Message 107, “Renewing Gathering Vows: Leaning Forward in Faith”, 9-16-12

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


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“The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson, is one of the most famous and heralded of American short stories.  While it is entirely fiction, the story details in unsettling ways the human propensity to fear change and to embrace traditions no matter how wrong or outdated.   Some of you may have read the story.  If not, I encourage you to read it in its entirety online or view a rendition of it on YouTube.  I will paraphrase a shortened version here.

The story opens by describing a small town of three hundred people.  It is early summer – June 27th to be exact.  School has just ended, crops have been planted for several weeks and the long summer is at its infancy.  On what seems a bright and hopeful summer day, there is nevertheless palpable tension in the air.

People begin to gather in the village square at 10 AM.   The annual lottery will be held and the whole village attends – apparently by choice.  It takes two hours to conduct and is held every year on same date.  Boys arrive first and each then goes in search of stones and rocks which are placed in small piles around the square perimeter.  Next, other children begin to arrive, but their play is tentative.  The women come next and assemble in small groups to whisper quietly about family, church or other bits of gossip.  Finally, the men and other heads of family arrive and mill around, talking about their farms and hopes for a good harvest.

Mr. Summers, the village Postmaster and leader of the lottery, announces its beginning.   Families quickly gather together – moms and dads sharply beckon their children to stand by their sides.  The crowd of three hundred is hushed – only the sound of birds and the wind is heard.

A few men carry into the center of the square a large black box.  It is scratched and chipped and every year people say it needs to be replaced.  But, year after year, nobody does anything to make a new one.  Old man Warner, the oldest resident of the village, says it cannot not be changed – the box is made of scraps of wood from the original box dating back hundreds of years, he reports.  While old and shabby, it is clear that villagers look at the box with a mixture of awe and fear.

Mr. Summers sticks his hand into the box and stirs its contents – folded bits of white paper.  It was only a few years ago that paper replaced wood chips.  Paper is more compact and can be stirred in the box more easily.  He then asks heads of households – mostly men – to come forward to pull out of the box one piece of folded paper.  Nobody is allowed to unfold their paper until everyone has picked.  Since there are several families whose men have died young, a few women come forward to pick for their families.

During the selection, a few women talk to one another about how the North Village – a town only a few miles away – had stopped the annual lottery – all in the name of progress, one woman said.  Another village further away also ended the lottery.  They seem happy another woman noted.  Mr. Warner, the old man, quickly speaks up and says the North Village is full of young fools.  “Nothing good will come from abolishing the lottery,” he says.  “It’s been done for hundreds of years.”  Others nod in agreement.

After all heads of family have chosen a folded paper, Mr. Summers announces they can be opened.  Very quickly, several women speak at once.  “Who has the paper with the black dot on it?”  People look around expectantly and most smile with relief.

Finally, it’s revealed that one of the men, Bill Hutchinson, has the piece of paper with a black dot on it.  His wife, one who had just nodded in agreement that the lottery must not be changed, speaks up.  “It’s not fair!” she says.  “My husband Bill was forced to rush in choosing his paper.  He wasn’t given time like everyone else to choose which paper to pull out.  It’s not right!”

Mr. Summers says that Bill had been given the same time as everyone else.  Others quickly agree.  Bill tells his wife to be quiet.

Mr. Summers then asks Bill how many are in his family – to account for all of his children and the few cousins living in the house.  There are ten of them.

Ten pieces of paper are placed in the box, one with a black dot on it.  Each family member solemnly goes forward to pick one out of the box.  The kids go first and as each does, they excitedly hold up a blank piece.  Bill finally chooses but his wife refuses.  “This is just wrong.” she says.  “It wasn’t conducted fair.”  Most in the crowd frown and shake their heads.  Bill takes her by the hand and forces her to pick the final piece.  Bill opens his paper and it is blank.  Mrs. Hutchinson has the one with a black dot.

“Ok.”  Mr. Summers announces.  “Let’s finish this quickly.”  People begin picking up stones.  Several of the women grab very large rocks – some so heavy they can barely lift them.  The men chose ones that are sharp edged.  A suitable stone was given to each of the Hutchison children.

“This is not right!”  Mrs. Hutchison yells.   The crowd quickly encircles her in the center of the square.  One small stone comes out of nowhere and hits her on the side of the head.   “No!” she screams.  But the villagers press in upon her as the stones begin to fly……….

