On Spiritual Community

Daniel Wolpert June 17, 2018

Scriptures Proverbs 9:1–6; Matthew 5:43–47

Good morning. Our second reading is from the fifth chapter of Matthew. This comes somewhere in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. I will share with you an unknown little bit of biblical trivia: Right after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had an annual meeting. I don’t know why that didn’t make it into the text, but you heard it here first.

So, this is Jesus speaking: “You have heard that it was said that you shall love your love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of heaven. For God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Here ends the reading.

Will you please pray with me? [one minute of silence]


*             *             *

It seemed to me that it would be very appropriate on this Sunday, when we are going to have this annual meeting, to spend a little time reflecting upon the nature of spiritual community, which in our tradition is called “the church.” What is “the church?” What is this thing of which we speak? Well, the truth of the matter is that Protestants are not really big on what is called “ecclesiology”—kind of a fancy word. It comes from two Greek terms: ecclesia—“the church”—and a conjugation of logos—“words.” So, it is literally “words about the church.” Theology is speech or words about God.

As I say, Protestants tend to not spend a lot of time on this. If you go through seminary to become a pastor, you don’t have to take any courses in ecclesiology. The topic is theoretically covered in your course on systematic theology—the different categories of theological discourse—but usually it comes at the end of the semester. Oftentimes, people get caught up spending too much time in being confused about the Trinity, so by the time they get to the chapter on ecclesiology, they say: “Ah, forget about that. We don’t need to spend any time with that.”

People who want to be ministers have to write statements of faith that they present to various bodies. Oftentimes in those statements of faith there is nothing about the church. Sometimes, just to be a little bit annoying, I will go to those meetings and say: “What about the church? I don’t see anything.” It’s kind of mean of me, really. And people will get kind of flustered and say: “Well, the church is not the building.” “Well, okay. Anything more to say about that?”

One of the things that happens when we don’t spend much time on it is that we tend to default to what we know or to what we have experienced. The church is just my church. The church is the church I grew up in, or the church is the nice place down the street that I happened to join. But, in the tradition, the church is not a human organization. Just because a bunch of people get together and throw up a nice building and have some nice music and say a lot of stuff . . . from the point of view of the tradition, that does not mean that this is the church.

In the tradition, the church is a spiritual reality. One of my favorite, very pithy descriptions of the church comes from the Scots Confession. This is in the Presbyterian tradition—please don’t hold that against them, they were just a little north of the Congregationalists, in Scotland, just a little more wild, painted their faces blue, did all kinds of weird stuff like that. In that particular confession, there is a wonderful line about the church. It says: the church is invisible, known only to God. The church is invisible.

This very much echoes the things that Jesus said about the beloved community, which he referred to mostly as the kingdom of heaven. And he would be walking around on the streets and he would look around at people and he would say “Ah! There it is! The kingdom of God just passed by.” Or he would say something like “The kingdom of God is within you” or “The kingdom of God is here. Can’t you see it?”

So, the church is this invisible reality, which is always present but needs to be brought into being by a community of people. It needs to be brought into the material world. So, what is that about? How does that happen? What does that look like? What are the ways that people do that? Before that, we have these two wonderful pieces of scripture.

The first one is from Proverbs. Wisdom is really the feminine face of God and so, in many ways, is really the least well-known person of scripture. Wisdom creates this environment within which she invites people to do what she calls “walk in the way of insight.” “The way of the spiritual life” actually was the original name of what we now call Christianity. People were referred to as People of the Way. It wasn’t for several decades after Jesus died that this name—Christianity—came into being.

So, what is this spiritual life and practice about? Well, it’s about a lot of different things, but one of the key elements to this is humility.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, there is a wonderful image of the spiritual life: a ladder going up, because we all know that God is an Old Guy In the Sky. We believe that here, don’t we? So, it is a ladder going up, and each rung of the ladder has a name. It is an attribute of the spiritual life. The first rung of the ladder—the thing that gets us started, that makes everything else possible—is humility. Now, humility is a great word. It comes from the same origin as “humus.” It’s very much about earth—being of the earth. And it is in this recognition we become truly humble. We recognize that we are, as human beings, just slightly animated compost . . . with an emphasis on slightly. We are these teeny, tiny specs in this immense universe, and, when we actually gaze upon the immensity, it can a trigger a kind of existential crisis because we realize how small we are and how big everything else is. In the Wisdom tradition, this is talked about with this phrase, which occurs over and over again in scripture: “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.” Not fear in a negative, punitive sense but fear in the sense of awe. We have this experience of the immensity of the Divine and we become more humble.

And so it is that humility that allows us then to embark upon the spiritual life where, what is called our ego, or our habits and patterns of our minds—we can begin to let go of those. Now the ego from the contemplative perspective is not the Freudian ego—with some little person running around in our heads, being on the one hand chased by our super ego, which is trying to whack us with a stick, and our id, which is trying to get us to do all kinds of things we shouldn’t do. It’s not that kind of ego. Again, this is the habits and patterns that make up who we are.

