A Communal Spirit

©Lawrence Sterne, 2015

Likely few if any will remember the Annual Report of Christ Church Greenwich for 2017.

What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on …It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing it members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle in its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership…the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness as it is said we may be perfected by grace.

This excerpt from Wendell Berry’s Jaber Crow became the “jumping off point” for my Interim’s report, and was preached again this Sunday at 8am (June 10, 2018), the day of Bishop Douglas’ visitation to Christ Church. The appointed scripture was Mark’s version of Jesus’ return to Nazareth for a visit with his family.

Berry’s description of membership fits wonderfully with Jesus’s challenge to the villagers of Nazareth, that they claim a new and wider dimension of the meaning of family than first imagined. When Jesus speaks of family and the Kingdom of God, Jesus affirms those not only born of the same mother and father, but those woven together by the love of God. Family are persons who are imperfect, the irresolute, those indifferent (to the Kingdom) or against it, who are (sometimes) gentle in meanness, always failing and yet preserving a will towards goodwill. We do nothing to deserve inclusion in the family (Kingdom) of God other than simply being loved by God.

Whereas congregations (like many families) are often tribal, Jesus challenges such congregations to be open, embracing communities for all persons, including the frayed, always fraying, and disappointed among them. No one is excluded from the family. Jesus stuns everyone when he declares that all persons who do the will of God are Jesus’ family—whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother. I invite you stop and consider anew this affirmation; to ponder its implications for Christ Church Greenwich.

In July of 1995, Chicago was overwhelmed by a suffocating, deadly heat wave. For days the mercury hovered over 100 degrees, heat indices reached 120, day after day. During that heat spell 739 Chicagoans died of heat-related causes as emergency teams often found inadequate or nonexistent ventilation in the residences of the dead. As gruesome as were these deaths, the City’s greatest crisis was the absence of community.

The majority of people who died in the heat, died alone. No one checked on their attic apartments or windowless lives. No family, friend, or neighbor showed up to assess the severity of their plight. Because sixty-eight of those anonymous individuals died with no family or friends to mourn them, Cook County officials buried them in a mass grave.

The absence of community does not require either a heat wave or cold spell, much less hundreds of deaths, to make itself known. Loneliness, isolation and lack of community is a distressing fact in our neighborhoods, work lives, and souls. The suicides of two very well-known Americans this past week suggests how isolated we are, how hesitant that others might recognize our pain, fear, hopelessness. Reared in a culture focused on independence and self-reliance, many of us are unwilling to walk the hard, lonely way with others.

Walking, praying, being with others is the soul and life-blood of the Church. Week by week we gather as a congregation that we experience God in communion with others. The church’s business is relationship–putting people in touch with each other and with God. Inhabiting the same ecclesiastical space for an hour on a Sunday morning will never afford us the Grace of belonging to a community where our presence matters to others and their presence matters to us.

That difference is detectable in the way we speak of our congregational affiliation. Some of us might say, “I sometimes go to that church across the street from the YWCA, the one across from the Junior League. Such a statement is vastly different from another who says “I belong to a great community of people–we call ourselves Christ Church Greenwich. You know, the church that has hosted Neighbor to Neighbor for 40 years. We are proud and humbled to claim these neighbors as an integral part of our ministry.”

A communal spirit blooms where people are deeply in touch with one another. A church thrives not only by the blessings of God, but thorough the interaction of its members and newcomers. Outwardly, members may have little in common. But inwardly, we are blessed when we know we have much to learn from others. The way members of a congregation share the love of God through genuine hospitality and a love for one another indicates whether we are truly the body of Christ or a religious club of Episcopalians who gather across from the YWCA on East Putnam Avenue.

A theologian once described the early church as a “conspiracy.” By that he meant that early believers “breathed together” (con–“with” and spire–“breath”). Such a family was not conspiratorial, secretive and negative but full of affirmation, sharing with one another and strangers grace, love, forgiveness, and hope – the Good News.


The Rev’d John H. Branson
Interim Rector