I’m going to describe for you an organization - your job will be to figure out what group I’m describing:
Service organization - I was specifically thinking of the Rotary Club - which is actually a bit stricter in its requirements - there are annual dues that are expected of every member, members are required to attend 50% of meetings, and if they miss one, they have to make it within 14 days; people have to be sponsored for membership and there are requirements about who can and cannot join.
There are a whole bunch of service clubs that function similarly - like Kiwanis, or the Lions Club or the Exchange Club.
But what’s the difference between a Service Club and the Church? [get responses]
(because a lot of these service clubs do great work, people give selflessly to the organization and in their community, relationships are formed where people genuinely care about one another, they want to make the world a better place and to make a difference, etc)
In the church, we try our best to live with God at the center of all we do. We’re not here to try and make a difference in the world - but to live as if a different world were not only possible, but already here. We live in a new kind of community - seeking to be a people where God is at home. And that means we are invited to live differently with our neighbors and with those we are trying to be in community with.
This is where Fellowship comes in. If community is the what we’re trying to make with one another - fellowship is the how.
One place where we see this different way of being with one another is in the book of James. I like the book of James because of its clear practicality - and John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, considered this letter to be central to the Christian faith and life. I think we could do well to read the entire book of James, but instead, we’ll focus on hearing these words from Chapter 5, verses 13 from 20, read for us this morning from The Message.
Scripture James 5:13-20
James 5:13-20 - The Message
13-15 Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out.
16-18 Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with. Elijah, for instance, human just like us, prayed hard that it wouldn’t rain, and it didn’t—not a drop for three and a half years. Then he prayed that it would rain, and it did. The showers came and everything started growing again.
19-20 My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God.
Growing up, there were two places I heard this word on a consistent basis, and both were related to church.
I had never heard that word used outside of a church setting until I encountered a book that changed my life.
Incidentally, that book wasn’t the Bible.
It was J.R.R. Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring.
It’s a story where nine unlikely companions agree to go on a quest together with the aim of destroying the One Ring of Power - a ring that if the dark Lord Sauron gets his hands on it, he’ll use it to destroy the lands and peoples of Middle Earth. And so this fellowship is formed around Frodo Baggins, a hobbit who agrees to bear this ring into the fires of Mount Doom in the black lands of Mordor. These eight other individuals - hobbits, humans, a wizard, a dwarf, and an elf - band together to help him fulfill this purpose. Everything they do - every decision they make is aimed at fulfilling this quest - this mission that they have been given.
So when I think about fellowship, it’s not just about that casual connection formed around coffee or about the joy we derive from being in one another’s company, or even the bonding that happens when people work on a project together, like in a service club -- though those things are important. When I think about fellowship, I think about mission and purpose together - about relating to one another in a way that builds community - a place where God is at home - about making God the center of our relationships, our time, and our work.
For James, that happens through prayer, through care of one another, and through confession. It all happens in and through community - while personal prayer and individual confession is important, fellowship doesn’t arise from each of us praying by ourselves in our homes. James writes to encourage Christians to cultivate corporate faith, steadfast living, recovery and renewal among the body, passionate prayer, and congregational care - signs of a spiritually healthy community - but it starts with mutual prayer and confession.
Or, another way of putting it -- the community that prays together, stays together.
There’s an element of vulnerability here, though, that should not be overlooked. Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, talks about vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. The times when we are suffering, the times when we are joyful, the times when we are sick, the times when we are carrying the guilt over mistakes we’ve made -- these are all tender, vulnerable moments of the human condition. These are the times when we face uncertainty, when there is an element of risk, when our emotions run high. We have this idea that vulnerability is a bad thing - a sign of weakness or that we aren’t good enough -- but for Brene Brown - and I would argue that for James as well - vulnerability is not about these things - about fear or disappointment or weakness. Brown argues that vulnerability is the birthplace of everything we’re hungry for. It is the birthplace of love, belonging, of innovation and creativity and change - it is about truth and courage...and truth and courage may be uncomfortable, but they are definitely not weakness.
Fellowship, then, is about bearing witness in each other’s vulnerability - from those times of great joy to those of deep pain, standing with and for one another in these moments, trusting that as we see and be present to and sit with each other in all that life brings, it is God who sees, and is present to, and sits with us as well. It’s our willingness to be vulnerable with one another - to share these moments of our lives in the presence of God and one another - it’s this vulnerable transparency of fellowship that God uses to build us into a community.
