March 2010

The truth about sermon topics is that they’re a false promise. That’s why I don’t like them–I don’t generally make promises I can’t keep. But the most I can say a month in advance is the general line along which I’m thinking. In fact, when I sit down to write I usually just have a word–a single word, or a short phrase–and the writing wraps itself around that. On a holiday it might be the name of the holiday, or it might be something else–rebirth, sex, abundance, exile, transformation, survival. They’re big words. There’s a lot in them. And the sermon doesn’t usually let me know what it’s really about until sometime on Friday, when I’ve chewed it over and let it sit some.

In other traditions they have a lectionary: a pre-determined sequence of Bible texts that will be the basis for the sermons over a one- or three-year rotation. In the lectionaries with which I’m most familiar, they have a New Testament, a Hebrew Scripture/Old Testament, and a psalm each week. The minister gets to pick. Those old stories have a lot of latitude, but I imagine after twenty years preaching on the same texts gets challenging sometimes. On the other hand, it means they are in deeper and deeper conversation with the writings that they hold holy. I can’t imagine what our lectionary would look like, if we had one: This week, the poem is Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese; the prose is Anne Lamott’s story about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from Bird By Bird; and the musical text is “Holy Now” by Peter Mayer.
It would have to change every year. It would have to include theologians and New York Times articles and popular fiction. We’d need someone whose job it was to sift through new suggestions annually and produce the lectionary in advance. So maybe I can envision it. I actually think that would be an amazing job, producing the UU lectionary. And then, like everything else in our tradition, clergy would choose to use or not use it at will. I think a lot of us might welcome the challenge and the comfort, and the sense of connection. Imagine if you could talk with UU friends across the country about the lectionary readings. Imagine if there could be lectionary study groups. Just imagine. Maybe we’d get dull, but maybe we’d be more connected than ever.

Just imagine.

I write thank you notes. I write them a lot. I know they matter. But sometimes they don’t get read by the people who need to see them. Maybe if I write to the internet…

Dear Living Tradition Fund contributors,

Yes, even you, even the one who put five dollars in the plate at the last installation you attended which was when your minister was installed fifteen years ago and haven’t done anything since. Even you, who don’t know really that the Living Tradition Fund exists.

Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you also on behalf of my congregation, which has no idea what a difference you have made in my life. I received my second LTF debt reduction grant this week. It’s not much in the face of my debt load: between three and four percent. Last year it was smaller. Every year I hope I won’t need it the next year. It won’t get me out of debt tomorrow. But it makes a difference. Here’s why it matters:

It matters because it helps. Every little bit helps. Even small drops eventually fill the bucket. If a thousand people give five dollars, that’s $5000. If all 100,000 of our people gave five dollars that would be $500,000. And if we each gave $50, that would be 5 million dollars, if my math is right. And if we did that for 10 years, 20 years,30 years…you can see where this is going. Every donation matters.

It matters because it says to me that I matter. It says that my denomination, its members and leaders, are interested in, and committed to, supporting the continuation of an educated clergy. Clergy education is taxing. We ask a lot of our ministers. It asks of us four full-time years (or many more at part-time), and somewhere in the neighborhood of $75,000 dollars. It asks that we move, along with our families, or it asks that we travel extensively for our education. It asks that we study hard and lose sleep and dismantle and reassemble ourselves into the shape of this thing called minister. We’re working on developing new systems, but that’s how it is right now, and every one of us gives up a lot because we believe in this faith and want to work to strengthen and deepen and bring it to the world. We believe in us. That’s why we do it. But we also need to eat. And these grants mean that people get that, and they are supportive. That matters so much, especially on the hard days when it’s easy to believe that what I do doesn’t matter. And yes, we do have those days. (Don’t believe me? Look at Mother Theresa’s diaries. Or Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s). It matters.

It matters because eventually the debt gets smaller, and when it does, I will have more to give. Economic stress makes me less available to everyone in my life: less available to my congregation, less available to my family, less available to strangers on the street. Whatever energy I don’t have to devote to thinking about lining Citibank’s pockets I can instead direct toward pastoral care and prophetic outreach, study and preaching and ministry. I am a better minister when I have less stress about money. Grants reduce not only the immediate strain, but the overwhelming sense of debt that presses on the psyche. Especially for those of us paid under and in the low ranges of the pay scale, it can feel like we’re never going to get out. Your gifts help show us the light at the end of the tunnel.

All of this doesn’t even touch on the support that you give everyone else: ministers in financial crisis and retired ministers and spouses of retired and deceased ministers who need help. The LTF is the means by which the ministry is supported…by you. All of you.

So thank you. Thank you for giving your money to the Living Tradition Fund so that it could support your ministers and the ministry that we all do in the world.

Thank you.

As often happens, I hunted and hunted for a tell-able version of this myth before writing my own for use in Sunday service. Research tells me that the details have flexed over time in true folk traditional style, so I have made my own choices about what from which versions to keep and what to leave out. Tradition says, for example, that there were 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 pomegranate seeds–I suggest you pick a number that corresponds to the length of your winter.

The original title for this is “The Rape of Persephone”. Modern retellings often take “The Abduction of Persephone” as their name instead. For audiences with very young children, like mine, I prefer simply “Persephone’s Tale”.

Please do not reprint without permission, but feel free to tell it (out loud) with attribution. Enjoy!

Once upon a time a long time ago in the land of Greece there was a god named Zeus and a goddess named Demeter. keep reading