Deborah Sokolove: Bread and Roses

A Sermon for Seekers Church
September 17, 2000
by Deborah Sokolove 

Bread and Roses

The reading from Proverbs tell us that “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice … Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity. … Because they hated knowledge and … therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. …  But those who listen to me will be secure and live at ease. …” A few verses later, we read that the reward of heeding Wisdom’s call is full barns and overflowing wine vats, a good and comfortable life. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus calls us to give up our notions of the good life. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life …  for the sake of the Good News will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

As I listen to these two passages, the voices of Jesus and of Wisdom, Sophia, call back and forth, intertwining sometimes in harmony, sometimes in raucous cacophony. What is Jesus really saying? What is Wisdom telling us to do or not do? If listening to the voice of Wisdom will allow me to live securely and at ease, what does it mean that losing my life for the sake of the Good News will, in fact, bring safety? Is it wise to seek security, or is the true Wisdom of God that which seems foolish to the world?

It is with these questions that I come to the issue before us as a congregation. We are in the midst of an extraordinary time in our history. We are undergoing a change in leadership; we have recently changed the membership structure and are now looking at changes in the commitment statements for both Members and Stewards; and, after years of searching, we have finally found and purchased a building that we intend to make our new home. Some of us, on behalf of the entire community, have been meeting regularly with our architect to come up with a plan for converting this old, unloved commercial building into a suitable space for worship, Christian education for children and adults, and outreach into the wider community. The plans are exciting, flexible, and attractive, and seem to fit most (if not all) of the goals the congregation had set in those first few meetings for dreaming ourselves into our new home.

A few weeks ago, however, we got word that the total price of all the things we want to do is much more than anyone expected. In the full grip of sticker shock, the Building Development and Stewardship teams have been holding extra meetings and exchanging great volumes of email, trying to see what can be eliminated or simplified, and figuring out how to pay for what is essential. Detailed recommendations will be presented at this afternoon’s congregational meeting, and there will be many opportunities to discuss the pros and cons of various plans at that time. Right now, however, I’d like us to consider what we mean by “essential,” what it means to count the cost, what commitment means when we are being asked to stretch ourselves financially, as well as spiritually and emotionally in this time of change.

I do not pretend to have the answers. In fact, just a few days ago, I wrote to the others on the Building Development team:

I have been reading people's comments [and] ideas… and still am not clear what I think. As others have commented, I, too, am shocked and upset about the cost. Knowing how little I myself am able to contribute financially, I am very reluctant to say that we should spend so much, knowing that it is mostly others who will have to shoulder that burden.

Of course, I have been reassured by several people to whom I voiced that concern that those who contribute much do so willingly, and on behalf of the community, that it is really the community as a whole that will bear whatever burden is to be borne. On the other hand, a couple of days ago, as Kate Amoss and I were driving up to a yarn store in Catonsville, we churned over the various ways of looking at the situation. As we talked, we realized that even those of us who can lend little or nothing would be paying back the loans over the next several years, participating in the cost of the building through our increased giving. Still, some of us are much more at risk than others, and I, for one, am hesitant to ask others to assume a risk that I will not. I suspect that there are others in the congregation with similar misgivings.

However, financial risk is not, or should not be, the only deciding factor regarding the extent of renovations at Carroll Street. If, as already seems to be the case, it is well within our collective capability to raise the money we need to do everything in the original plan, there is still the question of whether we should or not. Some very expensive options were rejected by the Building Development team even before we got the total estimate — I say “estimate” here because some costs are still not known exactly, and may not be known until all the work is complete — and other options that had initially been accepted were reconsidered as we faced numbers that were much higher than originally anticipated.

At each juncture, and before us now, is the implicit question of what is the best use of our resources? How literally are we to take Jesus’ statement to the rich young ruler, to “sell all you have and give it to the poor”? If we are able, as a congregation, to raise almost $900,000, shouldn’t we be giving it to people in desperate need? While that may seem very outrageous, I have heard the perfectly serious suggestion that whatever we spend on the building, we should give away an equal amount. Historically, Seekers has committed itself to give away half of what it spends on itself every year. Spending so much money on a building seems seriously to skew that relationship.

On the other hand, some have noted that such thinking implies that the building is solely for our own use, ignoring the many possibilities it will contain for hospitality and outreach. In a recent email to the building development group, Brenda wrote:

I too feel the enormity of the cost that is facing us with this building, and yet I think we need to focus more on what we want to do with it and how the things we have planned so far fit into what we are feeling called by God to be about, rather than just thinking about what each piece is going to cost us monetarily. I think if we only focus on that, we may cost ourselves spiritually, by creating a space that is dark and dingy, or unfit to be used for a call that could emerge. I want to hold onto the bigger picture even as we do some necessary bean counting!

I also want to really hold up the idea that this building is a framework, an earthen vessel, if you will, that will hold our community's calls and visions as they unfold among us. We knew when we started that we didn't know what all we would be doing at Carroll Street, but, we knew that we wanted to create spaces that were flexible for many uses, and that could mean that it will cost more for us to do that now, but in the end we will have a space that can be used in many ways in the future, allowing us to envision and be called to many different things as we see new needs … 

Call and commitment are the centerpieces of our lives together. What I hear Brenda and others saying is that our new home is not just for us, but a place where we, collectively and individually, will be able to live out our calls in new, unexpected ways. Our commitment to peace and to justice, as well as to this community, will find new expressions in a new environment, if that environment is flexible enough to change as we change.

