If you could build your ideal community, what would it look like, what would it be like?
In the early 1990’s the Disney corporation asked the same question and built a fully planned community in Osceola County, Florida called Celebration – community with schools, hospital, library, town hall, local businesses and parks. The idea behind Celebration was that it was to re-capture the feeling of small town America with buildings designed by top-notch architects; some have said that visiting Celebration is like walking through one of the Disney theme parks.
And, of course, life in Celebration, Florida has never fully lived up to its hype or expectations; how could it? But that is true of all planned communities and all utopian societies. The U.S., certainly, is no stranger to planned communities or cities – Washington, D.C. being a prime example. Our capital has all the beauty of broad avenues and circles, monumental architecture and inspiring memorials, and all the heartache of nearly twenty percent of the city’s residents living below the poverty level.
And utopian communities have had their place in America, as well, the Shakers probably being the best known group. They gathered into closed, co-ed, celibate communities from Maine to Kentucky to live as perfect a Christian life as they could, creating buildings and furniture and music that reflected their belief in the presence of the Spirit in their midst. One of their hymns is in our hymnal – “Simple Gifts”; their worship was energetic and joyful, and involved communal dancing, as well as prayer, preaching and singing.
The Shaker communities have all but died out now. But the failure of such endeavors doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still ask the question – what is your ideal community?
Some of us will want to answer that question in terms of culture: a place where there are museums and libraries, orchestras, film, dance and theater. Others will want their community to be a place where jobs are readily available, where the housing stock is good and affordable, where the schools work well for all the children in town. Still others will want to pay attention to the look or the feel of the town, guided by their love of history, or the environment, or a desire to be undisturbed by the noise of children and teenagers; there are so many possibilities for what one might consider “ideal.” So on one level each of us here might answer that question differently, I am sure.
But as Christians, we need to be thinking about what kind of community Jesus calls us to create, even when we know that we will fall short of the goal. We start with the vision – the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus has been talking about all through the Sermon on the Mount which we are in the midst of hearing in these weeks after Epiphany, and which we will continue to hear about all through the Gospel of Matthew. The Kingdom of Heaven is also called the Reign of God, and it is the vision of what life is like when it is lived from God’s perspective. We know that this vision will be fulfilled when Christ returns, when all the world will be aligned with God’s purposes, but in the mean time we do the best we can to create and embody that life here and now.
One thing we do know is that Jesus never asks us to consider what is best for us alone, in isolation from others, but what is good for the whole – the whole community, the whole Church, the whole Body of Christ, the whole Kingdom of Heaven. Christianity is not a religion of the individual, nor is it a religion of the group – but it is a faith that understands the individual in community, and the group embracing the dignity of every human person; this is part of what makes being a Christian challenging.
And in order for us to live this way Jesus calls us to live from the deep well-springs of God-given and God-redeemed life; to look beyond the external demands of the Law to the interior rationale and power and meaning of the Commandments so that we can learn to live them ourselves, so that each one of us can learn to be (as one person coined it) “Jesus theologians.” So in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus cites several of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not murder” and “You shall not commit adultery”; as well as several other rabbinic teachings about divorce and swearing falsely. In each instance Jesus goes deeper into the purpose of those Hebrew Scriptures: unresolved anger is the root of violence and murder; adultery begins when lust is entertained; the fabric of a marriage relationship is to be guarded and not dissolved for frivolous reasons; our speech is to be trustworthy and true and dependable. All of these citations are examples of what life is like in the Reign of God, in the Kingdom of Heaven and in the Body of Christ.
Our inner state affects our behavior and the way we act with others, and our relationships with those around us are intimately tied to our relationship with God; so if we are to be reconciled with God, we must also be reconciled with others – our family members, our co-workers, others in the Church, others in the wider community, those with whom we disagree, those who really rub us the wrong way.
Jesus says: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
The original meaning of reconciliation is “to make good again,” and that is what the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven calls us to – to make good our communities, our schools, our societies, our world for the benefit of all who live in them.
The ideal community, from a Jesus-centered perspective, is what we need to be working towards. Jesus calls us to take the vision of the common good, the Kingdom of Heaven, and make it a reality as much as possible in the here-and-now, knowing that our actions and efforts will always fall short in some way, that we will never complete the job; but knowing also that there is a great deal of good that we can do, that there is much suffering that we can alleviate, that we can and should look for ways to make sure that everyone can benefit from the blessings that God offers to us all.
In the reading from Deuteronomy we heard Moses speaking on God’s behalf to the Israelites as they were finally about to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. A choice for God and a relationship with God and an intention to live according to God’s precepts in the new land was to be a choice for life and blessing for the whole community – a vision of salvation and reconciliation lived out in real time and real life. And so Jesus says to us – choose life, choose blessing, choose wholeness and goodness for yourself and for the world, and choose to work at it, with God’s help, until Christ comes again.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, you call us to pray and follow and serve and work for the good of the whole world and all people – those for whom you gave your life and rose again. Give us your vision and wisdom and strength to do your work, in your way and in your time – for the building up of your people and for your glory. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 13, 2011