So I started posting pieces of my upcoming sermon for this Sunday, but I've redone pretty much the whole thing. So here it is in its entirety. This represents my attempt at a more narrative theology (telling a story) as opposed to a propositional discourse (like building a case or giving a lecture).
Probably not a good specimen of either, but I'm very interested in exploring "new ways to tell the old, old story" as my Dad likes to say. More on that later, for now here's what I've been workin on. If you read all the way to the end I'll salute you!
"The Cost of Community"
Matthew 22: 34-40
I spent my first two semesters of college as a psychology major. During my studies I learned about 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” is represented in pyramid form to display the different levels of human necessities. Once basic physical and emotional needs are met we can “move up” towards “self-actualization. To psychology’s credit we all suffer in varying degrees when all of those layers of needs are not met, but I disagreed with Maslow. Unconvinced that this is the way people work, I did not remain a psychology major for long, which was good news to at least one professor who on more than one occasion would refer to me as “the supreme skeptic”.
We as people do have certain needs. Maslow was right in that. But if we consider the strong words of Jesus, what does that tell us about our needs? Did Jesus give us the legal basis for physical needs to be administered justly so that we may move up to the next level of the pyramid? No, based on what Jesus tells me, I believe the most tender need of every person is to love and to be loved, to know and to be known. Now this is very easy to say when all your physical needs are met, so my perspective could very well be spoiled by privilege. But what does Jesus lift up above all else? Love. Love of God, love of neighbor. In this scene from Jesus life we see the Sadducees and Pharisees, theological and political enemies of Jesus, trying to trip him up and convict him on some technicality. But as Jesus routinely does, he makes quick work of their shallow tactics; giving them a taste of their own foot. In the same way the Pharisees were often silenced, we too can be humbled by the simultaneous simplicity and difficulty of these great commands. Jesus’ two great commands make us confront our selves and what we need most.
I believe that we are all created with a deep urge and capacity to love God and neighbor, to be in community. In Genesis chapter 2, God saw that “it was not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2: 18), in Proverbs we read “As iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27: 17), the author of the book of Hebrews urges us to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10: 24). I believe the need to love and be loved is the whole pyramid, all other needs are met from life in community with God and neighbor.
In twenty days I will stand in this room, not far from where I am right now, to be married. Sarah and I have been together for over three years, engaged for over a year and a half. I actually keep a countdown on my phone with a little application called “D-Day” which is sort of funny. Believe me, I’m ready. I’m excited to make my commitment to Sarah, and start doing normal human things like keeping the house clean and not getting every meal from a drive through. It is a very strange thing: I’ll start wearing jewelry which is fairly new to me and it’s not like I’ll feel any different the day before or after the wedding. I don’t want to make too many people blush, but there is at least one obvious benefit to marriage that I’m pretty excited about. I’m speaking of course about my car insurance dropping. All boyish goofyness aside, the more I think about it I am so excited to have all our friends and family gathered in the same place. My best man has spent time abroad in France and Chile. Other groomsman live in Kentucky, California, and Kansas City. All my buddies are going to great efforts to come celebrate with us. There was a time when I might have been convinced to just skip all the hassle and elope. But I’ve arrived at a place where I treasure the opportunity to share that special day with everyone that matters to me. I’ve come to realize that what makes a wedding a wedding is the celebration and endorsement of the community.
It has however, been a long journey. For most of my life I was in the paradoxical situation of being friends with people that were all better looking than me, and my role was “the funny one”. I think high school is a struggle for just about everybody, but then you go to college and that’s where you’re supposed to meet “the one” right? There is a lot of pressure, because you think the window is already closing. In college my closest friends were engaged or in serious relationships. I remember being the third, fifth, or ninth wheel quite a bit. I thought I had a lot to offer and frankly, was hoping the guitar playing would finally pay off. At one point a couple girls actually said to me: “Adam, we just can’t figure out why you don’t have a girlfriend” Awesome. A comment which left me at once complimented and insulted. It seemed everyone was pairing up and I was left alone to wonder what was wrong with me. I wouldn’t change anything now, but those couple years of no real blips on the romantic radar screen taught me a lot. We can know our deep desire for community through both positive and negative experiences.
