Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sermon, "Building Community: Hindrances," Acts 11:1-18

Sermon 9/23/18
Acts 11:1-18

Building Community: Hindrances

We have some family stories in our collective knowledge that we love to tell. If you spend a lot of time with us, we will tell you about how my big brother Jim used me as leverage to stand up when he was six and I was a newborn, making my mother quite anxious indeed. We will tell you - or at least my mom will tell you - about the note I got home from my sixth grade teacher saying that I was doing a much better job at not correcting him in class all the time, even though my mom never got the first note that was sent home - which I have no recollection of receiving… We will tell you lots of stories about Tim and Todd as toddlers, born 14 months apart and always getting into trouble together, like when Tim, who we’d nicknamed BamBam, tore the lining of the playpen infant Todd was in and pulled him out and dragged him underneath the buffet table that now sits in my dining room, causing my mom to wonder how her children had disappeared when she stepped out of the room for two minutes. We will tell you stories about my mom getting lost in a number of different situations. We will tell you stories about my grandparents, stories that we’ve told and retold so many times that my younger cousins, who were really too young to remember some of these things about my grandpa on their own, know the stories well enough to feel like they were there. When new people start to become part of our family, like my sister-in-law Jen, or Emma, who will become my sister-in-law in less than two weeks now, part of the way we welcome them into the family is by telling them these stories. I can tell you stories about my mother or my grandparents as young people, even though they happened before I was alive, because I know them by heart. And we don’t even need new people around to have an opportunity to tell these stories. We tell them to each other. We tell them when we get together for holidays and celebrations, or when we’re sitting at the hospital bed of a sick family member, or when we’re just hanging out. We all know the stories, and we tell them to each other anyway.
I’m guessing that many of you could say the same thing about your families, your stories. What are some of the stories that you tell over and over in your family? (Pause for sharing?) Why do we tell these stories over and over? What makes us repeat these stories? (Pause for suggestions?) We tell these stories, I think, in part because they just bring us joy in remembering. We tell them because we want our loved ones who have gone before us to be alive to those who have come after. I want my niece and nephew to know what kind of man my grandfather was even though they never met him. We tell them again and again so that we don’t forget. We want to remember. And we tell these stories because they’re identity stories. They tell us and tell others about who we are. We tell stories that highlight the character of the people we’re sharing about. We tell stories that remind us of the nature of our family - how we stick together, how we persevere, how we’ve stayed close to each other. We tell our stories, again and again.
Today, as we continue thinking about Building Community as we journey through the book of Acts, we come across an example right within the text of a message being delivered, a story being told over and over. Our reading comes from Acts 11, but Acts 11 is really a retelling of everything that happens in Acts 10, so we’ll start there. In Acts 10, Luke, the author, tells us that there is a man named Cornelius in Casearia who is a centurion in the Italian Cohort of the Roman Empire. He’s a Gentile, that is a non-Jew. Luke describes him as a devout believer in God who gives alms generously and prays constantly. But he is not Jewish, not part of the covenant between God and the Israelites. One day, he has a vision where God tells him to send for a man named Simon Peter. And so he gathers a small team and sends them off to find this Peter.
The next day, Peter is waiting for his meal to be ready, and spends some time in prayer on the roof of the place where he’s staying. And he falls into a trance. He has a vision of a large sheet, like a tablecloth we might think, lowered down from heaven, and on it are many kinds of food, all kinds of food that would be forbidden for Peter to eat according to the Torah, the law of Moses that represents the covenant between God and the Jewish people. And as the sheet is lowered on all this food that is considered unclean, Peter hears a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter responds, “No Lord - I have never eaten anything unclean!” But the voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” And then this scene is repeated two more times. Peter, Acts tells us, is “greatly puzzled” by what he’s seen.
And right then, the men sent by Corneus arrive. Prompted by God, Peter goes with them back to Cornelius’s home in Caesarea. When he’s there, he tells them what he’s figured out from his vision: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean, and so I came, even though it violates the law for me to share in your home in this way.” Peter shares with them the message of Jesus, starting with these words: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” While Peter is preaching, the Holy Spirit comes to everyone present. And Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” They are all baptized as followers of Jesus, and Peter stays with them for several days.
At the start of our text for today, word has spread that some Gentiles have accepted the word of God, and everyone wants to know how it happened, and specifically, why Peter ate with and stayed with people who were Gentiles. Peter explains to them step by step, and we get a repeat of everything that just happened in the previous chapter. As he finishes his story, he concludes, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” At first, the apostles sit in stunned silence. But finally, they praise God, realizing: “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
