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Through a Narrow Pass – 3/31/2013

There is a story about a little squirrel who stored up nuts for the winter by squeezing them through a small hole in a hollow tree. Through coincidence and tragic misunderstanding, that squirrel found himself forced through that very same hole, and fell onto a pile of his own nuts. Down in the dark he was far removed from his life in the forest. He couldn’t hear the birds or play among the tree branches or see his beloved squirrel life-partner. But the prospect of squeezing back through that tiny little hole did not sound easy, and there were all those nuts to eat, at least.

Sometimes the only way forward is along a slim and treacherous path. And when that is the case, it can be tempting to ask, ‘what’s so great about going forward, anyhow?’. In the Passover story, the tale of the ancient Israelites escaping from Egypt, things were very bad from the very start. The people were utterly oppressed, forced to make bricks and build walls for Pharoah. Their lives were dictated, constrained, and destroyed on a whim, and they were denied the right even to follow the faith of their hearts, and worship according to their own understanding. But when the Israelites set out from bondage, a whole new collection of problems began. There was little to eat, and the desert was dangerous. A generous estimate of their route from the ancient Egyptian city of Ramses to the East bank of the Jordan river near Jericho would have a distance of about 300 miles. It took them 40 years to complete it. So it is understandable that some folks complained and asked, ‘Why did we leave? Even if we did not have our freedom in Egypt, we were fed.’

The word in Hebrew for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means literally a ‘narrow place’. The hardship and trial of the escape and the wandering that followed speak to an all-too universal truth: liberation is never cheaply bought. It is always a struggle to become free. The story of Exodus, the story of Passover, is the creation story of Judaism itself. It establishes many of the religion’s most important commandments: to welcome the stranger, to set free the captive, to pursue justice until true peace is finally achieved. So the tradition understands the passage through that narrow place as a birth. Just as each of us had to pass through a narrow opening, in order to leave the bodies of our mothers behind, and enter the world as beings unto ourselves.

There is also a narrow place in the Easter story. Jesus of Nazareth taught for a little while, in the Galilee and in Judeah. He taught peace between neighbors and justice for the poor. He proclaimed a kingdom, built not from war, but from loving kindness. Something in his teaching made the greatest empire of his age very, very afraid. And so they killed him for it, and he was buried in a cave.

The story goes, that after

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he had been dead a few days, the women who were closest to him – some of his students, and his mother – went to where he was buried, as part of their way of saying goodbye. For the most part, no one wants to be overwhelmingly sad, to be stricken with grief and stuck in one place. But when we lose someone we truly love there is a powerful gravity to that sorrow that pulls us and holds us. And in this way, the hope of the people who had followed Jesus was all bound up and restricted by grief, and it all fit into that cave.

The women went there, and they entered through a narrow place, and they came back out the same way – but something was different. Whatever they saw, whatever they heard, whatever they experienced there, though it has been argued and fought over for centuries, is wildly beside the point. What matters is not whether there was some miracle, some hallucination, or some invention, though people have killed each other for all three arguments these past two thousand years. Whatever those women found in that cave, they returned to their community with glad news: the kingdom is still among us; the teaching need not die with the teacher. Out of a dark place, through a narrow opening, hope reentered their lives.

The English Unitarian, Beatrix Potter, wrote the story of that unfortunate squirrel from before. Don’t worry; he did eventually make it out of that tree. Ms. Potter is famous today for her beautifully illustrated stories for children about mischievous animals and their humanlike ways. But she might have preferred to have been famous for her contributions to science. Beatrix had a passion for the study of nature; her captivating pictures came from studying the woods and meadows where she lived and making careful notes and drawings. Growing up in the 19th century, her possible course through life was narrow and limited. When she submitted a paper to the leading society of naturalists in Britain, it had to be read aloud by someone else, because as a woman she could not even attend the meeting. Despite the limits imposed by a sexist society, she found a way forward, putting her gifts to use as an author. An imperfect solution, disappointing perhaps, yet still very grand.

