Monday, April 14, 2008

Sermon: "Community Renewal" (Delivered 4-13-08)

Community. Community is a word that comes easily to the lips. It is a word that we think we know what it means when we say it. This morning’s message is about community. About its possibilities. About its struggles and strivings. And, when community is threatened or endangered, about its healing and its renewal.

I think that the amount that the word is tossed around speaks to the volume of people’s hunger to be a part of communities. In the society in which we live, a society in which extended families are scattered across states and across continents, a society in which many of us know little about our neighbors, a society of so much impermanence and instability, the idea of community has enormous appeal, enormous draw.

And, so the word “community” is tossed about. We hear about such things as retirement communities and gated communities. We hear phrases such as, the African-American community, the gay community, the Jewish community, as well as communities referring to immigrants from different countries: the Jamaican community, the Laotian community, and so on. And then there are other sorts of communities: The theater community. The arts community. The swing-dancing community. The model train community. You get the idea.

And, of course, there are church communities. As one of my Unitarian Universalist colleagues puts it, “People come to us for the worship service but they stay for the community.” I find this statement to be true a lot of the time. When I hear people talk about what is most important for them as a part of this Unitarian Universalist church, “community” is often one of the top things if not the top thing that is mentioned. And perhaps what this means is really self-evident, but it may be worthwhile to unpack the idea of community a little bit this morning.

I want to offer you a quick glimpse into how I think about community, and how I regard Unitarian Universalist religious community in particular. I’m not one hundred percent certain that I came up with these ideas on my own, but if I did pick them up somewhere, I know not from where. I think about community this way: for a community to be a community, you must have meaningful engagement and interaction with people who are very similar to you and you must have meaningful engagement and interaction with people who are a little bit similar to and a little bit different from you, and you must have meaningful engagement and interaction with people who are quite different from you.

Suppose you are a retired person in your seventies. For this church to be community to you, you would need an opportunity for meaningful interaction with those who are very similar to you. So you might take part in the Ulysseans, our group for active seniors. But you would also need the opportunity to interact with those somewhat similar to you. So, you might sign up for Dinner for Eight and meet people more diverse in age and life stage. And, you would also need the opportunity to interact with those very different than you. So, you might sign up to be a Val Pal next February and have the chance to get to know a child in our church community. Or, you might volunteer with the Interfaith Hospitality Network and work with homeless families in Johnson County.

Or, suppose you are a coupled person in your thirties with small children. You would find deep connection with people quite similar to you in the “Thirty-Somethings Group”; if you sang and you joined the choir you would make connections with people somewhat similar to you; if you attended the training in two weeks and joined the lay ministry team and visited homebound members of our church, that might be an experience of forming deep relationships with those different from you.

My point in all this is that being around only those who are very much like you does not make a community. It makes a club. And, if everyone is extremely different from you it is difficult to feel like part of a community as well. So, it takes both of these, all of these, being with people who are sort of in the same boat you are in and encountering the other who stretches you.

The other part of being a church community is in recognizing that we have a responsibility to make our church a place where anybody can find community. A critical mass of Ulysseans, or Half-timers (as our 40ish to 60ish group calls themselves), or 30-somethings is important for all the participants in those groups to be able to find community. But, what about college students? What about those for whom English is not their first language? What about people of color? What about Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender persons? What about those living below the poverty line? What about billionaires? (I would hate to think that a billionaire would not be able to find community here. They need others like them to feel like they belong.) And, what about Republicans? I’m completely serious here. I want every single person who walks through our door to be able to find community here. That means building a critical mass of people at each point along a scale of diversity that includes racial and ethnic diversity, age diversity, gender diversity, political diversity, theological diversity, and more.

Community: Deep connections with people very similar to you. Deep connections with people somewhat similar to you. Deep connections with people quite different from you.

When Unitarian Universalists speak about community, they often prefix an adjective to the word, referring to something that is called “Beloved Community.” The term “Beloved Community” was made popular by Martin Luther King, whom our nation mourned last weekend on the 40th anniversary of his death. King’s concept of Beloved Community was contained in the immortal words of his famous speech, “One day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…. One day every valley will be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.” King’s dream was more than racial integration. It was about deep encounter with difference across the entire spectrum of human experience.

This morning’s sermon is the third in a four part series on renewal. The two previous sermons dealt with two aspects of individual renewal, the renewal of our bodies and the renewal of our emotions. This morning we shift to consider renewal within groups of people. This morning is devoted to the renewal of communities and next week’s service will concern the renewal of relationships.

In the reading before the sermon I selected words by the gifted poet Nikki Giovanni, words that addressed the anger and the fear, the profound sadness and existential despairing of the Virginia Tech community following the shootings there a year ago. If one were to sit down and create a list of communities afflicted by devastation or violence, the list would stretch on and on. To the example of Virginia Tech we could add Northern Illinois University and the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Natural disasters have ravaged communities as close as Greensburg, Kansas and all across our nation from hurricanes in Florida and New Orleans to wildfires in Southern California. Terrorist attacks leveled skyscrapers in New York City and crashed a plane into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. And, I’ve just limited these examples to the devastations of the past few years in our own country. If we expanded our gaze around the world or cast it back into the past we could magnify exponentially our list of devastations.

