Deborah Sokolove: Tending the Wellspring

Sermon for March 19, 1995
The 3rd Sunday in Lent
by Deborah Sokolove
at Seekers Church

Tending the Wellspring

When I signed up to preach this Sunday, I was deep into creating the Lenten Cloth for the chapel at Wesley Theological Seminary, which several of you have now seen. It was still Epiphany, but because of my concentration and meditation on this artwork, I felt like I was already in Lent. My mood was dark; I was alternately tearful and angry; I was feeling lonely, forgotten, invisible. I wanted to preach, then, about… what? Something… Yes, it was very important… But as this third Sunday in Lent came ever closer, the issue that had preoccupied me began to evaporate, and what was so desperately important then, had become so unimportant that I had even forgotten what it was.

I began to be terrified. What if I really had nothing to say, no burning issue? What if God did not appear in a burning bush, or a cloud, or a rock, and tell me what to say? Then would I, like the wandering Israelites, perish in the wilderness of my fear? Would I be cut down like a fig tree that bore no fruit? Would I just stand here, tongue-tied and embarrassed, and say nothing at all? I thought of the theme that Celebration Circle has chosen for this season, Tending the Wellspring, and I began to think that my well of words was dry. After all, I’ve been doing a lot of serious writing for my job and for classes in the last couple of weeks. Maybe, I thought, I am all talked out.

I began to think about silence. Dryness. Emptiness. The cure for that, the mystics tell us, is prayer. Theresa of Avila, in her spiritual autobiography, likens the soul of a beginner in prayer to a garden in which God wants to delight, but "is most unfruitful, and full of weeds." She says that God will uproot the weeds and set good plants in their stead, and that when we resolve to practice prayer, we water the garden with the tears of our introspection and penitence. However, she says, when we find that the well seems to be dry, and for many days we experience "nothing but aridity, dislike, distaste, and so little desire to go and draw water that[we] would give it up entirely," nevertheless we should continue to pray, and God will "[keep] the flowers alive without water and [make] the virtues grow."

As I sat in midnight silence, trying to put words onto paper, I finally understood that the well wasn’t dry at all. Rather, it was full to overflowing, but clogged with leaves, weeds, and mud. In these last few weeks, I have read so much, heard so much, thought about so much, that too many ideas were trapped in the underwater eddies. I knew I should begin to clear out the weeds, dig out the muck, so that the water could run clear again. Instead, I spent hours racing around the edges with my little pitcher, catching the muddy overflow, and pretending to myself that I could drink it anyway, and even serve it up to you. At last, praying for clarity, I went to bed.

In the morning, I realized that this need to clean up my act is appropriate for Lent. So I began to think about what has been muddying my waters lately, digging around to see what was hidden in the mess. A large clump of black, soggy, rotten weeds came up in my hand, and I remembered what had so exercised me a few weeks ago. It has to do with money — who gets it, who has it, and who decides how it should be spent. In a recent spiritual report, I wrote the following:

"I have been crying a lot lately… much of it has to do with a sense that who I am and what I do doesn’t matter much. This is despite quite a bit of [recent] objective evidence to the contrary… [and] is related to my being hooked into a system that values people by the size of their paycheck. As much as I’d like to think myself free of that particular stupidity, I am not, and I keep getting caught in its snares."

Recently, there have been many prayers for those in this congregation who are fearful lest the Contract with America eliminate the governmental programs they work in, and thus their jobs. I find myself having mixed feelings about this. My love and compassion for them as individuals makes me ache with their pain. It is hard to leave a job in the best of circumstances, and those who have given significant parts of their lives to trying to make things better for others through public service may be losing not only their livelihood but their life’s work. Those with mortgages and families to support rightly fear that if they can’t find other employment quickly, they will have to reduce radically their standard of living.

But that part of me that was once a single mother with no education, trying to raise three kids and go to college myself on the $5000 or so a year I could earn working several part-time jobs, with no child support or alimony, and no health insurance, is having a hard time with compassion. That part of me wonders what right anyone has to many of things we take for granted, when so many have so little. That part of me wonders why we talk about community, and live our lives so separately.

