“We Are: Made For Community”

A sermon on Luke 6:12-19 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 8/7/22, continuing our summer “We Are” series about identity and community. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find it in the full service via this YouTube video.


Last week’s communal practice of lectio divina was a refreshing rest stop in this ongoing worship series called “We Are.” So far this summer we’ve been exploring our own individual identities, asking who we are and what God tells each of us about who we are. 

This week we’ll turn with an emphasis on the “We” of “We Are.” For the next few weeks we’ll consider how God weaves all of those different identities and experiences into the fabric of a community, and how that community turns outward to join God’s work in the world.

When we consider how all of us individuals share life together as a community here at LaSalle, immediately we’re faced with tensions. There’s a deep tension between solitude and community. There’s a tension between the kind of comfort and safety we find in our individuality, and the kind of connection and growth we discover in relationship. Being alone puts us at risk: risk of loneliness, of losing perspective on things, of becoming narrow-minded or stuck. But those risks are in tension with the risks of life in community: the risk of being hurt, of being misled or caught up in groupthink, the risk of losing our sense of what makes us each uniquely who we are.

I thought about this tension between solitude and community quite a lot on a recent trip. I just returned from spending two weeks with a large group of pilgrims in Palestine and Israel. We visited many places that are holy or special to our faith and to the stories of Scripture: places like Jerusalem and Mt. Carmel and Qumran.

One afternoon near the Sea of Galilee, one of our guides pointed out a nearby cave, known as the Eremos Cave. It’s an old cave, really just a small divot in the hillside, large enough for only a few adults to sit comfortably inside. The location of this cave was conspicuous. It was on the side of a mountain near Capernaum, where Jesus spent a lot of time. The Gospels, including today’s reading, frequently mention that Jesus had a habit of withdrawing by himself to the mountains for solitude and prayer. So it isn’t hard to imagine Jesus spending time in this very cave, or a cave just like it, in the midst of his life on earth.

Image of a cave on a grassy hillside

When we think about the sort of spiritual rhythms that sustained Jesus, I don’t think there’s any better teacher for us than Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a Catholic priest and teacher and writer who spent most of his life in the United States and Canada. After a successful academic career, he spent the last decade of his life living in a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. 

In an essay titled “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry,” which you can find various places online, Nouwen suggests that today’s passage of Scripture—Luke 6:12-19—is a kind of prototype for the spiritual rhythms that sustained Jesus. In this sermon I’ll borrow Nouwen’s perspective to suggest that the human life of Jesus was characterized by a rhythm of solitude, community, and ministry. And I’ll try to persuade you that we are all created for those same rhythms.

Solitude with God cannot help but draw us into community with others, and the community of God cannot help but erupt outward into ministry. Solitude, community, ministry.

Solitude

Let’s return to Eremos Cave, the kind of place where Jesus might have sought solitude. Luke 16:12 tells us that “during those days [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God.”

Have you ever wondered what it was like when Jesus prayed? We know that when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before his death, he prayed in agony. But what about his prayer in happier times? Why were solitude and prayer so important to Jesus that he frequently sought them out?

Henri Nouwen describes solitude as “The place in which you can listen to the voice of the One who calls you the beloved.” That word “beloved” is crucial for how Nouwen thinks about the spiritual life, and it’s a crucial word in the story of Jesus, too. Earlier in the book of Luke, you can read the story of the baptism of Jesus. In this pivotal moment at the beginning of Jesus’ public life, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, and a voice declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus uses many different words and images to tell people who he is. But I have to imagine that this identity—his identity as God’s beloved son—was central for him. I think that for Jesus, all of his other identities and labels on earth—his maleness, the town he came from, his socio-economic status, his membership in an oppressed religious minority—I think he wore all those identities loosely in service to this central identity as God’s beloved. I suspect that Jesus’ regular habit of stealing away into the mountains for solitude was the means by which he shored up that identity.

