The Power of Community

March 22, 2020
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Ephesians 3:1-20

As the coronavirus sweeps across the globe causing a rising level of fear, and leaving anguish in its wake, it’s tempting for us to be overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness. None of us has ever lived through a pandemic, except for one of our current church members born in 1915 (and still going strong!).

This is new territory. It’s easy to feel powerless right now.

Today and over the next three Sundays we’ll think together about power – how scripture views it, how the church uses it, and how we can benefit from it as we face this crisis together.

Today we look at the power of community.

One of the impulses driving creation, as the story unfolds in the Book of Genesis, is the divine desire to generate human community. When humanity is made in the image of God and placed in the Garden, we’re told to steward the earth. We usually think of that solely in terms of the environment – but we are also stewards of the gift of human community.

The Presbyterian Church’s Brief Statement of Faith, adopted in 1991, says,

“In sovereign love God created the world good and makes everyone equally in God’s image, male and female, of every race and people, to live as one community.” (emphasis mine)

Today we might say, “male, female, and non-binary,” but the point of this affirmation of faith is that the goodness of God’s love – the imago dei – is embedded in all of us. God’s image is seen most clearly in us when the human family lives as one community.

The author of Ephesians speaks of the creation of community that heals a fractured humanity. This new community – really the recovery of the one humanity envisioned at Creation – is made known in Jesus Christ.

“In former generations,” the writer says,

“This mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed…by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:5-6)

The promise of our faith is that the human family is one. The Gentiles – previously outside the circle – have become fellow heirs, members of the same body. The gospel makes the bold claim that the human family is no longer divided. We are one community, and there is power when we are united in purpose.

A friend who has been in recovery for many years told me their AA group met this week via Zoom technology. They didn’t know how to start the meeting, so my friend suggested they begin with the first of the 12 steps: “I am powerless.” As they talked they acknowledged their individual powerlessness, something started to happen. They began to find strength in one another, even though they were not actually together. My friend said, “The sense of community was palpable.”

That’s the power of human community.

One of the ironies of this time of being apart from one another, isolated in our homes, perhaps feeling helpless, is that the power of community is so much more evident. Just when we thought our culture and our politics and our nation were flying apart, now that we are apart we’re suddenly and keenly aware of what was missing, because we’re discovering it anew.

It’s as if the biblical story of the purpose of human life has been instantly clarified: we exist to live together, as one community. Our insistence on the independence of the individual is giving way to an awareness that we cannot live long without one another. The best chance we have against the coronavirus is to exercise the power we have as a community to stay isolated and work together. All of us. If the community acts as one, we will slow the pandemic.

The power of community.

Last week the New York Times ran a story with the headline, When the World Falls Apart, People Come Together. It was a report on the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, a disaster of biblical proportions visited upon the young city of Anchorage. With a magnitude of 9.2 that lasted four and half minutes, the earthquake destroyed much of the city of 100,000 people.

“Life,” one person said, “Was ripping into a before and after.”

That may be happening among us now, if only more slowly. In the future we may come to reckon time in terms of before and after the pandemic of 2020.

What will we remember most about this time? That question was the focus of the article on the Alaska earthquake. Experts had predicted that survivors of a major disaster would be desperate and panicked, and that pandemonium and chaos would reign. When researchers arrived on the scene only 28 hours after the quake, they were stunned at what they found.

“The community,” they reported, “Was meeting the situation with a staggering amount of collaboration and compassion.”

People immediately began helping others, pulling them from the rubble and leading them to safety. Boy Scouts entered a damaged hospital to help patients find their way to the cars that had pulled up to ferry them to another facility.

Now, an earthquake is not a pandemic. The one occurs instantaneously and is fairly localized; the other is slower-moving and global. But neither is predictable. Neither is a respecter of persons. And the traumatic impact of both depends largely on people’s response to them.

“Everybody was trying to do a little bit of everything for everybody,” one man in Anchorage said. That’s what people remembered.

What will endure from our experience of the pandemic unfolding around us?

