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Sermons at First Parish Church

Only A Visitor

Sunday, March 6, 2005
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

There is a Hasidic story of a disciple who goes on a long journey to see a famous Rabbi, Hafez, living in Prague. When the disciple enters the Rabbi’s house, he is startled to see the house furnished with only one small chair, one small table and one little bed in the corner. The disciple asks the Rabbi, Where are all your household goods? Where are all your possessions? The Rabbi replies, Where are all of your possessions? Surprised at such an obvious question, the disciple explains that he has traveled a distance to see the Rabbi and has brought just a small suitcase with him because he is, after all, only a visitor, he says. To which the Rabbi replies. And I also, am only a visitor in this world (as told in Barbara Merritt, “Selling All You Have,” May 2004). This is the spiritual challenge I present to you for this fourth Sunday in Lent — how do we live as if we are only visiting. How do we travel a little lighter through this world?

One of the surprises of parenthood, at least as I have experienced it, is that it involves so much stuff. Well before my children were even born, people began bringing me bags and boxes of their outgrown baby stuff. We were incredibly lucky in this way. It was also a little daunting. I had a fair amount of experience with babies but it seems like babies had acquired a lot more equipment since my babysitting days.

I was reminded of this because I went to visit a friend recently with a new baby — her first. She, like me, was a little overwhelmed by the equipment — I remember feeling like I was going to have to back to graduate school and get an advanced engineering degree in order to figure out how to put on the baby sling or the front pack baby holder. I also remember my feelings of dismay when large plastic objects in incredibly bright colors began invading the living room in the form of bouncers and saucers and swings and seats. I am used to all of this now. I can crawl around the living room speedily stashing toys into their respective plastic bins and sort through large trash bags of outgrown baby clothes like a pro. I even overwhelm our friends with younger babies when I in my turn hoist big bags of Caleb and Isabel’s outgrown things into their living rooms in my eagerness to get them out of my house. But it is a little wearisome sometimes, a little dismaying to spend so much of my time sorting and folding and organizing stuff. There have been times when our living room has looked like a staging area for some grand relief effort — like we were collecting things for the tsunami survivors or for a refugee camp. I wish we were doing those things but all we are doing is raising two toddlers.

I am not completely opposed to stuff by any means. While I am not a collector of anything — except for children’s books — I like nice things as much as the next person, and if I had more money or time or could tolerate shopping, I would probably have more things than I do now. Things allow us to express different facets of our identity and even become embued with something of our essence. My mother’s perfume for example, which is patchouli, becomes embedded in every object that spends any time in her house. Her letters arrive at my house smelling of patchouli despite days of airing out in the postal system. Certain corduroy caps remind me of my grandfather no matter who is wearing them and little clasp change purses of my grandmother. Things can give us a sense of continuity and family history — I keep my father’s silver baby cup on a shelf in my kitchen along with my own silver baby cup and Fran’s and now the silver baby cups that Caleb and Isabel received from Fran’s parents when they were born. Fran has things that her paternal grandparents brought back from India after they lived there for a year — small wooden boxes and two little round tables with inlaid tops. She has the little silver condiment holder that they used to keep on their dining room table with it s little crystal and silver salt bowl and pepper shaker. None of these things would look too good for a house robber but they have great emotional value to us. They remind us who we are, anchor us in the strength of our families.

And we may take great pleasure in certain things. Art or music or books or good tools or kitchen knives may bring us delight, satisfaction, even spiritual nourishment. It is wonderful to be surrounded by beauty and comfort and to be able to take pleasure in that beauty and comfort.

But things can have a more complicated side as well, a side that makes me cautious and a little bit skeptical. They take up room and money and energy and need taking care of. They need managing and sorting and putting away and washing and these are not things that I particularly enjoy doing. And beyond things can become symbolic, invested with our desire for belonging or for proof that we have achieved some measure of security or success. Sometimes we use things to try to cure longing or discontent or loneliness and so we find ourselves acquiring things in an effort to feed a hunger that can never be fed by objects, no matter how lovely or expensive.

