Growing Closer to God through the Beloved Community

January 20, 2019

Rev. Dr. David Clark

Senior Minister

1 Corinthians 12:4-11

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Today we continue with our sermon series, How to Grow Closer to God. On the journey of life, it’s good to pause from time to time to take stock of where you are. What’s going right? To ask, How is it with your soul? What road are you taking to get to that inner state where you really want to be?

One of the roads or spiritual practices that draws us closer to God is to intentionally involve yourself with a faith community. So, yay, just by coming here today, you’ve taken a step in the right direction. You gather with others and in that dynamic we become more than the sum of our parts. For the Spirit is here, moving amongst us and between us and through us. Touching us with grace and peace.

We are created to be relational. In Genesis 1 we find God saying let us create humankind in our image. Our image is relational. Biologically we survived as pack animals. We have an inherent need to connect. John Milton looked at Genesis 2 after Adam got created and remarked that God’s first impression, first thing the Almighty thinks is, “It is not good for Adam to be alone. He needs a community.”

The community we need isn’t just any community. But one where we all have a part, a role, a voice. Where each one is valued–like what is described in our passage. Interconnected.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about how when I was growing up I thought that having a set of beliefs when I got confirmed was enough. I agreed to it and then thought the church was irrelevant. I already had what I needed. I didn’t understand that I didn’t have very much. I only had the answers and questions that the teachers thought an 8th grader could absorb. I found that if your faith development stops there, then you aren’t going to really have faith answers that adequately prepare you for the real grown-up world.

Although I believed that confirmation graduated me from church, I got pulled back in by the noble pursuit of pure teenage lust. Marcia Christiansen and her hot friends went to youth group. Then something weird happened. I started listening and thinking about the messages I heard there and got hooked. I told this story before, but one time I went on a youth mission trip that wasn’t much fun and everyone was acting like a bunch of entitled jerks.

One night around a campfire I told the counselor that I was quitting the church. These people brought me down. I’d be a better Christian without them. He didn’t say anything. We just sat in the dark staring at the orange and red coals in the fire. Suddenly he took a stick and knocked a chunk of burning coal out of the center. And we just watched it go from glowing to ashen and grey. He didn’t have to say a word. I got it. Somehow we need each other. The support, and sometimes even the friction. Because spirituality, like most things in this world, is something we are more likely to stick with when we are connected.

Blogger Jen Oshman had an epiphany and said, “. . . my spiritual growth over the last 18 years is mostly due to the accountability I have had in the local church rather than my own personal drive to grow. . . Being involved in various church activities year after year has been a gift because it has spurred me on.  It’s also a bit of an embarrassment because, truthfully, I would not have grown at the same rate, left to my own motivation.”

She talks about how being part of something helped keep her at things that grew her faith where if she didn’t have them, if people didn’t count on her, her faith would have been an afterthought instead of a beautiful thing that helps you remember who you really are so that you can be fully present and alive to what you treasure most.

I hear the objections all the time. I don’t have to be part of a church to be a good person. Yup. Absolutely. But I find when you are accountable and it is brought to your consciousness all the time, you are more likely to follow through. Ah, the church is filled with a bunch of hypocrites. Yup. Not one of us is perfect and is able to live up to the highest standards to which we aspire. But we remember to try. We find that being part of a church community is helpful. It’s always horrible when church people look down their noses and get all judgmental about others. Jesus said we should take the boards out of our own eyes and not look for the speck in someone else’s eye. We are a group of imperfect people. I like the old adage about the church is a hospital for sinners rather than a spa for the perfect people.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, remember that one of the key concepts that drove him was the notion of this kingdom of God and he had this great way of boiling it down and calling it “the beloved community.” It “. . .is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”

You all saw that brotherhood/sisterhood was my epiphany card so I’ve got to talk about it. As Christians we have a role to play in building the beloved community by modeling it through the church. That we become a place of alternative values. Treat each other better. Not get caught up in the grind where the self is elevated above all else. Where it’s dog eat dog. Where truth and respect of others, finding common ground and civility with those with whom we disagree is a thing. Where we understand that wealth is not a trophy to prove that we are a success but a tool and blessing by which we can promote the good in this world.

Being part of a community means you know if tough times come someone will be there for you. At men’s group last week Mike Jensen gave his testimony that he’s given before about being critically injured and the sole survivor of a plane crash and how important his church was to him and his family through all of that.

As I’ve heard people tell their stories of spiritual growth what stands out is how God uses other people to facilitate their growth. No one ever says, “I thought myself to where I am.” No. There is always a story about how someone invited them to participate. I always like where someone was persistent, pushy, keeps inviting despite rejections. I like the woman who told me she ran into one of the sweet church leaders at one of my churches. She said “Ruth said I’m going to be at your house at 6:30 and take you to women’s group.” Or someone who inspired. Or someone who didn’t live like others. Or someone who had enough faith to lean on to get through a hard season on life. How has God used others in your life to help your spiritual life? How might God use you to help someone else? That’s what our scripture lesson about being interconnected reminds us to do.

Finding community is more than our corporate worship. It’s about finding others in the church to connect to. You may be one people need. Get more involved challenge. Participate. We offer lots of stuff. Seals and Croft. You want to get closer to God, get closer to others. Know this and leverage the knowledge by putting yourself in a context where it is more likely to happen. Church groups. Do you want to see growth?

We need to risk some vulnerability. Church relationships can be so much deeper. The Moth storytelling program on NPR is where people tell a 5-minute true story from their lives. It’s a huge hit. Oral storytelling. No high tech. Just a person standing up and telling their truth. It gets its name because like moths are gathered to a flame. The flame is when one person is willing to share their story and others are always leaning in to hear, to learn, to find those points of identification saying, “I can relate.”

Drawn to the flame of each other’s truth. As we gather and participate in a community we hear each other’s stories. Lean their truth. A community is more than all those people you know on a kind of a shallow level. Someone mentioned to me once about how he knew someone who’d died. He said he was one of those people like your dry cleaner. You see him two minutes a week for 30 years and still don’t know very much.

Sanctuary to tell your truth. To learn from the truth of others. A degree of vulnerability. Takes courage. Everybody needs to be a safe place where they can be real. Where they can pull down the veil of what covers our real hearts. Get away from the masks we wear to present to others. The stuff we present our impressive selves, false selves.Oriah Mountain Dreamer wrote this beautiful piece called “The Invitation” about having a desire to connect on a deeper level. These sentiments guide so many of my interactions and lead to deeper connections.

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, ‘Yes.’

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

The take aways from this. One: join church. Put your stake with other imperfect people who are trying to live the best we can and figure that out and who support each other in on their paths. Second: get in a small group where you find the inspiration, support.