Message 106, Renewing Gathering Vows, Reaching Inward and Outward, 9-9-12

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

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Several years ago, back when gas station attendants came out to your car and pumped the gas for you, a Pastor stopped at a station to fill his car up.  After stopping his car, he waited and waited for someone to show up.  His was the only car at the station.  Eventually, a young attendant came out to the car.  The Pastor noted disapprovingly that the attendant  had long, greasy hair, his face was covered with acne, his clothes were dirty and loose fitting and he very haltingly and slowly asked “May I help you sir?”

After being told the grade of gas desired, it took a long time for the attendant to figure out the correct pump to use, how to open the car fuel cover and then actually pump the gas.  The Pastor rolled his eyes as he handed the attendant his credit card.  It then took a very long time for the young man to return and stammer out that they did not take that brand of credit card.  After being given a different card, the attendant again took a long time back in the station office.  He reported back with fear in his eyes that this card also could not be used.  Exasperated, the Pastor sneered sarcastically, asking if they accepted cash.  He handed the young man two twenty dollar bills.  Once again, the attendant took a very long time to return with change and then counted it out slowly.  By this time, the Pastor was fuming.  He angrily snatched the change away, got in his car, screeched his tires to drive away and then backed his car back and forth several times over the sensor hose that rang a “ding-ding” in the station office before speeding off.

A few miles away, the Pastor realized what a jerk he had been to the young man.  He turned around and went back to the station where he apologized to the attendant for his behavior.  The young man slowly and haltingly replied.  “That’s OK, mister.  Everybody treats me that way.”

Like all of you, this story saddens and upsets me.  How many people are treated so poorly because of their perceived appearance, level of intelligence or abilities?  I imagine stories like this happen all the time and even in many churches.

I recall that at a lunch held at my last church for its Pastors, congregation leaders gave us each a personalized thank you card.  This was in appreciation for our work over the past year.  My card from the church leaders, however, came with a biting edge to it.

I was the Pastor in charge of Pastoral Care – the one who saw to the needs of hurting members.  Besides visiting the sick in hospitals and nursing homes, and performing many funeral services, I had several meetings a day with distressed, depressed or somewhat dysfunctional people.  Some of the more frequent members I cared for were perhaps like the young gas station attendant – for whatever reason in need of a listening ear, a kind smile, an encouraging word, a prayer or just a friendly presence.  I became jokingly but derisively known as Pastor to the oddballs.  And the card I was given at that Christmas party thanked me for ministering to all of the “fruits and nuts” in the congregation.  I did the so-called dirty Pastoral work nobody else wanted.

While that card was intended as a joke, its message has stuck with me.  I believe that every person, in some way, might be called a fruit or a nut.  We each have our idiosyncrasies.   As we discussed last week, that is one of the hallmarks of the Gathering as a faith community: we embrace and celebrate everyone for the diversity they add.  But the implicit message I got from that thank you card was that not everyone was worthy of receiving attention, love and respect.  Only the so-called beautiful people or normal appearing people need apply.

I have told many of you that after I left my hospital administration work over twelve years ago, I felt like I finally found my calling in life – to be a Pastor.  It is a role that fulfills me and makes me happy.  I feel enormously blessed to work here at the Gathering.  Everybody should be so lucky to work at what they love doing.

While I am no more special than any of you in my ability to care or not care for others, I know that I do empathize and identify with those on the margins of life.  That’s because I consider myself a bit of an oddball.  I grew up a privileged white boy, but I was usually on the outside of what many consider the “in crowd.”  I was quiet, studious, a non-jock and, frankly, somewhat nerdy.  For most of my adult life, I was a closeted gay man trying to suppress who I am.  I’ve lived my life feeling like I’m not normal.

And that feeling in me led me to my role as a Pastor.  I enjoy doing my part to care for and listen to the supposed misfits in life – those who are, in truth, every living person.  As an avowed misfit myself, I identify with the hurts, feelings, struggles and passions of others.  We each need the company and ministry of friends, family and our faith communities to reach out to us, to tell us we’re special, to encourage us, to listen, to hold our hands when we’re afraid, sick or simply challenged by life.

And that ethic of reaching out to others is one of the vows we each implicitly take when we join the Gathering.  In this September series on renewing our Gathering vows, we discussed last week how we will continue to accept and celebrate everyone and anyone – no matter how different.  And next week we’ll consider how our Progressive spiritual values in faith and actions also inform who we are.

But today, we renew our vow that the Gathering will continue to be a church defined not just by what we believe, but by what we do.  We don’t just say we love others.  We work to actually show it.  We will be a community that cares.  We will be a spiritual community that walks its talk – where every member is involved in some significant way in reaching out.  Indeed, few of us attended here for very long before we felt a desire to give back some of the attention and care we have been shown.  Hopefully, we practice the dual ideals that every member will be cared for, and every member will herself or himself be a caregiver.

Writing in the year 120 CE, the Greek historian Lucian noted about the early Christian community, “It is incredible to see the fervor with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants and needs.  They spare nothing.  Their first legislator (Jesus) put into their heads that they are all brothers and sisters.”  Such attitudes by early Christians is one reason why that faith exploded in popularity and membership – becoming by 300 CE the official religion of the entire Roman Empire.  Early churches met in homes – many of which were communal residences where members lived together.  Meals were cooked and eaten together.  Resources were shared and those in need were assisted and loved.  Unlike the cruel and often indifferent Roman culture, Christians treated one another as beloved family members.

