SERMON: Simple Gifts


Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Community is not a talent show in which we dazzle the world with our combined gifts. Community is the place where our poverty is acknowledged and accepted, not as something we have to learn to cope with as best as we can but as a true source of new life. Living community challenges us to come together at the place of our poverty, believing that there we can reveal our richness.”

As we gather this morning to worship, may we know that all parts of ourselves are welcome here—the places where we are poor, and those where we are already rich. May we come together, broken and whole, wounded and healing, rich and poor, to renew our hope, challenge our passivity, and give thanks for the gifts of our lives.

adapted from Paul H. Beattie

When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart, I find a quiet assurance, an inner peace, in the core of my being. It can face the doubt, the loneliness, the anxiety — it can accept these harsh realities and can even grow because of these challenges to my essential being. When my mind is still, I send this peace into the world.

When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart, I can sense my basic humanity, and then I know that all people are one family. Nothing but my own fear and distrust can separate me from others. If I can trust others, accept them, enjoy them, then my life shall surely be richer and more full. If I can accept others, this will help them to be more truly themselves and they will be more able to accept me. When my mind is still, I know send peace into the world through these glorious connections.

When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart, I know how much life has given me: the history of the race, friends and family, the opportunity to work, the chance to build myself. Then wells within me the urge to live more abundantly, with greater trust and joy, with more profound seriousness and earnest striving, and yet more calmly at the heart of life.

When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart, I sense the presence of thousand upon thousands of gifts, some given to me and gratefully received, some still to be given. And I see myself, one in an unbroken line of givers, being asked to give of my best, of my heart, of what is true. And the yearning grows in me to give, to give, to give yet again.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

Remember when coffee was just coffee? When you entered a café or restaurant, sat down, and were asked if you’d like a cup of coffee? The only choice was “cream and sugar or black?” Now, we stand in line at coffee shops and design a specialty cup of coffee. We choose from three sizes, forty-seven flavors, six kinds of milk, regular or decaf… A cup of coffee has become a gauntlet of decisions to pass through. Try to order a simple “cup of coffee” and you’ll be met with puzzled stares and exasperation.

In an article in the New York Times Magazine called “Is Freedom Just Another Word for Many Things to Buy?” authors Barry Schwartz, Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner Snibbe write:

In today’s America, everyone from President Bush to advertising executives to liberal activists appears to agree that freedom is about having choices and that having more choices means having more freedom…This is why we now regard 32 kinds of jam in the supermarket, 50 styles of jeans in the department store and 120 retirement plans in the workplace as signs of both economic progress and moral and political progress. Choice is what enables all of us to live exactly the kind of lives we want to and think we should.

But this “wisdom” is suspect for two reasons. First, most Americans do not think that freedom is about exercising more and more choice. And second, even for those who do equate freedom with choice, having more choice does not seem to make them feel freer. Instead, Americans are increasingly bewildered — not liberated — by the sheer volume of choices they must make in a day.

I am beginning to hear this every day. More is not always better. Americans are beginning to discover the down side to our conspicuous consumption. Too much stuff and too many choices leave us exhausted and even depressed. We are bombarded with constant choice, making tens of thousands of decisions a day.

One of the messages that our market-driven society has sold us is that more is better and that freedom equals choice. But our lived experience is beginning to make it clear that this is not so. When faced with too many choices, people don’t feel empowered, but overwhelmed. Many times, when there are too many choices, people choose not to choose. Sadly, the new medicare drug programs are an example of this. Bombarded with 120 choices, each one with its own rules, drawbacks, and benefits, many people are simply not signing up. Rather than face this uncomfortable mess of choices, they continue to pay for their prescriptions themselves or forego them altogether.

According to Dr. Peter Whybrow, Director of the Neuropsychiatric Institute and Executive Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA,

We have created for ourselves an environment which is extraordinarily complex and very affluent in terms of choice. That is, I believe, beginning to create a situation where we are pushing the limits of human physiology…[W]e are an ongoing experiment in America. We are at the leading edge of something that the human race has never experienced before, that is extraordinary affluence and extraordinary choice… We have constructed a set of circumstances, a culture, which is actually toxic for us. It doesn’t fit with our neurobiology and it doesn’t fit with our evolutionary behavior.

Another scholar, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology and Management at Drucker School of Management, Claremont Graduate University adds:

Regarding the incredible amount of choice we have to confront every day, we have to remember that we cannot pay attention to more than about 114 or so bits of information per second, if we strain our attention to its fullest. This ends up being about half a million bits per day. It sounds like an enormous amount of information we can process, but actually it’s not much at all because to decode my voice and understand what I’m saying, you probably use up about 60 bits per second, which means that you can’t really understand two people speaking to you at the same time…

It is no wonder we feel overwhelmed and fragmented so much of the time. We can only understand one person at a time. We can process only a finite number of choices. Our brains need focus—a singularity of attention—in order to process information. Yet we’ve built a culture that bombards us with hundreds of things at once. We’ve built a culture that, by virtue of constant choice and attention-grabbing, makes it nearly impossible for us to live in ways that would help us function at our best.

