Service on Christ and the Challenges of Community
October 1, 2017
53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. 54 Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. 55 “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him.
But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”
58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.
Matthew 10:21-23, 34-37
21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. …
34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
May my words be pleasing to you, oh God.
In my work as an academic, I have been spending a great deal of time exploring the theories of an early German sociologist, Ferdinand Tönnies. He was not a lovely man, but I believe he has a lot to teach us that is even more relevant to our lives today.
Seeking to understand the rapid changes brought on by urbanization and industrialization, Tönnies concluded that almost all of us are now dividing our time between two very different worlds. “All kinds of social co-existence that are familiar, com¬fortable and exclusive” he characterized as gemeinschaft, or Community. By contrast, “life in the public sphere, in the outside world” he labeled gesellschaft, or Society. “Com¬¬munity means genuine, enduring life together, whereas So¬ci¬ety is a tran¬sient and superficial thing. Thus Community must be understood as a liv¬ing organism in its own right, while Society is a mechanical ag¬gregate and arti-fact.”
Community and Society often operate in parallel to one another. For example, the Universalist National Memorial Church is a community; the Unitarian Universalist Association is an organ of society. Sometimes organs of society displace pillars of community, as when big-box stores wipe out Main Street businesses or HMOs replace family doctors. And sometimes organs of society try to win our affections by masquerading as communities: generic, pre-fabricated real estate developments with names like “Spruce Knoll” or “Worchester Commons” are only the most transparent examples of this.
At a time when great social, economic, and political forces are thrusting us ever-more into the cold, impersonal world of Society, preserving ties to familiar and sympathetic Community is crucial to maintaining many people’s sense of identity and control. Yet each of these forms of human interaction, Community and Society, present distinct challenges to us. Some of us feel comfort in one and frustration in the other; many of us find difficulties in both.
Because Jesus found each of these environments problematic in different ways, I find that the Gospel offers valuable guidance about how we should comport ourselves in each. Today, I propose to talk about what Christ can teach us about Community. When I return to the pulpit in two weeks, I will address His teachings about our place in Society.
Jesus recognized the value of Community and taught us to treasure our bonds with those in our community. In Matthew chapter 5, verses 21-25, Jesus warns that even uttering angry words against a brother or a sister is committing a grave sin. He goes on to tell us to make reconciliation with those in our community a high priority.
John, chapter 13, verses 34-35, tells us that, on the night before he was murdered, Jesus raised up the importance of loving other members of one’s community. 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
The intimate ties within a community, Jesus noted, allow it to distinguish between a trusted member coming with good intentions and an intruder who holds no loyalty to the members of the community or actively wishes to do them harm. In John, chapter 10, verses 7-14, Jesus declares that
“Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me”.
Community can also be a valuable vehicle for moral correction. In Matthew chapter 18, verses 15-17, Jesus gives elaborate instructions for appealing to wayward members of our communities to change their ways. Only when the entire community has weighed in and been rebuffed does He say to treat the member like an outsider.
He goes on to say that when we unite as a community in prayer to God, He will reward us with His presence and with the answering of our prayers.
Healthy communities are made up of equals and recognize the equal position and dignity of all of their members. Yes, at certain times one or another member may temporarily become more prominent. If your house is on fire, the fire fighters are the most important people in town; if your car is broken, you turn your eyes toward the mechanic; on Sunday mornings, the pastor is the focus of attention. But lasting hierarchy is incompatible with a healthy community. In Matthew chapter 23, verses 8-11, Jesus firmly admonishes his followers in this regard:
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and He is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Indeed, if one thinks about the firefighter, the mechanic, and the pastor in my example, they gain their prominence by serving others, as Jesus directed.
Jesus taught us that mutual service is the essence of community, telling Peter in John chapter 13, verse 8, that Peter cannot be in community with Him unless Peter allows Jesus to wash his feet. He goes on to explain:
Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
But Jesus also recognized the dangers that Community can bring. We can become overly concerned with our standing in our community. Thus, in Matthew chapter 6, verses 1-6, Jesus warns us against public displays of piety or charity designed to impress others rather than to serve God’s will.
