(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reservedhand-447040_1280

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Many of you are aware that Time magazine recently selected Ebola healthcare workers for their Persons of the Year recognition.  The workers made headline news in 2014 both for their work and for the fact many also became victims of the disease.  They clearly deserve the respect Time’s designation offers.

The lives of most ebola caregivers are stories of danger, sacrifice and heartbreak that few of us can understand.  They volunteer from all over the world as they routinely work in conditions that would be unbearable for most.  The risk they face is huge:  the disease is easily transmitted through body fluids and the death rate often approaches 90%.  Workers must treat patients in protective suits that can only be worn about an hour at a time due to the stifling heat.  When they take off the suits, they face their greatest danger.  Any skin contact with the virus could result in their own death.  In a profession that calls for human touch and empathy, the workers can offer very little.  They are overwhelmed with the number of patients.  They experience a psychological toll of telling countless patients they have the deadly disease.  One ebola health care worker describes the work as like being at the front lines of a war and under continuous machine gun fire.

For this heroic work in terrible conditions, physicians with the Doctors Without Borders charity are paid $1731 a month.  Nurses make two-thirds that amount.  Native health workers in Liberia and Sierra Leone make much less – about $50 a week.

In the Time magazine article, Dr. Kent Brantley is quoted.  He worked at a Liberian hospital run by the Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse.  Dr. Brantley contracted the disease when he took off his protective face mask to console the daughter of an ebola patient.  He then became the first ebola patient treated in the US when he was airlifted home.  He survived and is now disease free. He told Time that he hopes to soon return to Africa to treat more ebola patients.  He said, “I chose a career in medicine because I wanted a tangible skill with which to serve people.  Deep in the core of my heart, I still think that’s my calling.  I don’t want to go on with life and forget this.”

Soon after he was evacuated home to be treated for ebola, Donald Trump went on a cable news channel to criticize our government for allowing Dr. Brantley, and thus ebola, into the country.  Trump sat in his penthouse office, a man who is reportedly worth over a billion dollars, and criticized efforts to save the life of a doctor who makes a little over $20,000 a year trying to end an epidemic that could spread across the planet – a man who feels called to put himself at great risk in order to serve others.  The contrast between these two men is stark – one a billionaire who makes money manipulating financial markets, and the other a relatively poor man who saves lives and perhaps much of humanity.  Who is richer?  Who is likely happier and more satisfied with life than the other?  Who is amassing the kind of wealth that cannot buy things but which provides lasting value to our world?  By purely monetary yardsticks, Donald Trump is exponentially richer.  By the yardstick of social wealth or, what I call purpose driven wealth, Dr. Kent Brantley has acquired a fortune.

And that is the subject of my message today.  Might we resolve in 2015 to better practice an uncommon New Year’s resolution – to focus on acquiring purpose driven wealth as much or more than we do on making financial wealth?

Social, or purpose driven wealth, is defined as the intrinsic moral and cultural value of efforts to support and serve others.  It is the intangible value we place on work that is not economically rewarded, but which fulfills our need for meaning and purpose.  Robert F. Kennedy, in an oblique way, defined it best.   Our nation’s Gross National Product number, he said,  “does not count the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything – in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”  In other words, money does not determine the value of who we are as caring people.

Indeed, experts and economists struggle with assigning dollar value to the concept of purpose driven wealth.  How, for instance, do we measure the value to society of caregivers and parents who work at home tending children, the elderly or the sick?  How does society account for the benefits of volunteer work, of equal opportunity, of preventive medicine, of sanitation, of access to decent and affordable health care?  What about the unpaid value of parents, teachers and social workers versus the inflated amounts we pay movie and sports stars?

The answers to these questions are not easy but they nevertheless point to the fact that there exists wealth beyond what we traditionally or culturally count.   Such wealth is earned but it is often under-compensated in monetary terms.  It is our inner selves that yearns for this non-economic wealth, like it did for Dr. Brantley.  We’re inspired to reach beyond our own needs, to sublimate ourselves and meet our calling in life.  In doing so, we begin to amass purpose driven wealth.

I call it that because to acquire it, one must fulfill one’s purpose for living.  Our lives are not just our own.  Our human purpose is to serve the needs of family, friend and community over those of our own.  To do that, we must sublimate many of the innate instincts humans feel.  As Darwin and other evolutionary biologists pointed out, species survive by following four “F” instincts of survival.  In order to live, all life forms must 1) feed, 2) fight in competition for scarce resources, 3) flee danger, and – to avoid using the word for the fourth “F” – all life must 4) reproduce.   Such instincts lead all life to instinctively be focused on self-interest.

But humanity has realized over the ages that community, cooperation and compassion for others enables a better way to survive.  Humans have discovered the value of going beyond the four “F” instincts to also care for others – much like what ebola healthcare workers do.

We find purpose driven value not only from communal cooperation but also from what experts call the “warm glow” affect.  We ironically derive as much or more pleasure when we help meet the needs of others – as opposed to only meeting our own needs.  While we can and should contribute the excess of our money to help others, studies show that voluntary, hands on service to others produces the greatest warm glow affect, as well as offering the highest return on value.  Donating one’s labor is a greater sacrifice than donating money since we give only a portion of the money we have or earn.   When we donate our labor, we give its entire value.