I don’t think we can fully understand the mind-boggling radicalness of the idea that people could become Jesus-followers without first becoming part of the covenant of Judaism. It makes sense to us that you can become a Christian without becoming a Jew because we have done so for thousands of years now. But this was not at all clear to the apostles, the first followers of Jesus. Jesus himself was Jewish, and he spent most of his ministry preaching and teaching among Jewish people. He was very critical of some of the practices of the religious leaders in his tradition, but he spoke of himself as a fulfillment of the law and prophets that are the heart of Judaism. Peter and the other apostles aren’t opposed to Gentiles becoming Christians. They just can’t envision someone becoming a follower of Jesus without adopting the same religious practices that Jesus himself did. When Paul comes along in the book of Acts as a newly converted follower of Jesus, and he suddenly wants everyone to let Gentiles be followers of Jesus without adopting Judaism, it seems preposterous. Deciding whether or not Gentile followers of Jesus need to become part of the covenant tradition of Judaism is the major struggle of the early church, and it permeates the book of Acts and the writings of Paul.
So, this story of Peter and the unclean food and the decision to baptize Cornelius and the others even though they are Gentiles who have no plan of adopting Judaism gets repeated. Peter’s vision is repeated, and the story is repeated, back to back, because is it so important. This realization - that God’s Holy Spirit is in the Gentiles as well, that they too have received God’s word, and that the apostles should do nothing to hinder these Gentile believers from embracing Jesus - it’s a watershed moment that shapes Christian identity forever, and Luke rightly feels it can not be emphasized enough. He wants to tell the story over and over to make sure we get it, to make sure we don’t forget, to make sure that we don’t hinder Gentiles who are making their way to Jesus.
He’s right to think folks will need reminding. In Paul’s writings elsewhere in the New Testament (see Galatians 2), we find evidence that Peter didn’t always stick to the lesson that he learned here. When confronted again with other influential church leaders who thought that adhering strictly to the practices of the law was an important part of following Jesus, Paul says that Peter reverted to refusing to eat with Gentiles. The place of the Gentiles in the church is an issue that divides Peter and Paul and the other apostles for many years, and they have to “agree to disagree.” But eventually, it doesn’t matter anymore. Because the gospel of Jesus, the good news of God’s redeeming love and grace has already taken hold among Gentiles, and Gentile Christian communities grow and grow.
Maybe we wonder: how could Peter change his mind again, when he had this vision from God? How could he have gone back to separating himself from Gentiles? And yet, we do the same. We forget. We fall out of the good habits we try to cultivate. We forget the way we felt when we were sure of God’s message, God’s call. That’s exactly why we need to tell our stories, why Luke tells this same story back to back, why God shares the vision with Peter repeatedly. We have to remember our identity, and remember the nature of the God we serve, remember that the message of Jesus will not be hindered, when somehow, like Peter, we forget.
As followers of Jesus, we have to make sure that we don’t add requirements and expectations to the message of God that are from us, not God, and try to pass them off as God’s ideas. We need to be careful that instead of trying to help folks follow Jesus, we don’t end up implying that they’re supposed to follow us, and what we do and how we behave. Unfortunately, for a long time missionary work conflated the accepting Jesus with accepting the culture of the missionaries. When I visited Ghana when I was in seminary, for example, the first worship service our trip leaders took us to was an Methodist church in the capital city. The service used prayer books from the British Methodist, and people wore clothing traditional to the British Methodist and Anglican traditions, and the liturgy, the order of service, was exactly replicated from the British Methodist tradition. Our trip leaders wanted us to see what it looked like when missionaries not only shared the gospel, but also attached their culture and practices along with the gospel. This tying together of cultural practices with the gospel messages is something many Christians have been working hard at recognizing and changing. For example, many of you know that Don and Glenda Schuessler have been part of mission trips to Cambodia in the last couple years. The team they’ve worked with has really increased its focus on making sure that Cambodian Christian leaders are the ones who are ready to serve and love and teach any people who become followers of Jesus as a result of their time there.
But making sure we don’t hinder God’s work among new followers of Jesus goes beyond missionary work. It is a message we all need to hear, because we’re still stuck on thinking: if you don’t live your life in the same way I do, you can’t or shouldn’t have access to God in the way I can. I don’t think we think we think that! But our actions and attitudes sometimes say otherwise. We think: If you want to follow Jesus, if you want to be a disciple, if you want to have God in your heart, it also means that you have to do XYZ - these other expectations that we’ve attached to being a follower of Jesus. Maybe we have clear ideas that Christians should speak in certain ways, or listen to certain music, or attend certain groups, or wear certain clothes, or vote for certain candidates or policies, and so on. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have some expectations about what it means to follow Jesus. But we need to be very aware that what matters are God’s expectations, not ours. We need to be very careful that we aren’t hindering the work of God, and that we aren’t attaching requirements to the good news that come from us and not from God. God is way better at extending grace, mercy, love and forgiveness than we are, thanks be to God, and we need to let God decide how to do that work. The last thing we want to do is hinder someone else getting to God. We’ve talked about that before - how seriously Jesus speaks against that, and how frequently the New Testament warns against being a stumbling block for others on their path to God.

