Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36
“I understand you have had a death in your family. May I be of help?” I asked over the telephone.
“Pastor, I don’t know where to turn. My aunt died. She had no money, left no money. I have what the District of Columbia allows for a funeral, which is just enough to cover cremation. She didn’t have a church. I don’t have one. I want to give her a little service. I was talking to this woman I work with and she said, “You know, St. Stephen’s buried my nephew years ago. Maybe they would work with you.”
I told her that we could certainly arrange to have a funeral for her aunt. She was audibly moved. We agreed on a meeting time the following week when we would plan the details of the service.
On the morning we met, I took her into the chapel and showed her where the simple service would take place. She couldn’t thank me enough. “You know, there is a congregation that worships here,” I said. “But they don’t own this place. We’re here as much for you as for anybody. As far as we are concerned, if you step across the threshold of this place, or even make a contact, you’re as much a part of this place with as much claim on us as if you were here all the time. So we’re glad to do this for you, and you don’t owe us a cent. I’m happy I’m here. I’m happy you’re here.”
Her aunt turned out to be not her aunt at all, but someone she had taken into her home because the woman literally had no place else to go to get out of the stark and shadowy place where she lived. The aunt’s ashes would be ready in a day or two. She would pick them up and call me so I could meet her at the church. She didn’t call. One, two, three days went by. It was the holiday weekend and I thought it strange, but didn’t think much about it, figuring that we had time enough before the day of the service.
On Sunday night I picked up a message. The voice was that of the woman’s sister, telling me that her sister had died—“passed” was the word she used—the preceding Friday. Her grandson had found her. Maybe a heart attack. They didn’t know. But we’d go forward with the aunt’s funeral on Tuesday. I was stunned, but scarcely as much as they.
Five people showed up for the aunt’s funeral: the sister, her husband, two friends, and I. I read the gospel and began talking about it. Intuition told me that they needed to talk more than I. So the homily became a conversation. I acknowledged that they must have been soaked more in grief at the sudden loss of Jane than by the death of the aunt. And so ensued a rather open airing of the kind of grief that settles at the bottom of the heart’s dark basement. “We five people have never been together, and we may never be together again,” I said. “But here we are. We are a community. That is what we have to do. That is what God enables us to do. We have to form communities however and whenever we can. We have to connect with whomever we can connect with. We bear each other’s burdens, and share each other’s joys, and today is a day of burdens. That is what the community of Jesus does. Because that is what he does.”
You might have noticed that there is an ongoing debate in American society about the primacy of the individual versus the primacy of community. There has been for generations now a doctrine of “Rugged Individualism,” classically articulated by Herbert Hoover in the peroration of his presidential campaign of 1928. If you were to read it today with the author and date blocked out, you would swear that it was written in this last presidential campaign, so persistent are the arguments supporting the rugged individualist point of view. But there is another strain in American society, that of communal solidarity. Most of us have encountered that current, or been a part of it. Our ancestors got together on the frontier and raised barns for each other. We can point to compacts, conferences, colleges, consortiums, consociations, and constitutions as implements of community. Although some of us may argue vigorously that we are on our own, the truth is that we are creatures of community. We are primates, after all; and like our primate cousins we are made to live together. One can be a rugged individual, but only for so long. Sooner or later the rugged individual must come to terms with community, or die.
So on this First Sunday of Advent, I am following my custom of the last four or five years. Today begins a year in which I plan to preach perhaps some eighteen sermons. Through them all I will be looking at the scriptures through the lens of community. In a way, that is hardly novel, because all of the scriptures were written by, for, and to a community of faith. I think, however, that we will hear them differently if we approach them with an ear for what they say to us as a people rather than just to me and you and you as individuals. My sense is that we most often come to church thinking of ourselves as individuals with our own particular set of needs and concerns, with our ears pricked up for something that will speak to us and help us on our individual paths. That is not a bad thing, and it is probably inevitable, given the way we tend to think about ourselves. But what might happen if we tune ourselves again and again to see how through everything and in many different ways, God is building community through us?
Look at the snippet from Jeremiah that we read today, for example. “‘The days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the promise I made to the House of Israel and to the House of Judah. …I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.’” God makes promises to a community. That is because God deals with communities. Individuals may be called, sent, given tasks to do, supported and confirmed as individuals, but it is always within the community, be it nation or religious community. The oldest story that we have about community is the story of the Exodus, the story of the deliverance of a community from slavery into freedom. It is against the backdrop of that story that everything else is written and read. So, for example, when we read “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” we are reading and hearing the words that describe the God that the communal audience knows as their Great Liberator. And when we read the first story in the Bible that belongs to what we can call “history,” it is the story of Abraham. God calls Abraham in order to create through him a community. The way the Bible is put together, that call comes precisely because the experiment with Noah to save civilization had bombed badly. God settled in for the long haul, determined to work out the human story through creating a community. Sometimes that community would fail badly to get even the most basic ideas right. Occasionally someone would come along who would be able to bring the community into line. The Righteous Branch of David, whom we know as Jesus, would be one such person, one whom we can look at and say, “He is our Lord, he is our righteousness, because through him we are strangely made right with the deepest truth of who we are—we do, in fact, get right with God.”
Move over to the gospel and listen to it. “Jesus said, ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and of foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.’” The interesting thing about this is not that you can run to today’s newspaper and read articles that will make you think this passage is coming true before your very eyes. It has been coming true for more than two thousand years. No, the interesting thing is that by the time Luke wrote them down, Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all [these] things have taken place,” was in fact out-of-date. That generation had passed, and still the Church was waiting for their redemption, the Second Coming of the Son of Man. So what made them relevant? Why were they preserved? They were preserved because the world was in fact still falling apart, just as it is now, and in the middle of it was a community that not only needed hope but was itself the source of hope. And I suppose, if the kingdom of God is near when Jesus’ generation, or Luke’s, or ours sees the world flying apart at the seams, then that kingdom is near at this very moment. We should know. The fig tree is in full leaf, so to say.
The message is not to assorted individuals who may be motivated to hear it and internalize it. It is a proclamation to a community on whom, quite literally, the world depends. The community must be on guard, not lolling around dissipated and drunk on this, that, and the other distraction, weighed down with worries about, among other things, how to keep itself afloat financially and how to protect itself politically, or how to take its power and manipulate the rest of the world with it. The community needs to be alert, praying that it may have strength to weather the storms, and to stand before the Son of Man.” That community is yours and mine. And if we do not know how, we need to learn how to practice that kind of watchfulness, that quality of prayer, that sort of centeredness, no matter what is going on in the world around us.
And we need to show the world how to be a community, how to make community, how to practice living in community. Not only that, but we need to be conversant enough with the things that destroy community, like insidious conflict and squabbling over leadership, like power plays and disrespect for the vulnerable, to combat them effectively. It’s imperative, too, that we faithfully practice self-examination and repentance regularly enough to be able to recognize when we ourselves begin destroying community, and disavow our behavior that does that. And we need to be generous enough to recognize that hosts of people want not to be hassled but to be embraced, need a shoulder or two to lean on, and sometimes just need a community when they have to bury their dead, or when they get scared to death as they see signs and portents that their lives and their world are coming undone.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012