As we think about our church here….our community...when was the last time you were vulnerable - took a risk - went out on a spiritual limb?
Can you imagine what that kind of fellowship would look like in action? If - when someone was sick - they offered themselves for healing and we gathered around to lay on hands and anoint with oil? What would it look like if we took the time outside of Sunday morning to pray with and for one another? Or if - when someone had messed up during the week - they took the time to confess that sin to another person, or even shared it in worship to ask forgiveness -- or even took the initiative to offer forgiveness to the one they had wronged?
These actions that James listed - prayer for and with one another, confession of sin to one another, accountability to one another - these are the kind of actions that demonstrate that God is at the center of who we are - that it is God doing the work of building this community - that shows that it is possible to live differently with one another.
Any group of people can do good things, can take care of one another, can celebrate when life goes well and support one another when life gets tough...but church only happens when we bring our whole selves to one another in fellowship - church only happens when we take that risk together - church only happens when we see one another and in doing so are seen by the one who created us all.
Our core value reads that: We enjoy being together. Whenever we gather, we do so in a spirit of friendship and love, as we share stories of the journeys God has called us on. We eat, pray, study, sing, and worship in ways that draw us closer together for the nourishment of our bodies and souls.
I pray that this week, we may find opportunities to be vulnerable with one another - that we may find times -- beyond this gathering -- to pray, sing, heal, confess, share, wrestle, and walk together -- so that God may continue building this church into the community we are called to be -- so that others may know that we are a people where God is at home -- so that others might know of God’s love and presence in our lives - and in their own. Amen.
Core Value: Community
One: God knits this island into one family. Therefore,
All: We seek to be a place of belonging and a harbor of mutual support and interdependence. We strive to share together, help and reach out to one another, grow in faith together, and live together in light of God’s love.
I want to spend some time unpacking this word, though, because it is such a pervasive part of our existence and because we all have many different ideas of what good community looks like - and perhaps there’s no better place to see how much we long for community (and how much we disagree about what it looks like) than in our television shows. What shows come to mind for you when you hear the word “Community”? [get responses]
I grew up with Friends as the prime example - the last few seasons were during my college years - and after 10 years on the air, I felt like I really got to know the lives of these six friends living in New York City, sharing life together, going through the ups and downs of relationships, new jobs, marriages and conflicts and all the dynamics that come with close friendships. There was the will they/won’t they of Ross and Rachel, the gatherings at the coffee shop or in Chandler’s and Monica’s apartment - and how they were always there for each other.
In addition to those you all shared, I could list even more shows that reflect community - How I Met Your Mother, Cheers, Seinfeld, Fraiser, The Big Bang Theory, The Good Place, This Is Us, Parenthood, New Girl, The Golden Girls, That 70’s Show, Glee, The Office, Will and Grace -- I could go on… (Marvel’s Agents of Shield, Fuller House, Parks and Recreation, etc…)
As you think about all these shows - and maybe even from your own experience of community - what are the important elements or characteristics of a good community?
We need community to survive, right? We all want it, we all talk about it, and yet it is so hard to fully realize. We’re busy, we’ve got memories of community gone bad, we have jobs or kids that make it difficult, we have social anxiety or a hard time sharing our free time with others or we over work or can’t seem to find the “right kind of people” to hang out with.
Add on to all this that no community is perfect either -- community is messy and we are imperfect human beings with mixed motivations and selfish interests and our own desires and preferences and - let’s face it - true community takes a lot of work. Conflict and disagreement happens in community. Disappointment happens in community. Failure happens in community.
But beautiful things also happen in community - grace happens in community. Love happens in community. Hope and compassion and forgiveness happen in community.
Church is all of these things - but it’s also much more - and that’s what our scripture passage from the book of Ephesians speaks to today - I invite us to hear these words from Ephesians Chapter 2, verses 11 through 22, and I’ll be reading from The Message.
Scripture - Ephesians 2:11-22
Ephesians 2:11-22 (The Message)
11-13 But don’t take any of this for granted. It was only yesterday that you outsiders to God’s ways had no idea of any of this, didn’t know the first thing about the way God works, hadn’t the faintest idea of Christ. You knew nothing of that rich history of God’s covenants and promises in Israel, hadn’t a clue about what God was doing in the world at large. Now because of Christ—dying that death, shedding that blood—you who were once out of it altogether are in on everything.
14-15 The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody.
16-18 Christ brought us together through his death on the cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.
