I vividly recall the experience of waiting at Midway for a Southwest flight to I Denver some years ago. The plane was late, and all 125 of us were well aware of what awaited us over the next hour or so, and I’m sure, like me, everyone else wasn’t looking forward to it. We knew we had to wait for the plane to come in and passengers to deplane and the crews to clean and stock the airplane before we could board and take off. The patient people sat looking out the window waiting for the plane to arrive. The rest of us paced back and forth checking our watches and looking anxious. This was well before cell phones, and so no one was talking or texting and surfing the Internet. We were all stuck, with nothing to do, imagining a long wait and a late arrival on the other end. Would people be able to make their appointments in Denver or their connections? We didn’t know.
I sighed with relief when the plane finally pulled up to the terminal, but I was also keenly aware that boarding the plane with tired and anxious fellow passengers was not going to be fun. Because Southwest didn’t give assigned seats to its passengers, I anticipated everyone jostling and pushing to get the best place in line in order to get the best seat and a convenient overhead bin for their luggage. Realizing that the plane had arrived, everyone began to crowd up to the gate when a voice came over the loud speaker. “Good afternoon passengers,” it said. “I have a challenge to put before all of you today. You are well aware that your plane has come in late. However, if you all pull together and cooperate with one another, there is a chance we can get this plane off the ground in time to make it to the destination on schedule. So what I want you to do is line up quickly and orderly, have your boarding pass ready to show to the crew and then board the plane with the first in line going all the way to the back of the plane and then filling in the seats row by row from the back to front. Please help each other as you take your seats and stow your luggage away. If you work together we can make this happen. So let’s see if we can do it!”
Instantly the mood of the crowd was transformed. Anxious looks turned to smiles as we all took up the challenge. We began to actually look at one another and laughing and talking together. What we had thought would be an unpleasant game of push and shove became an opportunity to enjoy helping one another and seeing if, by working together, we could accomplish the challenge before us. When the plane took off and the pilot announced we would be at our destination on time the whole plan erupted in clapping, whistles and cheers. We had done it and not only would we be on time, we had actually enjoyed the experience. We had become a community in the half hour it had taken us to board.
Now, no one on that Southwest plane was consciously aware that we were building a community as we rose to the challenge of boarding quickly but we certainly had a common interest and a goal. Everyone sacrificed the chance to choose the best seat, and we all became vulnerable as we engaged one another in conversation, asking for or offering help. Strangers held children for mothers, younger people lifted luggage into bins for older passengers and single travelers gave up seats for families. As we settled into our seats there was conversation all around as people began talking to one another about the enjoyment of facing the challenge together.
Communities come in all different shapes and sizes. Some are political, others social or religious. Some come together for a short time and others have a history that spans generations. There is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Belly Dancers of Color, The Harley-Davidson Owners Group and the Union of Concerned Scientists. There are online communities, book groups and Bible Studies, dance troupes and traveling choirs. All are communities brought together by a common interest, a goal, and usually some kind of challenge, which together build relationships of vulnerability and sacrifice.
Christian community is created through the same dynamics of having a goal or challenge and developing a vision of how to get there. When a community displays the characteristics of sacrifice and vulnerability, it demonstrates how all these dynamics come together to create relationships of meaning. Walter Brueggemann describes the central vision of the bible as one in which “all of creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the joy and wellbeing of every other creature”
If you were to look back over the history of Christianity, you would see that central vision is the very reason it survived through the first few centuries after Jesus. In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark, teacher of sociology and comparative religion asks this question: “How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization?” His answer might surprise you. [W]hen asked for a single sentence answer he writes: “The Christians introduced into a world of hatred and cruelty a totally new concept about humanity – that you had a responsibility to be compassionate and caring to everyone.”
The book of Acts tells us about the formation of the early church and the obstacles that the church faced and worked to overcome. “About that time, while the number of disciples continued to increase, a complaint arose. Greek-speaking disciples accused the Aramaic-speaking disciples because their widows were being overlooked in the daily food service.” There were those who were being neglected in the community because everyone was out preaching the gospel and no one was caring for others. So the disciples asked the community to select 7 men to dedicate themselves to caring for the widows, orphans and all who were needy. Stephen, after whom Stephen Ministry is named, was chosen to be their leader and organizer. Aware that they were not following Jesus’ rules of the road these leaders of the early church put his command to love into action.