God shows no partiality. God has given the gift of the Holy Spirit in places that are unexpected. And God has said that only God will decide what is clean or unclean. Who are we to hinder the work of God? In our hearts, I know we don’t want to. But sometimes we need reminding. And so we tell ourselves our story: this story from Acts that Luke so wanted us to know by heart. We tell ourselves the stories of the scriptures, that start with us being made in God’s image, each one. We tell ourselves the story of Jesus, so that we remember who he is and how he loves, and so that others come to love him like we do. We tell ourselves the stories of the times we forgot, so we remember to remember. And as we tell the story - God’s story - we praise God - because God has given the gift of repentance that leads to life even to us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, September 21, 2018

A Sung Communion for World Communion Sunday: For the Beauty of the Earth

For the Beauty of the Earth: A Sung Communion Liturgy for World Communion Sunday
Tune: DIX, 77.77.77 (“For the Beauty of the Earth,” UMH 92)

Gather, friends, from far and near
Gather, friends - you are welcome
Come to the table, join the meal
God invites us, every one.
Sing together, voices raise to our God this song of praise.

Lift your hearts up to the Lord!
God, we lift our hearts to you.
Give to God your thanks and praise.
It is right to give our thanks.
Sing together, voices raise to our God this song of praise.

God, you made us out of love,
Each one different, yet like you
We’re one people, all the earth
Many nations, many-hued
Sing together, everyone! Tell the world what God has done!

Though we are one, we’ve built up walls,
Nurtured fears and pain and strife,
In our anger, turned away
From the gift of God-breathed life.
Holy God, we turn to you. We repent and start anew.

So you sent your holy child,
Come to share your reign on earth
Breaking all our barriers down
Teaching us our sacred worth
Jesus Christ, God’s gift of grace! At the meal we take our place.

Jesus shared a meal with friends
Took and blessed and shared the bread
“This, my life, I give to you
Remember when you eat again”
We remember, we give thanks, for the meal of love and grace.

Jesus took a cup of wine
Shared with friends fruit of the vine
“In this cup forgiveness find,
Gift of mercy, gift divine.
We remember, we give thanks, for the meal of love and grace.

Pour on us your Holy Breath.
Pour your Spirit on these gifts.
Make them into Christ for us.
Make us Christ for the whole world.
God of all, to you we raise this our song of grateful praise.

