Sermon: The Blessings of Community

“The Blessings of Community”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
September 9, 2018

Psalm 133
How very good and pleasant it is
  when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
  running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
  running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
  which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained a blessing,
  life for evermore.

Matthew 18:20
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Ahhh – it is so good to look out and see all your faces, back from our various travels and summer schedules, reunited in community. I loved listening to catch-up conversations and seeing joyful hugs and greetings as I came into church today. I hope you all feel the love!

Yesterday after Alvira Gardner’s memorial service I was talking with Cindy Manson about how much we were both looking forward to Regathering Sunday. “Eating good food and having fun together,” she remarked, “two things we do really well.” She was right – and our conversation got me thinking about why it is that Regathering Sunday works – besides the food, I mean. Why do we look forward to it each year, why do we anticipate with such eagerness coming back together with one another, sharing a meal and laughter? How is it that we can say right along with the Psalmist, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity” – in Hebrew, essentially “togetherness”?

It may seem a simple thing, may even be something we take for granted since it does, indeed, happen each year. But I think it’s actually quite extraordinary, because it represents a community – a togetherness that is more rare and precious than it seems.

Think about all the layerings of relationship that go into such an event being a source of joy and camaraderie. Think of the thousands of countless interactions that built those relationships – the hugs and smiles on hundreds of Sunday mornings; the myriad calls and cards to check in on fellow parishioners; the hours spent talking while preparing the sanctuary for worship or setting out goodies for coffee hour or cleaning out storage spaces; the sickbeds visited, the funerals mourned and weddings celebrated, the babies passed around, the prayers prayed.

In an age of increasing distance – the digital kind, the political kind – between and even isolation among actual human beings, the sense of connectedness brought about through  is nothing short of an ordinary miracle. Given our tendency as a species toward conflict and division, it actually is a miracle in any age. Did you notice how the Psalmist compares such togetherness to the costly, spice-filled oil used to anoint the highest priest in the land?

Just in the last week I’ve been reminded of those sacred, everyday moments that knit us together in community. Yesterday at Alvira’s memorial service when the family invited those gathered to share a memory from her life, Meredythe Schober raised her hand and said that one year Alvira had called her on her birthday. When Meredythe picked up, Alvira jumped right into a sung rendition of Happy Birthday, putting a smile on Meredythe’s face all these years later.

At Learning to Pray this week, members of our long-running Bible study recalled with tenderness the time their group went to the home of Bible study stalwart Hans Gramm as he lay close to death. In an atmosphere thick with holiness, they gathered around his bed and sang hymns to him, reminding him and each other of the powerful love between people brought together not by relatedness but by a mutual desire to seek out God.

Do you know what people say about Park Avenue? They say “I belong here. I’m so grateful for my church family. I’m so glad there’s a place I can come talk about God with people who get it. Your all’s prayers meant so much to me.” (Okay, they don’t say “your all’s,” but as a former inhabitant of the South I find it to be a very useful plural.)

And one year into my repatriation as a New Englander, I can safely add my voice to that chorus: I belong here. I’m so grateful for you, my church family. I’m so glad there’s a place I can come talk about God with people who want to do the same! And yes, your all’s prayers – for me, for my family, for this church, for each other, for the world – mean so much to me.

Do you know what goes into making a community like this continue to tick? What makes it vibrant, alive, not stagnant but thriving? The secret is in this morning’s scripture, particularly in the somewhat odd images the Psalmist uses to describe “togetherness,” community.

The first is the anointing oil running down over the beard and collar of Aaron, the first high priest of the Israelite people. As the main laundry person in our household, I could not initially figure out why being together is like a bunch of oil poured on something that would just have to be washed later, probably stained beyond redemption. It turns out that the secret of this special oil for anointing was that it was not just oil, but oil mixed with four spices: cinnamon, cassia, cane, and myrrh, which were variously used for everything from perfume to incense to medication to flavoring food. It may sound seem strange to say that unity is like a blend of four very different spices, but that’s what makes it precious – a community built on togetherness not because we’re the same, but because of our diversity – our different experiences, opinions, and gifts.

Then there is the laundry crisis I mentioned earlier. This varied blend of spiced oil, though quite expensive, was poured so liberally onto Aaron that it overflowed onto his beard and collar, with no thought of scarcity or waste. That’s how community thrives, it turns out – not on guarded calculations of how much we’ll get back if we give, but on an outpouring of love, the most precious thing we have, for one another.

That brings us to our second curious image from the Psalm comparing togetherness to the dew on Mt. Hermon. Time for a brief climatology lesson: for much of the year in the Holy Land, no rain falls and the crops (and people) rely on dew that condenses on the ground overnight. Mt. Hermon, in the north, gets an abundant coating of dew most nights from humid air coming in over the Mediterranean, which allows plants to thrive there, while the mountains of Zion in Jerusalem to the south receive much less and plants struggle to grow. In years with above average dew accumulation, the effect on the dry southern territory is like applying extra fertilizer, and a bumper crop is produced. The Psalmist likens togetherness to this phenomenon, saying that community is created when one part shares its gifts with another so that both may enjoy abundance.

It’s the goal outlined in our Why statement: to practice deep connection with God and one another, so that we may live as true neighbors, belonging to and caring for one another as our own. And we get there not by ignoring our differences or keeping our gifts to ourselves, but by embracing our differences and abundantly, joyfully sharing what we’ve been given by a God who finds togetherness so important that God chose community – from the gathered Hebrew people to the disciples sharing life with Jesus to this very congregation – as the place where we receive the blessings of life forevermore: of connectedness, of meaning, of purpose and belonging.

“I belong here. I’m so grateful for my church family. I’m so glad there’s a place I can come talk about God with people who get it. Your all’s prayers meant so much to me.”

These various words have been said by people brand new to our church community and by folks who have been part of it for decades. They have been said by folks of different ages, orientations, and races. They have been said by people looking for a place to explore their questions, people longing for fellowship, people wracked by illness or grief desiring companions on their journey. The one thing they have in common is that they have found what they were looking for here, in our community – the blessings of life forevermore.

So on this ReGathering Sunday, as we come back together and undertake the start of a new year with one another, I’m curious to know: what spice do you add to our holy oil? What dew do you have in abundance that sharing would bring you and others a bumper crop of joy? For it is in discerning these gifts and sharing them that we find ourselves in the presence of our God who delights in our togetherness. Amen.