Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sermon for March 4 -- Lent 2

Qualities of Spiritual Seekers: Mutuality
Jesus replied with this story: “A man prepared a great feast and sent out many invitations. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servant to tell the guests, ‘Come, the banquet is ready.’ But they all began making excuses. One said, ‘I have just bought a field and must inspect it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have just bought five pairs of oxen, and I want to try them out. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I now have a wife, so I can’t come.’ The servant returned and told his master what they had said. His master was furious and said, ‘Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ After the servant had done this, he reported, ‘There is still room for more.’ So his master said, ‘Go out into the country lanes and behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full. For none of those I first invited will get even the smallest taste of my banquet.'" Luke 14:16-24
There was a bumper sticker around a few years ago. It said, “Commit senseless acts of random kindness.” I like it. I know we don’t always like random, unplanned events in our lives, but in this case, I think it would make life better. There’s actually a branch of science and mathematics that studies what we think of as randomness. It’s called Chaos Theory. Chaos Theory says that the tiniest changes in one small area of the world can cause massive changes in other, distant parts of the world. In 1961, a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz had been working on theoretical models about how tropical storms, typhoons and hurricanes develop. He came up with an idea that was called the “butterfly effect.” The small eddy of wind current made by a butterfly wing can change the weather on the other side of the globe. One small change leads to a larger change, which leads to an even larger change, and so on. Of course, if a butterfly fluttering by can add to a hurricane, more butterflies fluttering by can change the course of that hurricane entirely. In the same way, initial conditions of acts of kindness can also cause small changes that ripple out, and eventually change the world.

In spiritual terms, let’s call it the theory of mutuality. The actions of one affect all. This law of mutuality reaches into the subatomic level of our universe. For instance, we now know that once two electrons have connected or touched in some way, they can never be the same again. No matter how far apart those electrons go, what happens to one happens to the other. We inhabit a universe where everything is part of everything else.

This is hard for some people to accept. Especially in churches. Most of us weren’t brought up in churches known for their adaptability. Throughout history, churches including Congregationalists, have been known for the ability to control, restrict, contain, narrow, purify, define, and restrain. Our spiritual ancestors, The Puritans, were not famous for their tolerance and open-mindedness. The Puritans created strict rules that that governed everyone’s behavior. For instance, in 1648, a law was passed in Massachusetts ordering all playhouses and theaters be taken down. All actors were to be captured and whipped, and anyone who was seen watching a play had to pay a fine. But guess what? There was a loophole! In Puritan law, someone convicted of a crime could plead “Benefit of Clergy.” If a convicted person could read a passage from the Bible without one mistake, the sentence would be reduced.

It’s human nature, really. We expect people to conform to our image. We want them others to dress a certain way, to behave in certain ways, to talk in acceptable ways. Our desire to control can get out of control. Left unchecked, people try to dominate or marginalize others. We create insiders and outsiders. The goal of the church has been to find the outsiders and bring them in. But not without some cost. We demand transformation, right? We want people to clean up their acts, live new lives. Break old habits.

Old habits die hard. Even for the church. Do you know how outsiders see Christians? Here are some stereotypes:

Christians are known for what we oppose: anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, anti-thinking, etc.
Christians are viewed as angry, mean, judgmental, wanting to convert everyone and generally are not peaceful people. Christians are judged as hypocritical and inauthentic in our faith and lifestyle (we say one thing, do another or act like we have it all together)

Today, I want to suggest that one quality of spiritual seekers is mutuality. Instead of trying to control others and make them conform, what might happen if we submitted to the collective subconscious of the people in order to better fulfill our mission? What transformations might take place when we learn to tap into the wisdom of the community? Mutuality has to do with acting individually and instinctively while giving yourself the freedom to let others do the same. Let me explain.

I’ve been reading about swarm theory. Scientists are studying the group behavior of ants, bees, locusts, schools of fish, and crowds of people. They are learning that these swarms and crowds organize around some simple rules. Each individual member of a swarm, acting individually, will impact the behavior of others. The actions of a few members of the group affect the actions of all. No one tells the group what to do. There are no orders or commands from the leader at the top. Groups organize spontaneously, following simple, basic rules. One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one's in charge. No generals command submissive ant warriors. No boss manages the ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no top-down management at all—at least none that we would recognize.

Or consider bees. What commands a hive of bees to swarm? Scientists know it is not the queen bee. When a swarm pours itself out through the front slot of the hive, the queen bee can only follow. By choice of the citizens, the swarm takes the queen and thunders off in the direction indicated by mob vote. The hive commands. The queen follows. Thousands of bees united into one collective direct themselves to swarm. The Queen Bee is not the leader. In fact, there are anonymous leaders within the swarm called “streakers.” The streakers direct from within the swarm by flaying faster and straighter than the other bees. The swarm has no center, but rather thousands of autonomous individual bees engaged in parallel actions, interacting with one another and influencing each other.

Relationship. Connectivity. Interactivity. Collaboration. Mutuality. These are the processes from which every living thing is created, survives, and prospers.

Almost any group that follows bees' rules will make itself smarter. Investors in the stock market, scientists on a research project, even kids at a county fair guessing the number of beans in a jar can be smart groups. Maybe even churches that want to follow God’s aims for the world. It turns out the group is smarter than the individual. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, mindlessly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part. If members of the group are diverse, independent minded, and use a mechanism such as voting to reach a group decision, they will reach a correct answer more with greater precision than any single expert. Science confirms something that some religions have taught for centuries. Selflessness. Losing the ego. Being a part of something bigger than yourself. Becoming a drop in the spiritual ocean.

Mutuality is less about controlling people than releasing them. In our tradition, every person must be given every decision-making power and boost to rise to the top. Every person must be treated with dignity and respect. Those who are pushed to the margins or have less power are invited to be part of the center of the action. Power and authority must be shared by everyone. When we drain complexity and chaos from our work, we snuff out the system. We limit our ability to learn and grow. Mutuality helps us add complexity and diversity. And we trust that diversity brings health.

For a healthy church, we need to focus less on control and more on collaboration. There is a difference between inviting the rejected into your circle and inviting them to help lead it. I’ve heard a minister say, “God loves you just the way you are — but too much to let you stay that way.” I think it sends the message that we are not acceptable enough for who we are right here and now. Jesus doesn’t say that to us. Think about the parable we read from Luke. There’s a big banquet. It’s a party. All of the cool people are invited, and they all have excuses why they can’t go. The one throwing the party says to the servants, “Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” There is no indication that they have to clean up their acts first. Everyone’s invited. Everyone’s welcome. Everyone has an important place at the table.

What would happen if we simply said, “God loves you just the way you are. That’s it. Nothing else to add. No pre-qualifications before you’re really welcome. You ARE welcome right now. Now please tell us your story so we can learn from you.” We can come together in a church to share those beliefs, and also find value in the spirituality of others. We can be a church that leads others without the stigma of guilt or coercion. We are all in the same swarm and we have work to do. We work independently, and we work as a community of faith. We trust our collective wisdom, and we rely on our collective compassion.

• “Swarm theory supports spiritual independence,” at “”
• “My Swarm Theory,” at
• "Swarm Theory" at
• The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller
The Perfect Swarm by Len Fisher
Aqua Church by Leonard Sweet
• Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Divine and Human Mutuality: Man’s Helplessness Without God.”
You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism by
Hirschfield, Brad (p. 57).

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