|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
March 8, 2017
Psalm 133:1-3; Acts 2:42-47; Quran 4:36
I was a precocious child: I emerged from the womb on my own strength and took the tools from the doctor and cut my own umbilical cord. To tell you the truth, I hadn’t even needed that cord in the first place, having obtained my own food through my own hard work in utero.
I slept in a crib of my own making, nourished myself with milk from cows I had found in the wild and domesticated myself. I spun cotton in plants I myself had raised from seedlings and wove my own clothing. I taught myself to speak and read merely by conducting my own extensive field research and deducing through my own mental ability the phonetic values of each letter. Having taught myself to read, I self-educated all the way from pre-school on up, when I wasn’t busy with everything else. There was not a scrap of clothing that I wore that I did not make, not a morsel of food that I ate that I did not harvest or kill myself. Not a piece of information that I did not obtain but through the deductive powers of my own intellect. I am not now, nor have I ever been, in need of anyone for anything. I am the very definition of the “self-made man.”
Well, all of that is, of course, absurd.
But it’s just the logical extreme of an idea that is quite prevalent in our culture today: the idea of the self-made person, the rugged individual, the one who has lifted themselves up by their own bootstraps.
II. THE MYTH
It’s a powerful myth, but it’s a myth nonetheless. We imagine ourselves as entirely independent, as atomistic, wholly realized and separate individuals. We don’t need nothin’ from noone. But that is demonstrably false.
Contrary to my own fanciful history, we do not come out of the womb able to take care of ourselves. We are fed, clothed, nurtured with food we did not plant, clothes we did not make, and care we could not give ourselves. We are taught by others who accumulated knowledge given to them by yet others. We are given so much by so many others.
We will ignore for now the unacknowledged privilege that statements of self-madeness generally evidence, and focus on the deeper problem of overly focusing on the individual alone rather than on the individual as the product of a community. All such attitudes elevate the individual above even the need for a community, or at the very least, emphasize the goal of being independent of and free from the constraints of a community.
The metaphor usually used to describe this kind of individual, self-made success—lifting oneself up by one’s own bootstraps—describes something that is literally, physically impossible. It makes me wonder whether the idea wasn’t always meant as an ironic joke, and makes me wonder further why we haven’t caught onto this before.
III. THE TEXTS
Well, the truth of it is that we have. We have just forgotten—or ignored—the lessons. Because to be honest, our religious traditions have been fairly unanimous on this count.
At the beginning of the first Hebrew creation story in Genesis, we are told that human beings are created in the plural: “male and female he created them,” we are told. In the second creation story in the next chapter when only one human being is created, God observes, “It is not good that the human being is alone,” and creates another human being as helper and counterpart.
When Abraham is called by God, he is promised to be the father of a multitude. When the Israelites are led out of Egypt, they are led out as a nation and receive the law through Moses as a people. The Psalmist writes, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” and the prophets address the sins of the people in not recognizing their obligations to one another in community. When the prophets write of Israel in the text, they are rarely referring to the land or to the Patriarch Jacob, they are referring to the people as a whole.
In the prayers that arise from that same tradition, the people pray, עלינו לשבח לאדון הכל… Aleinu l’shabeiach l’Adon ha-Kol… “It is upon us to praise the Lord of All…” At the high holidays, the faithful pray, אבינו מלכינו Avinu Malkeinu… “Our Father, Our King…” It is no wonder then that a son of that tradition should teach his own followers to pray, “Our Father in heaven, holy be your name…”
It is likewise no wonder that those who continued to follow after him would gather in community, as we read in the passage from the New Testament Book of Acts:
All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity.
That sounds so communitarian as to be downright… socialist. And their great teachers to instruct them to value the interests of the others.
Nor should it surprise us that centuries later, the Prophet Muhammad should reveal a Qur’an in which so many of the oracles of God are addressed to the second person plural—ye, y’all, youse, y’uns. Nor should it surprise us that there is a tradition of the Prophet in which he makes it clear that the community has something to say about whether you merit salvation or not:
“…for any Muslim who dies and four of his close neighbors testify that they have known him to be good, God, The Highest, will say, “I have accepted your testimony and have forgiven him for what you do not know about.”
Community is so important that some have even argued that it was impossible to be a person of faith without community.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once opined on the question of “holy solitaries”—those Christians who attempted to become holy in isolation from other Christians. Wesley said:
Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.
For Wesley, it was self-evident that one could not be faithful in isolation. Community was essential to that task.
This idea of the importance of the community is not limited to the Western religions—the Eastern traditions likewise have a de-emphasis on self, a surrender to that which is greater than you. All have communitarian aspects and involve community celebrations and commemorations as part of the tradition. It seems that the religions are of one accord on this: community is important.
