The original inspiration for our message today came weeks ago when I first saw a photo that Brooklyn Friends Meeting had posted online. The picture showed the sign out in front of their meetinghouse—much like ours—and it said, “Meetings for Worship Every First Day (Sunday) 11:00am. All Are Welcome.”
And then, beneath that, there was a quote they attributed to New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith & Practice. It said, “We believe that the Spirit calls us to answer to that of God in every person; as we do so, it unites us in a community of God.”
This to me was so profound it made my brain numb for a few seconds.
In this time when everything feels so divided, when the headlines tell us over and over again how far apart we are, how differently we see things, and how little we trust one another, this simple, Quakerly statement offered a fresh and clarifying truth. Something I needed to be reminded of: We don’t make community. God does.
How simple that is, I thought—God has already provided everything we need for peaceble community and it’s here, right now, awaiting our noticing. The roots are the fabric, the Spirit of God connecting us at the deepest point, in love and kindness to each other and to every other living being in the world. The family of God.
Isn’t that a remarkable idea, that all we need for community is to answer that of God in one another? Maybe creating bonds of trust is easier and closer than we thought. Maybe bridging our divisions and healing societal wounds doesn’t have anything to do with headlines or social media or who says what to whom. Perhaps it’s more about noticing and appreciating what’s right here, honoring the good intentions of the kind hearts around us, and watching for that of God in our midst.
I was in a meeting recently where the conversation turned to the question of diversity in congregations. With our current political climate and so many hot-potato issues—I’m sure you’ve run into this–people have a wide range of political and social beliefs and can get very passionate about their views and have a hard time understanding why others see things differently than they do. In the meeting, the pastors were talking about how to deal with that in their respective churches. Some said they tried to keep to a middle ground so they won’t offend anyone; others said they avoid those issues altogether. I said I just bring whatever messages I feel led to bring, but think diversity of views is a good thing, even if it makes us uncomfortable, because the kingdom of God shows up in the gaps.
All our interactions—no matter how awkward or misguided in the moment—happen in an endless sea of grace. If we focus too much on the behavior of others, or even our own behavior, we may miss the opportunity to see God at work, leading us, healing us, loving us.
It’s where we don’t fit together perfectly—when we bump up against one another and inadvertently hurt each other’s feelings, when we can’t see where another is coming from and suspect their motives or intentions, when we take things the wrong way and hold a grudge longer than we should—that’s where we really need God’s grace to show up for us. And it does, if we’re willing to let it. God comes to each of us individually, personally, tenderly and shows us what we need to see and heal, so we can be better fitted for community, more at peace, inside and out.
Those moments of judgment and discord show us in plain light where we are choosing not to look for “that of God” in another person. Even if we’re hurt or confused or not sure how to respond, if we can pause for just the tiniest moment, we might remember we can choose to turn toward God instead of reacting with judgment or anger. Remembering God connects us with the roots of love and instantly we can feel God’s peace begin to wash over us. It’s through grace that God smooths away the imperfections and the rough edges of our relationships. That’s how God nurtures the roots of community through us.
Jesus told us not only that the foundation of community is always present—but that he is it. Christ comes not only to teach his people himself, as George Fox personally discovered, but to hold us together in love, to serve as the very bond among us. Any time two or more of us interact in any way, Jesus says in Matthew 18:20, he is right here with us. As we’re talking about our week, Jesus is here. As we listen to one another in monthly meeting for business, Jesus is here. As you’re listening to these words right this very moment, Jesus is here, in the loving bond that connects our hearts, bringing peace and warmth and contentment as we worship together.
I love the way Quaker Douglas Steere approaches this. In his wonderful book, On Listening to Another, he writes that someone once told him that, “in every conversation between two people there are always at least six persons present. What each person said are two; what each person meant to say are two more; and what each person understood the other to say are two more.” No wonder we get confused and misunderstand each other.
Then he adds something beautiful and fascinating—something we Friends may discover experientially, in silent worship or quiet conversations with one another: “Over the shoulder of the human listener” he writes, “…there is never absent the silent presence of the Eternal Listener, the living God…intently listening to each soul.”
Steere goes on to describe God as the hidden, patient, ever-present living Listener that participates in every one of our interactions with one another. If Spirit is not ignored, Steere says, it “rebukes and damps down the evil and calls out and underlines the good,” drawing from us qualities that are aligned with God’s character: compassion and wisdom, forgiveness and mercy. He says God doesn’t do this in an obvious fashion but instead does it quietly, as the still, calming influence of purity and truth moving through and among us.
