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Message Three, November 22, 2009
By Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC
©Doug Slagle, 2010; all rights reserved.
Giving, Sharing and Getting Involved
When seeking to measure the impact of churches, it is often asked just what would happen if any particular congregation or church ceased to exist.
- What would happen if the Gathering closed its doors tomorrow?
- What difference would it make?
- Would anyone notice besides ourselves?
- How would the wider community be affected?
These are hopefully rhetorical questions but the point of them is to understand the ways this congregation impacts others. And, I propose that this is not a challenge to our consciences intended to induce guilt but a challenge to consider
–why we reach out in care and service to others;
–why we speak out about the injustices we see;
— and why we get involved in doing good beyond ourselves.
It is also a challenge to consider where we go from here
–what do we each individually do for others;
— and how do we as a congregation work and give effectively for those outside these walls in ways that have lasting impact?
The Gathering came about, to a large extent, because of yours and Steve’s commitment to GLBT rights. It is in the DNA of this place
- to stand for social justice,
- to believe in serving others and
- to give a voice to the many members who are involved in work for the poor, for equality, for peace, for fairness and for change.
We are a congregation that celebrates such work. We encourage one another in matters of justice and, as a collective whole, we seek to have an impact.
I also believe that in serving the wider world there is a spiritual dimension. We serve in order to find meaning and purpose. We do not serve for spiritual reward – in order to find Divine favor and thus gain entrance to a perfect eternal life – heaven.
We serve, I believe, as a way to help build the better world we all seek but which we mourn because it is yet to be a full reality. It is a part of our common human nature to individually seek health, happiness and fulfillment.
And, as I proposed two weeks ago in my message on cooperation, I believe it is also in our human nature to yearn for the common good of all people. That thinking believes that in order for me to prosper as an individual, the people around me, in my family, community, nation and world must also prosper. I believe that we work, we love, we play, we worship and we chase life itself so that the entire human species can realize the basic rights of life, freedom and happiness. We want, I believe, to find heaven, in all of its glory and perfection, here and now.
But, the reality we confront on earth is often not heaven, but hell. It is a callous and unfeeling person who can isolate himself or herself from a world where children starve, where hatred, bigotry and prejudice are at work, where war kills thousands each and every year, where disease and poverty cause others to suffer and where we look out these very windows and see men and women who have no homes.
Must that reality, however, induce guilt in each of us who do not suffer in these ways?
I hope not, because guilt is never the right motivator. It creates a false sense of obligation, personal embarrassment and negative self-perception.
I’m reminded of a comedy sketch I saw a few years ago in which an adult son calls his mother a few days after he had said he would.
“Hi mom. Uh, how are you feeling?” asks the son hesitantly.
“Oh”, says the mom, “Not so well. I’m weak and tired. I haven’t eaten in three days!”
“Gosh, mom, why not?” asks the son with alarm.
The mother replies exhaustedly, “I didn’t want to be away from the phone and miss your call.”
Research by the Nottingham University in Great Britain recently concluded that marketing which uses guilt as a means to induce charitable assistance is highly effective.
Most viewers of such advertising believe these tactics are wrong but they nevertheless respond with higher rates of giving when they are made to feel guilty. But is that form of giving really charity?
If I am compelled to do something for someone else merely because I feel guilty, have I really given anything away? I’ve simply made myself feel better. This is like the age-old question of love. If I am forced to act in a loving manner toward a partner, spouse or child, is that really love? If, however, I love freely and without regard for anything else, might that be a real form of love? I believe the same holds true for acts of charity and activism.
Guilt and shame at the plight of others causes us to think irrationally by inducing self-denial and negative self-perceptions. In what is popularly known as middle class guilt, those who have realized a place of relative economic security feel ashamed for having done so and often respond in great numbers with charitable giving.
And that is not a bad thing. Others are indeed helped. I propose, though, that this is not the right or most effective reason for people to give and assist. And, I propose, it might not even be charity. It might, instead, be giving that is begrudging and insincere.
Each of us has received much good in our lives. We can be thankful for this place, for our homes, our jobs and the fruits of our labor. At the same time, we can also feel the pain of those who suffer, feel empathy for the plight of others and feel anger at the injustices people experience.
A healthy examination of our own blessings contrasted against the hurts of others can lead us to empowerment, rational thinking and a realistic desire to effectively help redress the wrongs we see around us. Spiritually, I think there is a better reason for giving then doing so by guilt or shame.
