Becoming A Community of Love
Last weekend, I had the honor of preaching at a wonderful church in Aurora, CO. They are taking the brave and beautiful step of considering developing two acres owned by the congregation into affordable housing (see a couple info graphics at the bottom of this post that we put together for this effort called the Congregation Land Campaign).
I have been honored to walk alongside this community over the past six months, and am thrilled to step into the next phase in the months and years ahead. This isn't how folks typically act. But it looks a lot like Jesus to me.
This is the sermon I preached to kick of the next phase of their journey.
This morning, I want to talk about becoming a community of love.
Which is to say, I want to talk about discipleship. But it’s a twist on how I always heard about discipleship growing up. We always talked about it not as an individualistic process. It was something between you and God. Discipleship was about a lone person becoming holy -- so basically not cussing or thinking about sex all the time.
The twist is that, for Jesus and the people who’ve always followed God, discipleship never had anything to do with the rugged loner becoming “perfect.” It was always the people of Israel, the twelve disciples, the church, a people, together. It’s always been about a people, committed to one another and to the joy-filled wellbeing of their neighbors, embarking together on a journey to identify and transform every type of relationship they exist within, from interpersonal or structure, and working collectively to reshape those relationships through love for justice into an ever expanding community where all people can find abundant life.
I want to play with this idea alongside y’all. And I want to lean into my conviction that discipleship, and love, and community, that these things are never abstract. They are never just ideas. Never just topics for conversation. That we have not deepened our walk with God simply by understanding a concept. That’s just never the goal.
Becoming a community of love is the stuff of flesh and bones, soil and stones. Love shows up in load bearing walls and cinder blocks, bread and beds. Love requires concrete actions, and involves physical stuff.
So before we go on, let’s check in with how we’re all showing up. When I sit down to listen to a sermon, I assume, ok, it’s brain time. Time to think deeply about something and try to understand the ideas someone wants me to catch. But what happens when I switch on my brain is I tend to switch off my body. And discipleship always requires bodies. Lord knows it required Jesus’.
Jesus didn’t say, “Think about stuff to understand me.” He said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” The focus was always about bodies taking action.
So let’s take a second to remember that we’re bodies here.
Just pat your legs.
And reach up your arms.
And stomp your feet.
And as you do that, remember that not too far under that carpet is the land. Remember that you aren’t just anywhere random in some abstract vacuum. Bodies exist in places. You are right here, in this place, in Aurora, just off Havana on Evans St., on this piece of holy ground that the Lord has made.
And remember that your discipleship has to do with these people, sitting to your left and your right. On this plot of land, at this moment in history.
Friends, discipleship is concrete.
Ok, are we ready to dig in? OK!
For the past fifteen or twenty years, I’ve watched my father work on his invention. It’s an engine that can run off heat of any kind: waste heat, solar heat, you name it. And apparently it’s unbelievably efficient. From what I can tell, it would be an incredible tool in the work towards a more environmentally caring world. All that stuff is waaaay over my head. I went to seminary, so I’m no engineer. All I know is the patent office said they’d never seen anything like it. Which is a good sign, because I think that’s the whole point if you’re trying to land a patent.
My dad is brilliant. I don’t know if he’ll pull it off or not, but his dream is to sell his patent to some big company like General Electric and make a few million dollars.
What amazes me the most about my dad though, is he always says to me, “Hun we don’t need that money. I would just love to be able to give it away for God’s mission.”
My dad says stuff like that, and what’s bizarre is that he actually means it. He really does want to give it away.
One of those ultimate questions that hangs over humanity is the haunting words of Cain after he murdered of his brother Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Am I responsible for the Other? For anyone other than myself?
For the individualist, which is to say most Americans, it’s a rhetorical question. No, of course not. My responsibility is to myself and myself alone.
Our whole economic system is built on this assumption that if we all just look out for ourselves, everything will work out in the best possible way for everyone’s benefit.
Adam Smith famously wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
This is whole idea behind the supply and demand curve we’re all familiar with. A buyer, and a seller, both show up in the marketplace, intent only on getting the best possible deal for themselves, and meet happily in the middle where they both make out well.
Unfortunately, we have more than three hundred years of data since Adam Smith wrote those words to prove just how poorly things actually go when everyone is simply out for themselves. According to OXFAM, the richest 1 percent bagged 82 percent of all wealth created in 2017. It takes just four days for a CEO from one of the top five global fashion brands to earn what a Bangladeshi garment worker will earn in her entire lifetime. Three men -- Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos -- own more wealth than the bottom 50% of Americans put together or 160 million people.
This is what injustice looks like.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” For generations, we as a society, and particularly we as white men, have answered Cains question with a resounding: NO. I am here to get mine.
God’s response to Cains question flips the logic of our culture on its head. That response came when God sent Abraham to a new land and told him how to be a community of love.
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation,” spoke Yahweh, “and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
Blessed to be a blessing. This is always the pattern. Given that we may share our gifts. Awarded life, so that all may experience abundant life.
This seems to be what my father understands so deeply.
Now, there’s another side to this coin of sharing our gifts. If the first side of our calling is to share of our own gifts, then the other side is opening our lives to the Other and discovering that they have gifts waiting to offer us.