Sadly, many Christian churches and places of worship no longer live up to that model.  Today, a primary reason why people look for a new church is to find one where members truly care for one another.  It disheartens me every time I hear about a church or faith community mistreating or bullying one of its members or even its Pastor – often for petty or heartless reasons.  Witnessing such cruelty, is it any wonder why the unchurched often say they want to have no part of a faith community?

In his Biblical letter to the house churches at Corinth, which he founded, Paul strongly but lovingly challenged its members for their non-Jesus like behaviors.  Many members had segregated themselves into exclusive small groups and ignored new members and those who believed differently.  Some members, for religious reasons, refused to eat food sacrificed to pagan idols.  Those who considered themselves more enlightened scorned such beliefs as misguided.  They openly flaunted eating such food in front of those who were opposed.  Paul did not say they were wrong to believe that all food is ok to eat, but he challenged their lack of empathy, their haughty attitudes and their lack of sensitivity to fellow church members.  Show each other love and understanding he implored.

Others in the Corinthian church claimed to be spiritually superior because they could speak in tongues – an unknown spiritual language.  Those who did not were seen as inferior Christians.  Even worse, church services were chaotic affairs with multiple members all speaking strange words that nobody else could understand.  Extravagant and expensive church meals were also held that essentially excluded those who could not afford such a luxury.

Paul condemned the Corinthian church for being so divided and so uncaring.  That is why he wrote his famous First Corinthians, chapter 13 verses on love.  He wrote:

“What if I could speak all languages of humans and of angels?  If I did not love others, I would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  What if I could prophesy and understand all secrets and all knowledge?  And what if I had faith that moved mountains?  I would be nothing, unless I loved others.  What if I gave away all that I owned and let myself be burned alive?  I would gain nothing,  unless I loved others.  Love is kind and patient, never jealous, boastful, proud, or rude.  Love isn’t selfish or quick tempered.  It doesn’t keep a record of wrongs that others do.  Love rejoices in the truth, but not in evil.  Love is always supportive, loyal, hopeful, and trusting.  Love never fails.”

Implicit in Paul’s words is the notion that a church or person might believe and speak all of kinds of great and wonderful things, but unless they truly ACT with love and care, to each other and to the outside world, they are spiritually WORTHLESS.  They are as good as dead.  Those who claim to be spiritual, who claim to seek the best for humanity, who claim to actually be loving people, they must walk their talk.  Paul’s advice to the Corinthians is beautiful poetry that perfectly expresses the ideals of Jesus.  They capture how Jesus lived his life.  And they express how any faith community and any person, Christian or not, should act.

Caring faith communities are attuned to the needs of fellow members.  It is not just the job of the Pastor or a few volunteers to serve hurting members.  People pastor one another – asking them how they are doing, taking the time getting to know them, inviting them into their lives and their homes, and spending time listening to the hopes, dreams, fears and pain of one another.  Caring people and organizations are unafraid of, and non-judgemental toward, the so-called oddball.  Every person is valued, every person is made to feel loved, every person is a vital part of the whole.  Caring faith communities do not simply say they support social justice.  They actively do the work to build it.

For the Gathering, just as we play an important role as a radically inclusive community – a witness to the wider world of celebration for everyone and anyone, so too are we an important example in how we care.  As a Progressive church, some might assume we are focused more on what we believe than on what we do.  Many major studies on the demographics of giving indicate that people of conservative faith give more and are more likely to be charitable than those who are secular or liberal in faith.  Religiously conservative people, data shows, are more likely to give generously to charity and more likely to volunteer for civic organizations, programs to help the poor, the elderly, and local schools.

One startling analysis shows that of the 10 most generous states in the nation, according to IRS statistics on charitable giving, 8 of them voted Republican in 2008.  Of the ten least charitable states, nine of them voted Democratic.

While these studies do not account for the amount of giving to religious organizations versus giving to non-religious charitable groups, the perception remains that progressives only want to give away other people’s money – not their own.  While this may, in some instances be true, such a stereotype is just as pernicious and wrong as saying all conservatives are greedy and heartless.  We must move beyond such labels and consider the intrinsic values of any faith group or any individual.  The Gathering serves a vital function in proving such stereotypes wrong.  We are a progressive AND a caring faith community.

As members of the Gathering, we each vow to serve in some way the charitable outreach efforts we support.  We vow to live peaceably with one another, to speak with kindness, listen with empathy, check our egos at the door and reach out to someone in here with meaningful friendship, love and concern.  We vow, as we are each able, to give to the work of this place.  We give our trust, our time and our resources to this congregation which is more than a place or a collection of people – it is an idea, an idea!  that deeds of service are important, that every human is worthy of respect, and that showing love to others covers a multitude of imperfections.

This congregation believes in the fundamental calling we as humans must fulfill.  Yes, we may enjoy the delights granted us – of beauty, love, family, friends and good times.  But in our hearts and in our souls is the impulse to give back.  It is the call to love our neighbors as we too wish to be loved.  It is the yearning to serve a higher life purpose than mere self-gain.  It is the kinship we feel for those often on the margins of society – gays and lesbians, racial minorities, immigrants, the poor, the sick, the physically or mentally challenged, the ones without hope.  It is the heart that breaks when we see a hungry or homeless child; it is the tears we weep when a friend suffers; it is the gratitude we feel for the blessings of life.   Such are the values on which the Gathering was founded and will continue to practice.  We exist to serve and to care.

We extend our hands of friendship inward to fellow congregation sisters and brothers.  We offer our serving hands outward to our community.  To this we renew our pledge: Our numbers might be small and our resources might be limited, but our hearts will be as large as our purpose and together we will leave a lasting legacy that this place, this idea called the Gathering, will make a difference.