Another aspect of our communal commitment is the promise that the Stewards have made to maintain at least our current level of giving to outward mission during the ten or so years of paying back the loans. This will be a challenge to our budget, and to each one of us, as we consider our own stewardship of money and other resources over the coming years. It is a challenge that I hope we will more than meet, and that our generosity to others, as well as to our own community, will grow even as we stretch to pay our debts.

It seems to me that another factor in our questioning of what is essential, and that is the matter of beauty. Some years ago, when we first came to the realization that we would not be staying at 2025 forever, I offered a class in the School of Christian Living called Sacred Space. As an opening exercise, I asked participants to imagine their ideal place for worship. How big would it be? In what setting should it be? What would it look like? I suggested that participants bring pictures of church buildings they liked, as well as describe or draw what they had in mind.

The responses, as you might expect, were varied. One person loved Gothic cathedrals; another brought in a picture of a glass-walled structure set in the woods; another described a simple, wooden structure, not unlike the lodge at Wellspring. What was common among all these visions was the yearning for beauty, for something that fed the eyes and touch as well as being a big enough place for us all to get together. Over the years, people have told me how much they love 2025, as much because of its beautiful detailing, the graciousness of its spaces, as for the history that it contains. Likewise, when we were looking for a building to buy, many people said they wanted to one that was beautiful. In the event, we seem to have bought what I argued for then, something that is not much to look at, but has some promise. Nevertheless, when it comes to paying for the graceful touches, for those things about which we cannot point out utilitarian virtues, we get squeamish.

In this week’s lectionary, Psalm 19 praises God’s handiwork. It reminds us that it is God’s nature to make beautiful things, whether it is the sun or moon or sky, or the laws by which the created world, and we in it, must live. While neither the words “justice” nor “beauty” occur in this psalm, both are implicit in its themes and construction. Too often, in Seekers and elsewhere, justice and beauty are set up as opposing forces, as if it were true that to work for justice is to be oblivious to beauty. But the very existence of this poem of praise, and the many other references both to God’s creation and to the human arts, is a reminder that physical food is not enough, that justice includes the beautiful things which are often referred to as “food for the soul.”

I once read an article, which sadly I have never since been able to find, which recounted the struggles of an affluent Georgetown church as they planned to do some necessary renovation. One faction, aware of the historic importance of the building, wanted to do everything possible to restore its former beauty, to make it a showplace that visitors to Washington would want to see. Others, all too aware of the abysmal poverty in other parts of the city, wanted to do only what was needed to keep the building from falling down, and give the rest of the money to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and emergency aid. The author, sympathetic to both sides, offered the observation that in poor communities, people dress up on Sundays, and make their churches as beautiful as they can, because there is so little beauty in their daily lives.

Similarly, more than eighty years ago, striking mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, carried a banner declaring “Bread and Roses.” It inspired a song I heard often in the mid-1970s, when my kids went to a school near downtown Los Angeles, and I worked in a food co-op in a poor neighborhood in Venice Beach. It was written as an anthem for poor women who wanted not only living wages for their work as seamstresses or household domestics, but to live and work in decent conditions, with the small graces that make life worth living. They sang

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes.
For hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.
As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.* 

When I was in art school, most of our assignments were relatively small. We worked on drawing boards that could fit into portfolios and lockers, on canvases that did not take up much space in a studio that had to be shared with fifteen or twenty other students, on projects that could be finished within the short confines of an academic quarter. However, when I took an airbrush class with photorealist Dan Douke, the first thing he said was “dream big!” If your dreams are too small, he said, you will never know what you can do. He encouraged us to paint bigger than life-size, to stretch ourselves beyond what we knew we could accomplish. Later, when I began to teach, myself, I would always reserve a good grade for the student who turned in what I learned from Dan to call “the noble failure,” the project that was way beyond what the student could realistically produce in the time allotted, but done with integrity and engagement.

Now, I wonder, is this the time for Seekers to “dream big”? Can we, should we, try for both bread and roses? What will happen if we fail? What will happen if we find we cannot pay back the loans so generously offered by members of the congregation with the resources to do so? Will we have to sell the building, default on the loans, disband as a church? Worse, perhaps, will we have to cut back on our outward giving, despite our intention not to do so? Or, if we cut back the plan to bare bones, if we eliminate all the lovely touches that can make the difference between an OK place, and one filled with light for the eyes, delight for the senses, will we always be sorry that we missed a golden moment?

It seems to me that these questions are swirling around us and among us. I, myself, am torn, undecided, still listening for the voice of God. If we hang on to what is safe, what is known and what is familiar, are we in danger of trying to save our life instead of losing it for the sake of the Good News? Is Holy Wisdom calling us to prudence, or to daring? Let us just keep on praying.

* Words by James Oppenheim. “Bread and Roses”, Rise Up Singing. Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, eds. (Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out Publications, 1992), p. 245.

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