Allen and I just got back from a week at the monastery. (Isn’t that where you spend your vacations?) J It might seem strange to spend vacation in a dorm, with bathrooms down the hall, to eat bland food, and go to prayer three times a day, but, for Allen and me, it’s one of the most restful things we do—relaxing into the rhythm of prayer, receiving the gifts of Benedictine hospitality, getting loved on by nuns who’ve become our friends. We go to the monastery because we have learned that resting in God is the deepest, most renewing rest there is.
And yet…every time I visit Our Lady of Grace, I can’t help wondering why. Why commit yourself to a lifetime—which can last well into your 10th or even 11th decade–why commit yourself to a lifetime of dorm-living, bland food, and praying three times a day with the same group of people, some of whom annoy you mightily?
Every sister I talk to assures me that living in community is a special calling. If you try to live in community when you’re not called to it, you don’t last long. But those who are called? It works for them. Still. Call me spoiled, but I like having my own bathroom.
But then I read something like today’s lesson from Acts 2, and suddenly my commitment to my own private bathroom seems a little selfish, a little worldly, decidedly un-spiritual.
The story thus far….Jesus has lived, died, risen from the dead, and ascended into heaven. Then the Spirit swoops in and stirs things up. Miracles happen. A spirit of peace and joy breaks out. The place is rife with celebration.
Caught up in the Spirit, Peter preaches: “In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young people shall see visions, and your old folks shall dream dreams.”
How do folks respond to the outpouring of God’s Spirit? First, they’re baptized then…
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day 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, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
So, Jesus lives, dies, lives again, ascends, then God’s Spirit swoops in. How does the community respond? They respond by choosing to live together. To eat, pray, study, and fellowship together. Again, I ask: Why? What IS the big deal about community?
Think about your own life. We don’t live in community here, but we do gather regularly for worship, prayer, shared meals, study, and service. What happens to your spiritual life when you’re away from this community? Do you pray as much? Reflect on God’s love as much? Serve others as much? It’s true that there are some folks—hermits, we call them—who do have consistent, profound spiritual experiences outside of community. For most of us, though, staying spiritually connected is a whole lot easier when we do it with others. I suspect that’s why those new believers chose to live together in those first heady days after Pentecost.
I also suspect that conflicts soon arose—those communities were, after all, peopled by people. A quick survey of Paul’s epistles reveals LOTS of conflicts in the early days. Paul wrote to help communities navigate the life of faith…even when folks weren’t getting along.
So, maybe those first century Christians chose community-life because, though it isn’t always easy, it is the easiest way to really live one’s faith. All those other folks remind us–simply by their presence–that everything we do–eating, sleeping, working, praying, serving…. everything we do is an opportunity to experience God’s presence and to share God’s love.
These verses from Acts inspired Baptist pastor Clarence Jordan to start an intentional Christian community in southwest Georgia. He called it Koinonia, the Greek word for community used in Acts to describe what believers created the first days after Pentecost.
Seeing in these verses a picture of what God’s kin-dom looks like, Clarence and a few others set out to establish just that kind of community at Koinonia Farm. They called it a “demonstration plot” for the kin-dom of God. They held all things in common. They shared equally in the farm work. They lived together in a small enclave. They shared meals together.
Did I mention that Koinonia was intentionally interracial…and that it started in 1942? In southwest Georgia? Community life wasn’t always easy in those first couple of decades.
Tuesday, I travel with our youth to that same Koinonia Farm. It’s still an intentional community trying to live into their vision of the kin-dom of God–a place where people live, work, and pray together, a place where no one experiences need because they have “all things in common,” a place where peace and goodwill are maintained by doing the hard work of living, working, and praying together with folks you might not always get along with.
So, in this summer of “Growing Deeper into Community” our youth are going to a place called Koinonia–the New Testament word for community. They’ll share in work, prayer, meals, and fellowship with folks who really have committed themselves to community. So, here’s what I’m thinking. Why don’t we send our teenagers to Koinonia as reporters, or detectives, (or spies!) to learn as much as they can about community, then report back to us next week?
