Many years ago I had a dream that felt like divine revelation. In the dream I was standing on a theatrical stage taking a curtain call with a company of actors at the end of a performance. We were all holding hands and bowing in a moment of exquisite triumph. Brilliant light filled the theater and the audience’s appreciation was palpable. That was lovely, but the best part was the joy we felt because we had embodied the high calling of working as an ensemble. We were a team—a group of people mysteriously functioning as one. There were no divas among us— everyone had put aside their egos for the sake of the whole.
Do you know how in a dream you can feel an emotional tone—that strong current of feeling that stays with you long after you’ve opened your eyes? The emotional tone of this dream was pure bliss and that bliss was the result of having worked together as one body. Each of us had brought his or her talents to the table and each of us knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we had needed one another to get the job done. No part was better than another, no actor more important. The magic existed in the mystery of being an ensemble.
I just had the privilege of witnessing your Session, the ruling body of this church, on retreat last week and once again that feeling of joy coursed through my body. The variety of gifts was so evident. This church is nothing if not involved in all sorts of team efforts—mission trips, the Food Pantry, Labre, the Race Core team, the Haiti outreach, GCC, the choirs, and all our various ministries, to name just a few of our teams.
Think for a moment about a group in which you have participated or are participating and think about the strengths of the team. Community in the best sense of the word invigorates, inspires, and blesses us because it takes us out of ourselves and enlarges our mental maps of the world.
But let’s be honest–life in community can also be extremely difficult. Is there anyone here who can honestly say that they’ve figured out how to ride the rapids of family dynamics or office politics? Who has a seamless marriage or partnership? Has anyone here cracked the nut of being a perfect parent? (If so, I’m going to need counseling from you at your earliest convenience.)
On a very serious note, how confident do we really feel about our abilities to live faithfully in any kind of community, given the personal and systemic wounds we all carry?
On personal and global levels we are undeniably interdependent. If the Internet hasn’t done enough to shrink our world, then issues like climate change, intertwined world economies, and endless disasters certainly have. There is no escaping the fact that as a human family we must depend on each other to survive and thrive. And yet, the fault lines that underlie our lives are huge.
Our human family still struggles with the effects of generations of abuse, addictions, injustice and violence. Many of us are prone to react fearfully, competitively, and tribally because that’s what we’ve learned in our families, cultures and religious organizations. As much as we may yearn to live creatively and lovingly with one another we often default to longstanding patterns of ignorance, blaming, and isolation. Like veterans who are suddenly yanked back to a battle zone when a car backfires near them, we can easily revert to fear, shame, and reactivity when we feel threatened.
Years ago I took classes from Ed Friedman, a brilliant, curmudgeonly rabbi who was an expert in family systems. He took what he knew about family therapy and applied it to congregational settings in a book called Generation to Generation.
Ed stated in no uncertain terms that human community is one of the most anxiety-producing aspects of our existence. On the one hand, we desperately long for intimacy and caring and on the other hand we’re scared to death of being swallowed up, controlled, and hurt by others.
Some people solve the dilemma by keeping a wary distance from family, friends, and strangers, while others are so enmeshed in their relationships that they don’t know where they end and other people begin.
I have never forgotten Friedman’s teaching that the highest good of mental and spiritual health is found in the tension of being connected to others while remaining self-defined. Put more simply, the goal is to maintain loving, respectful bonds with others while maintaining a clear awareness of our own feelings, needs, and boundaries. It’s a tall order. I’ve tried to live in the tension of those two seeming opposites for years and I’ve done it quite imperfectly, thank you very much. Perhaps it’s more of an ideal than something any of us will ever perfectly attain, but I intend to aim towards that ideal while I have breath in my body. Holding our individual and communal identities in one loving embrace is an essential ingredient of the healthy relationships to which God calls us.
St. Paul captures the tender balance of connection and self-definition in his description of the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12. He compares the unity we have in Christ to a human body—an entity that is a whole in and of itself, yet made up of various small parts. Those small parts in all their diversity are the key to making the whole body function well.
As Paul describes it each has a unique part to play that cannot be played by any other. For example, the ear can’t just drop out of the body because it wishes it were an eye. It is an ear and must play its part in the whole production or a vital function will be lost. Furthermore, there are no better or worse parts. Those members that seem weaker are “indispensable” according to Paul and end up being treated with greater respect. The bottom line is that the parts, while being very unique, end up caring equally for one another because their well-being depends on their working together.
Paul says “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We
are those hands and feet and ears and eyes and hearts of Christ. Each of our gifts is distinct but vitally necessary. Nobody is better than anyone else and everyone belongs to the whole.
That said, we still have the nagging problem of original wounding and original sin. We know that we are supposed to get along with one another and work harmoniously as one body, but time and again we fall short of the goal because we are wounded people. Some of us seriously doubt our abilities because of a deep sense of unworthiness passed on by dysfunctional institutions and families. Some of us are legends in our own minds who try to dominate others because we think our way of doing things is the only way. Some of us try to go it alone because we have come to believe that we can only depend on ourselves. Still others of us have so armored ourselves against being hurt that we find it hard to bear patiently with one another.
On that note, it’s important for us to understand that Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church wasn’t just an academic exercise. He was writing to a church that was embroiled in conflict and power struggles. His description of the body was meant to give his readers a sense of unity in diversity even as they struggled to live together in peace. And yet, he said to this group of believers who were lining up in different camps, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” He didn’t say, “Please try to be the body of Christ” or “You’ve got to put mind over matter and somehow make this thing happen.” He said, “You the body of Christ. The deed is done. God has chosen and gathered you together through baptism to be a sign of hope in this fractured world.”
As we brought Charlotte Grace to the waters of baptism this morning we reaffirmed that the work of salvation belongs to God, that it is God who makes us the Beloved community by his grace. Left to our own devices, we are improbable witnesses to God’s love. And yet God calls us to love and serve in God’s name. We’re not a sign of hope to this world because we are perfectly of one mind. We are a sign of hope to the world precisely because we are people who often disagree and whom God still manages to use in surprising ways.
In Jesus, God models for us the power of love and forgiveness that helps us maintain those bonds of love even when we face conflict. Keeping our eyes on Jesus we can be reconciled to one another, especially practicing forgiveness where there has been injury. Henri Nouwen captured this when he wrote, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”
And so, in the name of Christ we press on to be healed and to be healers. We press on for reconciliation in the world at large and in the relationships that define our everyday lives. We press on by acknowledging the fact that each one of us is a precious, unrepeatable miracle. We press on by letting go of our rigid mental maps and being respectfully curious about the lives and experiences of other people. We press on by honoring our unique roles and the unique roles of everyone in that great ensemble to which we are called, and in which God ultimately promises us unending joy.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.