Tonight we conclude our Epiphany preaching series on following God’s call, reflecting on the Gift of Community. We are created for relationship, reflecting God’s nature. “Our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love.”[i]
We are created to love mutually, to walk together, share, listen, teach, and encourage. In our brokenness, much can make us feel alienated, disconnected, and cut off. Choosing to turn toward each other to connect, welcome, and share heals and transforms. Life is about transformation, continual progression, ongoing conversion. God continually calls us onward into more together.
Yet we are often stuck in the past. Placed in memories, given labels and expectations. Memories of who we once jostling up against who we are now. Patterns of prior years are powerfully present though the players have changed.
Memories may be of embarrassment, shame or guilt. We may be treated with aggression, evasion or suspicion based on our past actions rather than our present selves. People may restrict us, zeroing in on what we once did—even if we only did it once—an embarrassment, a failure, an accusation. Perhaps you know what this feels like.
Jesus had a hard time returning home to visit. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? … Where did this man get all this?” His own home town, his neighbors and community, took offense at Jesus, at his change into a powerful prophetic teacher. He was no longer the boy they remembered watching grow up. He was no longer a carpenter like his father. He had changed, and they didn’t like it. Jesus knows what it feels like to be restricted and rejected, for others to want a static past and refuse to affirm who you are becoming.
Some of the hardest parts of life are responding to change. Much of how we hurt each other stems from resisting or taking offense at change. We so easily cling to sticky memories, wanting to trap people in a former time and place:
“I keep putting him at a distance because he hurt me so much.” “I keep treating her as a child because I don’t want to lose my identity.” “I keep telling him what to do because I fear he’ll leave me.”
Community can stifle and resist change in us, can hinder and reject God’s call. Jesus experienced this. The Bible is full of graphic and disgraceful stories, of fallible families and of God continually working through humanity.
Jesus invited women, foreigners, tax collectors, prostitutes, all kinds of the sick and outcast. Most people were tripped by sticky memories and labels like Gentile and sinner. Jesus was not. He knew who they were and what they’d done, and he loved them still. Jesus showed them to be one family.
Jesuit Gregory Boyle has worked with gang members for three decades in Los Angeles. His books, including Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, vividly show transformation through learning to belong in community. Boyle uses the image of a hallway between the doors of our old self and our new self. He tells his team to “line the hallway.”
“We encourage and cajole with a constant tenderness, as the tentative soul takes steps toward the fullness of becoming. The hallway can be long and the lure to an old, tired, but known and safe version can be compelling. And those who line the hallway haven’t arrived fully either. Our mutual accompaniment with each other along the way pulls us all over the finish line. It’s about the ‘rehab of the soul,’ as one of our senior staff puts it. We all line the hallway on this good journey with only gentleness in our rucksack and our brokenness within reach.”[ii]
Like Jesus, we can show each other belonging, how we are one family. Affirm God’s kinship, discerning what is real and divine, not simply sticky. Delight and encourage change in others as they lean into fuller life.
The reading from the Letter to the Romans describes what it means to be Christian community. “We who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” This is not something to do on our own but together. “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may be able to discern what is the will of God.”
Be transformed by helping each other: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.”
Whom has God given you as community? We all need companions and friends. We must often first show up, offer connection, befriend and reach out. Are you trying to journey alone? Who is nearby and how might you walk with them?
How has community resisted you? We’ve all experienced this. Lament with Jesus who knows and shares your pain. Turn to the present, who is in the hallway encouraging and cajoling you onward? It might be friends, neighbors, or strangers. What’s God’s invitation? How are you being called into further life with others? How can you encourage and cajole? Rejoice, be patient, persevere, and contribute. Welcome, weep, and bless together, for like God we are community one to another.
[ii] Gregory Boyle (2017) Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. New York: Simon & Schuster, p117-118.
This sermon is part of the “Gifts for the Journey” series. We hope you’ll check out the other sermons in the series.
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