Sunday, January 1, 2017

Taking Community for Granted



OK, maybe I’m late in showing that clip. There is a reason millions of people flock to their television sets every year to watch and re-watch this movie that was made in 1946. Yes, it is a beautiful story of Christmas. Yes, it stars one of the best-known actors of all time. But there are other great Christmas movies, and Jimmy Stewart stars in many other wonderful films.

What is so special about this movie? I think the answer to that question has a lot to do with the scene we just watched. This is probably one of the most familiar scenes in all of American movies. We even included it in our Christmas musical a couple of years ago. Some of us have seen this scene dozens, maybe even hundreds of times. Why is it so special? Because this scene reminds us of just how wonderful George Bailey’s life really was. In a word, George Bailey had a community. A loving, supportive, sacrificial community. As Reggie Howell would say, George Bailey had a room full of 2 a.m. friends! Those friends that you can call at 2 a.m. when your world falls apart, no questions asked. We love that movie and we love that scene because deep down we all want a wonderful life like that! The place where I’ve found that kind of life is in the church. And nowhere has that kind of life been more apparent to me than during our time at Orient Street Church of Christ in Stamford, Texas.

Kim and I moved to Stamford when we’d been married only two years. We were young and absolutely broke! And I was young and absolutely inexperienced! There were weeks I should have paid them to let me preach! But they were patient with me. They were patient with us. And they loved us like we were part of their family, because we were. We had the girls when we lived there. So there we were, young, away from home, no nuclear family support system, with two twin infant girls! I remember the night Dan and Pam Cox showed up at our front door. The girls were just weeks old. And those girls had literally not been out of Kim’s sight, 24/7! They showed up at our door and said, “It’s time the two of you get out of this house.” They said, “Go to Sonic." (Baby steps.) So, Dan and Pam were our first babysitters. We were gone for 25 minutes! We would show up at church, and they would meet us at the front door and take the girls. We really don’t know where they took them. But they were out of our sight for about an hour and we trusted them. We loved them, and they loved us. They were our community.

I think of other times when I’ve experienced that kind of community in the church. When my dad passed away, I was only 27 years old. I woke up one morning as a 27-year-old and realized I was the patriarch of the family! We were living in Nashville and the Woodmont Hills Church became my community! It’s not only during bad or difficult times. When I completed that long and grueling process by finishing my PhD, I showed up at the Broadway building that night and my wonderful wife had planned a surprise party for me, and my Broadway family was there to celebrate that important moment in my life. Because they were my community. I know many of you have experienced that kind of community here or somewhere else. Those kinds of communities are special and they are rare and we must do everything we can to find and nourish communities like that!

One of the central values of this church is: Nourishing Relationships in the Body of Christ. From the very beginning of this congregation’s life, 65 years ago, members of this family have known just how important that kind of community really is. It’s not a fringe part of church life. Ministry outside these walls is not the only important thing that happens in church. There is something special and sacred about the relationships that are nourished inside these walls. You know, God could have organized His mission differently. God could have sent us out into the world as individuals, each working on our own or through our individual families to spread His message of hope and love, but that is not how God did it. God established the church, a community of people who engage God’s mission together! We do life together. We help raise each other’s kids! We attend each other’s weddings. We earn the right to get in each other’s faces when we mess up! There is something special about this kind of community!

I had a good friend who decided to “take a break” from church. He was tired of church not living up to his expectations of what church should be. He criticized the church leaders for making poor decisions. He said the church budget was all out of whack! He said people acted one way at church and another way on Monday. He said the church concentrated too much on programs and not enough on people. And he was right. The church does all of those things. Because the church is made up of flawed, human people. His solution was to take a break from church for awhile.

