Whatever You Give Up for Lent… Don’t Give Up on – Community Psalm 133; Hebrews 10:23-25 (NLT)

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

Good evening! My name is John Gill, and I serve as the pastor of the Mims congregation. What a privilege it is to be here this evening to share a word from the Lord with you.

The theme we pastors agreed upon for our series of services this year is, “What NOT to Give Up On…” In some traditions, on Ash Wednesday, people decide to fast – or “give up” something during Lent. Often it is some decadent pleasure like chocolate, or some vice like smoking. (When I was a child, I vowed to “give up” lima beans for Lent – which was pretty easy, since I detested lima beans!)

Yes, many of us every year decide what we will give up for Lent. But what if we approached Lent a little differently this year? What if the question was not, “What should I give up?” but “What should I NOT give up on?” What if we say to one another, “Whatever you do this Lent, don’t give up on…. _.” How would you fill in that blank? Last Wednesday, Pastor Wayne reminded us not to give up on “Love.” Today, we are reminded never to give up on “Community.”

Community is one of those things that we tend to take for granted. We know that Community is essential to living in our world today. Unless you live off-the-grid, or in the wilderness somewhere, you live in a community, and that community, for better or worse, shapes who we are. As part of living in community, our lives are enriched and find meaning. A healthy community is essential to living a fulfilled life.

As I said, we tend to take community for granted – at least until our community becomes dysfunctional and broken. Only then, once we have lost a sense of healthy community, do we appreciate how important Community is.

I’m afraid we are in one of those moments right now. In my sixty years of living, I cannot recall a time when I was more discouraged about the state of our community-life than I am today. Perhaps you are feeling it, too.

It seems that, in just about every venue of our lives, our communities are in shambles. It’s no secret that our nation today has lost its sense of being a community. People are increasingly polarized, and suspicious of one another. The social fabric that has held our nation together seem to be unraveling – and it appears that we’re not able – or willing – to do anything about it.

And as United Methodists, we have to confess that our faith community also has become infected with the same cancer that is tearing our nation apart. As the recent General Conference has made clear, our United Methodist family no longer has any sense of being in community with one another. Instead of singing “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love,” it seems we are eager to break up the family by filing for divorce. Yes, it seems that we all have been too quick to “give up on community.”

And that is tragic – for so many reasons. Of course, as a nation we are witnessing the devastating impact polarization is making on our sense of community. That is a terrible state of affairs, and something we urgently need to address, if our nation is to survive. But, this evening, my greater concern is what the loss of a spirit of community is doing to our United Methodist churches, and among our congregations.

We all come from five different congregations, all here in the greater Titusville area. And because each church serves a different community, and perhaps different segments of the community, our views on the issues facing the church will vary. We know that, within this room, there are people of good will and faithfulness to Christ who will come to different conclusions on the issue at hand. But this evening, we’re not here to suggest what view anyone should take, nor to convince others to change their view. My purpose this evening is to ask us to take a step back and consider what we are giving up if we let “community” go.

Why do we need to cherish “community?” Let me suggest four benefits for staying in community:

First of all, being in community allows us to “bear one another’s burdens.”

In Galatians 6:3, Paul writes this: “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.”

We all will face trials and tribulations in life, seasons of life when we confront so many challenges, we wonder if we can go on. Perhaps you are in that season of life right now. The blessing of community is that you don’t have to walk through that dark valley alone – you have your church family to stand by your side, and even hold you up when you think you will fall.

Very often when I’m ministering to a family going through a time when a loved one has passed, someone in the grieving family will say, “I don’t know how I would have gotten through this if it weren’t for my church family.” Or “I don’t know how people who don’t have a church manage to survive.” It is because we belong to a community that when we are in need, our Christian sisters and brothers come to our aid. We are not alone in our troubles. We have a family who is there to share our burden. We benefit from the care of our sisters and brothers, so that when we are strong and they are in need of love and support, we are happy to give it. It is because we are a family, a community of love, that we “bear one another’s burdens.” So, we had better think twice before we “give up on community!”

