At times, I am asked about what Unitarian Universalists have in the way of scriptures. What’s our sacred text, what’s our holy book?
What do you say to that, when you believe that truth is abundantly present in the world, comes from many sources, and never ends in its evolution?
How do you bind something like that between two measly covers?
How does something like that have a simple front and back?
For me, it’s more like this. I can read most anything, and truth that pierces my complacency and flares forth with wisdom happens.
Truth happens. In so many places and ways.
Today, I want to explore with you what I consider to be genuine Unitarian Universalist scripture, a piece of it at least: the classic children’s story, “Stone Soup.” (I am using Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello’s version, which I have included at the end of this sermon).
So much to it. So much wisdom, articulating what it means to be Beloved Community, and how to support and sustain it.
Let us read it carefully, as the sacred scripture it is.
Let us absorb, ponder, amplify, interpret, sort out, study.
Start out imagining this with me. The character of the Stranger in the story, who comes to the village? Imagine him to be Unitarian Universalism personified. And the villagers are us.
So the Stranger (who is Unitarian Universalism) comes to us, comes to our village, and like the woman, maybe at first we are cautious. “What? Me?” “I’m sorry, I have nothing in the house.”
Maybe we say that. Maybe not. You might have grown up with a very positive experience of religion. You know that the Stranger is good. So without question you hand food to him. You carry no burdens of hurt or anger; your heart is open and easy.
But for others of us, the Stranger (who is Unitarian Universalism) came and we WERE cautious like the village woman. One reason is that we might have grown up unchurched, so we don’t have first-hand experience of what we’re getting ourselves into. This is especially true when we’re asked to make a sizeable annual financial pledge. It can take a while to understand what this means and why it’s important. Couple this lack of familiarity with what we hear about organized religion on the news—the way the news likes to focus on the negative—and you bet we’re cautious, maybe even downright suspicious.
Another reason to be suspicious is if we did grow up in church and the experience wasn’t so good. Maybe we were bored out of our minds. It all struck us as irrelevant. Or maybe it riveted us but in a particularly hurtful way, since the God preached to us was a kind of Incredible Hulk. A kind of creature capable of vast wrath and rage, so you experienced the spiritual life as one of perpetual tip-toeing around trying to be good, perpetual avoidance of doing anything that would make a supernatural monster angry. This is my story. I came to experience religion as the last place where I might seek out something natural to me, something even joyful, because it was always a scene of terror, no mistakes allowed; I had to toe the line and get it right or I was going to HELL! It wounded me and it wounded others of us, and like all wounds and hurts, our old experience plays inside us like a broken record, making it nearly impossible to hear a sound that is truly new and sweet. Making it nearly impossible to believe that religion could be anything other than irrational, brutalizing, and diminishing…
For all these reasons, and more, Unitarian Universalism comes, and some of us are cautious, some of us are suspicious.
But I am here before you now and we are all here now, so clearly, there is more to the story than the woman saying, “I’m sorry, I have nothing in the house right now.”
Because what happens next is that the Stranger (who is Unitarian Universalism) says, “Not to worry. I have a soup stone in this satchel of mine; if you will let me put it in a pot of boiling water, I’ll make the most delicious soup in the world.”
Essentially, what we have here is a vision of the religious bottom line. There is such a thing as spiritual hunger. It is as natural as any kind of hunger. It does not have to be scared into anyone. It is a neutral sort of thing, a basic fact of human existence. Maybe it is not felt until later in life. But it will manifest–as an utterly distinctive restlessness, an unmistakable yearning, a poignant emptiness that nothing material truly fills–and it can get so bad that you end up feeling you are nothing but the hunger, that you are being devoured by the hunger….
So let the hunger be fed. Let the emptiness be filled.
That’s why we’re here. We want soul food Unitarian Universalist style, and it is savory, it is just the best thing, it is MM MM GOOD!
Say that with me MM MM GOOD!
Unitarian Universalism says we can have this, and we are curious. Can it be true?
So, just like the villagers, we give into the possibility. Someone brings out a big pot filled with water, another adds potatoes to the pot, a third adds meat, then come the vegetables, then come the salt and sauce, then come the bowls, and then we eat.
It happens because we give our gifts. Together, we create the common meal of Beloved Community. The more we all give in to it, the more we all get out of it.
There is Power in our togetherness. The Power of We.
This is a very different thing, now, than the power of the Sugar Daddy, or of the Sugar Momma. Sugar Daddy and Sugar Momma—they provide everything and we just consume. We don’t have to give anything. We just take.
Sometimes around a church Finance Committee table especially, you can hear someone say, I wish we had a Sugar Daddy who could make the big bad bills go away. I wish we had a Sugar Momma who could help us pay for everything.
But the sacred scripture of Stone Soup says no to this.
The sacred scripture of Stone Soup says, what truly makes the soup tasty is the Power of We. The more we all give in to it, the more we all get out of it. Sugar Daddy and Sugar Momma soup isn’t really tasty at all, or filling….
