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Just Desserts – 5/8/2011

This year, as a congregation, we have been considering together the spiritual value of simplicity. Specifically we have been engaged with the challenge of what it could mean for us to live simply, that others might simply live. Within Unitarian Universalism, one of our greatest prophets of simple living is Henry David Thoreau, who, his most famous book, Walden, wrote these words more than 150 years ago:

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of the chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.[i]

Those words were written after Thoreau had gone off into the woods around Walden Pond, built himself a bare cabin and lived there for over a year, in a personal quest to escape the fret and fever of 19th-century life in Massachusetts, and find a way of living that was closer to nature and more at peace with the self. No one else lived with him, in his one room shack, but Thoreau was not isolated or lonely, or cut off from many of the pleasures of worldly life. Because his cabin in the woods was about a mile from his best friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house; Henry was a regular guest at Mrs. Lidian Emerson’s dinner table. His mother Cynthia and his sister also visited him often; they brought Thoreau food, and did his laundry. So for as long as his book has been mandatory reading in high school and college classrooms, there have always been people ready to point out the hypocrisy of Thoreau’s adventure.

But I believe those folks are missing the point. Walden is a beautiful book; it has inspired countless people, and I commend it to you. Rather than dismissing Thoreau for being somehow less than perfectly and immaculately simple in his living, we should be celebrating the kindness and hospitality of those long unsung women without whom that great work would never have been written. The image of Thoreau, with his scraggly, unkempt hair and beard, spending the day tending his garden and trekking through the woods at his leisure, meditating on simplicity and self-sufficiency, all while having many of his material needs supported by friends and family – That image can elicit an ungenerous and envious impulse in us, in me too, I’ll admit. Because on most days, I do my own laundry, and I cook my own meals. But what if, what if instead of saying ‘I don’t have that, I don’t get that, he shouldn’t either,’ what if we looked at it another way? What if we saw a person who was driven to attempt something bold, and who was supported by the people who cared about him in that endeavor? What if, instead of saying, ‘What I don’t have, no one else should have,’ we said, ‘What each of us needs, is what each of us deserves,’?

You see there’s a way of thinking about justice and about getting what we deserve that’s very transactional, like a scale that has to be perfectly balanced. And when we get caught up in thinking that way, we become obsessed with measuring and tallying up the smallest, most unimportant sorts of things and with making sure that we get ours, no matter what happens to anyone else. Two men came before a judge and she asked them what the problem was. The first said, ‘Your Honor, this man here has been stealing from me. I’m a baker, that’s how I make my living, and every day this man comes to my shop. Sometimes he walks in and I chase him out, and the rest of the time he just hangs around on the sidewalk outside, smelling. All day long he smells the bread and the cakes I bake for paying customers – he is stealing the smell of my bread, Your Honor.’

And the judge turned to the second man, who was clearly very poor, and had probably slept the last few nights on the street, and she asked him if the baker’s story was true. The poor man said, ‘I have to admit that it is, Your Honor. I go hungry most of the time, and there are days when the aroma from the baker’s shop is as close as I come to eating. Some days, I find enough money to buy a loaf of bread, but on the days when I do not, I wait outside and savor the smell.’

The judge looked very solemn and grave at this admission. ‘There can be no question, then, that you have knowingly smelled the baker’s wares, and given him nothing in return for it. Turn out your pockets then, and hand whatever money you have to me.’ The poor man produced a few coins; a tiny amount, but all that he had in the world. The judge took them in her hand and held it out towards the baker; she shook her hand, holding the coins loosely to let them jingle. ‘Can you hear the sound of the money?’ she asked him. ‘Yes, Your Honor,’ the baker replied, anticipating his payment. ‘Then that is your fair compensation, for the smell of your bread.’ And the judge gave the money back to the poor man, and declared the case closed.

This folktale is often told as a parable about justice, but what I tell you is this: if the story ended with a just verdict, then the poor man would go away with more than a handful of coins and an empty stomach. And the baker would get better than to be shown a greedy fool in a public court. Justice, justice would come when the baker saw the poor man’s loitering outside his shop for the high compliment that it was. With nothing to eat, he could dream of eating anything, but day after day, he came again to smell the baker’s bread. Justice would be the baker sharing what he had with the poor man, rather than trying to squeeze the last coin from him, by taking him to court.

