Message One, November 8, 2009
By Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC
©Doug Slagle, 2010; all rights reserved.

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As the new Pastor at the Gathering and, to echo the words of our beloved former President George W. Bush, “I have opinions of my own – strong opinions – but I don’t always agree with them!”

And, in some strange way, George W. Bush perfectly stated what my goal will be here as Pastor.  It will be to share a journey with you, to seek insights, to ask questions, to offer possibilities, to share, to care, to laugh, and to learn but, NEVER, EVER, to agree with myself.  I will not be the preacher but instead a questioner and I hope never to be sure of myself or to forget to listen.  If the congregation comprises the leadership of our church, then the congregation is also the Pastor.  We will enlighten each other.  I facilitate but I will never dictate.  I will share the journey with you as we hope and pray to find the peace and the brief glimpses of divine truth we each seek.

I am more humbled than you can imagine – being here today.  To know that I want to be a Pastor is a long way from having the trust of so many people like all of you.  I’ve taken a lengthy path in my life – from spiritual indifference – to thinking I had found all the answers in a Christian God – to deep disappointment in that God and in many of those who follow him or her – to a happiness and contentment in finding the Gathering and a way to believe that is open, affirming and loving – to this step that we take here today.  All I can offer to you, is thank you and a promise to try and not let you down.

And this beginning of a journey leads me to what I want to discuss with you over the next four Sundays.  Today I begin a series entitled “Values that Define Us?” with a look at what makes this place and this congregation live up to its name – The Gathering.  Why are we truly a community of people that is unique and distinctive?  What principles and values define us as a group?  What animates our truth seeking and what is the spiritual force that binds us, gives us purpose and gives us trust that this place is worth preserving and supporting?

Next week I will look at those inner and personal values that each of us individually seek to acquire.  We seek self identity, honesty and truth.  We want to be self-aware of our own flaws and our own beauty.  How can we have more self-awareness?  How can we be true to ourselves, our beliefs and our values?  How can we be in honest but gentle communication with ourselves and with others?  How do we embark on an inner quest for meaning, spirituality and faith in a way that is honest and that gives us peace and joy?  I hope you will also indulge me in next week’s message as I also briefly let you know more about me, my path of greater self-awareness, my flaws and my need to continue the value of self-exploration.

For the third week in this series on values that define us, we will explore together those outreach values that motivate us to connect with the wider world.  What values compel us to give, to be involved, to share and to care?  Why are we politically and socially motivated instead of narcissistic and selfish?  How do we enhance these values, encourage them and move beyond good intent to effective action?  Are there goals to set for ourselves and our congregation to reach out even more?  What specific groups can we serve, do it well and not over-extend ourselves?  And, does helping others cause us to be more spiritual, or, instead, does that value reflect the fact that we are spiritual people?

Finally, on the fourth week, the congregation will deliver the message – at least a portion of it will.  Several members of the Gathering will each offer a five minute discussion on the values they see at play here and how issues that are important to them find a voice.  This will be a day to hear members discussing such Gathering values as being open and affirming, being politically and socially active, or being religiously inclusive.

It is my hope that at the conclusion of these four weeks we will have accomplished more then praising ourselves but we will have explored on a deeper spiritual level those ethics and beliefs that define who we are, where we have been and where we are going.  As much as this series can be a diagnosis of our present status, it can also motivate us further, inspire us to new ways of looking at our congregation and lead us towards goals and aspirations for our future.  And, I hope this is not my series of messages, but our collective dialogue about values that we together believe are important and spiritually nourishing.

To begin today’s message, the first part of this series, Stuart Blersch very kindly reminded me, and I completely agree!, that the unanimous vote for me as Pastor at the Gathering said nothing special about me personally – but it said a lot about this congregation!  At a time when we could have broken apart in fear, disagreement and rancor, this congregation acted with respect for one another, with a clear will to cooperate and with nobody wanting to dictate or dominate.  Indeed,  the congregation lived up to its finest traditions and values.  It is a place of horizontal leadership – all have equal voices and equal say.  There is no hierarchy, no committees and no grand poo-bahs to tell us how we should act.  Things get done here without ceremony or direct leadership – coffee gets made on Sundays, people are greeted, we reach out and help homeless families several times a year, teenagers without homes have a place to meet, weekly communion elements miraculously appear, our finances are managed and necessary funds are available, the founding Pastor leaves and a new one begins the very next week.  Things get done.  And why is this?  Why did you act, in the selection of a new Pastor, in a way that very few other congregations act – with cooperation and grace towards all members?  Are there spiritual values at work here that we do, indeed, practice?  How do we continue to promote them?