What is troubling about the story is its depiction of crowd dynamics.  People often seem forced, by peer pressure, to go along with what others express.  Another clear theme of the story is the power of tradition.  People like to do things the way they have always been done.  Indeed, the story does not describe why this lottery, that nobody wants to win, is held every year.  The reason does not seem to matter as much as the tradition itself.  And the fact that other villages had abolished it only causes more ridicule of any idea to change its practice.  Only the foolish and the young, it seems, pursue change.

There is an obvious message in the story.  Traditions, rituals and time honored beliefs hold strong and often evil powers over people.  Too often we do not like change and we do all we can to avoid it.  We fear the unknown and what that might mean for us as individuals or as groups.  We don’t change old habits – even if we know some of them hurt us – negative ways of thinking, acting, eating or speaking.  The patterns of our lives, even harmless ones, become set and then become too comfortable.  We like things the way they are.

Louis L’Amour, the great fiction writer of western themed novels, wrote in one of his books, “Even those who fancy themselves the most progressive will fight against other kinds of progress, for each of us is convinced that our way is the best way.”

Two weeks ago, I reminded us of our Gathering motto – that we are a “Progressive and Inclusive” church.  We explored in that message what it means to be inclusive and how we will continue to be a radically inclusive church – one that chooses to love and celebrate others no matter how different.  As Don Fritz pointed out last week, we may not particularly like or agree with everyone, but we will love and respect them.

For today, I want to explore with you what it means to be a “progressive” faith community.  I want to discuss how we renew our vow to be a progressive congregation.  Like many labels, the word progressive has taken on many meanings.  For some, it is a generic phrase that simply means “liberal.”   But we are not a political organization.  Indeed, as a tax exempt church, the Gathering is legally barred from expressing political views about candidates, parties or how to vote.  As your Pastor, I want to insure that we scrupulously adhere to the law and to what is ethical.  We are a spiritual community – not a political one.

But our claim to be progressive does not apply to our politics.  It applies to our spirituality, our values and the way we will practice them.  To be a progressive is to accept the world as dynamic and ever changing.  Spiritual progressives believe the same.   They see faith, spirituality and its practice as constantly evolving.  Those of progressive faith do not accept ancient religious doctrines or practices as hard fact. They see the world as it is now and reinterpret universal truths – religious or otherwise – in light of new times and new circumstances.

Two thousand years ago, when the Bible was written, most people believed that some humans could be owned and held in bondage to serve the needs of others.  The New Testament commands slaves to obey their masters.  As human society evolved, as new ideas about universal human rights were developed, slavery was no longer seen as common practice – one that even spiritual people accepted.  Instead of being endorsed by religion, slavery was reinterpreted as a grave sin.

So too with gender equality.  Paul commanded that women obey their husbands, that they should wear head coverings to show their submission and even ordered that in decent Christian communities, no woman should have authority over any male aged 13 or up – in church or in a home.  Such paternalistic ideas were a part of many religions at the time – and some still hold them.  For most people today, however, such ancient commands conflict with a new spiritual understanding of human equality.  Indeed, even in some conservative churches and synagogues today, ones that profess to believe in the absolute authority of the Bible, those Biblical verses are no longer followed as women are now equal members and are given leadership positions, including that of being a Pastor.

To be a member of a progressive spiritual community is to believe that ancient traditions, practices and Scriptures evolve over time.  Religious scholars call this “progressive revelation.”  Spiritual ethics and principles reveal themselves to humanity over time.  Indeed, this is a way to interpret the Bible, other scriptures and any written document.  What we discover from ancient texts are ideals revealed to us now in ways that were not apparent to the ancients or even to people a few hundred years ago.  Those people were not necessarily any more good or bad in their beliefs.  They simply operated under a different set of values consistent with their time and place.

Many interpreters of the Bible today find in that text an overall ethic of love and acceptance for all people – ideals that reveal to many people of today that god also loves gays, lesbians and transsexuals.  To be a progressive in faith is be open to such an interpretation of religious scripture.  To be a progressive in faith is to read and understand ancient texts in a new light, using new scientific discoveries and new wisdom.  The ancients, for instance, did not have a modern, scientific understanding of the human psyche and how sexuality is genetically determined, or at a very, very early stage of life.  Nor did they understand the cause of most diseases and handicaps.  Such afflictions were a sign of God’s displeasure and people who suffered from them were to be avoided as sinful or evil.

