Passage: John 10:1-10; Acts 2:42-45
Date: April 13, 2008
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Vischer
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When have you felt uprooted? When have you longed for belonging?
I just returned from a sojourn with nineteen other Protestant clergy-women from across the United States. We left behind our congregations, our homes and families to spend ten days at Our Lady of Grace Benedictine monastery in Indianapolis. The program, called "Women Touched by Grace" is the first of the five sessions over 3 years, on spiritual renewal for clergy-women serving congregations. One woman describes our time together as "nun camp." So, what did we do at "nun camp?"
We worshiped and prayed together. We ate. And prayed some more. Eat. Pray. Love. That about sums it up. When we arrived, however, we all had some sense of homelessness and a bit of uncertainty. My flight was late and I arrived after dark, and so had no sense of our surroundings. The monastery does have a pool, and I was eager to try it the next morning.
So, early on the first day, I walked out the door and found the building with the pool. But when I tried to get back in to the Benedict Inn, the door was locked. I was confused, and thought I'd found the wrong door, so I hiked around to the next door. It was locked, too.
It was colder outside than I had expected, and I hadn't worn a coat. Tentatively, I rang the doorbell to the monastery. The door opened and a woman I had not seen before (and who had obviously never seen me before) said, rather imperiously, "May I help you?"
I explained my dilemma. She did not open the door to let me in. Instead, in a kind voice, she directed me to a third door, and told me to ring that doorbell, and someone would let me in.
I felt a little foolish, and I definitely felt dislocated. Maybe you've had a similar feeling. Dislocated and maybe even a little homeless.
"The gatekeeper opens the gate for him. . . and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out."
It is good to be known. The past two weeks for me, in an unfamiliar setting reminds that in each of us there is some inner homelessness or longing for belonging.
Friends-believe this good news: God invites us to be home together. By the power of the Holy Spirit, when we pray and break bread in Jesus' name-we are opened to deep belonging in God-and to one another. We are God's own.
This intimacy-being known and knowing God is beautifully presented in these verses from Acts 2, the other reading appointed for today:
"They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple. They broke bread in the home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day, the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved."
After having lived with the Benedictines for the past 10 days, I have to tell you, that's a pretty good description of their life together. Today, I'm going to share some of what I learned about what it means to be a Christian community, from the wisdom of St. Benedict. For the Benedictines today, and for the early Christians at the time of Acts, gathering together is and was the heart of it.
The early church thrived even though Christians were being persecuted. The community was together for prayer and breaking bread, for sustenance, for accountability, for "abundant life" in Jesus Christ.
For Christians, membership alone does not constitute community. It is in the on-going, individual choices that we make to a common vision that makes for Christian community. We are united in Christ. For Westminster, that vision is to be an inclusive, nurturing, serving Christian community in our neighborhood, our city and our world.
At Our Lady of Grace monastery, we prayed together at least three times every day, slowly chanting psalms, punctuated by silence. By the fifth day, I was tempted once or twice, to skip the prayers, to take a nap or go for a walk. But I didn't. I knew that in our new little community, we were all in it together. We all needed to show up-to be together.
Being part of Christian community means showing up. We clergy-women agreed-all of our congregations have huge challenges and competing priorities in just showing up for worship, education and fellowship. We know the demands and choices confronting people. If we are to see Christ in one another, though, we have to show up. To be "at Table." The Rev. Jan Wiggers, from Louisville addressed this with her congregation. She noticed that on Sundays when she had guest preachers, attendance in worship dipped. Concerned about what would happen when she went on a three-month sabbatical, she encouraged her church to focus on their common vision as a community. When she finally did take the sabbatical, attendance actually went up, because the people felt they needed to be there for one another, especially in her absence.
There are other reasons we are absent from community. Sometimes, we don't show up because we are alienated, or angry. Think of the child who shouted, as he stormed to his room, "I hate this family! I'm not part of this family anymore!" Sometimes, no matter our age, we feel this way. Not part of the family; not part of the marriage; not part of the church. At those points, we need to offer our brokenness in prayer to God, who will never disown us. We pray. We eat "at Table." We love.
As I was packing up my things to come home, I picked up a little pencil imprinted with a saying from St. Benedict: "See Christ in everyone and in everything." Seeing Christ in one another. Christian community, then, means there is a place for our weaknesses to be received, and strength offered for others.
Sharing weaknesses. . . That goes against the grain. In our culture, we learn early on to hide our hurt; to keep from being vulnerable. Years ago, when I was discerning a call to ministry, I was struck by what a friend said, "The church is the last place I'd go with my failure." Or addiction, or pain, or weakness. . .
God invites us to be at home-together-in our brokenness, weakness-around the Lord's Table.
One last note about "nun camp." We twenty women met as strangers. In the first days, we encountered the same barriers to community that our congregations face. One African-American women, from a non-denominational church, felt she didn't belong, based on her negative experiences from seminary. In a phone conversation with her husband on the last day, she confessed that she had finally quit referring to "those white women" and had begun calling us by name.
Also on the last day, one of the women who had been quiet and reserved the whole time, tearfully and joyfully named her life-partner to the group. Her denomination is struggling with ordination and homosexuality, and her partner, her family, is a woman. She found the community that we grew to be last week- a safe place. A place of prayer, breaking bread and seeing Christ in one another.
On April 1, I left for Indianapolis, focused on my own need for rest and spiritual renewal. But I felt, over the next ten days, that God had brought us together to be there for one another. We began to be a community in Christ. The trip was not about "me" but "we."
The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days;O may Your House be my abode, and all my work be praise. There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come;
No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.
What would the church be like if our focus was on seeing Christ in everyone we meet? How would our lives be different if we made prayer and breaking bread together the top priority? How would the Holy Spirit work in our community? What if Christians of all kinds, Catholic and Protestant, liberal and evangelical, across denominations, gender and race-what if we saw Christ in everyone and everything? What would the world be like then?