I once had two good friends who ran a 57,000 acre ranch in southern Colorado. Every year they allow a company to come in and cut the alfalfa in some of their fields, and in return they baled hay for their horses. One of the times I was up visiting, one of the fields had recently been cut but all the bales were still sitting out in the field, when a storm moved in. So we stopped what we were doing, hopped in a truck and rushed out to the field and started bucking the squared bales. During a normal day it would have only been Lesli and her partner Anna there to get the bales in, but not only was I was visiting, but Anna’s mother was there as well and so there were two extra hands to help them get the hay out of the field.
Now could Lesli and Anna have gotten the bales in by themselves? Yes, eventually, but it would have taken them awhile, and one of them would have gotten pretty tired doing all of the bucking while the other drove, and they never would have been able to get them out of the field before it started pouring, and so having two extra people certainly helped them out immensely. Not long ago it would have been inconceivable for two people to even consider bringing in a harvest of hay, or really most any type of harvest, by themselves. Harvest was a time in which the community came together to assist each other, but not just the community, it was also the time in which others would come in from outside the community to assist, because everyone understood that you couldn’t do these things by yourself.
Before Cyrus McCormick invented the mechanical reaper, and I use the term invent very loosely here, and then later marketed the first mechanical bailer, everything had to be done by hand, and therefore had to be done with a large group. After all the hay was cut, it would be raked into hedgerows and then using pitchforks people with throw the hay up into a wagon, where another person, also with a pitchfork would position the hay in the wagon. Harvest time was the time in which the community would come together and help each other out, not just because it was the neighborly thing to do, but because they had to.
Today we continue in our theme of looking to what we can take from life on the farm that we can apply to our life as Christians, and there are five lessons that we learn. The first was the first step of becoming a disciple, and that was to accept, surrender and follow. We must recognize that we cannot save ourselves that we cannot change the reality of the human condition, that only when we turn our lives over to Christ can we be saved and pulled out of the mud of our lives. Then, once we’ve begun following then we need to be diligent every single day in order to make sure that our lives are not being infested by weeds or pests or disease which can grow up and choke our faith, and we do that by practicing some of the spiritual disciplines, including daily scripture reading and prayers.
Last week we looked at how manure impacts our lives, and this was more than just about the manure you might hear from me each week. This manure, represents the pain, suffering, sorrow, hardships and difficulties in our lives, and how we deal with these difficulties makes all the difference. You can’t ignore or bury that pain, nor can you try and remove it with chemicals. Instead, you have to turn that manure into something which can bring new life, as they say the grass is always greener over the septic tank, and if you are on a septic system then you know this is true. To create new life, we have to compost the manure in our lives, which requires exposing it to sunlight and oxygen, and just to see if you were paying attention, how often do you have to turn over your manure pile? Every seven days and we do that through gathering together in worship in order to turn our pains over to God and also to expose them to each other, and that leads us directly into step four, which is community.
You cannot be a committed disciple of Christ and not be in relation with other Christians. There are some things that have to be done in community, and Christianity is one of those things. When we try and do it alone, just like trying to buck hay all by yourself, we struggle and strain, we stress, and eventually we will either give up or we collapse from the effort required when all that work is unnecessary. Instead, when we realize that if we gather together as a group not only do we get the job done quicker and more efficiently, thus requiring less effort, but it’s also more enjoyable. As a culture we have become much more individualistic. But, when we stopped helping each other put up hay, than we lost ways to meet our needs for family, relationship and community, and being in relationship with other people is part of who we are. We have also lost the understanding of the power that comes from working in community. Did you know that a single horse can pull up to 700 lbs? But, if you put two horses together, they don’t pull 1400 lbs, instead they can pull 3000 lbs, and if they are trained to pull together, they can pull even more with the world record being right around 5000 lbs. Being in community, helping each other, is written into our DNA and it’s written into us as Christians.
In the Book of Acts immediately after Pentecost, which represents the birth of the church, we are told that the earliest disciples and followers of Christ not only gathered together during the day, but that they lived together and held everything in common, which I not arguing for here, but we have to understand that the earliest church gathered together, to undertake the journey together. Jesus said wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am amongst them, wherever two or more or gathered. The fourth step to discipleship is understanding that we need community to do this thing called discipleship, it takes community. It takes fellowship, it takes us bearing one another’s burdens but also holding one another accountable. It’s asking each other the age old question which is at the heart of Methodism, “how is it with your soul?” This community that I am talking about is about more than just gathering in worship, although that is critically important. But that’s not enough. Gathering for Sunday school, although also critical is also not enough, we need to be engaging each other at a much deeper level, we need to be gathering in small groups where we can support each other, carrying one another’s burdens, but also calling out each other when we have gone wrong, when we are allowing weeds to grow up in our garden.