In the face of tragedy or injustice, whether global or personal, when the only course before us leaves no room on either side, we have but two choices. The first is to stay where we are – this will generally seem safe, because the danger will be of a sort we have gotten accustomed to. The second possibility is to roll back the stone, to step out into the desert, and to get born as many times as is necessary to truly live. At this season – of the renewal of hope, of the remembering of freedom, and of the return of spring – may each of us, and all of us together, have the courage to move.

They May Call You Crazy – 3/24/2013

A man with a small beard and bushy mustache walks down a busy street in the city of San Francisco, sometime around or just after the Civil War. He wears a blue and gold military uniform, complete with epaulettes – those little fringey things on the shoulders. At his side is his cavalry saber, or more likely, because it is not a formal occasion, a cane or umbrella. On his head rests a top hat adorned with a peacock feather. He has a few dollars in change in his pockets, and little more than that to his name. He holds no rank, title, or appointment other than that which he has given himself: Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Going about his daily circuit the Emperor pauses often to inspect the condition of public property: he notes the condition of the sidewalk, the repair of trolley car wheels, and the paint quality on city buildings. The man approaches a police officer who immediately stands at attention and salutes. Norton looks over the policeman’s jacket, hat, and shoes, and pronounces them to be in satisfactory order. As the traffic flows by the shop windows outside of a store, he finds a place to stand and begins to hold forth with one of his impromptu philosophical discourses.

Joshua Abraham Norton is one of the great characters in the lore of San Francisco. In the late 1860s and 70s he became one of the city’s most notable residents. Besides his distinctive dress and imperial bearing, he issued a series of public decries, dutifully published by the local newspapers. In these he commanded that in the interest of reducing conflict and strife, the United States Congress be dissolved and all political parties be disbanded. He ordered that a bridge be built across San Francisco Bay 60 years before it was done. He forbade any war or conflict over religious or sectarian disagreement and declared that anyone who, “after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco,” which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.”[i] He hinted at a courtship with Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, and also issued his own money.

The people of San Francisco, and in particular the business owners and officials, not only accepted this behavior – they embraced it. Though he begged on the street to afford a single room in a boarding house, Emperor Norton routinely ate in fine restaurants. For such eateries, being able to display his imperial seal of approval was a coveted sign of stature and a known attractor of customers. Theater productions would reserve balcony seats in the hopes that the Emperor would grace their opening performance with his presence. When a police officer arrested Norton under the charge of lunacy the city’s newspapers leapt to his aid. One wrote that the, “kindly Monarch of Montgomery Street is less a lunatic than those who have engineered these trumped up charges. As they will learn, His Majesty’s loyal subjects are fully apprised of this outrage.” Another declared, “The Emperor Norton has never shed blood. He has robbed no one, and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line.”[ii] Norton was released with apologies from the police commissioner, and magnanimously granted an imperial pardon to the officer who had arrested him.

So what are we to make of this odd historical figure. It might be tempting to declare Joshua Norton delusional or otherwise possessed of some serious mental health challenges. Although I should point out that he had no official diagnosis. Still, we might decide that the people and leaders of San Francisco were humoring someone who needed their help, and quite possibly having a joke at his expense. But that would ignore the fact that Joshua Norton lived life on terms of his own choosing, and never requested much help beyond the ample generosity he received. There almost certainly were folks laughing at him, such as whoever sent him false telegrams from the Czar of Russia and the President of the French Republic, alternately congratulating him on and warning him against an engagement to Queen Victoria. But if some of his fellow San Franciscans were laughing at him, a great many were not. When the man died, the San Francisco Chronicle ran with the top headline, Le Roi Est Mort, The King Is Dead, above a solemn, heartfelt obituary. Thousands came to his funeral, and funds were raised to ensure his proper burial.

I’ve told you this little story for a couple of reasons, and one of them is this: Joshua Norton was a poor person arrested for lunacy in the mid-1800s in America, and that worked out for him about as well as it conceivably could have. For virtually everyone else in his situation, the story was far more sad. I’ll tell you another little story now to illustrate.

