In Community With the Living God

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly[b] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. ~ Hebrews 12:18-24

What, exactly, is community? In one place, it has been defined as:

a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists [i]

Human beings seem to be hardwired for community. We first experience it because, unlike most other animals, we are essentially helpless at birth, and for quite some time after… at least six months before we can crawl to food and water, at least nine months before we can walk to it, at least 18 months before we can begin putting our words together in sentences. We need others to care for us. If all goes according to plan, our baby eyes and smiles and laughter charm the adults around us, and a love story begins. Our first community is the family unit.

Many of us remember the early communities made up of the kids we played with, our neighbors. I remember tearing around the block on bicycles with Mary Kate and Donna, the sisters who lived next door. I also remember an afternoon with Mary Kate in which we attempted to create pixie dust so that we could fly, like Peter Pan, which involved mixing together flour, sugar, and water, and liberally applying it to ourselves. It did not work.

A broader group of neighbors emerged, and we found ourselves part of a number of small intergenerational communities of friends. There were the families with whom we gathered in a small encampment when we went to the beach. There was the family with whom we shared weekend meals and trips to the movies. (C., the mom, taught me to knit and crochet and bake—my mom told me all that stuff skipped a generation in her family). There were the families with whom we spent our annual winter vacation in Florida.

I found communities of various sizes and kinds in school: the elementary school pals who shared my love of the Osmond Brothers, my high school freshman English class, my college roommates, who blossomed into an ongoing (but now far-flung) group of friends-for-life.

Communities are not necessarily permanent. They can rise up, exist for a while, and then disappear again. About a year after I moved from Massachusetts to the Southern Tier of New York, I found a women’s group called Sarah’s Circle. That was a community of Roman Catholic women who had more than a passing interest in ordination. Over time, each of us found our own answer to the question of what to do about that conundrum, and the group dispersed. I still have good and important friendships with several of those women; others, I never see.

There are communities that can arise in the span of an evening of dancing in a club, or going to a concert. You can find yourself thrilled by music you love in the midst of a group of strangers who are also thrilled, and with whom you find yourself somehow becoming connected. You may be holding your breath together during a fantastic solo. You applaud together at the end of a piece. You may jump to your feet and hoot and holler together to show your gratitude and approval at the end of the show. Even though you don’t know one another, or maybe know only a few of the hundreds gathered there, a tangible sense of your common experience can give you a feeling of being powerfully connected to one another.

Something like that was probably happening in Las Vegas last Sunday night, when country artist Jason Aldean was finishing up a guitar lick and turning back to the microphone to sing, a little after 10:00, at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival. The audience was dancing, listening, chatting… A community was forming. And then, in a moment, with the sound of automatic gunfire ringing out, another kind of community formed, but this one involved law enforcement officers in addition to country music lovers. It involved first responders, and hotel staff. Now it was a community formed around one shared goal, and one only: survival.

Last week we shared the story of the ordeal of the Israelite slaves who fought for their survival, and who were terrified in their wilderness wandering, when they realized there was no food. But then they received the gift of manna, bread for their journey. This morning we shared a passage that describes the Israelites as they are receiving another gift: they stand at the base of Mount Sinai as God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. This law is God’s outline of the people’s part in their covenant relationship with the Almighty. And this passage is filled with more awe-inspiring, if not terrifying, imagery: a thick cloud, thunder and lightning, an ear-splitting trumpet blast, an earthquake that shook a mountain, smoke, and fire.  

This community was formed over generations, through the activity of God and through the people’s experiences. It was a community of call and covenant—of God reaching out and saying, “You, you are my people.” It was a community of individuals and families and tribes. It was a community forged in the hardship and trauma of slavery and Exodus. It was a community literally on the move, following, physically, where God was leading them. And here, once more, it is a community of covenant—mutual promises on the part of people and the Almighty. The Israelites are in community with the living God.

