By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Acts 2:41-47
It took me more than fifty years, but I can now say, “I’ve worked in a factory on an assembly line.” I did it on my sabbatical. I know; sabbaticals are supposed to be about rest, right? So what was I doing working? Well, I visited a Bruderhof Community in the UK where they manufacture wooden furniture and toys for toddlers and preschoolers. My first morning at the Bruderhof began very early with a tour of the classrooms and childcare area so I could see the furniture… what it looked like finished, the ways it could be used. Then I went down to the factory and got to work. I don’t know the name of the machine I used my first morning there; but I drilled holes and assembled parts. You can see a picture of me working during my 9:15 presentation in the Great Room next Sunday if you’re interested. I enjoyed my job that first morning. I felt a little proud of myself that I was using power tools to make something. But, by the end of that first day, I was on to another job.
So why, you might wonder, when I enjoyed it so much, did I get moved to another job? Was I drilling holes in the wrong places? No. But at the Bruderhof anyone’s job can change at any time. You never really “own” your job or position… which is part of the community’s overall philosophy. Nothing ever really belongs to anyone exclusively. This morning I’m continuing this sermon series built around my sabbatical travels and experiences. Lilly clergy renewal sabbaticals need a cohesive theme and my theme was built around our congregation’s Vision Statement. If you know it – and I hope most of you do – say it with me. Trinity’s Vision is: “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.”
So my sabbatical focused on experiences and expressions of Christian community and the one that impacted me most was the Bruderhof Community in England. Bruderhofs have been around for about 80 years and there are a few communities here in the U.S. as well. They seek to live as the early Church lived; to embody the teaching and values we find in the Book of Acts where, Luke tells us, “All who believed were together and held all things in common.” There’s no private ownership in the Bruderhof. All property and goods are held in common. But property and belongings is really just a small portion of what it means to share life in common. I admit that, although I’ve read about the Bruderhof for years, I really didn’t realize that until I spent over a week actually living with them. It was probably one of the most impactful, transformational experiences I have ever had. Frankly, I shed some tears while I was there… not tears of sadness or fear or pain; but a welling up of emotion because I felt that I had stumbled into something I’d been looking for my entire life. I stumbled into something I had been looking for my entire life: a lifestyle of really sharing and holding in common that which matters most in life.
This idea of commonality, mutuality and sharing is captured in a Greek word that we find over and over again in the New Testament and, in fact, forms of it are found repeatedly in this morning’s scripture. It is the Greek word koinonia. It denotes a partnership; a sharing that goes far beyond the sharing of stuff or even the sharing of mutual affection. It means we also join together in common actions or behaviors; a common lifestyle, lived together to achieve a common goal, unity in love. That’s what the early Church was all about. The people came together into a community in which they responded to one another with compassion and loyalty. They pooled their resources and willingly gave to anyone who was in need. And they worked together to witness, through word and deed, to the saving grace of Jesus Christ. How the early Church lived and functioned together legitimized what the early apostles preached.
Let me say that again because it is so important. How the early Church lived and functioned together, their koinonia, exemplified and legitimized what the early apostles were preaching. It’s like that modern cliché: No one cares what you know until they know that you care. People don’t care what you tell them about Jesus. They care what you show them. We can tell people that Jesus loves them. But if we profess to follow Jesus, they are going to be watching to see just how willing we are to be “inconvenienced” by their needs. Will we only reach out when we feel like we have extra time in our schedules? Will we only offer to do what we enjoy doing? Or, will we really be there for them? On any given Sunday here at Trinity, people will have more opportunities to “hear” the gospel of Jesus Christ through all of you than from my standing up here preaching. By observing our behavior toward one another, listening in on our conversations, people will experience the gospel according to Trinity. And, it certainly won’t stop when we exit the building.
So, as I mentioned, at the Bruderhof, I didn’t do the same job every day. It is an overall philosophy where everything is held lightly. After all, we can’t share what we hold tightly. People move from time to time – into another building or even another Bruderhof community – and it helps to remind them that they don’t own their place. People move from one job to another and it helps to remind them that they don’t own their position. People shift roles within their line of work so a supervisor one month may be one of the laborers, answering to his or her own supervisor, the next month. It reminds them that authority is a gifted privilege, not a demanded right. In a Bruderhof, when someone is elderly or widowed or has a child with a special need, a non-relative often moves into their home to assist with care as a reminder that family goes beyond genetic ties. We are all responsible to and for one another. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. Everything is held lightly… with the exception of the obligation to care for one another as a way of embodying the gospel and as a way of incarnating the love of Christ.