It’s an understatement to say that Jesus faced a lot of opposition to his ministry. One woman from our morning meditation group put it this way: “When you think about it, for most of his ministry, Jesus had to deal with the knowledge that there were people out there who wanted him dead.”

Jesus could face the requests of people in need, and the arguments posed by religious authorities, and even the knowledge that people out there wanted him dead because Jesus knew who he was.

I have become pretty well persuaded that we need the same thing. A few weeks ago in worship, Pastor Pam described how we are a “complicated, beautiful mixture of so many things” and invited us to consider how God gathers up all those things and reveals “so much more.” We created an art installment together using pieces of paper to contrast the narrow lenses through which we see each other and ourselves, with the expansive and loving way that God sees us.

That kind of perspective—a perspective that both stabilizes us and transforms us—requires solitude. In solitude our identity as God’s beloved child is secured in a way that nobody else can threaten or diminish.

When we read that Jesus retreated into the mountains for solitude, it’s easy to imagine him loading up a backpack with Clif bars for a long hike, and that can reinforce a perception that solitude is only available for those with the means and freedom to steal away for hours or days at a time. But if we zoom out of that picture of the cave, you’ll notice that the cave was really only a few feet away from a road.

Image of a cave on a grassy hillside with a vehicle in the foreground

It’s a modern road, sure, but the modern road in this picture was built on the Via Maris, a major Roman trade highway in the time of Jesus.

Maybe your practice of solitude is a week of silence in another state; maybe all that is available to you in this season of life is a few conscious, silent breaths in the shower, in between conditioner and body wash. Wherever we find it, solitude is where we remember—or maybe even learn for the first time—that we are God’s beloved, and our souls long for that reassurance.

Community

Let’s return to Luke 6 and follow Jesus out of the cave. Starting in v. 13: “And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”

At this point in the gospel of Luke, Jesus has already handpicked a few of these men as his disciples. So this story seems to describe a moment when he formalizes the close community around him. Elsewhere in the book of Luke we read that Jesus’ community included women like Mary Magdalene.

Earlier I asked why Jesus made solitude a priority. It’s worth asking here why Jesus needed a community: Jesus had the capacity to do anything he wanted on his own, so why bother with these imperfect partners in ministry? 

Here I think Nouwen’s insight is especially perceptive. He writes, “Community is not loneliness grabbing onto loneliness: ‘I’m so lonely, and you’re so lonely.’ [Community is] solitude grabbing onto solitude: ‘I am the beloved; you are the beloved; together we can build a home.'”

The community around Jesus had a lot in common, but they also represented a wide variety of experiences, coming from different social locations and religious sects.

And yet Jesus needed them. Another way to say it is that Jesus wanted them. And I believe that we, too, are built for community. More specifically, I think that as we experience God’s love for us, our souls long for robust connection with other people whom God loves. I don’t think I have to convince you this is true. This kind of soul-satisfying community isn’t only found in the church, but I hope LaSalle Street Church is one of those places for you. If it isn’t, then we’ve failed in our commitment to each other. 

So many of us are carrying heavy burdens; and right now, I think so many of us are carrying those heavy burdens on our own. The experience of pandemic lockdowns and safety protocols made me so focused on myself and my own responsibility that I still haven’t really found my way back to the normal rhythms of asking for help and offering it. It’s like a muscle that atrophied over the last two years. The same may be true for you. I suspect that a lot of us are still relearning how to be vulnerable, how to participate in the give-and-take of friendship and care. This is that “Love one another” commandment we talked about a few months ago, the one that consists of the way this family—the family of the church—takes care of each other.

Maybe you saw the headlines a few weeks ago—there was a major study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that identified, among other things, “a robust underestimation of how much other people appreciate being reached out to.” A team ran a series of experiments in which they had people send a brief greeting to an old friend or acquaintance, something like a text message or small gift. The researchers had the sender estimate how much the recipient would appreciate the gesture, and then the researchers asked the recipient how much they actually appreciated it. Across a number of different variables, the researchers consistently found that the recipient appreciated the gesture much more than the sender thought they would.

