Years ago a small-town newspaper carried a letter sent in by one of its subscribers. She had gotten a thank-you note from her grandson after he'd recently stayed with her and her husband for a few days. The letter went like this:
Dear Grandma Kubescheski,
I had lots of fun at your house. I am sorry I dug up all your plants. I am sorry I used a whole roll of toilet paper. I am sorry I put it in the toilet. I am sorry I tried to flush it down. I am sorry the water went all over your floor. I am sorry I bothered your neighbors. I am sorry I made Grandpa mad. I am sorry for putting sand in your rainwater. I am sorry I lost three spoons. Grandma, can I come again for a few weeks in the summer?
Your grandson, Gary Peters
What would you do if you got a letter like that? You'd probably write him a letter and say, "Come on over. It would be great to have you!"
That's the way it is for us. The worst thing that can happen to us is not that we might be bothered by some little inconvenience but that we might be forgotten or left alone or ignored. Dr. Ralph Byron, a cancer specialist, says that the single greatest fear he sees in his patients is that friends or family will abandon them precisely when cancer strikes. That's more of a problem, he says, than the disease of cancer itself.
A Mrs. J. C. Hill writes to "Dear Abby." She says, "I am a widow. After 46 years of marriage, I lost my precious husband. If that wasn't enough, now I experience the loss of our friends. I wish people would still include me, come to see me. I have never known such loneliness. If only somebody would call." Do you know her?
A friend of mine at college wrote this in a letter to his first girlfriend: "How do you ask someone a question when, (1) you're not sure how to ask it, (2) you don't know if you want to ask it, and (3) you're afraid to ask it?" He finally worked up enough nerve to ask the question: "Do you like me?"
"A simple question," he says, "but I'm not sure of the answer." He went on to explain his feelings a bit more, and then said, "If you do like me, could you tell me soon? Just walk up to me any time, anywhere you feel like it, and talk to me, and maybe I won't be so frightened anymore."
Have you ever felt that way? The Los Angeles Times has this slogan on every masthead: "We're there for you every day." We want to hear that someone will be there for us every day, that someone will hang onto us even when we've let go of ourselves.
The young father wrote to his newborn son, "I'll walk in the rain by your side. / I'll cling to the warmth of your tiny hand. / I'll do anything to keep you satisfied. / And I'll love you more than anyone else can. / I'll be there when you're feeling sad / to kiss away the tears that you cry. / I'll share with you all the happiness inside, / a reflection of the love in your eye."
Which of us wouldn't want a father, a parent, a friend like that? Which of us wouldn't want to belong to a community where caring and love were like that as a way of life? Then why is it that, in a world of over five-and-a-half billion people, so many of us are lonely? The philosopher Spinoza said, "Man is a social animal, and everyone out there needs someone else." If they all need someone else as much as I do, why then am I still so lonely sometimes? Why am I the odd person out in relationships?
Why are community, fellowship, and intimacy such hard things to find in our world?
Complex persons within
Maybe it's because of the complexity of our lives, the strange complexity of persons that live within my own soul. Do we really know who we are? Can we put our identity into words and get a handle on it?
Edward Sanford Martin pictured himself this way in a poem he called "My Name Is Legion":
Within my earthly temple there's a crowd.
There's one of us that's humble and one that's proud.
There's one that's brokenhearted for his sins,
Another one that's unrepentant, sits and grins.
There's one that loves his neighbor as himself
And one that cares for not but fame and pelf.
For much corroding care I should be free,
If I could once determine which is me.
That's us, isn't it? Complicated, bewildering, exciting, and frustrating selves live within each of us. Maybe the reason we can't reach out to someone else is because we don't even know which self of ours to share.
Fear of rejection
Maybe it's fear that keeps us from reaching out to others. Maybe we're afraid that if we start opening ourselves up to others, if we allow a friend to get to know us, if we let the barriers down and knock the walls away, what's left will turn someone else off and send them packing. A young woman came to me 15 years ago. Her life was a masterpiece of success and social graces and all the things that others would compliment her for. They idolized her, thought she was something to be admired.
But inside, she told me, she felt like a bowl of jelly. No one could have seen it by looking at her. She hid it so well. It was the hiding of herself that caused her to lose relationships with other people. She wasn't even sure why she did it. I encouraged her to write down the things that she was feeling inside so that we'd have something to talk about together.
One day she handed me a slip of paper that said, "I wonder if I'm truly able to give of myself. I'm so caught up watching my shaky moods that I feel guilty. I don't want people to know how scared I am. I'm intimidated by others. Help!"
If those are the fears within, then as much as I need and want other people, I'll never be able to reach out for them. I cry for help, but I don't really want anyone to come running.