A woman with dark hair set up in a braid enters a dark, squalid jail in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1841. She is entering the women’s section, as a visitor, not a prisoner. Immediately she is struck by the smell: the raw odor of human beings confined without sanitation or care. But for the crush of people themselves, the place is nearly empty: even the most basic furniture is lacking, and inmates sleep on the floor. That floor is particularly cold because the jail is unheated, no matter the season. In this place she encounters women who have been sentenced here for prostitution and intoxication, some for theft, a handful for violent crimes. Mixed in amongst these folks are also women suffering from mental illness or who have serious cognitive disabilities. There is no attempt at treatment or hope of recovery; everyone here has been caged, and essentially forgotten.

This first trip to the East Cambridge Jail was a great turning point in the life of Dorothea Dix – the author, educator, international social reformer, Superintendent of Army Nurses, and Unitarian. Dorothea came to the prison to teach a Sunday School for the women there, and this she did. But her work expanded dramatically as she was horrified by the conditions she found there. She might have turned away and tried to put the situation out of her mind, or she might have focused only on trying to change things at this one jail.  But Dorothea had made a name for herself as a teacher of women and girls, without having any significant formal education of her own because of her keen mind, and her unflinching determination to learn.

She read all that she could on mental illness, mental disability and their diagnosis and treatment. She interviewed physicians and court officers. And she undertook a tour of the state of Massachusetts, visiting as many prisons and almshouses as she could. Some people designated insane at this time, who had no family that could otherwise support them, were housed in private homes, with caregivers paid some small amount by the state. Visiting some of these folks, Dorothea found examples of terrible abuse, but also of cases where compassion and support had allowed mentally ill people to reach a degree of health and wellbeing then thought to be impossible. She wrote that, “some may say these things cannot be remedied, these furious maniacs are not to be raised from these base conditions. I know they are…I could give many examples. One such is a young woman who was for years ‘a raging maniac’ chained in a cage and whipped to control her acts and words. She was helped by a husband and wife who agreed to take care of her in their home and slowly she recovered her senses.” Her report to the Massachusetts legislature, and her dogged campaigning led to considerable reforms and the expansion of Worcester State Hospital.

She continued her work nationally and eventually internationally, lobbying for the rights and needs of the poor, the imprisoned, and the mentally ill. She confronted a system in which human beings were being discarded – warehoused in a way that couldn’t meet even the most minimal threshold of humanity. While she sought to separate those who were imprisoned as punishment from those whose medical needs required institutional care, Dorothea advocated on behalf of both groups. She sought to meet basic needs with clean, safe, healthy living spaces and humane treatment. And she also lobbied for access to culture, learning, and means of expressing and contributing. The prison library, as an idea and as a literal thing that exists, is one of her legacies. She went from her Massachusetts campaign on to New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, North Carolina, eventually having an impact across the country. In 1854 she championed legislation that would have set aside five million acres of federal land to be used in the care of the mentally ill and disabled. The bill passed both houses of congress, but was vetoed by the president. Not beaten by that disappointment, she went on to travel through Europe doing basically the same thing she had done in the US: visiting prisons, reporting on the conditions there, and agitating for their improvement.[iii]

Dorothea did all of this at a time when it was rare and almost scandalous for a woman to travel alone, never mind the places she was traveling to. For a woman of no small social standing, a notable member of one of the most prominent churches in Boston, there was risk, and likely cost, in what she was doing. There was a powerful social stigma around both criminals and maniacs, to use the common terms of the day. Like any sort of shame or public judgment, that stigma was highly contagious, and difficult to remove. By literally associating with the lives and needs of people who had been convicted of a crime, Dorothea risked being treated like a criminal, which, then as now, was an isolating, debilitating fate. By visiting and working on behalf of people considered crazy, Dorothea risked being called crazy herself.

About two-thousand years ago, so the story goes, a man rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. In itself, that was not unusual; donkeys were a common animal to ride. But that entrance by the teacher Jesus is remembered in the Western Christian calendar today as a grand and pivotal affair; and there is much that his story has to say about risks of association. Again and again, in the stories of the Gospels, the teacher takes a place among those on the margins of his world. He walks with the poor, he visits those afflicted by demons – the way in which his society understood mental illness. He meets with lepers: people whose physical illness supposedly makes them spiritually unclean. He accepts sex workers into his company and seems unafraid of being associated with criminals. At the same time, he shows a willingness to meet with those reviled for their high (rather than low) positions. In the Gospel of Mark, he calls upon a tax collector and shares a meal with him and other collaborators with the Roman authorities.[iv] In a time and place of subsistence agriculture, under military occupation, tax collectors are some of the most hated people in society; but Jesus refuses to shun them. Even when the man himself seems to think that someone is too different, too outside the bounds of his community for his help and counsel, he is contradicted.

