Today we’re talking about community. Community is an important, if not essential, element of the Christian practice. Most of us don’t experience Christianity as a solitary spiritual path. Most of us become Christians by joining a special kind of spiritual community called a church.
If you think back to the baptismal liturgy, the initiation service when you become a Christian, you will remember the service centers on welcoming a new into an existing community of faith or congregation. A key part of that process comes when the presider asks the congregation to promise to help the new member follow Jesus. We who make up the community answer: We will!
We make the same pledge in our marriage liturgy when the presider asks those assembled if they promise to support the newly married couple. We who make up the community of friends and family of the couple answer: We will! For most of us, being Christian entails being part of a community.
And that is one of the things that makes a Christian so interesting. Because in a healthy community, people are different: they are not all the same. People have different values. People have different ways of looking at life. People have made different life decisions and follow different paths.
Sometimes churches say they are a diverse congregation based on external markers like race or age or sexual orientation. But those kinds of qualities, while important, can lead to a kind of diversity that only goes skin deep. How do we find the deeper kind of diversity reflected in the life and ministry of Jesus the Christ? Perhaps this story from my work in public relations can help us answer part of this question.
Back then, I took a job as the first public relations person a public agency that had just purchased and investor-owned water company. The old water company was staffed by people who knew how to engineer things, people who knew how to follow procedural rulebooks and use operating manuals to run the water system, and people who knew how to follow accounting procedures to keep accurate financial records. They were very good at what they did.
Looking back I realize the kind of person who can succeed as an engineer as a water treatment plant operator or as a customer relations supervisor, at least at that utility, was the kind of person who could think in a linear way. They were able to go from point 1 to point 2 to point 3 in sequence. They never skipped a step or improvised or tried something new.
And that is a good thing. Actually, it’s a very good thing. We want the person who is designing the damn for a new reservoir to work in a linear manner, always following standard procedures as a way to make sure the dam does not fail. We want the person who operates the water treatment plant to follow the instruction manual and not add too much or too little disinfectant to the water. And we want the person who handles the accounting and customer service to follow established procedures so that payments are accurately recorded and everyone is treated fairly.
Thing is, this meant that everyone new public agency, except for me and the board of directors, were previously employed by the old investor-owned water utility and were linear thinkers.
But I am not a linear thinker. Public relations often requires a rapid response based on intuition and application of basic principles to novel or unexpected situations. Sometimes I needed to solve a relations problem quickly and work outside the box of what the investor-owned water company’s PR firm had done. And this could require forging a public relations solution without touching all the bases in order.
That made little linear thinkers very nervous: they didn’t understand why I didn’t have a book of procedures that would outline in detail exactly what should be done in various situations. The answer, of course, such a book would have been hideously expensive to and out-of-date once put on paper.
It’s easy to predict the kinds of problems that will come up in accounting or operating a water treatment plant or designing a damn for a new reservoir. But public relations issues tend to evolve into new areas or arise as new questions that demand new answers. Everything can change at the drop of a hat and suddenly you face a whole new and unexpected range of questions and challenges as you’re live on the local TV news show.
While I did my job well, it would be polite to admit I did not fit in well with the agency’s corporate culture. Let’s not be polite. They Thought I was crazy; that I was always shooting from the hip, that I was never following procedure. I was also the lone hire from outside.
And in a sense, they were right, because there was no book of procedures that would cover who issues that arose surrounding water quality, recreational use of our water lands, and preservation of open space.
Looking back, I am not surprised that things did not go as well as top management had expected. The ensuing conflict in consternation cost a great deal of concern by the governing board of the new agency. So top management decided to call in a consultant to help straighten things out. Perhaps, truth be told, they were trying to straighten me out.
Part of the consultant’s process involved presenting a series of workshops for people I worked with to help us get along better. And I’ll never forget this one exercise. It went like this
Imagine you’re on a cruise ship that is sinking and you have 10 minutes to put everything you need to survive on a desert island boat and get off the ship. Your assignment is to make a list of these 10 items, the things that will allow you to survive the next two weeks on this island.
Once each of us had completed our list, we were organized into diverse groups and told to come up with a group list of the 10 things we needed to survive.
Once that list has been completed, we were given the right answers and told to score are personal responses as well as our group’s response.
The fascinating thing was, that in every case, the group list had everything people needed to survive while the individual list almost always did not.
To be clear, most of us had been left to make the list are, we would have died on that Desert Island. We worked as a diverse group, we all would have survived
In other words, none of us is as smart as all of us.
The Letter to the Ephesians was once thought to have been written by St. Paul. Now many scholars agree it was written by a later author in Paul’s name and intended to sum up Paul’s teaching and to apply it to a new situation fifteen to twenty-five years after St. Paul’s death.
In this text, we are told to “put away falsehood” and “let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”
“[W]e are members of one another:” we are all part of the same community, and we cannot afford to “let the sun go down on our anger.”
We are told to “Let no evil talk come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up: the community.
We are told to “labor and work honestly with our own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.
And we are told to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven” each of us.
For we through sharing one bread and one cup, we who are many become one body, one body with Jesus, and sent into this world to be the body of Christ, the continuing resurrection of our Lord and Savior. For as St. Theresa reminds us, Christ has no hands to help but ours.
This is how we make a Christian community: by remembering that Jesus showed us in his life that none of us is as smart as all of us and the corollary everyone needs to work together if we are to succeed right here at the corner of Turk and Lyon in 21st century San Francisco.
Let us pray,
Bread of life,
you taught us to put away bitterness and anger,
and with tenderhearted kindness
to share the fruit of our labor with the needy.
Strengthen us by your grace,
that in communion with you,
we may forgive one another
and live in love as Christ loved us.
Let the Church say: Amen.