You see, truly being a people who are committed to justice, and to seeing that all people gain what they deserve, means being like the poor man outside the bakery: knowing what we are hungry for, tasting it occasionally, but also spending many days unable to reach what we desire. Our faith, the testament of countless prophets and the evidence of our own experience, tells us that human beings deserve life and the freedom that gives life meaning. The struggle for justice is the struggle for the rights, protections and needs that we all deserve to have and have fulfilled. The Unitarian Universalist tradition happens to agree with the authors and signatories of the American Declaration of Independence: these rights are unalienable – they are always with all of us, no matter what anyone does to us, and no matter what any of us do. That is a very high ideal, and the reality of living in an imperfect world, is that that ideal is not always realized. Many of us do not receive what we deserve, because there are a terrible many things that we as individuals, and as a collective, can do, and do do, to destroy life and freedom.

Last Sunday I spoke about our congregation’s existing ministry with the poor and disenfranchised in our parish, and I told you that I would offer today my own thoughts on how this mission could grow and expand. People in our community, as in every other part of the country are losing their homes every day in this economy. They move into motels, or depend upon the generosity of family and friends, and eventually many of them end up in some sort of shelter or emergency housing. These people are not abstractions – they are human beings, and they deserve just as much out of life as anyone else. I wanted to speak about a particular opportunity we have to better serve this population today, because I believe it matches so well with our theme of simplicity. The spiritual practice of simple living is not to throw away what we have, it is to share what we love. Not to empty ourselves for the sake of being empty, but to pour ourselves out for the sake of being filled. There is a program now getting underway in our community that I believe we offers a tremendous opportunity for us to follow our law of service.

Some of our neighbor congregations, here in Beverly, in Wenham and in Ipswitch, are seeking to form what’s called an Interfaith Hospitality Network. It’s a model that’s already been successfully built all over the country and elsewhere in Massachusetts, and it works like this: an IHN provides housing to people, and primarily families, who are in need of emergency shelter. Each network has a day center, a place where the residents – one to four families totaling no more than 14 people at a time – can go to take a shower, pick up their mail, do their laundry and get some help looking for work or a permanent place to live. But the people don’t sleep at the day center; they spend their nights in the buildings of the congregations who make up the network. Each congregation takes on hosting responsibilities in one-week shifts, no more than four times per year. During those hospitality weeks, the congregation gets together volunteers to make dinner and breakfast for their guests, to spend time with the families, sing songs and play board games and just make them feel welcome. It doesn’t take much – just enough square footage for some cots and some basic privacy for the families. Each morning, a shuttle takes the guests to the day center, each evening, it drops them off again, and at the end of the week, all the people and the cots and everything else are shipped along to the next station on the route.

That might not sound like a great way of living for the guests of the shelter, to have to ride the shuttle back and forth each day, and move camp from building to building every week. But normally, most families in emergency housing cannot remain together; women and young boys are housed in one location, men and older boys in another. This program keeps families from having to split up. It also allows them to maintain a consistent address, at the day center, in a town not too far from the one where they used to live; that lets their kids stay in the same schools, and maintain some sense of normalcy. And finally, the folks these programs serve get to meet new people in different congregations, to be treated with dignity and respect by them, and get the real, palpable sense that the wider community in which they live has not discarded them.

You see, we have this building, and it is very precious to us. Our capital campaign and our renovation of the church exterior make that very, very clear. We have shown the folks who walk and drive by that we are proud to be here and that there’s something worth checking out going on inside. I believe that we can agree that the people of Beverly deserve something more than the smell of our bread. So I am hoping that we have the courage and the compassion to share what we love. To practice the sort of hospitality that I know we are capable of, in the noble spirit of Lidian Emerson, and Cynthia Thoreau. Our faith tells us that all people deserve to have the basic things they need to live, with a safe place of shelter and rest near the top of the list. But our tradition also tells us that in order for human needs to be met, human action is required. Our efforts are needed to make of the world the place that it ought to be. We love this spiritual home of ours; it seems a blessing to me, to be able to help others, by sharing it.


[i] Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, p. 119



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