“Community ” by Sandra Miller

Advent 2

December 5, 2021

Holy One, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart express my love for you and be pleasing to you, and those in this community whose ears and hearts receive them.

I offer a rendering of Philippians 1:3-11, which captured my imagination, and called me in many directions.

“I thank the Holy One every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the day that you came to believe until now. I am confident of this, that those who began good works among you will bring it to completion by the time of your taking leave of the corporal world, through your faith in the teachings of Jesus. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart. All of you share in God’s grace, in living with any afflictions that beset you, and in confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I love all of you with the compassion of Jesus, who becomes Christ in the story yet to come. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be at peace in your heart, having produced the harvest of living true to your inner being, the gifts of Wisdom, and through Jesus Christ, who paves the road to love of the Holy One.”

You may have noticed that this is not exactly the text offered in any version of the Bible you’ve read. In my usual audacious manner, I have rewritten the Word, hopefully keeping the spirit of the message that it has delivered for millennia, yet attempting to bring it closer to the Word that helps me to grow and understand it. I hope that I have not offended or alienated anyone, and maybe even offered the possibility of doing the same in your own receiving of the Word.

What this passage from Philippians conveys to me is a strong message about the importance of community. As we in Seekers, and as millions of justice advocates world ‘round say: “Thank God we are all in this together.” It is from the strength of being in community that provides the day to day structure for each of us to live out the calls on our lives, and to be in service to one another.

Passage 1:7 “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart. All of you share in God’s grace, in living with any afflictions that beset you, and in confirmation of the gospel,” particularly sets my heart beating strongly as I reflect on my recent and ongoing time of deep need. Without this whole community, and a large percentage of individuals within, I could not have endured, and even thrived in some ways, through my 31 months thus far, of what turned out to be a journey with, and recovery from cancer. What’s truly breathtaking is that I am not the only one with a similar story, and I pray for all of us in the thick of it, and pray for all who may have such a time in their lives. I pray especially for those who can’t, for whatever reason, reach out to let us know that they are in need. And I pray for all of us to be on watch for those in need so that we can embrace them as we are able. We truly are all in this together!

As a person still in touch with my Jewish upbringing during this time of Chanukah, in Krista Tippet’s The Pause email on Saturday, November 27th, I found inspiration, and a mirror to the tension I feel in living the life I have been granted by the Holy One. I had a strong sense that it was supposed to be part of this Advent season sermon:

“There was a Polish rabbi in the 19th century, Rabbi Simcha Bunim [whose name loosely translated means ’celebrate a good life’], who urged his followers to write ‘The world was created for me’ on one piece of paper and keep it in their pocket. He suggested they should place a different piece of paper in the opposite pocket, with ‘I am but dust and ashes’ written on it. This, he proposed, is a necessary tension. 

Sometimes I think of what else I could write on pieces of paper, things to remind me of the human condition: ‘I am capable of kindness’ on one piece of paper and ‘I am capable of cruelty’ on another. ‘There is only strength in community’ on one piece of paper and ‘I must learn to be alone’ on the other.’ Carry my joy on my left / Carry my pain on my right’ is how Bjork put it. 

This is not about finding a balance, but rather knowing how to hold ourselves in tension. Praise can cover over the failures of human nature, and sole awareness of the failures of human nature can plunder the heart of hope. We need both, held tight. One in each pocket.” 

Chanukah started last Sunday, and will end tomorrow. Not at all the equivalent of Christmas, Chanukah is a time for Jews to celebrate the miracle of light for 8 days from the scantest amount of oil, which was so important in a time of persecution by the Greeks, not to mention the fighting between the Maccabees and Jews who wished to reinterpret Jewish law. With continually rising racism, including antisemitism and the widening divide between left, center, and right political divisions in the U.S. and the world, I get mired in despair, and try to hold onto hope. What happens when we consider the Bible in the formula of books we read that inform our lives and challenge our notions? Do you read the Old Testament, the New Testament, both, or neither? Do you live with the fact that Jesus was a Jew, although Jews do not consider him the Messiah? That it is his being a Jew that is the foundation of Christianity? Do you, like me, find yourself reinterpreting the Word as a way that you can understand its relationship to you personally? In our here and now, does the Holy One reach you and our community with words of hope or despair?

