(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on May 1, 2016)
I believe we are created to be in community.
In fact, I believe that it is impossible to follow Jesus without being part of the body of Christ. I didn’t always believe this. I grew up seeing Christianity as the way I was reconciled to God through Jesus. I saw faith as primarily about my relationship with God, with Christian community as a nice add-on that helped me learn more about Jesus.
But I’ve changed. I’ve been exposed to a different way of looking at following Jesus, even a completely different idea of God’s very self, and I’ve never seen it as Jesus and me since! God’s very being, God’s very self with Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a community; and Jesus prayed that everyone who follows him will become part of that loving community that IS God. In Romans and in Ephesians and Corinthians, Paul pictures every single one of us in relationship with each other, as parts of one body, each doing our part, all listening to Jesus the head.
Community is what God is creating in Christ. Jesus is bringing all things in heaven and earth into their proper relationship, a connected, loving relationship with God and with each other. What a picture! It just draws me in, and I know I’m not alone.
So many of us, because we are created to be in community, so many of us long and ache to be part of a community where we are accepted and where we have something to contribute. We so want this beautiful, organic warm relationship to happen somehow!
But my goodness how often church falls short of the beautiful ideal.
It sometimes feels…distant. Difficult. Forced. Institutional. There are measurable statistics that point to the reality of this. People attend church less regularly than they used to-once or twice a month is the new “I’m a regular attender”. Commitment to a denomination, identity as a denomination is declining.
We want life, not ritual. Community, not churchy. Natural, not forced. Believe me, even though I love the church and have given my life to it, I get this. I feel this. I might even particularly feel this having spent the last three days in meetings of the Administrative Committee of the Yearly Meeting, as institutional and difficult as community can be!
I think what we all wish is that we could have all the great parts of community happen organically without any of the bad parts.
We’d like to be known and appreciated and connected, without it ever being frustrating and tension-filled or boring. If this community thing is God’s plan, if this is what God is doing through Jesus, then why do we have to work so hard at it? Why can’t it just happen?
But to have community that supports and challenges and encourages you, to have community you contribute to with your gifts…an investment of time is needed. We cannot have true depth of community without sometimes getting together and being bored out of our minds, without sometimes having things happen that we disagree with and that annoy us. That’s how life and relationships work.
As much as we all know it isn’t perfect, we need structures and institutions, we need commitment to showing up and doing hard work in order to develop the community we were created to be in. I actually think choosing to commit to community by choosing to commit to regular attendance in Christian community is an important way to feed the soil of our spiritual lives, making room for God’s seed to grow.
We’re gonna look first at one example of this in the bible. Then I’ll share some examples I’ve seen, ways that making a commitment to regular attendance in a specific Christian community–maybe even an institutional church, gasp!–helps the organic community we long for start to become a reality. Turn with me to Luke chapter 2.
Here are a few verses that we usually only read around Christmas time.
Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple for the ceremony every Jewish child went through. They are performing the ritual that the institutional community asks of all newborn babies, a ceremony to offer and dedicate the baby to God. While there, they meet some people. Follow along as I read about Anna in verse 36.
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then had been a widow for eighty- four years. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38, TNIV)
Notice first that Joseph, Mary and Jesus are there because they have committed themselves to the Jewish community, which expects this ritual act. Commitment and ritual bring them there. Anna is there because she is ALWAYS there: “She never left the temple but worshiped day and night, fasting and praying.” What makes this community work? What benefits come from the commitments each of these individuals makes to the community? That’s what I want to explore today.
Let’s dig a little deeper with this woman Anna.
She’s introduced to us as a prophet, and in the book of Luke, this puts her in pretty amazing company. John the Baptist is called a prophet in Luke; so are Isaiah and Elisha, two of the prophets who loom largest in what we call the Old Testament; and Luke calls Jesus himself a prophet. Anna takes her place right alongside these four–these are the only five named a prophet by Luke. She is highly esteemed as a leader!
She’s “very old”…just how old is a bit of a dispute. At the very least, she is 84 years old, but she very well could be about 105 if we play this out. Many women were married at 14; after 7 years of marriage she’d be 21, and then 84 years as a widow would make her 105. Luke makes it clear to us that she is very devout…she worships night and day, she fasts and prays. And notice that all of these acts of devotion to God are connected to the community by the fact that she lives at the temple. She’s bound herself, committed herself completely to the community.
To be a prophet is, by definition, to be led by God.
Anna is a wonderful example of what the bible teaches we are to be. As God leads her and prompts her; as the Holy Spirit fills her, uses her…as she gives herself to this community day after day, year after year, all the ingredients of true, God-designed community are there. She is connected with God, and she is connected with the community, recognized by them as a prophet and leader.
Her age isn’t what makes her revered; it is the way God moves through her. And what is just as important to say today, in our culture that so emphasizes youth, that sometimes makes those who are older feel discarded and forgotten…her age doesn’t DISqualify her from playing an important part in the community. Nor does being a woman disqualify her from being part of or from leading the community.
God’s leading, God’s work in her, is what gives her a place in this community and a task to accomplish. This is the truth that we as Quakers have held for more than 300 years: it isn’t gender or age or education that qualify us for community or for ministry. It is God’s work in us.
