Living in Community

It’s almost as if God knows how hard it is to live in community with one another.

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Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Ezekiel 33:1-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Seventeen years ago, during my freshman year at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, IL, I was one of nine tuba players in the Marian Catholic High School Marching Band.

It was a bit of a rough start.

I wasn’t like the other kids in the tuba section. We did not have the same interests. We did not have the same approach to music. We did not have the same way of thinking about high school. And it led to friction.

Marching band is a delicate thing. It is the definition of a team sport. You can have 99 people lined up in a perfectly straight line, but if 1 person is a half-step out of line, it doesn’t matter what the other 99 are doing—it’s not a straight line, and you lose points.

The whole band can be playing the same part in unison, all together. But if one person comes in a half-beat too early, the whole part is ruined, and you lose points.

The entire band must work together, and it must work together well if the band is going to succeed. You have to rely on each other to do your parts, and to do them well. You have to trust that the person in front of you or to the side of you will hit their mark, and they are trusting that you are going to hit yours as well.

This is such an important and difficult task that to this day, even within the last month, I have had nightmares about being back in marching band, on the field and ready to start a show, and I suddenly realize I don’t know my part at all. I don’t know a note of the music or a single step. It is the scariest nightmare I’ve ever had.

In order for all of this marching band stuff to work, there needs to be a certain level of trust. And in the tuba section, we didn’t have that trust. We fought with each other, we got mad at each other, and we found it very difficult to work with each other.

One day after school, when the tuba section showed up for our sectional (our weekly rehearsal just for our instrument), the assistant band director, Marc Whitlock, called all nine of us over and led us into the big storage room at the back of the band room. He then, in a tone of voice that allowed no argument, told us that we’d better not dare come out until we’d worked through our crap. And then he slammed the door and walked away, leaving us by ourselves.

The next two hours were… well, let’s just say that they were heated. I don’t remember much of that afternoon. There was a lot of shouting and a lot of blaming. There were a lot of arguments and frustrations aired out in the open. There was a lot of brutal honesty, feelings expressed that we’d kept bottled up for weeks. It was an incredibly awkward, painful experience for a shy, introverted freshman.

I wish I could say that after those two hours, when we emerged from the storage room, all of our problems were solved. That’s not the case. Some of the upper classmen were still the same egotistical jerks they always were. I was still going to be the annoying Little Princess in their eyes. However, we did emerge with a better understanding of one another. We knew each other better. We knew what to expect. And we knew that no matter what happened, we were the tuba section. We were going to work together to make the best show we possibly could. We weren’t going to let our personal disagreements get in the way of our mission.

I will say that by the end of the year, we were closer. Not perfect, closer. Maybe we even respected each other just a little bit. But the work that began in that storage room was never quite finished. Most of us never became friends, and the friendships I did manage to cultivate in my section didn’t last beyond graduation.

Living intentionally in community with people is really, really hard. Personalities clash. People get upset. People get angry. Sometimes relationships are broken to the point that they can’t be salvaged anymore. Sometimes people leave. Keeping a community together, especially a voluntary community like, say, a church, is really, really hard.

And this is not a sermon on how we all need to come together, put aside our differences, and all get along. I wish it were that simple. But we know it’s not. We know that our community has suffered. We know that some relationships have been broken that we may never mend not matter how hard we try. I know that I’m the reason for some of them. It would be rather insincere of me to then come up here and say “We all just need to come together.” It doesn’t work in our country, and it doesn’t work in the church.

Nor is this a sermon about following the “rules” of Matthew 18 when it comes to resolving disputes, as if Jesus is providing a ready-made blueprint for approaching conflicts. I’m not sure that’s the right approach. Even though our own church constitution uses Matthew 18:15-20 as a model for conflict resolution, I’ve never been in a congregation that used it effectively. Because living in a community, where people will come into conflict, is really, really hard.

Instead, this sermon is about God.