Hanukkah’s darker origins feel more relevant in time of rising antisemitism, intense interest in identity” is a headline from several days ago in the Post. There is a story of community relevant to my personal story. In my work with the Sacred Conversation community and other antiracism communities, I raise the issue of antisemitism with some frequency. I do consider these groups as communities, where all are welcome to have their say, and conversation in response to one another is invited, however the sharing is received. And, yes, sometimes my comments are not always well received because in a Euro-centric Christian country, a vast majority of the U.S. population is ignorant about the stories of the Jewish people throughout history. That includes the importance of Jewish activists to the Civil Rights movement, which in current times is rarely acknowledged in history classes, and which includes a huge rift between Jews and Blacks in the here and now. This is a great sadness for me as antisemitism is on a continuous rise, as is anti-blackness, anti-Asian, anti-Native American, and a list too long to include, when we should be, once again and always, be communities, each in their own right, together, and with the communities of all peoples, joining forces for Tikkun Olam for all people. I proudly, in addition to my choosing to follow Jesus in a Christian community, count myself as a member of the Jewish community. How blessed am I, someone who spent most of my life feeling like I was flying solo, to now feel that I belong to so many communities. I learned that here in Seekers over the last thirty some years.

People have so many takes on what community is, and whether or not it is relevant to their lives. I’d like to share some examples of the ways and places that community building is going on in the midst of our world that seems to be tearing itself apart.

Native American History Month just passed, and I want to acknowledge that much of the DMV, including Greenbelt where I live, and where the Seekers Church building is located, is on Nacotchank/Anacostian tribal lands of the Piscataway people.

First Nations people all over this country, are buying back land for the sake of their ancestral communities, and to restore the land, at great cost financially and to themselves. Other countries are also experiencing positive community building because of the activism of their original inhabitants. In addition to community rebuilding, this is an important, not to be ignored, story about how their efforts are also about fighting the climate crisis and restoring God’s green earth.  

Some years ago I saw a documentary on television about preserving food traditions that featured a restaurant, started and run by a renown Native American chef who overcame many obstacles to train other Native Americans about the growing and cooking of their native foods. The restaurant has become a place of gathering for native diners. In addition, they welcome all people to come and learn about the importance of the foods they prepare with such love, and educating them about Native American history. It is a bold, though small mission to heal wounds and impart the importance of community. All are welcomed to become a member of the community in a period of time and space. That to me is so very hopeful.

Recently I received an obituary/tribute to a very important First Nations elder from the Kalliopeia Foundation, which has far reaching ramifications for the Wukchumni tribe, and happily reflects what is happening more and more in an increasing number of tribes. The Wukchumni people thrived and still live in a part of California where I have important and fond memories. I grieve the demise of Ms. Wilcox for her umni, which means people. Yet I celebrate the possibility of rebuilding for communities beyond those of Native Americans. Like everything in life, there is paradox. I quote:

“As we settle into the waning light of late fall here in the Northern Hemisphere, we are reflecting on those who carry sacred, ancestral knowledge and create space for others to come together to listen and learn in community. 

On September 25, a greatly admired woman, respected elder, and language keeper passed away. Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language, was 87 years old. Marie lived a life that was deeply committed to her family, to the Wukchumni people, and to the Native language revitalization movement.

Wukchumni is a dialect of the Tule-Kaweah language from the Yokuts tribal group, which originated along the Tule and Kaweah Rivers of Central California. Like all indigenous languages, it is deeply rooted within an interrelated network of place-based relationships and carries an understanding that the world is alive and sacred. For twenty years, Marie documented her language—word by word—in the form of a written and spoken dictionary, the first work of its kind in the Wukchumni language.

