Creating Community: the Great Challenge for Our Day

Sermon for 1_23_22 (Community)
Creating Community: the Great Challenge for Our Day
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of Christ Church Greenwich
Sunday, January 23, 2022

When I was 25, I moved from Atlanta to Nashville in order to take a new job as a newspaper

reporter. Those of you who have moved around a lot, know how challenging it can be to start a

new job, find a new place to live, learn new roads, and make new friends.

After I got settled, I started worshipping at a big Episcopal church near where I worked. The

Rector had a great mind, but no sense of humor. The congregation over time had adopted his

personality. I attended church and the coffee hour each Sunday hoping to make a few friends,

but it difficult. I was young, outgoing and single. Most of the members were older and married.

They talked among themselves, and no one seemed to notice newcomers, except one couple –

Art and Shirley Likeletter. Every church needs a couple like them.

But for whatever reason, my boss insisted that I attend his Episcopal church. I said, “Bill, I can’t.

I’ve been attending another church every Sunday for three months and have only met one

couple. If I go to your church this Sunday, it might be the Sunday where I would meet someone

else at this church.” But Bill would not be dissuaded. He told me to meet him at the 8 a.m.

service at his church in East Nashville.

“8 a.m.?,” I said. “That’s impossible. I go out drinking and dancing with friends until late each

Saturday night.” Bill, wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, I showed up at the 8 a.m. service, and

Bill was nowhere to be seen. But 25 wonderful, much older members, welcomed me like a long

lost family member, and the minister invited me to lunch. I realized that I was not just looking

for a church, but a for community. I had found it, joined that church, and never looked back.

I tell this story because everything that we are doing at Christ Church is about creating

community. Some folks even describe Christ Church as their second family. We’re striving to

connect with everyone who enters our church doors or joins us on Livestream or on demand.

Communities are far more than the exterior that we see from the outside. Take Mill Valley in

California. Porsches and BMWs are parked in the driveways. Lawns are perfectly manicured.

Houses are kept in pristine condition. The schools have all the state-of-the-art technology. Mill

Valley is a beautiful place. But it also has one of the highest alcohol and drug addiction rates in

the country; the suicide rate is very high, and family breakups are common. What holds a

community together is far more than the exterior trappings.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul speaks to the need for authentic community and the

difference that it makes. He offers one of the most famous metaphors in Christian thought.

Paul likens Christian community to the way a human body functions. He notes that we are “all

members of one body.” So, “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again

the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”

The comparison of the human community to the physical body was not original to Paul. This

metaphor had long been used in ancient literature. What was revolutionary about Paul’s use of

the metaphor was the notion of equality. All members of the body play a vital role. Until then,

any mention of the community to a physical body always suggested a hierarchy. Lowly workers

simply existed to serve leaders in the military, commerce and politics.

Paul, by contrast, suggested interdependence, interconnectivity and equality. He notes, “If one

member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with

it.” This is the very kind of community that we are seeking to create – a place where we come

to celebrate our greatest joys as well as seek comfort in the face our greatest trials. A good

church helps each person that God sends their way to discover a role to play and how to put

their unique gifts to work, notes Paul.

We read in the Book of Acts, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and

fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) “All who believe were

together and had all things in common.” (Acts 2:44) That is a profound sense of community.

Jesus himself never wrote a book, but he created a community. He assembled what the Greeks

called an ekklesia or “assembly,” from which we get our word “church.” It literally means

“those who are called out,” the way that the original twelve were called out of their work as

fisherman, tax collectors and running businesses and invited to build an enduring community.

They were an old lot. Matthew was a tax collector, Judas a traitor, Peter the rock, and Thomas

the doubter. Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Jesus wove these

wildly diverse individuals into a big, diverse community.

The Quaker spiritual writer Parker Palmer notes:

I know of no greater joy than the joy of community, than feeling at one and

at home with one another… When I think of the people who whom I have the

deepest sense of community, I think of people who have been able to share

with me their contradictions, their brokenness – thus allowing me to share

mine. When we present ourselves to the world as smooth and seamless we

allow each other no way in, no way into life together.

