The Rev. Dr. Seth Weeldreyer
Isaiah 58:1-12; Colossians 3:12-17, 4:2-6
Jesus began with building relationships. He called disciples as new friends and followers. Family, he called them. His first act of ministry was forming community. Beyond ourselves alone, faith in God gets fulfilled in relation with others. Amid our different personalities and activities, we all need connections in our way.
Take, for example, the church. As our journeys meet in this sanctuary, some of us remain more quiet. We prefer to sit in silence. Passing peace may seem more disruption of peace! And as worship ends, we avoid any temptation or agitation in coffee, donuts, and conversation. We share life together and give in our way, often generously, inconspicuously. And we know we can count on the church when needed. Do you remember Esther Anderson? Or maybe not. That’s the point. Well into her nineties, she proofread and worshipped every week. Behind her wonderful, gentle smile lay buried some ultra-secret work in World War II and afterward. Maybe our own “Hidden Figure!” When Esther died few people attended the simple graveside service she desired. And our church continues to receive settlement from her estate, nearly $100,000 or more. In Paul’s words, she continues to bear with our congregation’s ministry and mission forever. Yes, some of us may be quiet. That doesn’t mean our hearts and lives aren’t connected.
Others of us are more outgoing. We can’t wait to greet a new visitor, or meet another unknown member. Coffee and donuts offer the way to real nourishment of stories and smiles to feed hungry hearts. We revel in any conversation, even committees! If our term on one ends, there’s always another! We could be down here almost every day of the week! Bear with one another? It’s like a kid in a candy store or advertisers on Super Bowl Sunday! And, of course, the rest of us fall somewhere in between as we give our time and abilities to tutor, serve a meal, sing in the choir, teach Sunday School, fix the building, plant outside, help around the office, as ushers or deacons … the list could go on and on. We have so many ways to engage and grow with one another in supper clubs, Friday lunch bunch, men’s groups, and youth group; Bible studies, book groups, and myriad other classes. Whatever the stated purpose, each of these gatherings at best can be like family where we feel accepted, supported, inspired.
Jesus began with building relationships. That was the heart of faith he tried to embody—the ancient Hebrew stories and ways to structure society with God’s grace. That was the heart of God’s Kingdom Jesus proclaimed—the whole fabric of life and creation transformed to fulfill divine purposes. And as Paul encouraged this life in Christ for people like us, nurturing relationships was the core of his ministry.
Best we can tell, Paul wrote the Colossians to clarify what really defines faithful relationships in community. Some people in the early church maintained Jewish rituals of worship to define faithfulness. Worship isn’t wrong, of course. But Paul argued that what really defines Christian community is how we live with God’s love every day. Beyond theology it’s about ethics. More than just talking about God and Jesus, how do we engage life together in our world? As a good Jew, I wonder if Paul had in mind Isaiah 58. It’s much the same perspective.
Hebrew people returned from exile in Babylon and start rebuilding community life. Some want to reconstruct the temple. Isaiah urges people to focus on the structure of their relationships as the way to repair breaches and restore streets. You see, while perfecting religious rituals, they fight with and exploit others for personal gain. Isaiah warns that pious displays of faith remain meaningless unless directed toward ordering life in community and our world the way God intends for all. The spiritual fast God wants is not to generate holy hunger by cutting off our food and drink, rather eliminate anyone being hungry at all. Feed those with nothing, clothe the naked, house the homeless, bear with others in their need. And address personal situations and social conditions which cause such paucity and poverty.i Friends, we know the Great Commandment—right relationships with God and with others ever inextricably entwine.
Isaiah propels us toward God’s purposes for our living faith. What we should do. Paul empowers the way to fulfill those purposes. How we actually do it. He accentuates virtues that create meaningful life in community. Compassion, humility, kindness, patience … Paul doesn’t promise life in perfect bliss. Bearing with one another implies we’ll face challenges. We’ll need forgiveness amid conflicts and complaints. The whole fabric of life—all we say and do—must be clothed with words and deeds of love. Through all our faults and imperfections that means centering our lives on the way of Jesus Christ—how he lived God’s love, even if meant sacrificing his own life. The Word of Christ, Paul says, the way of God in him dwells among us together not just on our own, as individuals. Because, you see, friends, truth is, we all need support, inspiration, accountability, challenge. Paul never created A Rule of Life, exactly. Still, his vision could be a pretty good guide for us.
Last week we started talking about a Rule for Living Faith. It’s not about rules to judge behavior on the outside. “Rule” comes from the Latin word regula, like “regularize” and “regulate”. It’s really about important values, priorities, visions for life. It’s about knowing who we are, loved by God; and then having a frame, a rhythm, patterns, a kind of order for our lives. Of course, there is no single right way or expression of faithfulness. I believe some basic frame or pattern of intentional practices could help all of us, creatures of habit, live more deeply, more richly, more peace-fully in God’s grace. I offer four parts of a Rule for Living Faith which we all may find helpful in our own expression. It’s based on the Iona Rule, with my own modification. Last week, we began with relation to God—patterns of prayer, reading, reflection. I want us all to feel God’s love fill our hearts and guide our lives.