IV. THE WHY OF IT ALL
But why? What is it that compels the religious voice to call us into community? What is it about community that is so essential to religious faith that every single major tradition seems so committed to it?
It is because the traditions are of the opinion that it is only in community that the faithful can truly know God. Or wisdom. Or Truth. Or Love. That is, whatever that community’s ultimate definition of reality might be, there is near universal agreement that the way to get closer to that reality is with one another in community.
It is why the peoplehood of Israel is so central to Judaism. Why the Christians speak of the Trinity as a community within God’s own oneness of being. Why the Muslims refer to the obligations toward the umma, the community of the faithful and speak of fellowship with Jews and Christians as fellow “people of the book.” It is why all religious traditions gather on a regular basis to tell their stories, recommit to their values, and worship their God. It is because community has been that vessel through which so many have found meaning and purpose. It is that through which the “voice of God” speaks.
In my own case—my real case—my ordination was not the result of me claiming to have a calling from God to serve the church. The six years of calling, candidacy, examination, and probation before ever a stole was placed across my shoulders were all the church’s way of saying, “We understand that you say you’ve been called by God, but allow us to determine whether that’s really the case.” It is the community through whom God speaks; not the individual. Even the prophets—through whom God spoke directly—are only known to us because the rest of us decided they had indeed been speaking the divine word and published them.
Community isn’t only where God can be heard; it’s where God can be felt. In the Christian tradition there is an oft-heard sentiment that God doesn’t give you more than you can bear. It’s one of those quotes that’s really nice except for the part where it can nowhere be found in the Bible. And is directly contradicted by other parts of the Bible. Specifically by the accounts of Jesus, whose death by crucifixion is the account of one dying as a result of his own body literally being unable to bear its own weight. No, it turns out that there are plenty of things that come our way that we cannot bear. History and our experience is replete with examples of people being crushed by circumstances that they could not bear.
The real message of faith is not that we will not face burdens we can’t bear, it’s that we do not have to bear those burdens alone. We come together in community to celebrate one another’s joys and bear one another’s burdens. We come because we recognize deep down that we are not self-made. We cannot do this alone. We need help. “It is not good that the human being is alone.” We need each other. When we let down our guard long enough to acknowledge that, when we let go of our “rugged individualism” pride long enough, we can open ourselves up to a resource that provides more for us than we ever could do on our own.
All of our religious traditions are really communal efforts to explore truth, to find meaning, to discern purpose together. Our religions are themselves the product of community. They are the monument that testifies to the fact that the most powerful searches for truth, purpose, and meaning have been in community.
This is something we know here on this campus. This very monthly chapel service was born out of the tragedies of the summer. When mass killing in Orlando, the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the shooting of five Dallas police officers and three Baton Rouge officers, heightened racial tensions, bombings in Brussels and Lahore, terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Baghdad and Nice, a coup in Turkey, the Brexit, the looming election…all were weighing heavily on the hearts of so many and it became clear, absolutely clear, that we needed to be together. And so we gathered—eighty or so of us in the Tavern on a July day. We didn’t attempt to answer any questions or provide simple answers. We just came to be together and to celebrate the fact that whatever was happening in our world, we had one another to face it with.
And out of that experience came the realization that we needed to keep coming together in community, to create spaces for us to reflect, to share, to mourn, to grieve, to be. And so here we are, once again.
There are a lot of myths flying around in our culture, but the myth that we are self-sufficient, that we are stand-alone projects, that we are meant to be “rugged individuals” is one of the more harmful ones. Because it belies the truth that has been self-evident in so many traditions for thousands of years: we find meaning most profoundly when we are together in community.
We live at a time when community is under threat. Even beyond our hyper-individualism, we are convinced that half the population is our enemy. That there are those who are fundamentally unlike us. That there are fundamental divides that keep us separate from one another.
Further, we have become interconnected through technology in ways that were inconceivable a generation ago, and yet we seem to be farther removed from one another. For years the United Methodists on campus have had a flyer that reads: “Community: it’s just like Facebook only, you know… real.” And that pretty much says it all. We have the illusion of being social through social media, but we still crave and still need genuine and authentic community.
And so we gather in this place to find that sustaining and meaningful community. We celebrate one another’s joys and bear one another’s burdens in community. And we go from this place back into the world, to build community and share the blessings of community with a world in need of it now more than ever.
Psalm 133:1-3 • 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 his blessing, life forevermore.
Acts 2:42–47 • The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.
Qur’an, Sura 4 The Women, v. 36 • Worship God and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess. Indeed, God does not like those who are self-deluding and boastful.