In the Gospel of Mark, which most scholars believe was the first and thus most authentic of the Gospels, Jesus is introduced by him declaring to a large crowd, “The Kingdom of God is here!”
Now if we choose to assume that the historic Jesus was not a megalomaniac seeing himself as a great figure, we can interpret the intended message for his listeners was to hear that
understanding are available here on earth. Contrary to the prevailing Jewish thinking that the world was a mess, warped by rampant sin with humans needing to appease an angry god, Jesus proclaims a positive message. Goodness is available here and now! A perfect world, therefore, is not the mythic construct imagined as paradise floating on some eternal cloud.
We do not have to pass the test of life by waiting and being good enough to earn heaven. It is available to us right now, here, at last! And all that we need to do to experience it is to build it and create it ourselves.
After his opening words in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus embarks on a succession of activities to prove that heaven can be created on earth – by helping the sick, by teaching humility, by showing compassion, by serving and empowering others. Such is the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ parable known as the Good Samaritan is a classic example for us to understand the ethic of doing good.
A traveler has been robbed, stripped naked, beaten and thrown in a ditch at the side of a road. Two people pass by – one a Priest and the other a religious leader – and they walk right on past the bleeding traveler, choosing to ignore him entirely. In the predominant Jewish culture of the time, touching someone of unknown religious purity or unclean status brought such impurity on oneself.
So-called pious people followed strict regimens to maintain their personal purity and thus their standing with a perfect God. These two religious men did not wish to risk their own religious purity by helping someone who was likely not religiously pure.
Another man, however, walks on the same road and sees the injured man. This new passer-by, though, is a Samaritan, a social and religious outcast of the time who was shunned and scorned by respectable religious elites because Samaritans were different, oddballs if you will, and they did not worship at the right Temple.
What did this Samaritan oddball do? – Who himself would be made religiously unclean if he helped the robbery victim? He bandaged the traveler’s wounds, gave him transportation to a motel, clothed him, fed him and paid the motel owner to continue helping until he was better.
The teacher Jesus saw all around him – as we do – a world of hate, of greed and of indifference to the pain of others. He called each of us, outcasts in our own right, to not ignore the problems around us. And neither are we to offer worthless platitudes that those who hurt will receive justice when they die and go to heaven. NO.
The Jesus tells us, as I said, that heaven is available here and now. Nobody should wait for it. And, Jesus pointedly said not to judge others and base our assistance to them on factors of race, gender, religion or politics. We simply help those who need it. Guilt and shame have no merit in that equation.
This Jesus of history says to us in the Bible:
“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, —’play actors’ I call them— treating prayer meetings and street corners alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively.
We are to build heaven here. We are to work to make our earth, life itself, better for ourselves and for those in pain. This is not heaven as a reward or heaven as way to salve our guilty consciences. It is heaven as a work project. This is not heaven can wait. It is heaven NOW.
This is also not God above us or removed from us. As I spoke last week about an immanent god who lives within us, this god of compassion is a human god. He or she is us. We experience god as he or she rights the wrongs of the world and moves in force through the actions of people. And this god is not just one found in Jesus.
This god is the god of Jewish mythology and tradition who as a people, were led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt. This is the immanent god in Moses who fought injustice, inhumanity and encouraged his fellow Jews to escape. The burning bush, was NOT, in my estimation the Theistic supernatural God ordering Moses to act. It was, instead, that inner moral imagination seeing injustice and seeking change.
In our own American history, we saw this human god at work in the call to African slaves – held in the shackles of captivity – to rebel and escape.
And we saw it, as in the story of Moses, in abolitionists and civil rights activists who worked for the rights of fellow human beings. Only blocks from here we celebrate this god movement at the Freedom Center where an immanent god – the collective god force or moral imagination – led slaves northward, encouraged them in their survival, their unity as a culture and who nourished their yearning for the freedoms and the rights due all mankind. It still burns for them as it now burns for others who seek equality and fairness – like gays and lesbians.
The Jewish god calls his people to themselves be gods when he tells them in the book of Deuteronomy to be like him – like a Divine moral imagination. God says: “to administer justice, to care for the widow and to love the stranger by giving him or her food and clothing”. As god says to the Jewish people, they were also once strangers in the land of Egypt.
As a practical matter, we have all been in need of the kindness of strangers and our own call is to remember that state of helplessness we each have experienced. Is this guilt induced charity? No. God says to be like him – we are to ourselves be human gods in our help for others. Let us create heaven.
Jewish charity is eminently practical and communal. According to Jewish beliefs, the things of the universe were given to everyone and thus all people have a right to share in them.
