9th Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday 11 August, 2019
Isaiah 1.1, 10-20
Psalm 50.1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11.1-3. 8-16
Luke 12. 32-40
The surprising gift of community ©Sue Grimmett
In a recent presentation given by Johann Hari entitled “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong”, an experiment is described that has been formative for the ways drug addiction in Western society have been tackled.1 Hari outlines how a series of experiments undertaken earlier in the 20th century where a rat was placed in a cage with two bottles of water- one ordinary water and the other laced with heroin or cocaine. The outcome of this experiment is frighteningly consistent- the rat will almost always choose to ignore the pure water and drink from the drug-laden water bottle until it kills itself. It seems that clear conclusions can be drawn about how addiction happens. A much more recent experiment conducted in the 1970s decided to try something new. Noting that the rats in the cage were never ever given anything but solitary confinement and nothing to do in their empty cage, the scientist created what he called “rat park”, which was described as heaven for rats with lots of toys, games, snacks, lots of friends and therefore sexual mates, and opportunities for every kind of rat social interaction. They were also given the two water bottles, but this time almost none of them drank from the drug-laced bottle and absolutely none of them ever developed a compulsive use of it.
I think it is a fascinating demonstration of what can drive destructive behaviours and how important is the need for connection and relationship. In a society that struggles with addiction of so many forms, (and if we are honest we could probably all acknowledge we share an addiction of one kind or another), it is worth considering this experiment when we look at the endemic individualism, and sense of isolation and consequent loneliness so many feel. With such need, we should surely recognise how Jesus’ kingdom vision of radical community and belonging is needed more than ever.
The temptation given this obvious need would be to embark on a project of community building. With drive and enthusiasm, surely we can build the kind of community that can help people feel connected? Rather like any other goal or commodity to be purchased, we may be drawn into believing that if we plan and budget carefully and work hard enough, we will be able to create the community everyone needs and hopefully grow the church at the same time.
But here’s the thing. Community is not a commodity to be purchased or a goal to be achieved but rather a gift to be received. Community begins not in programs planned or grants awarded but in the heart.
Jesus says, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If we are to truly love God, ourselves and one another, if that is what we treasure, then we need with intention to grow our innate capacity for connectedness. This involves not yet another self-help program but an openness to what the Spirit is doing in our lives and a preparedness to receive the gift we are to one another.
All of this language of community being a gift can seem sentimental, however, unless we ground this giving and receiving in our material experience of this world and the way we order ourselves socially and politically. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel does not shirk from getting highly specific about the way the gifts of material wealth and power are to be used and the way both need our attention as we seek the kingdom on earth.
This passage we hear today comes after last week’s message of the rich man storing up his possessions in barns and directly follows Jesus’ injunction to not worry about what we will eat or what we will wear with its recommendation to consider the lilies of the field and how beautifully God clothes them. On its own, the passage to not worry about having enough can seem so impractical as to be offensive for those who do not have enough to eat or are unable to afford something to wear. But taken in conjunction with the passage about the rich man and today’s text where we are told to “sell your possessions and give alms” we can see the way. It is only by Divine provision that we have food and clothing, not to mention life and breath, and our existence is not only a gift, but a gift found in the context of interconnected and interdependent relationships. We are responsible for one another, and we are therefore called to be deeply attentive to not only what is going on in our own heart, but also what is at the heart of our political and economic life. Jesus’ life and ministry is a lived witness to the truth that politics is too important to leave to the politicians and economics too important to leave to the economists. We are called to live engaged lives, with our eyes wide open.
Gathering up riches for ourselves and hoarding them in our overstretched purses will see those purses wear out. Being mindful of our need of one another and our responsibility to help one another from our resources and abilities, however, is a way of storing up the kind of treasure that is eternal. When we live in this way we discover the incarnational miracle that our heart can be broken open into more generous forms and yet lose nothing in the sharing.
I love the story of a shared living experiment in the US between a convent and a group of millennial seekers- described in the article as “the surprising alliance of nuns and nones”.2 In this shared community, questions of the needs and crises of our times were being explored together, creating relationships across the divides of religion, age, gender and life experience. The encounters have been both generous and generative. As one Sister put it, “You know it’s the work of the Spirit when it comes in through the side door.” This comment for me has resonance with Jesus’ story of the master coming to the door in the middle of the night. Have we so lost our faith that we might not anticipate being surprised when Jesus shows up unexpectedly, embodied in others in ways we may not have been able to predict? The Sisters in that convent were open to God showing up in ways they had not planned commenting that “you pray for new novices and three bearded men show up on your doorstep on a smoky November night”.
If community is a gift, a treasure, how do we open ourselves to receive it? How might Jesus be already showing up in our community? Are we continuing to invest our time and money into those things which do not last, or are we creatively opening our lives to new ways of encountering one another and being together as citizens of the commonwealth of God?
You will recognise this as the definition of faith from today’s reading in Hebrews: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It is a nice memory verse, but also a challenge. Do we have the kind of imaginative faith that keeps hoping- and acting- for things that have not yet come to pass?
I think we can hear echoes of this in Jesus’ words about being dressed for action with lamps lit. Are we living as people of the kingdom now, even when the world we share seems far from the shape of God’s shalom– a commonwealth of justice and mercy? Are we investing what we have now into that which will not wear out? Surely where we spend our time and our money is where our heart may truly be found.
And lest this task seems loaded with judgement, do not miss the twist in the narrative. When the master returns he will kneel down and serve those he has surprised with his joyful arrival. This is the radical hospitality of giving and receiving in the kingdom of God. This is the way of Christ.
Faith can mean throwing out our own agendas and trusting the Spirit to enter, creating of our community something new that we never could have predicted it would be. It also means living in such a way that the suffering of any one member does not leave us untouched. And finally it means that in a world where so many are lonely, we can belong… because we discover that we all already belong to one another.
1 https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong?langu age=en
2 Adam Horowitz, The Surprising Alliance of Nuns and Nones, Dumbo Feather, ed. Nathan Scolaro, Issue #60, p 8