But that’s not all. Not only is this barrage of choice and acquisition bad for us, it is bad for others and bad for our earth. In his book, How Much Do We Deserve?, Unitarian Universalist minister Dr. Richard S. Gilbert laments:

In our specialized world, the study of economics — sometimes called “the dismal science” — seems totally divorced from moral analysis. Economic analysis is in the hands of one group of experts and moral analysis in another, betraying the historical reality that economics arose from the field of moral inquiry. For Aristotle, economics (or oikonomia, “management of the household”) was a branch of ethics and addressed the question of whether each person in the household received what is required for a fully human life.

We cannot forget that our experience of too much stuff and too many choices comes at the prices of others have not enough. We know that we, as Americans, consume more of the world’s energy and goods than any other nation. And we know that most Unitarian Universalists live more comfortably even than most Americans. For things to change, we have to admit that we participate in a system of injustice and that it is harming us all.

There is, of course, no easy answer—or at least, no quick way to fix what is so clearly broken. But there are ways for us to begin. In the past decade, the simplicity movement has begun to take shape. People are beginning to make real choices to live more simply, acquiring less stuff and considering carefully where they spend their time, energy, and money. This movement has not been perfect. On occasion, it too has been co-opted by those who are looking to make a quick buck. It can also be painful for those who have no choice but to live simply to watch those who are far more privileged choose and preach “simple living” as a strategy for happiness and self-improvement. I prefer Gilbert’s approach. He calls us to a “theology of relinquishment,” or what I might simply call a “theology of giving.”

Instead of a self-help movement, this would be a “world-help” movement. Instead of the health of the individual, it would hold up the health of humanity as a goal. It would acknowledge that we have been given much—too much—and so it is our turn to give.

This would be different from giving from our excess. We would take time to consider what we truly need and what is too much. Then, we would begin to give. We’d give in a way that didn’t feel superficial or sacrificial, but enriching and freeing. We’d give because we’d come to know, deep down, that the satisfaction we had been looking for by owning more stuff was really to be found in giving. We’d give because we had broken through our isolation and begun to remember and truly feel our connection to each other. And we’d give because we had begun to feel deep gratitude for all we had been given. We would make the world better by our giving, and by so doing, we would make ourselves better too.

This will take a certain amount of humility. Like the Shakers said in the song, “When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.” Some part of our desire to acquire is based on looking good. In our culture, wealth is equated with success and success with intelligence, beauty, and goodness. We need to upend this notion. Our own A. Powell Davies thought that one of the key things Unitarians needed to learn was humility. He wrote:

When we see our own grotesqueries, how quaint we are, how droll our ambitions are, how comical we are in almost all aspects, we automatically become more sane, less self-centered, more humble, more wholesome. To laugh at ourselves, we have to stand outside ourselves – and that is an immense benefit. Our puffed-up pride and touchy self-importance vanish; a clean and sweet humility begins to take possession of us. We are on the way to growing a soul…

We have been taught that more is always better. But this is not the way to grow a soul. Human beings and our communities do better when we know what “enough” is. We are healthier and happier when greed and gluttony are replaced with gratitude and giving. We begin to grow our souls when we know that our true task is not to grow comfortable and happy, but to help make the world better for all people.

I have witnessed the experience of deep and abiding joy when people offer their simple gifts in service to others and to a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world. This is what we are meant to do.

Our gifts may be simple and small. I think of four-year-old Alexandra Scott. Two days before her first birthday she was diagnosed with an aggressive childhood cancer. At age four she decided to help discover a cure for her illness by opening “Alex’s Lemonade Stand for Pediatric Cancer Research” beginning in her own front yard. In her short life, Alex raised over $1.6 million. She did not live to see her own cure, but her lemonade stands are now operated at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. You see, the owners of Afleet Alex, winner of the 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes, have gotten involved, donating a portion of the sale from Afleet Alex caps to the cause. From a lemonade stand to almost 2 million dollars. We never know how important our simple gift might be.

Marian Wright Edelman, who I think is one of the most important and powerful voices for justice today, reminds us:

We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.

Begin with something simple. Begin with one simple gift. Begin small. But begin.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.

by John Morgan

In the end it won’t matter how much we have,
but how generously we have given.
It won’t matter how much we know,
but rather how well we live.
And it won’t matter how much we believe,
but how deeply we love.


2 thoughts on “SERMON: Simple Gifts

  1. One of your better postings, at least insofar as I can relate to it. Some of your sermons have been over my head. This one made sense. Have you read Janet Luhrs book on this subject?

  2. Sean: Thanks for letting me know that Paul Beattie is remembered by some among the young(er) clergy! And the inclusion of John Morgan is also appreciated!

    Cheerfully, Roger Kuhrt

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