19-22 That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.”
Church as a community that is a home for God -- I’m not talking about a brick and mortar building - but a people -- brought and held together by the cornerstone of Christ, built by God piece by piece to show forth the indwelling of God’s Spirit working in and among us in the world. To put it another way - church is a group of people that when you look at them in action, or when you’re with them, you see and experience a bit of what God is like.
It’s a lot easier said than done, however - and the early church had a difficult time putting that into practice. We see a bit of this in the letter we just heard -- The author is addressing one of the big dividing issues of the early church - the relationship between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. These two groups - did not mix - like oil and water. They had two completely different worldviews. The Jews worshipped one God, understood their whole existence as a people as those who had this special relationship with this God and with the land of Israel, and they had a massive set of rules governing how they worshipped and interacted with this God and how they related to others -- especially with those who weren’t considered “insiders.”
Gentiles also brought their worldview with them when they became followers of Jesus - one where many gods were the object of worship, where the world itself is hostile and populated by demons and evil spirits and you needed the protection of your local god, where Caesar was God over all other gods, and people ate food sacrificed to idols and all kinds of other rituals that kept the Gentiles perpetually apart from good, observant Jews.
Now what the author of this letter does to address this situation, however, is a bit unusual. Instead of saying, oh, ok - all you who were once outsiders to God’s plan -- you all can be in on it now too, you’re insiders now, come on in and join the party -- thus further reinforcing this us/them, in/out divide -- the author says that Christ has knocked down the wall completely. Let me read verses 14 and 15 again:
“The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody” -- a fresh start for everybody, brought together in his own body.
This was a shocking pronouncement for both Jews and Gentiles alike - that those who wouldn’t dare eat together, sit side by side with one another, or touch one another, even be in the same room with one another - are now one people. Friends and neighbors in Ephesus would have looked at this mixed company and been astounded at the sight of Jews and Gentiles hanging out together, going to each others homes, eating each others food and now bound together in a new reality, a new community fashioned by the one who tore down every dividing wall, the one who crossed all the laws off the books, who gave up his own life so that we might live as a new kind of people where all that old history would no longer matter - and that we might find a place to belong - no matter where we’ve started from.
It would have been an amazing testimony to the power of God - uniting those who were once enemies and creating them into a family. That’s a powerful witness of what God is like.
This kind of community that God creates - one of no insiders and outsiders, no us versus them, no barriers or boundaries or dividing lines between us - it should be a shocking reality for us as well. We live in a world that is perpetually divided - class, gender, race, politics, sexual orientation -- we’re so fragmented as a world and as a country...we can’t even agree on how to respond properly to natural disasters or mass shootings. We’ve built so many walls - visible and invisible - to protect ourselves from one another, to separate ourselves from each other, to define ourselves against those others over there….and the church stands as a place where we know and live as one people - a place where everyone’s on equal footing. A place where Christ has broken those walls and made us into one family. A place where we’re all in this together. A people who are a home for God.
That is the challenge and the invitation for us this morning. When those on this island look at our church - do they see and experience God in all of our life together?
I think we who spend time on this island understand how important community is - and that’s a value we carry with us into our lives every day. When someone is in crisis, we know how to love and care for that family. I know when Michael arrived, the support we received during those first few months is unmatched. It’s not every community that will reseason your cast iron pots for you. We know how much we depend on one another, we know that everyone should feel like they belong - both on the island and here at the church.
If it’s true for us as an island people - how much more should that be true of us as a church? I dream of this church as a place where people see and get excited about what’s going on here because God is so present you can’t help but be drawn in. I dream of being the kind of community where God’s so much at home, every Sunday morning is like God throwing a party, where every time we’re out serving, people marvel at how we carry ourselves, where every time there’s a disagreement or conflict, people can’t believe how graciously we work with one another, where we live in this new reality of no divisions between us, where everyone has ownership, where every time we gather together, people know that God is present and is in our midst.
That is a kind of community that can challenge and form us, where we can be accepted for who we are - where we can learn and grow and take care of one another, where we feel like belong and where we want others to belong too.
God knits this island into one family, therefore we - this church - seek to be a place of belonging and a harbor of mutual support and interdependence. We strive to share together, help and reach out to one another, grow in faith together, and live together in light of God’s love.
And, I pray, that we seek to be a people where God is at home - built together on the cornerstone of Christ - so that we might be a witness of God’s new creation - a new humanity, reconciled to God and to one another. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.