This week, Jeff Stanley posted a picture on Facebook of a fully-functioning Yugo he’d seen on I-75. Traffic had stopped, and there it was. He took the picture and posted it. My response was simply to state the obvious. “This is the age of miracles,” J
Not really. With regular maintenance and a little TLC, even a Yugo can remain on the road. You know what is a miracle? What we’re doing right now.
Take a minute and take in your surroundings….the space–so aptly called a sanctuary… the light, the colors….the people. Think of all the things we hear in this space during worship… music, children, the tentative voice of one sharing a concern during prayer time. Think about what will happen in a moment when we’ll join hands and sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth”…
What happens here every week is a miracle. Where else in 21st century life do people gather across generations and sing together, pray together, support each other, and work with each other to act the world into wellbeing? Nowhere….which is not to say faith communities get it right all the time. Church might be a miracle, but it’s not perfect. Maybe if it didn’t have, oh you know, people in it. Doing community well takes work. A lot of hard work.
That’s what Paul said to the church at Corinth. Several times.
As sometimes happens in faith communities, members of the Corinthian church had begun to sort themselves into cliques. One group pledged allegiance to Paul, another to Apollos. Based on what Paul writes, it sounds like the various groups had dug in their heels, brought out the heavy artillery, and aimed it at each other. Now they were spending all their time dealing with dissension instead of doing the work to which they were called– building God’s kindom, working together to make God’s dreams come true.
If doing community is so hard, if slipping into non-productive and contentious patterns of behavior is so easy, why bother? Why didn’t Paul just tell the Corinthians to hang it up, to do the God-thing without community, to follow Jesus by flying solo? Paul kept calling the Corinthians back to community because he knew what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would come to know centuries later: disciples aren’t meant to fly solo. Discipleship and community go hand-in-hand. Following Jesus isn’t so much “following the leader” single-file or sitting the game out altogether, as it is moving haphazardly down the road in the midst of a slightly chaotic mob.
Though Bonhoeffer engaged in many solitary activities—praying, writing, in prison—he also really loved being with people. He grew up in a large family that valued work, play, and the arts—especially music. Until he left home, family and friends would gather at the Bonhoeffers every Friday for an evening of music…at the center of it all was Dietrich, an accomplished pianist. He also loved pastoring and took great delight in teaching confirmation.
Perhaps the most joyful time of Dietrich’s short life, was the two years he spent leading an underground seminary. By teaching theology to ministry students with whom he lived in community, the experience hit all Dietrich’s sweet spots.
“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer,” Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together. When we become uncertain and discouraged, when our hearts begin to falter, the word of another member of the community strengthens us.
One of the joys of my job is hearing about new folks’ “pilgrimages to Pilgrimage.” So many people come here as a last-ditch effort. After an intense search or after a long hiatus, people decide to give church one last try. One person I talked with this week said, “I began to wonder, what if there’s a church out there that isn’t judgmental and hypocritical?” He googled “open-minded church” and eventually found us.
I had a lot of conversations about our community this week. Two words kept coming up in these conversations: authentic and deep. That, I think, is what’s so important about what we do here–we seek to speak a truth that goes beyond the superficial and touches the deepest places inside us. That deep word of truth is what so many people are hungry for these days.
But still…while we seek to speak truth to the deeper places, we don’t always succeed. What happens when we don’t live up to the ideal of Christian community?
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds the church that each person makes his or her own unique contribution to the life of the community. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” It’s wonderful that so many people offer their gifts to the community…but Paul reminds us that those gifts are not the point. So what, if I planted? So what, if Apollos watered? All the matters is that we are one in Christ. “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose…For we are God’s servants, working together.”
In Life Together, Bonhoeffer also talks about what happens when we become disillusioned by Christian community. Ironically, the moment we become disillusioned is the moment church begins living up to its potential. It’s only when we face our disillusionment squarely, “with all its unhappy and ugly aspects,” that the community “begins to be what it should be in God’s sight…The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community that cannot bear or survive such a crisis, that insists on keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse…the one who loves the dream of community more than the Christian community itself destroys it.”
Kind of wild, isn’t it? That Christian community becomes most real and most effective when we become disillusioned with it. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber warns new members to the church she serves in Colorado about the disappointments that come from Christian community. “It’s my practice,” she writes, “to welcome new people by making sure they know that House for All Sinners and Saints will, at some point, let them down. That I will say or do something stupid and disappoint them. Then I encourage them to decide before that happens if they will stick around after it happens. If they leave, I tell them, they will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks left behind by our brokenness. And that’s too beautiful to miss.” (Accidental Saints)
Reflecting on what it means to follow Jesus these past few weeks has reminded me of the moment in my life when I decided to give myself as fully as I could to that way of life. It was my first year at Emory, 1993. The fundamentalists had taken over the seminary I attended in 1990. By the time I left seminary, I was hearing every day, “Women can’t preach; women can’t pastor.” Though feeling called to pastor, the denomination was in such disarray there was no way I was going to be called to a church. Instead, I went to Emory to do a PhD.
On the day in question, I was walking a path on campus that took me under the chapel. When I reached dead center under the chapel, I stopped. As I stood there, the thought came to me: “You know, you don’t have to do this. Church is so messed up. There are lots of folks who are post-church, post-Christian, even, who are leading very happy lives. You don’t have to stay in the church.” I thought about it long and hard. So much would be easier if I left the church, left my faith.
But then I thought about Jesus. I thought about everything he tried to teach us while he lived among us. And I thought about how—even after 2,000 years—we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what he was trying to teach us.
Then I began to wonder… What if a church, just one church, tried to follow Jesus…like really follow Jesus in the radical way he intended us to follow? What if, instead of getting caught up in religious laws and church politics, of deciding who’s in the kindom and who’s not, what if we really tried to follow Jesus? What might happen? In that moment beneath the chapel, I decided that if just one community of Jesus’ followers tried to follow Jesus…they didn’t even have to get it right…but if one community of Jesus’ followers tried to follow Jesus, I decided it would change the world. In that moment I answered the call I was feeling to lead that kind of community…
And here we are…wrestling together as a Christian community with how to follow Jesus in 2017. We don’t always get it right. But we are trying to follow Jesus. And it is changing the world….maybe not in a tidal wave kind of way…more like a gentle, steady trickle. But that trickle led a child who grew up in this church to write an essay for college on how this church shaped who she’s become…that trickle led to us hosting Family Promise…that trickle led us to begin building a relationship with our friends at Ahmadiyya Muslim community…that trickle is leading some of our members to ramp up their involvement in justice work…that trickle is seeping into the process of deciding what to do about the Next Generation House…
Does the idea of following Jesus overwhelm you, like, how in the world can you do that? There’s so much that needs to be done. Here’s today’s good news: we don’t have to do it alone. In fact, Jesus calls us to follow him in community. So, how will we—together—follow Jesus today? And tomorrow? And the next day? I can’t wait to find out. Can you?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2017