Text: Beth Quick, 2018.
Creative Commons License
A Sung Communion Liturgy for World Communion Sunday: For the Beauty of the Earth by Rev. Dr. Beth Quick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Sermon, "Building Community: The Bold and the Faithful," Acts 4:23-31

Sermon 9/16/18
Acts 4:23-31

Building Community: The Bold and the Faithful

You might be surprised to know that years ago I used to be a regular watcher of daytime soap operas. It was something of a family tradition. My grandmother watched them, and my mother watched them, and I watched them - the same ones that they had watched. We were a CBS family, so that meant The Young and the Restless, As the World Turns, Guiding Light, and of course, The Bold and the Beautiful. The Bold and the Beautiful centered around some families who were part of the glamorous fashion industry, and the plotlines suggested the being bold generally meant making sure that you could get your way, what you wanted, no matter the cost. I can still hear the theme song in my mind.
I will admit I had that soap on my mind when I chose our sermon title for this week: The Bold and the Faithful. As we continue our sermon series on Building Community, we’re following the early church, the first followers of Jesus as they figure out how to continue to share his life and message and call after Jesus is no longer physically with them. One of the recurring themes in the Acts of the Apostles is the theme of boldness. You’ll notice on your bulletin worksheet this week one of the action items is checking out exactly how many times you can find the words bold or boldly or boldness in Acts. Hint: It occurs more times in Acts than in any other book of the Bible by more than double. So what exactly does it mean to be bold according to Acts? As you might guess, it doesn’t mean working to get your way, what you want, no matter the cost. The book of Acts talks about boldness as a quality of faithfulness. What does it mean to be bold in faith?
The dictionary defines boldness as “showing an ability to take risks; confident and courageous.” The word in the Bible certainly carries some of that meaning - risk-taking, courageousness. It also has the sense of freedom - a freedom of speech and action. Those who are bold speak and act with freedom and courage, despite possible risk or consequence.
Our scripture lesson from Acts today shows us the first chapter where the word bold appears. As chapter 4 begins, Peter and John had been preaching and healing in the temple. While they’re speaking, the priests, the captain of the temple, and some Sadducees come to argue with them. The Sadducees, a sect in Judaism that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, were annoyed particularly that Peter and John kept preaching about Jesus’s resurrection. So, they have Peter and John arrested, and call them forward to answer questions in front of the rulers, elders, scribes, and chief priests. These leaders ask Peter and John about the source of their power, and Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks about Jesus to them. After Peter finishes talking, the narrator tell us that when the leaders “saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.” They order Peter and John to stop speaking or teaching in the name of Jesus, but Peter and John refuse. The leaders are worried about punishing the disciples, because the crowd is pleased with the healing they’ve been doing. Stuck, they release them.
It’s then that we get to the beginning of our text for today. Peter and John report to the rest of the Jesus-followers. And in response, they all join together in prayer. We pray all kinds of prayers for all kinds of reasons, and that’s good. We’ve talked about before and I’ll say now again - we can and should pray to God about anything. Praying is conversation with God, and God wants us to share our whole hearts with God. But I’m particularly touched by the prayers of Peter and John and their friends. They pray first with knowledge about what has just happened to Jesus, just a couple of short months before this: When Jesus went up against the religious and political leaders Herod and Pilate, he was arrested and beaten and tried and executed. So Peter and John and the others know very clearly that the risks they are taking by engaging in the same kind of behavior are also high.
What they ask for from God in light of their situation is not safety though, not protection. No, they pray for boldness. They ask that they may speak and act with boldness, that they might share the good news of Jesus with boldness, so that people will experience God’s healing, signs and wonders, and come to know Jesus. Luke tells us that God answers their prayers. The last verse of our reading for today says, “When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke the word of God with boldness.” That boldness carries them through all sorts of encounters that come their way as they do the work of sharing the message of Jesus.