Conversely, we come to feel such comfort in Community that we disregard God’s commandment and care too little about people outside of it. His prophesy in our second reading is of disciples being chased from town to town, perpetual outsiders to the communities they visit. Jesus insisted that we not act this way ourselves, that we not direct all our attention and energy toward other members of our community and neglect those outside of it. For example, in Matthew, chapter 5, verse 47, He asks “And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”
Jesus momentarily succumbs to this tendency Himself in Matthew chapter 15, verses 21-28, when he tells the Canaanite woman that He “was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” He quickly corrects Himself, and heals her daughter, when He recognizes that she is a woman of great faith.
To drive home his point that our moral duties to outsiders are just as strong as those that we owe to members of our own communities, at Matthew chapter 25, verses 34-40, Jesus tells us to see Him in every poor person, in every sick person, and in every prisoner that we see.
The very closeness of Community gives it an outsized power to injure us with rejection. In our second reading today, Jesus prophesizes that His disciples will be betrayed by those dear to them for preaching His gospel.
Jesus knew all too well the pain of being ostracized by one’s community. In Matthew chapter 6, verse 20, He laments that “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” We learn why in the passage that was our first reading for today, which describes how Jesus’s own home village dismisses the possibility that he could be the Messiah because they know His family. Jesus sighs that “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”
This caused Jesus to build His own community, united by belief, to replace traditional communities that formed around family and village connections. In Matthew chapter 12, verses 46-50, Jesus brushes aside a disciple who tells Him that His mother and brothers were waiting to talk with Him:
48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Communities command great loyalty from their members, sometimes too much. Jesus was constantly struggling with those who placed loyalty to their community above their loyalty to God. Thus, in our reading He insists that those loving family members more than God are not worthy of Him.
Some of Jesus’s rebukes of people for misplaced priorities are quite dramatic. For me, one of the more jarring passages in scripture is Matthew chapter 6, verse 22, where Jesus refuses to allow a disciple bury his own father before coming with Him. He repeatedly acknowledges that His disciples will lose everything but assures them, in Matthew chapter 18, verses 26-30, that they will receive a hundred times more once they reach Heaven. He does not, however, see a place for replicating earthly communities in Heaven: in Matthew chapter 22, verses 23-30, He discounts the notion of marriage in Heaven.
Communities also have a tendency to take over our moral thinking for us: we trust the other members of our community, we want to fit in with them, so we adopt their values rather than inquiring what is right ourselves. Communities develop their own customs and rules, which often focus on superficial things while ignoring what is fundamental. Jesus’s conflicts with the Pharisees often revolved around such rules. For example, In Matthew chapter 15, verses 10-20, Jesus rebuked them for prioritizing dietary laws over moral character:
17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
The tendency to elevate community traditions over independent moral responsibility can be replicated over generations. Thus, in Matthew chapter 23, verses 29-32, Jesus attributes the Pharisees’ plotting against Him in part to their failure to break loose from the traditions of their ancestors, who persecuted prophets in their day. In our own times, we see people attempting to defend the indefensible on the grounds that they are honoring “tradition.”
This caused whole towns to reject Jesus en masse. In Matthew chapter 11, verses 20-24, Jesus issues condemnations on the community-wide level:
20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
In Matthew chapter 23, verses 37-38, He extends this collective condemnation to Jerusalem itself.
Yet just as God was willing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if a few decent people could be found there, Jesus is continually open to the prospect that righteous individuals will break free of the ties of corrupt communities and find their own moral compass. He recruits a tax collector for the Romans to be one of his disciples. He cautions communities against too harsh a judgment of their members because they, too, have fallen short of the mark that He set for us. And one of the most important leaders God recruited for the early church after Jesus’s death and resurrection was a former cog in the brutal Roman machine of persecution. When find ourselves part of a community that is antithetical to Jesus’s values of love and compassion, we can and must break free to reassert our individual moral identity.
Life without community would be a cold and desolate thing, and Jesus certainly does not wish that on us. Indeed, in a world filled with so much cruelty and sin, support from those close to us is vital to reinforce us in staying on the path that God has set for us.
But we need to retain our own moral compasses, shaping the values of the communities within which we live rather than allowing those communities to cheapen and compromise our own core values. Our standing within our community should never compete with our standing before God as the focus of our attentions. If we find that the community that we have been bequeathed by birth, by neighborhood, or by workplace is disregarding the values of love, empathy, and respect that Jesus taught us, we should make every effort to correct our community when it errs. But if we cannot, we must be willing as a last resort to leave our community, or to allow it to ostracize us, rather than allow it to lead us away from God.
I pray that we will have the courage to do this if we must. And I pray that we will not be so tested. Amen.