Take a look at Matthew 18 as a whole. Remember, chapter divisions in the Bible are completely arbitrary because the original authors didn’t divide their writings up that way, but look at the rest of Matthew 18. It begins with a story of the disciples wanting to know how to be truly GREAT, and instead of telling them what they or we might expect makes one great, Jesus instead picks up a child, those unruly humans who get scoffed at in church, and tells the disciples that if they want to be great, they need to be like children; and that protecting the children was more important than almost anything.

Next, he tells the parable of the Lost Sheep, in which he explains that God would and does sacrifice anything and everything in order to find the one sheep, the one lost person, who has wandered away; that God would go to whatever lengths necessary to bring someone back into community.

And then we get today’s reading about how to handle conflict, in which extraordinary effort is made to repair a broken relationship.

That’s followed by Peter asking how many time’s he’s supposed to forgive someone, and Jesus gives him an absurd number that translates into, “As many times as it takes for you to fix your relationships, dummy.”

And that’s followed by a story that emphasizes that forgiveness is of paramount importance in how we relate to one another.

It’s almost as if God knows how hard it is to live in community with one another. And of course, that’s because… God knows how hard it is to live in community with one another.

Jesus Christ, God as a human being, lived in community with other human beings. He experienced disappointment from his parents. He had to flee for his life as a refugee when the leader of his country actively hunted him out to kill him. He was kicked out of his home town’s synagogue when he preached; in one story, the townspeople try to throw him off a cliff!

He ticked off the Roman authorities and he terrified the temple leaders. He was criticized for hanging out with all the wrong people and breaking some of the most cherished and strictest rules. His relationships with others deteriorated so much that they eventually arrested him, put him through a show trial in a kangaroo court, sentenced him to death, and murdered him.

God knows that living in community with each other is really, really hard.

It’s why God came as a human being in the first place—because living together as human beings with each other and as human beings with God is really, really hard. It takes a lot of work.

And the truly amazing thing is that God is willing to put in that work. God proved that when Jesus Christ was willing to endure torture and death, and then rise again, just so we would know that God was in this community business for the long haul, willing to do whatever it took to work out our differences.

That God was willing to be locked in a storage room with a bunch of people who didn’t get along, and work it out until their relationship improved.

That God was willing to come back again and again and again and again, slowly improving our relationship with God, banking on the fact that eventually, we and God will better understand each other and better live with each other in community, even though it’s really, really hard.

God is willing to endure really, really hard, just to be closer to us. That’s how important we are to God. That’s how important you are to God.

It’s why “when two or three are gathered” in Christ’s name, God is there too—not as a threat, but as a promise, because where two people are gathered you’ll have three different opinions and there’s going to be conflict, and God is there too to keep the community going despite the conflict.

Sometimes, we emulate this community-building devotion well. Today is “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday, a Sunday dedicated in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to being our in the community and helping one another—this Sunday, a group of us are traveling to Weston, WI, to participate in a Feed My Starving Children Mobile Food Pack to help feed the hungry and strengthen our community.

We see it in the amazing work being done by ELCA’s Lutheran Disaster Response and other agencies in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and the preparations they are making to go into Florida and the Caribbean after Hurricane Irma hits.

We see it whenever two communities of any time, religious, political, ideological, put aside their differences, even temporarily, for something greater than themselves, because it’s the right thing to do.

Sometimes, we aren’t so good at building or keeping communities and relationships together. It is really, really hard after all. Maybe we’ll make some progress along the way. Maybe we won’t.

But our relationship with God; that’s something that, no matter how difficult it gets, God will always keep working on. God will always keep forgiving. God will always keep working to make it new, to make it alive. God doesn’t give up on us.

And who knows? Maybe in the process of working out this relationship with God we may very well find that, together, we’ve come to understand ourselves and each other just a little bit better.

Featured Image: “community” by Jason Taellius is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Communities

A discussion earlier today brought up the need for human beings to live in supportive communities. Where are your communitites?

