Our: A Celebration of Community
Second in a series on the theme of “Reclaiming Our Why”
1 Thessalonians 4:9-13 November 12, 2017 Rev. Kristin Stoneking Epworth UMC, Berkeley, CA
As a campus pastor at UC Davis, I found that many of my students, attracted to Davis because of an interest in agriculture or sustainability were fans of Wendell Berry, the writer and philosopher. They shared quotes in our weekly worship and programs. His piece Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front was one of their favorites. And so I began to learn about this unique and clear voice, and I too, became a fan.
In 1977, Wendell Berry, the poet, agrarian, Christian, left the English department at the University of Kentucky where he had been teaching because, as he described it, it was too focused on technology and neglectful of education in the liberal arts. Proclaiming a desire to focus on writing and farming, he retreated to land near his birthplace in Port Royal, Kentucky where he continues to live. From this pastoral and scaled place, Berry writes on sustainability, ethics, and community.
Some might consider him a curmudgeon, because his views stem from what might be seen as an older way of life. He is often critical, and he’s convinced of the necessity of how he believes we ought to be living. In a world that often chases after more, Berry argues for less. In a country that values expansion, Berry calls for scale. In a culture that pines for unbounded freedom, Berry argues for limits.
I confess to you this morning that though I accept the wisdom that less is often more, And I do agree that communities and economies of scale keep our lives in the relational dimension and can help us avoid the kinds of dehumanization that comes
when size and acquisitiveness is unbounded, I confess to you this morning that I have always had a hard time accepting limits.
I’m an optimist and I don’t like feeling stuck or blocked. I think this is one reason why I love travel so much; the feeling of motion and movement is a comfort to me, a reassurance that something is happening, that there is some forward progress taking place. In fact, this yearning for momentum and progress is built into colonial ethos of this country, of which I am a product. And yet we know that limitlessness, progress, and momentum have had destructive dimensions in this land, and were part of a romanticized narrative myth fed to early new to enforce a rugged individualism that in reality included much isolation and suffering.
The antidote to this kind of acquisitive and exploitative individualism is sustainable and spiritually-grounded community.
But what constitutes sustainable and spiritually grounded community? All gatherings of people do not necessarily equal true community. The early Christians struggled with this question and much of Paul’s letters are both encouragement and corrective as the early church sought to build communities that would support them in walking the not-easy, but life-giving path that Jesus had made known to them.
In the last few weeks, we’ve heard pieces of Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica. The book that is in our Bibles as 1 Thessalonians is considered the earliest of Paul’s writings, probably dating from the 50s in the common era. The context of that time is in many ways not unlike Berkeley in the 2010s. There were many groups around offering joy, ecstasy, identity, some of them overtly religious or spiritual, some of them more unapologetically hedonistic, some of them both decidedly hedonistic and
spiritual. One major challenge of the early church was to demonstrate the transformative truth contained in such teachings as “those who give up their lives will find their lives”, and “when your sibling asks for your shirt, give to them your cloak as well.”
These were countercultural claims and the early Christian community was threatened by the pull of a culture that largely demanded neither the discipline nor the steadfastness of Christianity. In our scripture, Paul reminds these new Christians of three aspects that make up the kind of community that can faithfully walk the way of Jesus. First, they are hardworking and steadfast. Second, they accept limitations. And third, they are a people grounded in a radically new kind of hope.
“Steadfastness” is not a word Paul uses often; in fact, Paul uses it only 6 times in all of his writings, but 3 of these instances are contained in the first letter to the Thessalonians. There is a regularness, a pacing, to the kind of community Paul is trying to encourage, and here he sounds a little like Wendell Berry. He explicates this even more in this scripture in saying, “We urge you to love more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, to work with your hands.” I don’t think this particular admonition comes as a surprise to anyone here. We know that this community of Epworth United Methodist, and the life of a Christian takes regular practice, to love more and more and take care of our own business.
In order to love as Jesus would have us love, we need encouragement, and reminders of the grace and love of God. In order to be connected with God, we need quiet time for prayer. We might come to prayer overwhelmed with all of the things we need to do and be and change, but prayer reminds us that the only thing we really have
control over in this life is our own selves—the way we think, the way we talk, the way we act.
There is a story of the young rabbi who began his ministry determined to save the world. After a decade, he decided to scale back and focus on just changing his congregation. By mid-career with teenage children, he decided to shift focus to just changing his family. Nearing the end of his career, he realized that the only thing he could really change was himself.
And while I do believe this is true, that our best hope to create any change is to begin with ourselves, the thing to note this morning in what Paul is saying is that the early Christians will have a better chance at being consistent and faithful in their aspirations of changing themselves if they do it together. If they, as individuals, practice being Christian and fully human together, as a community. Wednesday night I attended the seventh welcome meal with a group of Epworthians (and by the way if you haven’t attended one of these but would still like to, there are still opportunities). I have been struck at each of these gatherings as we converse how there is a clear sense of the truth in Paul’s teaching here—Our community, and the health of our community, rests on our encouragement of steadfastness in each other.
The second part of Paul’s teaching is perhaps more counter-intuitive. In choosing to follow the path of love and justice, we will also be accepting limits. In his book The Long Legged House, Wendell Berry offers the quote that is on the front of your bulletin today, “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for
each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.” As counter-cultural as it is, Christian community, OUR community accepts that limits are actually a fundamental aspect to the world we are trying to create. We accept that in order to be able to trust each other, accepted processes based on our values and principles of care and love and justice will be followed. We choose to limit our freedom in order to commit to each other.
Finally, Paul tells us that the third mark of a Christian community is in its hope. He says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
One of my heroes is the playwright and former President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel. During the years of Soviet rule of Czechoslovakia, in which he endured harassment, suppression and imprisonment, Havel continued to hold the kind of hope that Christians are called to persist in. Havel describes it like this in his great book, Disturbing the Peace, “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed…Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that things will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
And while Havel doesn’t explicitly say this, it can only be inferred from his tireless work to bring liberation to the hearts and minds of the Czech people and others living
under oppression, that hope also includes the belief that the good one is willing to work for continues to be possible, regardless of how any one endeavor or event turns out. This good that we work for requires steadfastness and yes, it places some limits on what we can have or what we can do in order that all may have enough.
These are the marks of Our Community and what we celebrate today. Whatever may come, we will endure it. In the give and take of relationship, in the acceptance of shared space and limits, we actually find more freedom than through limitlessness. And finally, we are people of hope. This is hope that persists through our failures as well as our successes. This is hope that may weep but does not bow to depressing statistics or violence or greed, or to any of the evidence of how far we have to go. This is the hope that opens our hearts to relationship with the one who makes real life possible. This is the hope that allows us to reach out, to risk ourselves, to do what is right over what is easy.
Ultimately, Our Community has as its reference point the community of God, the relational three in one, of Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. In this model of who the ultimate is, we experience in the Creator the steadfastness of the one who has been with us from the beginning; in the Christ the willingness to accept limits in order that others may live, and in the Holy Spirit, the enduring hope present with us and lifting us always. This is Our Community. Amen.