It is an interesting solution, really, and one that he did not invent. In fact, in the earliest decades of the church, that is the solution some folks came up with. When times get tough, when faith is hard to come by, when church is not all that we want it to be, their solution was to take a break. I want you to read the response of one church leader to their solution.
Brothers and sisters, we have confidence that we can enter the holy of holies by means of Jesus’ blood, through a new and living way that he opened up for us through the curtain, which is his body, and we have a great high priest over God’s house.
Therefore, let’s draw near with a genuine heart with the certainty that our faith gives us, since our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies are washed with pure water.
Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable.
And let us consider each other carefully for the purpose of sparking love and good deeds. Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:19–25 CEB)
The book of Hebrews was actually a first-century sermon. It was preached to a church that was enduring a tough time. Most of them were Jewish-Christians. Many of them had left everything to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus meant they had to leave their synagogue community, along with family, along with friends. It had been many years since Jesus left and they had expected Jesus to return a long time ago. And faith was getting tough. Some were wondering if it was worth it. Some had already decided it wasn’t, and they had left. Others were on the fence. “Church” was not what they wanted it to be! And these words were written to them. And here was the main point of the entire Hebrew sermon:

Don’t leave! Do not stop meeting together. When times get tough and when your faith is shaky, that is the last time you should think about leaving. Because life without church, that is life without your community. No church is perfect! But without the church, you do not have your community.

I grew up hearing this text used in a different way. “Do not forsake the assembly.” That is the way I remember hearing it. And we used this passage to guilt people into coming to church. You know, that interpretation of this text really misses the point. This passage is not about guilt. This passage is about community.
Do not quit meeting together…
Because when times are tough, you need each other…
When you doubt, when you question, when you are frustrated…
This is not the time to leave!
This is the time to lean into your community.
Do you know anyone who needs to hear this message today?

I’ll let you in on an ironic thing I’ve noticed over the last decade or so. When I was growing up, as I said, I heard more than one preacher beat the church on the head with this verse! “Do not forsake the assembly!” “That means Sunday night and Wednesday too!” Many years ago, some congregations began to rethink that interpretation, and I believe that is a good thing. This passage is not about church attendance. And you are not going to go to hell if you do not attend Wednesday night church.

But…

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon in recent years. Those “progressive” churches that told their folks, “You are not going to go to hell for missing church,” it seems members of those congregations took their preachers REALLY seriously! Here is what I’ve noticed. In so-called “progressive” Churches of Christ, attendance at non-Sunday morning activities has taken a nose dive in the last decades. And I hear church leader after church leader after church leader in those congregations say the same thing,
Our church family is so apathetic.
They are so non-commital.
It is as if the church has become a giver of gifts and services.
Folks are here as long as we give them what they want…
But people rarely show up for anything else.
On the other hand, I know quite a few more traditional churches that still put a lot of stock into Sunday night services or Wednesday night services. They still treat those services as mandatory. And there is a high degree of buy-in among members of those congregations. There are certainly exceptions to this rule! But I’ve seen it too many times to ignore. I think some of us, wanting to be less legalistic, have inadvertently given folks permission to treat their community too casually.

Look, I’m not advocating a return to Sunday night church! I am trying to describe the importance of making “meeting together” a priority in our lives. We need to make “nourishing our relationships in the Body of Christ” a priority. The reality is, church: Community takes work! It takes commitment. I think back to the movie we watched a few minutes ago. The reason those folks showed up in George Bailey’s living room is because he spent a lifetime building that community. He engaged those members of his community at a deep level for decades. Community doesn’t just happen.

The same is true for community in the church. I’m going to step on a few toes here. I hear more and more families talk about their desire for community in their lives. And I see fewer and fewer families make this community a priority for their family. Brothers and sisters, community doesn’t just happen. You will experience the community God has to offer you to the extent that you invest yourself in this community that God has offered you. I don’t want to guilt you into coming to church. But I do want you to experience the richness of the life-giving community God has planned for all of us.

As we begin the New Year, I have two challenges for you. First, I want you to make church attendance a priority this year. No, you are not going to go to hell if you miss church. Please don’t attend church to satisfy some legalistic mandate. Come here to be with these people because you desire to have real community with them. Second, have a member of this family into your home for a meal at least one time each month this year. Make nourishing relationships in this body a priority. Help your children get to know folks from another generation. Search out people you do not know well. Or, invest more deeply in the relationships that are already precious to you. God wants you to enjoy a wonderful life! And a wonderful life begins with real, genuine, deep, God-centered relationships. Work to make that a priority this year. I can think of few better new year’s resolutions than that!

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