In short: We underestimate how much our care means to other people. So if you don’t hear anything else today, hear this. If there’s someone on your mind and you’ve been waiting for a sign to reach out to them, let this be your sign. Send that text message! Our souls long for community, and we each have the privilege of offering that to each other.

Ministry

Back to Luke. After Jesus gathers his community together, Luke 6 describes what happens next: “[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases, and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And everyone in the crowd was trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.”

In solitude, Jesus knew who he was: He was God’s beloved Son. In community, Jesus connected with others who were also loved by God. And this community of love naturally, instinctively turned outward, blessing and serving those people around them who had need.

Again, I think Henri Nouwen’s insight here is so valuable. Here’s how he describes ministry: “Ministry is not, first of all, something that you do (although it calls you to do many things). Ministry is something that you have to trust…You have to trust that if you are the son and daughter of God, power will go out from you and that people will be healed.”

The next few weeks, we’re going to focus much more on the church’s work of ministry in the world, so I’ll be brief. I don’t think Nouwen is saying that ministry or service are passive or even that they’re necessarily spontaneous. I think what he’s helping us to understand is what happens when ministry to the world is motivated by love.

We’ve all seen examples of ministry or service that were motivated by other things: Things like the need to prove to the world what good people we are. Things like the desire to gather and protect power at all costs. Things like the need to make people conform with what we want them to be rather than inviting them to discover what God is calling them to be.

No, the ministry that Jesus models is the ministry of someone who knows who he is and who greets every single person he meets with a posture of love. When the Spirit of God makes a home in you, you become a minister, someone with a gift and a service to offer to the world.

Let me make this more tangible: When I returned from this trip last week, my journey home was arduous. Our initial flights from Tel Aviv were canceled, so we had to rush to book new flights. I wound up flying from Tel Aviv to Boston to O’Hare. By the time I was walking to the blue line to ride home, it was about midnight, and I had been awake for about 26 hours straight. On my way to the train station at O’Hare, a woman asked if I could spare anything to buy her something to drink at a nearby vending machine. At this point, I was loaded down with bags and rushing to catch a train, so I politely told her, “No, sorry, I can’t help” and kept moving. 

I caught my train, and the whole ride home, I felt awful. I had just spent two weeks in the Holy Lands, visiting all these places Jesus walked. Right after I stepped off the plane, life gave me an opportunity to do what Jesus did by helping someone with a simple need, and I missed it. I had forgotten that I was beloved and that she was beloved. I failed to see that her request was an invitation for us to connect, both of us people whom God loves and wants to provide for.

When I think about the life of Jesus, that’s the part that I simply cannot wrap my head around: He greeted every single person he encountered with love. Below you’ll find an image of the view from that cave, the cave where we started. If Jesus spent time in a cave like this, he would have had a clear view of the Sea of Galilee and all the people who lived around it. His position of solitude literally gave him perspective on everything that was ahead of him. The life rhythms Jesus practiced enabled him to greet everyone with love: He sought solitude with God to remind him who he was. He sought robust community with others who reinforced that identity. And he trusted in the work of God, in and through him, serving the world. And as a result, well, he changed everything.

Image of a large body of water with trees

A brief coda: Once when I was facing a difficult dilemma and struggling to see a way forward, a wise friend offered a few suggestions, including that I find some way to get involved in community service. The suggestion surprised me, but I think she realized that my stuckness represented a kind of spiritual fogginess, one that needed a spiritual remedy. I suspect that whenever we feel spiritually unwell, it is likely a symptom that our souls aren’t getting enough solitude, or community, or ministry. I’m not talking about mental health or physical wellness, not really—those require their own care. I’m talking specifically about being spiritually under the weather, those days or weeks when we’re more inclined to pick fights with the people we love, or when we feel stuck in envy about the life that everyone else seems to be living, or when we’re most susceptible to our own destructive compulsions.  In those moments or seasons, it never hurts to ask: Am I getting enough solitude? Do I feel tangibly connected to community? Is there somewhere I’m actively involved in serving the world?

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