The story told by Matthew goes like this: Jesus was traveling the countryside, essentially operating a free clinic. His name is by now synonymous with healing miracles. A woman begs him to rid her daughter of a demon – to cure her of some mental affliction, probably. Jesus’ response is incredibly cold towards a mother pleading for her child’s sanity. “It is not fitting,” he says, “to take the bread of the children and throw it to the dogs.” The woman is a Greek-speaking pagan from Syria; she isn’t part of Jesus’ nation, religion, or culture – and he so he has just called her a dog. But with a rejoinder that would make Oscar Wilde proud, the woman replies, “Yes lord; yet even the dogs under the table may eat the children’s crumbs.” In this episode we would say in the modern vernacular that Jesus ‘gets schooled’. He doesn’t argue the point, and announces to the woman that the demon has already left her daughter.

There is always a risk in being an outsider, and there is also always some risk in taking the side of the outsider. But Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have often found themselves on the outside, or standing with those on the outside. This comes from something deep in our faith about the kindred nature of humanity. Not that we are all the same, because in fact we are wonderfully, spectacularly, startlingly different. But that our lives matter to each other, and when any of us is allowed to grow into the fullness of who we are, all of us benefit. Dorothea Dix insisted in the incredibly simple idea that the lives of discarded people were worth something – not just because they might one day become ‘normal’, but because simply as they were they deserved the means to live and to grow and to hope.

I’ll close with a final episode from the stories of Emperor Norton. In his day there was tremendous acrimony and racism surrounding the issue of immigration. The group labeled “undesirable” at that time came from China. Anti-Chinese protests by white San Franciscans were common, and sometimes became violent. The Emperor was known to oppose these demonstrations, and argued for what would have been the equivalent of comprehensive immigration reform. It’s said though that at least once things went far beyond the theoretical. An angry mob was menacing a group of ethnic Chinese on the street when Norton caught sight of them. He stood between the mod and their would-be victims and very loudly recited the Lord’s Prayer. He was addressing the crowd in a religious language he might expect them to understand even if it wasn’t necessarily natural to him – unbeknownst to most of his fellow San Franciscans, Joshua Abraham Norton was Jewish. After reciting the prayer, possibly several times, he ended with the declaration, ‘We are all God’s children.” He won the day, and the crowd dispersed. Sometimes you risk, and the risk has to be enough on its own. Sometimes you fight, and the fight has stand for itself. And sometimes, even if they call you crazy, even if they’re right, you win.




[iv] Mark 2: 14-16, Matt 9:9-13, Luke 5:27-28

We Promise Making Animals – 3/10/2013

I would begin this morning with thanks and gratitude for the life and memory of Prof. James Clarke Chace, who was a teacher and mentor of mine some years ago. As I’ve shared with you before, between my first experience of a call to ministry and my decision to follow it, there was an interlude during which I aspired to a career in international diplomacy. It was during this period that I studied with James.

The seminar classroom chairs were too large for almost any human, and particularly ill-suited to the man’s small, sharply-angled body. He cut a figure drawn in edges and points: the nose, the elbows, the lines of his suit coat, his habit of jabbing the air with a finger to emphasize whatever point he was making. That sharpness matched perfectly to the talks he gave and the lessons he taught. He sought always to cut through any sentiment or diversion which might distract from the matter at hand. He was incisive without being biting or uncompassionate, and that was critical in a classroom full of undergraduates.