So, when we begin to relax this and give this up, if we are indeed people who are sort of high and mighty and puffed up, then we come down a few notches as we become humble. But if we are people where our habit of life or our habit of society is to be belittled or oppressed or brought down, then to let go of our ego actually means that we are lifted up and empowered, and the people who are doing the oppressing allow space for that to happen. So, as the spiritual life begins to go on, this relaxation of who we are goes deeper and deeper, and what begins to emerge is that true image of God that we all have at the core of our being.

When we get to Jesus, though, he lifts up the thing that, in many ways, is the greatest obstacle to the flourishing of the beloved community. And that is the fact that we don’t like our enemies. So, Jesus gives us this incredibly challenging comment, a comment that I really think are the three words that define Christianity: love your enemies.

Now putting aside the fact that most people seem to think that pretty much everything Jesus said, he was just kidding, or it only applied to him because he was so cool and spiritual and everything, I don’t really happen to believe that.

“Loving your enemies”—what does that mean? What does that look like in community? A lot of times what communities will do, when they think of something like this, is they will say “Well, we’re all fine in here, so maybe we can imagine loving some people out there who kind of annoy us.” But you see, in the spiritual life and in spiritual community, this teaching is not about what is outside, at least not at first. It’s about what is inside, because the first enemy that we actually encounter is usually ourselves.

How many people do not like themselves? How many people do not like how they look, how they feel, how they talk, the nature of their lives? How many people have in their heads voices that are shaming them and abusing them and torturing them? So, we become our first enemy that we have to love.

And then we widen out the circle a little bit more. And the thing about community is that we just bug the stuffing out of each other. Oh, my gosh! Right? You get married and this person is great for a little while but then after a bit . . . they become the enemy.

In spiritual community, that happens very quickly as well. Who is the enemy in our spiritual community? Well, it’s the person who likes a different kind of music than we do. It’s the person who disagrees with the budget. Sometimes, it’s the whole church board. It’s the person who feels differently about the direction of the church. We very quickly have lots of enemies.

Of course, the normal way that the world deals with this is through politicking and voting and arguing and all of these kinds of things. But what the spiritual life tells us is that we are supposed to deal with this differently. As we engage in this way of insight that seeps into us, as we let go more and more and more of who we think we are, of who we want to be, of who we think the world should be, of all the right ways—we let go of all the right ways—we know what is right, we who are slightly animated compost know everything about how the universe should run.

As we let go of all of that, what we begin to find is this much deeper reality of divine love. It is no coincidence that some of the greatest saints of the tradition, the greatest spiritual practitioners, had their remarkable insights about God in prison, on a sickbed, amongst the most desperately poor. They have given up everything, and they find this profound union with the divine. When a group of people starts to do this in community, this new way of being in the world arises. People don’t need or want another example of the old way. That’s what Jesus says: You love the people you love, big deal. Everyone does that. There is not a human being, except for the most pathologically disturbed people, who doesn’t do that.

What is unusual is a group of people who love past their annoyance with each other. That’s unusual. When that happens in the world, in the history of our faith, when a community actually does that, amazing things always happen around that community. The earth actually becomes more productive. Farms literally become more productive. Economies improve. Schools improve. Hospitals improve. All kinds of things begin to manifest. This invisible world of the church becomes a real being in the world.

I want to tell you about Paul and Helen Schenks. Paul and Helen Schenks would probably be terrified to come here—they have both passed away now, but when they were alive. They were very, very simple people. They were from Bathgate, N.D. I am sure all of you have visited there. It’s a town of about 60 people on the Canadian border in the northeastern corner of the state.

Paul and Helen were farmers. When they were getting to be elderly, Helen’s sister came down with Lou Gehrig’s disease and was moved to the nursing home in Crookston, Minn., which is where I met them. I was the pastor of the Presbyterian church there, and they became members. When Helen’s sister moved, Paul and Helen gave up their entire life to just come and be near her. They had retired from the farm, but they still had their family, their property, their church, their community, their friends—everything. They gave it all up just so that they could be near her sister.

They moved to Crookston, and their 66th wedding anniversary happened to be on a Sunday. So they were there in church as they were pretty much every Sunday. I said to them “Paul and Helen, you seem pretty happy. You’ve been together 66 years. What’s your secret?” They turned to each other, and they looked at each other. They had a very cute way of looking at each other. They were just about the same size, both pretty tiny people. They looked at each other, and, almost at the same moment, they said “Well, you just do what the other person wants.”

I really can’t think of a better expression of the spiritual life. You just do what the other person wants. Because if we are deeply connected to that divine source of love, nothing else matters. The activities don’t matter. The budget doesn’t matter—there, I said it! The programs don’t matter. Fancy stuff doesn’t matter. Because the only thing that we really need as human beings is that beloved community. That’s the only thing that deeply, deeply matters.

I pray that we all fiercely and mightily continue upon that journey—that search for the invisible church that we have the power and the ability to make visible.