My sister and I grew up in Hegewisch, a 5-miles square neighborhood on Chicago’s far southeast side. Our mother is one of five siblings, and our father is one of three (not including their cousins). All of them but one lived in the neighborhood or right next to it. My twenty cousins and I bounced between each other’s houses nearly every day as my aunts and uncles took turns watching us after school and taking care of us on days off. I  grew up with nearly forty extra parents and siblings who worked together to raise us all.

Most of my college years were spent in one building at Capital University: the Conservatory of Music complex. I played in a brass quintet, tuba-euphonium quartet, tuba-euphonium ensemble (Capital Thunder), brass choir, and wind band. If I wasn’t in class, or practicing, or studying, I still hung out in the lobby (the Fishbowl) with other Con students. I slept in my dorm room and worshiped in the chapel, but I lived and learned with my classmates.

Though not all of us in seminary were training to become pastors, we were all aware that we formed a Christian, transient community. We lived in an apartment complex together. We worshiped together and had class together. We celebrated weekly cookouts and a Common Meal, where we could relax and get away from the stresses of exegesis, sermon-writing, and systematic theology. We watched each others’ kids when they had classes. After graduation, we traveled around the country to attend ordinations, installations, and support our friends and coworkers in Christ.

Human beings were made to live in community with each other. We need each other.

Sermon–February 23, 2014–Epiphany 7A

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Leviticus 19:1-8
Psalm 119:33-46
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Last summer, I worked for six weeks as a counselor for Trinity Lutheran Seminary’s Summer Seminary Sampler, a program that invites high school youth from across the country to live on campus, engage in daily service projects, learn from seminary professors, and engage in self-reflection.

Since they were living together for the weeks they were on campus, each group had to come up with a covenant, or a list of rules, that helped guide their communal living. The rules they came up with included showing each other respect during discussions, lifting each other up, rather than tearing each other down, and my favorites, “Thou shalt flush” and “Use thine own toothbrush”.

Both groups of kids were great kids, but they did not always live up to their covenantal expectations. At times, they would get upset with each other and speak hurtfully to one another, tear each other down, or not show each other the respect expected of them. I don’t recall flushing or toothbrush use ever being an issue, but there were other times when the community stood on shaky legs. They were only together for three weeks each, and they left the program with a stronger sense of identity and community, but it was not without its challenges.

It turns out that living in a community is not always easy.

We human beings are amazing creatures. No other creature on the planet lives in communities quite like we do. Our social webs and interactions are highly complex and integrated. We gather in groups as small as families and as large as cities of millions. We freely associate with others in different ways, in person and through electronic communication, and build enormous networks that connect people all over the world.

We have established every kind of community under the sun. We have built strong, lasting communities.

And yet, at the same time, our communities are also broken. The unrest that has plagued Ukraine, for example, or the “Arab Spring” of recent years, or the many wars I mentioned a few weeks ago are all evidence that our communities don’t always last and can come to bad ends.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he was writing to a church that was beginning to fracture. I hate to break it to you, but there was never a golden age of the church when everybody got along all the time. Church conflict is as old as the church itself.

One of the many issues in the church in Corinth (and there were many) was the formation of factions. The Corinthians had begun to align themselves based on who their favorite teacher was: Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and others. Each honestly thought that their way, their teaching was best.

They were a community trying to do the right thing, and they placed their trust in their leaders to guide them. They were faithful, and they cared about their community. They wouldn’t have invested so much in their leaders if they did not honestly believe in them. Their devotion is admirable. Unfortunately, that devotion was also tearing them down.

The Corinthian community had forgotten upon whom they were built. Instead of being united together, they were separating themselves into camps rallying around individual people. They had forgotten that their foundation was Jesus Christ crucified and risen, and that they, the church, could and should stand on that alone. Paul describes them as a temple built on that foundation, but built by many different people. The resulting temple was now breaking apart because of the conflicts between the builders.

Is this not our story, too?

Tell me if this sounds familiar. When I was a kid, my church called a new pastor. She served the congregation for a good number of years. But near the end of her tenure, there was a growing unrest in the congregation. Some were not happy with her leadership, while others strongly defended her.

