A Community . . . Set Apart

I remember this conversation around the dinner table growing up.  My dad, to my brother, “Why do you always go to your friends’ houses on Friday nights? Why don’t you ever have your friends over here?”  My brother’s response, “our house is boring. They all have cable TV. We don’t have anything.” 
This conversation took place early in the year that MTV first aired – 1981.  At the time, MTV actually stood for “Music Television” and, true to its name, it aired music videos 24 / 7.  But this conversation was before the launch. I know because everyone knew that on August 1, 1981 at 11:01 p.m. central time, MTV would launch and anyone who was anyone would be glued to the TV that Saturday night.   And my brother saw our dad’s question as a way to get on board!
And it worked! Saturday, August 1, 1981 at 11:01 p.m. at the Bullock residence?  I sat in front of the TV in the living room watching John Lack announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.”  Where was my brother?  Who knows! Probably watching at his friend’s house – after all, our house was still boring!
Have you ever really, really, really wanted something because you knew someone else who already had it?  Have you ever decided to go somewhere for a vacation or do something for fun because a friend or a neighbor had already gone there or done that and told you how fabulous it was?  We like to think of conformity as a unique problem faced by teenagers.  But, the reality is that we all give in to it at least some of the time. And, while much of the time, there is nothing particularly bad about our caving in to the pressure – after all, despite the perils of MTV, my brother and I did, in fact, survive! – the truth is that there are many stories we could tell of times when doing what everyone else is doing proved to be more than a bad idea.   Hence the oft-used expression, beloved by mothers and fathers alike: “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”
Individuals aren’t the only ones who are pulled by the pressures of those around them.  Entire communities can be swayed.  Take this morning’s Old Testament reading, for example. In the 11th and 12th century BCE, the Hebrew people were organized by tribes which were linked together in a confederation.  There was no central government; but, in times of crisis – most often military crisis - the people were led by judges. Each successive judge was chosen by God from a different tribe.  But, as this morning’s text opens, we are told that “all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’”[1]  Everyone around us is ruled by kings.   We would do better if we had a king as well.  We want a king! 
Samuel was displeased, says the text.  God was displeased, says the text.  Why?  Because this request was a REALLY big deal.  It changed everything.  What set Israel apart was their understanding that God alone is king.   As the psalmist writes, “the LORD Most High is to be feared; he is the great King over all the earth” (Psalm 47:2) and as written in the ten commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3).    And so the elders’ request for a king represents a willingness to give up their very identity in order to be like their neighbors.  God called Israel to be a light to the nations, to show the nations another way and the Israelites respond by saying, “No! We want to be like everyone else.  We don’t want to stand out.  We want to conform to the world and the world’s expectations.”
Samuel warns them that this request is nothing short of a return to slavery – the very bondage out of which God freed them from Egypt.  But the people are willing to give up their God-given freedom to be like the other nations.   And so, at the end of the day, the people get their king.  God does not approve; but God permits.  At what cost?  Ultimately the Israelites will fall into the hands of their neighbors – the Babylonians - they will lose their temple and their homeland; they will live in exile for 70 years before returning to their devastated homeland.
Fast forward some 3000 or more years and we arrive here today.  What is the challenge to Christian community today? The challenge to being God’s people set apart to be a light to the nations?  A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the doomsday headlines announcing the steady decline in mainline Protestant denominations.  The Rev. James Bartz, in a 2009 article for the Anglican Theological Review, writes:
 “We have moved from Christendom to post-Christendom, an era more closely resembling that of the early church. . . . the tough question for those of us in the Jesus-following business is not, ‘How do we grow our churches?’ but rather, ‘How do we transform our community?’”[2] 
Too often it seems to me that our answer has been based in a survey of the world around us – what works for the other organizations in our society? How can we be more like them?  And so we cave in to “contemporary consumerism” and promote “private and personal spirituality” over the “more difficult work of forming and sustaining Christian community.”[3]  We have been willing to give up our very identity as community – as God’s chosen people – in order to be like the people around us. Lutheran Pastor Peter Marty writes:
 “The consistent witness of Holy Scripture is that God cherishes the idea of forming a visible body. It is not the spiritual state of individual souls or personal salvation that preoccupies God throughout the Bible. It isn’t even the achievement of a personal state of holiness.  God’s intention is to form a people. . . a community.”[4]
God calls us into community and instead we say, “No.  We want to conform to the world around us that lifts up and prizes individual achievement.” God does not approve; but God permits.  And, at what cost?  Loneliness? Depression? Isolation?  Disconnection?   As more and more people recognize the cost of individual pursuit, the Church, this church – St. Mark’s – has an opportunity to “reverse [our] disengagement from others and to rethink [our] solitary pursuit of God.”[5]
There are glimpses of this in our community already.  Small gatherings where people come together across difference to build and sustain deep friendships, mutuality of purpose, and faithful care for one another.  I see it at the Producemobile where several members of St. Mark’s regularly volunteer alongside others in the community and in that work have come to truly know one another, care for one another, and sustain one another.  But, how do we nurture this type of community – “people willing to foster life in one another”[6]  – on a broader scale?  How do we nurture it at St. Mark’s?  I wish I had an easy answer.  I am convinced that it begins and finds its center in our worship.  Because our worship is the one place where we consistently bring our separate selves together to praise God with one voice.  And yet, I know this is not enough.
Last April Deane Johnson and I brought the youth together for an evening of “Stump the Priest” – an opportunity to ask any question about the Bible, our faith, relationships, the world. To explore the places where matters of faith meet daily life experience.  The questions and their thoughtful responses were powerful: Should we have to believe all the stories in the Bible are true? What should we feel we can trust our friends with? How much should we be exposed to news about the world?  But more than powerful, the conversation with our youth began to build community as we dared to be vulnerable and share with one another, to explore our faith and our lives with one another. 
This summer Andrea and I will host “Faith around the Firepit” in the Rectory backyard on the fourth Friday of each month. In part we will do this because I love alliteration.  But, in all seriousness, my hope is that we will use this time to gather in a casual environment to explore deep questions of our faith and of our lives – to explore together where God meets world, to be vulnerable together, to share together our life experiences: our crises of faith, our times of inspiration, our moments of wonder.  To bring our separate selves together to build and sustain deep friendships, mutuality of purpose, and faithful care for one another – to enter fully into God’s invitation to be God’s people, a people - a community - set apart . . .

