Christian Practices: Community

Scripture: Matthew 20:10-16; 1 John 3:21-24

21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us.

One of the best late shows I’ve ever seen was Emma Stone humbling Jimmy Fallon in a lip sync contest. He thought he was beating her until she did “All I do is win.” Jimmy said she won, hands down.

I thought, wow, she’s really good. She talks so fast I can’t even understand the words. So I looked them up. The rap song goes,

All I do is win win win no matter what Got money on my mind I can never get enough And every time I step up in the buildin’ Everybody hands go up And they stay there And they say yeah And they stay there Up down, up down, up down ‘Cause all I do is win win win I never been defeated and I won’t stop now Can’t never count me out Y’all better count me in Got twenty bank accounts, accountants count me in Make millions every year, the south’s champion Cause all I do, all I, all I, all I All I do is win win win.

And I thought, well, that’s pretty arrogant. And maybe, just maybe, it runs counter to the idea of community. Community is the focus of both our scripture passages. The first is from Matthew 20, and there Jesus tells the story of the landowner and his workers. The jist of the story is this. The landowner hires workers at dawn, later in the morning, in the afternoon and the evening. He contracts to pay all of them a day’s wages. But when they get paid the ones who started at dawn get miffed because they and the latecomers get paid the same. And the landowner pretty much says, a deal is a deal, and it’s my money. Don’t tell me what to do.

But the heart of the parable lies in the major complaint of the early workers. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” You have made them equal to us. If we go further in Matthew, that’s still the point. The mother of James and John tells Jesus she wants her sons to sit beside him in his kingdom. The other ten disciples get indignant at the request, and Jesus tells all of them, Look, you are equals. In fact you have to be servants to each other. And finally Matthew relates the healing of the two blind men on the road to Jericho. He says when they cried out for mercy the crowd rebuked them. Be silent. But Jesus healed them. It was a tacit message to the crowd that they weren’t any better or worse than the men he healed. He treated them as equals.

Community is one of those feel-good words. Right after I arrived here Barbara and I had lunch in town with Steve Bils, our regional executive minister. We sat at a table outside. Someone walked by. Hi, Barbara. A couple came past. Hey, Barbara. Then someone else. Barbara! How are you. So after lunch I asked her, Is it just your life that’s like something out of Cheers, or is it the whole town? You know, a place where you’re accepted for who you are, where you’re never lonely, and where everyone knows your name? On the way back to church four more people said, “Hi, Barbara.”

The idea of “community” is all over the place. There are cyber communities, and social-media communities. There are work-related and school-centered communities. Many of the communities we’re a part of we just sort of fall into — our kids’ playgroups, or a running club, or the folks we eat with in the dining room of our college or elder-care facility. All of these communities are different, and each shares distinct characteristics.

But the fact is, authentic community is hard to come by. The really difficult thing about community is that it’s made up of people! And people — not you and me, of course, but most people — can be difficult, challenging, selfish, and unreliable.

Matthew speaks to this, and so does John. John says for real community to happen, “We should believe in the name of God’s Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”

*People sin. *Communities are made up of these sinning people. *We are equal before God.

To be even more succinct, I’d put it this way: Authentic community is hard to come by. It’s work. But it’s worth it. Because when you find it, it’s like discovering and experiencing the reality of God’s fellowship and existence in your midst. And, as Jesus promises, when you gather in this way — with honesty and integrity, even when it’s hard — amazing things can happen.

So what kind of community do we want from our congregation — largely social, somewhat superficial (which is, of course, safe)? Do we want something more meaningful or intimate (which is riskier and harder)? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place where we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference?

The beginning point for real community is to decide who and what defines us as persons. So let me ask, who is your significant other? You know, a person you care about, want to spend time with, look forward to interacting with. Because most of us have been raised to choose someone very like ourselves for that role. And we’ve been raised to look at those most different from ourselves as the enemy. The enemy list can become quite long. In Jesus’ time the enemy was the person who didn’t follow the rules, who was sick, who was handicapped, who was labeled a sinner. Historically our country has painted lots of people with the brush that says you are the enemy. Native Americans. The Irish. Citizens with Japanese heritage. Or Mexican heritage. Or Palestinians. Or Jews. Those who are gay. African Americans. People in poverty. At one time, Catholics. Now, Muslims.

What defines us? Is it the fact that we keep our distance from others, or that we embrace them? Are we exclusive, or inclusive? Are we fearful, or not? And perhaps that’s the most important question when it comes to building true community. What scares us?

Because the goal of many people and organizations is to make sure we’re afraid of something. It isn’t whether we’ll be afraid, but how afraid we’ll be. Have you thought about what it would be like for your family if you died tomorrow and they were left destitute? Without our insurance policy? And don’t you know that unless you use our anti-blemish cream and our no more gray hair coloring you won’t even be able to go out in public? Well, do you? The newscaster asks, Well, doctor, how concerned should we be about the virus spreading here in our country? Not should we be concerned, but how concerned should we be? Couldn’t these people have been treated back in Africa? Aren’t you concerned that all these children will soon become gang members and drug runners? Poor people just want something for nothing, you know. Or they’ll swamp the medical and educational systems. They’ll take all your wealth away. Oh, and by the way, the criminal you should arm yourself against is probably lurking right outside your door at this very moment. We have small guns for your purse and large guns for your house.

So the question of community, Jesus’ question, comes down to this. How much energy do you want to expend on being fearful of others? Or can that energy be invested in embracing those who are different? Do we spend our resources on building higher walls, or on proclaiming the gospel? Because there is a difference, you know, between exclusion and embrace.

Embrace looks like this. It looks like small beginnings. It looks like sitting in a different pew next Sunday. Heaven forbid. It looks like talking with somebody else in the greeting area than the person you usually talk to. Do church business later. Make after church a fellowship time. Or stay around for a few minutes after church if you usually scoot out the door. Embrace looks like randomly picking 4 or 5 people from the church directory and inviting them to have a potluck meal. It isn’t that scary, really. The church has already vetted these people, and you can ask them to leave their weapons at home. That’s the beginning of embrace.

Or it could begin right now. Look around for somebody you don’t know well and have lunch with them. You’re eating their food. You might as well get to know them. Reach out to someone who isn’t your significant other. Remarkable things happen in Jesus’ name.

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