Sunday, July 24, 2011

Who are the people in your community?

Earlier today Rick asked us a question, “Who is my community?” It is a good question and it reminds me of the children’s program Sesame Street. Specifically, the song, “Who are the people in you neighborhood?” Do you remember this song? Sing it with me if you know it. Who are the people in your neighborhood? In your neighborhood, in your neigh-bor-hood. Yes who are the people in your neighborhood? They’re the people that you meet when you’re walking down the street. They’re the people that you meet each day. When Sesame Street would do this song they would have Muppets dressed as occupations such as a Letter Carrier, fire fighter, baker (that one was my favorite). But they also touched on some of the not so obvious people in your neighborhood. Like a newsperson or a plumber. One time they even had neighborhood people of Israel (the miller, blacksmith and olive crusher). The idea of the song was to make kids comfortable with their community. If the kids had a better understanding of their neighbors, there would be more trust and less intimidation.

Of course adults never have this problem, right? We are comfortable around everyone in our neighborhood and even know everybody by name. Right? Maybe. But if you are like me, it is hard to meet and know the people that deliver your mail, check your meter, ring you up at the grocery store. It can take years and years of effort to become that comfortable. It can take time to get out of ourselves.

Our Altar in the World practices this summer have all been about getting out of ourselves. Today we turn that same kind of attention to people. The people in our neighborhood. In our community.

Encountering Others. That is what we are talking about today. Can we give the same kind of deep focus and attention to others in our lives that we can give to our spiritual practices like reading scripture, tending our gardens, or walking in the woods?

What I find remarkable about encountering others is that it is what the early church of Peter and Paul was based on. That and free health care. That’s right. FREE HEALTH CARE! Or “healing” if you want to be Biblical about it. That takes us into chapter 3 of Acts. On the surface this looks like a pretty standard healing story. A man who had been crippled all of his life was healed by Peter in the name of Jesus Christ. But let’s dig a bit further. There are three points that I want to make about this story. The first point is that a collective has greater strength than the individual. This healing was not the work of one man, but of a community that sought equality.

At the end of chapter 2 of Acts, there is a little passage that connects the Pentecost story (the story of the birth of the church) to the story we are reading today. It begins on verse 44 and reads, 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. A remarkable thing: to sell all of your possessions and have fair and equal distribution of goods. This is the first step that Peter and the apostles take in becoming a new kind of community. They must first diminish the importance that they place on themselves. For they come to realize that it is not them as individuals that makes the gospel important. It is not them as individuals that will bring forth the kingdom of God. It is not through their individual gain that they will usher in a new way of life, but as something greater: as a collective, as a community.

It sounds peculiar certainly. Why would anyone want to do this? Well, to that question, I say look at the redwoods. Redwood trees are the tallest trees in the world, but interestingly they are unable to grow alone. They must grow in groups. The reason that they trees grow so tall is that their root systems are shallow and wide and intertwined with the roots of the trees around them. Each giant redwood is supported by all the other redwoods surrounding it. What more is when they die they sprout out new saplings from their roots so the next generation will stay connected. So even though on the surface they may look like individual trees, at their roots they are an indecipherable community. Strong. Connected.

The healing in our story today was not the work of an individual. Peter shows no self-importance nor claims responsibility for this healing. He gives all credit to the power of God and faith in the name of Jesus. This faith is the root system at the base of the tree that is Peter. It is a faith that is intertwined with his community and with God. With this selfless mindset it is no wonder that he and John see the man. They see him not as cripple deserving of his plight, but as a part of their community (as a person in their neighborhood) that they can help.

For the second point that I want to make we have to look at one of the details in the story. Reading from verse 2: “And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ 5And he fixed his attention on them expecting to receive something from them.” Imagine this man. Lame from birth. Probably hungry. All day he watches devout religious people coming and going, with their mind on temple business. Not on him. How many times had people passed by this man at the gate and ignored him? And then strolls by Peter and John. They not only stop to help, but the writer of Acts puts in a very interesting detail. It says they look at him with intent. Not with scorn. Not with judgment. Not even with dismissal, but with intent. And then they say, “Look at us.” And he fixes his attention on them. And there is a moment, a brief but important moment. If you look intently at this verse long enough you can find it. It is in the blank space between verses 5 and 6. Peter and John look at the man intently. He looks at them expectantly. And then there it is. The connection. The spark. The moment of seeing each other. Really seeing each other. Have you ever done this? Have you ever seen someone in this way? Really seen them?

And what do Peter and John see? The verse does not say. Maybe desperation. Maybe they saw years of pain and turmoil written there. The kind that comes from years of pleading for money and food. Or perhaps they saw tremendous amounts of hope and faith in this man. Whatever it was that they saw in this man’s eyes, it was profound. So profound in fact that they tell him, “in the name of Jesus Christ stand up and walk.”

Now the story could have been told without this exchange of gazes. Peter and John could have just walked up to the man and healed him. God’s power in Jesus name revealed. Done. Was this detail really necessary? I think so. Because I think that the healing was not as important as the recognition. And that is my second point about this story. To be in community with one another, we have to be able to see one another for who they are and have them see us for who we are. This is not an easy task. In fact it can be a downright scary one. Barbara Brown Taylor acknowledges this. She claims that when we care for others as intensively as we care for ourselves, it is akin to becoming that person, and that means losing yourself if only for a moment. She claims that this may be the only true spiritual discipline there is. We have a different name for it. We call it The Golden Rule, loving one another as we love ourselves.

The third point that I want to make is a simple one and it is this. Seeing one another. Really seeing one another not with our eyes but with our souls can have profound transformative effects. Certainly this man’s life was transformed by his healing, but it stretches far beyond that one act. As the story continues we learn that word spreads that something miraculous has happened. The man comes into the temple walking and leaping and praising God, and he can no longer be ignored. His transformation then has a contagious effect. The people that saw him were amazed. They too were transformed. This healing then becomes a catalyst for Peter’s message. And Peter begins to preach. He talks about faith. He talks about new life. Transforming others. And he keeps talking until the priests and the Sadducees throw him in jail for fear of what this talk can do. This is the power that transformation can have.

And this kind of transformation can have profound effects today. Imagine the way that advertising and industry would be transformed if people less concerned with the way that they saw themselves. Imagine the way the health care industry would transform if people were intent on taking care of one another. Imagine how many hungry could be served if food at every level of distribution was shared in addition to being sold.

And on a personal level imagine how many lives you could change in one day if you did as Peter and John did and practiced seeing those around you not with the intent to change them but with the intent to see who they really were. To view them as people in your community. To be of help. Then real transformation can happen.

Those of you who have been watching the news this weekend no doubt have seen the horrific massacre that happened in Oslo, Norway in the name of Christianity. This is a by-product of individualism...of thinking that division and opposition is the true calling of the gospel. To that I say this. Unless opposing groups, Muslims/Christians, Republicans/Democrats, The Right/The Left. Unless we can learn how to see one another, truly see one another then there will not be peace. Self interest will reign and there will continue to be violence. But if we can look upon one another as Peter and John looked upon the man at the gate then transformation will be possible. If we are able to see one another as people of our community, then unity can begin to be formed. Bridges can be built, and peace will be found. How can we start? It begins with a look. It begins with recognition. It begins with acknowledging the people in our neighborhood. People of God, it begins with us. And the people said Amen.