Who do We Serve?


preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, March 6, 2011

Menzie’s wallflower is not all that much to look at; bright yellow petals on top of scrawny stalks of green. Scarcely the size of a dandelion it clings to the sides of sand dunes in a scant few locations along the coast of the Northern California. An endangered plant, only a few thousand specimens exist in the wild.

I learned about Menzie’s wallflower a few weeks ago when I spent several days at Asilomar State Park in Monterey, California as a participant in a continuing education conference for Unitarian Universalist ministers. Asilomar is a place of intense beauty and one of the conference’s principal attractions was the park itself. Situated on a costal beach, the majority of the park is sand dunes–large crests of sand held together by scrub grass, small trees and shrubs.

The Asilomar sand dunes look untouched by human hands. Held together, in part, by gnarled wind shaped pines it is easy to imagine the dunes as unchanging. The sands might shift or drift from year-to-year but the dunes themselves seem timeless, the product of eons of ocean waves crashing against the rocky California shore.

Closer inspection reveals a different story. Discussing the interaction between humanity and “nature” the historian Simon Schama observed that, “Even the landscapes that we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product.” At Asilomar, the first hint of the accuracy of this observation is the wooden walkways that spread across the dunes and protect them from erosion.

Sand dunes are fragile things. They exist where the land meets the water and they nurture a special ecology. At most a few hundred meters wide, they are rich in biodiversity and are often home to species found nowhere else.

Dunes are frequently used as recreational sites. In many places dune ecosystems have been destroyed by heavy human use. Until only 25 years ago, the dunes at Asilomar were themselves in danger of disappearing. The constant tramp of human feet to admire their natural beauty ripped up the plants that held them together. They were slowly blowing into the ocean. The dunes at Asilomar represent some of the only protected dunes on the California coast. Their destruction threatened some native plant species with extinction.

Early attempts at preserving the dunes caused as much damage as good. Park staff planted non-native species to stabilize the sand. This crowded out the native plants, further threatening their survival, and in many cases actually hurt the pine trees that served to stabilize much of the sand.

The existence of the sand dunes today is a result of heavy human intervention. The realization that walking on the dunes endangered them led to the development of the walkways. Deeper knowledge of the dune’s ecology caused preservation efforts to focus on the cultivation of native plants and the eradication of non-native ones. The results have been remarkable. In the space of three decades the dunes have gone from being endangered to thriving.

I learned all of this my second afternoon at Asilomar when I went for a walk along the dunes. On my walk I happened upon the park ranger as he tended a specimen of Menzie’s wallflower. He explained that even though the dunes appeared to be a wild place practically every plant I could see had been grown from seed, nurtured in a nursery and transplanted to the dunes. Menzie’s wallflower depends upon human hands to ensure its survival. The damage done to the dunes was such that without human intervention they would never have fully recovered.

The story of the restoration of the dunes is a story of stewardship. I have been thinking it about these past weeks as I prepared to preach my annual sermon to kick off our stewardship drive. The dunes would not survive without stewardship. Our congregation will not either.

In our congregation, when most people think about stewardship they tend to think about money. And the purpose of our annual stewardship drive to have our members recommit to financially supporting the congregation. But stewardship is not really about money. It is about nurturing and supporting what we think is worth preserving and growing in our world.

Think about the dunes. The preservation of the dunes requires money to pay the park rangers to tend the sands and nurture the plants. Money is necessary to cultivate seeds and maintain the park’s wooden walkways. Without it the dunes would not have been restored. Yet it is only a means to an end. It facilitates the restoration of the dune ecosystem. The only reason why people give to the park, or pay taxes to support it, is because the dunes provide a beautiful, awe-inspiring, vista of the ocean and a place where fragile gems like Menzie’s wallflower can thrive. Ultimately, people support the park because in doing so they are able to support something larger than themselves, something that moves them and provides great value to the world.