Our own sinfulness
Maybe there's a third reason why we find so little good community in our world. Maybe it's the cruelty in our own hearts and the mean-spiritedness that's sometimes there, the spiteful things that keep erupting. The German philosopher Schopenhauer compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter night: "The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth, but the closer we get to one another, the more we stick one another with our quills and hurt one another. In the lonely night of earth's winter, eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness."
So it is that we tell the history of the world in stories about war, in epics of conquest, and in tales of murder and rape and violence. That's the stuff we know best. That's the reflection of what we see around us. That's the comforting sameness of tomorrow's newspaper. The global village becomes a kind of sinister jail where we have to protect ourselves from one another behind bars and walls and metal detectors.
"Cruelty has a human heart," writes the poet William Blake, "and jealousy a human face." We see that face around us. We're afraid of the people who ride the elevator with us, and we build high fences around our properties. We're amazed when someone actually does us a kindness. We don't expect it. Cynicism, not community, becomes a way of life for us.
The world's best hope: the body of Christ
Is there a place where we can find community? Is there a place where we can begin again to know what love is like, to reach out and touch without getting burned, to speak about our loneliness and to find friends that we need? Is there a place like that? The apostle Paul seems to think so. He believed that community begins in something he called the body of Christ.
We all know what a body is; we've all got one, I hope! You know what your body is like. It's something like a machine, but it's far better than anything we could ever manufacture. In fact, most machines that we do make are only poor imitations of our bodies. Even our computers are modest attempts to duplicate what happens at an amazing speed and with incredible variety inside our brains. The youngest child here tonight actually has more intellectual capacity than the most powerful computer in our world today.
But our bodies are something else. Even while we sit here silent and restful and listening, our bodies are working hard. During this hour, your heart will pump 4,320 times. Your lungs will breath 968 times. Your stomach is still trying to find out what it was that you sent down for lunch. Your liver and your intestines are trying to sort out the good from the bad. You have over 290,000 brain cells making pictures and thoughts and connections in your mind. If, for some strange reason, you should fall asleep in church this evening, your body will reposition itself at least one-and-a-half times during this hour.
Our bodies are amazing things. They can't be duplicated. The most amazing thing about them is that they work so well together as a unit. Every part is important. We don't even think about it. Every tissue has a job to do. Every organ relies on the rest to make things happen in just the right way.
That, says Paul, is a picture of the church of Jesus Christ. If you want to find community, if you want a place where you fit in, if you want to know where you belong and where you're not the odd person out, then come to church; come to the body of Christ; come to the family of God.
John Donne wrote the famous words "No man is an island." He also wrote some lines about the church: "All that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me, for that child is thereby connected to the head, which is my head, too, and engrafted into the body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me."
Do you find it that way in the church? It's hard to believe that the church can be like that. We've been fooled too often. We've been let down by too many people. We've experienced our lonely times even in church. Instead of seeing the body as something that works well together, we usually see it as a little reflection of the world around us, splintered into fragments, isolated individuals meeting together—power, politics, and wary strangers.
It's the kind of thing that Charles V saw in Europe 400 years ago. He was the Holy Roman Emperor. But he got tired of being in that position, so he gave up the title before he died. He was tired, he said, of all the petty bickering and all the national wars and all the fighting and all the bloodshed. He turned over the reins of power to his son, Philip II.
Then Charles went home to his palaces in Spain. He set himself to do some unfinished projects. One of those projects was this: he had six clocks in his house, and he wanted them all to chime exactly on the hour together. But those six clocks, no matter how much he adjusted them, continued to ring at slightly different moments.
In his memoirs, he writes about that: "How is it possible for six different clocks to chime all at the same time?" He reflects on that even further: "How is it even more possible or impossible for the six nations of the Holy Roman Empire to live in harmony? It can't be done. It's impossible. Not even if they call themselves Christians."
We kind of agree with him: "It seems like a fairy tale, Paul—kind of wishful thinking, whistling in the dark. It will never happen, not even here at Hardewyk Church." But somehow Paul's words keep pressing the issue. Somehow he says, "There's got to be a way."
Think again of those six clocks of Emperor Charles V. Charles V couldn't get them to chime together because each of them had an independent source of power. Each clock had its own set of weights and pulleys. Each clock regulated itself by its own wheels and gears. Each clock had its own brain, you might say, and its own heartbeat. As long as the timepieces were run by different brains, and as long as they were energized by different hearts, they could never chime exactly the same time together. They would always run independently of one another in their separate worlds.
