Amitai Etzioni, a professor of international studies at George Washington University writes this about an interaction he had with an audience about our current economic downturn:
‘When I asked an audience, “Do you really need a flat-screen TV? An inflatable Santa Claus? Plastic pink flamingos on your front lawn?” they chuckled with agreement. However, when I added, “A 4G phone?” the room went awfully silent. The bigger question is: will Americans learn to live with—better yet—find—some new sources of contentment, in the austerity many millions will face for years to come, or will they continue to be sharply disappointed that they have to make do with less?” Later he writes, “There is no way on earth Americans over the next decade will continue to experience the kind of increases in income, and hence standards of living, we have seen since WWII. The question is if they will respond in anger—or benefit, by dedicating themselves, once their basic needs are met, to spending more time with each other, their children, in social activities and cultural pursuits.’
This is a secular author writing for CNN. He hopes that, because of the economic downturn, people will discover what Psychologist Abraham Maslow put forth—that once a human being meets his or her needs of the body—he or she would then learn to fulfill the needs of the soul and the spirit. This takes looking to God and looking to others.
The problem is, we have so long been looking to ourselves. We in the Western world have for decades been living at an economic and technological level unprecedented in the history of the world. We have become spoiled, mobile, restless, and uncommitted. Spoiled, mobile, restless and uncommitted. We have become consumers not only of goods and services but also of relationships and locations. Joan Chittister writes, “Every store window holds a better bargain. Every relationship promises a more satisfying partnership. Every new place and new person and new possibility tempts me to try again, to try over, to try once more to find the perfect place or at least the place perfectly suited to me.”
The antidote comes from our Benedictine topic this morning. I have listed it as conflict, but it really a way to address conflict and consumers—it is the concept of ‘stability.’ A monk or nun in the Benedictine tradition makes a vow to a community and a place—a vow of stability. No matter what, that monk or nun will live and die in that community. It is a vow, as Chittister says, ‘designed to still the wandering heart.’
Our time is an unstable time that calls for not only the monastery but also the church to be a place of stability—where people are committed to Christ and one another come what may.
Jeremiah wrote in a time that was even more unstable. Jeremiah is writing this portion of his book to the exiles from Jerusalem who were carried away by Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon. The Temple was destroyed and the walls of Jerusalem razed. Many of the people were taken to Babylon, away from their home and away from their place of worship—Jerusalem. In contrast to the false prophets, who said that the exile would only last a couple of years—Jeremiah says, no, it will be 70 years, almost two generations. What to do with the next 70 years? Lead a rebellion? Pray for the destruction of Babylon? Don’t pay taxes? Be a burr in the saddle of Nebuchadnezzer? No. Jeremiah writes:
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Basically, settle, raise families, seek the peace and prosperity of the city—and—pray for Babylon, ‘because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’
Have a bunch of kids and pray for your enemies. Seek the welfare of those who destroyed your Temple, your city and your home.
Basically Jeremiah says, ‘Commit to this place, you’re going to be here awhile.’
Commit to this place, you’re going to be here for awhile. This is something we have difficulty doing. We are always looking for other options. This job, this new relationship, this new place. There is Disney-like magic to be found if we just spend more time looking. I remember encountering someone who wanted to be baptized. He had married 7 times and had gone from Buddhism to Jehovah’s Witness, to Christianity.
Maybe we are not that extreme but we have learned to flit about until we rest on that ever fragrant rose.
But—every Rose has its thorn.
Benedict, while he was all about hospitality, made sure that his communities understood—someone can be a guest for awhile, but eventually they will have to start living by the same rules as everyone else. In fact, guests were given three days to observe the community before they were then required to work and pray like everyone else—whether they felt a vocation or not. This is why he said, ‘Do not grant to the monastic life an easy entry.’
It is the hospitality of Benedict that is attractive but the stability that makes one a monk. Similarly, God puts an attraction in our hearts for himself and for the church, but it is the commitment to Christ and his church that makes Christians.
We stress welcome and hospitality, love, and Christian fellowship, and so we should, but living the vows of our baptism, day in and day out—that is the stability piece that is missing in so many lives. It takes a curious and longing heart to ‘sign up,’ but it takes perseverance and the grace of God to really make a difference in our lives.
Those who received Jeremiah’s letter must have thought, ‘pray for who?’ ‘pray for blessings for our enemies?’ ‘for 70 years?’ ‘Commit to this place, you’re going to be here awhile,’ was all Jeremiah could say.
But we would rather cut and run.
In our culture people grow weary of jobs, people, spouses, cities and the easiest thing to do is simply remove ourselves from the problem. ‘Get a new one.’ Is the phrase we use the most, whether it is a spouse or a new house. [don’t get me wrong, I am not referring to poisonous relationships or poisonous situations]
One of the powers of stability in community is the realization that only Christ binds us together, we are flawed and we are difficult to be with. This is true in marriage, family and church. In the Christian community it is Jesus and only Jesus that makes us brothers and sisters. Therefore, the first step in stability, after we have accepted the beliefs and ways of the Christian faith, is to become disillusioned and disappointed. We want to have ideals for Christian community, but the sooner we can kill the idealism of Christian community the better. I want to read to you from Dietrich Bonheoffer’s Life Together. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who was killed under Hitler’s regime. He says,
“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely we must be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world…Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight…the sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both…The one who loves his dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the Christian community, even though his or her personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
Many people say ‘I hate churches because they are filled with hypocrites.’ That is the case. ‘I loved that church , but someone gave me a dirty look’. Yup. ‘They are so judgmental.’ ‘They don’t practice what they preach. They are too conservative. They are too liberal.’
That’s not to excuse bad behavior in church, we have the Bible and the Prayer Book as our written ‘rules’ that remind us that Christ is the center of our lives and we should look that way but the sooner we can kill the idealism the sooner we can begin to live in solid, Christian community.
It didn’t take long for Sarah to realize that prince charming I am not. But, now armed with that knowledge, our ‘community’ is deeper and more real at home.
Similarly, the sooner we realize that the people around us in this place will disappoint us and disillusion us, the sooner we can love them in Christ. As Bonheoffer says, we are not looking for a social experience or a ‘wishful idea of religious fellowship,’ but a community of brothers and sisters, all of which are sinners saved in Christ, by Christ, for Christ and because of Christ. The running and striving and rushing and restlessness is put aside when we have real, Christ-centered community. Stability. A people and a place for God to do his work in our lives and in the lives of others.
Esther de Waal puts it well, “Instead of this bewildering and exhausting rushing from one thing to another…stability means accepting this particular community, this place and these people, this and no other, as the way to God…Everyone needs to feel at home, to feel earthed…Without roots we can neither discover where we belong, nor can we grow. Without stability we cannot confront the basic questions of life. Without stability we cannot know our true selves.”
Joan Chittister says, “Stability, the willingness to grow where I am, ironically, is the ground of conversion, the willingness to be changed. With these people, in this place, at this time I dedicate myself to rebirth and growth and maturity.”
There is no perfect community—there is only Christ centered community with sinners on every side striving to be what we ought to be.