A second benefit of Community is that it allows us to give encouragement to others.

Again, the words of Paul, this time from 1 Thessalonians 5:11,14: “Encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing… Encourage those who are timid. Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone.”

We all need mentors along our spiritual journey. Even the best of us can slip into a time of discouragement, lack of confidence, or confusion about what God would have us do. This is a normal part of our growth in Christ.

When those times come, we need to be surrounded by godly people in our faith community who can “encourage us” and “build us up” so we can be everything God would have us to be. Think back on your own spiritual journey. Who were your encouragers? Who stepped into your life and spoke truth? Who lovingly encouraged you to grow in faith? And who have you encouraged?

When I was struggling with a call to the ministry, there were those who encouraged me to say yes to the call. Of course, there were my parents. But also, a youth leader who saw potential in me and two college professors who gave me encouragement to explore what God’s plan was for my life. I don’t think I would be standing here before you this evening if there hadn’t been “encouragers” in my faith community.

Without a community, where would that encouragement come from? If we were to “let go” of community, who would be there to encourage us when we need encouraging?

The third benefit of Community is that we can “stir up one another to good works.”

As we read from our scripture from Hebrews: “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works.”

We are clear that we are not saved by good works – we are saved by grace through faith. But, one way we live out our faith is by good works. Of course, as individuals, we can still do “good works” that are motivated by our faith, but we are much more likely to accomplish more when we join with others in our faith community to make a difference for Christ in our world. Often, we don’t know where to begin to put our faith into action. Our community of faith exists in part to give us those opportunities – and to help us to step forward. Being a part of a faith community “stirs up” within us a desire to serve.

I suspect that the vast majority of folks here this evening are among the most active leaders in your congregation. You are the ones who serve on the committees that make the church function. You are those who are engaged in mission and ministry through your church to your community and the world. You are the folks who demonstrate your faith by your actions of love and service. Am I right?

What would happen to your neighborhood and city if we were to give up on our communities of faith? Who would go hungry? What families would suffer? How many elderly would be lonely or forgotten? What children would not hear about Jesus? What homeless would go unsheltered? Whose souls would be lost?

Now you could be doing those things apart from a congregation, I suppose. But I doubt it. It is because you are part of the community of your congregation that you are accomplishing Kingdom work. That’s because, as a community we “stir” one another up for good works. And we find joy in doing it!

Finally, and most importantly, living in a loving faith community is a powerful witness to a broken and fractured world.

We are formed into a loving community by Christ himself. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians (1:10): “I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.”

And, as Jesus tells his disciples in the Upper Room (John 13:34-35): “I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

One of the most profound comments made regarding the early church came from the lips of a man named Aristides, a non-Christian who lived in the second century AD. He was sent by the Emperor Hadrian to spy out those strange creatures known as “Christians.” Having observed the followers of Christ in action, Aristides returned with a report. His immortal words to the emperor have echoed down through the centuries: “Behold! How they love one another.”

Friends, if we Christians can’t find ways to love one another in spite of our differences, what kind of witness is that for the larger community? We sing, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” but all they see when they look at the Church is discord, accusation, suspicion, and hostility – NOT against the world, but against our own sisters and brothers in Christ! It’s no wonder the church today is becoming irrelevant, because we no longer live what we profess to believe! Who can blame the unbelieving world for turning their back on us, and because of our unfaithfulness, turning their backs on Christ?

Friends, community is important in all the ways I have described. We must not give up on community! But if love is missing, there can be no community – and our witness to the world is a sham.

Yes, our sense of community has been shattered – as a nation and as a church – seemingly beyond repair. It’s easy to be despondent. Can a healthy sense of community be restored? Is there a possibility that there could be hope?

Of course, there is. We may be walking through the season of Lent, mournfully reflecting on the mess we have made of the “Beloved Community” God desires us to be, — but Easter is coming! I believe we can hope for a resurrection of our common life together, but only if we can learn to love again.

It’s just as Jesus said: “I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”