We are created for and commanded to be in community. If we know we need it, and we want to follow Jesus command of doing it what is so hard? I think the answer to that question lies in both external and internal factors. Have you ever noticed that a lot of times it’s easy to tell someone else what they should be doing with their life, but when it comes to self diagnosis it gets trickier? In the same way, it is easier to look for blame outside of ourselves than within. We’ll start on the outside and move inward.
Many of you here are like me and have had the distinct pleasure of dealing with Charter Cable company. If some folks work there I do not wish to be mean, but I have had many episodes of poor customer service. It really is amazing, on some level how Charter has a capacity to pry money out of my furious hands. In 2006 when we were setting up the cable in our apartment, they “installed it” but not correctly. It was a nightmare trying to get them to come back out to make things work. Meanwhile I refused to pay for cable I wasn’t getting and an installation fee for a botched installment. All this is to say, after a year of dealing with Charter’s ineptitude my sister and I decided to stick it to the man, save a little money, and go without cable when we moved into our rental house in August 2007. Except for some Sportscenter withdrawal, the decision to go without cable has been a great one. The first several weeks Kelly and I were amazed at how much we talked to each other. When we had friends over, we would play a game or just sit around and interact where we previously would have turned on one of the bazillion channels and just sat there, together, but not relating.
Years ago in the old days when people were impressed when you had an iPod, I would walk across my college campus wearing my little white headphones- that weren’t connected to anything. I would just stuff the end in my pocket, and that way I wouldn’t have to exchange the usual pleasantries with people I passed by. I could isolate myself in my own little bubble, without even having to listen to actual music, just pretending to be!
I think we’ve all witnessed the rude-guy-on-the-cell-phone phenomenon. Cell phones are great and can connect us with anyone around the country. But they also dis-connect us from everyone we’re around. My good buddy KC worked at QuikTrip for a couple years. One of the things that drove him nuts is when people were on their phones while paying. Because for the entire transaction he went un-noticed, he might as well have been a robot because there was no interaction between customer and clerk. It wasn’t just rude, on a deeper level this dehumanized KC. Friends, progress can lead us in the wrong direction. Technology is an external factor that can erode at our sense of community.
Have you ever seen one of those allergy medication commercials? For some reason everyone is in ridiculously bright clothes, the person talking is always in some big field with wild flowers everywhere and you almost sneeze just watching it. A couple weeks ago I saw a Zertyc commercial that proclaimed superiority over Claritin because it starts working two hours earlier. Zertyc’s entire premise was built around the time it took their medicine as opposed to the slower acting and thus inferior Claritin. What if we treated our relationships like this? I’d definitely be in trouble. I’m not often known as the “early, on time friend”.
Here’s an experiment I’d like you to do sometime. Go to Borders. Go to the self-help section, pick out a thick Tony Robbins book. Then go the eastern religion section and pick out a book by the Dali Lama about improving your life. Then go to the Christianity section and look around. Can you tell me that there’s a lot of difference between what Christians are putting out and what the other therapeutic folks are feeding us? Say this prayer and God will “enlarge your territory”. With God you can live “Your Best Life Now”. A relationship with Jesus can get turned into a sales pitch or a self-help book, and is indistinguishable from its worldly counterparts.
Community is relationships rooted in love, and love is simply caring for another’s needs before your own. Relationships aren’t like allergy medicine, and I have never read a book that really helped as much as it would have led me to believe.
This instant gratification stuff is in fact, not reality. So I ask you: What has been informing your expectations of community? Is it a true relationship with Jesus, guided by the authority of scripture? Or is it the junk that you’ve learned from our culture? Think about the imagery Jesus used. The stories Jesus tells are not stories of immediate satisfaction are they? In one of my favorites Jesus tells the story of the wise and foolish builders. Jesus speaks of a house being built and foundation being laid. I have built meager concrete homes in Juarez, Mexico. It is neither easy nor quick. Here’s the thing, our experience and scripture testify to the truth: meaningful relationships take time and they’re often inconvenient.
