Life in Community

Romans 12:1-13, John 15:9-17

Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth UCC, 9/8/13


These are the High Holy Days for our Jewish sisters and brothers. The Jewish New Year began last Thursday with Rosh Hashanah, the year 5774. This is a great time of reverence and celebration for the Jews that begins in repentance, a renewed appreciation for God's saving love, and a sense of awe.


It is a new year, a new beginning. This year, Rosh Hashanah is earlier than it has been in 800 years, so it coincides with the more secular "new year" that begins in the U. S. right after Labor Day. As we begin our "new year" we'd like to take the next three weeks to reflect on why we are here as Plymouth Church and how we seek to carry out God's call to be "ambassadors of Good News." This week, we will look at how we serve each other. Next week we will look at our mission focus, and the following week our Social Justice work. None of this will be a simple listing of the "really good stuff" we do, but rather what informs our ministry.


What does it mean to be a church? This is an age-old question that we must continue to address. The church is a gathered community of people who are not compelled, but decide, to gather in God's name. That is, to be an intentional community, to work together to serve God and the world. St. Augustine may have said it best all those years ago, "A community is a gathering of many rational (we won't quibble over definitions!) people brought together by a shared agreement in the things it loves." Notice that he was wise enough not to say "thing" it loves, but "things." Yes, the bottom line is we love God, or at least we have a strong enough love/hate relationship with God to keep us going. But for some, it is more love of others. For some it is love of worship and music. For others it is learning. And for still others it is serving - and for some of those that service is in the congregation and for others it is in the community and world. Common to all these things is the community.


We love each other. I don't mean in a cheesy or simplistic way as if we always like each other, or necessarily want to socialize with each person, though that is highly prevalent among us! Praise be to God! But rather, I mean we genuinely care about each other's wellbeing and hold those who are struggling in the light. That is why we spend the time (and sometimes frustration) in sharing Joys and Concerns. We actively hold people up in the Prayer Chain. Whether you know it or not, if you have something major going on, and let us know, you will be held in the light. (You tell us whether it can be more widely shared or if it is confidential to the Prayer Chain.) We also seek to be present when possible. Donna faced her last days with several Plymouth people visiting her regularly. They represented themselves, but also represented you as part of the church community.


I think to love one another also means that we will be missed when we are gone. Like God, the church community transcends time and space. Paul spoke of those who have gone before as a "Crowd of witnesses cheering us on." There are so many who have gone before who are yet very present to us, still very much part of this congregation. We see them, we think of them. No doubt, during communion many of us will see Donna in our mind's eye struggling to come forward, reminding us it is worth the struggle to participate in this symbol of communion with God and one another.


When Theresa was struggling last week, people came to her aid putting aside what they were doing in order to be with her and her mother. It doesn't always happen. Sometimes we simply miss it and sometimes we are not always able to make it happen, but we try. To be a community, to love each other is to seek to live up to the vows we make when someone becomes a member. That is, to share our gifts, to receive their gifts, to offer support, guidance, and to treat them in such a way that it will be clear to each one that they are a child of God.


We do this in many tangible, programmatic ways, like worship. I can pray alone. I can give thanks alone. I can sing alone. But we worship in community. The community calls forth our praise and prayer, even sometimes on our behalf. There is something deeply meaningful and connective about community - simply being present, paying attention together to that which we love. I can listen to hymns or religious music in my car or at home, but it doesn't move me like singing hymns with you. It doesn't move me like hearing my friends and fellow community members offering their gifts in the choir or through an instrument. It doesn't give me the thrill and pride I get when seeing one of our own young people offer their musical gifts.


It happens through our Sunday Sessions program in which so much really good stuff happens - not just learning about God and the testimony of God's people, but experiencing community, belonging and being known and valued. It happens with Plymouth Pilgrims sharing a meal, sharing time, stories, learning and growing. It happens in adult education and growth experiences where other's insights feed and sometimes challenge us. It happens in our social interactions. Yes, many of them are programmed, like potlucks and dinners and parties. But most importantly, it happens in the way we greet and treat each other wherever we meet, be that here, before and after worship, in meetings, or on the street.


In our individualized culture, it is easy to forget that the faith is founded in, forged in, and practiced in community. It was my good fortune to hear an interview with Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, where she reminded us that there likely is NOT enough faith in us as individuals, but there is in the community. She said she doesn't necessarily believe the old saying that "God doesn't give us more than we can handle." But she does believe that God doesn't give us more than the community can handle. And even when we recite the creeds or Statement of Faith, we don't all believe each word, but someone in the community does.


You have heard the sports analogy, "There is no "I" in team." Ah, but, there is an "I" in "Community." There also is one in "Congregation." Please note that in each of those words the "I" is only one letter among many; but it is there! It is true, that the faith isn't so much about us, but rather about God. It is also true that this isn't a "self-help, therapy, or happiness guaranteed" society. But it does serve me. Each of us needs to be here for ourselves. And if we are only here for what we can do for others, our arrogance is palpable and our delusion dangerous! The UCC honors and depends upon individuals taking responsibility for, and making decisions about, their beliefs. We believe that the Spirit moves in each of us, for the good of the whole. Yes, we need to be served, to be healed and made whole. Yes, we need a place to serve and share.


But maybe most of all, each of us needs a place to call us to be better than we would be on our own, to help us be better than we would be on our own, and to challenge us to be better than we would be on our own.


You see, I need to hear what God would have me be and do. But I also need to see it demonstrated by others in the community. I need the witness of the person who got knocked down, lost a loved one, was dealt a body-blow by life, and got up again and renewed their faith. I need the witness of the person to whom God, or God in Christ, is very tangible - who walks with them and talks with them, when God to me, can seem so vast as to get lost sometimes. I need the witness, by how I am treated, that reminds me I am loved and valued, when I don't always love and value myself. I need the witness of people who have not succumbed to the national value of getting and holding, but rather are generous of spirit, of material goods, and their gifts of time, energy, and abilities. I need the witness of people who have worshiped for years and years, yet still find freshness and new insights. I need people to understand and accept my foibles yet not put up with my foolishness or self-absorption. I need people to understand and commiserate over how easy it is to sin and fall short of the Glory of God but who still expect the best of me.


I need a community that asks the right questions of me - questions that probe my depth where God intersects my being, and expects answers consistent with God's values. These are questions like those asked by Oriah in "The Invitation."*


God gives each of us gifts of the Spirit and the community. Ours is a community that transcends time and space all the way back to that first communion meal. This meal connects us to Christ and the community that makes us whole, holds us up, and calls us forth.


Praise be to God.


* "The Invitation" by Oriah @ Mountain Dreaming. From the book, The Invitation, HarperONE, San Francisco. I did not use the verses 6, 8, &12.