Look at the simple yet powerful work of ministry that God’s Spirit prompts her to do: Anna sees Jesus and Mary and Joseph, she thanks God for Jesus, and then she immediately speaks his destiny and the hope that he is bringing to the community. Not only has she committed herself to always showing up in community, now she is serving the community by sharing what God is doing to bring encouragement to all.
It’s so simple, but so important!
Her worship and devotion to God, her ministry and worthwhile contribution to the world..they all are prompted by God and lived out in community.
Luke often tells stories with pairs, and Anna is a good example of that. She’s paired with Simeon, another older man, righteous and devout, who recognizes and blesses Jesus that same day at the temple. It’s interesting comparing whenever these pairs occur in Luke. The way Anna is described is more impressive than Simeon. He’s seen as righteous and devout, but she’s called a prophet, putting her in very select company. When Simeon sees Jesus, he is ready to have his life be done and go to heaven; but Anna sees Jesus and has a job to do, speaking the good news to any in the community who will listen.
Anna’s the real deal! She’s committed herself to this community by living at the temple, and her devotion to God gives her a place and a ministry that serves the community.
Because Joseph and Mary are taking Jesus through a ritual, because they, too, have committed to showing up in this community, they receive the blessing of prayer and they begin to see how Jesus is going to give hope to that same community. I’m moved by this.
Because let’s be real and honest: in 84 years in the temple, you gotta believe there were a whole lot of really boring days, right?
Always being in this place where people are just constantly doing prescribed rituals, we know Anna HAD to have experienced a whole lot of mundane, lifeless, institution-heavy days. But it’s within that commitment to community that she had a place. It’s within that commitment to community that God has empowered her. It’s within that commitment to community that she brought hope and gained recognition as a prophet, as a leader.
I long for vibrant, organic, life-giving community. And I’ve gotten old enough to see that it doesn’t just happen magically.
It takes showing up. It takes committing to a group of people. My commitment to a Christian community is how I discover God giving me a place in it, God giving me meaningful ministry to do to serve this community.
Elaine and I were part of this church when we were in college, and then we got married a month after we graduated and moved to California so I could go to seminary. For three years, we talked about how much we wanted to come back and be part of this community, this Yearly Meeting. We had gotten a taste of what community could be like, and we wanted to come back and put down roots.
Now decades later, we’ve watched two of our kids grow to adulthood in this church and wider Yearly Meeting community, and we’ve got another who starts high school in the fall. We chose this community to be our community, showing up with our kids over and over again. I didn’t really think about it back then, but our choice to commit to this community has affected far more than Elaine and me. It has given a community to our kids, community that has shaped them in amazing ways.
We didn’t choose our kids’ friends, obviously; we aren’t THAT much of helicopter parents. But we chose the community in which they could make relationships. And I am forever grateful for how Megan Dayton and Rachelle Staley and Michelle Akins and Josh Reid and Eric Muhr and countless others have invested in our kids. It hasn’t been perfect. There have been times when our kids didn’t have the friends or the mentors that we all hoped for.
But in so many ways, God has shaped our kids through this community. Our choice to show up regularly and bring them with us, and their own choices as they got older to go to camp and Samuel School and Yearly Meeting and small groups; all of our choices to show up regularly has created soil for God to work in us, to give us each a community in which to belong, and to find meaningful ways to serve.
The older I get, the more amazed I become, the more I see the benefits of committing to a group of people like Newberg Friends Church.
What an indescribable joy it is to sit in Chapters with Riley Sump like I get to do when he’s in town. Elaine was Riley’s preschool teacher, and now he challenges and encourages me with his questions and thoughts about philosophy and theology.
What a moving experience yesterday to celebrate George Fox graduation, and realize I’ve known almost ten of those graduates since they were in preschool.
How rich it was this week to have meetings at Friendsview, and know that I talked with and hugged dozens of you who have shown me what it means to follow Jesus, who have prayed for me and my kids! It’s astounding!
All of those relationships, all of those experiences have happened because Elaine and I made a commitment decades ago to show up regularly and participate in the life of this church and Yearly Meeting. Of course there has been frustration and pain in those years. Of course it’s not all been exciting and life giving. Of course there have been many times we’ve felt bored or lifeless or like it’s just going through the motions.
But look at the benefits! Look how you all have shaped me and my kids for the better. Look how we’ve made God tangibly real to each other. Look how I’ve experienced young and old, male and female, people in teacher roles as well as people who have no role at all…look at how God has used all kinds of you to show me Christ.
It is so worth it!
I’m going to be bold enough today to ask you to make Anna your example. I’m going to ask you to make a commitment to keep showing up in this community. It’s your relationship with God that gives you a place here. It’s God’s Spirit who will prompt you with what gifts, what acts of service, what ministry you will give to this community.
It won’t be perfect. You’ll sometimes feel alone or ignored. You’ll have times where it feels frustrating and like a dead ritual. But Anna found, I have found, so many have found that committing to a Christian community and regularly showing up creates beautiful connections. Organic spiritual community doesn’t just happen. It takes a commitment of time and energy and showing up and listening for how God wants us each to participate.
But it is worth it! It is so worth it.