So far in our series about “Presence” we have talked about the importance of being here on Sunday mornings and we have talked about how important good relationships are within our faith community. Today I want us to think about being present in the mission and ministries of the church. What does it look like to move from “ME” to “WE”? Let us pray…God, as we come to your Word today, I pray that you will use me to speak your message and guide us into a better understanding of who you want us to become as members of this faith community, through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.
Our Judeo-Christian tradition helps us to understand ourselves as “tribal people.” Looking back at our biblical ancestry we realize that ancient societies were strongly tribal. You identified with “your people”. The earliest concepts of community revolved around tribal identities that were no more than “accidents of birth.” Tribal communities are the source of our belief systems, our customs, and our identity. This tribal nature is part of us instinctively. We are most comfortable with and usually care most about those who are like us. We are drawn to those of our own “tribe.”
But now, we live side-by-side with people of many different tribes. We are no longer as separate as tribes were in the ancient world. “Who is my neighbor?” is a much more complex question than it once was. Writing for the General Board of Discipleship, Rev. Dr. Mark W. Stamm says:
“The God we read about in Scriptures works with families and tribes, as imperfect and disappointing as they may be. God works with groups of disciples and churches, with the twelve, the seventy, and the one hundred and twenty. God is one – yes! – yet three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, even the God of Christian faith is, in a sense, a community.”
The concept of “tribal identity” helps us to understand first, how the hearers of the “Good Samaritan Story” understood it and second, how Jesus wanted them to understand it. First, Jesus’ listeners would recognize the hostility that exists between the Jews of Judah and Galilee and the Samaritans. An ages-old dispute over the proper place for worship – the Temple in Jerusalem or on Mt. Gerizim – divided these tribes. The “Temple Jews” looked down on the Samaritan Jews and considered them to be ceremonially unclean. Their role as hero of this story was shocking. Jesus wanted them to expand their tribal view. Jesus wanted them to see that “neighbor” is not defined by location or tribe but by those who need concern and care. Our “neighbors” are those who need us.
Often we hear sermons on this story that invite us to place ourselves in the role of one of the characters. How might you view this story if you place yourself in the role of the man who was beaten half-dead and left on the side of the road? How might that effect your understanding of “being present” with a neighbor in need? While our tribal identity includes an element of WE in it, that WE is based on being like ME. Moving from ME to WE means moving outside of the comfort of our tribal nest. It challenges us to be present with neighbors who are not members of our tribe. Rev. Len Sweet says: “…a ME/WE gospel is for the world, and a “we first” world requires a “me last” imagination.”
I believe that God created the world to be in community. From the very beginning we read stories of couples and peoples and tribes who are created to be in relationship with one another. Nothing in the world exists by itself. ME and WE belong together – That was always God’s intention.
In his book “ME and WE”, Leonard Sweet talks about the difference between “kingdom-building” and “kingdom-living”. There is a distinction here that helps us to define our job description as believers and draws us out of our ME mentality to the WE. Jesus did not go around preaching a message that called for “kingdom-building;” Jesus called us to “kingdom–living.” Kingdom-living recognizes that we are part of the mission that we pray for: “Thy kingdom come.” But, it admits that it is outside of our job description to save the world, eradicate evil, or end poverty. Those “kingdom-building” tasks are for God, the one who created the world. “Kingdom-living” leads us to ME/WE relationships of healing and wholeness. We do not find ourselves by looking in a mirror or through media imagery. We find ourselves in the faces of others and in the figure of Christ.
- “A human becomes human in the process of being known by other humans and by God.”
- “We become human through our relationships with others and with God.”
- “In the process of becoming known by other human beings and by God, we come to know ourselves.”
Being in present in the Body of Christ definitely involves being present at church on a regular basis. It certainly has to do with the relationships we build together as members of this congregation. But, our PRESENCE, as a vow of membership means so much more. It means recognizing that “WE” is more important than “ME.” It means it means dissolving the tribal boundaries that divide us and seeing the WE world just outside our village.
Rev. Sweet contends that we live in a disconnected world of ME versus WE.
The decline in our churches is not just about people rejecting church.
u People are rejecting commitment to anything except themselves.
How did we get so disconnected?
How did we get so divided, so pillared with polarizing categories like: u
- 99 percent/1 percent
u Why can’t we see each other within God’s categories: human/human?
God created each one as an individual and our individualism does not dissolve into the WE.
We remain individuals and our individual qualities enrich and strengthen the WE.
Nonetheless, God created ME to be in WE relationships in a world that is bound by a WE covenant that recognizes the ME in each individual as part of God’s WE image.
Remember – this is the image of God in which we are all created – imago Dei
Again from Rev. Sweet:
“The great heresy of the mind is in the illusion of separateness: the notion that I am here, and you are out there. We’re only ourselves when we are connected. u Being alive is a shared experience.”
In Stephen Sondheim’s musical, COMPANY, about love, relationships, and solitude, there is an iconic song called “Being Alive.”
The lyrics include these words:
…Alone is alone, not alive.
Somebody, crowd me with love, Somebody, force me to care, Somebody, let me come through, I’ll always be there, As frightened as you, To help us survive being alive.
“Being alive is a shared experience.”
u “As a member of this congregation, I promise to faithfully participate in the ministries of this church through my presence.”
We need to remember that “being present” is not really the end-goal here.
The ultimate purpose of our time together as members of this congregation – whether that is in worship, or Sunday school, or even UMW – the ultimate purpose is not self-benefit.
Rather, our purpose for being present is to be equipped to receive a direct commission to into all the world.
We gather so that we might join with the Risen Christ in the task of proclaiming God’s salvation to the world.
u We are present in God’s presence:
- to offer our praise and worship;
- to care for and about each other;
- and to answer God’s call to be present in the world through the mission and ministries of Jesus Christ.
At the end of the Good Samaritan story this morning we hear Jesus make the point that when we receive the life-giving mercy of God then our “otherness” ceases and we experience instead our common humanity. Jesus’ final words are “go and do likewise” – we are sent to be present with every tribe and every nation. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.