OPEN MY LIFE, LORD
Acts 2: 38-47
If you google the definition of community one entry describes:
“a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals – AND – the sense of community that organized religion can provide.”
In Acts 2 we hear Peter call those who witnessed the death and resurrection of Jesus to come together in that witness and live together in fellowship and community.
OPEN MY LIFE, LORD
My life was opened to church when I was a child in the 1950’s in rural Carroll County MD – just over the Mason Dixon line. Our next door neighbors invited our family to St John’s Lutheran Church – a little country church – just a mile away. For a time, my father stayed home but before too long we were ALL headed to church on Sunday mornings. What I received in this little church would provide the foundation for my church life: Sunday morning worship and Sunday School. Bible School, church picnics, choir, catechize classes, Luther League, confirmation – and eventually marriage and the baptism of our daughter. My father served on church council, my mother was always cooking or baking something for whatever church function was happening; our family was one of many who helped take care of the property. Since it was a small church everyone pitched in. I would take that sense of community and the relationships built at St Johns and use it as a basis for seeking out other churches as I moved from MD to Pennsylvania.
I would join two other country churches – one – St David’s – a union of Lutheran/United Church of Christ – just on the south side of Hanover. The Lutherans would eventually break away from the union, buy land, and build a new Lutheran church. Our son was baptized there. One of my best memories of the few years we were members of St David’s is of our weekly Advent services held in “the grove building” – an enclosed pavilion-type building that sat in a grove of trees on church property. There was a roaring fire in the fireplace, candles in the windows, uplifting worship and fellowship after the service. A feeling of fellowship with others.
A move to the Gettysburg area – and with a valued recommendation to check out St James – we attended worship services and Sunday School here for many months before finally deciding to join Benders Church – another small country church near Biglerville. You see, once again we were looking for that small church ministry that we had become accustomed to – and unfortunately, we felt somewhat overwhelmed at St James.
While we were members at Benders the church celebrated its 200+ anniversary. Also, for several years we prepared and enacted a Jewish Passover seder meal and service – not bad for a tiny Lutheran church in the middle of Apple Country USA.
Church life was good for us for a few years until our daughter and son wanted to attend a church where they could worship and hang out with their school friends from Gettysburg.
When we eventually joined St James in the mid-1980’s our family was welcomed, we all became very active – and so we did experience a sense of community here during those years.
And then, a divorce led me away from the church and my life at St James and I would not return for 13 years. I was not a part of any church community during those years.
One could ask – was God out of my life during those years? Absolutely not. I firmly believe that I was the closest I had ever been to God during much of that time. My faith helped me see that although my life had changed – good would come from the bad – life would go on – and we’d all be ok. And that is true.
But ultimately I came to realize that something very important – something I had come to rely on for most of my life – was missing.
Up until that time I had been part of a larger family – a church family – that was centered around word and sacrament, music, fellowship, and mission. I was cheating myself out of an essential part of my life.
OPEN MY LIFE, LORD
And so I came back to St James – for the third time! What is it they say about the third time’s the charm?
I could end my reflection this evening with this simple history of my church life. But I ask that you consider these thoughts.
What of those early Christians we heard about in the scripture reading? The text recalls promises made in the Old Testament of the just society God longed to establish in Israel. So this idea of community we hear about in Acts – and that we attempt to create today – runs deep. The stories from the Old Testament tell us time and again of how God calls his people to return to God.
Can we believe that the witnesses Peter spoke to in Acts were always able to maintain the fellowship and unity that he called them to? Probably not. And are those fond memories I have of St Johns, St David’s and Benders accurate? More than likely not. Just like the early Christians those churches had times of conflict and tension, times when the world pulled them away from a life centered around faith and life in Christ. It’s a constant struggle to achieve and maintain unity.
But the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit that washes over us in the waters of baptism and comes to us through the bread and the wine as we gather around the communion table continually reminds us of that ancient call to community. A community that calls for justice and generosity. People coming together to embrace the crucified, risen, and glorified Christ.
So how does the St James community live out that call? First of all, with engaging and joyful worship centered around word and sacrament. This community of faith shelters the homeless, feeds hungry school children, warms the naked with quilts, wraps the sick in prayer shawls, and meets the needs of many in the greater community with a fastnacht fundraiser. We reach out to the LGBT community with a bold welcome statement, provide youth opportunities to go to work camps, and send a mission group to Haiti.
In her book “An Altar in the World” Barbara Brown Taylor talks about church communities. She says:
“the world’s great religions have always required communities of people to make them work….. these communities are the concrete places where the teachings of the religion are tested. Sometimes the teachings explode in people’s faces. Other times they save people’s lives. Either way, the teachings mean little apart from the embodied practices of the community.”
And so I lift up to you that a community of faith cannot just be a wish for the past – or even a faint hope for future days. Instead it must operate in the here and now – not as a scattered collection of individuals – but as a community of people – gathered around the Cross – who understand they are united in purpose and identity – bound by a life in faith and led by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Carol Widerman, 03/02/2016