Communal Altruism
Isaiah 41:10, 17, 4; John 14:16-28 (heavily edited)

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A word of welcome to our new members today. People send me articles from time to time on the benefits of church and I have good news for you. Church going correlates with a number of virtues. People who regularly attend church are more likely to live longer and be more active for a longer duration of their life; they are more likely to be generous with their giving and also to lead in community organizations; they are more likely to complete tasks and develop vocational stability. They are more likely to have stable, thriving families. And, my favorite they are more likely to have happy sex lives and more active sex lives… It’s the coffee… So congratulations and let me say ‘thanks to everyone in the pew this morning, you are making us look good. We appreciate that.’
The beloved community is important to be part of because it is where you people that are working on becoming better people. They are trying to exercise their honorable selves. They are learning to develop a full life of giving. And if you are open, and you communicate, and you are capable of giving and really being there for other people, you are more than half way home to being a solid romance partner. As it turns out, they are the same qualities that make you a good person all around.
Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit to bind us together so that together we might learn the fuller Truth. We can’t say what that is precisely because it changes with each generation as we develop it in each other.
We are all here to become better people. And your better self is unique to you. We can’t give you a mold, we can only help you to discover your own spiritual voice and express your purpose in these few short years we have on this earth.
I’ve been reading a book on forgiveness. They get to the ‘how to’ portion of the program, they emphasize the uniqueness of that spiritual moment. How do you ask for forgiveness?
The authors have good insights that they have learned from being on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, that brought together the people that Enforced Apartheid with the family members of those that died, so they could resolve the harm that had been done in their country rather than simply degrade into a civil war, like we are witnessing today in Iraq or Syria or Gaza, so many examples of endless retribution and revenge.
They learned how important it is for people seeking forgiveness to become open and transparent and for a little while completely honest with themselves. They learned that the families of people that had simply disappeared needed to know how their loved ones died, what they went through, what the motivations were for those that killed them, how they covered it up and lived with it. They needed to know details to understand what really took place so that they could put it in a context and come to grips with it, as they process their own meaning about how they would deal with it in the future and how it could be healed.
It is interesting that the Truth and Reconciliation commission did not make the perpetrators actually ask for forgiveness. They were worried that people would be insincere or that they would develop a formula in order to get amnesty, so they only required that they tell the story and answer questions from the family members. But almost everyone of the people that told their story and answered questions from the family members, went on to express remorse for what they had done. They almost all went on to ask for forgiveness anyway.
And the authors ask the question, ‘how do you ask for forgiveness?’ What do you say? This is Bishop Desmond Tutu reflecting on that question. He says, “I was truly humbled by the forgiveness I saw so freely granted. I was awed by the gracious words of apology and the profound acts of forgiveness that came out of honest dialogue. There is no script I can write that will express your remorse. You must write your own script directly from your heart and from your conscience. This is the place where the power of forgiving and being forgiven is generated. No one can place remorse in another’s heart. Either you feel it or you don’t. And your victim will know if your remorse is genuine and heartfelt.”
At some point, you have to live your life. You have to become you. A work in progress from the beginning to the very end. And you are always changing. But the spiritual point is that you live out of your authenticity. These are moments when the Spirit of God emboldens us to be real. This is what the Spirit does.
For that reason we are a little light on telling you what to believe. The Church went a little overboard on that in the past. Up through the time I was a child, it would be understandable if you believed that religion was having the right answers to the test. Over and over we repeated
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, maker of heaven and earth
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary… [if you grew up in Catholic school like I did or Protestant, you know the rest]
Maybe there will be a test? In which case, we’re in trouble at Christ Church.
But what if our actual test is simply the quality of our lives, the profundity of our transformation, who we become? What if that is actually what we manifest, which it must be?
The profundity of the Bible is not in the answers that it give to us. The profundity of the Bible resides in the questions that it poses to us. How are you manifesting love? What is your work for justice? What is the shape of your reconciliation right now? Where do you establish peace in your life?
We can’t answer that for you. You have to write your own script. With your friends, your family, your loved ones. And the church, your spiritual community. In your community; through your work; in your philanthropy… In our wider world… You have to write your own script and we are here to help you.
How are you making a difference? How are you healing what is broken? What is your mission statement for this chapter of your life?
Psychologists have been studying exactly how our character is formed and they are able to document that humans operate interchangeably on two different levels at the same time, as individuals and as part of groups that we belong to. Not surprisingly, they are quite distinct ways of being.
Not surprisingly, we are predominantly shaped by our group thinking, which is what distinguishes us from other primates. As an expert on chimpanzees observed, ‘you would never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.’ They can’t coordinate like that. But we humans have an advanced ability to communicate and to coordinate with each other that has multiplied our effectiveness and created higher civilization as we know it.
We’ve gone from hunting much more effectively in groups to our most advanced societies that create competitions that synchronize with each other to multiply power and increase efficiency.
Groups are also where most of our emotional life resides which takes up the preponderance of what we find interesting and meaningful.
Groups are where exercise honor, respect, affection, compassion, loyalty, trust. These are the things that bring us the most sustained fulfillment in this life. This is why the spiritual community is actually important. We find our deeper meaning in and through each other, who are trying to bring out the best in each other.
Perhaps the most significant example of why this makes a difference is how our teenagers actually make moral decisions. Professor Jonathan Haidt wanted to know how we actually form moral judgments, so they developed a series of stories at the University of Virginia that they asked undergraduates. Lo, behold, what they found is that the vast majority of kids make intuitive gut judgments that reflect the values they saw embodied in the groups their parents belonged to in their childhood, and only after that did they begin to develop a rationale for why that judgment was the right judgment indeed.
So exposing your children to a Church that teaches that God’s higher values is important. We want to expose them to the value of love that binds us all together, so that diversity of ethnicities becomes a tapestry; we want them to see us living in community as straight families, gay families, single people and blended families, each encouraging one another to find their unique spiritual voice.
And taking our children with us to serve the poor through Family Promise or on a Bridges run or serving breakfast at SHIP is important.
Our teens and our young people will make intuitive moral judgments that they learned from the values that you actually exhibited in your life, mostly through the groups that you belong to. The Church is foundational because this is the place that we model for children how to pray, how to be reverent, how to support one another in times of difficulty and crisis, how to be a blessing to each other- even as we hope that they will be a blessing to the next generation.
The Church is the great experiment that God started so that we might access the deeper sense of meaning and purpose that we are capable of developing. We bring it out in each other. And every once in a while, you find yourself open and free with friends that you trust for a profounder, more intimate and vulnerable relationship. And those are the ones that are most significant to us in our lives. Those are what we remember when life threatening things get us to reflect about our mortality and what we really value in this life.
I hope for you that experience in this next chapter at Christ Church. I hope for you richer friendships and people around you that will inspire you to your better self. It really is divine when it happens.
I hope you find your voice and begin to sing in it with confidence. I hope you allow the Spirit to flow through others into you so that you have the confidence to write your own script. I hope you allow yourself to be transformed so that you can meet the challenges of this next chapter of your life.
Mr. Keating was right in the Dead Poet’s Society. It is a wonder that we are here, that our lives exist, that we are creating our identity. For the powerful play of the world goes on and you may contribute a verse. The powerful play of the world goes on and you may contribute a verse. The powerful play of our lives together goes on and you may contribute a verse?
What will your verse be?

Amen.