In New England I was a part of a group like that. It consisted of people that had gone through seminary with me so we all knew each other, but I have to say we didn’t necessarily like each other, but in the end that didn’t matter because it was all about the group. I’ve missed that group since moving here, and the past few weeks have been tough for me, because I’ve found the need to share my concerns, hurts and needs with another group of people, but people who would also be able to say to me, “you know John, you kind of screwed up on that,” or “why did you do that.” That is just as much a part of our discipleship journey as gathering together for worship.
This past week we remembered the 11th anniversary of September 11. The memorial at ground zero was designed by Michael Arad, and is called, reflecting absence. The memorial consists of a pair of pools set 30 feet into the ground in the footprints of the towers, with waterfalls that drop into the holes. At ground level there is a “living park” meant to symbolize life and rebirth after the destruction, but it was how Arad decided to deal with the names of those lost that struck me. In an interview this week, he said “I wanted to… create a place that allowed people to come together, to reflect on what happened here, not alone but as a community. In a public space where people gather and congregate.” As a way to emphasize this, Arad did not just list all the names alphabetically, instead he contacted the families asking for names that might be put together.
“The names,” he said, “are arranged according to what I call a system of meaningful adjacency. When you walk up to these panels, you don’t see order, but in fact they are very carefully organized.” Meaningful adjacency. I love that term. Forever more these names won’t just exist in isolation, but instead they are surrounded by the names of others they knew, worked with, or were friends with, and they will be linked for all time. I also went back and reread David Halberstam’s remarkable book Firehouse, about the hardest hit fire station in New York, which sent 13 men to the twin towers and only one of them came back. And what strikes me every time I read it is about the sense of community that exists in a fire station, not just at work, but after work as well. That they become family for one another, and do everything together and for each other, including helping each other remodel their homes.
Societies and communities used to do that for each other as well, but that is becoming rarer and rarer. There’s a famous book by sociologist Robert Putnam entitled Bowling Alone. What Putnam was highlighting was the decline in social interaction so that we are, in his words, “increasingly disconnected from family, friends, [and neighbors].” Participation and membership in social organizations is declining, as can be seen in Elks, Moose, Masons, and other social organizations, but it can also be seen in the church, and his example, from where his title comes, was that more people than ever are bowling, but they are no longer joining leagues, instead they are bowling alone. When we lose these connections, something happens in society that is detrimental, and the same thing happens in our faith when we try and go it alone. We have to do this together.
But of course, being in community is tough, in fact it can be really hard, but it’s also crucial not only for our faith, but also for the effective operation of the body of Christ. About a month ago we talked about how God has given us all unique gifts and graces and how all of those are necessary for the body, the church, to operate as God has called us to. Jesus says I am the vine, you are the branches. When we forget that, and we begin to think that we are the vine, then we run into trouble, just as if we are willing to think that we can be a part of the vine but do it by ourselves. A vine with only one branch is not a very attractive or effective plant, in fact there will be little growth. Instead vines need lots of branches to produce fruit.
We do this together, we do it in community, we bring in the harvest most effectively and efficiently when we do it together. It’s amazing sometimes how God works in our lives. This week I got one of the church’s publications, one I don’t normally read, but I decided to glance through it and see if there was anything interesting, and I found this quote from Tim McLendon who said the only difference between united and untied is where we place the I. The only difference between united and untied is where we place the I. Where do we place the I?
This summer, Linda and the girls went away to spend a week camping with Linda’s family while I stayed at home to work, and one of the things on my honey do list was to go through the girls toys and to get rid of those things that were broken or were no longer being played with, as well as to go through all of their puzzles and to get rid of those puzzles that were missing pieces. Of course a puzzle that has pieces missing is no longer complete, no longer whole, and the same is true with us. We are all parts of a bigger puzzle, and we are all necessary in order to put that puzzle together, when we are untied the puzzle is broken, but when we move the I and become united then the puzzle is complete.
Living in community is hard, being a part of a community is hard, but we are called to be in relationship with God, and we are called to be in relationship with each other. Only through these relationships are we able to become the disciples that God has called us to be. Only through these relationships are we able to carry one another’s burdens. And only through these relationships are we able to deepen our relationship with each other and with God. Every single piece of the puzzle is needed if the puzzle that God has created is to be complete. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.