For us at the Gathering, if we accept and truly believe our motto – that we are a progressive church – then we must continue our effort to live up to that ideal.  We are open to progress.  We refuse to be rigid in our beliefs, practices, values and ways of doing things.  This does not mean we abandon old ways for the sake of the new.  Progressives build upon the past – not replacing it but adding to it.   They add new practices and new beliefs to time tested and valuable old ones – while accepting that very few things are forever.

Indeed, evolution is gradual and rarely sudden.  Change occurs over time and always improves upon the old.  It is usually rational, orderly and sequential.  It took centuries of philosophy and deep thought for humanity to evolve the rights of individuals – to move from the rights of Kings and nobles to the rights of serfs, farmers and laborers; to move from the rights of men to the equality of both genders; to then advance the cause of all races, faiths and ethnicities and, soon, to the right for any man or woman to love and marry whomever one chooses.

At each stage of human equality, however, were people who feared change and who sincerely sought to hold onto the ways of the past.  Progressives of each succeeding era embraced change, advocated for it and worked to implement it.  We at the Gathering are spiritual progressives working in our day and time to create change for the better – and to reject fear based injustice.

We do not accept that old ways of religion, belief and spiritual practice are unchanging.  We look to new ways to build upon the faith of our ancestors – to take their principles of divine love, generosity, decency, integrity, beauty, and compassion and build upon them.  We adapt them to the pressing needs of today.  We lean forward in faith.

In practical terms, I believe the Gathering must be rigorously progressive in ALL that it does.  How we conduct our services, our music, our prayers, and how we serve others must be continually examined and questioned.  Do they meet the needs not only of current members but of potential new members?  Are we willing to show our love to others and their diverse tastes by our willingness to adopt changed ways of doing things?

For us as a congregation and us as individuals, we know what we like and we know our core values.  We need not abandon them.  But, we are also willing to EVOLVE!  We are willing to build upon the good we have now and create something deeper, better and more meaningful – in music, in messages, in serving, in all that we do.

Countless philosophers and statesmen have opined on this subject.  Winston Churchill said that, “To change is to improve.  To be perfect is to change often.”  Machiavelli, the renaissance author of The Prince, wrote that “Whosover desires success must change his or her conduct with the times.”  And Dwight Eisenhower, the twentieth century Republican, said “Neither a wise person nor a brave soul lies down on the tracks of history and waits for the train of the future to run over him or her.

We at the Gathering, therefore, will continue to be bold in our faith and how we live that out.  We renounce the status quo and confess that we are still a work in progress.  We renew our vow to be progressive.  We renew our vow to be bold visionaries.

It took a bold vision, for instance, to defy our seven year history of not holding a rummage sale – as minor of an example as that is.  It took boldness to challenge my expressed fears that a such an effort might fail and that we, as a group, would merely accumulate the collective discards of each other.  It took the bold vision of one man to propose the idea and then organize it.

It took the bold vision of one man to suggest a music concert as a fundraiser and then do the work to organize two of them.  It took one bold woman to suggest three years ago that this church was not doing enough to serve our community and then work with others to expand what we do.  It took the bold vision of one or two to think we could compete for a substantial grant to broaden our outreach to the homeless.  It takes visionaries to suggest new music, to pray new prayers, to organize new projects and to suggest new opportunities for our church space and location.  In here, we value visionaries and those who undertake to carry out evolutionary change.  Our congregation improves and is stronger as a result.

As we renew our Gathering vows this month, to be an inclusive congregation, to be a community that cares for its own and for others, and to be progressive in our faith, we insure our foundation is strong.  On that foundation, we will dream of unknown members yet to join our ranks, of new efforts to serve, and of increasingly meaningful ways to conduct our services.  As progressives, we know that change is inevitable and so we seek positive change that builds upon our past.  We acknowledge our need to grow in numbers.  We will continue to find new ways to tell others about the Gathering.  The Gathering is too special of a place not to be shared.  We envision the possibility of a new church home – not to have new space, but to enable us to further our work. We dream of new projects to serve the homeless and new ways to learn and grow.  For each of us, no matter our state in life, we know this is a place of vitality and action – we move forward, never backward – as we join spiritual progressives everywhere in advancing the universal human condition.

I wish you much peace and even more joy.