As I reflect on our world today, and the challenge of leadership in difficult times, a story comes to mind from spiritual teacher Anthony de Mello. It’s about a mouse, in constant distress because of its fear of the cat. A young magician appeared one day, said, “How terrible to be so caught up in fear that you cannot enjoy yourself at all,” and he turned that mouse into a cat. But then it became afraid of the dog. So the young magician turned it into a dog, thinking that would fix things. But to his surprise, it then began to fear the panther. So the young magician turned it into a panther. Whereupon it was full of fear for the hunter. At this point the young magician gave up. He turned it back into a mouse, which surprised the mouse, who squeaked, “Why?” The young magician, a little older now, said, “Nothing I do is going to be of any help, because the one thing I cannot change—which makes all the difference—is your heart.” And that’s the story. If our hearts aren’t already big in some sense, then it does not matter what the outward circumstances happen to be, or the changes that magic might bring: we will never be able to dwell richly within our lives. Even when our circumstances are small as a mouse, I believe there is some kind of abundance to tap into and receive and be filled by. But not for a mousy heart; all a mousy heart can ever know is scarcity. Even it if beats within the body of a panther.
The question before us this morning is thus: How to grow trust in our hearts so that, for the most important things, we can confidently know there will always be enough—no matter the state of the world, or the state of the stock market? Should things shrink down even to the size of a mouse, what can give us a sense of internal security that can endure every plummet of the Dow Jones Index and will not be shaken?
These are fundamentally spiritual questions. Fundamentally spiritual, but also intensely practical. “Fear,” says a newspaper headline from several days ago, “may thwart financial cures.” “We aren’t dealing with a fundamental economic issue any longer,” says the article, quoting James Paulsen, chief investment strategist for Wells Capital management. “We are dealing with fear. And that doesn’t respond to economic medicine.” People need words of reassurance; people need to hear an upside image; and until they do, investors are likely to be on edge. “We’ve so been traumatized over the past few weeks that every little thing that happens, we overreact.” “The opposite side of irrational exuberance is irrational pessimism, and neither one is a good path to your financial goals.” That’s what the newspaper article said. Despite a 700 billion dollar bailout of the banks, and other kinds of proactive solutions, what may nevertheless thwart these financial cures is … the mousy heart. The heart that won’t believe, the heart that can’t stop trying to control things long enough to take the leap of faith, the heart that doesn’t keep its eyes on the prize.
The question, again: how to dwell richly in our lives, how to tap into abundance, no matter what the external circumstances might be?
I believe that this is a question people have always asked, as a central part of their faith journey. How can my heart be, not mousy, but magnificent? And for a teacher like Rabbi Jesus, the best answer can’t be transmitted through words. It’s an answer you have to live into through trust, and commitment, and action. Often, during difficult times. Exactly during difficult times. You can talk about it later; but first, you have to act.
Go back 2000 years ago. The Gospel of Mark tells the story of a time when Rabbi Jesus tried to take a little time off from his ministry and retreated, with his disciples, to a site near the Sea of Galilee. But people saw where they were going and ran there on foot ahead of them. 5000 people waiting, when they finally got there. And Rabbi Jesus, despite his fatigue, could not ignore them. Compassion welled up in his magnificent heart. He began teaching them, healing them; and it was hours later when his disciples came up to him, saying, “Rabbi, look, it’s getting late, it’s time for dinner. You need to send the people away into the surrounding villages so they can buy themselves something to eat.” But Jesus said to his disciples, “YOU give them something to eat.” In reply, they sputtered, “You want US to go and buy bread for 5000 people? Are you out of your ever-loving mind? That would cost us a fortune, and last we checked, we’re poor.” But Jesus said, “No, no, no—you’re misunderstanding me. How many loaves of bread do you already have, in hand?” They checked, and all together, the disciples had five small loaves of bread and two fish. When Jesus heard this, he immediately turned to the crowd of 5000 people and said something which simply stunned his disciples. He said, in a loud voice, “Everyone, it’s time to eat. We have more than enough to go around. There’s enough for everyone. Please sit down!” And the people did, in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and blessed the meal and broke the loaves and divided the fish and gave them to his disciples to set before the people. Which they proceeded to do. Five loaves and two fish. Though the disciples could not help feeling in their mousy hearts that their fearless leader had gone nuts. No sane person could possibly believe that five loaves and two fish would be enough to feed 5000 people.
But such is the difference between the mousy heart … and the heart that is magnificent. The magnificent heart knows that for what is truly important in life, there’s always more than enough to go around, and we need not fear adversity. The magnificent heart looks at a situation of apparent scarcity square in the eye and says, ‘I don’t believe it.” The magnificent heart challenges the people around him not to believe it either, and to step up, step out in faith. The magnificent heart—the heart of Rabbi Jesus—is satisfied with nothing less than a miracle.
But to this I hasten to add: not the WRONG kind of miracle. Not the supernatural kind, the out-of-thin-air kind, the someone-else-is-gonna-do-it kind. The magnificent heart expects a miracle, but not the wrong kind. When I read the gospel story, what I wonder about is how long it actually took that first person in the crowd, there at the side of the Sea of Galilee, to get what Jesus was trying to teach. I wonder how long it took for him to catch the abundance vision so fully and truly that his heart became magnificent too—and over his dead body was he gonna let the abundance vision die. And so he took personal responsibility for seeing that the vision came true. He gave what he had. He reached into his pocket and he pulled out a piece of his own precious bread and he put it right there in the basket. He chipped in.
How long did it take that first person, then the second, then the third—until the abundance vision caught like wildfire? Until mousy hearts found themselves behaving in ways that were not mousy at all? Suddenly, it’s a scene out of Stone Soup, it’s food flying out of people’s pockets and bags and satchels, faster than you can blink, all added to the communal feast. Everyone chipping in generously until it’s a done deal. Things starting with only five small loaves and two fish—but ending, despite the adversity of the situation, with enough for all, more than enough.
The miracle can happen here for us today. We can live into it, here and now. This morning, I am delighted to announce that, just a few weeks into this year’s stewardship campaign, we are more than half way to our pledge goal of 1 million dollars. People are stepping up. People are chipping in. We have, in hand, 144 pledges, totaling $520,000. So many people committed to giving 5% of their total household income, if not more, and I’m one of them. But we’re not there yet. There are about 420 more pledges we have yet to receive, so I am asking you, members and friends alike, that if you’ve still not pledged—let your hearts be magnificent. Experience abundance. Step up. Chip in. Let’s reach the pledge goal. Know that your dollars are going to something that sustains lives, changes people for the better. Pledges are the main source of income for our congregation—one of the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations in North America—so your generosity is key to ensuring that UUCA remains vital and strong and that it’s able to grow into all that it can be, able to reach towards that Sustainable Living vision I talked about earlier.
I want the abundance miracle here at UUCA. I want it, and I hope you want it. Everyone taking the work of this place personally, making a generous financial commitment. Stepping up, chipping in, because if we don’t—if we’re counting on the WRONG kind of miracle, the supernatural kind, the out-of-thin-air kind, the someone-else-is-gonna-do-it kind—then you know what? We begin with five loaves and two fish, and we end with five loaves and two fish. That’s all. The 5000 go hungry. 5000 lives, unchanged. 5000, who will never know the miracle. And who wants to be a part of that? We are called to so much more, as a leader congregation in the world. We are called to magnificence. So let our hearts be magnificent. Let the miracle happen today. Let it happen. Amen.
Rev. Anthony David
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta