Imperfect Community


Do you know your neighbors?  It's a question I've been thinking a lot about lately, because I don't know mine. I suspect a big reason I don't know the people living next door to me is that I'm too busy looking at my smart phone to notice them. 

Our technology allows us to retreat into an artificial world where everyone thinks the same and shares the same beliefs. Our self-selected sources of news and friends on social media can give us a false sense of community. When we look up from our screens, however, to take note of the Black Lives Matter movement, the on-going fights over LGBTQ equality and the battle over immigration, we discover that we are a culture divided on many fronts. We are afraid of one another. Personally, I think it is much easier to go back to looking at my phone. That way I don't have to deal with anyone who will really challenge my worldview.

With these social divisions in mind, when I read the story of Jesus and the Centurion in Luke 7, I am struck by how its characters are separated from one another. The main characters in the story, Jesus and the centurion, never actually meet. They communicate through intermediaries: town elders and a message carried by friends of the centurion. I have to wonder if this interaction happened today would the two merely have texted each other or exchanged messages on social media? Where is the real connection between these two people?

A few years ago, I traveled to Israel and visited the town of Capernaum which is the setting for this Gospel story. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of the first century town--really more of a village. It's not a large place; rather it's the size of community where everyone probably knew one another. Yet, even in this small town, significant divisions existed. The centurion was a soldier in an occupying army after all. He was a gentile in the land of the Jews. He was a man of power and wealth in a land where few possessed either. He owned slaves, including the one Jesus heals. The elders of the community speak well of him, saying to Jesus, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." We readers have no reason to doubt the word of the elders, but notice the language of power in this passage. The centurion is a man used to telling his soldiers and slaves to jump and they respond, "How high?" The elders are "sent" to Jesus by the centurion. I wonder if they were sweating a bit as they nervously asked Jesus to help such a powerful man in their small town. In a divided first-century Capernaum, I wonder if we might see a resemblance to the divided cities and towns of our day.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has written extensively on the breakdown of social connection in American culture. In his work, he has documented the decline of community institutions like rotary clubs, scout troops, and yes, churches. He offers hope to communities of faith, however, even in this time when we church folk panic over the rising number of so-called "nones" who refuse to identify with organized religion. In an interview after the publication of his book, American Grace, Putnam stated, "We were shocked to discover that. . .people who are active in religious communities are systematically more generous, better neighbors. They're more likely to work on community projects. They're more likely to give to secular causes as well as religious causes. They're much more likely to volunteer. . .They're more likely to give blood. They're more likely to let a stranger cut in front of them in line. . . But it turns out that. . . virtually none of that seems to have anything to do with the content of people's theology."[i] Putnam's research shows that what determines a religious person's neighborliness is not how deeply a person believes in God or a person's particular doctrine but the number and quality of his or her relationships. To me, this sounds like good news for the church, because it means that faith communities still have something to offer our culture in spite of all the things we get wrong. 

This story in Luke has traditionally been interpreted with the centurion being an exemplar of faith. Indeed, Jesus is "amazed" by the centurion's faith. Yet, I can't help but wonder if Jesus is not so impressed with the centurion's relationships. There are power dynamics at work in this story that are clearly not the ideal of God's realm, such as military conquest, slavery and fear based on religion and ethnicity. What if Jesus sees in the faith of the centurion an opportunity for community that more closely resembles God's intention? What if Jesus sees in the centurion's care for his slave and support for the town's synagogue, however imperfect and riddled with divisions of power, religion and ethnicity, an opportunity for God's gracious power to be made real?

It's a fair question to ask whether or not with our divided culture the church leaves room for God to create community? After all, critics have rightfully pointed to the role American Christianity has played and continues to play in the oppression of ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people and women. It often seems like churches are the perpetuators of social division rather than creators of community. Those who claim to preach God's grace sure do so with a lot of fire and brimstone. Yet, the countless acts of kindness to neighbors carried out by imperfect people--even people blinded to their own prejudices--may still offer opportunities for God's beloved community to happen. It may happen in fits and starts, in ways that may seem trivial in the shadow of violence and discrimination, but God makes community happen anyway.