The same is true of our congregation. Stewardship of it is about creating, together, something that is greater than ourselves. We all have a need of such things. We give to the congregation because it helps us nurture our own sense of awe and wonder, have a place to raise our children, work for justice and find fellowship. Without these things we risk falling into narcissism, self-love.

The term narcissism comes from the Greek story of Narcissus, which some of you probably remember. As the poet Ovid tells us, Narcissus was a beautiful youth, stunning to behold. He was lusted after by many but loved none in return. Finally, in frustration, one of his spurned would-be lovers prayed to Nemesis, the Goddess of Vengeance, that Narcissus would fall in love with himself and that that love would go unfulfilled.

So it came to pass that, one day out upon a hunt, Narcissus came across “a pool, silver with shining water, / To which no shepherds came, no goats, no cattle, / Whose glass no bird, no beast, no falling leaf / Had ever troubled.” The pool was shaded and, out of the hot sun, Narcissus dipped his hand in it too drink. As he did he spied his own reflection and fell in love. He tried to kiss his image, embrace it and draw it close to him. Each time he reached out to it, he found “The vision… only shadow, / Only reflection, lacking any substance.” And yet, still he hungered to embrace it. So smitten was Narcissus with his image that he could not leave it. In time his self love caused him to waste into nothing and die.

There are lots of ways to unpack the story of Narcissus. One of them is that the story lifts up the importance of being connected to something other than, something greater than, ourselves. If Narcissus had been connected to something other, something greater, than himself he would not have died. The same is true for us. If we are not connected to something greater then we risk falling into a consuming self-love and spiritually wasting away.

It is an important lesson to remember right now, positioned as we are within the midst of a consumer culture. Constant advertisements try to sell us on the idea that the most important love is love for self. Everything from self-help books to advertisements for day spas to political ideology urges us to focus on our own needs before we focus on those of others. One of the dominant strains of political thought in the last decades argues that social good comes from looking out first for our individual interests. Advocates of trickle down economics claim that if we just cut taxes and leave everyone free to spend their money as they choose then great wealth will be created for all.

The story of Narcissus exists to tell us that such views are lies. Looking only to our own needs causes us to overlook the needs of others and become victims of self-love. The standard of judgment for our own achievements becomes not what we contribute to society but how we feel about ourselves. Unfettered hedonism becomes the order of the day and people forget that they are social creatures, we need each other to survive. In such a trap the self and society both waste away.

To see the perils of self-love on a large scale we need look no further than the current budget debate on both the state and federal level. Both nationally and here in Ohio pundits and politicians say that the government is broke and cannot continue to spend money the way it has. Cuts must be made or the out of control deficit will burden future generations with unmanageable debt. Cuts are the highest priority, never mind that they disproportionately affect the neediest. And never mind that spending cuts are necessary because of the steady tax cuts the wealthiest among us have received steadily for the last thirty years. We live in the richest society in the history of the world. Our problem is not that we do not have enough resources to run high quality public services. Our problem is that wealth is ever more concentrated in the hands of a few.

If you doubt this then let me offer two points. The first is that, the recent recession has not really affected the truly wealthy. In the last few years, as unemployment has risen and wages have stagnated, the net worth of the wealthiest ten Americans has steadily increased.

Second, every federal budget cut that is currently proposed could be seen as the logical outcome of a tax cut that has been enacted. The Center for American Progress put together a particularly sobering infographic illustrating this. The graphic shows proposed cuts to the federal budget side-by-side with tax cuts for the wealthy: a proposed cut of $11.2 billion in early childhood programs is compared with a $11.5 billion per year cut in the estate tax for millionaires; a proposed cut of $4.1 billion in job training programs is contrasted with $4.1 billion in tax credits for finance companies that send work overseas; and a proposed cut of $8.9 billion in low-income housing programs is juxtaposed with $8.9 billion in tax deductions for vacation homes. The list goes on with many socially useful programs threatened with elimination so that the wealthiest can preserve more of their wealth.

