© Jeremy D. Nickel 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
September 26, 2010

It is getting daily harder to deny that summer, what little of it was experienced around here, is quickly slipping into fall. The days grow shorter and shorter, the air is a little crisper and the fruits and flowers slowly are giving way to the potatoes and gourds. For as long as we humans have been living in community, this has been our reminder that it is time to begin preparing for the winter. It is time to can and pickle, time to save and store up, time to prepare for the long winter months that bring colder air and less abundance from the earth.

Unlike the marking of the longest night in December, the Autumnal Equinox marks the even divide of days and nights, meaning that on or about September 21 we have a twelve-hour day and a twelve-hour night. It is the tipping point, the last moment of the year that we have as much light as darkness, until we reach its opposite point six months later. And this moment has long served as a reminder that it was now time to prepare for these long nights.

What we figured out a long time ago, but have now long since forgotten or ignored, was that the best way to prepare for the winter was as a community. Helping each other harvest the fruits of their summer labor, helping with the salting, canning, preparation and storing of the food is simply easier work when it's done with the help of others. And when those desperate moments of scarcity creep into existence during an unexpectedly long and difficult winter, it is only through the sharing of resources that a community could survive.

But this sharing is not in our nature, and was only able to come about in community out of necessity. If left to our own devices humans are for the most part natural hoarders, only sharing when they have to.

One of my favorite stories as a child was one that I am sure you are all familiar with: Stone Soup. In this story two strangers wander into town with nothing but a big old cauldron. They are looked at by the villagers with much suspicion, which only grows deeper when the men fill the cauldron with water, light a fire underneath it and add to the water only one larger stone.

After a while the villagers' own curiosity gets the better of them, and they approach the men to ask them what they are making. "Stone soup!" is their reply, and they are sure to sing the praises of this delicious soup that they are happy to share; of course, they lamentingly add, everyone knows that stone soup is truly perfect if it includes just a few carrots, which they unfortunately do not have. "Well I have carrots!" A villager proclaims, runs off home and quickly returns to add them to the pot. "Wonderful!" the two men shout, and once again begin loudly singing the praises of this finest of soups, only adding sadly at the end that it would truly be perfect if only they had a few potatoes, which they didn't. "Well I have some potatoes," another villager proclaims and runs off to fetch them.

This of course continues until the two men have convinced the villagers to add more vegetables, all kinds of meats and everything a good hearty batch of stone soup would need. And when it is served everyone agrees that it is indeed the most perfect stone soup any of them have ever had. And everyone ends up full of food and happy to be a part of the fun.

I suspect that this is truly a modern re-telling of the gospel story of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus multiplies just a few fish and pieces of bread into enough food to feed thousands. I wouldn't say that I am a doubter of miracles, but rather someone who believes a miracle doesn't so much involve an impossible event like physical matter being multiplied as if by magic, but rather an almost impossible event like the inspiring of radical generosity in otherwise stingy people who actually have plenty of bread and fish tucked away in their tunics and just need to be inspired to share. And I find this kind of miracle and this kind of story all the more interesting. I don't see anything particularly useful to the human experience in the idea of a man who is actually a god dressed up like a man using his supernatural powers to make food. What is the lesson for us? But I see a message that is tremendously important in the story of real flesh-and-blood imperfect human beings like you and me inspiring radical generosity in others.

The term pagan itself is one of those blanket terms, like Hinduism, which more accurately represents a western need to categorize than it does describe a coherent group of people. But, nonetheless, these earth-centered traditions that have been lumped together under this umbrella term do share many general characteristics, and in almost all such communities we find a very significant ritual at this time of the Autumnal Equinox.

One of these ancient earth-centered groups that we call pagan celebrated this holiday with a ritual called Mabon: The Feast of the In-gathering. And it was literally a feast, a sort of latter-day potluck in which all members of the community brought the best of their harvest, and a huge feast was enjoyed by all. Now, on the face of things this was exactly the wrong thing to do on September 21. This was a time for storing and saving, not gorging and consuming far more food than was necessary. But there is of course an excellent reason why a feast is exactly what is called for. It is because through this ritual of radical generosity, this sharing of what one can most not afford to share, an important statement is made that ensures survival later: what is mine is yours, and do not forget that on this day I shared with you what I had. This sharing now makes possible more sharing in the future, when perhaps it will be truly painful to share.

And that is precisely what we are celebrating here today. In our New Member Ingathering earlier we welcomed three new members into our community. Those new members pledged to bring their full selves to us if we were willing to do the same for them. They have recognized the same thing that our ancient ancestors did: that it is simply a more enjoyable human experience when it is shared with others.

In this day and age of supermarkets, and of fruits, grains and meats shipped from around the world, we no longer worry about surviving the winter in the same way we used to. But you have joined this community, or you have at least walked through this door today, because you seek community to aid in your survival.

I told you last week that the theme of money would sneak into sermons all through the year, not just during canvass, and this Sunday is an example of that. As much as we don't like to talk about money, it is, along with a lot of hard work from all of us, what ensures the survival of Mission Peak. I know that the start of my ministry here is accompanied by a host of spoken and unspoken expectations, and that these expectations are very high. I am glad for this, because I really do believe in dreaming as big as possible and I am so glad to be with a group of people who agree. But I am no miracle worker, just a flesh-and-blood imperfect person like you. I will not magically multiply the members of this church. But I do hope to inspire even more radical generosity in each and every one of you than you imagine you are capable of.

By contributing to this community out of your resources, it sends a powerful message to the world: that what is yours is for the good of all. But even more important to your survival, by contributing out of your resources you send an even more powerful message to yourself: that what you own does not own you. When you stretch yourself to give away to those causes which mean the most to you, you align your life with your values, and you buy something more valuable than anything you can own.

This was the important lesson that our ancient ancestors learned the hard way: that in order to survive we must overcome our selfish impulses and contribute to the greater good. And as they discovered, this is the true path to living in abundance. May we continue to unfold this truth together. May it be so.

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