Individual/Community, a Sermon by the Rev. Bob Wohlfort, February 12, 2017, Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

This sermon was preached by The Rev. Bob Wohlfort on February 12, 2017, the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany.  The readings and Psalm: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37.

A long time ago in a sermon far far away Pastor Michael Thomas spoke of Swiss theologian and pastor, Karl Barth.  Pastor Michael conveyed to us this quote from this giant of a pastoral theologian:  “Take your Bible and take your newspaper and read both.  But interpret the newspaper from your Bible.”  Today we might paraphrase this thought with “Being a Christian is holding loosely to your newspaper, your internet, Google news, your tweets, your 24/7 TV news, your Facebook…holding close your Bible and interpreting all that printed and electronic stuff  from your Bible and from the life and witness of Jesus, the Christ.”

I am experiencing so much overload, so much stress, so much assault…especially since January 20.  How about you?!?!  So, here we are…literally here we are.  Lets take in a deep breath…let us lay down the “newspaper” and all its offspring for a few moments and turn not only to the Biblical lessons of the day…turn also to what I suggest is a major theme of these lessons spoken to us:  words ascribed to Moses; poetry by the unknown creator of Psalm 119;  exhortation from Paul; and “hard” and compelling words from Jesus.

For me, in the context of the last 23 days, we are being called to deeply understand what is meant by being in community…being in communities; being in relationships.

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The 40 years of wandering and pilgrimage in the desert and wilderness are almost over.  The migrants and refugees from Egypt are camped on the banks of the Jordan River.  These migrants and refugees  are about to cross this slim watery boundary into the new land.

Moses is delivering to the people one last long pep talk about how they are to live as a community as they come to the end of the exodus and enter a dramatic beginning.

Moses exhorts his people: “If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.”

To my mind, Moses’ valedictory address is all about how the descendants of the Exodus need to live so that they are a thriving community in the new land.   They know that there are many other communities across the Jordan and given the golden calf debacle back at Sinai, Jahweh’s people need specific instruction on their guidelines for a thriving community.

What are the communities in which we live?  The number of communities for each of us here are unique to who we are and where and with whom we live, work, play, worship, go to school and volunteer to mention only 6.  So, let us, this morning, ponder our communal living just as did Israel as it tented at the Jordan River.

Whenever I think about community 2 sentences come to mind that are offered by the Lutheran pastor, teacher, writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little book, Life Together.  These are the sentences as he wrote them.  “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.  Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” (p. 77)  Only slightly different: Let she who cannot be alone beware of community.  Let she who is not in community beware of being alone.”

A community is comprised of individuals who join together.  In a community we have the individual (or individuals) and the group.  What I know is that for a community to thrive, to be truly alive is that the group thrives and the individuals thrive.  I illustrated with a wedding in mind: [couple-candles-lit-3rd candle-blow out 2 or all 3 lighted?]

Keep that image in mind…it is basic to every community of which you will be a member:  you and your best friend; your marriage; your first family; the family you bring into being by marriage; your multi year bridge group; the quilting group; the group of Men’s Breakfast; your work group; OSLC…the 2 outer candles burn brightly as does the community candle.  The Transition Team; The Call Team; The Start-Up team as we journey towards new pastoral leadership…same deal: three candles proclaim light…all needed for that light.  All the individuals and that special community being birthed into life.

I know…I know that this stuff of individuals and community is a vital part of the DNA of living.  Poets and playwrights know it;  psychologists and sociologists know it; theologians like Paul Tillich know it and he devoted many pages to this dynamic in his massive work, Systematic Theology.  St. Paul knew it when in one of his letters to the church at Corinth he talked about all the individual members of the body of Christ’s Church as toes and hands and noses and fingers and eyes and ears.  Every one of these individual body parts coming together to form the community of The Body.

I know it through the last 1/3 of my pastoral counseling ministry during which I specialized in couples therapy and education.  I would be a wealthy man if I had in my hand $1.00 for every time I confronted a husband or a wife with this question: “Do you want a relationship (think community) with him/her or do you insist on being right?!”

There is something else that is so important about this individual and community thing:  it is dynamic and living and moving [back to the candles].  Life is not lived in some static or fixed place or distance of individuals to community.  The individual candles move closer to and farther away depending on what is called for.  Sometimes the individuals are almost consumed by the middle candle and sometimes the individual is far away.

Example: if you are part of the military much of your individuality is subsumed.  You are forever forming up and marching and being ordered by your superior.  “march, left, right, about face, halt.”  Viet Nam platoon leader-halt!-private’s foot was on the trigger of a land mine-he stopped-unlaced boot-sand in boot-long string to bootBeing almost absorbed by the community saved his life.

On the other hand,  acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates refused to implement the President’s immigration order.  She set herself apart  as an individual from the Justice Department community.  She was fired.

A brief word about our president.  Recently I have added a new thought in my nightly prayers.  I implore our Lord to open Mr. Trump’s mind and heart to the fact that he occupies the office of the presidency in relation to 2 other individual branches of government that together create the community of our governing structure.  His office together with The Congress and the Judiciary are a community.  None of the 3 candles burns brighter than the other 2.  All 3 create the 4th community candle of our government.

Jesus offers some very hard words about a community.  His language is, to put it mildly, graphic and jolting.  The community is damaged by adultery and how we people can do wrong with our eyes and hands and insults and swearing   Jesus ups community integrity by condemning lust and talking about better to lose an eye or a hand than bring damage to others and self.

For us to be community…be it marriage, family, committee, work group, book group, breakfast group, OSLC…we stand firm in the sure and certain knowledge that I and you are the Beloved of God and that part of our calling in our lives is to boldly assist from that beloved place…assist in creating community with the beloved around us.  The “hard” words of our Lord this day are words of loving pleading.  “Please, for your own good and the good of the community, please give deep  thought to what you do, to what you say, to what you think.”

Within the hour we gather in Cana Hall as the OSLC community and to become increasingly aware of the communities of refugees; the communities of children, women, men and families fleeing war and starvation and homelessness; the communities of Muslims cruelly set apart because of their faith difference.

I Imagine that we will be reminded of and called to an expansive notion of community.  We are citizens of America and we are citizens of the world.

Perhaps it is useful to think of us in the USA as an “individual” and Iran, Irag, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen as 7 other “individuals.”  Perhaps it is helpful (and challenging) to imagine that we 8 are parts of God’s Beloved Community.

I believe that Our Lord wants his beloveds to be people of imagination; people of aspiration; people of love and people of compassion…as well as people aware of reality and danger and threat.  Yet, reality and danger and threat must never lead us into living and governing  through fear and into treating any person,,,,any person as “the other.”   As a disciple of Our Lord, Jesus the Christ, we regard no one from a human point of view, which is to say, as “The Other.” Remember John 3:16:  “God so loved THE  WORLD.”…humanly speaking, the largest community of all.

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