[1] 1 Samuel 8:4-5.
[2] James P. Bartz, “Leadership from the Inside Out,” Anglican Theological Review (Winter 2009), 90.
[3] Peter W. Marty, “Shaping Communities: Pastoral Leadership and Congregational Formation,” in For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry, edited by Dorothy C. Bass and Craig Dykstra, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 309.
[4] Marty, 307.
[5] Marty, 310.
[6] Marty, 313.


Nancy Quay said…
So I found this a very, very interesting post, Deb. I think you're right, that some modern churches are offering a personalized version of religion that appeals to many...a break from 'tradition' (by whatever definition) and almost a promise of no rules. Not very appealing for me, as I grew up with the ritual (and liturgy and music) of the Methodist church. I find myself vaguely irritated by electric guitars and a drum set during worship. At the same time, from outside the church (where I usually reside) it seems that mainstream churches offer the very definition of conformity, albeit sometimes with a little 'crack' that allows differences, like gender variance, or sexual-orientation. True or not, it often feels to me that I am allowed 'in' despite my 'difference' as long as I (1) dress like, (2) act like, and (3) otherwise masquerade as part of the dominant group, making no waves by my presence. I don't know the answers to any of the questions you pose here, but I'm glad you're asking them.

The Faith around the Firepit idea is a good one--just wish we lived closer! The combination of fire, nature, and darkness is ideal to inspire honesty and conversation. I well remember such campfires during summer camp, and how much was shared in that venue. How openly we speak when no one can see our faces!

In therapy with people, I often encourage them to make fewer statements, and to ask more questions as a way to discover more about themselves and others. This is what you've done here, and I appreciate it. Thank you.