Saturday, July 30, 2016

How Did We Get Here? Created For Community

Created for Community                                               7/24/16

Ruth 1:14-22, Philemon

With the fall of the Roman Empire came the slow decline of many towns throughout Europe.  This was expected.  Many Roman towns had no real geographical or economic reasons for existence.  A retired war general or senator would pick out land, build a palace on it, and then whatever other buildings/businesses were needed for palace survival were then built alongside.

The emergence of monasteries accompanies the decline of the Empire.  Here were communities with purpose.  People gathered together in like minded purposes to escape the tribulation of the world and to pray, and read Scripture.  But they too often had geographical restrictions about them.

In the Medieval world, we see a wonderful model emerge and prosper:  the town.  It is the reaction to the Roman town's purposelessness, and the feudal system's demeaning model.  Here was community, built along water ways and trade routes, that gathered people together for life together.

Europe was growing, and so was the success of the crops.  There was enough food to eat.  And so people were free to expand their trades to do more than just survive.  Originally, artisans would work, load up their creations in wagons and go on the road to sell.   But the town offered a new way of life:  the marketplace. Marketplaces were licensed by the King, often gathered in the center of the town, alongside the sanctuary.  Guilds sprung up throughout parts of the town, and this allowed warehouses to be built and business owners to sell where they lived.  It was a marvelously successful model.

Town life was also interesting.  There were windy brick and stone streets (rather than the modern way of buildings having to fit the road, here the road fit what already existed.  There was a mix of gardens and shade and open doors to family businesses.  The market would also include some travelers who brought items from far away lands.

Town life was an expression of ownership through participation.  There were no police forces, the towns citizens policed.  Citizens closed the draw bridge at night.  Citizens took turns watching guard.  It was understood that everyone participated, and that was the only way to make it work.

Towns in Medieval Europe were not large.  Paris was the biggest at 100,000 people.  Cities whose names we recognize today might have only had 25-40 thousand people.  Imagine living your whole life in a town of that size.  Between you and your family, you might have met, or at least recognize the name or profession of every family living in your town.   This sense of community, and the need to work together, guided the Medieval town.

It is not by accident that modern supermarkets remake themselves in a town market model.  It is not by accident that big box stores have centers, which act like the guilds of the Medieval town.  It is not by accident that successful groups work hard to make you feel known and welcome and have a sense of belonging.   This is simply the correction to the extreme individualism brought about by the modern world.  Yes, we are individuals, but we were really created for community.

The story of Western Civilization is many things, and reaches throughout the entire earth.  But at times throughout its long history, it has embodied some important values from Scripture.  This summer we are lifting up these values to help us understand our position as a church in 21st century America.  We have seen from oral history that humankind is made for more than surviving, that wisdom together was modeled by Classical Greece, the human need to seek that which endures from Rome, and that in the midst of the kingdoms of this world God makes his proclamation of salvation.   This week, our theme comes from the Medieval world, and its successful community living.


Ultimately, Scripture teaches that humans are created for community.  First and foremost, community with the Truine God, but also with neighbors, friends, family and church.  Community is the way to understand ourselves, to grow, and to support one another as we move toward God’s will.


The story of Ruth teaches us to be community as we travel towards God's salvation.  There are four characters in today’s reading.  We briefly meet Orpah, a daughter in law to Naomi.  Naomi has pleaded with Ruth and Orpah that she feels overwhelmed by the thought of traveling together and that it would be better to part ways in Moab.  Orpah, though not without weeping, agrees and goes her different way.


Ruth does not agree with Naomi's counsel.  Rather than separate, she clings more tightly to her mother in law.  In this moment, she makes one of the more beautiful and profound declarations of intent:  (1:16-18).  Together, they travel back to Naomi's home of Bethlehem.


The third character is the townspeople.  They are shocked to see Naomi return.  After all, Naomi had left when things got difficult. "Can this be Naomi?" they whisper as she comes home.  The people are also part of the story because they then hear Naomi's self-description about God's affliction.  The townspeople continue in a non-speaking role in the rest of chapter one.  It was barley harvest.  The people get back to work.


