Being and Doing Community

A message given by Meg Richens:
This is the third worship service coordinated by the UCK Board. Each of the three governance bodies has been responsible for three services this year… it’s our turn again. The UCK ones have turned out to be a bit of a series. We started out talking about how it is that we work with the vulnerable in our community, looking at passages about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the sick.

We followed that by talking about the way we do that work – that we choose to journey with and alongside people, recognising our commonality.   We understand that there is no “them” and “us”: there’s just “we” and that each of us will at some time be the recipient of support and sometimes the giver of it. We talked about the attitude that underpins that journeying together.

This time I want to talk about community.

Over the last week or so lots of stuff has cropped up that seems relevant to me in this thinking about how we both ‘be’ and ‘do’ community, so I’m going to talk about a range of different things and hopefully, by the end it’ll all come together. It’s kind of like a soup of ideas… get the right mix and its yummy!

The first thing is something I concentrate on pretty much every day and that’s this congregation’s mission: to build a loving, nurturing community, growing a deeper faith in God through Christ Jesus. We’re aiming to build a place where everyone can live a decent life.

The second thing that popped up is the current discernment document’s description of the type of community we believe God wants us to be. According to that document, it’s a generous community; one which nurtures justice, peace, inclusion, respect, hospitality, welcome, hope, reconciliation and unexpected life. It’s one that values all people because they are loved.

The third thing popped up during rehearsal for The Messiah. For the first time, I’ve noticed a tiny sub-text in it at items 20 and 21… He shall feed his flock and His yoke is easy. According to my version the words of He shall feed his flock are drawn from Isiah and Matthew: “Come unto him all ye that labour and are heavy laden and he shall give you rest. Take his yoke upon you and learn of him. For he is meek and lowly of heart and ye shall find rest unto your souls”. Musically, it’s written almost as a lullaby – lilting, fairly slow, quiet and repetitive. But I was thinking about servants working in the fields, doing what their master had directed them to. And I thought of some rebellious young thing muttering to themselves “Why would I take on the yoke of another master? I’ve already got one and he’s got us out here in the heat and the dust digging holes when it would make much more sense to do that in the evening and my feet and back hurt and I can’t see why we couldn’t do this my way and besides how come the master gets to sit and relax while we’re working? Can’t see any good reason to add to that burden.” But the lullaby goes on and on ever so gently… take his yoke upon you. Learn of him. You’ll find rest for your soul. And it’s almost as if the rebellious young thing and a few of their mates decided to give it a go, just for the heck of it. And the very next piece of music is a wonderful light-hearted celebration, a piece of music that trips along, happy and excited. The words say it all… Guess what? “His yoke IS easy, and his burthen is light!” It’s amazing! It’s not another dreadful slave master we’re talking about here. And the yoke? What is it this master wants us to do? Love one another. It’s not complicated. It won’t always be pain free by any means but the basic premise is easy to understand.

The fourth thing that popped up was a face book conversation about blurring (or not) between the City of God and the earthly city. One of the views put in the discussion was that while the perfect society, or the world as it should be, will not be attained in this world, that is no excuse not to work towards it in the world as it currently is.

And the fifth thing that entered the ideas soup was a reminder about a word I learned not long after I started here: proleptic. When I looked it up the description that seemed most relevant said “the representation of something in the future as if it already existed or had occurred”. In this context I’d be saying “living as if the future we are building is already here”.

The sixth (and I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear final) thing is the dreadful occurrences in Paris over Friday night. This set of six attacks resulted in over 120 dead and at least 200 injured.

So, six ingredients in my “ideas soup”:

Two of those ingredients tell us we’re called to build a generous, just, inclusive, peaceful, respectful, welcoming community that values people because they are loved.

So we have high ideals, grand dreams. We’re setting the bar right on up there with the best of them. That’s a good thing. Such a community would indeed be one in which everyone could live a decent life.

Two others of the ingredients tell us we’re not likely to achieve the perfect just, generous, inclusive community but we should still try to and that even when we try sometimes we and others around us will fail at being that community.

And the final two ingredients give us some hints about how to be resilient when we do fail at being that community or when we see the types of things we’ve seen in Paris. One hint is to live proleptically – live as if that generous, just, welcoming community is already here and functional. Be that generous, just, inclusive group. And if that seems difficult, wearisome, a burden because of the workload then we should remember that the actual baseline theory behind it all, the primary method to use in being that community is actually easy to understand. Love one another.

So what does this have to do with Jeremiah? The reading today says that God says we should build community, even when we are in exile from the place we thought of as our own. Above and beyond building houses and gardens the reading talks about building relationships – building connections between people and being really ‘in’ the community; connected to it, engaged in it, living full lives in it. It’s almost as if the exiles are being told not to imagine that the Kingdom of God can only happen in one place. And that they’re being told that they have to engage in building that Kingdom, wherever they are through the very ordinary, everyday aspects of their lives. Then the reading tells the people to seek the peace of the city, to pray for it, because in its peace they would find their peace.

As I bore witness yesterday to the terrible events in Paris I was thinking about this injunction to seek peace. Two things occurred to me. One is that call to build connections between people that we hear in the Jeremiah reading is a forerunner to seeking peace. And the other one is that we humans fail at this peace stuff all the time. That becomes a heavy burden to bear, through the harm that it does to people, the fear that it creates and the amount of time it takes to repair the damage to people, attitudes and places. Fixing it is hard; definitely a burden. There are so many different and potentially conflicting ideas about how to fix it – even talking about it can be hard. But the underlying premise – the base method – we need to be applying in this difficult process is still love.

So what does it all have to do with the series of three services coordinated by the UCK Board? Well. In this context I want to talk about both “being” and “doing” community. Helping people who have fewer advantages is one way of doing something to make a difference in our existing community. There are some risks in how we might go about doing that – in particular a risk of doing the work because it makes us feel good or a risk of being patronising while doing it. So to help mitigate those risks we learn to understand what we do in terms of our shared journey, our shared vulnerability, our shared strengths. Then the work is much more about journeying through our existing community together. But this third level, this consideration of community that arises from today’s soup of ideas – this is about being something different to that which already exists. Is our society just? Not by a long shot. Is it equitable? Not at all. Is it welcoming? Does it value all people? And if our society is not yet those things then how do we, here, go about making our local community more and more just, more and more equitable, more and more welcoming? How do we live prolepticly and be the thing we are working to create? How do we function – as a networked, interlinked, related, nested, confusing and marvellous group – so that we are all, together, being the place, the construct, the community in which we are all, together, living a decent life?

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