Message 105, Renewing Gathering Vows: Everyone and Anyone, 9-2-12

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, All Rights Reserved


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During the four centuries just prior to Jesus’ birth, Judaism split into a number of different groups each professing to follow the true religion.  By the time Jesus was born, these interpretations of Jewish faith created a mix such that the different groups separated from and even despised the others.  One such group, the Samaritans, centered their worship around Mount Gerazim in central Israel – where they believed God really lived.  This was not just different practice from what most Jews believed, it was considered total heresy.  God had resided on Mount Moriah – or Jerusalem – for centuries, since the days of King David, and her very embodiment dwelt in the large and ornate Temple built on its summit.

Since the Samaritans centered their worship outside of Jerusalem, they also mixed and intermarried with non-Jewish populations.  Samaritans were seen as impure, false Jews and were even derisively called half-breeds.  To the many other traditional variations of Jews, Samaritans were considered worse than gentiles or non-Jews.  They had abandoned the true faith.   While it seems odd to us who consider a Samaritan to be a good person, to most Jews of Jesus’ day, they were low life scum.

Jesus’ teachings about tolerance toward others who are different are not only remarkable for his time, they have lasting value because they speak to a universal spiritual truth.  His parable of the Good Samaritan is not just a simple message about caring for those who hurt.  It is primarily about inclusion, sensitivity and a strong rebuke to those who adopt superior, arrogant or haughty attitudes towards others who believe or act differently.

It was a Samaritan man who showed compassion and love for a wounded and near dead traveler he found along the side of a road.  A Jewish Priest from the Jerusalem Temple – a Pharisee – had instead walked by the suffering traveler, ignoring him completely.  The Priest was so blinded by his beliefs not to touch anyone who might be ritually unclean, that he became cruel and callous.  An arrogant religious lawyer also from Jerusalem – a Levite –  passed by the traveler and he too ignored the man who was clearly in need of help.  But the Samaritan, this religious lowlife, was the one in Jesus’ story who stopped to help, carried the man to an Inn and paid for his stay so he could recover.  He faced the same issues of ritual uncleanliness as the other Jews but he was the one who practiced the true love of God.  We can only imagine the shock and anger most Jews felt when Jesus told his parable – he was severely condemning their fundamentalist, uncaring and exclusivist attitudes.  A Samaritan may well be a better person than you, he implied.

Later on, Jesus stopped on his travels to drink at a well in the middle of Samaria.  Nearly all Jews of his day would have taken a long detour just to avoid Samaritan lands.  But Jesus was not one to exclude others.  At the well, Jesus spoke at length with a Samaritan woman about her spiritual well-being.  She was finding love in all the wrong places.  Jesus’ willingness to meet, speak to and show concern for a Samaritan woman was scandalous.  Jewish men never spoke to women they did not know and rarely spoke to any women – they were not worthy of a man’s time or alleged intelligence.  And to speak with a Samaritan woman was even more shocking.

By his stories and his actions, Jesus openly defied predominant Jewish standards. He was a religious and spiritual radical who openly defied centuries old traditions as he revolutionized ideals about what compassion and love should be.  His friendship with prostitutes, tax collectors, criminals, women, lepers, the sick, the mentally and physically challenged, working class men and women, the poor and religious outlaws is legendary.  He lived a life of being inclusive to everyone he met – sharing his friendship, his concern and his attention.  As he said, the real heart of the Divine is a source of spiritual love for all people and, most especially, for the marginalized.  Nobody, in his view, should be treated poorly and with disrespect.

But Jesus is not the only prophet to have practiced such ways.  It is told that Muhammad, after debating a group of Christians about theology, offered them use of his mosque in which to pray and worship.  When questioned about this by his followers, Muhammad replied that just because Muslim and Christian traditions and beliefs were different, that did not mean they should not show respect and hospitality to each other.

Gandhi was a lifelong Hindu but he taught that Muslims and Christians should not only be treated well by the majority Hindu population but they should be included and welcomed within the new nation of India.  One of his laments was to see greater India divided into two nations – a Muslim Pakistan and a predominantly Hindu India.  Inclusion of all people and all faiths was not just an ideal to talk about.  It must be practiced.

