Psalm 133: Being Family
A dysfunctional family
A number of years ago, I concluded that the news really wasn’t the news. What I mean by that is that the news as we hear it is shaded by the commentator, the news service, or the owners of those entities to their personal bias. For instance, if you want a conservative slant on world events, watch or read Fox News, Breitbart, The Drudge Report and The Blaze and if you want a liberal bias watch or read CNN, Politico, Huffington Post, and the New York Times.[i] Traditional news sources like the Associated Press and Reuters News Service tend to be without bias but in this day and age, I find it hard to believe such a thing exists. Most of the time, I read the same story from a left, right, and centrist source and look for all the things that are common.
A little over a week ago, a protest had been planned in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the main campus for the University of Virginia. “Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler planned what he called a “pro-white” rally to protest Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park.”[ii] The rally was met with a counter-protest and according to sources present, “Rally supporters and counter-protesters screamed, chanted, threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays on each other Saturday morning…” There were also fights Friday night throughout the Charlottesville area.[iii] A state of emergency was declared and protesters and counter-protesters dispersed. Unfortunately, thirty-five people were injured in the violence and one young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed in the violence when one of the ‘right-wing’ protesters, James Alex Fields, drove a car into a group of protesters.
Those are simply the facts to the best of my ability to gather them without bias or prejudice, a simple recounting of the events as they happened. After watching the video of the car being driven into the group of protesters, I can also say I was horrified and sickened by what our country has become. I have talked with many of you and made my feelings known that when it comes to politics: extremism of any kind has no place in a peaceful society. The violence displayed by both sides in the protest/counter-protest was wrong. To have an opinion that is contrary to that of your neighbor is your right according to the Constitution and the laws that we live under; to bring harm to another human being is simply and unequivocally wrong.
Yet, the Bible speaks of the restoration and the stewardship of all things, creation included (cf. Genesis I-II, Psalm XIX.i). We are not agents of destruction but workers tasked with building the Kingdom of God on earth and the stewardship of His created order. As God called creation into order out of chaos, so too are we tasked with calling out into the chaos of man-made world systems and helping people find peace and well-being with God and neighbor.
So, what do we do as followers of Jesus in a world that is increasingly fragmenting into extreme expressions of life and faith? How do we create a space where we can “live together as one” as brothers and sisters, where we can be a family?
An Ideal Family
I think perhaps an idea may come out of the life of the twentieth century’s most famous martyr: the German Pastor/Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer began his ministry in pre-World War II Germany and opposed Hitler’s dictatorship, speaking out on many occasions about the dangers of the burgeoning Nazi regime. In 1935, a time when all the seminaries of the country were under Reich control and being filled with Nazi doctrine, Bonhoeffer accepted an offer to work with a community of pastors as part of the Confessing Church. The Confessing Movement was focused on maintaining their Christian faith without the socialist dogma of the ruling party. The result was a ‘hidden’ seminary in the town of Finkenwalde where Bonhoeffer and a group of ministers held classes and lived together in what could only be described as a modern version of the church described in Acts chapter two,
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers…All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.
(Acts II.xlii, xliv-xlvii)
The seminary was eventually disbanded by the Nazi party and twenty-seven ministers were arrested by the gestapo. But out of this experience came one of the great works on communal church, Life Together. I’d like to share with you some of these ideas on Christian community that have been influential in my life and many others.
“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” (Bonhoeffer 1954, 19)
I believe Bonhoeffer is speaking to the mutual support and encouragement that being with one another brings to the heart of the believer, especially when we can be at peace with one another. When we draw on the strength of one another, we draw on the strength that Jesus prayed for in John when he said, “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us…”[iv]
“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.” (Bonhoeffer 1954, 21)
When Jesus speaks of being ‘in God’ in John XVII, I believe he is speaking of the idea that we are immersed in the presence and person of God in a real, personal way. In the same way, Paul, and above, Bonhoeffer, speak of being immersed in the presence, the life, the being, and the teachings of Jesus. It is this immersion that allows the connection of the community to come to fruition as the Spirit of God draws us together to share these things.