I don’t make this suggestion lightly. Because of their age and inherent idealism, teenagers see, hear, and understand things we adults never would be able to see, hear, or understand. If we want to create a more hopeful future, who better to lead us than the inhabitants of that future? Peter understood the vital importance of young people to keeping faith communities vital and relevant. That’s why he quoted the prophet Joel in his Pentecost sermon: “Your young people shall see visions, and your old folks shall dream dreams.”
In the bookstore at Synod, I met an author who was signing an advance copy of her book, Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community. Leah Gunning Francis teaches Christian Ed at UCC-affiliated Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Chalice Press invited Leah to interview participants from faith communities who have been involved with all that’s been happening in Ferguson since last August.
In retirement, when I look back on my ministry, I think I will see reading this book as a before-and-after event. It’s challenging me to see ministry and the work of the church in completely new ways. It’s opened my eyes to the vital importance of hearing, really hearing, the voices of young people… and letting them lead us into a more just, loving, and generous world.
I look forward in the future to sharing with you some of the creative things faith communities and faith leaders have been doing in Ferguson.
Today, though, I want to share the most striking thing to me about the interviews with religious leaders. When these clergy people went to offer guidance and leadership to the protesters, they quickly learned that what they had to say, what had worked in similar situations in the past, wasn’t relevant to what the young people were experiencing. In fact, spouting old truisms only angered the young protesters. The religious leaders soon realized that their task in this instance wasn’t to speak to–or for–the protesters; their calling in Ferguson was to support the young leaders, to offer food and places to gather–and rest–in their places of worship, and on occasion to be a bridge between protesters and law enforcement.
Communities in and around Ferguson are still finding their way, but strides are being made. That’s due in large part to community and religious leaders listening to the young people. If you think about it, most positive social movements have been started by young people. It was largely young people who moved the civil rights movement.
And I’ve heard a couple of stories about the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision. In many cases, parents have tried to explain the decision to their children and assumed they’d have to wait actually to get married until their kids got used to the idea. From what I’m hearing, though, the kids already are ready…have been for a long time. In so many circumstances, we see roadblocks where our children see only open road.
All of this is to say that we need to listen to young people. They haven’t been around long enough yet to get jaded. They haven’t contributed to creating the status quo, so they have little investment in it. That’s probably why the prophet said the young people will prophesy–because they’re the ones who can see a more hopeful future. Those of us who’ve been around a while have seen all the things that can go wrong…and have. We see problems; young people see possibilities.
So, when I suggest that we send our youth on a fact-finding mission to Koinonia to learn what they can about community and report back to us, I’m not just making a cutesy connection between what they’re doing and our summer theme. I’m suggesting it because these four teenagers are going to see things and hear things and imagine things that those of us no longer quite so young can see. We can dream dreams—indeed we have a responsibility to; but it is the young people who will lead us into making those dreams come true.
So, let’s get our emissaries commissioned!
(8:30 In the next service, we’ll commission the youth for their trip to Koinonia. As David plays, I’d like to invite you all to write your own blessings/hopes for the kids on the cards provided. I will take those cards with me and read them during our prayer times during the week.)
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Blessing of the Youth for their Trip to Koinonia Farm (7/12/15)
Devin, Zach, Danielle, and Emma, as your faith community, we have watched you grow. We’ve worked hard at nurturing you into the Christian faith. We are proud of who you are becoming!
As we explore what it means to grow deeper into community this summer, we send you forth to Koinonia on a fact-finding mission. In the next week, learn everything you can about community. What does it take to be a strong and deep community of faith? We’re all going to be here next week to hear what you’ve learned. We’ll be here because we really want to know what you find out. You are going to see things and hear things and understand things we’d never see, hear, and understand. To this point, you’ve been learning from us. Now it’s our turn to learn from you!
And now as you go forth, we’re going to pray and ask God’s blessing on you and all you will experience in the coming week.
Holy One, we thank you for each of these youth—and chaperones. We ask your blessing on each of them. Keep their minds and hearts open to learning everything they can from you and their experiences. Keep our minds and hearts open to learning everything we can from them when they return. Bless the people these young people are becoming—and the community they will be building this week. In Jesus’ name we pray—Amen.