By Sheri Hostetler
Our Lenten series is “Spiritual Resilience in a Time of Chaos.” This is the first sermon of that series.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun, well-known writer and a passionate advocate for justice who has lived in Christian community for more than 60 years. So, she knows community. She tells a story about working with new members of her order, in which she asks them why they go to prayer. Benedictines pray together anywhere from four to seven times a day, so, it’s a big part of their life together. If you go to a Benedictine community for a retreat, which I have, the bell that signals the start of prayer rings a lot, and it really impresses upon you how much their lives are steeped in prayer. So, how these new “recruits” to the community regard prayer is key to their formation. Chittister says that the newbies’ answers are often full of a sort of piety that ones gets from reading books.
“Prayer,” one might say, “is what leads us to perfection.” “No,” Chittister says. “That’s not why we pray.”
“We go to prayer to immerse ourselves in God,” another would say. “No, that’s not why we pray,” Chittister would answer. Silence.
“We go to prayer to be aware of God?” another would say. “Nope.”
“So why do we go to prayer,” one person would finally ask.
“We go to prayer,” says Chittister, “because the bell rings.” (This story is adapted from Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today.)
The new members of her community were giving more individualistic answers — I pray so that I can be led to perfection, so that I can immerse myself in God, so that I can be aware of God. Chittister is saying that you pray because it’s what the community does. She explains it this way: “We go to prayer because the community sweeps us along on the days we are too tired to pray, too distracted to pray, too overburdened to care. Then the community becomes the vehicle of our spiritual lives. The function of community is to sustain us in our weaknesses, model for us the ultimate of our ideals, carry us to the next level of spiritual growth even when we are unaware that we need it, and give us a strength beyond ourselves with which to attain it.”
In short, community allows us to be better than our individual selves, stronger, more disciplined, more faithful, more resilient. There have been many times in the past 18 years that I have walked into this space at 8:30 on a Sunday morning despondent, distracted, depleted. And as soon as you start showing up, and the prelude begins, and we take a breath together to sing… something shifts. I am swept along by the community that gathers here, and I become part of a bigger whole that is stronger and more resilient than I can be alone. Community is a resilience practice. It is perhaps the foundational resilience practice, because all of the other ones we’ll be talking about during this Lent series— singing, prayer, storytelling, celebration — require community.
So I want to talk about how I see us practicing community together, offer some invitations of how we can deepen that practice, and then end with a vision for where the Spirit may be calling us.
There’s an apocryphal story involving Helen Stoltzfus that I have been telling for years. Helen does not remember telling this story to me but nevertheless gave me permission to share it. Once upon a time someone at another church asked Helen to come to her church to talk about community and how to do it. This person knew Mennonites were known for their ability to do community well, and she wanted instruction for her congregation. Helen told me that she had no wise words to offer other than: “Just show up for each other!” When there’s a death or baby or an illness, show up to give a hug and offer a meal. When there’s a graduation, show up to smile and clap. When there’s a concert, a play, a gallery opening, a reading — show up. When someone is moving, show up. When there’s a vigil, a protest, show up. Show up for worship, show up for business meetings, show up for small groups and committees. Just show up!
This sounds so simple, but it isn’t. To show up means you have to prioritize this community, prioritize these relationships. It means you have to say no to many other things you could be doing. It means you have to show up when you just don’t want to, when you want to sleep in or or watch Netflix or when that person who irritates you is also going to show up or when the thing that is happening isn’t really your thing. Showing up for community is counter to the highly individualistic culture we live in, which prioritizes our comfort, our needs, our thing. And showing up for community is even harder in the Bay Area because it’s expensive to live here and we are so busy and there’s so much going on and we live far away from each other and traffic is bad.
Even given all this, I think we generally show up well for each other. It’s part of our DNA. It’s what we do. So let’s honor that showing up, because it isn’t always easy and it is countercultural. And I have an invitation to deepen this practice: Can we be even more mindful of who we show up for? Do you show up for some people more than others? Who and why? And can we show up for people with whom we may not be as close, who may be more on the margins of this community? Maybe folks who aren’t here as often or who aren’t as involved and well known? Even deeper: How might we show up for others who aren’t a part of our community? For example, Joanna, Pat, Eric and Ann Speyer have been showing up for a man named Juan Francisco, an undocumented immigrant who has been in detention in San Francisco the last three months. When he has a hearing, they show up and let the judge know that people of faith are watching the proceedings and standing with him and his family. That’s extending the gift of community to those outside this congregation.
If showing up is a foundational practice of our community, so I think that showing up with our whole selves is another foundational practice. Over the years, when we have asked you what you most value about First Mennonite, you consistently say: “I value the authenticity, vulnerability and honesty people bring to this community. People share what’s really happening in their lives — the joys, the sorrow, the failures, the doubts. It’s so refreshingly human.” I think this is most evident in our “prayers of the people.” I have often had visitors comment to me that that is one of the most meaningful parts of the service for them — the ways that we are willing to be vulnerable and authentic, not hiding behind personas, not spouting platitudes, just telling it like it is. I’ve had visitors tell me that it’s been healing for them to be here, to know that there is a church community where you can be real because too often that has not been their experience in churches.
And here’s the invitation to go deeper with this practice: Can we become even more vulnerable and authentic by speaking the truth in love to each other more often? Can we build a culture, together, of direct communication, where we can more readily say “ouch,” or “that didn’t feel good to me” or “I want to give you some feedback on how what you said or did impacted me?” When we do this, it can feel uncomfortable and even frightening in the moment, but it can build community and intimacy over time. And it can build resilience, a sense that we can weather hard times with each other and come out stronger.
Last, I want to hold up a vision for community that I personally long for us to grow into. Last year, I was in the East Bay Discipleship Group with Dave and Heidi Gray. While sharing how much they loved this community, they also shared their grief over no longer being in their church in Fresno, Butler Church. I have been haunted by what they said, ever since they shared it. And I asked them to share it with us. (Dave and Heidi share about the multi-racial, multicultural, multi-class community of Butler Church.)
To me, Butler Church exemplifies the “new creation” that Paul is talking about in the passage from 2 Corinthians. This is Christian community in its fullest, its most Spirit-led, and its most resilient. And if we want to become this community, we will have to consciously choose it. It will not happen by just doing what we’re doing. And if we want to become this community, we will be changed. We will not always feel comfortable. The Spirit does not care about comfort. We will be stretched and stretching — like a kid going through growing pains — can be painful. But we will be taller, bigger, stronger, more faithful, more joyful, more resilient.
And so I leave you with these last questions: Even though we are not this community right now, how do we get to the point where we are chosen by people very different from ourselves? Do we believe the Sprit is calling us to be this kind of community and, if so, how do we prepare for that?