A preacher's little girl inquired, "Daddy, I notice every Sunday morning when you first come to the pulpit to preach, you bow your head. What are you doing?"
The priest and father explained, "I'm asking the Lord to give me a good sermon."
The little girl innocently said, "Then why doesn't he?
When I first came to St. James I preached a lot about community; so much so, in fact, I thought I may be overdoing it. So, I stepped away from it for a while. And yet I’m constantly reminded, particularly through scripture, that Christian community is a vital part of who we are called by God to be in life and that we need to honor it, feed it, and invite the world into it. The world nowadays has perhaps become so focused on the individual and on individual fulfillment and desire that it is easy to lose sight of why we come together worship at all or what the real benefit of a community of prayer may be. Together, much more than individually, we are blessed to know God’s love in a very particular and special way in community that can often elude us in the world outside of it.
I don’t often preach on or from the Psalms but this week seemed to be a time to make an exception. All of the Psalms, with exception of maybe a few, follow a familiar pattern. First, they begin by acknowledging God’s goodness and greatness - the reality that God is present. Secondly, they always shift to the need of the community or the person in question. There is always lots of hyperbole, telling us in very stark detail about the challenges that person or community faces. And, finally, there is a recognition of God’s saving action, mercy, and Grace, in the end. Psalm 124 has all of these elements in eight short verses.
Now, tradition has it that the three great festivals of the Jewish liturgical year were celebrated communally. Jewish law held that every healthy male must make a pilgrimage during one of the great festivals during the Jewish calendar year. In the spring there was the festival of unleavened bread which we know as Passover. Pentecost was the feast of ingathering in the early summer. Then, in the early fall, the Feast Tabernacle’s (or booths) rounded out the year. So, the men and their communities (neighbors, families, friends) would gather in a central location for his/their region of Israel. And they would spend the night outside and, in the morning, they would all begin this pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem to observe whatever feast was in season. And as they went along they would strengthen their bonds with each other through mutual conversation and the sharing food and water.
Periodically they would sing Psalms of praise to God. And the psalms of blessing - which are psalm 120 to 124 - are believed to have been the primary songs that they would have used. So, our psalm from this week would’ve been one of them. And a leader would sing the chorus and then the community would join in on the verses and they would go along and they would sing these repetitive hymns of praise to God that acknowledged what God was doing amongst them.
Now, I understand that it’s hard for me or for any of us to really get our heads around what that must’ve been like. That these good people did not just see God as one to be worshiped in the great Temple or to be sacrifice to. The reality of God in the life of this community was that God didn’t exist for individuals primarily but for the purpose of community. And it was a way of life for them. It was like the great commands of Deuteronomy 6 that told the people that they would teach each other and their children about God and speak the word of God when they were in the house, when they went out along the way; when they did their work and when they came home at night; when they lay down in their beds. For this community - whether it was in family, whether it was in a village community, or in synagogue/temple worship they understood that God permeated everything that they did and that this God was the God of their salvation, the God who gave them life.
And James gives us some little glimpses of this community ideal when he talks about us praying, as community, when we’re sick; praising God when we are well or feeling strong. But when we are gravely ill or troubled, members of the community will come out and lay hands on us and pray for us. We confess when we are in a state of sin which scripture looks at as another form of illness or brokenness that God can heal. And we confess in worship, through our general confession, right before the Peace is said.
But above all things holy Scripture reminds us that Christ ordained community as the form through which we would be His disciples and that we do not live in a spiritual vacuum where we are all by ourselves, trying to be spiritual beings. Yes, individual prayer is vital to our life and growth in Christ as is scripture study on our own. But we gain the greatest sense of God and His strength in Christ when the Spirit is crackling among us and we can share the reality of God with each other. Together we go out into the world to proclaim the good news of God’s saving reality - that is our reality. As a community we feed off the generosity and love of each other with God in the center of us.
And we act in community in ways both big and small. From parish mission trips to the Dominican Republic and serving at the Friendship Service Center to calling someone if they’ve been absent from our community for a while. Or praying for folks who we know need our prayers, through Prayers of the People or healing prayer with our prayer team. Jesus, who could’ve done all things on his own, made a specific point of calling friends into community with him, people who would carry on the legacy of his love and saving life when he was no longer physically with them.
Finally, Jesus teaches us that our sense of community needs to be expansive. And that’s not anything new. Expansive community has always been the reality of God in the world, a reality we often get wrong. We have this wonderful little moment in the Gospel today when the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Hey, Jesus, there is this guy and he’s trying to cast out demons in your name. But he’s not a member of our community, so we tried to stop him.” I can imagine Jesus very gently saying to them, “It’s all right. Anyone who is not against us is for us and anyone who heals in my name will be able to soon resist me (that’s how I like to think of it).” The community of Jesus Christ is not intended just for those who have a particular understanding of who Jesus is to them. Whenever we welcome anyone in Christ’s name we welcome God who sent our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ amongst us.
I subscribe to a quarterly magazine called The Plough. And a few months ago, they had a marvelous article about one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, Deir Mar Musa, in Syria between Damascus and Homs. WE all know that Syria has not been a hospitable place to be, any part of it really. But a number of priests and nuns chose to stay, in spite of the danger (a few have been killed since the war began some eight years ago; others have disappeared). And the community is focused on the expansive nature of community, as they invite dialogue with Muslims and try to bring people together. And there was a wonderful picture, in this article, of two nuns, sitting or kneeling on the floor in prayer, and there is a wonderful light filtering through into the stone room. And, standing in a corner, facing Mecca, prayer mat on the floor and hands held in a position of prayer, is a young Muslim man. There is something extremely powerful about these people, in a part of the world where Muslims and Christians are so often in conflict, and where war and violence reign, to see these people connecting to the God of their understanding as a source of strength and, dare I say it, community. In our own divided country, what might we learn?
Community is a strength to the weak, a help to the strong, healing for the sick, and energy for the journey ahead. Community is also a way of welcoming one another in the world, a community that expands far outside these walls, where we encourage blessing, offer hope and love to those who do not know God or who have been lost in the rough and tumble ways of the world. We are not community for our own sake, but as a body of Christ made and existing to praise God, speaking the hope and love of God’s name in the world; in community, we are held up by each other and strengthened for life’s joys and challenges. We are a community of hope and promise. Let us share that with each other. Let us, through it, be a blessing to the world.