PRAYER:God of abundant grace, we come together, not as individuals but as a community of faith. You have brought us here that we may worship you together, that we may grow in faith… together. Remind us today of our calling to be your community of faith.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
In 1998, when we first became foster parents, we made the decision to find a new church closer to our home. The church we had been members of for a number of years prior to that was a very nice congregation, and some of those people are still friends to this day. But we believed that the children whom we would have living in our home needed to see faces that looked more like theirs, and that wouldn’t have happened in that other church.
So, we found a church with a more diverse population, and over the years that we were foster parents, we knew that the children that came with us to church were made to feel welcome and embraced. We made the right decision.
Ultimately, the change that we made 25 years ago has been a tremendous blessing to us as a family and as servants of Christ. The relationships that we gained from joining the United Methodist Church in Piscataway have been an important accompaniment on our pathway to being where we are today.
God was at hand in guiding us in that new direction, and as the Robert Frost poem says, “That has made all the difference.” It never ceases to amaze me the relationships that are formed within the church community. They can be such a blessing because the Holy Spirit is at work in the midst of it all!
In our small group discussion last week, we were sharing humorous stories from our experiences in the church and I shared a really funny story about our almost 3 year old shouting “Amen” when the preacher proclaimed “In conclusion…” It was a funny story, and the truth is that it happened at a church that we were only going to for a short while – we were trying it out, but we knew it wasn’t a good fit for our family. We didn’t feel connected there, and they held a little too fiercely to Bible literalism, which we do not ascribe to.
But, there was this one couple there who eventually also left that church and one day, showed up at Christ UMC in Piscataway. I’ll be very blunt: I did not want to form a friendship with that couple. I really didn’t. They made me uncomfortable. They didn’t get my sense of humor, and I just didn’t want to get to know them. Other than being Yankee fans, I had nothing in common with the husband.
But God had other plans. I found myself inviting him to a men’s breakfast group I was involved with. He was on a very limited income, so I actually took him to a Yankee game one day. I became a confidant of his. The very first Sunday that I served in these two churches, they showed up in Kingwood.
I didn’t want to be associated with them, but somehow, I ended up giving the eulogy at his funeral, and I miss them both. Because the Holy Spirit places us together in community.
You know… we might be able to believe in God, pray, and even worship alone, but in a community of faith, despite all its imperfections, we can connect, grow, and experience God’s love for us in ways we never could on our own.
The COVID-19 pandemic both isolated us from community and clearly showed us the negative effects of not having regular moments of connection. There has been a rise in depression and feelings of isolation. It is perfectly normal to be struggling with depression. COVID has reminded us that we were created to be social beings. Community with God and with others (whether we like it or not) is hardwired in our DNA.
Psalm 100 was originally written as a hymn to be sung by the people of Israel as they entered the temple in Jerusalem. Now just imagine traveling for miles on foot and standing at the bottom of the hill leading to the Temple, waiting to climb the stairs leading to the only place you believed God’s presence was revealed on earth. How excited would you be? This hymn was the means by which the people expressed their joy and excitement as they made the final long climb into the temple.
I want you to notice all of the imperative verbs within Psalm 100. It’s filled with them: Shout! Worship! Enter! Praise! Bless! The people were commanded to express all of this passion… together. In verse three the word know is even imperative. “Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” Together the people will intimately know God. This passionate life-changing event does not and cannot happen individually, it happens together.
Verse 5 says, “For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever and his faithfulness to all generations.” God’s people will experience God’s goodness together. We see the importance of community throughout the New Testament as well. Paul’s use of the terms “the body of Christ” and “the temple of the Holy Spirit” are rooted in the idea of the importance of community we find in Psalm 100. You or I are not the temple of the Holy Spirit, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We experience God in and through each other (the Church community).
When I was a bank teller, I worked in a branch in South Orange, NJ. This was a very busy branch that often had a line of customers from the moment the bank opened until after closing time. I’m sure all of you have stood in line at the bank at some point and you can relate. Everyone with their individual transactions, one after the other. Everyone in that line had a reason to be there, and my job was to take each individual person and handle their business accurately and quickly. One transaction after another. One by one, each random person came and went.