“…the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.” (Bonhoeffer 1954, 23)
The definition I use for salvation being the process of becoming whole and having well-being or shalom with God and man through our understanding of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This wholeness, this well-being is born of the connections we have with and in Jesus and one another.
Each of these quotes speaks to the common life we saw in the disciples as they followed Jesus, the common life of the early church as recorded in Acts, and the common life available to us if we choose to be a people who wish to live into the Kingdom of God as Jesus taught in his life. It is found in the way Jesus cares about the daily life of people like Jesus turning water into wine at the marriage of Cana, how we answered the questions that stirred people’s hearts like Nicodemus, the way he met the physical and spiritual needs of those around him like the feeding of the five thousand or the healing of those with infirmities of the body and brokenness of the spirit.
So how do we build family and community in the church? We do it by being family to the community and the people around you. Look again at the Psalm we have read this morning. This Psalm was a communal song, chanted by the people as they went up to the Temple on feast weeks and celebrations.[v] The people would sing this together as a communal expression of their faith and connectedness. Verse one speaks of families but according to some commentators, the word in Hebrew could just as easily refer to those beyond the basic family to extended relationships in the community.[vi]
This communal aspect of things is most important, especially considering that this was passed down through generations and probably written as a memory while the people of Israel and Judah were in captivity in Babylon. One commentator writes,
“Psalm 133 represents the synagogue’s credo and the essential value of Reconstructionist Judaism: Belonging to a community comes before all beliefs save for a belief in belonging. Belonging comes before behavior.”[vii]
For the Jews who had lived through the long journey to a foreign land or had been born in captivity, this concept of belonging to a community was central and identity as a people of God was the defining characteristic. For us as followers of Jesus, our defining characteristic as a community is how we live into being disciples. The way we approach our faith and understanding of Jesus, who he was, how he lived, died, and was resurrected, is the DNA of who we are and how we present that to the world around us. Our community becomes our witness. Our people, those connected to the greater Church, become the voice of our community to the world and frankly, I think we sound like an album left in the sun. Our voice is a scattered cacophony of dissonant noise as we have politicized our faith and made it a commodity to be sold off to the highest bidder. It is as if we have sold our message to a corporate world and political parties in exchange for a few social considerations. As we near the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation there are currently more than forty divisions within the Christian family under six major groups.[viii]
Knowing this about the greater church, we have the responsibility to our community to speak with one voice in agreement of that which can all agree with: Love God, Love Neighbor. To that end, I want to share one more story, one that my wife, Heather, shared with me about a man named Daryl Davis.
“For more than two decades, Daryl Davis, an African-American musician, has been going out of his way to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups in the hopes of persuading them to recognize their common humanity…Davis began his crusade by asking himself the existential question: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” After a chance meeting with a member of the KKK following a gig, Davis began to reach out to members of hate groups, and he found that the more willing he was to hear them out, the more open they became to embracing him. More than two dozen white supremacists have since renounced their ideology of hate in part because of Davis’ peace offering. And as part of that process, they have symbolically handed over their Klan robes and paraphernalia to him.”[ix]
If nothing else, this is a story about how love triumphs over hate, and isn’t that what the gospel is all about.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community. Translated by John W. Doberstein. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco/HarperCollins, 1954.
Booij, Thijs. “Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and how pleasant.”.” Biblica 83, no. 2 (2002): 258-267.
Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Snyder, Howard A. “Salvation Means Creation Healed.” Asbury Journal 62, no. 1 (2007): 9-47.
Wertheimer, Jack. Belonging before Belief. 2009. http://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/465476 (accessed Aug 17, 2017).
[i] According to a Washington Post article that cites a Pew Research Center poll (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/10/21/lets-rank-the-media-from-liberal-to-conservative-based-on-their-audiences/?utm_term=.c6c19d20e4a9)
[iv] John XVII.xxi
[v] (Booij 2002)
[vi] (Mays 1994)
[vii] (Wertheimer 2009)