Here’s a true-life story that proves the point. I heard it from West Shore member Soren Hansen in a stewardship class I was teaching recently. He told me about this Universalist Church he used to belong to. And old church whose Endowment Fund was so big that people drew on it to pay for everything. No one needed to pledge or in other ways give a dime. The Endowment Fund was the church’s Sugar Daddy, and no one had to give anything.
People just took.
Soren went on to say that this old church, with a building that could seat upwards of 800, dwindled away to a congregation of only 30 people. That was the shape the congregation was in, when Soren found it.
I was stunned to hear the story.
I was even more stunned to hear the same story repeated over and over again, as I went looking for other cases of congregations relying on a Sugar Daddy Endowment Fund to pay for everything.
They had all the money in the world, but no heart.
It means that the quality of your relationship with this congregation is absolutely impacted by the generosity of your direct giving. It means your annual pledge has a distinct spiritual dimension to it. It means when you give less, you care less, you get less out of this Beloved Community.
Let me underscore this point with a bit of science.
A group of economists set up an experiment using a beverage called SoBe Adrenaline Rush—a drink that is supposed to increase mental acuity. The story of this is told by Ori and Rom Brafman in their book entitled, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior: “To test acuity, the researchers developed a thirty-minute word jumble challenge that was administered to three groups of students. The first group, a control group, took the test without drinking any SoBe. The second group was told about the intelligence-enhancing properties of SoBe, given the drink, and asked to watch a video while the tonic had time to take effect. These students also were required to sign an authorization form allowing the researchers to charge $2.89 to their university account…. We’ll call this second group of students the ‘fancy-schmancy SoBe’ drinkers. Finally, a third group of students was given the same spiel about SoBe but was told that the university had gotten a discount and that they would be charged eighty-nine cents for the drink. We’ll call them the ‘cheapo SoBe’ drinkers.”
What were the results of the experiment? “The group that drank the fancy-schmancy SoBe performed slightly better in the test than did the group that received no SoBe at all. But before we rush out to buy SoBe, with its acuity-enhancing powers, it’s important to note that the students who drank the cheapo SoBe performed significantly worse than either the fancy-schmancy group or the SoBe-free control group.”
Ori and Rom Brafman go on to draw these conclusions: “Given that exactly the same SoBe beverage was served to both groups, we can only conclude that it was the value the students attributed to the SoBe that made the difference in their test scores. Strange as it may sound, fancy-schmancy SoBe made the students smarter, while cheapo SoBe hindered their performance.”
The more of ourselves we put into something, the more we get out of it. The value we attribute to it makes all the difference.
And if we’re not careful in how we do this, we can actually harm ourselves. If we go for the cheapo SoBe—it we’re cutting corners, if we’re trying to get a deal, if we’re demanding a ton from church but putting little to no effort in–then we are negatively impacted. We are hindered. Cheapo SoBe makes a person not smarter but dumber.
The Power of We beats Sugar Daddy and Sugar Momma power every time.
Soup is on, everyone! So chip in! Give it all you got!
MM MM GOOD!
But let’s take a look at one more part of the Stone Soup scripture. The Stranger (which is Unitarian Universalism) engages the village community in making the most delicious soup in all the world. And notice that at no time does he check what people believe before they are allowed to contribute to the soup. He doesn’t care what your specific answers may be to key religious questions of life, related to God or Jesus or the afterlife, and so on. All he wants to know is, will you contribute something positive to the making of a kind of communal soup that will feed minds and hearts and souls?
Bring your diverse gifts! Bring your potatoes, bring your meat, bring vegetables, bring salt and sauce!
This is just like saying, “We need not think alike, to love alike.”
In other words, there is a deep undercurrent of the practice of covenantalism to the Stone Soup scripture. Covenantalism is when a group organizes itself around the spiritual practice of sustaining and preserving a community space where people can feel a basic emotional safety–a sense of being respected and accepted by others–even as people are challenged to learn new things and to grow. In covenant-centered communities, thinking alike is not the point, but loving alike is.
That this is central to our spiritual identity as Unitarian Universalists can’t be emphasized highly enough. As we saw from the video, 452 years ago our way of doing church came into existence through the affirmation of a certain covenant called The Edict of Torda. King John Sigismund, the only Unitarian King in history, made it so, in 1568.
Our West Shore congregational CARE Covenant is a reflection, down through all the long years, of this very first covenant, which gave us our birth as a movement.
But now notice something crucial in the Stone Soup scripture. There is an implicit assumption in what’s happening that is so obvious, it hardly needs mentioning. Yet we dare not forget it. The assumption being: when you come to the Stone Soup pot, you’ll participate constructively. You won’t be disrupting the process. You won’t be actively undermining the work.
Sometimes it happens.
Sometimes someone brings something rotten to the pot—rotten meat, rotten vegetables–and they insist that they have every right to add that. They argue freedom of speech! They argue inherent worth and dignity! They argue all sorts of things. But the bottom line is that the soup is spoiled. The soup is completely inedible. You eat it and it will make you sick.
So everyone goes away hungry.
Or this happens. A person feels there’s only one way to make the soup and it’s their way, and if they aren’t getting their way, then they start screaming, they start pitching a fit, and the place becomes a scene of such emotional unsafety and bullying that some folks just leave, while others stay but they are demoralized, they are afraid. Above all—no soup has been made.
