asked.’ The coffee just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a cup with a friend.”

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.

So as we head into the holidays – that odd time of year that is often our lives at our most busy – when we’re supposed to be finding time for one another – let’s remember to center ourselves on prioritizing what is most important, and not sweat the small stuff. The small stuff will always be there.

All this month we have been reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of gratitude. When I was a kid, that word tended to mean the things I was thankful for; as in – the things I hadto thank people for. Be grateful you have food in front of you, or a roof over your headsand so on. It’s an important early life lesson. But as we grow older, or as we mature, gratitude as a spiritual virtue, takes on a different meaning, or maybe a different nuance. It’s the other side of Grace. So often we over identify with doing; and we can do it for so long we start to think everything we have or don’t have is mostly due to us, ourselves. That’s another myth that’s exhausting. Sometimes it props up our egos, and can lead to a kind of stinginess of spirit toward our neighbors who are struggling. And sometimes it can batter down our egos, and makes us believe that we’re not good enough – that our value and worth is tied to our doing. Religion tries to teach us that our worth is tied toward Grace, not production. Our worth is inherent, not achieved.

We probably all want our kids growing up to know the value of work and commitment, but we probably don’t want our kids to think they aren’t good enough if they aren’t the best, or the brightest. And yet, when we buy into the lie of busyness as a virtue, that’s exactly what we’re modeling for our kids.

A people of gratitude is another way of saying, a community that has time for you. It’s a good way to be.

As we come to the close of this homily, I want to take a moment to do a deeper dive into this month’s offering….

Some 6 year or so ago, I was on a non-profit start up team for an endeavor at our seminary in Chicago, Meadville Lombard. Their Dr. Mark Hicks wanted to build out a whole new program for the seminary that would be a responsive wing for our faith tradition to develop new and counter-cultural trainings that deepend our faith, and help to reknit communities. The first major innovation that came out of that program, was the Beloved Conversations program that our 11 congregations on Long Island are taking part in starting next week. They are trainings on how to have difficult conversations around race and racism. Our cluster has about 40 folks committing to the 8 session training. There may be more space left if you’re still interested; if so let me know soon, so I can see if we can fit in another person. This program has had tens of thousands of UU’s participate. Some of our congregations are on their third iteration of the training – it was that helpful.

Our collection this morning is going toward funding another, new, project like Beloved Conversations. Greta and I have already secured half the funding through grants from the UUA and Meadville itself. This collection is another part of the fundraising. The program is really a first of its kind in our denomination. We’re looking to have developed a curriculum that trains a sort of lay ministers for justice work. What are the skills we all need to do the organzing we need to do to build the beloved community we dream of? But also, how are we spiritually fed in this work, that seems perpetual? How can we better get outside our own assumptions on how the world works, to build up that community within our own congregation. The program we have in mind, would apply to all lay leaders who would want to commit the learning; and we’re are particularly centering the needs and perspectives of emerging adults. Unitarian Universalism is no different than most other American Faiths in our challenge to retain our youth into adulthood. One of those challenges is how we integrate our teens into the life of the community when they are no longer teens. When they bridge into adulthood, how do we make sure that bridge leads them to our congregations. With so many of the newest generation being so incredibly active in justice work, let our Fellowship and our denomination be a place that helps them achieve their hopes. And it may very well mean, we need to learn new ways as a community, to make space for their leadership. How can we be a community that has time for all of us?

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