Sermon 10/27 Real Relationships

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 4:17-25
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

I am captivated by stories of people who are forced into isolation like in the movie
Cast Away, when Chuck Noland played by Tom Hanks spends four years on a
deserted tropical island with no human contact. Or The Martian, where Mark
Watney played by Matt Damon is left for dead on Mars and has to try to figure out
how to survive alone. These stories grab my attention because they challenge the
fundamental character of the human being: We are social creatures. We are
relational. We are not created as isolationist do-it-yourself loners. We are meant to
live together in families, friendships, clans, tribes, and societies.

This is part of what makes the punishment of solitary confinement in the prison
system so heinous. It is not only cruel and unusual. It is inhumane. It is
unnatural. It is a denial of the humanity of the prisoner.

We need to be together to live, to thrive, and to survive. This is the nature of our
species. While the nature of our social arrangements may vary greatly, we are
intended to live in relationship with others.

So, religion, as part of how we express our social nature, must necessarily deal
with the social arrangements of human beings. We see that in a prominent way in
the ministry and teachings of Jesus. This morning we listened to a story of Jesus
beginning his ministry. Jesus is inviting people to a new path and immediately we
see the communal nature of this path. It was common for teachers to teach and for
students to come to them. But in this story, we see Jesus going out, among the
people, taking his teaching to them; inviting them to follow. Already we are seeing
something new.

It was also customary for teachers to maintain their authority and superiority, even
if done with humility. Leaders stay at the top where it is often lonely. But in many
stories about Jesus, we see a different kind of relationship between Jesus and his
followers. He gives his followers full authority to do everything he does. He calls
them not servants but friends. Equals. He has faith in their power to do greater
things than he has done. This is a different kind of leadership. Jesus is not keeping
the power at the top.

We also see that Jesus reaches out to all kinds of people, not just the elite or those
with glowing reputations or those who have shown some kind of gift or promise
that will benefit the movement. No. With Jesus, everyone is welcome and
included in the reality of God. Women, men, rich, Roman, sick, poor, pariah, Jesus
finds people where they are. And he demonstrates compassion and love through
healing, sharing food, forgiving. And having fun. Everyone a beloved child of
God no matter the circumstances.

Jesus can teach, Love your enemy, because he does it and he welcomes even those
considered enemy into the community. He shows love to a Roman solider, to
Samaritans, and to Zaccheaus, a hated, corrupt tax collector. When the disciples
and his closest friends don’t trust, when they disobey, when they betray, Jesus still
loves them. He forgives them. To those who crucify him, we are told of Jesus
offering mercy. Jesus doesn’t just say it, he does it. He embodies God’s reality.
All beloved. All forgiven. All welcome in the community.

Jesus is not just telling stories about a fantasy world. He is not simply offering
principles and ideals. Or a set of rules or an abstract formula. From the beginning
we are told of Jesus forming relationships that embody the way of God. Jesus
offers lived experience in relationships to demonstrate the reality of God. He
models for the people around him the commonwealth of God; beloved community.
And the people around Jesus learn to practice this new kind of community.

Those who knew Jesus experienced first hand this new kind of community that was characterized by mutuality, equality, accountability, forgiveness, and joy. Yes,
Jesus’ followers were known for partying and enjoying themselves. They felt what
it was like to be part of an alternative dynamic to the stratified oppression of the
society around them. And it was life giving. It was freeing. It was like cool fresh
air on a beastly hot day. It was so compelling – even just to witness, to catch a
glimpse, to see an outline of what could be – that people were attracted to the
community around Jesus. And they were willing to be part of this experiment
creating the realm of God with others. They were willing to let go of attitudes that
did not fit the new model. They were willing to turn their lives upside down to be
part of this new construct of social relationships and community. This non
hierarchical, egalitarian way of compassion was exciting and enlivening.

Jesus does not follow God by himself in isolation because the way of God is a way
of relationship. Yes, it is important to cultivate a relationship with God, Spirit, and
self through silence and spiritual disciplines. But the rubber hits the road in
relationships with other people. How we are with others? Others who are flawed
and imperfect like we are? That’s where we truly express our faith, our deepest
beliefs, our most cherished values. In relationships with others – in society, in the
economy, in the environment, in our work settings, our social lives, our
neighborhoods, our families. All of these different contexts provide us with
opportunities to live into the kingdom of God, the realm of the Divine, the
commonwealth of Love.

Of course we know that there have always been groups wanting to create
community and to inculcate a sense of belonging. Cults, sects, gangs, and other
groups throughout history have sought to attract people often coalescing and
finding meaning and belonging around hatred. Around taking advantage of others.
Around a message of superiority. There has always been this strain in human
social constructs.

What Jesus demonstrates is community, belonging, and meaning, around grace.
Around compassion. Around forgiveness and acceptance. Around universal,
unconditional love. The experience was so compelling, that, as we heard this morning, fishers, stable people with jobs, families, businesses, providing food,
working people, leave everything behind to be with Jesus. To be part of the new
community. To embody the new reality. They accept this intrusive disruption and
follow because what they find is so life giving.

The integrity, the wholeness, the honesty attracted people. Jesus was about real
relationships. It wasn’t like trying to teach someone to knit without actually
having needles and yarn at hand. It was lived experience. The embodiment of
ideals and values and teachings. It wasn’t just wishful thinking and good
intentions.

Friends, this is what the world needs today. It needs models of authentic, honest
community where people actually live what they say they believe. And they make
mistakes. And seek to repair broken relationships and broken trust through honest
engagement. We have a government that will send troops to protect oil but not to
protect people. We have companies that are more concerned with profits than
people let alone the poisoning of the Earth. We live in a culture that may be further
from realm of God than the Roman Empire was in Jesus’ day. Which is why the
church may be more important than ever. The church. A seed. Growing a
different reality. Creating a different kind of community. Bearing an unfamiliar
fruit in this context. The church is needed to give people a different kind of
experience of social relationship. We are needed to embody a different construct
of human community. The way of Jesus is not the way of self serving Western
culture, corporate capitalism, or corrupt governance. In the way of Jesus, the
worth of a poor person can never be less than the worth of a wealthy person. There
are no expendables. In the way of Jesus, the value of the life of a white person can
never be greater than the value of the life of a person of color. This simply cannot
be in the commonwealth of God. A man cannot be of greater value than a woman.
That is not the way of Jesus. We are needed to show the world the reality of God
among us just as Jesus did in his day. Maybe the church is in decline in our society
because the church looks more like US culture than like the alternative community
formed by Jesus. But the Jesus community is desperately needed. And the more
perilous the times, the greater the need for this witness. May we create community
that reflects the realm of God here in our midst and in the world beyond. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For
additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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