The Discipline of Community

The Discipline of Community
Rev. Michael Livingston
2 Samuel 23:1-7 • John 18:33-37
November 21, 2021


David was done, his remarkable run over.  From a young and frail red-headed runt to a favored King among whose descendants would come a human life for all seasons…from a stunning victory on the battlefield, past a transgression dishonoring his character, staining his integrity, to a ruler who at 30 years old united disparate tribes into a nation, a community of communities… Giant slayer, poet, lover, king.  David.  You’d think his final words would rehearse his great victory over Goliath or the greatest hits of his reign.  But no, he becomes again the lyrical poet, the wise sage.  His last words are of higher things.  He leaves a kind of legacy of wisdom…he speaks not of battles, but of spirit, house, covenant.

The whole history of the Hebrew people pivots with David.  They have resisted anything like what David brings.  There is the wandering Aramean of their beginning—Abraham, with Sarah settling down in a land of promise.  Small, tribal, insular, tents are their dwellings.  There is defeat and exile, over and over again.  Regrouping, desperate clinging to an ethnic and religious identity unlike anything around them.  There is escape from enslavement in Egypt, that pivotal moment that gave way to more wandering by tribes, more uncertainty about the future.  They don’t want to be like others, multiple gods, a pantheon of colorful deities for every circumstance, conquering nations and their Kings.

Who is this one God and what does he/she/it want?  The Hebrew bible is a running commentary on their evolving understanding of Yahweh, this God whose name cannot be spoken, who was, and is, and is to come; this God with them on every spin of the cycle.  It’s an ancient wheel of fortune: spin and learn your fate, spin again:  win a cool vacation, lose a turn, spin again. It’s one covenant after covenant:  Abraham—an all-inclusive empire over all the earth, all nations.  Cain killed that.  Noah and the promise of the rainbow over every living thing, not just humankind.  That didn’t work.  The rainbows still come but there was and is no peace.  Moses: let’s write this covenant on tablets of stone, let’s make this plain so everybody gets it.  Just ten simple rules.  “You shall not kill.”  Well…The tablets are broken, the commandments walked upon like water rushing over cracked sea shells on the shore.  Jeremiah, let’s write the covenant on every heart, since the stones didn’t work.

They are listening—through their experiences, divining, meditating, debating, evaluating, evolving, their view of the God of creation changing with every cycle, every experience of disaster and rebirth.  They are interrogating their experience, their history.  They are exercising a kind of discipline of community that is still going on to this very day, both within Judaism and the Christian tradition given birth in their sacred history.

“It may sound strange to speak of community as discipline, but without discipline community becomes a ‘soft’ word, referring more to a safe, homey, and exclusive place than to the space where new life can be received and brought to its fullness.  Wherever true community presents itself, discipline is crucial.”  (Henri Nouwen, Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life)

Our nation is a community, but it’s not true community yet, its soft, homey, exclusive—if you’re a corporation—it’s not true community and that is astonishing to say with the 250th anniversary approaching.  A 250th Anniversary is a Semiquincentennial.  Say that real fast three times.  Remember the Bicentennial?  Tall Ships and fireworks.  Jennifer Finney Boylan, our neighbor at Barnard, wrote an opinion piece for WAPO last July 4th remembering a commercial with Paul Revere riding through town drinking a Coca-Cola.  “The picnic is about to start.”  That’s only part of the subversion of our grand beginning, America as a fun-loving-tail gate-partying-giant-ATM for the wealthy.  While the harsh realities are submerged as if they never happened.  And now, in too many places, telling the truth about our history is against the law.  Feelings may be hurt.  Harvard law professor Noah Feldman’s latest book is The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America asserts that the constitution itself was a victory for the slave-holding south, that it was broken from the start, that Lincoln and the Civil War refounded the nation.  I don’t know how you argue with that—though the reviewer does.  Our democracy has remained unrecognizable, made so by white hooded men who by day walk among us with smiles on their faces and work among us as judges, lawmen, politicians, and talk show hosts.

And now Rittenhouse.  The definition of “outside agitator” has become clearer with the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse – you have to be concerned about injustice, from out of town, and Black, and being a preacher helps—that makes you an outside agitator.  If you’re white and seventeen and you drive across state lines and borrow a semiautomatic weapon and kill two people and wound another, you’re simply defending yourself.