When this faith community, the Gathering, was founded out of the ashes of religious fundamentalist discrimination toward gays, lesbians and those who supported them, a motto was appended to our name.  We are a “Progressive and Inclusive Church.”  Such a statement, consistent with the actions of Jesus, Muhammad, Gandhi and many others, was intended to identify this faith community as one that will work at the vanguard of full inclusion of everyone and anyone.  In that regard, this will be a radical church.

While our motto was originally intended to express inclusion of gays and lesbians, we have since recognized it extends to all.  Indeed, I like to tell and even shock others that our Progressive Christian congregation enjoys the company of members who are Atheist and Buddhist.  Such people are not just tolerated.  They are fully included and celebrated for the diversity and knowledge they bring.   Indeed, I am a Christian apostate and skeptic myself – considered by some who send angry e-mails – to be guilty of grave sin for speaking heresy and helping to lead all of you astray.

My point in this September series on renewing Gathering vows is to remind us of our ideals in a way that insures they remain strong and vital.   Indeed, it is important for any person or organization to periodically rededicate themselves to living true to their values.  Otherwise, such stated values become stale and forgotten.  For the Gathering to remain relevant to the spirit of its origins, and thus be an alternative faith community, it must continue to be inclusive, as we will discuss today.  Second, and up for consideration next Sunday, it must both meet the needs of its members by reaching inward with care, while it is outwardly focused on serving the community and wider world.  Finally, to be discussed in two weeks, the Gathering must be a Progressive spiritual community not in the political sense but in the marketplace of faith, values and outlook to the future.  We do not rest on tradition and tired dogma.  We embrace progress in ourselves, our practices and our beliefs.  To borrow a motto from a cable TV network, we lean forward in faith and to the future.

It is said that humans often seek to exclude others based on two inherent attitudes.  First, we often see the characteristics and beliefs of others who are different as sinister shadows of ourselves.  In someone who is different, we can discern beliefs or actions that are an inward and unwanted part of ourselves.  For whatever reason, we find such beliefs unacceptable in ourselves and thus unacceptable in others.  We exclude different people from our company so they do not remind us of our shadow selves.  Homophobia is a classic example of this.  Those who hate gays are often hating homosexual tendencies in themselves.

Second, we often exclude others because they challenge our sense of self.  If I lack basic humility, I will assume I am totally correct in my beliefs and anyone who believes or acts differently not only is wrong but is a threat to my sense of superiority, value and being.

What people must do, experts say, is detach their sense of self from their beliefs.  Such detachment does not mean one abandons one’s beliefs.  It merely unties them from a sense of smug superiority.  Too often, we tend to become an embodiment of our beliefs – inhabiting them so strongly that if we or anyone else questions them, we risk losing our self-identity.  But our identity has more to do with how we lead our lives as opposed to what we believe.  That was the problem with the Jews of Jesus’ day – they believed more in their religion than they did in acting out the principles of that faith – to show the love of God.   Individual identity, therefore, must not be tied to the fact that we are a Christian, Democrat, Progressive, Jew, Tea Party member, American or any other belief based group.  Do we treat ourselves and others with humility, decency, love and respect?  That must be the basis for our identity.

Indeed, humanity has moved toward increasingly complex social orders as a way to improve life for everyone and thus love others.  This is moral imagination at work.  Through mutual cooperation, humanity has moved from small clans where the known world comprised twenty people or less, to tribes of a few hundred, to villages and cities of thousands, to nation-states of millions and now, currently, toward a global community of billions.  At each stage of social evolution, individuals and groups learned new ways to cooperate, care for one another, and include increasingly greater numbers of people within their common identity.

Currently, humanity is at another historic threshold.  We are moving to even greater inclusivity, acceptance and tolerance of the other based less on national, ethnic or religious beliefs than on universal human values of decency, respect and equality.  We are moving to a new era of global human identity that embraces the values of Jesus, Muhammad and Gandhi – we are learning to treat everyone, no matter how different they are, with greater respect.  National, ethnic and small group identity walls are slowly but surely breaking down as humanity evolves toward a global social awareness.  Humanity is only at the beginning of this trend and it will take hundreds of years to complete.  But technology and moral imagination are moving us to the next social frontier of ONE human family.