I wonder - what is your prayer to God in light of how you want to share the good news of Jesus, the good news of God’s grace? What is your hope for this community of faith, and how have you been praying for God to equip you and prepare you in response? When you look at our congregation, when you look at Gouverneur, when you see the people around you and think about how you wish they experienced Jesus at work in their lives, what is your prayer to God, what hopes are you sharing with God on behalf of the hope you have? Are you praying - will you pray with me for God to give us the resources we need to share the message of Jesus that we treasure? Will we ask God to make us bold disciples, speaking and acting and loving and serving freely in the name of Jesus?
Today (at First UMC) we’re celebrating our RipIt Ministry. I still remember the first time I attended a RipIt class. It was hard, and the class ended with Amber (Ormasen) putting her feet on a chair and hands on the floor to do push-ups, which the thought of attempting made me literally laugh out loud, but I found that like those Planet Fitness commercials, it was a “judgment free zone” where people were more interested in building each other up and encouraging each other than in criticising or trying to one-up each other. RipIt started because of a vision Amber had for focusing on health and wellness, yes, but also a bold vision for sharing with the community how much we desired to have the church be a place they could call home, a place they could be welcome. I’m not sure how many people have come into this church building because of RipIt, but it is a lot. And I so appreciate the ways that RipIt folks continually step out boldly to meet challenges head on. Each month, RipIt folks donate their funds either to the church, or to someone or some project in the community that needs support. They host what has become the biggest fundraiser of the year to support the mission and ministries of our church. They’ve added components to connect with teens and with older RipIteers. Devotional pilates encourages people to connect health and faith in deeper ways. Folks in RipIt - long time attendees and newbies alike - are always inviting, inviting, and inviting people to be a part of the program, a part of events in the community, a part of things here at church, a part of each others’ lives.
I think about Judy (Bush) having a vision for a Blessing Box, a way for folks to get some immediate assistance if they find themselves hungry and with no place to turn. She shared her idea with folks here (at North Gouverneur) and Rick Tyler stepped right up to get the box built and installed and now it is already being put to use. I think about the Friday Lunch program, starting as a response to the ice storm. It’s been on my mind this week as I think about those impacted by natural disasters around our globe right now. Who could have envisioned where we’d be twenty years later, how the lunch program would impact our community in such positive ways? I think about the folks who are involved in the Kairos Prison ministry. For many people, the idea of going and visiting folks is a source of some anxiety or fear. But the scriptures call us to care with compassion for those who are in prison, and we can imagine how in need of a message of grace those who are in prison might be. It takes bold faithfulness to sign up, but I know the participants are ready to be bold because they so desire to share the love of Jesus with those they will meet in prison. What is your hope, your vision, your dream for sharing the message of Christ with our community?
Our bold acts of faith don’t all have to look the same. I don’t think of myself as much of a risk-taker. I’m not a thrill-seeker. There’s no way you could talk me into getting onto a roller coaster, for example. But I’ve been surprised sometimes to hear when others have interpreted some of my actions as risk-taking. I’ve driven cross-country a few times by myself, and loved my time traveling, and then been surprised to have people tell me that they thought it was risky, that they could never do that. Or I think about my mom. She probably doesn’t think of herself as particularly bold. And she’s definitely got a gentle, kind spirit. But if someone hurts someone my mom loves, or if my mom sees someone who is an underdog, who is getting mistreated - watch out. My mom will speak and act boldly on someone else’s behalf, no problem. Boldness, thankfully for us introverts, doesn’t have to mean extrovertedness. Being bold for God doesn’t mean you have to alter your personality in order to be faithful. If you’re shy or quiet and introspective, having a bold faith doesn’t mean you need to become the center of attention. And that’s because the source of our boldness isn’t us. Rather, bold faith comes when we open ourselves to God working through us. The source of boldness is the Holy Spirit. God’s breath filling us up. Knowing that God is with us always, that we have the very spirit of God dwelling within us, knowing that God will never leave us on our own - trusting in that frees us to be bold for God.
Peter and John and the others - they so wanted the world to know the Jesus they knew. They wanted so much for others’ to have their lives changed by knowing Jesus as they themselves had been changed. They would give anything for others to know Jesus like they did, to build a community of disciples of Jesus. What would you do? What will you pray? How much would it mean for you for the people in your life, the people in your home, the people in your community to experience the transforming, life-changing love of God we’ve experienced in Jesus?