The last steps Jacob Blake may ever take were as he was walking away from three police officers aiming their guns at him.  He was shot in the back.  The officer who paralyzed him was never prosecuted.  Protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black life that didn’t matter, brought them together.  We care more about the right to bear arms than we do the lives taken by them.  We honor self-defense above common sense.  What can we expect in the trial of Travis and Greg McMichael, and William Bryan?  Father, son, and neighbor tracked down and killed Ahmaud Arbery, guilty of nothing more than jogging through their white neighborhood.  No justice.  No peace.  When will this end?

There is a drawing of Travon Martin holding his soda and skittles over his head next to Kyle Rittenhouse holding his machine gun.  The caption is “Says it all.”  Trayvon is still dead.  His mom says she’s happy Kyle can get back to his life.

“How, then, can we move from fragmentation to unity, from many things to the one necessary thing, from our divided lives to undivided lives in the Spirit?”  Nouwen again.

Do you pray?  Do you sit in silence and wait for God…to speak, to move, to awaken in you the desire to be whole?  To be fully who God intended you to be?  to get you out of the trouble you got yourself in?  To plant in you the seed of joy?  We are I believe, spiritual beings, formed of the dust of the universe, dwelling in these human bodies for a season, to return to the universe from which we came, to join again, that great communion of all that was, and is, and is to come.  We must each practice the discipline of solitude.  If you don’t slow it down, sit, and think, meditate, pray and listen—you’re running on empty all the time, not sufficiently charged to go the distance of a day or a lifetime.  On the other side of the nap that welcomes you into solitude, is the possibility of a keen awareness of the still, small, voice of God—beyond the noise of the streets, the anxiety of the present, the trepidation about what the future might hold, will bring.

“A person’s plan might be bold, beautiful, magnanimous and popular but still not be God’s plan. A person’s ambition might be admirable and selfless but still not be congruent with God’s ambition. Our lives are not about us. God’s plans for us are always greater, more expansive, and more life-giving than our plans for ourselves.” Robert Barron, OT commentary on Samuel

So, it is for each of us alone and so it is with congregational life, our life together.  We may make what we think are bold and beautiful plans, prophetic and challenging to the systems that govern our lives and exploit the most vulnerable among us.  God’s plan may be greater, more expansive and life-giving than anything we can imagine.  God may want to lead us out of the dysfunctional ways that have too often been our path.  I’m talking about Riverside now: the tortured ending of too many of our relations with pastors—no matter how storied the preacher: Coffin, Forbes, Braxton, Butler.  Do we pray and listen, meditate and listen, fast and listen—as a congregation?  Have we over the decades?  Do we now?  Do we exercise the discipline of community so that we are not safe, homey, exclusive despite our protestations of “international, interracial, interdenominational?”  I want to say for the most part yes.  We are a remarkable Christian community, have been and are.  Amen.  And yet…there is also this:

Too many lawyers, not enough lament. Too much litigation, not enough love.  Plenty of social justice, not enough social.  Especially since we have not been able to be together in this space, as rich as our time has been online, in virtual space, we have not been able to touch and embrace, to look into one another’s eyes and see each other, to feel the warm heat of our bodies singing in the sanctuary, passing the peace, communing in the coffee hour, laughing and talking about little things and important things; planning, holding one another accountable for who we are, how we speak to one another, what we do or fail to do together.

Even as I say that I want you to know it is beginning to happen.  A few weeks ago, the daily morning prayer group—online for almost a year now, met on a Westside rooftop for a joyous afternoon of food and conversation, laughter and warmth.  That’s the discipline of community.  This past Friday 55 of us gathered online at sunrise, 6:48am for prayer, liturgy, and song—David Vaughn sang for us Blessed Assurance.  Oh my.  So began a day of fasting for Riverside in anticipation of our gathering for our congregational meeting this afternoon.  That’s the discipline of community.

“Community…is obedience practiced together.  The question is not simply, ‘Where does God lead me as an individual person who tries to do [God’s] will.’  More basic and more significant is the question, ‘Where does God lead us as a people?’”  (Nouwen). That’s what congregational meeting are for—God to speak and guide, to discipline through order and love, to gather and embrace, speak truth and correct, shower grace and love upon the community where two or three or two hundred are gathered—Christ in our midst.

Hear David: “The spirit of the Lord speaks…Is not my house like this with God?  For God has made with us an everlasting covenant…” Join in somewhere, regular worship is the beginning, the grounding—online, in-person.  And somewhere else, dig in—not to have your way, my way, but to hear God speak and to feel the Spirit in this house; God among us—calling, showering us with grace and love, knitting us together so that together we may help to change the world around us.  Amen.