It is a commonplace among the Core Membership that everyone has a sticking place, some part of the process of commitment that becomes problematic, and that keeps some people from even moving towards being a Core Member. I understand that for many, the problem is the tithe — not feeling able to live on ten percent less than whatever one’s income is. For others, it is writing (and reading aloud) their spiritual autobiography. Some may simply not be willing to attend one more meeting every month, or may not want to be responsible for the nuts and bolts of Seekers’ continuing life. For me, the sticking point was one sentence in the Commitment Statement, one I still choke on every October. That sentence is "I commit to foster justice and be in solidarity with the poor."

When I first read that, I wasn’t even sure what it meant. The fostering justice part was clear, and I’ve never had any problem with it, but just what does it mean, to "be in solidarity with the poor"? Eventually, I came to a rough definition that has something to do with giving time and money to organizations that help poor people to recover from addictions, to get an education, to find a job, to buy a home. It has something to do with supporting certain kinds of social welfare legislation, and in general with working towards a more equitable society. It has to do with providing emotional and spiritual support for those in our congregation who are social workers, and others who work directly for change within or outside of government. But I do not sit easy with that definition.

First of all, I have trouble with that word "solidarity." This is just personal, because solidarity is a word out of my past, when my children attended the People’s Playgroup, I bought my organic veggies and sprouted-wheat bread and natural cheese at the Food Conspiracy, my friends used Marxist analysis to decide whether to divorce their husbands, and any expression of religious sentiment was suspect. Solidarity to me is about labor unions, picket lines, and protest marches. While I still believe in unions, and may still join the occasional picket line or march, that word just sounds strange to my ear among the words of grace and joy and spiritual growth.

Next, I have some trouble with the words "the poor." Granted, it is a time-honored phrase, found throughout Scripture. Still, it grates on my sensibility: "the poor," not "poor people" or "people who have no money and no opportunity to get some." Just "the poor." As though poverty were the sole, defining element, negating the rest of a person’s identity. How can I be in solidarity with an abstraction, a condition, a descriptive phrase that hides the individual human stories of people who cannot afford the basic necessities of food, shelter, and medical care?

But my biggest problem with that part of the Commitment Statement is identifying just who are "the poor" that I am to be in solidarity with. In our recent and ongoing process of self-definition, one of Seekers’ words about our collective self is "affluence." If "we" are affluent, then by definition none of us is "the poor." Maybe being "the poor" is different from just being poor, having too little money for a decent life. Maybe "the poor" are other, different from us, the objects of our concern, but not members of our body. Maybe "the poor" are the ragged men and women who beg just outside our doorstep, and sometimes knock on our door; "the poor" do not live in most of our neighborhoods, sit with us at dinner on Tuesday nights, worship with us here on Sunday mornings.

Ouch. Did I say that? I didn’t mean to. That’s another sermon, the one I’m struggling to stay away from, because I, too, am not ready to live out its implications.

What I am trying to address here is not the way we do or do not deal with the terrible and terrifying poverty outside our community, but how we ignore the relative poverty that is among us. While the majority of Seekers seem to have a rather higher-than-average income, some do not. Some struggle just to get by. Others now earn a good salary, but haven’t always. Current income is only part of what it means to be, or to have been, poor. People who have been poor for a significant portion of their lives, or who have lost everything through divorce, job loss, or illness, do not have the security for the future that is implicit in long-term equity in a house, a pension plan, savings, and investments. There are those among us today who know they will have to work until they die, because they will never be able to afford to retire.

What do we do, as a community and as individuals, when we are confronted with the financial need of one of our own? Do we lend or give money? If we lend it, do we charge interest? If we give it, what are the terms? How often or how long will we help the same person? How do we decide? How much are we really willing to share with those we call our chosen family?

I know that this community can be very generous, with time, with possessions, and with money. When our car was hit by someone running a red light recently, David Lloyd gave up a Saturday to help us get around. Rachel and Diane lent us a car, and several other people offered the use of theirs until we could get a replacement. When I lost my job nearly two years ago, and our family income was cut in half, some of those in a position to do so sent design work my way, or bought artwork from me. The Growing Edge fund helped me to document my artwork and move in a new professional direction, and I was given scholarship money so I could go on silent retreat. I know that many in the community helped Juanita and her daughters in the difficult days after Don’s death; Sue Johnson has devoted much time and energy to help Pat Hardesty since her recent stroke; and several people enabled Gary and Abigail to buy a house when circumstances forced a precipitous move from their apartment building. I’m sure there are many other such instances of shared resources that are not so well known.