Today most Christian communities are identified by their beliefs rather than their actions. In “A People’s History of Christianity “ author Diana Butler Bass cites a 2007 study in which three-quarters of young churchgoers (those inside the faith) identified Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical, out of touch, insensitive, boring and exclusive – the antithesis of love. Many church communities have rules about membership that exclude those who don’t adhere to a set of specific beliefs. But Jesus didn’t have a lot of rules about what we are to believe. Instead he focused how we were to behave in relationship to God and the rest of humanity. When asked by the Pharisees to name the first and greatest commandments Jesus quoted the Hebrew Bible, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being and with all your mind. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” Luke adds to this saying in his Gospel, “Do this and you will live.” According to Stark this became the mission statement for the early church…to love one another.
Since the time of Jesus people have written volumes about what it means to be a Christian and part of a Christian community. Marcus Borg believes that being a Christian is very simple…it’s about loving God and what God loves, becoming the kind of person who can love God and love what God loves, and finally it is being part of a community of transformation. Transformation is a process, he says, of “re-socialization so that our sense of ourselves, our identity, is shaped by involvement with the community. In order for that transformation to happen, we need to be open to one another, to listen to one another, and to share our joys and sorrows with one another.
Here at Kenilworth Union church we have people who willingly step forward to listen to and to share in the joys and sorrows of others. But that is just one side of love. Love is never a one-way street. Love at its best is the practice of encountering one another and the mutual sharing of joys and sorrows.
There is a story about an elder who lived alone and undertook a seventy-week fast, eating only once a week during that time in order to become more receptive to God. When he was little more than skin and bone he asked God to reveal to him the meaning of a certain bible passage, but God wouldn’t do it. The elder, disappointed by how little his fast had done for him decided to go ask one of his brothers what the passage meant. The minute he closed the door to his cell, an angel of God appeared to him, telling him that his seventy-week fast did not bring him one step closer to God, but now that he had humbled himself enough to go to his brother, God sent the angel to reveal the meaning of the passage. Then the angel told the elder what it meant and went away. Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this story that she, “likes to think that the elder went on to visit his brother anyway, breaking his fast with him and swapping stories about what a trickster God was. At the very least,” she continues, “most of us need someone to tell our stories to. At a deeper level, most of us need someone to help us forget ourselves, a little or a lot. The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed.” Dr. Andrew Weil writes, “Human beings are highly social, communal animals. We are meant to live in families, tribes and communities and when we lack those connections, we suffer. Yet many people pride themselves on their independence and habitually distance themselves from others.”
We know the blessings of giving but the challenge for many of us it to know the joy of receiving as we make ourselves vulnerable to one another by asking for help or being willing to accept help when it is offered. Accepting that help can make a world of difference. And when we are open to each other it is a holy moment, a time when God speaks to us through one another, even though we may not know it. Authentic encounter was a gift that Jesus taught to his disciples. Too often it is a gift we ignore because of fear, pride, greed or a sense of competition.
Day in and day out, as we live in the presence of other people, we have the opportunity to practice loving each other as we love ourselves, to come “face-to-face with another human being – and at least entertaining the possibility that this is one of the faces of God,” says Taylor. What we have most in common with each other is “not religion but humanity. I learned this from my religion, “she continues, “which also teaches me that encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get – in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing – which is where [Jesus] has promised to show up. Paradoxically, the point is not to see him. The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery.”
This community is a place where we can challenge ourselves to live authentically and to encounter one another in all our beauty and ugliness and in all our joy and sorrow in order to be transformed. Waiting at that Southwest gate on our way to Denver, a disparate group of people was transformed into a community as we joyfully set out to accomplish the task given to us and encountered one another eye-to-eye, person-to-person. The experience made such an impression on me, I’ve never forgotten it. I pray that here at Kenilworth Union you can be a community of vision and purpose where you genuinely encounter one another and love one another as you travel together on your journey of faith and transformation.