“GATHER- The Isolation of Life and the Promise of Community”
In this sermon remind the congregation that the losses of life can cause isolation as one distances in emotional pain and confusion. Joel calls us into community.
It’s one of the hardest things I face in ministry. People are involved in the ministries of the church. We see them on many a Sunday. But then they experience hard times - often as a result of a loss- and they disappear from the very place that aspires to be a place of succor and support to people in time of need.
Words like “community” and “love” are used around here to describe who we are and how we are. One of our core values is “We support one another. We seek to be a scaffolding of laughter and joy in good times and care and support when people go through the hard times.”
But people just vanish. They stop showing up; they don’t return texts, emails, calls. It’s kind of like the religious version of ghosting -- the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.
I get it. I have done it, too. Following my divorce back in 2008, I did it and just kind of dropped away from the church my family had so actively attended and which we were very involved in. I was embarrassed that my former spouse and I, both ministers, had failed in our marriage. I was embarrassed that I could not honor a pledge I had made to a church capital campaign made during better economic times and pre divorce.
Until a wonderful church member called me and said, “we miss you.” She acknowledged my value. She extended an invitation. More than anything, she offered a listening ear. It is, in part due to that phone call from her, that I stand before you today. I realized how my self- isolation as a result of loss kept from the thing I needed: community and a sense of belonging.
The many faces of the losses of life can cause isolation as one distances in emotional pain and confusion. In the midst of losses people experienced, the ancient prophet Joel called people into community. He says “Gather!”
We turn to the Joel text and hear these words:
“Dress for a funeral and grieve, you priests; lament, ministers of the altar. Come, spend the night in funeral clothing, servants of my God, because the grain offering, and the drink offering have gone from the temple of your God.”
It doesn’t sound like he is taking us exactly to a happy place. But hidden in this lament is a call to action that is empowering. GATHER: Demand a fast, request a special assembly. Gather the elders and all the land’s people to the temple of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord. (Fasting here is understood not as a form of penitence but as an act of solidarity.) Gather. Build community. Be a special assembly.
It is so easy to isolate. But there is something powerful in gathering with a “tribe.” Gathering instills identity when identity becomes eroded during crisis.
In 2017 the British government created a “Ministry for Loneliness” as loneliness was identified as a major societal crisis in Britain. The USA may be in a similar situation as people age with children far away and as many flock to cities or live in suburbs behind fences or behind social media. We remember from our western civilization classes the philosopher Descartes and his dictum: I think therefore I am. I wonder if that wisdom has fueled radical individualism and inevitably loneliness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded us of another train of thought born out of the African concept of the self-built around the village’s role in raising a child. Tutu highlights the philosophy of ubuntu: I am because we are. I am because we are beckons us to be involved in each other’s lives; it breaks the isolation and loneliness after experiencing the locusts of life.
Our Reformed tradition speaks of each of you as “the priesthood of all believers.”
If you are looking for a Lenten discipline, I invite you to follow in the way of the One who we follow:
Be mindful of the power that lies within community. Defy the natural tendency to isolate in moments of loss. Gathering instills identity when identity is eroded in moments of crisis.
Practice gathering by inviting friends or even a stranger for a meal; maybe volunteering as doing things with others.
Practice warmth and see the image of God in others …
Joel calls us to experience and live the good life. That life demands we walk towards our losses and build community. Keep opening your wings to the image of God in friend and stranger.