But there have been other instances, when the answer to a request for help was "no." What assumptions, what values, what conditions led to that "no"? Do we assume that a person who needs help often is improvident, or has made bad choices? Do we believe that if we give or lend someone money that we have some right to tell that person how to spend it? Do we expect more accountability from a poor person than we are willing to accept ourselves? Do we think we have a right to what we have because we have worked hard to get it, even if our income is several times that of some other person who may work just as hard, but for a smaller wage?

I know these are hard, uncomfortable questions. Let me pose another, in the form of a story:

Back when I was a single parent, I rarely could predict what my income or expenses might be. I had several part-time and short-term jobs, some of which paid cash under the table at the end of the day or the week, and others which only sent a check when the project was finished. When one job ended, I never knew how long it might be until I found another. I drove an old, high-mileage car which often and unpredictably needed expensive repairs. Likewise, my children respected no timetable for getting sick or needing stitches. So it often happened that some small amount of money that I had been able to save was wiped out, either by normal expenses of food and shelter while in a longer-than-usual period of unemployment, or by a sudden doctor’s or mechanic’s bill. This is a familiar scenario for poor people.

One time, after a long, long period of having very little money, and eating a lot of spaghetti, I was paid $1500 for teaching a course at a local college — enough for about two months expenses. The sensible, wise, prudent thing to do would have been to put it in a bank at interest, in case of emergencies, and go on living my very frugal life. But my two younger kids were in junior high and high school, and were chafing at all the lacks in their lives. One of the lacks was that we had no VCR, and only a small, mostly-broken, black-and-white TV. So the kids and I went out and spent about $700 on a brand new VCR and a big, color TV, with money that might have let us live, carefully, for a full month. Not wise, not prudent. But at that time, when many of the comforts and pleasures of modern life were completely out of reach, buying that new VCR and TV made me and my children feel rich for a long, long time.

The question is, if the next month I needed $700 to fix my car, would you have lent it to me? Or would you have judged me improvident, foolish, unworthy?

I don’t actually know how anyone here would answer that question. The fear and anger that I still carry from that time say that those who have never had to choose between paying the rent and paying the doctor would not have helped me in that situation. The generosity that I have experienced in this community suggests otherwise, and helps to heal that fear and anger.

As far as I can tell, nobody here has so much money that they don’t have to make choices about how to spend it. Most people in this community try to live relatively simple lives, and often ask themselves the hard questions about how much they will participate in the materialistic culture that surrounds us. We give away, individually and communally, proportionally more of our resources than most do in the larger society.

So what is the problem? The problem is a certain kind of blindness — the blindness of privilege. We are a lot like the community for which Luke’s Gospel, out of which we have our lectionary reading today, was written. In a book called Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa, Itumeleng J. Mosalaraises the issue of Luke’s social-class perspective as a way to understand the presentation of Jesus and the early church. The Gospel of Luke was addressed to "Most Excellent Theophilus," an indication of a privileged audience. Mosala posits that while the subject matter of Luke’s Gospel is concerned with the poor, outcasts, and women, it is primarily a call to repentance" addressed to Christians of wealth and repute." For instance, he points out, the story of the fig tree in Luke 13:1-9, that we read this morning, is a warning to repent or die, not a proclamation of forgiveness and healing. Mosala goes on to say that this Gospel is one

"that is acceptable to the rich and the poor of Luke’s community, but in which the struggles and contradictions of the lives of the poor and exploited are conspicuous by their absence. By turning the experiences of the poor into the moral virtues of the rich, Luke has effectively eliminated the poor from his Gospel."

In calling ourselves an affluent community, have we made the poor among us invisible? Is there mud and debris from the past fouling the waters of our communal wellspring? Letus use this time of Lent to turn to one another and repent, and to offer each other the Water of Life that is Christ.

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