Everyone goes away hungry.
Or this happens. A person comes and just pushes the pot over. You stand there, slack-jawed that this is actually happening. All the soup is gone. They try to gaslight you—make you believe that they did that because they’re a good Unitarian Universalist (and you’re not)—but then you remember something Jesus of Nazareth once said: “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?”
Actions speak louder than words.
My point is that Unitarian Universalism wants to offer as wide a welcome to as many people as possible. We want everyone who wants to be a part of the Stone Soup miracle to be a part. But there are limits to this welcome. You can’t rightly welcome behaviors that contradict a spirit of welcome. You can’t rightly welcome behaviors that create deep emotional unsafety in the community. You can’t rightly welcome behaviors that spoil the soup or push the pot right over, with the result being everyone going away hungry and there’s no Stone Soup miracle after all.
The Power of We can’t get any traction if it’s constantly being disrupted and undermined.
The very best thing that a Stone Soup community can do for someone who repeatedly and consistently spoils the soup and pushes the pot over is to get really clear on what “acceptance” is not. It is not “acceptance” to place yourself and your community repeatedly in the line of someone else’s fire. It is not “acceptance” to continue to allow yourself to be bullied, or abused.
We need to get clear about this, and we also need to get clear about our mission, which ultimately boils down to changing lives for the better. But what do you call it when a community continues to allow repeatedly bad behavior? I call it enabling. And when a community enables a person to persist in their unhealthiness, that community is accomplishing the exact opposite of its mission.
Which is unacceptable.
Saying NO is the very best thing a Stone Soup community can do for someone who is insistent on pushing over the pot and they absolutely refuse to stop. Saying I’m sorry, but this is not the community for you. You need something else to help you heal. But it’s not us.
Sometimes you just have to say that. It is extraordinarily rare when it happens.
But we know it can.
West Shore, there is an open question facing us right now: What is the Spirit of Love and Life calling us here and now to do? to risk? to lose? to gain? None of us separately has the full answer this very instant. But I trust in the Power of We to bring us into some answers for this upcoming year, for the next five years, for the next decade. I trust in this Stone Soup community to be covenant-centered so that the Power of We can joyfully shine.
I trust, because I deeply need it to be so. Our Stone Soup is really about creating hope together, and the world deeply needs hope. I deeply need hope.
There are millions of people in the Middle East right now, chanting Death to America, and war is a dread possibility, and I need to be in my spiritual community that is helping me to be brave, is helping me make sense of it, is helping me know what is my part to do.
While Australia burns, and extreme weather events like this continue to remind us of the reality of global climate change, I need to be in my spiritual community.
And: While the world is so complicated and so troubling in so many ways, beyond just the two I have mentioned, I need to be in my spiritual community that is helping me balance saving the world with savoring all that is good about it, because it is so easy to feel overwhelmed, it is so easy to lose sight of all the good that is in the world too. I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to forget about that. So I need to be in my spiritual community where I can find fun, and joy, and delight. I need to be in my spiritual community, whose auction theme this year is “UUh La La An Evening in Paris.”
I need this Stone Soup community.
We need this Stone Soup community.
This is our Beloved Community.
MM MM GOOD
This version of Stone Soup comes from Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello
A woman in a village heard knocking at her door. She was surprised to find a fairly well-dressed stranger there, asking for something to eat.
“I’m sorry,” she said with caution. “I have nothing in the house right now.”
“Not to worry,” said the amiable stranger. “I have a soup stone in this satchel of mine; if you will let me put it in a pot of boiling water I’ll make the most delicious soup in the world. A very large pot, please.”
The woman was curious. She put the pot on the fire and whispered the secret of the soup stone to a neighbour. By the time the water began to boil all the neighbours had gathered to see the stranger and his soup stone. The stranger dropped the stone into the water then tasted a teaspoonful with relish and exclaimed, “Ah, delicious! All it needs is some potatoes.”
“I have potatoes in my kitchen,” shouted one woman. In a few minutes she was back with a large quantity of sliced potatoes that were thrown into the pot. Then the stranger tasted the brew again. “Excellent!” he said. But added wistfully, “If we only had some meat, this would become a tasty stew.”
Another housewife rushed home to bring some meat that the stranger accepted graciously and flung into the pot. When he tasted the broth again he rolled his eyes heavenwards and said, “Ah, tasty! If we had some vegetables it would be perfect, absolutely perfect.”
One of the neighbours rushed off home and returned with a basketful of carrots and onions. After these had been thrown in too and the stranger tasted the mixture, he said in a voice of command, “Salt and sauce.” “Right here”, said the housewife. Then came another command, “Bowls for everyone.” People rushed to their homes in search of bowls. Some even brought back bread and fruit.
Then they all set down to a delicious meal while the stranger handed out large helpings of his incredible soup. Everyone felt strangely happy as they laughed and talked and shared their very first common meal. In the middle of the merriment the stranger quietly slipped away, leaving behind the miraculous soup stone that they could use any time they wanted to make the loveliest soup in the world.