Hungry for Community

Scripture: James 2:1-13

In these past several months of pandemic, we have all discovered anew how important it is to be in community.

Right now, even as we gather virtually, there are people from all walks of life and all faith journeys who are keeping our neighborhoods together - from doctors and nurses going in each day to care for COVID-19 positive patients - to leaders working phones and meetings to try to get resources to people in need - to teachers and administrative staff at school preparing lessons for remote learning - to the easily overlooked delivery drivers making sure groceries are picked up and dropped at doorsteps. The pandemic reveals in so many ways how we need each other.
According to an article on CNN’s website, even though we have found many ways to be resilient in this time, the effects of limiting our social interaction and staying home, especially for those of us with existing health conditions, has worn us down. “A Census Bureau survey found that one in three Americans are now reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety — more than three times the rate from a similar survey conducted in the first half of 2019.” Some crisis hotlines have seen a dramatic increase in calls for help. Without being able to see friends and family except through virtual means, we can feel lonely and disconnected, depleted and sad.

Brandon Robertson, in his book Inclusion, argues that human beings are wired for connection - in this way, we resemble our Creator who we often describe in our worship as Trinity - Creator, Spirit, Son - three in one - divine community. God created us in community, and we desire community with God and with each other.

So, when we are unable to experience community, there is a hole within us, a deep hunger that is left unfulfilled. Sure, some of us too have this problem made worse because we have been hurt by the communities around us - we have been hurt by people who say they love us and care for us. Many have been wounded deeply by their families simply because the choices they have made or because of who they are. There are many in our neighborhood who are lonely and do not see a church as a place to turn for support, because of what Christians have said and done in public and private to them.

Yes, we tend to find community in unusual ways in this internet age, but are screen names and discussion forums really an adequate substitution for honest to goodness presence, being together and sharing of our lives?

Yes, some of us have found outlets with like-minded groups of people through sports, work, and hobbies - but are we truly seen and known in these circles of acquaintances?

We are hungry for community, knowing it won’t solve all of our problems, but recognizing that without it we are missing something that we desperately need to feel whole.

How are followers of Jesus called to respond to that hunger for community?

What might that mean for University Christian Church?

In the Epistle of James, we find words that are deeply rooted in the Jewish faith and the tradition of Jesus Christ. James is a fun letter to read, because it is straightforward, to the point, and prescriptive. And it is clearly speaking about the challenges of being community.

James describes a scenario that hits home very easily for people who have experience with church - favoritism. He describes a rich person, wearing a nice golden robe, golden rings, and maybe even the latest pair of Nike Jordan Ones, stepping into the synagogue/worship space and having the red carpet rolled out for them. The greeters take their coats and with excitement lead them to the best seat in the house. But when someone who is poor arrives to worship, one who has just gotten a moment free after a long and grueling day of labor with dirt-stained hands and worn clothes, they are coldly told to grab a stool at the back and stay out of sight.

He challenges the early church to live up to their call to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Verse 8)

This is what he writes is the royal law, pointing back to Leviticus 19:18, an important verse which says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

This was a core teaching and practice of Jesus - who made neighbor an even harder category to love when he commanded his disciples to love their enemies.

To be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus, was to truly love your neighbor. When a rich person was welcomed with great enthusiasm but the poor person was dismissed, the church failed its call to embody that commandment. We become transgressors of the law.

But James doesn’t stop there - he adds his own little critique of the power dynamics in play. He points out how the rich person, the one who is received with honor, is actually the one who deserves the cold treatment. It’s the rich person who has harmed his community, who has neglected the poor, who has dragged fellow Christians into court, who has cheated and ridiculed the name of the Lord by his actions. Why do they get special treatment? Just because their bank account is full?

Maybe if we think about it, we can imagine a time or two that this may have happened in our own church and maybe even happened to us.

I know plenty of churches get real excited when a young person walks in the door and we miss the grieving widow in the back who deserves as much attention.

I know plenty of churches mistake success in life with a successful prayer life, appointing those who are generous in giving to positions of leadership which require generous humility and wisdom.

I know plenty of churches who have been enamored by those with political power and have overlooked those who are being crushed by the very policies of those in power.
Loving your neighbor is the central defining mark of what it means to be a faithful community for James. We as the church fail in that call when we reproduce hierarchies that we see in the world, when even in our faith communities we exalt some to VIP status. Rather, those who are vulnerable and those at the bottom of our economic system, the very ones Jesus surrounded himself in ministry, are the ones God intends to be at the heart of the kingdom.

James is not saying that the rich aren’t welcome - rather, part of our call as a Christian community is to hold the most vulnerable, the poor, women, widows, and orphans at the center. We are to protect them. We are to fight for them. And we are to know Jesus among them.

Certainly, here at University Christian Church, some of us have done well in this life. Some of us are at the bottom looking up. I believe we embody what James is calling when we tear down the walls that separate those two groups, not preferring one over the other, but reminding all of us that Jesus came that the oppressed might go free.

Even in this past week, we have heard the name of Breonna Taylor. We have been in horror to hear the experiences of immigrant women who allegedly had forced hysterectomies while in custody by our government. We recognize that creating a world where the vulnerable, where the poor, where the hurting are valued and cared for is as revenant as it was in the early church as it is today.

How prophetic would the church be if we created more opportunities for each of us, no matter our walk in life, to truly hear and see each other?

What would we witness to the world?

Might we begin to offer something that would fill the hunger for community so many share?

As your pastor, I know my next step is to listen to you.

How can we help you journey through your loneliness, through your sadness, and all the ways you feel disconnected from friends and family? How can I listen? How can the elders of our church listen to what you are going through?

If we need to do more Zoom calls, we can do more Zoom calls.

If we need to go for socially distanced walks through the parks as the leaves change, we can do more of that.

This past week, my kids suddenly decided that they wanted to go skateboarding more. Over the past few months, I rarely went skating, even though it is such a positive experience for me. So when my kids drag me out and we hit one of our local skateparks like Sunnyside, I saw a glimpse again of just how hungry we are all for connection. The skate park remains a place that give me glimpses of what life can be like for all of us - a place where young and old gather and we (most of the time) encourage each other. We give each other permission to enjoy our sport, no matter our skill level or age, whether we just want to cruise around or try death defying stunts, whether we are a beginner or have been doing this a lot.

Maybe church has an opportunity during this pandemic to learn some new tricks of our own and become that kind of people, where we receive each other with grace, care for those who need extra time, and truly love each other as Christ calls us.

Thanks be to God.

(posted 11/25/20)

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