In this I am reminded of Jesus’s famous parable about the rich man. It seems that one day Jesus was approached by a young man who asked him, “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus told the young man that what was required of him was to keep the commandments. This seemed too obvious. Not satisfied with Jesus’s answer the young man probed further questioning, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?”

Accounts vary as to exactly what Jesus said next. The Gospel of Matthew reports that Jesus said, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor.” The Gospel of Mark, an earlier and possibly more reliable source, records matters slightly differently. It says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.'” Either way, the young man is said to have despaired at Jesus’s advice and gone away grieving and unenthusiastic about parting with his possessions. This led Jesus to remark to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Like the tale of Narcissus, there are many ways to interpret this parable. One that works well for our present purposes is that you do not become great by hoarding what you have. You become great by sharing it. Wealth is most spiritually useful when put at the service of others.

Here I am reminded of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dictum, “everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” Service involves sharing the self with others. Part of that sharing of the self means sharing the resources we have. The more we share the greater impact we have.

I want pause here to hone in our own stewardship campaign. Our congregation is blessed with enormous wealth. We have close to a million dollars in our investment portfolio. We have no mortgage on our building and property. And yet sometimes we act as if we are impoverished and squabble over spending money that needs to be spent.

To give one example, we lived with an ancient and inefficient furnace for years rather than spend the money to replace it. It was a penny wise and pound foolish decision in that the old furnace cost more than $1,000 a year to service and had an efficiency rating of less than 60%. We finally replaced the furnace this year. The savings in maintenance and heat it generates will pay for it in about five years. Over the life of the furnace it will probably save us more than $100,000. And yet, we were reluctant to spend the money. Why?

The answer I suspect is that we rely on our investments too much to sustain our operating budget. There is a fear of spending down the investments and so people do not want to spend money from them. Never mind that the reason why we have the investments is to help the congregation grow. They exist not to be preserved but to allow us to become a vibrant self-sustaining congregation capable of powerfully spreading our message of love and justice.

In part to change our congregation’s relationship with our investment portfolio the stewardship committee has set a very ambitious goal of $100,000 for this year’s campaign. If met this goal will allow us to move much closer to our objective of being self-sufficient. To be honest, I am a little skeptical about meeting the goal. This current fiscal year the congregation only raised $65,000 in pledges. On the other hand, the campaign is starting on an incredibly strong note. The Board, the Treasurer, my family and the chair of the stewardship committee all made our pledges before the start of the campaign. Among just ten of the congregation’s more than seventy pledge units we raised close to $24,000. Just about everyone increased their pledge from last year, with some increasing their pledges by more than 100%. If the rest of the campaign has similar results than we should more than meet our goal.

If we did then our congregation’s ability to have an impact on and serve the wider community would be greatly increased. Instead of using our investment portfolio as the primary financial vehicle to grow our congregation we could leverage it for the wider social good. We could grow our ministry even further beyond our doors than it already extends, start a small social justice granting fund, support a scholarship program, fund a part-time staff person to work solely with the refugee families… The possibilities are substantive. But helping them comes to fruition means that we need to reach a place as a congregation where our giving supports our existing ministries.

And so, having said that, it should be clear that to be passionate about stewardship is to be passionate about the purpose of a given institution. To be passionate about the beauty and diversity of the Asilomar dunes is to be passionate about their stewardship. To be passionate about the purpose of our community is to be passionate about its stewardship.

And one of the purposes of the religious community is to offer people the opportunity to serve something larger than ourselves, be it the religious community itself, the social good or that inchoate spirit that some call God. That service, in turn, offers the opportunity for personal and societal transformation. Stewardship of the dunes means to reshape and re-cultivate their original beauty. Stewardship of the congregation means to be committed to the possibility that the religious community can change the world for the better.

That it is has been demonstrated many times. One such instance is recorded in our reading from James Luther Adams earlier. In it Adam’s friend recognized that the religious community was forcing him to leave behind his bigoted views. As he said at that Board meeting back in 1948, “The purpose of the church is… Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.” Such changes are only possible when we engage fully in stewardship.

Amen and May it be so.

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