One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, writes that in scripture strangers are consistently presented as guests “carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host.”
When Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers into their family tent, they discover these were the messengers of God, and receive the gift of a long-awaited child.
In First Kings, when the widow Zarephath welcomes Elijah into her home, who to her is an unknown stranger, he raises her son from the dead.
And that’s your obscure bible reference for the day. So you can check that off your list.
But this pattern of strangers, of people who we would consider the Other and typically block out of our lives, who show up with precious gifts to offer doesn’t end in the Hebrew scriptures.
Jesus taught that when we relate to the outsider -- the prisoner, the homeless -- that we will discover we are in the presence of Christ himself, the one who enfleshed love on our behalf.
After the crucifixion, the two men walking on the road to Emmaus welcomed a stranger to join their party and walk with them. Not only did this stranger reveal the truths of God to them, he turned out to be Jesus himself, resurrected from the dead.
Again and again we see this pattern repeated: the stranger, whom we would typically exclude, when welcomed, offers a gift that the recipient could never have produced on his or her own.
This is a radical disposition.
Modern, urban life is filled with strangers. As children we’re taught to stay safe by staying away. Not taking candy from random people is good advice for a child, and it may even be sound advice for an individual. But as a community, together we must learn to open ourselves to the Other, for their sake, but scripture reveals this is even more for ours.
Opening our lives to others is the foundation of becoming a community of love. But doing so requires us to overcome our fears. So it makes sense that the most repeated phrase in scripture is this: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. You cannot love or receive love if you are living in fear, and so again and again God reminds us: Do not be afraid, because I am with you and I am shaping you into my beloved community.
Let’s go back and read another passage from Henri Nouwen. He writes:
“Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude or do harm. But still -- that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.”
In a world of fear and suspicion, we followers of Jesus, the community of love, are called to open ourselves to the strange Other and discover that they too are a child of God formed in God’s image, in need of love, and rich with the capacity to love us in return.
It was almost eleven years ago, when a group of strangers gave me one of the most precious gifts anyone can receive: a vocation. I was a freshman in college with no clue about what I wanted to do with my life. Even though I thought I didn’t like children, for some reason I wound up at a kids ministry one Friday night in a deeply disinvested neighborhood not far from my college. I’d barely stepped on the property when this beautiful little girl ran up, took both my hands, stepped up on the tops of my feet, looked me in the eyes and said, “let’s go play!”
I spent the next four years playing with those kids, and falling into life with their families. They embraced me with love, and for the first time, I encountered systems of oppression that built barriers around these kids lives that I had never seen or experienced before.
By the time I left undergrad four years later, this community had handed me a vocation: to try to figure out how to become useful to the poor, to struggle to act in allyship and solidarity with the oppressed.
Here is what I’ve learned: our giving, our acts of love, are always preceded by being given to.
This is the case with the gracious gifts of God, and this is more than often the case in our relationships to our neighbors whom we have been called to love. It turns out that, more often than not, they love us before we get to love them. And our love of neighbor is simply a response of gratitude.
These twin dynamics -- of giving and receiving, of blessing and being blessed, of being welcomed and welcoming others -- these two sides meld, and mingle, and blend with one another and out of their meetings a community of love is born.
But they don’t happen in outer space. They happen here, in the concrete world, and they involve the sharing of real, tangible assets.
For us modern people who pay more attention to our phones than the soil under our feet, the unexpected twist is that, when God shapes a people into a loving community, God always does so in relation to the land.
The Israelites were a people whose lives were constantly lived in relation to a land -- to yearning for it when they were held in the bondage of Egypt, to inhabiting it and being responsible for it’s care and the care of the dispossessed in their midst, to being exiled from it when they failed to uphold these landed standards of justice.
When Abraham is told that he will be blessed, the grounding of that blessing is the Land. The land is the blessing he is called to bless others with.
The land for Israel was also the home from which they were able to welcome strangers. Again and again, Israel is told: “You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”
Those feelings of landlessness, and the need for a spot of ground to call your own, where you can be safe, have your needs met, and experience community, is as urgent and pressing as it has ever been.
According to several polls, housing insecurity is the number one issue weighing on the minds of Coloradans.
Displacement, gentrification, homelessness, and poverty are all being driven by the soaring costs of land and a crisis of affordable housing that’s plaguing our city and state. For families earning $40,000 per year or less, the Denver metro area has a shortage of over 86,000 affordable units.
The need for people who are open to Others, who will welcome strangers in the knowledge that they bear incredible gifts we need, for those who will share what we have been given in order to bless other, the need for these people has never been greater.
After the service, we will take a closer look at what it could mean to share the gift of God’s land that this congregation has been blessed with, and begin imagining together what it could look like to use that land for affordable housing.
This is a powerful and beautiful step of faith that will require us to repeat like a mantra that wise phrase: do not be afraid.
We will not be able to solve these problems alone. But we are asked to join arms with those around us and use the gifts we’ve been given to bless others and be shocked by gifts they have to offer in return. This is what it looks like to become a community of love.
I’d like to close by reading a homily written by Fr. Ken Untener in 1979 that was recently quoted by Pope Francis. It’s called, “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own.” Let us listen to these words together:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.