It got to the point where someone sent anonymous letters to each member of the congregation accusing the pastor of being—and I kid you not—a terrorist. This was a senior citizen from Denmark we’re talking about. But that’s how polarized some people had become.

Eventually, the congregation decided that her time as their pastor had run its course. The decision was met with praise from some and anger from others. While it didn’t split the congregation, it caused enough turmoil that some left the community, and the wound was fresh enough that when they called their next pastor, two years later, they asked her to leave as well.

Does that sound familiar?

It is a story that repeats itself over and over. Last week, I attended a leadership formation and theological conference at Fortune Lake Lutheran Camp. I had the honor and pleasure of hearing our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, speak about these first few months of her term, speak about her greatest joys and her greatest challenges.

One of her greatest challenges has been dealing with the fallout from the 2009 social statement on Human Sexuality. It was and continues to be a source of conflict that is deeply, deeply emotional on all sides. What Paul feared for the Corinthians happened to us—we split. There is a gaping wound across the ELCA. We are wounded congregations in wounded synods that make up a wounded church. At times, it seems like there is not much hope to go around.

Bishop Eaton asked a poignant question: can the center hold? Furthermore, what is our center? When everything else starts to fall apart, will the church lose itself?

Paul reminds us that as long as the foundation stands, the church goes on. As long as it is built on Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, the church will not collapse. As long as Christ lives, so too does the community of faith.

Paul knows what’s going on in the Corinthian community. It’s not the first time a church has fallen into conflict and threatened to pull itself apart. But he also knows, without hesitation and without doubt, that they are the church. They are a dysfunctional and messed up church, but that doesn’t change who they are and who they are called to be. At the very beginning of the letter he greets the church as “holy ones”. Holy ones. They don’ t sound too holy in some parts of this letter. Yet, even in their broken state, they are still set apart by God.

You see, Paul, Apollos, Cephas—they are not the foundations of the church. The fate of the church and the faith don’t rest on their shoulders—it is not their burden to bear, but Christ’s.

The shared life of the community is still holy and sacred, even though they don’t have it all together, because it doesn’t depend on them. If the church in Corinth didn’t have Christ as their foundation, but actually had Paul or Apollos or Cephas or anyone else as their root, then they would be a lost cause. A church whose identity is wrapped up in a particular leader, or pastor, or even an issue, can only fail. But a church whose identity is the crucified and risen Lord is built on a foundation that can never break, can never fall.

Where does that leave us, then? This is Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. This is a congregation that knows division, that knows pain, that knows loss. I see it in your eyes when I visit you and hear it in your voices when I talk with you. This is a congregation that looks into the future and isn’t yet certain what it sees, and that’s frightening. This is a congregation ready to embark on God’s mission, but doesn’t yet know how to take those first steps.

If this congregation stood alone, by itself, I would not give it much chance if any.

But this community of faith, first of all, is not alone. It is a congregation of the Northern Great Lakes Synod, united in mission with all the churches of the North Woods and Upper Peninsula. It is a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, connected to every church across the country. It is descended from the centuries-old Lutheran tradition, itself descended from the millenia-old Roman Catholic tradition and its ancestors, the original Eastern churches founded by Paul.

Most importantly, its foundation, its identity, is Jesus Christ. In the end, those associations, those traditions, could all fall apart. The ELCA could split again or collapse, the Lutheran tradition could disappear, but Christ remains, and upon Christ this community is built. That is its center, and to answer Bishop Eaton’s question, yes: center can and will hold.

I do not know what the future holds for Faith Lutheran. What I do know is that, even in your woundedness, your brokenness, your uncertainty, you are holy ones, called out and set aside for the work of Jesus Christ. That is your identity. That is why you come to this table, to be fed with living bread, straight from the source. That is who you are, sent out into the world, bearing the promise of the good news on your lips and in your hands.

You will be the ones through whom the reign of God is brought near, not me. I belong to you, not the other way around. And you belong to Christ, and to God. Christ as the foundation and center of your work and your identity will hold. Of that, you can be certain.