I preached again at my internship congregation. Here's the text of what I said for those who are interested! Scripture texts were Ruth 1: 15-18 & 1 Corinthians 12: 14-26
I’m about to tell you a shocking fact about myself that you probably won’t believe. It is something that many people, even my closest friends, don’t believe about me. It is something that I do my best to hide from people because of the stigma attached to it. However, I think this is as good a place as any to just outright admit it. Alright, here it goes. I am an introvert and a bit of a loner. Don’t believe me? No worries, I’m not offended. I know I fake it pretty well and make myself out to be this big extrovert who loves being around people but the truth is I actually find myself drained by being around people. I crave my solitude and alone time. I crave those moments when I can just keep to myself and not have to interact with anybody. I crave my evenings alone with just a book.
Here’s something I guess I should also mention about myself, something that perhaps openly contradicts what I just stated. For the past four years, I have lived in intentional Christian communal living. I realize that many of you in the congregation do not understand any of the words that I just said so allow me to define what intentional Christian communal living means. These are best defined as communities of people who covenant to live together and agree to share various responsibilities like chores, grocery shopping and meals. We meet together every week or so in order to discuss various issues that have come up since our last meeting but also to just update each other on our lives and what we would like for the rest of the house to pray about in our lives.
I lived by myself for most of college. I had a house all to myself during most of my adolescent years. Thus, I’ve become really good at and really used to living alone. So, what has it been like for a loner and an introvert to live in intentional community with other people? In a nutshell: an incredible blessing for my life with its share of challenges and difficulties as well.
I first moved into intentional communal living when I moved to Chicago. I had covenanted to live in community with five other people my own age. I had literally no idea what I had signed up for or what I was about to get myself into. Yes, it was rough. There were times when it was downright challenging. Even now, four years into living in intentional community, there are still times when it is rough. There’s still times when I contemplate getting my own apartment or times when I just crave more alone time or times when I just don’t want to interact with another human being the rest of the day. Yet, in the end, I have found myself feeling greatly rewarded by my communal living experience and honestly can’t even think of my life without it.
What does all this have to do with our Scripture texts for today? How does my rambling about the benefits of living in community relate to our Scripture passages for today? In our first Scripture reading, we hear a strong statement about what community can and should look like through the lens of Ruth’s vows to Naomi. “Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Now, these just happen to be some of my favorite verses in the entire Old Testament. That’s not, however, the reason why I chose them. These verses have a lot to say about the nature of community. Naomi was urging Ruth to return to her homeland and be with her own people. This was actually the custom of the times back then so it wouldn’t have been unusual at all for Naomi to tell her daughter-in-law this. Ruth defies convention, though, and insists to Naomi that she will stay with her and will follow her even unto death. She will forsake her old ways and live in new ways because she has such respect and deep love for Naomi. Keep in mind that this was a very patriarchal culture and the very idea of two women traveling together without a man to accompany them would have been considered quite scandalous and even slightly dangerous. What can explain this desire on Ruth’s part to buck conventional norms and stay with her mother-in-law? The Hebrew word for such a concept is hesed, which is usually translated as loving-kindness. It is normally understood as a kind of love that goes above and beyond all reason or rationale. It is the kind of love that would cause a young woman to break with tradition and stay with her mother-in-law rather than return to her native land.
Hesed is also the kind of love that would cause someone to choose to live in such an unusual living arrangement like intentional Christian community. When you think about it, how counter-cultural is it for someone to do that? We live in a society that prizes individuality over anything else. A society that tells us that we should value our privacy and mocks those who choose to march to the beat of their own drummer. We have labels for those people. “Freak”; “weirdo”; “non-conformist” are all insulting labels that we attach to people who go against the grain. I mean, why would somebody choose to live in such an odd arrangement when they could just as easily live by themselves? Why would somebody defy social conventions like that? There must be something wrong with them, right? Why would a woman, who has just lost her husband, want to remain with her mother-in-law and travel to a foreign land rather than head back to the safety and security of her own land and the stability and strength of a man’s presence? Why, indeed?
