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Hebrews 12:1-2, 12-13

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.

Luke 6:20-31

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“Saints Alive”

Perhaps you saw the article in the Boston Globe last Sunday by Ty Burr, who commented on several movies that are playing in the theaters: “All is Lost,” “Gravity,” Captain Phillips,” and “Twelve Years A Slave.” Burr pointed out a common thread he saw running through all of these movies. He wrote: A man lost at sea. A woman marooned in space. A ship’s captain torn from his crew, and a family man torn from his freedom, humanity, even identity.”

“Our movies are telling us we’re on our own now,” Burr writes. The cavalry isn’t coming and Houston has other problems to deal with. If some cultural seasons celebrate teamwork — good people coming together…to work toward a common goal — we seem to be in a moment obsessed with the isolated hero. All these stories end in moments of triumphant closure…but they’re not about overcoming stiff odds so much as the blind terror of working without backup — of being all alone out there on the curve.” (Boston Globe, October 27, 2013)

Burr’s observation that the message of all of these movies is a focus on our terrible aloneness reminds me of a book that came out a few years ago entitled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Written by a sociologist, Robert Putnam, the book explores the trends of civic engagement and what he calls “social capital,” or the concept that “social networks have value.” Though one can trace the rise and fall of community organizations throughout the last century, Putnam says that there has been a marked decline in civic involvement. There is a “civic malaise,” or lethargy, that plagues many of our society’s organizations. Churches and synagogues fall into this category, as do high school marching bands, civil rights organizations, charity leagues, and bridge clubs. The image Putnam uses to sum up this collapse of community is that of bowling alone. Fifty years ago, he says, people were more likely to bowl in leagues whereas now they are more likely to bowl alone.

The reasons for the demise of social capital are many, Putnam says, and too complex to blame on any one factor. Pressures of time and money, increased mobility and commuting times, more family members working outside of the home, racism, technology and increased focus on Television are some of the complex reasons for the breakdown of community. Regardless of the cause, we are left wondering, how might we contribute to the strengthening of the social connections and the building up of communities that share the bonds of similarities and bridge our differences. That is, if we assume, as I do, that such social bonds are a good and holy thing.

I assume that being a part of a community, being connected with friends, relatives, and even strangers, is something that deepens and enriches our lives. In a time where communities are falling apart, we come to proclaim that a community can be a giver of life.

The word community comes from the Latin, comunitas, meaning fellowship. Communities are formed in so many ways: they evolve effortlessly and they are chosen intentionally, they emerge as a response to shared tragedy, or form out of shared interests or needs. Communities come together around shared bonds, or are built as bridges across vast differences. Communities can be a place where we suffer great wounding and encounter deep conflict, but communities are also the place where we are loved, supported, and encouraged.

If our culture is telling us that we are all alone in this world, then we have come here today to proclaim another truth altogether, a counter-cultural truth: that we are not alone, and not only that, but we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. This is our community of faith, a community both visible and invisible.

A Tibetan Buddhist led the closing worship service at a conference I attended this weekend. She led us in a meditation on Tara, the female Buddha. Our leader began by asking us to imagine Tara, or another Divine image, like Jesus, surrounded by all of our teachers and mentors, and then by all of the people we love and care about, and we added more and more people to this imagined gathering until we sense our connection with the whole world. The Tara meditation resonated with the message from Hebrews: “For we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” And also with Luke’s version of the beatitudes, a list of characteristics to which we can attach names of those who have taught us those truths.

I’d like for you to take a minute or two to look around you at those who are gathered here today. Look at the faces of the people you know and love, look at the faces of the unmet friend, look at the faces of those who love you and wish you well. Now, imagine that you are surrounded not only by these people who are here today, but by a larger cloud of witnesses: those who have taught us to love our enemies: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela; those who have taught us to hunger after God- Martha Jane and Julia; those who first taught us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us- our parents, our Nadenes, or a teacher; those who have taught us about friendship, and loyalty and devotion, the Joes, and Bobs, and Dougs and Nancys; those who have taught us to learn how to take a stand for truth and justice and to learn how to tolerate the displeasure of others; those who have held a steady hand to our back when we tried to move forward in courage; those who have taught you to have a voice and speak your truth when others would keep you silent.

Imagine the Ernies and others who have taught how to tolerate great suffering and still have a sense of the joy of being alive; imagine those who have taught you that grief will not kill you, but that a loss grieved honestly can deepen and strengthen you. Imagine all of these around you: blessed are they. And when you go out into the week, when you come to the moment where you meet something that challenges you at work or in the world, something that calls on your deepest courage or threatens to defeat you, then imagine that all of these who are gathered around you, here and in your mind’s eye, are also there with you in that situation. You are not alone, but are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, always and forevermore. AMEN.

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