A friend shared with me her commitment to remember, at the end of the day, three things she was thankful for. It included the loopy flight of a yellow warbler, the sound of silence, the crack of a baseball bat, and ice cream. But for the most part the list was about people and relationships---a sister or nephew, the stranger on the airplane who shared their story and asked for prayers, the book study group at church, the neighbor across the street who helps shovel the snow, the grocery store clerk with a great sense of humor, and her best friend with whom she can be her real self and not fear abandonment.
I don’t think this comes as a surprise. If you and I were marooned on an island, what would help make the experience more bearable beyond a food source and clean drinking water and perhaps a shade tree? We’d probably long for someone to lean on—to talk to—to be hopeful with, right?
A few years ago Tom Hanks starred in the movie Cast Away in which his character survives a plane wreck on an uninhabited island. A few FedEx packages survive the crash as well—producing volleyball. Hank’s character suffers a bloody hand wound which he uses to make a handprint on the volleyball, and adds a face and a name—Wilson. Wilson becomes his friend, someone he can talk to.
Friendship is also one of the topics of conversation in the book Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes introduces us to four main characters; two are human—Don Quixote and his squire Sancho. And two are not human—Don Quixote’s skinny horse Rocinante and the donkey Dapple. Rocinante the skinny horse and Dapple the sturdy and reliable donkey are dedicated friends. At one point in the book the author Cervantes describes their relationship this way: These two friends “used to approach and rub each other, most lovingly, and after they’d rested and refreshed themselves, Rocinante would lay his neck across Dapple’s-- it would extend almost half a meter on the other side---and staring intently at the ground, the two of them could stand this way for three days or, at least, for as long as they were permitted to do so or were not compelled by hunger to look for food.”
In his telling, Cervantes is offering humanity wisdom to live by as he invites humanity to consider for themselves such dedicated friendship. Cervantes writes, “I say, then, that…we can infer, to widespread admiration, how deep the friendship of these two peaceable animals must have been, to the shame of human beings who do not know how to maintain their friendships.”
Cervantes was on to something when he wrote Don Quixote—humanity struggles to maintain friendships.
In recent years, a west coast architect by the name of Ross Chapin has discovered great success in his Pocket Neighborhood building projects. Observing that so much of our struggles in society (depression, loneliness, latent human growth and development, communication, crime) stem from our tendency to distance ourselves from one another, Chapin builds not one home, but a cluster of homes centered around a commons area where people can meet and greet. Every home owner is responsible for the commons area, both the grass and the building, as well as their smaller, manageable property.
Every home has a front porch with wide benches for sitting--which Chapin considers to be another room of the house. Garages are tucked in the back of the development, encouraging persons to walk by their neighbors on the way to their own front door. His Pocket Neighborhoods have waiting lists for persons who want to live with other people in such a supportive, interactive setting.
When it comes to figuring out how to be fully human, American author Henry Miller said, “Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music - the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.”
This is also the same quest of the religion scholar who approached Jesus asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life (which means fully human)—and Jesus answers: 27 “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.” For Jesus the depth and breadth of our human experience is directly related to the quality of our relationship with God and others.
Maturity is not about being able to stand on our own two feet, it’s about being a part of the whole—God, neighbor--- with new understanding. As Dairmuid O’Murchu observes in his book In the Beginning Was the Spirit, “Belonging is the defining element in this new understanding. We become who we are---and what our potential makes possible—through our ability to belong.”
Did any of you read the letters to the editor in the Billings Gazette this morning around the NDO? The story that touched my heart was the one offered by the director of Tumbleweed—our program that addresses the needs of our troubled teenagers. “We see so many teenagers who, upon sharing with their families their sexual orientation, are expelled from their homes, from their families.”
I ask you, how are these children supposed to thrive? Who can they be apart from the family nucleus that nurtures them and gives them security? Community, beloved community, life-giving community!
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that belonging and flourishing is the role of the SPIRIT. In our lesson today from 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul teaches the Corinthian congregation about Spirit and community. It’s cutting edge.
First, whatever insight you and I have about God is a gift of the SPIRIT and not our own doing. What might the invitation be for us here today? I think it’s simple: we stand amazed. And we see ourselves as we really are—acted upon.
Second, God’s gifts originate in the Spirit, are carried out everywhere, and are expressed in a variety of ways. What might the invitation here be for us today? One might be that we let God surprise us—for us to be open—instead of certain, and closed.
Third, the gifts we’ve been given tell us who God is and not the other way around. The invitation here is for us to offer devotion TO GOD, instead of asking God to be devoted to us. By devotion I mean to truly appreciate God for who God us; to love.
Fourth, no one has all of the gifts. What might the invitation here be for us today? It might be to do the work to create healthy community where everyone belongs and flourishes—to respect one another—because we are better together.
And that, we understand, is by design.
And that takes us back to Don Quixote and Rocinante the horse and Dapple the donkey standing there in the field, heart to heart, for days. . . or at least until they need to eat.
As we grow in our understanding that we are better together, that we are fulfilled through belonging—what are ways we can defy the odds that we might not be so good at friendship…and redefine community, including our family, our neighborhood, our church, and our town?
What could we share? What do we have that might be given away?
What effort do we need to make to understand one another—be it a class on listening, or on prejudices, or a retreat on understanding diversity?
Who is lonely? Can we create some time for them? If I am lonely, can I create time for God?
Finally, as Christ asks us, could we figure out what we need—and then do it for someone else?
Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
Let us Pray: Our neighbors are made from the same earth, breathing the same air, held in the same hand, part of the same body, whose health is our health, in whose suffering we have a share, and whose joy, more than we may imagine, is ours to share. May we fall in love with community—your gift to us—that we might taste and see that you are good. Amen.
(This sermon was preached on June 8, 2014 by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana.)_