Thursday’s Gazette reported the “Joy and Pride” store in Thorne’s is closing. The store has been iconic for gay pride in Northampton for 20 years. I was struck that as tolerance and acceptance for GLBTQ persons have increased, retail sales went down because there was less need for buttons and bumper stickers. A co-owner also stated that the store would often get sales from angry Democrats the day after a major speech by George Bush. So Obama is bad for business. So the reality is that while it was a great store, well-displayed, lasted for years and had a great location, it still had to close because times change. Being good is no guarantee of success. The same would be true of the Mountain Goat, which also closed recently. Andrea Avaysian told me how wonderful they were equipping her for trekking the El Camino on foot. But warmer winter’s and other changes cut down their business as well. I never went to the Bakery Normandy before closing, but heard it was great, but I knew Eclipse restaurant would close because they overcooked their fish and had a smokey, open steak grill in a vegetarian town. What were they thinking?
I have not been here a year, and already things are changing around me. It makes me a little uneasy, nostalgic, even fearful. If this much change has already happened in 9 months, what about my 30 year mortgage? What is really secure in our ever changing world? I read an article on the DOW Industrial index, which is our national surrogate deity, and was surprised to discover that only General Electric is left of the original components, and it was added in 1907. The Dow 30, the largest and supposedly most important companies in the nation, has changed 48 times since it began. The American Leather Company, The US Rubber Company, American Tobacco and Tennessee Coal and Iron, no longer exist.
Communities change from being a Happy Valley farm town, to an industrial era mill town, to New England Hamp, to hipster Noho. Here we sit in the middle of it all, after 350 years, five meeting houses, and twenty some clergy, trying to stay relevant and solvent.
The retail climate for religion changes too. In 1966 Time Magazine asked “Is God Dead?” on the front cover as theologians and sociologists predicted the US would soon be a secular society like Europe. But soon after there was a huge resurgence of conservative religion led by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, followed by megachurches with thousands of members. In the 1980s, it was thought that liberal churches would disappear, being too worldly and wishy-washy. Now conservative churches are losing members, as society begins to tolerate gay people and become more multi-cultural, younger people don’t want to be associated with intolerant religion. Some of the megachurches are facing foreclosure. The last decade had the largest decline in religious involvement since polling began, noting that unaffiliated people are rising. This doesn’t really bother me, because I think many are unaffiliated because they are tired of judgmental religion that can’t get past sexuality and intolerance of others.
The United Church of Christ has 1000 Open and Affirming Churches that are progressive and growing. New urbanism is bringing people back to cities and the thriving, innovative churches in our denomination are places like Old South in Boston, Old First in Philadelphia and Riverside in New York. Notice the world “old” in the title. That doesn’t mean it is easy for a congregation to survive, it still takes energy, courage and commitment. But there is no reason to despair. People have not stopped looking for God and God has not stopped looking for people.
Jeremiah passes along the wisdom of the ages:
(Those who trust in the Lord) shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jer. 17:7-8)
We often think of trees when looking for an analogy of longevity, strength over time. Trees are the oldest living things on the planet, overseeing the rise and fall of powerful empires, corporations and succeeding generations. Trees are a sign of God’s steadfast love in an ever changing world, and we need to not only be good stewards of our trees, but we can learn a great deal from them.
French author Jean Giono wrote a wonderful story in 1952 entitled, “The Man Who Planted Trees.” The narrator takes a walk in 1910, to the foothills of the Alps, and comes to a rough valley that is overgrown with wild lavender. An abandon village is just a shell of weathered houses, left by the woodcutters who had made their living cutting trees for charcoal. The valley had been stripped, the soil eroded away, streams dried up and now everyone had gone.
Giono became thirsty and while looking for a place to refill his canteen, he encountered a man who led him to a Spring, and as the sun was going down, he was invited to stay in the man’s cabin for the night before hiking home. After supper, Giono describes the actions of his host:
He took out a bag and poured a pile of acorns out onto the table. He began to examine them one after another with a great deal of attention, separating the good ones from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I offered to help him, but he told me it was his own business. Indeed, seeing the care that he devoted to this job, I did not insist. This was our whole conversation. When he had in the good pile a fair number of acorns, he counted them out into packets of ten. In doing this he eliminated some more of the acorns, discarding the smaller ones and those that that showed even the slightest crack. When he had before him one hundred perfect acorns he stopped, and we went to bed.
The next day Giono walked with the shepherd for the morning, and saw that the man walked with an iron rod and after a set number of paces he would plunge into the earth and make a hole to plant one of his acorns. Giono learned that for three years his host had planted one hundred thousand trees. Of these, twenty thousand had come up. Half would be lost to rodents and to everything else that is unpredictable in the designs of Providence. That left ten thousand oaks that would grow in this place where before there was nothing.
The narrator left and a few years later was swept up in the Great War, fighting in the trenches of Europe. In 1920, he was a broken man, in body and soul, and he sought solace by hiking back up into the same region. He was astonished to find that the oak trees planted on that day ten years ago were now higher than his head. The shepherd had built natural dams and some streams had come back, and there was other vegetation filling in, and more wildlife as well. It was a remarkable one man transformation. The narrator continued a yearly trek for 19 years and watched as a forest, the villages and valley was brought back to life by one man with a quiet, remarkable dream.
This story was first published in 1953, and was widely popular in Europe, as the continent was still clearing the rubble of WWII and rebuilding. It was meant to send a message of hope and the power of people to make a difference through their actions of doing good despite the monstrous evil they lived through. And that is still the message we need today many years later.
Hope that we still count is what keeps us going. We are here today because generations before us planted their trees. They built this meeting house, have cared for it, and you have recently renovated the sanctuary. That is a great act of hope, because it assumes this sanctuary will be needed for many years. We are also here because past generations planted love. They visited the sick, prayed for each other and showed a caring community to Northampton. The generation before us took risks, and grafted in the Baptists down the street and merged two congregations together. You were an early adopter in becoming an Open and Affirming congregation, doing so at a time when it was much more controversial than now. These are your trees. Enjoy them, but realize too that it is not time to sit in the shade and relax. We need to be planting the next vision. In the coming weeks I want to prime the pump and throw some thoughts into the mix, but it really needs to be your collective vision.
The next few weeks of stewardship season is about planting our trees for the future. I want you to imagine that you all have 100 acorns to plant in the next year. These acorns are your money, your time, your talents and abilities. Time and money are really just potential energy. When we give a dollar or give an hour to something, we are really sending some of our stored potential energy to the people and communities we believe in. This is how we build and plant. Stewardship is getting the most out of the resources we have. How will you place your potential energy in God’s hands? How will your acorns serve God’s purposes? What do you really want to build and plant in the coming year?