A Festival of Hopefulness

a sermon preached by Rev. Khleber M. Van Zandt V at First Unitarian Church of Alton, Illinois, December 6th, 2009

after a reading from Robert Fulghumís All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten:

Man next door and I look upon one another with suspicion.Heís a raker and a shoveler, as I see it.A troubler of the natural ways of the earth.Left over from the breed that conquered the wilderness.He thinks of me in simpler terms:lazy.

See, every week during the fall heís out raking little leaves into little piles.And every time it snows, heís out tormenting the white stuff with his shovel.Once, out of either eagerness or outrage, he even managed to shovel a heavy frost.ďCanít let old Mother Nature get ahead of you,Ē says he.

So I tell him he hasnít the sense God gave a stump.In a kind of careful way.Leaves have been falling down for thousands and thousands of years, I tell him.And the earth did pretty well before rakes and people, I tell him.Old Mother Nature put the leaves where she wanted them and they made more earth.We need more earth, I tell him.Weíre running out of it, I tell him.

And snow - snow is not my enemy, I tell him.Snow is Godís way of telling people to slow down and rest and stay in bed for a day.And besides, snow always solves itself.Mixes with the leaves to form more earth, I tell him.

His yard does look neat, I must admit - if neatness is important.And he didnít fall down getting to his car last snowtime, and I in fact did.And he is a good neighbor, even if he is a raker and a shoveler.Iím open-minded about this thing.

Still, my yard has an Oriental carpet of red and yellow and green and brown.And his doesnít.And I spent the same time he spent shoveling snow collecting it in bottles to mix with orange juice July next, and I taped the sound of it falling and then used the tape to wrap Christmas presents (snow has lots of uses).

I gave him a bottle of vintage winter snow for Christmas, wrapped in some of that tape.He gave me a rake.Weíre giving each other lessons in the proper use of these tools.I think heís got no religion, and Iím trying to convert him.He thinks Iíve got too much, and heís trying to get me to back off.

But in the end, in the end, in the final end of it all - I win. For he and I - and even you - will become what the leaves and snow become, and go where the leaves and snow go - whether we rake or shovel or not.

 

A Festival of Hopefulness

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I headed to a small electronics store near my mother-in-lawís house to purchase replacement batteries for her phones.Batteries do wear out after so many recharges, and the phones become useless if the batteries are not renewed.Iím usually the only person in the whole store when I go there, which canít be more than a couple of times a year.So imagine my surprise when I stepped into the store and saw customers all over the place!

Of course it didnít take me long to figure out that I was then unwittingly participating in Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when retailers hope to do enough business to push their balance sheets into the black for the rest of the year.You probably know the drill - I waited in line to find my batteries, I waited in line to ask a question, I waited in line to pay, and then I got the heck out of there.

I havenít paid any attention to Black Friday for a long time, but I know that a lot of you do.The reason I know a lot of you do is that I did something else recently thatís unusual for me:I got myself signed up on Facebook.Iíve been reluctant to move quite so boldly into the 21st century, but I couldnít put it off any longer.Perhaps I shouldnít have been surprised at the number of my newfound Facebook friends who were posting about being out in the economic melee of Black Friday, shopping Ďtil they dropped, wading through the masses of folks trying to get their hands on a mongo plasmatic super-hi-def television or some of those enigmatic Zhu Zhu Hamsters, ďkeepiní it real without the mess.Ē

And already I have an admission to make:If thatís what being on Facebook is gonna get me - the ability to know when youíre out shopping - Iím not sure thatís reason enough to add any hard-to-find Facebook time to my already overly-busy schedule.Now, I donít mean to be a curmudgeon about it;my profile and wall are still up there for everybody to pour over and post on, after all.But the problem is, Iíve been looking for ways to cut back on the length of my to-do list, not add to it.And Iím not totally convinced that Facebook is gonna be a time-saver rather than a time-sink.Iím not convinced, but I am hopeful, and so I keep plodding along, learning what I can, trying to keep proper boundaries, trying to figure out this new form of digital communication and electronic community.

 

If you can count on the day after Thanksgiving always being Black Friday, then perhaps you should also count on the first sermon on the first Sunday of December always being the one about cutting back on the busyness of the holiday season;you should probably take it for granted that this is the day for the perennial admonition by yours truly to slow down and take Ďer easy and focus on whatís important about Christmas and Advent and Solstice and Hanukkah and all the other holidays we celebrate this time of year.If your Decembers are anything like mine, your calendar is full to overflowing, thereís never enough time to get everything done that seems to need doing, and itís too easy to find yourself running in several directions at once rather than paying attention to the real reason for the season.

If youíre listening closely, you hear that Iím admitting I donít do as well as Iíd like at taking in the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of the season and savoring them for the short while I have the chance.I, like so many others, have trouble discerning between whatís really important and whatís not so much.But me not doing something well has never kept me from telling you to do better - you could say itís the olí Ďdo as I say, not as I doí routine.Or you could say that I know of which I speak, because I fail so miserably to head my own advice so much of the time.

I do love the holidays and all the activities that go with them.Especially Christmas, with the glitz and the glitter and the food and the family.And I like the religious stuff, too - I guess Iím weird that way, and maybe you are, too.I genuinely like hearing the ancient stories, even though I know theyíre not historically factual.I know theyíre only myths and legends and tall tales.Still, for me, thereís something in those old myths and legends and tall tales thatís compelling, thatís hopeful, that speaks to the human condition - mine and yours - and invites us into the realm of promise and possibility.

But today is not Christmas, nor is tomorrow.We still have weeks of Advent to wade through, to wait and see whether or not the promise will be fulfilled yet again.So I want to save all those familiar biblical birth narratives for Christmas Eve.Today, Iíd rather put before you a biblical passage that is not about Christmas but is, to me, about December.I find this passage to be about paying attention to whatís important rather than about keeping your head down and doing what you think youíre supposed to be doing.

This is a little piece of text that comes from the gospel of Luke and tells of a visit Jesus makes to the sisters Mary and Martha.This story is only found in Luke, so it probably doesnít come from the earlier texts like Mark or Q that the writer of Luke used to assemble his gospel.Itís probably something Luke heard in his own community.Not to be confused with another story about a probably different Mary and Martha in the later Gospel of John, this is a really fast, really simple-sounding, three or four sentences.

In Lukeís text, this little vignette comes right after the parable of the Good Samaritan and just before the Lordís Prayer, so textually, at least, it holds a place of honor and some importance.Itís Luke 10:38-42:

38Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.39This Martha had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesusí feet and listened to what he was saying.40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks;so she came to him and said, ĎHey, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?Tell her to get up and come in here to help me.í41But Jesus answered her, ĎMartha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;42there is need of only one thing.Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.í

Lots of my more orthodox preacherly colleagues would tell you that the point of this little passage is that Jesus himself is important enough for everybody to pay ultimate attention to.I donít read it that way, frankly.I read it that Jesus is a guy whoís smart enough to know that some things should take precedence over other things.This Jesus is a guy whoís figured out that people are more important than property;heís figured out that real relationships with family and friends and neighbors are more important than all those urgent-but-meaningless tasks that take up so much of our time.

The ĎMary and Marthaí passage is almost never connected with Christmas - there are no mangers or wise men or shepherds or miraculous little families with miraculous little babies.But in the hard-working and frustrated Martha, I hear myself trying to negotiate, with little success, the December madhouse of running to and fro and trying to get so many things done, stirring the pots and preparing the food and keeping the kitchen clean, all the while not recognizing quite fully enough that there are guests seated at my table;not recognizing quite fully enough that Iím not going to be here forever and neither are they;not recognizing quite fully enough that Iím not always going to have the chance to be with my family and my friends and my neighbors, who are in fact the ones I love and who are the ones who keep me going and who are the most important things in my life.