In his classes we were studying, many of us for the first time, the history of relations between nations, particularly the United States and everyone else. And that history, viewed honestly, is not very happy. So that nearly every discussion of why this emperor or that president chose to declare a war or sign a treaty could be turned by morally affronted college students into a debate about the wrongness and injustice of that decision. Yet knowing that we needed to understand how and why things had gone before, and how things were going today, before we could think about changing much of anything, James always drew us back to trying to understand the schemes of nations – particularly our own – even when we found them contemptible. Morality and ethics are worthy pursuits, he might say, but things being as they are, what is a government to do, in this situation or that?

He was fond of invoking Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu – for those not intimately familiar with pre-revolutionary French history – was the First Minister of France during most of the Thirty Year’s War. During the conflict, he led his overwhelmingly Catholic country to make alliances with Protestant nations against Catholic ones, at a time when armies can and were killing and dying over such differences. He did this because of raison d’etat – the reason of the state. He felt those alliances would better serve the interests of his country. Richelieu did this in an act of defiance against the Pope, despite the fact that he was himself a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, and sworn to obey papal authority. My teacher brought up Cardinal Richelieu to remind us that our ideals and even the specific promises we have made often come into conflict with the immediate needs of the moment.

This sermon is the second in a series exploring some key words from our religious vocabulary as Unitarian Universalists, and this morning’s word is covenant. On the surface, this might just be the easiest one. It has a somewhat familiar secular meaning; an archaic word for a contract or some sort of agreement. Its specific meaning as a term in law is a promise to do something, or not to do something. And because covenant comes with this meaning, it is liable to be tarnished by it.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche asked, “To breed an animal with the right to make promises – is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of [humanity]? Is it not the real problem regarding [us]?”[i] He was pointing to the fact that we have the gift, possibly unique amongst animals, of being able to make promises, to establish intentions and commit ourselves to things. With that gift of making promises comes our vast capacity to break them. I don’t mean that we are all hopelessly incapable of keeping our word – many of us do manage to fulfill many of our most important obligations. But it is a certainty in lives made up of thousands of promises, big and small, that we will not live up to all of them all the time. Here I will trust you to think of some example from your own life of some commitment you made, but fell short of in fulfillment.

We often blend covenant and promise together under the heading of contract, thinking of these things in the same way we would think of a legal agreement. Generally, when a contract is broken – when one or more of the parties in it fails to honor the agreement – there may be some punishment or consequence, but afterwards the contract itself is ended. One strike, and not only are you out, but the game itself is over. But the original idea of covenant, as it comes to us through the Jewish and Christian traditions, is not at all like a contract in that sense. It can be broken, but the breaking doesn’t end it.

Covenant is a translation of the Hebrew word berith, used in the Hebrew bible to describe several different promises made by God. The first comes at the end of the story of Noah; the storm has ended, the waters have receded, and Noah, his family, and all of the animals aboard his ark have survived. A rainbow appears in the sky, and according to the story this is a symbol of the divine promise not to send such a destructive flood ever again. It is a covenant between the God of the bible and every person and living thing. Genesis, the book in which Noah’s story appears, doesn’t say much more than this, but the Jewish tradition holds that the agreement between God and everything that lives is not one-sided. Humanity’s side of the equation is to obey a simple set of ethical commandments – not to kill or steal, for instance.

There are at least four more covenants presented in the Hebrew bible, in which God makes some further promise, and the gift of that promise caries some new responsibility. Each new covenant seems to get more specific: Noah’s rainbow covenant applies to all people. Abraham’s covenant covers his family and all his descendants: that they will grow numerous and have an abundant place to live. The commandments received by Moses, the 613 mitzvot – the positive and negative provisions of Jewish practice – are supposed to apply only to Jews. The last two covenants that followed apply only Judaism’s priests and kings. Each covenant establishes a connection, a relationship, between the Holy One and some person or group of people. It is a relationship built on some divine promise of mercy or generosity which is linked to some set of responsibilities for the people who receive it. The Jewish festival of Passover, which will be observed later this month, celebrates the events that led to the covenant of Moses: the story of enslaved Hebrews gaining their freedom, and then taking on a set of religious laws and obligations.

