Sermon: "Unlikely Spiritual Practices: Community," by Pastor Sami

From The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck: “...their hands were busy with sticks and little rocks. They sat still--thinking--figuring.”

I am not sure if we are even there yet in this storm. We are still in our houses listening to the wind howl and cry. We are looking out our windows and seeing our crops drying fast.

This world is changing faster than a few of us could have predicted even a month ago. And whenever the storm is finished, and the dust settles, we will be looking at a different world.

What is this world we are living in? As we have all witnessed, and as Margaret referred to last week, we have given up much for Lent this year. Vacations, graduations, proms, concerts, recitals, weddings, even funerals.

And if you’re feeling like me, you have had to give up aspects of your daily life that sustain you. Your wellbeing, your income, your “life as you know it” is paused, and we have no clue for how long.

We have given up our tried and tested way of being the church. That centripetal force that church buildings have relied on for generations--we don’t have that right now.

“Church” must be re-imagined. We are being stretched to try new things. To trust in significant ways. To take risks. “Community” will be different. How will we adapt? How will we transform?

With the world different, our practices will need to change.

If we are talking about spiritual practices during social distancing (and now during shelter-in-place), how do we make "community" a spiritual practice? How do we practice loving one another and snuff out fear? John Beaver asked this question at the St. Paul’s church council meeting. You know...that love that Jesus talks about. The commandment added to the loving God with our whole also love our neighbor. Loving the God in the sunrise and sunset, and loving the God in the person across the street from you.

In our new world, it can be easy to get safety and fear too zipped together. We may think that if we can just control our safety, then our fears will be quelled.

Lutheran Preacher and Writer Nadia Bolz-Weber reflected on this. She said that we have this tendency to think that ”everything will be okay and we will feel safe. If we can keep our house germ-free, and teach our children from home. And distance ourselves from our neighbors. And build your workplace at home. And become videographers! And become tech-savvy and creative and whew… is so much.”

There is collective grief in the air. We have anticipatory grief, which is when we grieve things that haven’t even happened yet but are inevitable. We will all know people who get sick. We will all know people who die. And that is really hard to grasp right now as we sit inside and listen to the wind scream and howl. We feel lost and have lost a sense of safety and security. On a large, large scale, we have lost a general sense of safety. As one author put it, we are experiencing grief on a macro-level. But even God as the mother hen cannot guarantee perfect safety for her brood under her wing.

So, how do we unzip fear from safety?

1 John 4:18-21 states:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their siblings, are liars; for those who do not love a sibling whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their siblings also.

Does hearing how Jesus acts take away your fear? It might. It might not.

Maybe safety is not the answer. Maybe it is love that quells the fear, not security. We can have fear and still be courageous. We can cast out paralyzing fear with love and connection. Community. With all of this fear, and our safety not guaranteed, how does the Church remind the world what true community looks like? Because we don’t have our buildings right now. And we have been given a unique opportunity.

The word “community” in the 21st century is a little different than it was in the 20th century. It is more than your hometown. It isn’t merely something that you fit into; it is also something you choose for yourself. A community includes shared circumstances, and it offers a transcendent kind of togetherness. It is a place to weather out the storm together. A community is united not just by circumstances but also values, mission, and vision. A community is more than just a body of people who live in the same place.

A community is as simple as “joint ownership”.

We have a job to do, always, but specifically now. Right now in our world, there is a guise that taking precautions as we are right now is surrendering to fear; that it is a mistake to slow our world down in order to love those among us most vulnerable. That is false. We need to love through fear. We need to keep one another from abandoning hope.

Write a letter. Make a phone call. Say “I love you” a lot. Stay home. Research what places here in Helena need monetary gifts to care for our community.

The precautions we are taking are the right ones. History tells us that we are making the right decisions. We may never know if we overreacted, but we will definitely know if we under-react.

If you remember from reading The Grapes of Wrath way-back-when, it was connection and commitment that saved the migrant families. There was no safety or security. They committed to each other’s survival. The children were all their children. One’s struggle was all’s struggle.

I saw a picture of a sign hanging in a Colorado neighborhood. It said, “And then the whole world walked inside and shut their doors and said: we will stop it all. Everything. To protect our weaker ones. Our sicker ones. Our older ones. And nothing. Nothing in the history of humankind ever felt more like love than this.”

May you hear the wind scream and howl, knowing that we are in this together, my friends. Let’s show the world what loving through fear truly looks like. Let’s be the church. Amen.

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