While the loss of the last fluent speaker will be tremendous, the future of the language is now much more secure than it was even just a decade ago.”

We have all experienced, I hope, that whenever people are in a place where there is a kitchen, that’s the place they gather to find community, whether the connections made are with strangers at an event, or with people near and dear.

Keeping with food’s place in community, Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives is a popular television show, that I’ll wager it seems to you has no place in this sermon. However, in a recent article in The Atlantic that I read, I was delighted to find the following tribute:

“Triple D (the show’s nickname) takes the symbolism one step further. It explores what the art critic Lucy Lippard called “the lure of the local,” the notion that locations on the map have depth as well as width, functioning not just as places in the world but also as ways of giving the world its meaning. In a moment when many Americans are renegotiating their relationship with their local community, Triple D is a wistful kind of paradox: It is a national show that celebrates local life. The series spotlights the quirks—the accidents of geography and history and culture—that make one area of the country just a little bit different from every other.

Part of that story will be what the restaurant means to its community. Each segment dedicates a hefty portion of its airtime to the restaurant as a gathering place: its atmosphere, its clientele, what it means to the people who love it. Triple D regards restaurants as almost sacred places. And the front of the house, in particular, is a site of conversion: a space where people can come not just to eat a good meal but also to be transformed. Into a community. Into a family.

For me, this is definitely a sign of hope that Jesus would bless.

Conversely, how many times do you recall seeing the word “community” in the headlines? Just in the past few weeks, this one brought front and center what had been dwelling in the space I reserve for things I don’t want to think about too much:

“What happens to society — and our democracy — when community and regional journalism dries up.” If we don’t know what’s happening across the street, down the block, downtown, etc., how will we know who needs help right now, or who is offering help with food pantries and such, so you can make connections? And what about the communities of journalists, copy editors, and more who are dealing with the loss of a lifetime of commitment and livelihood? A deeper consideration of what this means is truly frightening.

Yet just yesterday, I resonated with the intro to Krista Tippet’s The Pause:

“How can we tilt the world toward love and away from fear? is one of the questions that Vivek Murthy asks himself in his public role as Surgeon General. To know that this is the goal of public health, not just diagnosis and medication, expands the field of health into all aspects of our public life together.” 

Communities are the glue that offer home and safety, imbue people with the knowledge of their inherent importance, and that is what makes people far more willing to both expand their own boundaries, and work with other communities to common purpose, to achieve Tikkun Olam. Inward/Outward recently posted this quote by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, from Gift from the Sea, p. 131-132 which conveys my thoughts far more poetically:

“When we start at the center of ourselves, we discover something worthwhile extending toward the periphery of the circle. We find again some of the joy in the now, some of the peace in the here, some of the love in me and thee which go to make up the kingdom of heaven on earth.”

I invite you to open your heart at the center of your being and recognize the communities that dwell there. Community can be church or one person who makes you feel that you belong. It can even be a community of just one, yourself, grounded in love. Open your heart and your arms and invite people to be part of your community.

One more offering not of my own composition, but from Madeleine L’Engle, p. 39 of her book The Ordering of Love, the poem Instruments (2);

Hold me against the dark: I am afraid.

Joy orders the disunity until the song is one.

Editor’s note: copyright prevents us from printing more than a tiny fragment of this poem. You can read the full text here https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Ordering_of_Love/A8VCSfVYPXUC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=l%27engle+instruments(2)+poem&pg=PA39&printsec=frontcover

Let’s celebrate the many places that community is thriving. Let’s celebrate the community of Seekers, and the many communities where each of us find life and support. Let’s pray for the communities that are fraying at the edges, and for all who have no sense of community.

Thank God we are all in this together, every living thing, including the rocks and the cosmos, as First Nations people believe.

Jesus is coming to give his life away!


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