And yet, many psychologists and social theorists claim that the very opposite of what we observe at the Gathering really exists.  Writing in The Atlantic recently, Paul Bloom who is a well-known Yale University psychologist, claims that we are a species of competing selves.  While people can, in one moment, be kind and cooperative, they can also be nasty, brutish, competitive and self-absorbed.  Indeed, the history of most world religions is that of combating the supposed evil nature in mankind.  Christian theory holds that humans are born with evil propensity and that only through the redemptive death of Jesus Christ can we aspire to goodness.  In judaism, humans are also born evil but that each may, through a lifetime of obedience to God’s laws, be found righteous.  Islamic views are similar to Christian views and see humans as having the free will to defy their evil inclinations and follow the will of Allah which is found in the Koran and the five pillars of Islamic faith.   My question for us is, insofar as we each see virtue and cooperation in this place, why is that?  Thomas Jefferson could well have asked a similar question when he pondered: “If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist?  Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.” I do not necessarily propose that the Gathering is an Atheist congregation although atheists are valued and welcomed members here.  But Jefferson’s question is a pointed one to us and to our values.  We are not a traditional Christian church.  Why is this congregation not a place of competition, aggression and discord?  Why do we act, although not perfectly, in ways that approach the moral force I believe is inherent in humanity but is so often counteracted?

Modern economic theory takes a slightly different approach to the inherent nature of humans.  Most contemporary economies practice some form of belief that competition is good.  How else are innovations, increases in productivity and manufactured goods assembled then by old-fashioned self-interest?  Going contrary to what most people believe, such theory was famously stated by the Michael Douglas character in the 1980’s film “The Color of Money” when he declared “greed is good.”  In order to make money, drug companies invest millions to develop life-saving products.  Proctor and Gamble creates new forms of tooth paste that reduce cavities and gum disease.  Banks supposedly safeguard money and then put it to work by lending to individuals and businesses so they can in turn make money for themselves and those they hire.  People work and study and compete so that they can enjoy the fruits of their labor.  Competition, at least economically, does seem to be good.  And yet, as we know, when one company sells its brand of toothpaste, a competing company does not and so it loses.  And so do its employees.  And, as we have seen over the past year, greed and economic competition created vast amounts of wealth that helped too few people while many more ended up losing their homes and jobs.  Is competition good or bad or somewhere in between?  And, how does that apply to our values here at the Gathering?

In my last message to you back in August, I proposed that history is a long story of people coming together, realizing that competition, violence and aggression are zero-sum efforts where there are no winners.  This force at work, this moral imagination operating in human society, finds expression in people uniting to work together, to find common cause and to come alongside the outcast and the unloved to act as one.  As I said then, Robert Wright in his book the Evolution of God claims that the force that enervates us is a moral imagination that directs us toward cooperation instead of competition.  I proposed then, as I do now, that this is a spiritual force that lies deep within the human heart.  Whether such is a result of evolutionary forces that allow for our survival – and could exist in any other species – or is a more mystical imperative that is uniquely human, I do not know. I ask for your help with this question.

Historically, we see moral imagination at work as people cooperated to form tribes and villages and nations so that together they could be greater than they were in smaller units.  We have fought countless wars and competed for scarce resources but each time, perhaps over many years, people would nevertheless recognize that violence and competition hurts everyone.  Human progress has come about despite our baser instincts to look out only for ourselves.  We as a species look for ways to be peaceful, to cooperate, to accept one another as they are, and to find solutions together instead of apart.

And, despite religious philosophy that believes mankind is inherently evil,  we nevertheless see cooperation at work in human spiritual history.  Jesus formed a close-knit community of cooperation in order to renounce the ethic of self-interest and individualism.  His parables are full of examples suggesting cooperation, selflessness and equality for all people – stories such as the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the vineyard workers who were to each receive equal pay despite unequal work.  He challenged Peter and others of his followers in their desire to be pre-eminent.  He bluntly told them that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Instead of listening to the religious elites of his time and conforming to the predominant ways of religious expression, he challenged Sabbath rules, dietary laws and views on who is clean or unclean.  In one poignant episode, he reaches out and physically touches lepers – the AIDS victims of his day – the people who were shunned and excluded because they were seen as unclean and punished by god.  He dined with thieves and prostitutes and he pointedly included women in his community of disciples at a time when females were considered of less value then male slaves and whose testimony was not allowed in courts of law.  In his little band of followers, there was no competition and, instead, an ethic of unity, sharing, peaceful cooperation, informality and celebration of diversity.