May we who are gathered in this place pray for boldness in doing the work of God. May we feel this place shake with the power of the Holy Spirit! May our lives be transformed by the presence of God who helps us to speak, to act, to serve, and to love in bold ways that change lives, open hearts, and make disciples of Jesus. May we be the Bold and the Faithful. Amen.  

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Sermon, "Building Community: Things in Common," Acts 2:37-47

Sermon 9/9/18
Acts 2:37-47

Building Community: Things in Common

Today, we’re beginning  new sermon series called, “Building Community.” We’ll be focusing on some readings from the Book of Acts. The book is actually “the Acts of the Apostles,” and it is a collection of stories about how Jesus’ first disciples, his apostles - his sent-ones - began to build what eventually becomes the church. How do they go from a small group following Jesus around and listening to him teach to a group that has a vision of sharing his message with the whole world, and building communities of people who are committed to living and serving in the same way? The Book of Acts traces what is truly an incredible story, and each week this month, we’ll think about some aspect of the early church community, and how the church became the church.  
As we follow the birth of the church in Acts, we’ll be thinking about our own community of faith. What makes us who we are as a congregation? What are our strengths, and where are our growing edges of learning and change? How can we make sure we are building a grounded community that is ready to serve and love in the name of Jesus? Next month, we’ll be looking more in depth at some particular language we’ve been using that describes how we think we can be about the work of intentional discipleship here: meeting Jesus, following Jesus, serving Jesus. But before we get there, we’ll spend some time thinking about what kind of community we are, and what kind of community God calls us to be.
We get one model for building a community of faith right near the beginning of Acts. Our text today comes from Acts chapter 2. In fact, we are still on what we call the day of Pentecost when the passage begins. The disciples, who had been in a kind of waiting-mode after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, are suddenly filled with the promised Holy Spirit, which is giving them the boldness to speak up about Jesus, calling others to become his followers too. When the crowds, who are gathered in Jerusalem like the disciples for the harvest festival wonder at the strange behavior of these disciples, Peter speaks up and preaches about the work of Jesus in the world. We start at the conclusion of his sermon. He tells the crowds that the promises of God in Jesus Christ are for them, for their children, and for all people. And the people apparently like what they hear. Thousands, Luke - the author of Act - tells us, are baptized. And all these new Jesus followers devote themselves to the teachings of Jesus, and to building community with the other Jesus followers through praying together and sharing meals together.
Luke paints a beautiful picture. He writes, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Wow! What a vision! Can you imagine being part of a community like this? I have to admit - I can hardly imagine it. And not only that, I find myself a bit skeptical. It seems impossible. All things in common? Selling our possessions and sharing the proceeds for the good of the group? And then just spending all our time praising God, sharing meals together, and looking out for the good of all people. Maybe when they were a brand new thing, a brand new church, full of such hope and idealism, something like this was possible, but not for us. And it’s not just me who’s skeptical. A lot of books and articles about healthy churches suggest it is easier to build the faith community you want if you start from scratch - if you start a new congregation altogether - than if you try to take your existing congregation and transform it into the community you’re feeling called to be. Well, we’ve been around since the 1800s. (N. Gouv?) So do we just throw in the towel? Is there hope for us in building a community of faith that, while perhaps not functioning exactly like this Acts 2 community, draws on the values that shaped the early church?
As I’ve studied this text, I’ve been drawn to the phrase “things in common.” Luke writes, “All who believed were together and had all things in common.” He’s speaking more literally about shared possessions and property, but I’ve been thinking - what is it that we have in common that makes us a community of faith? Common ground is an important part of building community, and we only have to look at the state of our nation to get a sense of how painful lack of common ground, or at least perceived lack of common ground with a each other can be for the whole. So, what is it that we have in common as a church? As this church? Or what things in common should we be cultivating?
Throughout the writings of Paul and demonstrated in Acts we see that community thrives with a common goal of building each other up. We’ve talked about this before - our call to build each other up. And we see here in Acts that the early church builds members up very tangibly - with the sharing of concrete resources. How do we build each other up? I think of the South African concept of Ubuntu, a word from the Zulu language. ( It means something like “I am because we are,” or “A person is a person through other persons.” We have in common first and foremost our basic human identity. We are children of God, part of the body of Christ. We exist not alone, but as a people. We don’t exist in a void. And even if we like alone time, we don’t exist well without others around us. Our nature is to be in relationship with God and others, and we draw meaning from our shared identity in God.
