Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Blessed Community

Sheepscott Community Church August 1, 2010

Ecclesiastes 1: 2, 12-14; 2: 18-23

Luke 12: 13-21

The Blessed Community

The following is a quotation from Apology, published in 1678, and being a partial testimony of Quaker Robert Barclay. “... for when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life, whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed.”

While I don’t think anyone would ever call our assembly a silent one, I did recognize our gathering in the description, and I recognized as well as an invitation and challenge, which, if answered, would be how we could draw others in. Nothing draws others in as do joy and love, evident in forgiveness, concord, and healed lives. That is the “secret power” Barclay refers to: the Spirit who gives life.

The title of today’s sermon, The Blessed Community, is also a Quaker term. As Marty Walton wrote in his book of the same name, “Living in Blessed Community requires a shift in our thinking as the Light shows us our interdependence, and increases our empathy with all Creation. We come to understand that building compassionate and healthy relationships with others and with all creation is what God asks us to do. Our spiritual growth depends on it. Because of this emphasis on interconnectedness and compassion, living in Blessed Community can be a vital part of our witness for peace, social justice and care for the earth.”

Are we in the Sheepscott Community Church a Blesssed Community? Consider this. Last Sunday after the service Chrissy Wajer was soliciting contributions of salads, desserts, and whatever else was needed for the supper last night. She asked Lily the familiar question, “What would you like to bring?” At first Lily demurred, mentioning that she wouldn’t be able to be at the supper or probably at church today because their sons and all of their grandchildren would be visiting. But Lily’s inevitable generosity and work ethic prevailed and she noted that she or Ernie could drop something off Saturday afternoon, regardless. She expanded on this to me and Jon, saying, “We have such a small church, how can we say, ‘I won’t have time,’ or ‘I won’t bring anything; I can’t’”––shades of the cranky householder with the shut door in last Sunday’s gospel, who didn’t want to be disturbed, didn’t want to get up out of bed to share what he had with his neighbor.

“No,” Lily continued, “we have to contribute. We have to be involved. If we don’t all help out, then we leave Chrissy––or someone else––to do the work.

“That’s the price of being part of a small congregation,” she said, and she is willing to pay that price and to show the rest of us how it’s done. Her comments really gave me pause because, of course, she was exactly right. But I think if people are going to be as involved as we all need to be, if we are going to survive as a church, there has to be joy in the work, joy in the community, not just the fulfilling of a duty. That’s a good thing on its face, but it’s not fun. And that’s where Robert Barclay’s comment enters in. When he came into the meeting, the assembly of God’s people, he felt a secret power among them, which touched his heart, and he gave way unto it. He felt the joy and love in the assembly.

It is that kind of joy that attracts others and is found only in the midst of those who are working for God, whether or not they realize and name it as the work of God. It is only with God’s spirit that a diverse group of individuals such as ourselves can realize and embody the kind of unity, belonging, and community that answers to that of God within us and calls out to the Spirit in others as well. That happens as they work for the church, whether it’s at a bean supper, singing for the Lord, cooking for and serving at a community supper, supplying the needs of the food pantries of the area, assembling and sending health kits to Haiti, teaching the illiterate to read and write, whatever form it takes.

No one denies the importance of the fundraising efforts we have, to maintain the buildings where we meet. Even the bean supper last night was primarily to raise money for a fund to redo the floor of the vestry in the Valley Church. Just look at the rug down there, and you won’t have any questions about the need for a new floor treatment.

While fundraising is important, it is even more important to keep front and center that we are the church. We could meet in any one of our houses that are all probably big enough to accommodate our usual Sunday gathering. It is all of us coming together as a people to make church, to do church, to be church that gives glory to our Maker. We remember that One with rejoicing in the love of His Spirit, whom he gives to us so generously, again harking back to last Sunday’s gospel: “If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

The Spirit who makes us one, who makes us aware of how we are church, who makes us willing to do our part to maintain our small congregation, that Spirit is free for the asking. No fundraising involved, but it is that One’s divine presence that makes the tasks of fundraising for church maintenance fun. Puts the fun back in fundraising. You’ve heard this from Tony and Jan, Lily and Clara, others who have helped at the community supper. We don’t get anything from that by way of monetary reward and are not looking for that; however, what we do get from it is priceless: a sense of belonging to the Blessed Community, the larger family of God, the body of Christ. “What you do for the least of these my brethren, you do for me.”

From my perspective, more important than fundraising per se is the nurturing of the blessed community we already have. How can we grow as a people of God who delight in service with each other, to each other and to the larger community? How can that happen? I think the lesson Jon brought back from Bristol Congregational Church, when we visited in April, the weekly coffee and cookie fellowship, has done a lot to foster community here at Sheepscott Church. Again, if you don’t have a people who, though few in number are willing to serve, to go above and beyond, this church will not survive as the Blessed Community we can be. People like Lily saying––and Lily is only one; I have used her as an example because I didn’t think she would be here today––people like Lily saying, well yes, I have this and this and this to do, but I can also do this because if I don’t, how are we going to make it as a small congregation?

A willingness like Lily’s can come about when we learn to love each other. She seems to come by it as part of her nature, but even she cultivates it in service. How can we cultivate our better natures and foster interpersonal growth in this community? Time

needs to be set aside for open fellowship, group discussion and education, and fun; for community-building activities such as shared meals, workdays, committee work, and community service projects. We as church are responsible for seeing that the work of the group is shared, and that members are not unduly or unnecessarily burdened. As I have already said, we can spend time together so we can get to know each other and maybe come to care more about this community that worships together, ad so be readier to serve.

Coffee and cookies and the community supper are also kinds of communion. While some lament that we don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, rather than just once a month, which is the tradition of this church, I would encourage all of us to think of all our times together when we share, perhaps especially the fellowship after the service and the community supper, as expressions of the Lord’s Supper, different in form but not in kind. As surely as Jesus is present to us as we share communion in remembrance of him later in the service today, he is present by his Spirit in coffee and cookies, in the meal of the month at Second Congregational, both activities of our Blessed Community.

The fact is that whenever we Christ-consciously come to the sharing of a meal, whether it’s a picnic in the back yard with your family, or a handful of blackberries picked off the bush and shared with a fellow picker––how this is what it is, who it is, depends on the thought or consciousness we bring to the act, to the fact. When we say grace before a meal, that is a perfect opportunity to be attuned to what God can be doing through the humble and beautiful gift of food shared.

Understand what Lily is saying. Understand what I am saying. As we read in today’s call to worship, from psalm 95, “Harden not your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day in Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did.” Our small congregation, which may or may not grow, needs to embrace the vision of the Blessed Community in order to survive even as we are; needs to be willing to set aside old disagreements to make room for this vision, which is God’s vision for his people, and we are his people.

As it is says in Colossians, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” Amen.

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