In today's world, you can actually have all of the clocks in a single building showing exactly the same time. Charles V would probably love it. He'd ask us, "How does it happen? What's the magic that makes it work?" We'd tell him that all of those clocks operate together and show exactly the same time because they're governed by the same official time signal—Greenwich Mean Time. And more, those clocks show the same time because they're powered by the same frequency of electricity. And more than that, they're connected to one another by the same brain and power source.
There's the key to what the Scriptures tell us about the church. Paul doesn't say that the congregation at Corinth is always a caring community. In fact, when you read through the letter as a whole, you begin to see how poor it is sometimes. He gives us a rather nasty picture of the congregation. Greed is there, as is pride and envy and snobbishness and deceit. The list of sins is a long one. But even that congregation, he says, can become a caring fellowship and a healing community in the city. Even that congregation can grow in its expression of the love of Christ.
Taking our cues from Christ
How does it happen? It happens, Paul says, when people begin, together, to take their cues from Jesus Christ as the head of the body. We each have to ask, "What is he thinking? What is he doing? What is he wanting? Then that's what I want to do and think and desire as well."
And when I'm surrounded by other people who are wanting and thinking and doing the same things, I belong—I belong to Christ, and I belong to others because they also belong to Christ. Community becomes a reality not out of our ability to get along, but out of our ability to be connected to the same source of thought and power.
Paul tells us even more: Community happens when the power that drives each of us is the single power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit of God, he says, is the heartbeat and lifeblood of the community. He is God living within each of us, giving us personal attention, direction, and motivation to be all that we can be. The mind of Christ and the power of the Spirit—Paul says that's what makes community.
There is a legend called "The Rabbi's Gift." It's the story of a dying monastery. At one time, this Christian monastery had been a thriving community filled with people who were serving the Lord in a variety of ways, but things had slowed down over the years until finally there were only five brothers left. All were elderly; all were lonely.
The monastery stood at the edge of a beautiful forest. Sometimes a wise Jewish rabbi went out into the forest to wander alone and to meditate. The abbot of the monastery and the Jewish rabbi were good friends, and often they talked. Many times the abbot would explain that things were not going so well at the monastery; he would say he didn't think it would last much longer. He would ask if there were a word of advice this wise Jewish rabbi could give him. The rabbi would shake his head: "I have no wisdom for you. I'm sorry."
They would read the Scriptures together, weep together for a while, then each would return to his home. But as they met together one day, the rabbi said, "I don't know why, but I do have a word for you today." It wasn't a word of advice; it really didn't have anything to do with the troubles of the monastery. The rabbi said to the abbot, "The Messiah is one of you." They both shook their heads and thought: That's strange.
They had their Scripture reading and their prayers, and then the abbot went back to the monastery. At mealtime his comrades asked him, "What did you talk about today?" "It was interesting. The rabbi said, 'The Messiah is one of you.'" They all chuckled a bit, and no one mentioned it again.
But in the months that followed, something changed in that monastery—something subtle, something warm and fresh and new. Each of the brothers began to think about that statement, "The Messiah is one of you," and began to look at the others closely. They began to see little ways in which that statement might be true about someone else. Maybe the abbot was, indeed, the Messiah. Maybe Brother Philip was. Maybe Brother Thomas, or Brother Aelred, or…. Certainly, each of them had some of the graces that would be a characteristic of the Messiah's life.
And here's the funny thing. They began to treat one another more kindly. In little ways, they became more respectful to each other. They began to seek one another out for fellowship and for fun and for play and wisdom. And something began to happen in that community. Love began to grow. Because the monastery was such a beautiful place, people used to come out from the surrounding cities and have picnic lunches on the lawn. More and more people seemed to be coming by, and they seemed to stay longer and enjoy talking more with the brothers who were part of that community. One day some people asked if they could actually stay in the monastery with the brothers, if they could learn from them what love was about, if they could share in the rich spirituality they had begun to feel in this place.
That was how the monastery became a haven for the hurting, the family for the lonely, the place of healing for those who had gone through some awful times in the world. One day they decided not to call it a monastery any more. They decided to call it a community—Messiah's Community. And over the gates of each entrance, they wrote a single line: "The Messiah welcomes you."
Maybe that's what happened at Corinth. Maybe that's what Paul's letter did as people reflected on seeing Christ in one another, in connecting to the head and the power source of energy. It could have happened there, and it certainly should have, for these were people who were learning to know the mind of Christ. These were people who felt the same surging of the Spirit within. But it's not really important what happened in Corinth. It's not really important for us whether they became a living example of the body of Christ or not. The one thing that's very important to you and me is the question of what we are and what we together will become in this place.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Wayne Brouwer teaches in the religion department at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.