That never-ending line of people were just transactions. Every single person that came and stood in front of my window had the same expectation: to have their transaction completed so they could then leave and get on with their life. There was no relationship formed from coming into the bank… It was just a deposit, or a withdrawal, a loan payment, a transfer, or whatever it was. And then they leave.
For many people, that is what they expect when they come to church. They come in, they want their transaction of a church experience. A Call-to-Worship, some hymns, a prayer or two, a sermon, a benediction, and then they can go home again. For some, it is nothing more than a transaction – no different than what I used to deal with as a teller. There’s an old bumper sticker slogan that I used to see a lot which said, “7 days without church makes one weak…” It’s a cute and catchy phrase, but it is totally wrong! It just perpetuates the idea that church is nothing more than a transaction that has to be performed once per week in order for us to find fulfillment.
The early church that we read about in the book of Acts was a community. It was not depicted as a mountaintop experience. It was never described in the Bible as an entertainment center. It was a community whose lifeblood was authentic and interdependent relationships. People gathered together to share and bear each other’s burdens, to worship God, and to learn and serve. They came together to experience the words and ministry of Jesus and to then translate that out to their communities, breaking the ordinary and forming new community, new life, new hope.
In Matthew 13:33, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” This new community was a natural outpouring of people coming together in community, being together, and being known. In April, we will be starting a Bible study through the book of Acts. The book of Acts is understood as an extension of the Gospel of Luke, and it gives us some wonderful imagery of the way the daily existence of the church lived. It shows us a Church with a goal that was for more holistic and less focused on financial reports, buildings and grounds, or the latest Breakthrough Worship Series.
The relationships they formed were at the very heart of the spiritual community. It was the source of the church’s exponential growth. Their greatest testimony in the early church was relationships.
John Pavlovitz writes in his book A Bigger Table that the early church consisted of, “people living together in a way that perpetuated the way of Jesus, and this beautiful presence was going viral because their open table reminded people of his.”
Has the community of God been a blessing for you? Or perhaps the opposite is true. Has a church community hurt you or made you feel like an outsider? Psalm 100 proclaims that we are called to enter this place together with joy and passion. You have been called to this place to experience God with each other; we can’t do this alone.
I wonder if you look at your presence here as an individual pursuit. Because it is not, and it never should be. The minute we start looking at church only as a place where you get your spiritual food and then go home, the church has lost its relevance. Our worship and our experience of God is inhibited when we distance ourselves from each other.
We might be able to believe in God, pray, and even worship alone, but in a community of faith, despite all its imperfections, we can connect, grow, and experience God’s love for us in ways we never could on our own.
Over the last few weeks, we have been asking a lot of questions. Who is God? Is the Bible reliable? Why should I go to church? Doubts about faith and life are normal. Unfortunately, Christians are often taught to view doubts as failing God. Isaiah teaches us that by bringing our doubts into the open we allow God’s grace to fill us with peace and strength. And do you know what? I’m willing to bet that we are not the only ones who have questions or doubts.
On Ash Wednesday, I said that God is not some carnival barker trying to separate you from your self. But God is inviting you to bring your questions, your doubts, your concerns into the community where they can be embraced. In this season of Lent, I want to invite you to allow God the space to work within you and bring you to a transforming healing that may very well surprise you. I want to invite you to explore – unafraid – of the relationship that you can have with God as the Holy Spirit inspires you, and with your church community in a way that is deeper and more meaningful… in such a way that when you consider the question we’re asking today, your answer is about the relationships.
And so, I want to challenge you in this Lenten season to prayerfully consider inviting at least one person to our Easter Sunday service. Think about the acronym FRAN (Friend, Relative, Acquaintance, and Neighbor). Take some time over the next week or two to pray that God will bring to mind a person or persons from one of those categories. Invite them to come be part of our… your community. Not because of the church’s great ministry or because we have the best food pantry or because we have breakfast church or dinner church. Don’t invite them and tell them that they’re going to hear the best sermons ever written… because they won’t… But DO invite them, and trust in the Holy Spirit’s leading and ask whomever it is to join in the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. We come to be in God’s holy presence in relationship with Jesus Christ.
And with one another.
To God be the glory.