We’re told that the products we buy or the books we read will make our lives better and not only that, they’ll do it immediately! Our culture’s values are another external factor. Our culture exalts convenience and seats the individual at the center of the universe. Jesus doesn’t.
In early May the University of Kentucky’s basketball program was in the news. Basketball coach Billie Gillespie recruited a player named Michael Avery from Lake Sherwood, California. The young player gave the Wildcats a verbal commitment. This was a big deal because young Mr. Avery was in the 8th grade. 8th grade. Kids being recruited for a major college basketball program when it’s no guarantee that the coach will even be there by the time the recruit is old enough to play for UK. Do you find this as absurd as I do?
In middle school we had an assembly that our guidance counselors lead. It was all about “career paths”. The counselors told us about the importance of thinking about your future and that we should be taking classes that would help us in our prospective career path. At that time I wanted to be a journalist, since I was a co-editor of the Hollenbeck Middle School paper. The year before I wanted to be a pilot, but then someone told me that you couldn’t be a pilot if you had glasses. For some reason this career paths assembly really sticks out in my head. Of course in middle school I also being mistaken for my Mother when people would call the house. I was not ready to start thinking about career paths.
Now if you found the UK recruit story shocking but are not alarmed by my career path assembly I’d be very interested to know why. To me they’re both symptoms of the American Dream: “success”. Kids shouldn’t be recruited for D-1 programs and kids shouldn’t be expected to make their career choices when they’re just beginning the struggle of figuring out who they are. I see the drive and pressure to be successful strangling our sense of community and killing our students. Kids should not have homework in the summer. This is insane. Kids shouldn’t grow up thinking that every chemistry test will have infinite impact on their destiny. Kids shouldn’t be made to believe that how good they look or what they wear or what team they’re on or what how many gifted classes they’re in or how full their calendar is or where they’re going to college or how much money they will make define what they’re worth.
The third external factor is the tempting, shiny American Dream. You better do a lot, and you better do it well, and you better do it early, that is what our kids our being made to believe “success” is. But are we so rushed, so stressed, so wiped out that we really don’t have the energy to be in relationship to the people we find ourselves doing all this stuff with? When our priority is “success” we will be left empty. When we pursue success at the expense of loving God and neighbor it is idolatry.
Well, I told you we’d look to the external factors that hinder community and we have. Our culture’s technology, values, and priorities put us at odds with the formation of community. We are in a time and place that is becoming increasingly stifling to meaningful relationships. It’s easy to blame external things, to play victim to culture. But we can’t treat culture, society as if it’s some vague abstract force of evil. Culture and society are made up of a bunch of people like us, it is made up of…US!
Several years ago I agreed to be a part of a 3rd through 5th grade church camp. Four days with about 60 children. I must admit, it pushed my desire to have kids back by at least a decade. I’m sort of uncomfortable around little kids. I don’t know what to say to them ya know? “Oh hey Timmy! Say, what are your thoughts on campaign finance reform!?!?” In my limited experience with tiny little humans there is one thing I’ve noticed. They usually don’t know how to say much, but they sure do know how to say “mine”. I am amazed at kids obsession with what is “theirs”. Again, I want to say “what, like you got a job and paid for that video game” but that would be both futile and cruel. I wish I could say that we grew out of it. The biggest barrier to community, the major culprit in our breaking of Jesus’ commands to love God and neighbor does not come from without, it comes from within. It’s our pride.
Pride is opposed to love. Pride is concerned with the preservation or promotion of self. Love is concerned with the well being and needs of the other. The cost of community is sacrificing your pride and what comes with it: your time and energy.
I am the son of a United Methodist Pastor. Currently my Dad is at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Lee’s Summit MO. So I’m not new to the fact that people somehow treat church and things associated with it differently than anything else in their life. When I was in 2nd grade we lived in St. Charles and our house needed a paint job. Part of the Pastor’s salary includes a parsonage, a house the church owns that the Pastor and their family live in. Rather than hiring professionals the church trustees decided they’d take care of it. The day comes and sure enough good folks are there painting the house. Problem is they only painted half of it. For over a year. That’s right, it is what you’re thinking. Half of our house was grey-blue, the other half yellow. I learned from an early age that being a part of the church would mean sacrificing your pride. It’s pretty hard to take yourself too seriously when you’ve got a house that looks like a Steak N’ Shake side by side milkshake.