Things can take on a power in our lives that we didn’t intend. We can become beholden to our things. Our houses and cars need to be paid for of course and we find ourselves working more and more in order to maintain our things or coping with fear and uncertainty if we are threatened with losing important things because we can’t afford to keep them.

UU minister and theologian Thandeka writes a lot about what she calls about middle class poverty in America and the shame and secrecy around it. She believes that many middle class Americans are in a very precarious financial position — dealing with large amounts of credit card debt, and mortgages and cars that we can’t afford. In addition, many of us feel pressure to keep up an appearance of financial success that we don’t actually have. We spend as if we can afford to do but behind the successful seeming surface of our lives is seriously scary debt, the threat of foreclosure, the reality of bankruptcy and not enough money to pay for food or heating oil.

If you are in such a situation and keeping silent about it, I hope you will break silence about it to me or someone else in this community so that we can support you through it. We are not our things and church is not a place where appearances are of great interest or importance and I certainly hope they are not necessary. If your relationship with your things has turned painful, I hope you will feel the freedom to speak of it here.

For many of us one of the biggest new areas of stuff management we now confront, is around technology. Some of you know that I can be a little bit curmudgeonly or at least Luddite-ly when it comes to technology. I don’t have a palm pilot or an ipod or a lap top or a cellphone. I keep my schedule in a weekly calendar made of paper and upon which I write with an old fashioned writing utensil such as a pen or pencil. When something goes wrong with my computer or the copy machine here in the church office, as it so often seems to, I am quick to suggest demonic possession as the source of the problem or the laying on of hands for the cure.

I am not theoretically opposed to technology at all. I use email and the internet and find them both very helpful but most technology isn’t worth the money to me to acquire and then have to learn how to use. I don’t really understand most technology and I don’t have the patience or true curiosity to find out. I am only a visitor to this world and I don’t want to use whatever time I have figuring out how to program a palm pilot because to me there is no pleasure in that.

I think part of my resistance is that I don’t want to do more in my day. I want to travel lighter and also a bit slower than I do now. I don’t want to have yet another source of communication which needs to be checked and monitored. I don’t want to be able to talk on the phone while I am at the grocery store or check my email while I am in my dentist’s waiting room, which is the only place I get to read magazines like People.

My mind is already a busy and distracted and full enough place. Perhaps this is true for some of you as well. I need to work on decluttering my mind. I need to work on walking when I am walking and waiting when I am waiting and playing with my children when I am playing. I think it is hard enough for most of us to just be in the moment doing whatever we are doing without adding more. I don’t think I want to do more in my day. I don’t want to speed up my communications or double my productivity. I want to travel through this world slowly and without a lot of baggage either of the emotional or physical kind.

In some ways this is a bit ironic because if you ask Fran about me and baggage she will tell you that I am so incredibly terrible at packing light. I take everything if we go away for two nights, even more so now that we have kids. I like to have what I need. I don’t want to be stuck without baby tylenol or the nose bulb if someone gets sick. I may not be an avid collector of stuff but I want it when I want it. So traveling light is hard for me.

I face this on a daily basis now that I walk to work too. I am always loading my briefcase with stuff so that it is too heavy to comfortably carry back and forth but I don’t want to take anything out. What if I am at home and I need my address book or that one anthology of prayers and it is at the office. No matter that I now live approximately 3 minutes away and could easily come get it. I stuff it in my briefcase and drag it back and forth down Main street between church and home day after day. I keep saying that I have just got to get a better bag, one that is easier to carry, say a suitcase on wheels that I could trundle up and down Main Street. But I suspect the truth is more basic. I don’t need another bag. I need to put the bag down, to leave my stuff behind.

Writer Anne Lamott has an old column on the website Salon.com that is a favorite of mine in which she talks about dropping the rock. She writes:

A sober friend named Tom had just returned from Hawaii and told me about a group of people he’d met there. They were members of Alcoholics Anonymous, and so on a daily basis they tried to turn their wills and their lives over to the care of God, as each of them understood God. Some of them loved Jesus; some were Jews; some turned to the same mountain the first natives had bowed to before. Some were Buddhists and did not have the sense of a personal God, and so turned their wills and lives over to the care of Good Orderly Direction, or to the Group of Drunks. I like to think that some even turned to Howard, who can be kind of a generic god for agnostics, a big warm caring galoot of divine presence — Howard, as in, “Our father, who art in Heaven, Howard be thy name.”