And here and now, thousands of miles away and thousands of years later, so are we. It is the same. And it is very, very different. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is differentiating between that community and the new covenant community of Jesus-followers. First, the writer tells us,

You have not come to something that can be touched [like, say, a mountain], a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them… ~ Hebrews 12:18-19

The writer is describing all the tangible things that make that story of the giving of the law so compelling. It’s vivid: we can see it, we can smell the smoke, we can feel the trembling that must have rippled through the people like the earthquake moved through the mountain.

It is rare for us to recognize the presence of God so vividly in our day. But we believe that God is still active, that the Holy Spirit is still moving among us, that Jesus is still speaking. So… how do we know when and where and how that happens? The writer goes on:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. ~ Hebrews 12:22-24

The Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai—the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments. But now God’s people are gathered, not in the wilderness, but in the city—Mount Zion and Jerusalem are described as the “city of the living God.” What’s more, there are angels, and they seem to be having some kind of very big party, because apparently God is there, and Jesus, and the spirits of the righteous firstborn—that is to say, God’s faithful who have gone before us. And it starts to sound a little like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, when she wakes up, and looks around at all her friends, trying to explain what has happened. “But it wasn't a dream,” she says. “It was a place. And you and you and you...and you were there… No, Auntie Em, this was a real truly live place and I remember some of it wasn't very nice, but most of it was beautiful—but just the same all I kept saying to everybody was ‘I want to go home’…” 

Scripture begins in a garden, it moves through the wilderness, and it ends up in the city. Like the Emerald City, some things have happened there that aren’t very nice. But it is most beautiful. And one thing you can be sure to find in a city is people who need to figure out, one way or another, how to get home.

The city the author of Hebrews is describing sounds a lot like what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” in the gospels. The reign of God has come—look, there are angels, there’s dancing and celebrating, it’s beautiful! But it isn’t quite here in all its fullness yet. O Jerusalem, Jesus cries, if only I could gather you under my wings like a mother hen. O Las Vegas. O Sandy Hook. O Orlando.

But even in the midst of the devastation we see signs of the love, care, and protection of the living God. Elysa Arroyo, an elementary school teacher in the Clark County school district, attended the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival with her boyfriend Jody. The next afternoon, she shared her experience of terror and survival in a post to social media. She wrote,

Jody and I are home safe. We were in the middle of the crowd being shot at last night, but were able to run out a gate not far away and hide in a bathroom at a nearby hotel. They eventually moved us to a room with about 15 other people to wait out the lockdown. We got home around 7:00 this morning.

Every news outlet I see reports the fatalities, constantly streams footage of the massacre (which just freaks me out all over again), or talks about the shooter, but I want to talk about some amazing things that I somehow had the presence of mind to notice while we were literally running for our lives.

I can't speak for what happened elsewhere in the venue, but where we were there was no pushing, shoving, or trampling. Strangers were helping strangers climb walls and fences, throwing wounded over their shoulders and running with them, helping small children get through the crowd unharmed. There was sheer panic and pandemonium everywhere, but there was also strength, bravery, and outright heroism all around us.

As we ran away from the sound of gunfire, which seemed to come from every direction, heavily armed police officers and other first responders ran TOWARD the shots and yelled for us to keep running. They were focused and fast, and never hesitated to get between us and the bullets. So many of us owe those courageous men and women our lives…

We ran from a bullet barrage… and we ran surrounded by a crowd of some of humanity's absolute finest. I am heartbroken for those who lost their lives in this horrific event and worried for those still wounded, and still shaken beyond belief, but I have not lost my faith in humanity. Last night showed me how much good there still is in people. And that for every deranged lunatic hellbent on destruction, there are thousands who, even in the face of death and chaos, choose kindness, compassion, and love for their fellow man…[ii]

We have not yet found the will as a society to prevent massacres like the one that happened last Sunday, just twelve hours after we were gathered here around God’s table. I pray we do, and soon. But even in the midst of the terrible evil that was unleashed that night, the goodness of God was revealed in the actions of those who chose kindness, compassion, and love. If you are looking for vivid signs of the activity of God, look right here. The community of the living God is formed in and through an active, saving love that, in the end, will not fail. The community of the living God will help us all find our way home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.