Purpose driven wealth therefore has immense emotional and psychological value.  Numerous studies indicate that people give to others in order to find meaning and purpose and thereby achieve greater happiness.  Indeed, experts assert that the warm glow we earn from serving others is stronger than what we feel when we buy expensive things or when we receive a large amount of money.  And the warm glow is not fleeting.  It influences how we feel about ourselves as valuable members of society.  This positive sense of self worth adds to what constitutes purpose driven wealth.  Ultimately, larger bank accounts or more material things create temporary emotions of happiness.  Meeting one’s purpose in life through serving others is longer lasting.  Our actions to help others extends far beyond our lifetimes – creating the kind of legacy that offers a form of life after death.  The old Jewish proverb holds true – when we save one life, we save the world.

The Bible tells us that Jesus encouraged his followers to acquire purpose driven wealth.  As he said, store up the kind of treasure that rust and moth cannot destroy.  The wealth that lasts is the kind of wealth that builds a form of heaven on earth and is multiplied far into the future.  That uncounted future wealth is today’s purpose driven wealth.

The Buddha, during his early years, practiced mindful yoga and self denial to such an extent that he achieved the highest state of meditation.  But such mindful ecstasy faded quickly as his body clamored for his four “F’s to be fulfilled.  Only when he began to express selflessness – not just through denial but through compassion and serving others – did he achieve lasting happiness.  As he said, empathy for others is the positive way to get out of endless introspection and focus on the self.  How can we dwell in self pity or in the pursuit of worldly gain when we feel the needs of others?  Encouraging loving kindness toward others is a primary way to release the mind from selfish desires.  According to the Buddha, service, empathy and compassion are pathways to enlightenment and inner joy.  And that inner contentment is another way to define purpose driven wealth.

What I propose is as much for me as it is for you.  I often say to the Gathering that I choose message topics that I need to learn and follow.  As most at the Gathering know, I spend 12 days a month in Florida.  I had already found a home there when the Pastor position at the Gathering became available.  Instead of moving back to Cincinnati, the church and I worked out my schedule of three Sundays a month working here with one Sunday a month off.  And it is during those 12 days that I work offsite in Florida.  Many of my friends down there often ask me why I continue my Cincinnati church work for modest pay and don’t permanently move south to enjoy life.  While that is admittedly tempting, I’ve never seriously considered it.  How do I leave work that gives me happiness, meaning and purpose?  How do I leave a church and people I deeply care about?  How do I value work that allows me to make a small difference for good in the world?

My story is certainly nothing special.  Many people, including all of you, build purpose driven wealth in serving family, friend and stranger.  But my schedule and work remind me of my life purpose.  They remind me of my struggle to release my mind, as the Buddha taught, of selfish thinking.  Few of us will ever reach his Nirvana state of happiness through serving others, but that ought to be our goal not just because it is the right thing to do, but in an ironic way, because it is selfish.  We make ourselves happier when we are SELFLESS.  Like the Buddha, we find contentment when the meaning for our existence goes well beyond the satisfaction of personal needs.  To be focused more on ourselves is, instead, a lonely and often sad state of being.  Only by connecting with others in understanding their pain, in listening, in offering assistance for their needs – do we find community, common cause and, ultimately, joy.

To that end, I encourage in this New Year a resolution to think as much about purpose driven wealth as we do about financial or material wealth.  I encourage this resolution for us individually as I do for our two churches.  Specifically, I humbly offer three suggestions for how the Gathering and Northern Hills congregations can cooperate in 2015 on ways to expand purpose driven wealth.

First, I suggest we strengthen congregation efforts to serve fellow church members.  That includes building well functioning teams of trained care givers and listeners for members who are hurting.  It involves further inspiring youth and adults to practice empathy and compassion.  It involves continued work to make our churches known for member support – for staying in touch with those who have not recently attended, for insuring all members in need are cared for.  By helping one another, we better enable our congregations as a whole to serve the outside world.

Second, I suggest we explore and then implement ways our two congregations can cooperate in charitable outreach service – for the Inter-Faith Hospitality Network, for the Freestore, for the People Working Cooperatively organization, for other charities.  By combining our volunteer efforts and working together in the community, we will double our impact, get to know one another, empower our spiritual journeys and better attract new members who seek places where they can serve.

Third, I suggest we further expand ways to advance racial understanding and reconciliation.  One way is to volunteer in at risk schools as tutors and mentors.  Many people believe education inequality is the single greatest factor contributing to racial and income inequality.  Another way is to continue to reach out to African-American congregations to join us in building racially sensitive communities.  The work of Ray Nandyal and other Northern Hills members, reflected in plans for next Sunday’s Martin Luther King service, is a great example of such efforts.

Along with my own work, we will need volunteers from both churches to step forward to help meet these cooperative goals and others suggested by any of you.  Our churches have long been focused on serving others.  But we do so by inspiring people and………never by failing to understand that health or family situations can prevent the work of some.  We each give and serve in our own ways and ALL efforts are deeply valued.  For the new year, let us build upon our traditions of service.

It is doubtful any of us will acquire the financial wealth of Donald Trump.  It is also doubtful our two churches – either alone or merged – will reach the status of a mega-church – one that has thousands of members and million dollar budgets.  I doubt that these are even desirable goals.  But we can individually, and as churches, aspire to amass purpose driven wealth – the kind of intangible wealth built by caring parents, volunteers and compassionate people everywhere.  Let us, therefore, resolve to be rich in the kind of wealth that truly matters.