I do not want to rehash these horrors at any great length, but rather ask what might be learned from them. Why do some communities heal more quickly than others? What makes some communities more resilient than others? What prompts some communities to renewal while others remain stuck in destruction, or worse, respond to their trauma with bitterness, hatred, and conflict? What can we learn? I ask this question of what we can learn not because we face any great crisis, although in the case that we should this wisdom would be important. No, I ask this question because I believe that these extreme examples can teach us how to deepen our own lives in this church community and in the other communities to which we belong.

So, let us explore a few of these examples and see what they have to teach us:

Let’s begin with the story of the paper menorahs in Billings, Montana. (I recounted this story as our children’s story.) Billings is a fairly white town with few people of color and few religious minorities. The town had become a popular gathering place for white supremacists and similar hate groups. Hurling bricks through the windows of Jewish homes was not the first instance of hate crimes in the city, and it was not the first time the people of the city had come together to resist hate. The town’s painters union volunteered to repaint for free any home, business, or place of worship that had been defaced by bigoted graffiti. When skinheads harassed those attending the town’s African-American church, neighboring churches sent white allies to witness and support the town’s small African-American population.

Psychotherapist and author Janice Cohn was so moved by this story that she set out to study it. From the story she went on to write a children’s book and a children’s play based on these events. Asking the question of what gave the people in the town the courage to stand up to hate, she first pointed to a number of the town’s leaders: the editor of the newspaper, the police chief, and members of the clergy. These leaders helped to create a vision of the type of community Billings could be and should be. People came together to stick up for one another as a community.

Another example is found in the writings of Rebecca Parker, the President of our UU seminary in Berkeley, California. Rev. Dr. Parker writes about speaking at a special service of dedication for the UU Church in San Jose, California which had burned down and which now had been rebuilt.
“In the moment of devastation, they resolved to restore the shelter for human hope that their ancestors had built. They pledge their faith to those who had come before them and those who would come after them. They took hands across the generations, and they held on. They grieved the loss and then went to work. The rallied and rebuilt. They rolled up their sleeves and painted. They got out their pocketbooks and wrote a check – and then another. They stayed late through meetings to hash out the details and choose the right direction. They were in it for the long haul…. They created beauty from the ashes. Not just the beauty of a resurrected building, but the beauty of a communion of people bound together by devotion to something that seemed impossible.” [Blessing the World, p. 59-60]
Parker, in her sermon of celebration, makes it clear to point out that the congregation in San Jose “didn’t just make a replica of the past. They rebuilt what was lost, but they created something new as well.”

One of my colleagues in Florida tells me of how, in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, locals feuded about how to rebuild a part of the city that was emotionally significant. Some would settle for nothing less than a complete rebuilding of the area how it had always been while others pushed for the rebuilding to capture the heritage of this meaningful location but also incorporate new features.

Rebecca Parker writes much the same thing when she talks about what happens when the old sanctuaries fall. (And, by “old sanctuaries”, she does not mean church buildings. She means churches, buildings, homes, neighborhoods, cities and, more than that, she means the sanctuaries we imagine in our minds and hold in our hearts.)
“When the old sanctuaries fall… we need to rebuild with something new as the cornerstone… something that marks the awareness that love for one another is our only security. Faithful solidarity with one another on this planet is the only power that is stronger than violence or terror or devastation. Joining hands, working together to create beauty, risking for the sake of a future we hope for but cannot see, but still moving in the direction of what we dream can be.” [Blessing the World, p. 61]
So, where I am going with all of this? One of the most compelling passages in the Bible is found in Ezekiel 37. In this passage, the prophet Ezekiel has a vision where he surveys a barren field littered with dry bones. In the vision, Ezekiel has a conversation with Yahweh and the bones are brought back to life: first they stand up; then they are “enfleshed” with sinew, muscles, and skin; and, finally, the breath of spirit and soul and life reanimates them.

Even though this is the birth of Spring, it is a time when many of us feel like dry bones. In the church world, many ministers have been known to say, “Everything after Easter is gravy.” In the academic world, the end of the school year approaches. Many of us look forward to planned vacations during the Summer months. And, at church many of our board and committee leaders await the conclusion of their terms and tenures of leadership.

What do we do when our communities feel like dry bones? What renews them? This morning we’ve looked at communities that have had the strength to move forward after great trauma and loss. We can learn from their examples. This morning we’ve also considered the diversity that empowers this church. When you are feeling dry, remember that here you can encounter others who understand you deeply and that there is the breath of newness and the thrill of difference all around you… always. Amen.