The Christian tradition, having a Jewish teacher at its center and having been led for its first hundred years by unorthodox Jews, recognizes basically the same set of covenants. Christian orthodoxy, however, holds that they have been made mostly or entirely irrelevant by a new covenant, established through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The annual commemoration of that story is also coming up at the end of the month. Christianity’s new covenant applies to all people and grants atonement for sin on the basis of faith in Jesus. It’s a broad promise, like the one given to Noah, but it’s more transactional than the earlier covenants of the Hebrew bible: in orthodox Christian understanding, if you do not believe, you are not forgiven. The new covenant idea is also all wrapped up in something called supersessionism, the idea that Christianity superseded and replaced Judaism. The terrible, painful legacy of hatred and violence perpetrated against Jews by Christians in the last eighteen-hundred years should rightly make us uncomfortable with such a theological idea.

Our Universalist and Unitarian ancestors, diligent heretics that they were, also took issue with the doctrinal understanding of the new covenant. They offer us several alternate understandings. One, that the death and resurrection of Jesus did create a new covenant of forgiveness of sin, but that that forgiveness is truly universal, and faith is not a requirement for it. Another understanding was that the Easter story didn’t create a new covenant, it only illustrated the eternal truth of God’s mercy and again, forgiveness is available to all, not just professing Christians. And a third version holds that the spiritual generosity of the divine was always active and present, and that the truth or untruth of the resurrection simply doesn’t matter. The capacity to help and to harm has been entrusted to every person and that, in itself, is a profound display of kindness and trust. Our response should be to return that generosity in kind.

This is where our current understanding of covenant finds its strongest roots: not an exchange of forgiveness for faith, but an acknowledgement of life’s gifts and a gratitude which requires that those gifts be

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used creatively and lovingly. Just as Noah’s covenant was marked by a rainbow, a beautiful manifestation of the natural world, Unitarian Universalists have looked to the world around us, to what we can experience for ourselves, in order to understand the covenant of which we are a part. That project has been a part of this congregation for much longer than there have been Unitarian Universalists here. Our congregation’s founders were anti-establishment Christians, conservative in their theology but radically liberal in their organization. So when this community was first gathered its members followed the practice of establishing a covenant for themselves, to describe what they were for and about.

Members of this congregation and others like it were said to “own the covenant” of their respective churches. These statements might be relatively short and general, or sometimes much longer and detailed; all were centered on the practice of Christianity and how it was to be expressed by the people covenanting together. Unlike those of the Hebrew bible, there was no explicit divine voice to intone the words of these covenants, nor was there the orthodox doctrine

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of old European Christianity to give each congregation exactly the same words to live by. Each community had the duty to arrive at these agreements themselves, based on their own understandings and experiences.

This meant that the wordings of these congregational covenants could change, and in fact here in Beverly they did change several times over the centuries. New members were born or joined, old members died or left, and even long-standing stalwarts could have changes of the heart or mind. As this congregation moved from conservative to liberal Christianity, to the heresy of Unitarianism and eventually to the post-Christian orientation of Unitarian Universalism, the written expression of our deepest shared commitments naturally changed as well.

There’s a funny little example of this same process at the national level of our movement. The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations also has a covenant shared between its member communities. If you open the hymnals in front of you to just before the first hymn, you’ll see a passage from our bylaws articulating this covenant. It’s made up mostly of two lists: the principles which we affirm and promote, and the sources which inform our faith. The current version has seven principles and six sources, but most of you will find that your copy only has five sources, because just two years after the first printing of this hymnal, new wording was approved to add a sixth source. Being dedicated lovers of religious music here, we bought our hymnals promptly in 1993, and ended up with copies that were very quickly made out of date. Only the few of you who have additional copies purchased later will find the current list of all six sources in yours.

Today, in our congregation, the affirmation we recite together each Sunday follows in the tradition of the covenants our forbearers used: it describes some of what we are for and why we are here. But we also recognize that it is not the end of all meaning and purpose – it is only a beginning. Words, on lips or paper, can be powerful and important, but unto themselves they do not make a covenant, exactly. It is more that they are expressions of a covenant, something that exists beyond words. In the chalice lighting we recite each Sunday, we witness that there is a unity which binds us together. Covenant is the set of mutual, constantly renewing promises that come from the recognition of our profound connection. Holiness dwells in and is accomplished by that promise. If you are looking for God in this understanding of covenant, that is where you will find it. Because we are constantly polishing and reforming the words and ideas that express our covenant, it can and will change. And because we make these changes together, on the basis of our own experiences and insights and the lessons we have learned from living in and observing the world, each covenant is an expression of the universe.