ďYes, butÖĒ I say to myself and I fancy I hear some of you saying to yourselves.ďYes, but,Ē someoneís got to stir the pots and someoneís got to prepare the food and someoneís got to keep the kitchen clean.Those are not meaningless tasks.They are, in fact, usually meant to be loving and caring and neighborly - how loving and caring and neighborly would it be to not do what you could?What if nobody cooked?What if nobody cleaned?What if nobody worked and made money and bought groceries?What if nobody cared for the children?What if nobody cared for the elderly?What if nobody signed up to make coffee at church?What if we had no ushers or greeters to answer questions?What if nobody brought food to potluck or cleaned up after potluck or kept the building in good working order or signed up to teach our kids or looked after the finances or a million other things that seem really important most of the time?What if we all just sat around at each othersí feet and chatted with one another like Mary does with Jesus and like Martha gets so upset about?

Iíd like you to return with me to that Robert Fulghum story we heard a few minutes ago.As youíll recall, Fulghum was ranting about his neighbor whom he calls ďa raker and a shoveler,Ē someone who, as he says, disturbs Nature by imposing a bit of what Fulghum believes is an unnatural order.I can see where those two neighbors might not get along very well:one trying to keep everything cleaned up and fixed up and looking orderly in an obsessive-compulsive kind of way;the other letting Nature completely have its way and take its course, the yard a fine example of a prairie reclamation project, the house returning to the earth bit by bit and board by board and shingle by shingle.

Itís a clever thing Fulghumís done in this piece:arguing that wherever a leaf falls is where God meant it to stay, and chastising his neighbor for wrecking the natural order of things with his misplaced obsession with rakes and shovels.But presumably Fulghum lives in a house that someone built, eats food that someone grew, is alive because someone somewhere goes out of their way to do some things for him from time to time.Therefore, I think he doth protest too much;I think instead of trying to convince us to let Nature take its course, heís begging us to reexamine our real needs, to reevaluate our skewed priorities, and to moderate our behavior rather than forge blindly ahead doing what we always have done without ever knowing why.

Fulghumís story is about, after all, two neighbors who are engaged - changing the world around them by doing so.They talk to each other, they give each other gifts, they remain in relationship even when they agree on very little.And in the end, there is the acknowledgement that we will all go where the leaves and the snow go, become what the leaves and the snow become.And still the neighbor matters;as much as you disagree, as hard as it is to get along, as much as you know theyíre doing it wrong, the neighbor matters.

 

As we face December and Advent and Solstice and Hanukkah and all that the season will bring, Iím not convinced Iím going to be able to pull back and do the right thing, mostly because Iím so rarely sure what the right thing is.But Iím hopeful, Iím hopeful.

Lukeís passage about Martha and Mary offers no good answer, and none of the closure weíve grown used to expecting.In the end, we donít know what Martha will do with her jealously and resentment.Will she sit down with Mary and Jesus and let the pots boil over?Will go back in the kitchen and stay there fuming while making a nice lunch for everybody else?Will her fuming lead her to a reassessment of her priorities and a moderation of her behavior, or will she be so comfortable in her pain and suffering that she continues to blame Mary and Jesus for her own woes and so changing nothing in her life or in her approach to it?

Change is hard work, so Iím not yet convinced that you or I will be able to change our ways.But I am hopeful that we will pay attention differently this holiday season, even when we feel like our batteries might run all the way down.

Some other hopes I have for you this season:

I hope you get to notice the way you can see your breath on a December day and how it drifts away in the cold air, and I hope you get to experience the warmth of a home where your breath mixes unseen with the breath of others.

I hope you get to savor the aromas of a kitchen where someone has been baking holiday treats.

I hope you get to catch the sparkle of light in a childís eyes.

I hope you get to share a conversation with someone you love, not just the surface-oriented banter and repartee of Facebook, but the ebb and flow of the deeper currents running within your true self.

I hope you get to help a neighbor or friend who needs a hand up.

I hope you get to learn to accept the gifts that come your way, and to recognize them and remember them and hold them in your heart as an affirmation that you are worthy, that you are somebody, that you are loved.

So may it be.



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