Palmer notes that vulnerability is the key to forming the kind of relationships that truly matter.

This requires that the church can be a safe place, where we can be honest about our lives,

share our story, admit our wounds and failings, knowing that God’s deepest joy is found in

providing healing and meaning in our lives.

Of course, all of this is a challenge during the pandemic. In his book Lost Connections, Johann

Hari writes, “Protracted loneliness causes you to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious

of any social contact.” While our world is more and more connected, people feel lonelier than

ever. Studies show that loneliness increases our mortality risk on par with obesity and

substance abuse.

There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Christianity is a team sport. It’s about community.

At its core, life is not about things, but relationships. It is the hands that hold us as we age that

define the kind of life that we have led. It is our openness to connection and community that us

usher us into the life of the Spirit.

The great danger, of course, is that we exchange a good life for a life that is good, rich in things,

but poor in relationships, trust, interdependence, and authentic sharing. We become Lone

Rangers and soloists. We admire people like Henry David Thoreau who had three chairs in his

cabin – one for solitude, two for company, and three for society, but we completely ignore the

work of self-reflection in our own lives, which is key for developing authentic connection.

Jonathan Haidt of NYU advises that if you want to build real community and deep connection,

you must focus on what people have in common, not what sets them apart.

In times of personal and corporate crisis there is no greater gift than community. Over the

centuries there have been shining examples of Christian communities, like Benedictine

monasteries, Nicholas Ferrar’s Little Gidding in England, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing

Church in Germany, or more recently the Iona Community in Scotland, the Taize Community in

France, the L’Abri Community in Switzerland, the communities of Boise and Sant’Egidio in Italy,

the Koinonia Community in Plains, Georgia, or the L’Arche Community around the world.

The hyper individual operates with the notion that I make myself strong, and I get what I want.

The spiritual person realizes that life hinges on an inverse logic. I receive when I give. I discover

meaning when I focus on others. I find myself when I lose myself in service to others like St.

Francis, Dorothy Day, or Martin Luther King, Jr. The central journey of the Christian life is from

self to service to community.

When our nation was emerging and a Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia in

1787, after months of debate things threatened to blow apart over what appeared to be

irreconcilable differences. It looked as if the Constitution was doomed. But in the dark hour

when all appeared to be lost, Ben Franklin took the convention floor and called for compromise

and cooperation. He urged his listeners to doubt a little bit of their own infallibility. He spoke of

the need for comprehending others with differing points of view. Following his urgent appeal,

the delegates made the necessary compromises and that led to the Constitution that we have

today. Community demands that we listen, act humbly and strive to comprehend each other.

It takes place whenever we focus on others over self and get involved in a church, a school, an

organization or a neighborhood. It occurs not only in church but in coffee shops, health clubs,

art galleries, brew pubs, music festivals and at teen nights.

Here are a few things to consider to help you build community:

• Invite a neighbor or a member of our church or your school over for a meal.

• Introduce one set of neighbors or friends from school or church to others in your

neighborhood, school or church. We people together and form community.

• If you attend school, never let another student eat alone. Exercise some courage. Be the

classmate who looks out for those who feel isolated or alienated.

• Find one ministry at church and commit to it. You will make friends, find fulfillment and

move from saying, “I go to Christ Church” to “I belong to Christ Church.”

• Pledge. Over a half of our members don’t pledge. Community requires commitment. It’s

not right to let others carry the burden and pay our way. When we don’t commit and

pledge, we can’t take pride in the ministry taking place. I challenge everyone listening to

pledge and give something of yourself. It will transform your relationship with God.

• Large gatherings are great. But small gatherings are where we grow and get to know

each other. So, commit to attend one small group that meets for several weeks each

year. You will get to know other people, and they will get to know you.

Christ Church is porous at the edges and deep in the center. Have you found your place in our

community? If not, I urge you to reach out and let us help you claim your spot. Amen.