Things being as they are, my teacher used to recite. It was his way of pulling us out of the realm of ideals and into the world of reality. But our covenant, our understanding of our obligations to ourselves and each other and the world, and to our highest purpose known as God or any other name, this functions on the same principle. We look out, and in, and consider the universe. Things being as they are, what ought we to do? How should we live and work and worship together? For now, our answer, for which I am glad, is this: our spirit is love, our law is service, and we owe one another peace, truth, and mutual help.


[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Genealogy of Morals”

Cash Rules Everything Around Me – 3/3/2013

On a newsprint page from some years ago, six-year-old Calvin is playing a board game with his best friend, an imaginary tiger named Hobbes. It’s a game about real-estate speculation, high finance and the fickle hand of the market – a game about money, in other words. The odds have turned against young Calvin, and he is down on his luck and running out of the little pastel slips of paper the game uses for currency. The imaginary tiger seems on the verge of winning until Calvin reaches into the till, the rack of spare bills used in the game, and begins to pocket them. It’s just a tragic turn of events, he explains: dire circumstances have forced him to rob the bank in their game of monopoly. An argument about the rules ensues and the social contract holding the game together unravels until Calvin and Hobbes begin stealing from and defrauding each other and the board is finally upended.[i]

The comic is an exaggeration of the game, the game is a simplification of the world, but the kernel of truth remains: money is a damnably powerful thing. The global economic crisis we faced four years ago and are still reeling from is only one numbingly obvious example. We live in a world in which little pieces of paper – or the bits of digital information that hold the promise of them – can be exchanged for just about anything, for better or worse. It is also a world in which people get sick and go hungry, suffer the cold and the heat and the absence of opportunity, all for the want of those same scraps of paper. The brutal cuts to the national social safety net that went into force on Friday will only make this more true. Parents can and do spend money on coaching and tutoring to get their children into the most prestigious pre-schools. In some parts of the world, the wealthy navigate their cities in helicopters rather than cars, to avoid being exposed to the crime and poverty at surface level. There are even companies now who will invest in your divorce, if they believe that you are likely to walk away with a large cash settlement, which they will then be entitled to a cut of.[ii]

Hip-hop super group the Wu-Tang Clan have an acronym for this: cream. C.R.E.A.M.: Cash Rules Everything Around Me. While Method Man, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck were speaking to a specific reality faced in poor, urban communities of color, it describes a much larger predicament that all of us here are in. Money shapes so much of what we can and cannot do. It inserts itself into our most important relationships as a cause of conflict, envy, and resentment. No person and no institution can ignore it completely.

Yet, in such a world as this, the amazing thing is that people still find the courage and creativity to resist such a powerful force and to live their lives in the truth that profit is not the greatest good. To say, “Cash may rule everything around me, but it does not rule me. I determine what purpose sits upon the throne of my heart. I can choose to serve something greater than dollars and cents.” I believe that’s what most people would say, in fact. Few people other than Gordon Gekko[iii] want to think of money as being their highest good. To really follow that intention of a greater purpose requires living against the grain of the world. It means struggle, it means resistance, and anyone and everyone would falter if they tried to do that all by themselves. But when people find a meaning that they can share in, one becomes two, two becomes three, three becomes five and five, given the means and the opportunity to grow, becomes a community. A network of people connected to each other by and for their resistance to the prevailing culture and their determination to work to change it.

That is what we are about, as a congregation: sharing and practicing a set of values that set us apart. We exist not to damn the world, but to redeem it, for where cash rules now, love ought to prevail. And in fact, it can and does prevail, bit by bit – sometimes without anyone’s help, and sometimes only because of the work of the dedicated and determined.