A nurse named Dolly Fleming was in a stairway that day in Anchorage when the earthquake began. She saw a young boy in front of her being thrown around. Instinctively, she grabbed him and held him close to keep him calm and protected as they rode out the shaking together. Nurse Fleming would report many decades later at age 93 that being with that child was her lasting memory of the disaster.

“Something surprising had been shaken loose in Anchorage” – the researchers in Alaska concluded – “A dormant capacity — even an impulse — for people to come together and care for one another that felt largely inaccessible in ordinary life.” (NYTimes, March 15, 2020)

They had discovered the power of community. That power is at the heart of the Christian gospel. It was the center of the ministry of Jesus. It is God’s hope for the world. And it is the mission of the Church. Jesus came to save us from our human tendency to break apart into divided groups: the Gentiles – in the language of that era…those deemed “other” then, or in our time– have become fellow heirs, members of the same body. We are in this together. We all share in the promises and risks of life.

Our best hope right now is that we would recognize the power in our being one, and acting together, like nurse Fleming, to protect one another.

Children understand this instinctively. They crave community where they can belong and be safe. In this time of separation parents are helping them meet that need creatively. Technology helps. Our nephew sent a photo of his nine-year old daughter, isolated with the family at home in Portland for some weeks now, sitting before a computer having a play date with about ten friends, all on the screen at the same time.

We will get through this together, even when apart. There is power in community.

I used to think that connections through technology were not genuine, but I ‘ve gotten over that. It’s real community. Like this worship service: this is not virtual worship. This is genuine worship. Our prayers are real, the sermon is actual, the shared experience of the music is authentic. We may be apart, but we are worshipping God together as the one Body of Christ.

A Westminster member living alone at home emailed this week to tell me that online worship has become an anchor in their week. Without it, they said, the cycle of time in their life is so disrupted that it’s disorienting. Another member isolated at home alone emailed to say they watched all four of our online services last week, and each was a “lifeline.”

They were finding that they still belonged, were still loved.

The gospel’s claim of the power of community is fundamental and foundational to our humanity. A recent article relates the story of anthropologist Margaret Mead being

“asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture…Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000-year-old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. This particular bone had been broken and had healed…A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.” (https://www.forbes.com/sites/remyblumenfeld/2020/03/21/how-a-15000-year-old-human-bone-could-help-you-through-the–coronavirus/#12b2df9937e9)

The church’s role in combatting this pandemic is to remind the world around us of our oneness. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, insider or outsider, for all are one in the human family. That was God’s intention from the start.

The power of community gives us strength and resilience.

Last Thursday afternoon I was isolated on the roof of Westminster Hall in the rain. A technician had flown up that morning from Charleston, South Carolina, to do the final test of the Westminster Bells. I stood on the roof by myself and waited for the lowest bell, the bourdon, to ring for the first time. After final adjustments, the big bell began to swing, slowly, at first.

It took a full minute for the 9,000 pounds to gain enough momentum that the clapper hanging down inside finally struck the bell. It was a beautiful, sonorous, deep tone. I felt it as much as heard it.

And then I heard something else – a shout coming from across the street.

I went over and carefully looked over the edge of the roof at the apartment buildings facing Westminster. People had come out onto their balconies. They were cheering and waving. A moment before they’d been sitting alone, isolated from the world and their neighbors. With the sound of the bells suddenly they felt connected, part of a larger whole.

It was our version of the Italians singing to one another from the windows of their quarantined apartments.

A few solitary walkers on the sidewalk below looked up and waved. One person put her hand over her heart and threw it up to me.

Neighbors began emailing and calling the church, thanking us – except for the guy who was on a conference call directly across the street, but even he said they were lovely. People reported feeling a sense of hope and unity and courage from the sound.

The bells were reminding them of the one humanity envisioned at Creation.

We are not powerless. The coronavirus is stirring the community to life, awakening an old memory that we are rooted and grounded in love for one another.

In this crisis moment the church – you and I, as followers of Jesus – the church is called to help the community know “the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love for all of us, equally and unconditionally. (Ephesians 3:18)

That’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, the One whom we follow in this challenging time.

The One who, “by the power at work within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20)

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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