Hesed, that’s why. It is the kind of love that can’t be explained or understood or comprehended. It is the kind of love that just makes you do things that might be slightly unconventional but that you know will benefit you in the long run. Things like staying with your mother-in-law or living in an intentional community that requires praying for others. These things aren’t always going to be understood by others, nor should they be. Hesed, or loving-kindness, is the only thing that could possibly explain it.
I’d like to shift now to our New Testament text and talk a bit about its contribution to the concept of community. First, though, I’d like to introduce you to another unfamiliar word. The Greek word “koinonia” has many different translations but the definition I like best is when it is translated as “fellowship” or “community”. The concept of koinonia is one that permeates the New Testament and is widely identified as the idealized state of unity and fellowship that should permeate our Christian lives together.
We see that concept on display here in this passage from 1st Corinthians. While Paul never actually uses the word koinonia in this particular scripture passage, the idea of it is clear throughout it. To Paul, community or koinonia means that we are all a part of the body of Christ and that we all matter. Even though some of us may fulfill different functions or serve different purposes, his point remains that we are all one. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Thus, we see here that the concept of koinonia to Paul means that we each play a role and we each have importance in the body of Christ. When one of us is hurting, we all are hurting. When one of us rejoices, we all rejoice. This is what being in community means. This is what being in community looks like. This is what being a Christian means. Rejoicing with other people’s joys and crying with other people’s pains. That’s the type of community that we are called to live into.
How does this play out, though, in our everyday lives? More specifically, how can we do a better job of practicing the concepts of hesed and koinonia in a world that doesn’t even know what those concepts mean? For that answer, I turn to a classic George and Ira Gershwin tune. The song “Someone to Watch Over Me” is a beautiful well-known ballad about a woman who is waiting for the love of her life to come find her and be the someone to watch over her. What I’d like to focus on from that song is the concept of someone to watch over me. When taken out of the context of the song, it actually could be about how we are called to live with each other in community. We all need someone to watch over us. We all need someone to hold us accountable. We all need someone to practice hesed and koinonia with us. Naomi had Ruth. The disciples had Jesus. We, too, all have people in our own lives that can be that person for us. It could be a significant other. It could be a best friend or a parent or a sibling. My point being that even those of us who claim to be loners and introverts still have need of people to watch over us. I don’t mean that they discipline us or punish us or anything like that. Rather, these are people who are part of our cloud of witnesses. People who are part of our body of Christ. People who are our community, our koinonia.
This is what living in community has taught me. Yes, I may still be an introvert. Yes, I may still sometimes be a bit of a loner. Yes, I may still have times when I just want to be alone. Yet, living in community with other people has taught me so much about the value of community. It has taught me the value of having someone to watch over me; to pray for me; to hug me when I am at my lowest point. I saw the benefits of community when I was violently mugged a few years back. My housemates supported and helped me through that very difficult time. I saw the benefits again when one of my best friends died just a few weeks after I started seminary. Over and over during the past four years, I have received the benefits of community. It has both blessed and enriched my life in countless ways. My koinonia has shown me the benefits of hesed and for that I remain grateful.
I want to encourage you to show hesed toward others. Be like Ruth. Show others the same kind of loving-kindness that Ruth showed to Naomi. I’m not saying you have to leave everything behind and defy convention like she did but think about the ways that you can better enable others to be a part of your community.
Where is your koinonia? Do you have one? Take some time this week to sort that out. If you don’t have it, what steps can you take in your life to find it? We all need the blessings that community can provide. We simply can’t live without it.
If you take away nothing else from this sermon, take away this: hesed and koinonia. What are we doing to both affirm and support those things in our lives? Without the blessings that community and hesed has given me, I would not be the person I am now. Neither would any of us. Find your koinonia. Find someone to watch over you. “Won’t you tell them please to put on some speed? Follow my lead. Oh, how I need someone to watch over me.”