One is never to deny the poor their right to the basic needs of life. And most importantly, one is responsible to do one’s best to keep himself or herself out of poverty.
This principle in Jewish thinking is to begin with charity for one’s family, then neighborhood, community and beyond. It is wrong, according to Judaism, to deny one’s own family or community assistance while extending help to those in the next town or country.
According to Jewish belief we are never to embarrass the poor or those who receive charity.
Their dignity is of great importance and thus helping others involves a mindset more of sharing then it does of giving. Again, those in need are merely receiving what is their right.
An old Jewish proverb states that “Happy is NOT he who gives to the poor but he who considers the poor.” And consideration involves concern for the whole person – their dignity and personhood.
The Jewish principle is to do good for others without being asked and without being known. Extending a practical approach, the highest form of helping others is to assist them so that they can then help themselves.
Since Islam emerged from ancient Jewish traditions, it is not surprising that Muslim beliefs are very similar.
Charity is a spiritual exercise and has its own religious significance in Islam. In that regard, Muslims believe zakat – or charity – is a religious obligation and must be continuous and constant.
In most Islamic countries, zakat is automatically deducted from one’s paycheck so that an individual is constantly reminded of god’s call to share. And this act is linked to the Islamic principle of justice – every human has the right to attain the fullness of life.
Buddhism also echoes a call for practicality in doing good. It is not just material in nature but holistic, encompassing the entire life of a person. Dana – or Buddhist generosity – is to give material support for those in need, spiritual knowledge to those in despair, love to those who have been abandoned or protection to those who are threatened.
As in Islam, Dana is to be continuous and a daily act of seeking perfection. By doing Dana, one perpetuates and lives out the Buddha’s teachings. Indeed, even those in need are to practice Dana.
In most Buddhist cultures the poor will put out cool, fresh jars of water for passerby or travelers who might be thirsty.
Charity, according to Buddha, involves a mental and emotional process of letting go of what one seeks to hold onto. Dana helps accomplish this. Indeed, charity done for no reward either here or in the hereafter is unsullied and pure.
It is an end to itself – one reaches purity by being pure. Thus, by letting go and doing charity for the sake that it is right and good and beautiful, we are ourselves people of simplicity and purity.
Within the Hindu religion, as well, we find universal values for giving and acting for the betterment of others. For the Hindu, the continuous creation of wealth is necessary for a stable society and for meeting the needs of those who require assistance. But, wealth is never to be hoarded. It must be shared and distributed widely.
A Hindu proverb compares those who share their wealth to thunder clouds which generously pour out rain for the earth to drink. Those who hoard wealth are, instead, like the deep and dark oceans which know only to receive and store water.
Following in that principle, Hindu communities often establish cooperative business guilds which seek to collaborate on matters of fair prices and fair profits while using excess funds to provide for public projects like Temples, schools, roads and hospitals.
And, like most world religions, Hindus emphasize humility in giving. Charity must never be about show and, in Hindu wisdom, the true donor and true worker for justice is NEVER known to others.
What can we learn from Jesus, Buddha, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism regarding principles of giving? Are there universal values which we can both seek and practice? What should be our guiding ethic for helping others? Finally, are there ways to help that offer long term results and which are effective?
A summary of religious principles for giving might be the following:
- Giving and helping should not be motivated by guilt or shame. Charity works best when it is motivated by a desire to simply do good and to ourselves be human gods building heaven on earth.
- There is no judgement in giving. We help others without regard for race, gender, education, sexuality or position in life.
- Wealth is not, in itself, bad. It is the attitude towards it that can either be for good – to share and give away – or it can be for bad, to hoard.
- Charity should be done quietly and unobtrusively. We do not seek to call attention to ourselves and we try and help without being asked.
- It is done with no expectation or desire for reward – like doing a good deed to earn Divine favor. Helping others is an end to itself. We simply share what is already the right of all people.
- There is a spiritual dimension to giving and helping. It is itself a form of spiritual practice and it is done best when it is practiced regularly.
- We are responsible, as much as we are able, for reasonably preventing our own need for charity and help.
- Help begins at home and we owe an obligation to first help those within our families, our congregation and immediate communities.
- We encourage the dignity and self-worth of those we help. Those in need are never to be exploited or embarrassed.