Today, the second part is about relation with others. George MacLeod founded the Iona Community in 1930s Scotland—clergy and non-clergy lived God’s way of love together amid all the fears and difficulties, poverty and other threats to peace. In his whimsical way, George said, “A mouse can do little, but a nest of mice can work great havoc.” ii Hmmm, comparing us to church mice! MacLeod was anything but mousy, nor should we be. His quote begins a book of daily readings compiled from Iona Community members. Maybe Reinhild Traitler’s poem a bit later is more endearing and inspiring.
Yes, friends, [don’t we all need people to miss?]
When the going gets rough and in between.
The best we ever do is to open ourselves, to share our lives.
And not fail each other.
Yes, friends, [don’t we all need people to count on?]
When imagination fails and we wonder how we can make the world a bit more just and peaceful.
Hold on to hope that next time we meet we’ll eat together and pray and get bold together
and know God is with us, friend and lover of all. iii
Truth is, friends, I know I need support, inspiration, accountability, challenge from others. One of the centerpieces of life in the Iona Community is gathering monthly with what they call “family groups.” As an associate member, I can’t very well make it to Scotland monthly. And really, I need people who know life here in Kalamazoo. I need people to share life when the going gets rough or beautiful. I need others to count on when I’m struggling to see how the world can be more peaceful the way God wants. I need to hope that when next we gather for a meal and conversation and prayers, I’ll know the greatest, incessant, never-failing promise of scripture: God is with us. And so, in our little group spanning ages and life circumstances, we share life stories and account to one another for the use of our time, money, and all resources, as stewards of God’s gifts. We seek healthy balance between family, friends, work, worship, leisure, service, and sleep(!)—how our choices affect others and all creation. It’s a lesson in humility to recall concern about time arose in the Iona Community when craftsmen doubted ministers’ ability to work an eight-hour ‘shift!’
Maybe another way to see it all is like a story in that devotional book about a young mother busy with kids and work and church and all the rest of life. Her sister lives in the same part of town, yet they never see one another much. Their mother discovered this trend and decided enough is enough. Time to act. One day the first young mother got a letter in the mail. One of her mother’s regular epistles, she thought. But then she opened it to find something strange. It was incomplete. Pages marked 1 and 3, and addressed to both sisters. Was she “losing the plot”? Was dementia setting in? The young mother phoned her sister and explained the situation and her worries. Her sister laughed. In the mail that day, she explained, she received a letter from mother, addressed to both of us … with pages 2 and 4. Mother knew exactly what she was doing, after all! They need each other to complete and understand the whole letter. Since then, every month they get half a letter and then spend the evening together, over a meal and catching up on life with mother and one another. “When did you last see your sister?” mother asked her daughter. “A couple of days ago,” the first young mother was pleased to report. iv
Friends, I believe we all need something like what those sisters share to complete ourselves, to understand letters like Paul’s and other books we read, and to help us all not lose the plot of God’s love as we catch up on life together. I know that’s what many of us feel we share when our journeys come together here on Sundays, or Monday nights, or Tuesday mornings, or Wednesdays, or Thursdays, Saturdays in our homes … all the ways we gather in God’s love. And some of you have told me you long to share something more than what we have right now. As our various introverted and extroverted selves allow, I urge us all to find ways to bear with one another. That means removing the pointing finger and speaking evil, as Isaiah urges, And rather, heeding Paul’s exhortation for compassion, kindness, humility, patience, and love amid all the sensitive emotional topics we’ll discuss. Keep up with current patterns and activities here at church, or try something new. And if anyone feels called to a deeper commitment, a way of keeping ourselves accountable, encouraged, challenged, and inspired … following a clear Rule something like the Iona Community or one you develop, please contact me. One person already did so. I’d be pleased to try to nurture connections in ways that are meaningful.
One final example from our life together … for George Gerpheide’s funeral yesterday, Garrett Boersma recalled life in the Reading Aloud group each Sunday morning. “We discuss spiritual and religious aspects of our lives, wrestling valiantly with matters of the soul,” he writes. “We dare talk about God. Truth be told, George heard us try to explain the unknowable and when prodded to contribute his point of view George would say, “You know, I never really worry about all this stuff.” George didn’t get caught up in philosophical speculation of what might be – instead he lived in the concrete world of things that could be measured and touched. George showed he cared by showing up, by following through on commitments, by shaking hands and offering that warm smile.”
Maybe that’s something like what St. Paul had in mind. However quiet or more outgoing we may be, I believe we all need relationships to satisfy our hearts hungering for God’s love. We all find communion with God in community. That’s why come to this table where one loaf and cup declare our oneness in God. Come. May the mystery and intimacy of Holy Love dwell in our hearts. And in response, offer our hands and voices, our silver and activities, all our moments and days consecrated in praise, for the service of God’s love—ever with and for others.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
i See Carol J. Dempsey, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, year A, volume 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 316.
ii See the Table of Contents in Gathered and Scattered: Readings and Reflections from the Iona Community edited by Neil Paynter (Glasgow, Scotland: Wild Goose Publications, 2007).
iii Quoted and adapted from Reinhild Traitler, “Yes, friends” in Gathered and Scattered: Readings and Reflections from the Iona Community edited by Neil Paynter (Glasgow, Scotland: Wild Goose Publications, 2007), Month 1, Day 8
iv Tom Gordon in Gathered and Scattered: Readings and Reflections from the Iona Community edited by Neil Paynter (Glasgow, Scotland: Wild Goose Publications, 2007), Month 2, Day 8.