Not unlike Capernaum, the city my church serves, metropolitan Kansas City, is broken by deep divisions. There is a street named Troost Avenue which has served as both the literal and symbolic dividing line of race. Perhaps your city has a street like it. After decades of racial segregation, redlining by banks, neighborhood covenants restricting home ownership to only white people, and discriminatory school boundaries, Troost Avenue still functions as a dividing line between "east of Troost," which is largely African-American and low-income with higher rates of poverty and violent crime, and "west of Troost," which is largely white with higher incomes and lower crime rates. In Kansas City, real estate value is still determined by a building's proximity to Troost.

My own church is located in what is called the "Country Club District," which is west of Troost in an area that was historically segregated to be white. This year, along with other congregations across the city, we have taken part in what we call "honest conversations on race." In the wake of the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and so many others, we came together to learn, ask questions and struggle with difficult concepts like white privilege. What made the biggest impression upon me and many members of my largely white church was how we live in the same city as our African-American brothers and sisters but have vastly different experiences. Our daily routines, shopping patterns and sense of what is "normal" combine to keep us from even knowing one another, much less understanding the brutal history of racism that pervades our city and nation. 

These "honest conversations on race" are not easy. More than once I've winced when something I or another white participant has said reveals our own racism and causes pain to the African-Americans in the room. It would be much easier to retreat to our separate worlds where white people, at least, can pretend others do not exist. I have to believe, however, that in our efforts to build bridges of understanding that there is some room, however small, for the power of God to act and create community. I've seen God do so before across other social divisions.

One of the joys of serving the congregation I do is its rich history of inclusion. Long before I got there, the church chose to become what our denomination calls "Open and Affirming" of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. The community realized in this church is controversial in many Christian circles, but I have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in relationships between people who gather for worship each week.

Last year, after the Supreme Court made marriage equality legal in our state, I had the privilege of officiating the wedding of a wonderful gay couple in our church. Paul and Jerry had been together for 39 years but waited to be married until they could do so in their home church with a legal marriage license. These two men have exemplified faithfulness to one another, to their faith community and to the wider city we share. They transport food donations each week from local restaurants to a nearby soup kitchen. They raise funds for non-profits serving the homeless and poor. They serve on boards of area agencies that care for people no one else cares for. They tirelessly demonstrate God's love to our city and have done so for years.

When we gathered in our sanctuary to bless the marriage vows Paul and Jerry made to one another, the place was filled to the rafters. The energy and love was palpable. From my vantage point up front, I scanned the room and saw people of every ethnicity, every sexual orientation, all economic classes, every gender, and many different religions. People from across our divided city came together on this night. I could pick out people present whose religion and/or politics would normally prevent them from celebrating a same sex marriage but who had nonetheless showed up to honor these two men. Somehow in the lives of Jerry and Paul, people divided by so many things, had seen the power of God's community.

I would like to think that after the miracle of Jesus healing the slave, Jesus and the Centurion met face to face and became fast friends. I would like to think the power of God to overcome divisions meant Capernaum become one happy family regardless of differences of power, ethnicity and religion. Yet, Luke gives us no account of such an outbreak of God's community. We are left to wonder what long-term differences Jesus' miracle made. Similarly, after the conversations on race happening in my church and other congregations or after Paul and Jerry's wedding, the divisions that rock my city still remain. Yet, I choose to believe that some lasting good remains from these moments. Wherever the divisions of Capernaum occur--in my city or yours--let us continue to make space for the power of God's community to happen.

Let us pray. Loving God, empower us to overcome our fears to reach across the divisions of our society so that your gracious community may be real among us. Amen.



[i] "Robert Putnam: America's Grace"