Paul, in his many letters contained within the New Testament, celebrated the small groups of early Christians who came together to form home churches.  His letters to the home churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, Philippi, Rome, Colossae and elsewhere suggest that early Christianity was not built with a rigid hierarchy.  Women, slaves and children were all included and this was directly counter to the standards of the time when such people were all outcasts.  Paul urged the small groups of first Christians to cooperate and to live out the ethic of genuine care and harmony with one another.  We are all one body, one group working together in tandem.  In one of his most famous passages, Paul exhorts the home churches in Corinth by saying:

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.  If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

And these are not just Christian values.  In Mohatmas Gandhi’s communal Ashrams or cooperative villages, people were urged to live non-competitively.  People were to live equally and share all forms of work. There was not man’s work or women’s work.  Everyone was to do the most menial and the most exalted of tasks.  Everybody was to share in the worst of tasks – the cleaning of communal toilets.  Gandhi also hated mere tolerance and claimed it is just a way to appease one’s conscience.  He urged, instead, that people within the Ashram openly accept, embrace and celebrate one another and not just tolerate them – no matter how different, poor, or odd they are.  Benefits were to be shared and not hoarded by a few.  All religions and all scriptures were accepted in the Ashram.  Indeed, Gandhi himself said “I am a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew.”

Buddhists live much the same way and, indeed, the highest grouping in Buddhism are the Temple priests who lead lives of communal sharing, peaceful cooperation and empathy for the pain of others.  They too claim to be on a journey where principles of cooperation and love are not instantly acquired but evolve over a lifetime of introspection, meditation and prayer.

Islamic mysticism is also focused on a divine power within us.  Islam is amazingly diverse and accepting of other faiths.  Rumi, the foremost Islamic sufi thinker, believed that each person has a soul that is derived from the same source.  He wrote: “We’re all Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  No matter our race or creed, our hearts are formed the same; it’s just that every day we see through a different mental frame.”

In regard to the importance of community and togetherness, Rumi said: “God is not found in places high or low, nor on the earth nor in the sky will you find his home.  The divine is found in the hearts of faithful servants, if you seek God, then seek in these hearts.”

And, in an echo of what the Bible’s Paul said about love, Rumi the Islamic mystic wrote: “Love is unruly, though logic is not.  Logic always tries to make a profit.  Love is wild from the start and burns itself out without hesitation.  When in trouble, love moves forward like a great millstone, firm and purposeful.  It snuffs out all sense of self-interest.  It gambles everything away, never seeking any reward, even as it gains purity in exchange from god.  The sign of true devotion is to give without cause.  This kind of gamble transcends the teachings of every religion.”

At the root of every form of spirituality, we find the ethic of moral imagination – of cooperative giving and love.  There is no competition, hierarchy or formal ritual.  We see in it, too, a love of diversity and an open celebration of the outcast.  We find non-violence, a lack of aggression, less self-interest and a greater desire to learn.  This moral imagination sees life as a choice to get ahead alone or to join others in seeking prosperity and health for all.  I emphatically see all of that at work here in the Gathering.  I see it as one of our principle values and, as I said earlier, I saw it lived out in the amazing way the congregation moved peacefully, cooperatively and honestly through our recent time of uncertainty and change.  You stood firm in your convictions and your distinctive identity and chose a path of unity.  You showed genuine interest in the thoughts and concerns of each member and you showed a genuine humility – nobody sought their own way and nobody sought the mantle of leadership above everyone else.  In the end, the process  was truly not about me or any other option available to the congregation.  It was about you, about this place, this group of people who practice what they preach.  We are a family, a unique and different place that finds truth and strength in our informality, our lack of a leadership, our lack of rigidity, our lack of committees and our firm belief that we are not perfect and we do not understand all things but we do know that we want to celebrate and inspire one another.  While my opinion is just one among many, I submit to you that we are distinctive because we are a place of cooperative interaction with one another – practitioners of the moral imagination as we seek ways to get along, to love, to serve and to learn, not alone and not in factions but in common bond.

Are cooperation, informality and full equality of all members values that define the Gathering?  How do we not take pride in such values but continue to work vigorously to practice them? Where are we still imperfect and need to refocus?  How do we apply these cooperative values and make them work in the outside world?   I hope you will respond with your thoughts to these questions and others.  For me, this is a wonderful place – a church I walked into about three years ago – disillusioned that any church could love and celebrate me as a gay man, that any church could avoid the politics and factions and fights that go on in so many other places, that any church could struggle and search for truth without claiming to own it or fully know it, that any church could truly live out the ethic of moral imagination that peaceful cooperation is better then aggressive individualism.  I found that here.  If I do anything over the coming year, it will be to get out of the way and let each of you, together, take your journey of truth seeking as one body, united in love.

Peace and joy to each of you…