And the Gathering plays a vital role in this process.  Indeed, we have positioned ourselves at the leading edge of this trend.  Like Jesus nearly two-thousand years ago, we are spiritual rebels.  We defy traditional religious practice and do not limit inclusion into our midst only to those who think and believe as we do.  Indeed, that would be impossible since we are so diverse in our beliefs.  To echo a statement of the Burning Man group – one that holds annual celebrations of social inclusion – the Gathering believes in radical inclusion.  We welcome all strangers to our midst.  We have no prerequisites or standards of belief or practice necessary for inclusion as members in the Gathering, other than one’s acceptance of us.  No matter what one believes, he or she is welcome here as long as they adopt a similar respectful and inclusive attitude.  We do not measure or value one’s worth.  Everyone and anyone is valuable.

As a radically inclusive congregation, we are known by our respect for each other.  Everyone has equal access to resources and events.  We actively work to eliminate all forms of discrimination in here and in the world.  We engage all members in the decision making that affects the congregation.  We value diversity.  We respond quickly and with love to any sign of discrimination, hateful language or exclusion in our midst.

Inclusivity also extends beyond our willingness to welcome all others.  Our language and our speech are also radically inclusive.  We choose to refer to the Divine not just by gender neutral words but with pronouns and names that are gender affirming.  God is not just Father.  She is also mother.  In here, she can be entirely feminine – a force who might even appear female.  So too might Jesus be figuratively gay, black or a female.  He certainly lived a life that identified with such groups.  The god force we believe in is at its very essence an inclusive force for good.

Importantly, our spiritual inclusion also allows that the divine may not be a theistic being, but a force of nature or of love.  Indeed, God may not exist for some of us and the Gathering will not insist that she does.  Such openness invites accusations that we believe in everything and thus nothing.  That argument is a fallacy.  We do not just believe in radical inclusion.  It is simply who we are.  And that concept applies to our expression of God.  The god of your understanding is welcome and celebrated here.

Along with our inclusive spiritual language, we will try to speak the same toward created beings.  Humanity may dwell at the apex of power in the universe, but it is not at the apex of significance.  We are but one of a million different species in the wide and varied realm of creation.  However each person expresses appreciation for other created beings, we will be inclusive.  Vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, carnivore, animal rights activist or one who simply loves nature and animals – all are welcome.  We may not each agree in our beliefs on such matters, but we respect those of others while maintaining enough humility to acknowledge we may not individually  have all the answers.

And that will remain a primary part of our identity and a challenge for our future.  How can we walk our talk to be inclusive?  The very foundation of inclusion is a humble attitude.  We do not presume to be anointed ones with superior beliefs.  Indeed, we might all be very wrong.  This is not meek self doubt.  It is a strong and confident assertion that at the Gathering we are all still learning and nobody has access to absolute truth on any matter.

This admission of ours, that we might be wrong, is key.  We continue to search for what is true and good in the world while refusing to arrive at conclusive answers.  We value exploration and asking questions over steadfast dogma and doctrine.  If there is a God or god force that animates and controls the universe, who are we as flawed humans to presume we know absolute Truth?  Many will say God revealed herself to humanity in Scripture and thus we can know such Truth.  But equal to one group’s assertion that their revealed Scripture is true, is another group’s Scripture, or lack of Scripture, with the same claim.  Who is right and who is wrong?  We believe there are many pathways to God or Truth and all paths are respected in here.

On all matters, as members of this congregation and as individuals living and working in the outside world, our call is not to abandon our beliefs but to express them with humility, to acknowledge the possibility of error, to respect the beliefs of others and to be people of peace.  We yearn in all things – politics, lifestyles, and faith – to unite and never divide.  We have this beautiful idea, this place we call the Gathering, to help us practice this ideal of humility which is the foundation of being inclusive.  In here, we are each friends and people who support and celebrate one another no matter our differences.

My friends, I ask us each to imagine in our minds what heaven on earth might look like.  In such a vision, the Gathering can and will serve as an imperfect but beautiful model for an inclusive heaven on earth.  Such a place will be one of peace, empathy and celebration.  The well-off will serve and dine with the struggling, the drag queen will dance with the straight man, the women will speak loud and clear, the men will practice humility and sensitivity, the challenged will teach the capable, the strong will walk with the weak, the lonely and hurting will find a place of rest, the ones burdened with guilt or shame will find approval, and every member, every person will dedicate themselves to look outside these windows and serve a hurting world.  May we renew our vow to continue building such a wondrous vision open and welcoming to everyone and anyone.