Grounded in that shared identity, we’re called to build each other up. As I was writing my sermon this week, I happened on one of those facebook videos that shows animals doing something cute or unexpected. This video was from a man who kept honeybees, and apparently, one of the bees had fallen into a bucket of honey. The bee was completely covered in honey, and there wasn’t much the man could do himself. But he did pull the bee from the honey, and set the bee on on the entrance to the hive. And then he started filming on his smartphone, because what happened next was that several bees quickly came over to the one soaked, unable to fly or do anything because of all the honey, and they began to clean him off thoroughly. It took about 30 minutes of work. But at the end of it, that bee, who otherwise would have died, was able to fly away. Now, some folks commenting on the video suggested that perhaps the other bees just didn’t want any honey to go to waste. But in a bee colony, everybody has to work together. A single bee can’t do much by itself. But together - bees are incredible! So it doesn’t seem out of character, so to speak, for bees to work together too when it comes to taking care of one of their hive members.
Building community means we build each other up, because wow, do we need it! We need building up. Sometimes it feels like we have fallen into a vat of honey and we can’t move and can’t breathe and there is no hope. And sometimes we see that that has happened to someone in our community. And we can ignore them - or we can get to work, helping them heal, helping them return to wholeness, helping until that person is ready to fly again. I know what the first followers of Jesus would choose. Can we choose that too? Part of our common life as disciples must be in consistently and persistently building each other up. I noticed this week on facebook an image shared by our own Amber Ormasen - all these artistic blocks posted at the middle school with messages from teachers(?) about why they teach. The blocks say things like, “I do this because I believe in all of you,” and “I do this because I love the feeling I get when I help others learn and grow,” and “I do this because everybody needs somebody.” It is a tangible, visible reminder to students in the midst of middle school, which can be such a hard time of life to feel good about yourself, that they are loved and supported and have all these adults who want to see them become the best people they can be. That’s one thing our schools are doing to build up our students. What are we doing to build community in the body of Christ?
The early church not only kept their stuff in common, but they shared their lives with each other too. They spent a lot of time together. They worshiped together, they prayed together, they hung out together, they ate together. When I think about our church camps, and think about why they are consistently places in the life of our church where our children and youth find it easiest to feel close to God, I think it isn’t just about finding God in nature, in the beauty of the outdoors. It’s because campers are modeling the community of the early church in ways that we don’t often get to in the “real world.” They spend all day, every day with each other. They eat together, and bunk in the same cabins, and worship together and study the bible together and swim and boat together and do crafts together and eat together around the table. It’s no wonder campers can become fast friends, enduring friends after only a few days. They’re experiencing a life in common with each other like Jesus’ first followers did.
Most of us don’t get to live at summer camp year round. And most of us can’t live together and hang out together and eat together and work together all the time. But I think we can make a commitment to nurturing our common life together as much as we can. This time we spend worshiping together is so important - not just because we need to worship the God who created all we know - but also because we need to do that together. Praising God together in the congregation draws us close to God in ways that are unique from our private time with God. Sacraments - baptism and communion - are things that only happen in community. We can only fully experience these most precious gifts from God when we’re with each other. Our spirits thrive when we commit to our mutual worship life. But it’s more than that. We can and should study the scriptures on our own, but we learn in other ways when we come together and explore and question together. We have potlucks and coffee fellowship time when we can not just because Methodists are born knowing how to make a good casserole, but because sharing food together is sharing our lives with each other. We nurture our compassion, our ability to forgive and share God’s grace, our capability for love when we share our lives in common with each other.
In the coming weeks, we will explore the boldness of the early church, the struggles they faced, the work they did to remove barriers from their community, and their heart for service. But before we move on to all of those things, let us seek the common ground. Together, we are God’s children, members of the body of Christ. Together we worship. Together we learn. Together, as much as we can, we live. We build each other up. We make a community. We nurture the things in common that matter most. Amen.