Tuesday, 13 March 2012 00:00

“A Redemptive Community”, March 11, 2012

“A Redemptive Community”
Acts 2:42-47
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 11, 2012
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Eleven years ago today, Kim, Amanda, Rebecca and I sat in the UBC sanctuary for the first time since moving to Minnesota.  We had just arrived, although our belongings were still en route from San Francisco.  I was not officially on the job for another few days, but we were anxious to see all of you and launch this new adventure together.  Gayla Marty preached the sermon that day, all about a global requiem and the work of author Jack Miles.   We sat in the pews, getting warm greetings from the congregation.  We still had in our memories the last time we were together in early January of 2001.  Right after you voted to call me as pastor, we stood in a circle, joined hands and sang “Best Be The Tie That Binds”.  During that service eleven years ago, we listened to the music of the choir led by then-music director Michael Ferguson. We saw young Lee, Mavity, Ketcham and Wottrich children running around.  We saw seasoned veterans like Fred Battell and Adele Fadden, Bea Bixler, Tai Shigaki and Doris Dunn. We saw familiar faces from the search team, Don Dresser, Paula Moyer, John Medeiros, Harriet Johnson, Howard Johnson and Nancy Myers.  The last member of the search team, Denise Roy was still in Bali.  And we wondered what this community might be like.  I mean we knew some of it.  We knew of its reputation.  We knew of its welcome of us, at least in that introduction stage when we all want to make good first impressions.  We wondered how we might be welcomed, especially once the honeymoon wore off.

Of course, you did a fine job and we have certainly found this to be a wonderful community of support, challenge, insight and passion.  David Bartlett spoke similar words last week about this UBC community.  What a blessing it is to be gathered here together, and mystically connected with all those who have similarly gathered over the centuries.

This UBC Community is certainly a blessed one.  We have been blessed with audacious courage, alongside great humility.  We have enough naysayers to keep us honest, and plenty of free thinkers who push the edge of conformity.


But is that what makes a redemptive community?  What is a redemptive community?

Dr. Luke tried to explain what it was in the first couple of chapters of his second volume to Theopholis, called the Acts of the Apostles.  Building on the life of Jesus that he described in his first volume, he then went on to describe how the church would grow and change and struggle and shift and fight and split and still manage to hang on.  It all started out sounding so good, after all.

The early church grew by leaps and bounds after Pentecost.  The people received the fire of the Holy Spirit and went to work being a new people.  They took Jesus’ life and his work very seriously.  They sold what they had.  They distributed goods as people needed.  Long before there was a word like welfare or socialism, there was the early church eschewing the holding of private property.  They held everything in common and gave to the poor and needy amongst themselves.  I’m sure they eventually set up social service agencies to distribute the goods in the most efficient way possible.  Maybe even the ruling government took a cue from the church in order to make sure it was done correctly.  Soon, I’m sure, they set up regulatory agencies and passed laws to ensure the health and welfare of everybody.  They eventually gave churches tax breaks and grants to do the work of compassion.  But what happens if the government does something wrong?  Can the church criticize them and then run the risk of not having the needs of their people met?

It was so much easier the way Luke said it.

We learn from the second chapter of Acts that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.”  The fourth chapter of Acts says that they were all of one heart and one soul and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything was held in common…and there was not a needy person among them.

And it quickly faded.  Luke was writing his books a good fifty years after Jesus’ death.  I bet the early church looked a whole lot better than the church he was looking at when he wrote it down.  Isn’t that why we write history?  To remind us of the past and to, in part, help us to reclaim the piece of our past that we have forgotten?  Isn’t that why we read scripture each Sunday?  Isn’t it to hold ourselves to a higher standard?

Everything we know about the church as it grew was that the communal aspect of holding goods in common did not last.  It was a great idea, but it was hard to sustain.  Sure, there are exceptions to this rule.  There are monastic communities and communes and even apocalyptic societies.  They hold their goods in common and live their lives in a pretty faithful way.

I was especially impressed with how the Iona community deals with this Biblical model when I visited there last June.  They don’t eschew private ownership.  But they do hold themselves to financial accountability.  Their members are not only expected to tithe to the community, but they are also to account to the community how they use the other 90% of their assets.  Imagine if we did that?

But is a redemptive community one that holds things in common?  Does it all have to be about economics?  Economic inequality might be an indicator of something else being out of sync, but does that mean the church has failed?

I asked David Bartlett a loaded question last week about the future of Christendom.  He said that the church would always exist.  He said this because people long for and need redemptive communities. And not because we create them, but because God infuses faithful communities.  It is the way God is known in the world.  We cannot know God without community.  He didn’t say that last part, but I am going to say it.  We can know an aspect of God, in the beauty of a sunset or the flowing of a waterfall, but we only know God active in the world in the way God is active in a redemptive community.  It makes me sad for all those people so burned by organized religion that they find themselves spiritual but not religious.  They also distance themselves from that very redemptive community that can bring them to health and happiness.  That community that holds their hand in the dark night of the soul and knits a prayer shawl for them when they have lost a loved one, or welcomes a new sister to the fold. A redemptive community hangs in there with each other and doesn’t fold up in the midst of trouble. That’s what we need.

