Fostering Community

Fostering Community
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
March 6, 2015

John 17: 20-26 (CEB)
“I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. 21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. 23I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.

24“Father, I want those you gave me to be with me where I am. Then they can see my glory, which you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

25“Righteous Father, even the world didn’t know you, but I’ve known you, and these believers know that you sent me. 26 I’ve made your name known to them and will continue to make it known so that your love for me will be in them, and I myself will be in them.”

As I prayed over and prepared this sermon this week, I kept thinking how ironic it is to be writing a sermon about fostering community in the wake of a very contentious Super Tuesday primary. If anything, for weeks, we have watched the breakdown of community played out right before our eyes on TV, radio, and print news as reports of the 2016 race for the White House have dwarfed every other news story. I feel like I’ve been focusing on this theme a lot in recent weeks, but it’s on our minds, isn’t it? For many of us, the biggest hurdle to peace in our lives currently is the angst we are feeling over this presidential election cycle. And I don’t know about you, but for me, a lot of what is troubling are the significant divisions we are seeing in our country as people rally, sometimes viciously, behind their chosen candidate. So if division is a source of anxiety in our lives, then unity, community should be a source of peace. “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

There can be no doubt that the divisive political environment in our country is a big problem right now, but I think it points to something much deeper. The kind of hate-filled rhetoric we have heard from candidates and their supporters doesn’t just happen in a competition for political office. This comes, I believe, from a complete breakdown of community. Perhaps you have heard of the “back porch phenomenon,” which simply points out the fact that we have gone from building houses with expansive front porches (as we did in the early 20th century), to building homes with no front porches, but with back porches surrounded by privacy fences. We can all tell stories like Mark did in his book, Finding Peace in an Anxious World, about remembering a time when we knew all our neighbors and interacted with them, their dogs, and their children on a regular basis. But such familiarity is gone, and in its place has arisen suspicion. I wish I knew WHY community has broken down as it has; you might wonder the same. But I don’t know that we have any good answers. We can speculate—maybe it’s because crime rates have risen. Or maybe it’s because having the latest breaking news right at our fingertips has made us more aware of the bad things happening in the world and in our communities. Perhaps the problem is that TV, computers, and other electronic devices have caused us to turn more inward. I don’t know. But the simple fact of the matter is that disconnecting from one another has also made our lives more worried and anxious.

Just think for a moment about those times in your life when you really felt like you were part of a tight-knit community. For me, it was my three years in seminary. I had close friends in high school and in college, but my seminary community was different. There was a group of six or eight of us. We first connected on orientation day, when we were sitting out on the lawn eating some lunch and my friend Katie said, “Y’all want to order some pizza tonight?” Several of us looked at each other, sort shrugged our shoulders, and said, “Why not?” And that was it…from that point on, I guess the best way to put it is to say that we did life together. We’d eat lunch together, then we’d go over to the dorm basement and play pool until time for our next class. Then we’d eat dinner together. After we finished classes or studying in the evenings, we’d often walk together the three-quarters mile to the closest 7-Eleven, where we’d buy slurpies to sip on as we walked back to campus. We probably did that three or four times a week. On the weekends, we’d make chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast and eat them in the dorm kitchen. Or we’d pile onto the twin bed and loveseat in my apartment to watch movies. Oftentimes, we’d go for a bike ride around DC or into Virginia. We made blankets for the homeless and walked around Northwest DC handing them out. We would often go to the various churches where we worked to support one another in our different endeavors. We helped each other study, we laughed together, we cried together, we got mad at each other and confessed our sins to one another. I miss those day to day interactions with those folks so much, but here’s the thing; I know that was true community because what we shared was more than just friendship; it was sacred, it was holy.

And that’s why fostering community in our lives is so important when it comes to experiencing peace. Community is special, it’s sacred, it’s a way that we connect more deeply not just with one another, but with God. Really, this is so much of why Christ prayed for the unity of believers. The kind of unity that Christ had in mind is one of mutual dependence and trust, such that our primary access to God is by way of one another. What if we looked at every relationship we have as one that connects us more fully with God? How much more would we seek out community? How much more would we work toward building healthy relationships in our lives?