Finally, we see Naomi, a difficult character to peg.  She had left Bethlehem in difficult times of famine.  At first glance, it seems harsh to blame her family for such actions, but did others leave?  When she returns, there was a population who knew her:  they had stayed, and endured difficult times.   When today's reading begins, she has urged, even begged her daughter in laws to leave her.  To provide and remain together seems too difficult to Naomi.  Yet we see Naomi, after Ruth's passionate speech, willing to  travel with her daughter in law, displaying some awareness of the value of community that her daughter has verbalized.


When Naomi, whose name means pleasant, hears the townspeople talk of her return, her struggle becomes evident:  Do not call me pleasant, call me bitter (mara).  I had it all, until God took it away.  I was full, and God made me come back empty.  It is the Lord who has afflicted me, and brought misfortune upon me.   The community listens to Naomi pour out her soul.


If we were to read on in the story, Naomi seems to settle in back home, and eventually provides help and a better sense of community to Ruth as she enters into what God has for her.


Ruth's sense of community is ultimately rewarded in a way only God could do.  Ruth was a Moabite, outside of God's covenant with Israel, a gentile, one from the nations, and a hated nation from Israel's perspective.  But Ruth's willingness and desire to become part of the covenant is noticed by Naomi, the townspeople and ultimately her kinsmen redeemer, Boaz.  Boaz and Ruth marry, and Ruth eventually becomes the grandmother to a shepherd named David.  Ruth's obedience to God ushers her into the community of God's people, and her place in the salvation story.  Ruth is an ancestor to Jesus Christ. You never know how  obedience to the Lord will bless the world.


Our second story today is from New Testament times.  There is an influential man named Philemon, whose family has a church that meets in their home.  Long before sanctuaries and buildings, early Christian communities met in homes.  They were often larger homes, capable of hospitality for smaller groups.  Philemon has slaves in his household, and one of them escapes, his name is Onesimus.  In a story whose author must be God, Onesimus comes into the service of the Apostle Paul while he is imprisoned.  He becomes a valuable helper in gospel work.  Upon learning that he is an escaped slave, Paul writes his master Philemon, with whom Paul had done gospel work, to request that Philemon not pursue legal action or personal justice, but rather, use this opportunity to teach and model the good news of the gospel.  In Christ, believers become brothers and sisters in the faith.  Paul urges Philemon to relate to Onesimus brother to brother, not master to slave.


The theme of this short letter is the importance of relating to people of faith spiritually.  After all, we were created for community:  with God, with brother and sister in faith, with neighbor, family and friends.  When we believe in Jesus Christ, he becomes our master, and we are his servants.   We take on a story that is not our own making, but rather, a story that makes us.  This includes being family with the family of God.  The people that we worship alongside, we should not relate primarily because we live near each other, or because we share similar interests, think alike on various topics, or because we have the similar understanding of what success looks like in today's world.  We relate to each other because, through God's great generosity, we will live together forever.  In heaven, we will look back with great gladness to God that he allowed us to know each other before arriving into ever lasting life.  We have started a never ending story here and now.  We are community because of Jesus Christ.  He is Lord.  We are his followers.  His followers are invited into deeper relationship with the Lord, as Jesus called his disciples “friends”.


Paul’s letter speaks to the value of community:  the church in home, Philemon’s family living as believers, Philemon’s love for God’s holy people, his previous effective work for God’s kingdom, his refreshing the hearts of the Lord’s people.  Paul ends his letter bringing greetings to Philemon from several who had wished him well.




To tie these stories together:

--Naomi reminds us that even in difficulty, there is community to support you. 

--Ruth models to us a thoughtful, selfless support, and see God’s blessing in that.

--Philemon models that we always have opportunity to grow spiritually with one another, and that is our primary relationship as community:  the practice of being the Lord’s people.

--Paul exhorts us to keep the matters of God’s kingdom as our priority, and to enter the life Christ desires and the Lord wills, there will be a deepening sense of community.


Hymn writer Shirley Murray says it this way in her beautiful words for Now to Your Table Spread:  Here is our commonwealth, in sharing what is good.  She is speaking of the Lord’s table, the ultimate biblical symbol of the new community Christ is building. 


Here is our commonwealth, in sharing what is good.  Community is good.  We are created to be in community.

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