So what is a redemptive community?  Luke was looking back on what was right about the earliest incarnation of the church.  And he spoke about how they devoted themselves to the Apostles teachings, the fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers.  They remembered the teachings of Jesus.  In Luke’s version of the Gospel, the theme of sharing is so vital.

In Luke Mary sings that the hungry are filled with good things and the rich have been sent empty away.

In Luke, Jesus preaches woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation.

In Luke the Good Samaritan pays money for the health and well-being of a beaten stranger who has been ignored by his kin and his religion.

In Luke, Jesus says the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

In Luke, the rich young ruler is told to sell all he has and give to the poor before following Jesus.

So, it is no surprise that in Luke’s description of the early church in Acts that the church models something radically different from the rest of the world.

But it’s not only about economics.  It’s also about food. In Luke, Jesus shares a meal with the tax collector Zacchaeus.

In Luke, the prodigal son returns and is treated to a feast of reunion, an extravagant forgiveness feast.

In Luke Jesus feeds 5000 people with a couple of loaves of bread and a few fish.

In Luke, the risen Jesus is revealed to the people when they break bread together.

Of course, the church will know itself in the way that it shares food with each other.  The breaking of the bread is not just a meal that happens one Sunday a month, it is a model for how we come together in community.  It is how we recognize our redemptive nature.  And the table of Jesus is always open to everyone, even and especially those we disagree with the most.  That’s a redemptive community.

I am so excited to have so many of you attend the Baptist Peace Conference this summer at St. Olaf College.  I tell you every year how that community helps me to remember who I am called to be.  It gives me tools to live and be a faithful Christian.  I always enjoy the music and hearing and seeing the passion of people young and old who are of one heart and one soul.  
But more than that, I am reminded to recognize that my work is not to create the best church.  It is not to start the finest program that will be a quick fix to all of the problems of the world.  I am not supposed to learn the new trick to fix the leaky roof or the leaky budget.  Sure, I come away with lots of ideas and inspiration.  But I am also reminded that I am here to be a part of a redemptive community. The redemptive community is not something that I create.  It is something that God creates and I am to recognize it, celebrate it and embrace it.  I do that through prayer, work, music, a remembering of the teachings of those who have gone before and the listening to and being attentive to the voices of the Spirit among us.

God makes redemptive communities.  We are called to sustain and enhance them.  We can’t create redemptive communities, but we can encourage the way they flourish.

The scripture says, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold all of their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.”

A redemptive community is not something that is only concerned about things like money.  A redemptive community is concerned about people.

We are concerned about how our relationship is going with our sister or our brother.

We are concerned that we are living the Gospel we proclaim.

We are concerned about how we use our resources—physical, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, all of our resources.

And we’re not so concerned how other people perceive us.

When a community is at its best, it empowers us to use our gifts in a helpful and healing manner.  That’s the community of the church that caused so much to be changed and improved in this world.

In this redemptive community, we have the power and ability to continue to inspire and people to ask the right questions.

To empower people to think outside the box about how to address perplexing problems.

To empower people to take a stand and join with others across denominations when our community is in peril.

We empower ourselves to be Biblically literate and ethically faithful.

We empower ourselves to find our voices when others would be so content to silence us.

We empower us to hold each other tight when the forces out there are raining down on us and we feel burdened by their weight.

And yet, together, somehow we pull each other up and hold each other tight and we don’t always say “it’s going to be all right.”  We say instead, “you’re not alone.  I’m here with you.  Let’s figure this out together.”

Those are the real precious gifts we hold in common.  That’s our real wealth.  Everything else is just a reflection of that.

When we commit to a redemptive community that is so life-giving, then the world looks real different.

This redemptive community we now call University Baptist Church has been together for 162 years.  We’ve been in three centuries.  And if you add up the years individuals in this room have been members here, it would be well over 1,000 years.  I hope to be here for a long time to come.  The truth is that we don’t know how long it will last or how long any of us will be here.  But we know that each moment together is a gift from God.

So in the years that we have together in the future, let ushold to that tradition of being a redemptive community.  Let us celebrate the giftedness of each other.  Let us hold to the ancient teachings, the Gospel imperative of peace and Biblical injunction of justice, let us consider each person our sister and brother, not simply strangers on this earth; let us break bread together, not just at communion, but recognizing that each meal is a sacrament, where we mingle our best selves with the rest of the world; let us pray individually and together so that we might not become puffed up, but might humbly ask for help to make it in this world of ours.

God has created a redemptive community.  Let us continue to be faithful and thankful participants.