Toorak Uniting Church

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Discovering Myself in the Other: The Cost of Community

Psalm 42 and Galatians 3:23-29
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Pentecost 5
23 June 2013

"I know there is strength in the differences between us.
I know there is comfort, where we overlap." Ani DiFranco

Introduction: I recall some years ago having a conversation with a teacher at the University and I was putting forth the view that we have lost that sense of community that you read about in the Bible and other ancient texts. My point was that today individualism, particularly the type that was born in the 18th Century Enlightenment, had not so much destroyed community but was, rather, corrosive to values that sustain the need we all have to be in communion with others. The teacher agreed, in part, but went on to say that it is important to remember that community as we see it in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures was a very narrow and prescriptive way of being in the world. For example, when you were born into a family, you were your father’s son or mother’s daughter until the day you or they died. You were tied to their name, history, fortunes and failures. Also, the community practised in the Biblical narrative was tribal. You belonged to your people and your tribe and there was no real way you could ever leave. And if you broke the code, you were shunned, excluded or excommunicated from the only group you knew. We see examples in our world today in both religious and secular societies. Community has a cost.

Community and the Individual
I recall an insight into this from the film Quiz Show which starred Ralph Fiennes. The story centres on the moral dilemma faced by the star of the show about whether or not he will cheat and receive the answers to the questions prior to the show. He makes a decision and discusses it with his father. The younger man says, "If I am caught then it will be my name that will be denigrated!" To which the father replied, "Your name is my name!" In a world of complete individuality then what I do; who I am; how I behave and what I think is completely my own and has no reference to anyone else. Apart from the fact that there is no such world - like the world of the self-made man or woman, which is also an illusion - if there was such a world, it would be barren and soulless. We need others to become ourselves.

But we do face a difficulty in the contemporary western world where what was once a central component to community has begun to collapse. Of course I am referring to the church. Now I want to say from the outset that that may not be such a bad thing. Certainly those of us who love the church and are committed to the heart of its spiritual enterprise will feel the loss and pain of this social disjuncture. But at the core of our way of being is the experience and trust in the resurrection of new ways of being a community in the 21st century.

But to return for a moment to this dichotomy or even paradox between the individual and community, we can observe these two ways of being in the world even in the ancient texts. The Psalmist often writes in the first person – I – even though he is really reflecting on the community, and the psalm read this morning illustrates that even within the circle of community there is the individual, or you could say the personal. Beautiful words of the human soul seeking solace and consolation:

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you O God. My soul thirsts for the living God; for it is the face of God that I long to behold. My tears have been my food day and night, while those around me keep asking, "Where is your God?"

Even in the midst of a community, an institution or a congregation, there must always be space and a place for the personal quest or more importantly for our generation, the personal question that comes from the heart and cannot be answered from the recitation of dogma. If we are to have healthy communities and congregations in the 21st century, then the recognition of difference and the capacity to be open to sometimes difficult questions is essential.

Community and Wholeness
The story is told of a very devoted and religious man who is marooned on a deserted island. He was there for many years and during the time he kept himself busy by constructing buildings. When rescue finally came after many years, the rescuers were amazed at the structures he had built. But there was one thing they were curious about and that was why he had built two churches on the island. When he was asked he gave the simple answer, pointing to the first church, "Well, that’s the church I go to." And then, pointing to the second church, he said, "And that’s the church I will never set foot in!"

There is a deep seeking for wholeness, salvation, wisdom, God, inner peace or a myriad of other ways of expressing this hunger. It is not a new phenomenon. It has been a part of the human condition from the moment we looked at the stars and wondered. But it has also caused us distress and anguish because the answers to the questions have never come easily and when they have come easily they are often a vapour that doesn’t feed our souls or nurture our inner life.

Perhaps that’s where the Apostle Paul’s radical idea comes into our lives and experience. First, we will never really find what we are looking for by merely looking inside ourselves; by continuous self-reflection, or as the philosophers call it, solipsism – that is the idea that only one's own mind is sure to exist and that knowledge of anything outside one's own mind is unsure; the external world and other minds cannot be known. Quite the opposite; for each of us there must be a deep commitment:

To reflection on ancient texts and contemporary life;
To the practice of Contemplation – that is, being in the presence of and being present to;
And learning by listening to others in our community
and by action toward justice, both personal and political.

We need a bigger landscape, and community can provide that.

But here comes the rub! The big landscape, the bigger community does not come by just increasing the boundaries of tribalism: you are in and you are out… It comes by destroying the boundaries; pulling down the fences. Not just welcoming the stranger, but becoming a stranger oneself and trying new ways of being.

Now before faith and trust was revealed to us, we were imprisoned and held under legalism. The law was like a disciplinarian, but then Christ came and faith became supreme and we were released from the oppression of legalism…. Remember there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus and if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs to all God’s promises.

Inclusive Community
You could wonder how anyone could make such a radical statement. No longer…. Where does it end? Was that just an exclusive list or can we, the Body of Christ, continue it by adding non-dualism? There is no longer black or white: gay or straight; rich or poor… That may be going too far. I hope you get my point. The only way we can truly be ourselves, be authentically who we are, is to engage with the other. There is a hard truth in this. Some time ago a commentator around the time of the beginning of the war in Iraq said, "Are you saying we should talk to the people who are trying to kill us?" To which the reply was given, "If someone is trying to kill you then they are probably the first person you should talk to!"

Let’s not pretend that an inclusion approach to community is easy or that because it seems ideologically preferable, harmonious ends will result. There is a cost to community and we all have to pay it. It means letting go of that which we may have believed was our treasure, and it may mean having to embrace those things that we see of less value. But as always, it is the community of reflective and celebrating individuals who can make that decision.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

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