Anyway, Tom reported over the phone (about) this group… who had a meeting whose topic was about the 3rd Step, about letting go, and the name of this meeting was Drop the Rock. The Drop the Rock meeting was based on the understanding that left to our own devices, we — as a species — tend to lug these big rocks around. They are the rocks of our concerns. Every time we get up, we reach down for our big rock and then we lug it out the door, down the stairs, and roll it into the back seats of our cars. Then after we drive someplace, we open the back door, get out our rock, and carry it with us, wherever we go. Because it’s our rock. It is very important to us and we need to keep it in sight. Also, someone could steal it.

So these Hawaii (alcoholics) suggest that you practice dropping the rock. That you put it down, on the ground at your feet. And that you say to God, to Mary, to Pele, Jehovah, Jesus, or Howard: “Here. I’m giving you the rock. YOU deal with it.” When I heard this, I realized that more than anything, I wanted to put down my rock. My psychic arms ached from carrying it…

If we put our rocks down, if we travel lighter, if we lose some of our unnecessary and un-needed stuff, both the physical and the emotional, we will be able to keep our hands free. that way if someone hands us a baby to hold for a while we will be able to take the baby. If someone needs to lean on us for support over a boulder or two we will be able to help them.

My colleague UU minister Barbara Merritt writes in a newsletter column:

The sudden unexpected death… of a very close friend of mine has been an all too stunning reminder that we are all “visitors.” You can load your house up with so many objects that you might actually feel that they are yours to keep. You can take your family and friends so much for granted that you might assume that they will always be there… But the truth is that we all are only holding temporary visas in this creation. We can accumulate as much as we want. It will all be left behind in the end.. Our neighbors, our children, our church, our communities are ours for a season. Even then, they are always changing, moving, adapting, transforming.

It is hard to let go. It is hard to travel light but I believe it is essential to the spiritual life. Jesus knew this. He is rumored to have said “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into to heaven.” And remember the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, when a man with many possessions who comes and asks Jesus what good deed must I do in order to have eternal life? Jesus answers “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

I don’t think Jesus thought that rich people were any worse than people who had less, that they were more sinful or he was saying that God discriminates against rich people. I think it may have been more that Jesus was aware that the more we have, the harder it is to give up. The more comfortable we are, the more successful we are, the more we have to protect and the harder it can be to change.

Barbara Merritt asks, “What if Jesus wasn’t trying to shock and discourage the wealthy man from seeking the kingdom of heaven? What if Jesus was merely describing an essential detachment we all need to cultivate about all the things we only imagine we own. Selling it all doesn’t have to be understood as a literal commandment. It may be a parable, a koan, a teaching story that urges us to re-examine our relationship with what we are carrying in the proverbial suitcases we’re lugging around this world. The countryside of America is increasingly occupied by individual storage rentals. Some have speculated is that our citizenry have become such eager consumers that many families now own more than they can actually fit into their houses. The problem with having to take care of all this extra stuff is that we come so distracted that we don’t have the time for energy to do what is really important.”

One of the most important tasks as a community of faith is to reexamine and redefine the good life and to help each other remember that the good life is one in which we have enough, enough of material goods but also time to enjoy them. The good life is one of balance, simplicity, community, service to others and spirituality.

Our spirits, the health of our souls demands that we reexamine our relationships to the things of our lives but increasingly our collective wellbeing and that of our depleted planet demands it as well.

Poet Gary Snyder writes of this when he writes:

In the next century
Or the one beyond that they say
Are valleys, pastures
We can meet there in peace
If we make it.
To climb these coming crests
One word to you,
To you
And your children:
Stay together
Learn the flowers
Go light.
grad-rainbow

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Most recently updated 2009-06-06