Saved by Community

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, March 17, 2019.

A few weeks ago, at a committee meeting here, Bo Crowell shared a reading that said great spiritual leaders come to set us free, but people tend to build institutions, which too often become about rules and customs, and end up being more restrictive than liberating. One particular line in the reading struck me: “You don’t need the church or the priesthood to have a spiritual life.” And I felt compelled to respond: “As someone who has chosen to work in and spend my life in the institutional church, I know that what you say is true. And sometimes I despair for the future of the church.” 

There was a moment of silence. I was mostly speaking to the fact that these are not the best days for organized religion, that spiritual innovation these days is often happening outside the church, and I do wonder about our future. Then one of you spoke up. And quietly said, “I need you to hear, that right now, I need the church.” 

She wasn’t saying that she needed denominational structures or books of theology or doctrine, as important as those things can be. No, she was saying that she needed the compassionate community that you create here, that is here when you need it, and when others need it. And I was grateful, and am grateful, for that reminder and that affirmation of the power of community, this one in particular. It’s what we heard in Linda’s testimonial today and in Taffy’s last Sunday; thanks to each of you.

As Starhawk puts it: “Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.”

The first sermon I ever preached here was at the start of the week when you were deciding if you would call me as your minister;  that sermon was titled, “We Need a Community.” My  message back then was about the transformative power of people joining together to be and do what we can’t accomplish all on our own. This is central to my spirituality and theology. Because another church community held open a space where I could ask questions and search for answers and work with others to do what needed to be done. That community held me and challenged me and somehow lit a fire in me that led me to do what sometimes seemed like a crazy thing of going off to seminary and into the ministry. Which has been such a deep and profound blessing; especially these years I have been here with you. Because being here, hearing your stories and being part of your lives, you have strengthened my faith, and when I needed it, has restored my faith. For which I am ever grateful. 

I believe in the power of love. I believe in the power of showing up. I believe there is a Spirit moving among us, the spirit of life, the human spirit, God, whatever you want to call that mysterious Presence. I believe in the power of community. 

In Africa there’s this widely-held understanding that we aren't isolated individuals, that we belong to one another in deep and profound ways. This understanding is called ubuntu, and it means “a person is a person through other persons.” As Desmond Tutu says, “My humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours.”

But you know our culture is different from that. There is in our national DNA a deep strand of rugged individualism. We tend to see strength as more of an individual trait; we worship the hero more than we celebrate teamwork or cooperation. It must go back to the Europeans who colonized this land, who took it from native people and used slave labor to build it; this belief that power over others is the pinnacle of achievement; because if you are powerful then you can do what you want.

Each of us needs to do our own work of individuating, of becoming our true selves, but this hyper-individualism is killing us. Robert Putnam wrote a book about the decline of community in America called Bowling Alone. He studied this, and has statistics, like these: over the last 25 years, attendance at club meetings has gone down 58%, people showing up for family dinner is down 43%, and having friends over has dropped 35% ( We are less connected than we used to be. You know that isolation is one of the common factors found among those young men who are the perpetrators of school shootings. Our individualism is killing us. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s the good news: Putnam says joining and participating in one group will cut in half your odds of dying next year! Maybe we should put that on a banner: “Come to church! It will reduce your chances of dying by 50%!” And if you do die, well, we can help with that too. 

Wendell Berry is a contemporary prophet calling us to wake up and live a different way: more mindfully, more respectful of each other and the land that sustains us. A writer, farmer, and environmentalist, he’s lived over 40 years on a farm near where he was born in Kentucky. He’s written a series of novels set there, and this morning we heard from his character Jayber Crow, who was the town barber, then gravedigger and church janitor. Jayber is no optimist; he’s had some heartbreak in life and plenty of disappointment, but this hasn’t hardened him. He sees things as they are, and he has a vision of how things could be. Isn’t this what it means to be a person of faith?

Hear again Jayber’s vision of the gathered community. I offer these words as a tribute to you, and what we are trying to be here in this church:

“What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on… 

“It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill…

“My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”

What does it mean to be faithful? Is it saying pious words or believing in the unbelievable? No. It’s reaching out your hands, even when you are tired or scared. It’s showing up, even after you have been hurt or disappointed. It’s holding a vision of what is yet to be, and then working to make it real.

We are at the time of the year when we ask you to pledge you financial support to the church. We do this so we can be the community we aspire to be, so we can hold open a space in this city where people are fed, in body and spirit, where we work for justice and liberation, and help build the common good. You’ll be getting your pledge card today, and I ask you to really think about how generous you can be. Because we need you. To be the community we aspire to be, we need each of you. You know this, don’t you? We need what you have to give. We need your presence and your ideas and your energy. And your money. In order to pay our staff and take good care of our building and plan for the future. We need what you have to give. I see giving to the church as different from giving to other worthy causes. Because the church is where I belong. It is my community. It is your community. So please search your hearts and make the best pledge you can. And together, we will continue to build on the good we have here.

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and with things like green beer and parades and such, you could forget that it’s one of a number days in the church calendar that remember and honor those who have been recognized as saints, as heroes of the church. There’s nothing wrong with lifting up individuals and calling them saints, as long as you don’t let this keep you from seeing that we each have our own part to play. In the church I grew up in we sang a children’s hymn about this, and the last verse says that saints “lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still.” And it ends this way:

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.

It is our Universalist faith that we are all part of a great Love. That nobody is beyond this Love, nobody gets left behind. We believe in the communion of all saints, and of all souls. And this means, of course, that we are each part of the great work before us, this work of saving the world. Doing what we can, where we can, to make things better. That’s what we are about here in this compassionate and liberating and justice-seeking community. We each have our part to play.

To be saved by community, you need to join in. Give me your hand, and I will give you mine. Together we will be stronger and braver and wiser that we could be on our own. Together we will see that we are part of a great cloud of witnesses, the community of all the saints, doing our part to help one another, and build the common good.