Most of you have heard me speak (often) about “community” and you will hear me refer to it when we talk about stewardship. There’s a reason for that. As Episcopalians, here at Grace we practice “community,” and “corporate,” worship, by singing, praying, and eating together. We particularly excel at “community choreography” - what Robin Williams famously called, “pew aerobics” - standing, kneeling and moving at the same time. Our focus on community – on doing things together, dates back to the very beginning of Christianity and is, in fact, one of the most important – and perhaps most neglected – tenets of our faith.
The word “community” simply means “a unified group of individuals.” Science tells us that people are drawn to living in communities and have been since the dawn of human time. There are practical reasons for residing in community, not the least of which is simple physical survival. But as society has evolved, the reasons we choose to live in community and the way we choose which community to live in have changed – and often involve what we believe in.
The Jewish people believe in God and in God’s constant and involved presence in their lives. This is something we share, along with a history that reminds us of both the joys and sometime terrors of being part of a community based on belief. Our scriptures, both those from the Hebrew canon and our own “new” testament, contain many stories that suggest that being part of a community of faith can be dangerous, risky, and potentially deadly. The story of Queen Esther, which is the basis for the Jewish festival of Purim, is one such tale. “Esther” is not a historical book; it is an inspirational, fictional story. In it, a powerful king becomes angry with his wife for refusing to come when she is called (imagine that!) and has her banished (as one does). There is then a “beauty” pageant to find her replacement (as happens). Esther, both beautiful and “accomplished in the ways of women,” (wink, wink) becomes queen. Meanwhile, political intrigue is occurring. The king’s minister, Haman, is plotting to rid himself of the Jewish people and their leader, Mordecai. He tricks the king into decreeing that that the Jewish people should be eliminated. But in today’s Hebrew scripture, Esther steps in, revealing the plot and saving her people – not to mention assuring that the evil Haman gets his just desserts.
This story has all of the elements of great fiction – a beautiful protagonist, a heinous villain, an exciting plot twist, and escape from deadly danger. It is a unifying story, one centered around shared risk, escape and continued life in community – community based on belief in God and God’s love of and protection for us. It also serves as an important reminder about who and what we should value. Communities formed around worldly powers – “the ways of empire, of governments that benefit only a few and harm others” – are not to be trusted. Our faith must be in God and God alone.
Another belief demonstrated by this story - that “God is present in the midst of…suffering and threat,” is also a foundational tenet of Christianity. Jesus, a Jew, knew stories like Esther’s - stories of God’s deliverance in the midst of uncertainty, terror, and pain. He was familiar with scriptures like Psalm 124, which remind us that our help is not in worldly power, but in the name of the Lord. Note that the pronoun the psalmist uses is “our” – because while it is true that God loves and talks to each of us individually, it is also true that God often chooses to prophecy in community. That’s because God knows that we need each other if we are to do God’s will. Which is also what community is about.
The book of Esther is a legend about community among ancient Jewish people. I want to tell you two tales about community in our day and time. Sharon is an individual who suffers from substance abuse and multiple health problems. She also experiences homelessness. Sharon is a wonderful human being; she is thoughtful, intelligent, and caring. But when she is using she can be belligerent and forgetful. Her pastor has been trying to help her find a home, but first Sharon must agree to treatment. This has been extremely difficult to coordinate. One day, Sharon appeared at the police station, having been badly beaten. She was suffering from multiple abrasions, potential broken bones, and a head injury. But God was with her – because the officer on-call happened to be a member of Sharon’s congregation, who called her pastor and, together with hospital personnel and community agencies, worked together to get Sharon the help she needed. Sharon’s Samaritans were of different genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and several were meeting for the first time – but they all believed that they were called to do what they could for her – to love their neighbor as themselves. Together, these very different people demonstrated what it means to live in Godly community.
On Friday, I posted a long and draining story on Facebook. Having been moved by the testimony that was occurring in Washington, I told the story of how I was sexually assaulted when I was in college, and what it felt like to have no path to justice. I wrote about the pain of being treated as less than human, of being blamed for the worst thing that had ever happened to me, of being subject to the brutal judgment of powerful men without compassion; in short, about what it was like to be expelled from community. A miraculous thing happened: beginning almost immediately and continuing throughout the next several days, I received message after message of love and support – of promises for prayer on my behalf and for others like me. Through the use of a non-human mechanism, a computer, I was given true Christian understanding, kindness, and care – and a strong sense of the presence of God. That is also community.
These kinds of stories were what Jesus was referencing when he told his disciples not to condemn people who were not official followers of Jesus if they found them healing in Jesus’s name. “Preserving the power of his own group was not a priority for Jesus. If good were being done by others, their actions were to be affirmed.” The disciples saw themselves as being a community based solely on belief in Jesus, but Jesus himself asserted that it was how they enacted their belief that made them part of the Jesus movement.
This is something that we are prone to forget. Like the early Christians that James addresses in his letter, we sometimes need to be reminded that we do not follow the way of the world, but the way of Jesus- and if the powers of the earth cause us to stumble, we must disavow them. The community to which we belong, this community, is not about any one person, any one policy, or any one activity. It is not about how we pray; it is about who we pray to– and it is about praying together. We can be a community without being of one mind, but we must remember that we are always a community of one body: the body of Christ. We can always pray together, even when we are divided, if we pray as Jesus taught us. “God you are everything holy and good, we want only what you desire for us so that the world will be changed for the better. Give us what we need to do your will, forgive us when we fail to do it, and help us to forgive other people that we are angry with. Aid us in being just and compassionate, and help us to avoid being deceived by evil. We know you are with us always, and that it is your love that unites us and makes us one community, in belief and in deed. May we honor you by honoring this community of Christ. Amen.
Kathleen M. O’Connor, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 103.
Susan B.W. Johnson, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 108.
Harry B. Adams, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 118.