Added to these values are non-religious ideas that charity and social activism should have as much long term impact as possible. The guiding principle is that while output based charity is always helpful and good – measured in the number of how many homeless are fed or how many dollars are given or how many signatures are put on a petition –
outcome focused assistance measures jobs created, education given, permanent housing provided, and other sustainable ways to help over a long term – it is the classic way of teaching a person to fish for a lifetime instead of giving him or her a fish that satisfies for only a day.
Finally, where does this discussion of our outreach values bring us? Can we leave here today as individuals and as a congregation with more than the thoughts in our minds? I propose that we begin with an agreement on what our values are. Then, I encourage us to collectively create a strategy for how we can best be in mission to our community and world in ways that are effective and cognizant of our time and resources. Either at our congregation meeting in January or at a special congregational meeting, I suggest we come together to discuss and reach agreement on the cause or causes we collectively want to advance and the amount of resources we want to give.
I know we will continue the tradition of our activism and giving. I know we will also be aware of what we can and cannot do. And, I know we will live out our shared value of making a difference and being a place that not only speaks of fairness and social justice but actually works for them.
For the upcoming holiday season, I propose a few efforts we can come together on – not as a way to assuage our seasonal guilt or as a way to feel warm and good about ourselves – but,
as a means to simply share what the charity of life has provided each one of us. I hope these efforts can be a continuation of our spiritual practice to be involved and to do such work as a part of our moral imagination – our combined god force – to be the human gods this world so desperately needs.
- The Gathering’s next opportunity to work with the Inter-Faith Hospitality Network will be on Tuesday, December 15th. Kim Roots who directs our efforts reports that, as always, we need people to prepare food for a dinner, we need evening hosts to talk to the families and to play with the children, and, most importantly, overnight hosts are needed. You can volunteer directly with Kim.
- On Tuesday, December 22nd, I have taken the liberty to sign up for a group of people to work around the corner at the Freestore putting together their Christmas meal boxes. Stuat Blersch, Don Fritz, myself and others worked at this project two years ago. We were busy and active but it was a lot of fun working with other volunteers and meeting people from the community. Any size group will be fine so whomever wants to join in will be welcome. The hours are from 12:30 to 5 PM. Afterwards, our Gathering group of volunteers and anyone else will come back here to the church for a chili dinner. Please speak to me or send an e-mail if you are interested in what will be a fun, fulfilling and cooperative afternoon and evening.
- The Gathering will again participate in our annual giving to families here in Over-the-Rhine. Kim Roots and Ken Farmer will facilitate this effort for Saint John’s that will provide clothes and toys to each member of 2 or 3 large local families. Kim and Ken have the note cards that detail the gift wishes. All gifts will need to be wrapped, labeled and back here at the church by December 13th.
- And, finally, I have a list available of food items that can be purchased in order to feed families of four. These bags will be distributed by the Camp Washington UCC on Sunday, December 20th to over 450 families. During this down economy, the demand for these meal bags is larger then ever. This year the hope is to provide a food bag to any in need family that wants one who live within two zip codes covering parts of Price Hill, lower Westwood and Camp Washington. Please take one of these lists that I am passing around now if you would like to participate.
As we move into the New Year, I hope at that time we will focus on one or two causes and organizations that we can join as partners in providing them with our time, talent and resources. During my application process to be the Pastor here, I spoke with several of you about my belief in the power of successive giving. Just as this congregation benefits from the generosity of its members, we as a collective unit can extend those donations by in turn helping another organization. And, if each recipient organization then would also give away some of what it receives, the power of our donations can be multiplied many times over.
I hope we can each give to this church what we are able to donate and what we feel personally called to give. There will never be any guilt or pressure involved. And, we can know that our donations are then used to not only build this congregation, but to extend our common funds for use by other causes and organizations.
As you reflect with me on our discussions over the past three Sundays on values that define us, I believe that one consistent theme has spun its way throughout. We call ourselves the Gathering because we seek to be greater then what we are as individuals. We seek the community, friendships and genuine authenticity of each member. We are who we are – unique, informal, involved and informed. This is a safe place where together we can practice the moral imagination that brings us together in cooperation and equality, where each person is free to live out his or her diversity in ways that are celebrated and where we collectively work out the values of care, concern, involvement and giving to the wider world.
We dream of a god so powerful that injustice is defeated, hunger is eliminated and all people share in the bounty of our earth. We know this god is here and active – this god is us, bound together with love – working patiently but consistently for change.
And this god in us has an agenda that is not finished and ever marches forward – searching, striving, yearning to be a force of goodness and peace in our lives and in the world. May we honor this god – our moral imagination – and may his and her blessings be upon us all.