Isn’t that a beautiful thought? If we’re listening to Spirit and willing to answer that of God in each other, God’s will inspire us naturally to be the kind of people that will just organically create a community of peace.
The title of Psalm 133 in my Life with God bible is, “The Blessedness of Unity,” and the psalmist writes about how very good and pleasant it is when we live together in peace. The blessing of unity is like the abundant anointing of oil, like the dew on the mountains of Zion, the promise of life forevermore. This psalm gives us a glimpse of the beautiful, high purpose of God, to knit us back together in perfect harmony, the wholeness of spirit gathering and enfolding and perfecting us as One.
This brings to mind for me those photomosaic images that were so popular years ago, when digital photography was moving into mainstream art. You may remember the October 1996 Life magazine cover image of Marilyn Monroe, that was actually made up of hundreds of pictures of tiny Life magazine covers. There was also an image of Abraham Lincoln that, when you looked closer, you could see was actually more than a thousand tiny civil war photos. The first large public photomosaic was unveiled at the Domus museum in Spain in 1995: it was a large image of the Mona Lisa, using photographs of 10,062 people from 110 countries around the world. The title of the image was, “a face with ten thousand faces.”
I think a “face with ten thousand faces” is a good way to express how God creates community among us. We each have our own face, our own life, our own story. We look out at the world through our own eyes, we make sense of things through our own experiences. But when our hearts are open to answering that of God in each other, something wonderful happens. Simply because we’re looking for God, through us flow the fruits of peace—respect and trust, civility and appreciation, kindness and mercy. We are being woven together—perhaps even without our knowing—into a beautiful work of art, a community masterpiece in progress, a portrait of God that may be hanging even now in some great hall that we don’t quite yet have the eyes to see.
Imperfect or not, community has always been the heart of our tradition as Friends. As Phil Gulley points out in his book, The Quaker Way, “Even our name indicated the centrality of community in our faith. We are the Religious Society of Friends.” He goes on to say that, “While our religious society encourages individual growth, it does so as a collective activity, seeking and promoting the betterment of individuals within the context of a gathered people. While our society’s goal is the betterment of the self, it is not a narcissistic self toward which we aspire, but a connected self, rooted in a loving, transformative community. It is because of our participation in the we that we learn to be an I.”
Our efforts as members of our community as we seek to answer that of God in each other—our intentions to be honest, to be respectful, to be kind and want the best for one another—those efforts make us better people, not only for us as a group, but for each of us, as individuals too. That rootedness gives us a sense of belonging and a deepening trust that God is unfolding our lives and our world in the perfect time and way.
In closing, I’d like to share with you an inspired passage from London Yearly Meeting’s 1960 edition of Faith & Practice. It’s the very last entry, and it casts all these ideas of community in a lovely, Godly light. They write,
“As we seek to know the tasks to which God calls us we should remember that it would be unrealistic to think that unity as a religious community means uniformity of outlook. We have to learn how to hold together a variety of elements in a living harmony. Our personal responsibilities will not therefore be alike, for our circumstances, temperaments, and experience are different. Nor should we dwell too much on our part, but rather remember always that it is the grace of God that works through us.’ Learning this in experience we may come again to know the freshness and wonder of a great common life, giving God the glory as we re-echo the rhythmical prose of the Elders and faithful Brethren of Philadelphia, writing in the spring of 1683 to their friends three thousand miles across the ocean:
Oh, remember us, for we cannot forget you:
Many waters cannot quench our love,
Nor distance wear out the deep remembrance
of you in the heavenly Truth:
We pray God preserve you in faithfulness,
that, discharging your places and stewardships,
you may be honored and crowned
with the reward of them that endure to the end.
And though the Lord has been pleased
to remove us far away from you,
as to the other end of the earth,
yet are we present with you,
Your exercises are ours;
Our hearts are dissolved
in the remembrance of you,
dear brethren and sisters in this heavenly love.
And the Lord of heaven and earth
who is the father of our family,
Keep us in His love and power,
and unite, comfort and build us all.
More and more,
To His eternal praise, and our rejoicing.
- OT: Psalm 133
- NT: Matthew 18: 19-20
- Gulley, Phil. The Quaker Way: https://www.amazon.com/Living-Quaker-Way-Discover-Happiness/dp/0307955796