Each year at roughly this time, the members of this congregation and many of its friends are called upon to decide how we will support the financial needs of our church in the year ahead. To strike our balance between the real and powerful force that reigns out there, and the hope and possibility of the force that reigns in here. It’s a question that my household faces just as yours does, and while I cannot tell you what your answer should be I can tell you what ours is.

My partner Sara and I believe in work that this congregation does: in Beverly and inside these walls, and most especially inside of our family and inside of ourselves. We also believe in what this congregation can become, and so we are committed to the present and future growth of the church. Growth in our sense of community and connection, growth in the programs and we offer, and above all, growth in the love we experience and put into action, together. It’s difficult to put a number on what this congregation gives us and what we want to give back. Our resources are limited. But when we spoke together seriously about this, while brushing our teeth – one of those stolen moments when both children are occupied or asleep – we did come up with a number that reflects what rules our hearts. This year we are pledging 5% of our income to support the church.

This congregation calls us out of comfort, habit, and despair and into hope, loving-kindness and the hard work of justice. That is what we want for ourselves and for our children and that is what we want for our world. So the pledge we make to support the congregation is a real piece of our livelihood; it is an amount that really matters for us, because this place really matters to us. Your mileage can and will vary. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that our lives are made up of our choices. More than what we profess, what we choose to do defines and shapes what is true for us. So as you make your decision, I implore you to make it based on the purpose that you wish to rule your heart.



[iii] The villain of Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street.

True Value

In the Caroline Islands in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines, there is a small cluster of islands called Yap. The people of Yap have an ancient form of money that dates back as much as a thousand years. This system of currency is made up of stones called rai: carved disks of limestone, each with a single hole in the middle, like a doughnut. In fact, the smaller wheels are roughly the size of an actual doughnut, but the largest and most valuable can be twice as tall as a grown adult and weigh thousands of pounds. That’s hardly convenient for day-to-day transactions, which may be part of why the Yapese use more conventional paper money now for that sort of thing. But the rai remain ceremonially very important, and are still used for major exchanges of wealth. (You can see a picture of one of the larger rai stones here.)

These stones aren’t native to the area; mining them required dangerous trips by boat to other islands and the real risk of sinking on the way back. Size is part of what makes a rai stone valuable, but not all of it. The story of the stone is even more important: how hard was it to obtain and bring back to Yap? How long has it been in circulation, and who else has owned it? The largest stones require many people working together in order to move, and so that only happens rarely. More often, people agree to exchange one of the stones as part of a land purchase or other transaction, and the owner changes while the stone remains wherever it was before. The story of the rai is essential to what it is worth, so actually having it in your hands or on your property is less important for owning it than being known as a the latest piece of that story.

Here where we are, our primary means of

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exchange is far more fluid and anonymous. Relatively identical bills, nondescript checks, and the utterly insubstantial numbers of computerized accounts allow us to buy this or pay for that. The lack of weight (both literal and metaphorical) to our money makes business efficient, but it also means that no use of money is more or less meaningful than another. That is

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unless we take the time to slow down and consider the true value of the money we’re using, and the purpose we’re putting it to.

We are now in the midst of our annual pledge season, when all of our congregation’s members – and many of our friends as well – take up the question of what we will promise in financial support to our congregation in the coming year. If you haven’t already collected your personalized pledge card at church, you can still do so. March 3rd will be our Covenant Renewal Sunday, when most of us will formally turn in our pledges for the year, but if you can’t make it then, there will still be able to collect your card and make a pledge in the following weeks. If you’d just like a blank pledge card to fill out, you can contact the church office for one.

Each of our households has to make its own calculation as to what our degree of support will be. So I encourage you to have that conversation, with yourself or your partner or your family. As you do, I would ask you to think seriously about what the value of your resources are – what went into them, how much time and effort were needed to make them possible – and what the value of our community is to you. Allow what you care about, hold dear, and benefit from in First Parish to be your guide in deciding what you contribute towards its continued work and existence. This is the season when we all get to become a part of the story of our congregation, some of us renewing that connection, and some of us making it for the first time. Its an important part of the functioning of the church, but it can also be an important spiritual discipline for each of us; a reminder of the true value of the things that shape our lives.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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