Sharing God’s Life | Patrick Ryan – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 and James 5:13-20 – 9/27/15
This year in our young adult Sunday School class, we’re looking at the current events of each week through the lens of scripture, and this week we just finished reflecting on (what else!) the Pope’s recent visit.
Pope Francis keeps people on their toes. Whatever expectations we have about what a very important person like the Pope should do, how he should act, and who he should spend his precious time with—with this Pope, just turn them completely upside down. When he could travel in a Rolls Royce, he chooses a Fiat. When he could live in the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace, he chooses instead to dwell in a suite in the guesthouse. So, I guess it shouldn’t have surprised us when, this week, he turned down an invitation to have dinner with the big-wigs in Washington so that he could share in fellowship with the homeless.
Some say that Pope Francis’ decision was a highly symbolic one. Maybe it was, but wasn’t it also consistent with every choice he’s made thus far in his time as Pope? He regularly chooses to be with the poor and the suffering over the wealthy and the comfortable—not because he’s always posturing but because he knows and lives the Gospel, because he’s always asking himself what Jesus would do in the situation. One commentator put it this way:
This is a Pope who looks at the world from the bottom up and from the outside in. I think he brings to Congress and the White House a different perspective than they are used to hearing.
There’s no doubt about that.
It’s as if the Pope wears a W.W.J.D. bracelet—not around his wrist but an invisible one wrapped around his mind and heart. He chooses to dwell with the down-and-out instead of wining an dining with the well-to-do—sharing space with the lonely and forgotten, and in so doing, he shares God’s life as the world watches—even when some are scandalized by his choices. In fact, that’s how you know he’s sharing in God’s life. The Gospel is scandalous, and living it out will get people talking. What God has us do is the complete opposite of what the world wants or expects of us.
When I began my call here 2 years ago, I got a lot of advice from other pastors—mentors of mine sent me e-mail upon e-mail, phone calls, Facebook messages—everyone had some piece of wisdom for me. Perhaps something they wish they had known when they began their call to their first church. I soaked up every last bit of their advice. Part of what happens when pastors are done giving each other advice is they suggest a book that further fleshes out their advice, but in more expansive ways. I bought each and every book suggested to me. But there was one book suggestion that stood out. One that surprised and intrigued me. But it came from a pastor who I consider my greatest mentor, so I immediately made a note of it. I put the book on my Amazon Wishlist, and there it stayed—until this week when I finally purchased it: the book of Alcoholics Anonymous written by, well, anonymous. I read the multiple Forewords in the book this week, and I learned that AA began back in 1935 in Akron, Ohio when the founder suddenly realized that in order to save himself from his addiction to alcohol, he must carry his story to another alcoholic—share it with someone who knew exactly what he struggled with day in and day out—so he didn’t have to bear the burden all by himself, so they could share in each others stories—a sort of confession, really; and maybe just find a way to save each other. There are things that those who participate in AA are encouraged to admit to each other. Here’s a few of them:
We admit that that we are powerless over alcohol—that our lives have become unmanageable.
We have come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
We admit to God, to ourselves, and to each other the exact nature of our wrongs.
We’re entirely ready to have God remove our shortcomings and our defects of character.
We will try to carry this message to other alcoholics, so that they may be saved.
There’s really no other community like it. Even the Church has reason to be envious of the sacred sharing that happens within those holy circles of metal folding chairs and high-octane coffee at an AA meeting—a circle of broken people who gather because they know they are far less broken together than they are alone.
Our passage for today starts out this way:
If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing. If any are sick, they should call for the elders of the church to visit with them.
Do you see how these first 2 verses of our passage from James moves from the individual to the community? From the individual privately praying, to the individual using her lips to utter a song so that others may hear her, then to calling on others in times of distress. That’s the flow of church community—from solitary utterance to communal utterance. Jesus knows we cannot bear our burdens, our sickness, our sin, our heavy loads all by ourselves. We need to be yoked in community—alongside of the Jesus community, sharing in each other’s lives, bearing one another, singing each others songs, finishing each others prayers, saving one another. That’s what it means to share God’s life.
I’m always entertained by research studies that make big news, touting that they’ve made huge strides in understanding human behavior, only to confirm in the end something that all of us seem to get instinctually. There was another one of those this week about the importance of belonging. In the end, what they found was that isolation, loneliness, and low social status can harm a person’s sense of well-being, intellectual achievement, immune function, and health. Yeah. That sounds right. It also found that a sense of belonging to community can affect motivation and increase your persistence. So, when you don’t feel like you belong, you are both less motivated and less likely to hang in there in the face of obstacles.
None of this may be worthy of breaking news, but doesn’t it speak to us anyway? We’re a part of a culture of individualism, in a land of exclusion and increasing alienation, where people seem to forget the importance of belonging to something bigger than themselves, to believe in something larger than themselves, to share in a story that’s greater than themselves.
Although it shouldn’t be, I think it is news to us that our cultural tendency to make our own way, believe our own thing, and save ourselves increases our sense of isolation and loneliness—and decreases both our health and our sense of well-being. We are creatures made for community, and any manifestation of individualism lessens who are on a very basic level.
The very first Christians knew this. They were a people of community. They called themselves People of the Way. Because they faced persecution, they had to be careful of who they shared their beliefs with. They gathered together in secret spaces to pray and worship—to share their stories with one another.
When they were out in the community or traveling through other towns, they wanted to know if there were other People of the Way around them, so they devised a method to tell each other of their presence and share the location of their meeting places. They drew a fish on the ground that pointed in a strategic direction—not a whole fish, though, just half of one—the top or the bottom arch. They would hang around for a while and watch. If a stranger came along and drew the other arch, completing the fish, they knew that they were in safe company. From the very beginning, Christians have been sharing God’s life with one another. Whether it’s drawing the other half of a fish on the ground, praying for each other, listening to another when we need to be heard, we gather in community to complete each other. As our reading from Ecclesiastes puts it,
When two lie down together, they can stay warm. A three-ply cord doesn’t easily snap.
The Pope chose to spend time among people with dirty and hard-worn faces than with a few politicians who’s job it is to keep a fake smile upon their own.
There’s something about faces. They tell so much. Neuroscience tells us that there are mirror neurons strewn throughout of brains that become most fully engaged when we look at each other’s faces. Our faces are where we find each other’s essence. It’s where our stories become apparent to one another—in our eyes, our smiles, our wrinkles. Neuroscience also says that we unconsciously mimic each other’s faces in conversation. It’s as if that space between us closes up, our minds connect with each others, and we take on one another. We share a whole lot more with each other than we realize.
We who are the People of the Way might say that when we look at each others faces we see the indwelling presence of God. It’s in the face where God takes up residence—where the Holy is housed. As we look into each other’s faces, we find that the space between us isn’t empty at all, that’s the space that Jesus fills; between us, only Jesus—just a community of believers sharing in God’s life together with Jesus right there, sharing space with us. Jesus: the One who was, and is, and always will be the face of God among us—leading us away from the isolation and loneliness so apparent in our world, and into shared life. Into completion. Into sacred community.
Friends, we are far less broken together than we are alone.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!