Community matters because community helps us experience God; community helps us connect with God’s peace. Whether in relationships with spouse and family, or friends and neighbors, each of us can look at certain times in our lives when our bonds with other people were nothing less than life-giving; sacred. We know how important this is. We feel the loneliness and emptiness when moves or life-circumstances cause us to lose such friendships. We should be doing everything we can to build community; not just in our own lives, but also in the world around us. If the personal relationships we build in our own lives are the source of such peace for us, imagine how the world might change if we worked on a wider scale to build community!

Certainly, this is no easy task. I guess there have always been challenges to developing the sort of relationships that build strong communities, but it seems that at this point in history there are more roadblocks than ever. The “back porch” phenomenon and the rise of technology mean that we are interacting face-to-face with people less and less. But I have also noticed that the use of technology and social media seem to enable a kind of hostile rhetoric that didn’t exist before. In other words, it’s a lot easier for us to say something mean to someone from behind a computer screen than it is to say that same thing to their face. And so we login to our computers and we just start attacking, criticizing, and tearing down everyone who doesn’t agree with us. Then, because we get so used to doing that on social media, and we watch it all the time on the news media, it becomes a lot easier to get out in the world and do the same thing there to strangers and people who don’t look like us, which brings us to this place where we are now, seemingly only interacting with one another in hurtful ways. Right now we’re seeing it most blatantly in politics, but it’s not just politics. We get ugly with each other over race, religion, creed, sports, everything. The results are obvious—the bonds of community are broken and there is only fighting, no peace.

I honestly, truly, believe that the reason there is so much anxiety in the world right now is because there is so much hate. And we have allowed ourselves to get caught up in it; every single one of us. We don’t easily and readily forgive; instead we hold grudges and harbor resentment. We approach people with fear and suspicion rather than friendliness and generosity. We get caught up in the name calling and mudslinging—even if it’s behind closed doors, it’s still a hate-filled mindset that contributes to the wider problem. And here’s the thing, we are all a part of this system that is undermining our unity in Christ and tearing apart our communities.

As Christians, we must begin to model something different. Later on in this same prayer we heard from John, Jesus says, “I’ve made your name known to them and will continue to make it known so that your love for me will be in them, and I myself will be in them.” Love is central to who we are as Christians. It was because of God’s love for us that God gave us “his only begotten Son.” And now Christ prays that this same love will be in each of us. But here’s the thing: not only should Christ’s love be in us, it should flow out of us in all that we do, especially in the ways we treat other people. We can’t be caught up in the hate that fills our world right now. If we want peace in our lives, then we need to be guided by love for others; and not just Valentine’s Day love, but deep, abiding, risky, sacrificial love. Instead of sitting behind a computer screen and spouting off hateful rhetoric, we need to be out on the streets, in our neighborhoods, in our communities; getting to know people, listening to them, learning their hearts. When people wrong us, we need to offer genuine forgiveness. Rather than seeking to push Muslims and Mexicans (or whoever) out of our communities, as Christians, we have to be on the forefront of finding ways to celebrate our diversity even as we live united. Instead of criticizing and bullying people whose lifestyles are different from our own for whatever reason, we have to let them know that they are loved and valued; a special, unique, and wonderful part of God’s creation.

This is tough stuff, I realize that. But we are seeking peace in our lives. That’s what this whole Lenten journey is about. Maybe this is what we need to “give up” for Lent: self-centeredness, fear, suspicion, hatred. If peace is what we really want, then this is what we have to do. There is no peace in broken communities and broken relationships; there is only fighting. So as Christians, one of our many tasks is to foster a community that is founded in the very love of Christ himself.

I think Paul sums it up pretty well in his letter to the Colossians. He says this, “Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body.”

May the love of Christ guide us and direct us on the way to peace.

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