The trustees didn’t take our family’s need seriously enough, and we don’t take Jesus’ commands to love God and neighbor seriously enough. Our hearts are half painted because we still grip our pride tightly. Jesus tells us that if we love him we must obey his commands.
When we follow Jesus, when we love God and neighbor it forces us to come to grips with the fact that we’re not a big deal. Growing out of childish attitudes, your time and energy aren’t just “yours” anymore. We have to drop the instant-satisfaction expectations of our culture and realize that community requires a sacrifice of time. Nothing meaningful is ever very quick. See when you really take the time to get to know people, become vulnerable, and start learning that everyone is as screwed up as you are it will shake you. You will be burdened by the troubles of others. You will feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of hurt and pain in the lives of people around you. To know the inner struggles of other folks and love them even still is absolutely draining. Letting other people know that you do not in fact have it all together is so scary. Letting light shine on the dark things within- letting go of pride, sacrificing time and energy; this is what authentic relationships, true community demand. This is what it takes to follow Jesus’ commands.
It is only when we let go of our needs and look to the needs of others that we find that all our needs are taken care of. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16: 25) That doesn’t sound like anything I ever heard in psychology class. It is only when we are willing to sacrifice our time, energy, and pride that we will be ready to take up our cross and follow Jesus (Luke 9: 23). The American Dream is not God’s dream. It is only when we give up hope in our culture’s technology, values, and priorities that we may find hope in Christ. When we’ve paid the cost then we can experience the true peace, joy, and hope of community.
We have peace because we know we’re not in this alone. We are part of a community that we can count on. We are joyful because we find fulfillment not in ourselves, or in the vanity of our culture but in Jesus Christ. Our culture is obsessed with the latest and greatest. As author and Pastor Rob Bell has said, “if it’s true than it isn’t new”. Everything I’ve tried to tell you today is unimaginably old!
Ultimately in community we have hope. Our community can truly be the body of Christ, Jesus’ representatives on Earth, bringing his love in a real way. We can see all the terrible things in the world, and know that it doesn’t have to be like this. We can see transformation in our lives, our in relationships, and in our world.
In the summer of 2006 a dear friend of mine was killed in a drunk driving accident. My friend Tyler was driving another buddy Chad to the airport. Early in the morning he was struck head on by a man going the wrong way on I-70. Tyler died at the scene. Over a year later I happened to see a headline that caught my eye, it was the sentencing of Tyler’s killer. Steve Downey, Tyler’s Father had the opportunity to address the man who killed his son. From the article: "Steven Downey, choking back tears as he spoke…said he spoke for his son and other victims in court, and he also wanted to speak for Jesus Christ." As his representative, I want to forgive Calvin (the man being sentenced) and tell him with Jesus in his life, he can make better decisions." Steve Downey is a faithful witness to the transformation that a life in Christ brings. Instead of wrath Steve brought grace. Instead of shame Steve demonstrated mercy. The Downey’s are supported by a community that has been with them, offering hope as they struggle with the death of their son.
Friends I believe that the church is the hope for the world. We can be easily discouraged when we look at the prices on the gas pumps, the disasters in the East, the decadence in the West, and the tension between the two. We can worry about our children’s safety and security in a dangerous and uncertain future. We do not find hope in the ways of the world, in our culture’s technology, values, and priorities. We look to Jesus Christ, the head of his body, the church. The church has endured for over 2,000 years. I believe that the same God who created the world, called Abraham out of the desert, delivered the Hebrews from Egypt, spoke through the Prophets of Israel, gave us his Son, and raised him from the dead will see his creation restored to good. We are created and commanded to love God and neighbor, to be in community. We can participate in God’s vision if we are willing do to what it takes, to pay the cost of community.