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At St. Paul’s: “Our primary mission is to relate to, and minister to people who are living on the edge, who seek God’s will for their lives, struggling to find direction and purpose in a society that can be violent, insensitive and money-grabbing.”  

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July 24 Bulletin

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Prayer for the Community

Baptism is the outward sign of an inward transformation. We use these

words: In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I baptize

thee. Then we dunk the person under water, not too long, but just long

enough to get the point of the experience. We will go to the lake next week

and walk out until we are waste deep and then perform the ritual.

People have been asking me: why do people get baptized as adults;

especially if they have already been baptized as infants. And my answer

is this: they are ready for a new level of commitment. Baptism is the

outward sign of inner transformation and that means a person who wants to

be baptized is ready for a fresh start: or in Biblical terminology: to be born

again. That means a person dies to the old self in order to follow a higher

calling: and that calling is not personal but for the good of the community.

Rev. Gordon Cosby, one of my lifelong mentors, a famous preacher and

sage, was a founding member and pastor of Church of the Savior in

Washington DC until his death last year, has said that the individual giving

him or herself over to the authority of the church community is the central

commitment of discipleship.

He also said, “For a community to be maintained and its life deepened over

a period of time, there must be a "critical mass" of people who understand

just what community is about. It is this critical mass of people that is

seriously in union w/ the community & these people are very committed

to the well being of the whole, & not seeking personal enhancement in &

through the community, or making demands of the ego on the community.”

That is why I agree to baptize adults. I want a critical mass of members

who are all working for the same thing: building community.

Ok. What does that mean? Well, that means community takes priority over

anyone’s personal agenda, including their personal gain, and that means

they put the church first. People who want to participate in the life of the

community make sacrifices.

When another guru of the church, Jean Vanier defines community, he

talks about a place of safety and intimacy. And he often stretches out his

arms and cups his hands as if it holds a small bird with a broken wing.

He asks: "What will happen if I open my hands fully?" We say: "The bird

will try to fly away, flutter its wings, and it will fall and die." Then he asks

again: "But what will happen if I close my hands too tightly?" We say: "The

bird will be crushed and die." Then he smiles and says, "An intimate and

safe place is like my cupped hands, neither totally open nor totally closed.

It is the space where growth can take place." He quoted Henri Nouwen

in "Lifesigns."

Vanier goes on: "but Community also is a place of conflict . . . and the first

conflict is readily accepted by most people. It is the conflict between the

values of the world and the values of community, between independence

and togetherness.

I see this played out on Sunday mornings when I set things up and try to

have a perfect worship service. When no one coughs during prayer time;

when no one is noisy during the quiet time; when no juice gets spilled

on the floor, etc., you know what I mean. And it doesn’t happen. That

is conflict; it is a natural part of the life of the community, says Vanier.

Togetherness is messy, touchy feely, and doesn’t always go as we have

planned. People don’t always meet our expectations of behavior. And that

creates conflict, which is so frustrating, but that is community.

“Another source of conflict is in learning to give space to others so that

they may grow, rather than competing with them and lording over them.

I see competition in the Thrift Store. What we need is more cooperation,

patience and working together. One gesture that might show solidarity for

the community is a couple more people coming in on Wednesdays and

helping Kelly in the afternoon. Instead of saying: I did my part, now I am

leaving; it could be: let’s see what else needs to be done . . . Which leads

us to the third conflict.

"The third source of conflict in community is similar to the second. It is the

conflict between caring for people and caring for oneself.

Sometimes we give and take; and sometimes we take and take; and

sometimes we give and give. There is a need to balance the give and take.

Giving to the church of your time, talent and treasure hopefully brings you

pleasure. You give what is asked of you and hopefully, you take what you

need in the form of Peace of mind, feelings of togetherness, actually liking

the people you meet in church. And wanting to serve them . . . not just the

neighborhood, but serve each other. But you leave yourself and what you

want and need out of it and put God’s work first.

"The fourth source of conflict is between being open and being closed. [Too

often] we in this church feel like we are part of an extended family, which

is a closed unit; people may sacrifice their personal growth, freedom and

becoming, to the god of belonging ... but then they don’t grow in the spirit

because they guard the family from intruders. Feeling like a family can be

a death to personal growth. Therefore a community is a place that is open

and closed at the same time; open in the way we invite other people to join;

but closed just enough where people feel safe to look at their own stuff and

share their vulnerabilities and not afraid to take risks.

So community is a place of conflict, open and closed at the same time, it

is a place where people come together to give their hearts and minds to

the group, to relinquish their sins, and sort out their own spirituality; and

if you've got that critical mass of believers who really understands the

community, Cosby says, then it can deal with the people who come in

expecting the community to enhance their egos and their own fulfillment. Or

some just come to connect with people they can take advantage of. Robert

met people and talked about the Bible and then asked for money to help

him get through his financial crunch at the end of the month. Totally self-
serving, and not very subtle. And yet, Robert just called me the other day

to say that he wants me to visit him in the hospital where he is getting tests

run for cancer. He admitted using crack, and that is why he was always

running out of money.

Every community has to be aware of and to sustain that critical mass of

believers. One problem in some churches that goes unrecognized is that

the members are spread too thin with too many different types of outreach

or mission projects that it doesn't nurture the inner core of its life.

That is where the retreat comes in. In order to assess, enhance and grow

the critical mass of community members, the group has to be able to get

together and work through its style of leadership and teach each other and

learn from each other HOW to live; we need to learn to live with conflict.

The community leaders have to not only tolerate conflict, but welcome

it. Because, only in conflict does a person and a community stretch their

spiritual wings. In order to fly.

Being born again in the act of baptism and choosing membership and

serving the community, a person gives themselves to the group. There is

a trust level that needs to be there, an invitation and a creation of safety

and intimacy, knowing full well that each person’s best and their worst

behaviors and patterns of life will be exposed.

In community, we live in the moment of the past, present and future, God’s

time, which is not our own. We see our past and forgive ourselves our

trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And we wait . . .

living in the moment, waiting for the conflicts to resolve themselves. It

is a liminal time . . . a time in between the recognition of a conflict and

when it is resolved . . . this is where the true work of the Holy Spirit is at

its best. We need one another in this liminal time, we need a community

of faith that will pray with us, support, encourage and challenge us as

well, "companions . . .who experience the same struggle to be faithful in a

world that does not share our values or our insights. We need a community

of believers through whom shines the glory of the exalted Lord."

The world is still a hostile place, and we will not always agree with each

other, and the cross makes no sense to many optimists, no more than the

resurrection does, but we have been left in God's care. Jesus says: We

are not alone. We have a history and knowledge of the truth of God’s love,

mercy, steadfastness and strength. As Fred Craddock so eloquently puts

it: "The Evangelist leaves no one in doubt: the church is not an orphan in

the world, an accident of history, a thing dislodged, the frightened child of

huddled rumors and superstitions. The pedigree of truth is established and

unbroken: from God, to Christ, to the apostles, to the church" (Preaching

through the Christian Year A).

There is a time in baptism when your head is underwater that you are

expecting to feel a surge of power from the Holy Spirit; a new energy or

moment of glory. That is liminal time – waiting for the Lord to give us what

we need to continue. It is only a moment but it lasts life time; an eternal

lifetime. Hold your breath and trust.