This morning’s scripture from Acts immediately falls on the heels of the Pentecost event. Now, according to Luke, after Jesus was resurrected – but before he returned to heaven – he appeared to his original disciples and instructed them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. So they remained together – praying together and living out their daily lives together until Pentecost came and the Holy Spirit was poured out on them and they began to proclaim the gospel in different languages. Peter delivered a powerful sermon and about 3,000 people received and believed the gospel message. But it didn’t end there. To receive the message meant they threw in their lot with those original disciples. Receiving Jesus and entering Christian community went hand in hand. New disciples were incorporated into this collection of people who lived life together on a daily basis. The early Christians did not attend fellowship events; they were a fellowship. They didn’t go to church; they were the church. Friends, this koinonia, this fellowship and sharing of food and prayer and learning and life is not about some things that we do; it’s about who we are together. It is our very identity. The community that Christ commanded for his disciples is a commitment to care for one another; to do life together.
Again, I really don’t have words that can adequately express what I experienced inwardly at the Bruderhof. But I can tell you one thought that kept returning to me over and over and over again while I was there… as I watched the people care for one another in a community where no one is ever afraid they will be hungry or homeless; no one is ever afraid they’ll be sick and without healthcare or out of work; where no one is ever without family and fellowship. So what was the thought that kept returning to me? Well, I thought of my decades in ministry and the number of times people have come into my church offices – here and in other towns and cities – and I tried my best to help them meet their challenges and at the end of the day we were both exhausted and they left with no significant long-term plan for their challenges and I laid in bed that night wondering what might eventually become of them. Would they OD, would they get evicted, would they wind up in jail, would I ever see them again… and if I did, would their lives be any different?
Friends: those are horrible thoughts to have when you’re trying to fall asleep at night. And I’ll give it to you straight… some of us here at Trinity do an amazing job of taking care of one another. We drive people to doctor appointments or to the grocery store. We share meals and celebrate holidays with one another. We visit one another when someone is sick or discouraged. We make – not take, but make – time to check in with people who are having a rough time. But some of us just show up here on Sunday and then go on our way. We keep to ourselves and mind our own business and, folks, that’s not church. Church means we’re doing life together. We don’t see anything we have – our property, our money, our time, our jobs, our talents, or anything else – as being for individual benefit. They are for us.
In the book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Dr Paul Brand shares the story of his encounter with medical historian Moller Christianson. Christianson had invited Brand to his home – his attic to be precise – for Brand to inspect 600 skeletons he had acquired from an island once populated with lepers off the coast of Denmark. Dr. Brand was enthralled by the opportunity for such extensive research. He spent seven days in Christianson’s attic inspecting the bones. He recalls that, one day, he opened a box of skeletons that had been dug up from a monastery graveyard on the island. As he examined those bones, Dr. Brand recalled a lecture given years previously by anthropologist Margaret Mead, who spent much of her life researching prehistoric peoples. During Mead’s lecture, the question was posed, “What is the earliest sign of civilization?” A clay pot? Iron? Tools? Agriculture?” No, the anthropologist claimed. It was a healed leg bone. She explained that such healed bones were never found in the remains of competitive, savage societies. There, clues of violence abounded: temples pierced by arrows, skulls crushed by clubs. But a healed femur bone revealed that someone must have cared for the injured person – hunted on his behalf, brought him food, and served him.
So why was Dr. Brand reminded of Mead’s lecture that day in the attic? Well, because as he examined the skeletons from the monastery graveyard, he found evidence of healed leg bones. These were lepers who had been cared for by the brothers at the monastery because, while leprosy disintegrates bone in the toes and fingers, the long bones are generally unaffected. So Dr. Brand could clearly determine: these were leprous skeletons but even as they’d lived with a terminal, contagious disease on a secluded island, a Christian community had come to live among them and tend to their needs.
Friends: I believe that even more so today in a world that has become increasingly fragmented, fearful and isolated, that people desperately desire a genuine experience of caring community.
During my sabbatical, some of you attended and appreciated Pastor John Whitaker’s retreat “The Choice for Community.” Some of you missed it. Well, if you enjoyed it or if you missed it, there’s another chance for us to deepen our commitment to community. I have with me this morning eight copies of a book entitled Called to Community: the Life Jesus Wants for His People. It costs $13. I hope that eight of you here this morning will join me in reading and studying and discussing this book together to determine ways our church can more consistently choose community, true koinonia. We’ll meet together eight times. They’ll be about 80 pages to read between meetings. We can meet once a week or once every other week. But don’t buy the book unless you are willing to read it and willing to meet and talk and share together.
I can tell you from my experience at Bruderhof, true koinonia, true community, is the most incredible experience. And the choice is ours to make.
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