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Shepherding Community

By Rev. Joan Kessler

Psalm 23 & Acts 2:42-47

This morning, we hear a story about a group of people who found community with one another. Luke, the author or Acts, paints an ideal of what the early church was hoped to be like. Everyone came together to learn the teachings of Jesus. They sold their possessions, pooled their resources, and distributed the proceeds to any and all who had need.

This image of communal living has its appeal, I daresay, and no more so than in this unique time on the other side of COVID. As we come through the pandemic, inflation is raising the cost of everything and there is a housing shortage here to greet us. I was inspired this week to learn a bit more about Dorothy Day, the American journalist turned social activist who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933. It fulfilled the mission and vision to affirm the God-given dignity of every human being. Today there are some 185 Catholic Worker communities devoted to non-violence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless and the hungry. She once said and I quote, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have found the answer in community.”

COVID was an isolating experience, both socially and physically cutting us off from family and friends, work places and activity places that brought us joy in our leisure time. And we were removed from our sacred spaces. Living the Christian life in social isolation, disconnected from others is a contradiction in terms. Maya Angelou captures this need of the spirit to find a place to belong in her poem Alone, which goes like this:

Lying, thinking

Last night

How to find my soul a home

Where water is not thirsty

And bread loaf is not a stone

I came up with one thing

And I don’t believe I’m wrong

That nobody

But nobody

Can make it out here alone

Alone, all alone

Nobody, but nobody

Can make it out here alone.

Isn’t this the truth… humans are not made to be in isolation. We need to form community together.

Our readings for today reflect Good Shepherd Sunday when we are reminded of our pastoral commitments to one another, showing our care and concern in varying ways. In our reading from Acts we hear of an ideal community that pooled all their resources together. But like the Road to Emmaus story we shared last week from the same author, Luke, this was more of a vision of optimal community living rather than the historical reality. Yet, whether it really happened this way or not is less important to me than the virtues of such a countercultural way of living expounded. Luke is highlighting the ethical use of one’s property as a visible sign of commitment to the way of Christ and his teachings; that the physical acquisitions of life can pile up, literally, and get in the way of leading a more fulfilling spirit-led life. But we have to let go of things first.

Our community of Winfield United, since returning to the church building just over a year ago, has been intentional about putting the resources we have to help address social isolation. We have been seeing new people join us, particularly since the new year, and what joy this experience has brought to us. Because reaching those outside our walls is what being church is all about. We want to know who our neighbors are and what is important to them and listen to their stories.

In yesterday’s Skim email newsletter, our Affirming Task Group shared its work thus far around our congregation’s discernment of becoming an Affirming Congregation. You may be asking what is an Affirming Congregation? It means a congregation has undertaken a process of discernment preparing to publicly declare its commitment to inclusion and justice for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. It means affirming the personhood of every person who is already here and those outside our walls looking for a safe place to bring their questions, their doubts, to cultivate a spiritual life.

The rainbow symbol is the publicly intentional and explicit marker that tells those outside our community that this is a safe place to be. Our personhood is a gift of God and all the gifts we have to share, whether one is a refugee, a person experiencing homelessness, a retiree, a youth experiencing bullying, a person with a cognitive or physical disability, the Affirming designation demonstrates to everyone that this is a safe place to be. We will not exercise power over another; we will not be happy to meet you one minute and judging you and your family the next. The Affirming designation is just a more public explanation of what we already do and our commitment to do it better, seeking justice and inclusion for all.

Our readings today remind us of the comforts and the challenges implicit in forming community together. Psalm 23 recounts the experience of the psalmist who knows the care of the spirit of God… being led to still waters, comforted through the valley of the shadow of death, strengthened in the presence of enemies, sitting down to the table, and breaking of bread together with cups overflowing. Our reading from Acts was a beautiful example of the priorities of the early church, forming its members through spiritual practices and yet at the same time, remaining open to newness and change with the continual addition of newcomers. The work was to balance out a shared vocabulary and set of priorities to build a community that can carry each other’s joys and burdens. How to share things in common while welcoming and creating an environment of belonging was the work of the early church and it is still the most critical work of the faith community today. This is why we name mission priorities to organize our time, talent and treasures that we share with one another, and these things are continually evolving. Because we are changed as a community every time someone new walks through our doors.

This Sunday, as we give thanks for Phillip’s presence among us these past eight months and the student ministry he is commencing, we are reminded of the image of the good shepherd, a spirt-led presence. Shepherding can be hard work that takes courage and integrity. Sometimes it means venturing as a community into unknown territory, not because it is the popular place to be or the easy one but because it is the precise thing to do in a response to a need. Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t scared. It means you do what is needed despite your fear. And when we do it together, we have collective strength and will to face the future and its unknowns.

The Church has many gifts, but being able to predict the future has never been one of them. Not two thousand years ago and not today. But being a shepherding community has the will to carry forward, building a common life even as we are changed from day to day. We respond to new faces at the table. We learn new languages that lead to new roles and priorities. We honor differences and diversity as we stand together. And for this community and these gifts we exercise every day we are given together, I give thanks.

May peace and the welfare of all in this community be with us… this day and always. Amen.

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