Jason Alexander.blog
Sermons and writing about prayer, camping, bikes, and love.
5-min read

Community is Our Tradition

Imagine, if you will, a group of Episcopalians standing together and talking just before the start of the Pentecost service. It’s the annual bishop’s visit and last minute preparations are being made. The acolyte master says, “Lay eucharistic minster, the verger will meet you in the narthex.” And one of of the eucharistic minster’s adds, “right near the acolytes and the thurifer.” The associate rector then says, “Anyone seen the canon to the ordinary?” and a second associate replies, “I saw him talking to the suffragan near the sacristy.” An acolyte adds, “Along with the aspirants and the postulants,” and another, “…who I sent to the ambulatory near the cloister.” And then a little boy, in an exasperated voice, says, “They warned us in Sunday School that on Pentecost people speak in strange tongues.” And finally, in the middle of it all, the bishop is thinking, “Lord, have mercy.”

This image may be familiar to those of you who keep up with the cartoons that accompany the Church Pension Group calendar. I came across this one the other day and couldn’t resist. Yes, we Episcopalians love our words. And what do you expect from a tradition that stems from the “wordsmithing” culture of John Donne, Richard Hooker, Jeremy Taylor, and William Shakespeare? Us Anglicans even gifted the world with the King James translation of the Bible. Words are in our blood. And in the anxious days of the English Reformation, much of that blood was literally spilled fighting for certain phrases to be put in or taken out of the Book of Common Prayer. I might add, still even in the 21st century, making alterations to the prayer book is risky business!

So, we Episcopalians like our words. But does it matter? Does the fact we talk about “vergers,” “postulants,” and “evensong” add to the stereotype that the modern Episcopal church has become a museum of ecclesiastical relics? Or is there some value in continuing to speak in our strange tongue? Well, it turns out that that technological marvel known as Google, might be able to help us on our quest for self-understanding.

A few years ago Google began digitizing every book it could get its hands on that was published between 1500 and today. Not only has this been good for folks who want to rediscover a classic novel, but it has also served as a research mecca for linguists. You can type a word into the Google Books search field and find out how often that word was used in literature in any given time period. Turns out the results found in researching even these last hundred years are quite dramatic, particularly when looking at the expression of individualistic versus communal sentiment. For example, over the past fifty years words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first,” and “I can do it myself,” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together,” and “common good” receded. And at the same time, words having to do with morality and virtue have changed frequency. In these last fifty years we have read less about “decency,” “conscience,” “honesty,” “patience,” “compassion,” “thankfulness,” and “bravery,” while we’ve read more about “discipline,” “dependability,” “preferences,” “subjectivity,” and “priorities.”

One doesn’t have to be a well-trained linguist to surmise that the Western world seems to have gone through a fairly significant cultural shift. Not only does “being together” seem to have less importance today, but we also seem to have lost many of our community-related values. This research might suggest that modern Westerners tend to measure “success” or a “life well lived” as having personally “made it” in this world – either financially or professionally, rather than having grown in wisdom, faith, and compassion alongside those with whom we toil. In other words, a lot of folks are looking out for number one these days, and many would say that’s a perfectly acceptable way to live.

Now, I’m not knocking the value of personal ambition. Much has been invented and accomplished because of some healthy competition, but like just about all human behavior, peril lies in the extremes. When we are constantly out to win in whatever race we are running, we can forget the joy to be discovered in sharing the journey with our neighbor.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day reserved on our liturgical calendar for the church to remember and celebrate the holy mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unified. The Trinity is not one of the clearest doctrines in the Church, and therefore a challenge to explain. And a preacher on this day runs the risk of either stumbling into heresy or venturing down some overly academic tangent and then having to wake up the congregation for the creed. In fact, some denominations have judged it a belief that has outlived its usefulness, casting it aside, kind of like one might arcane language.

My aim today is not to attempt any overarching explanation of the Trinity. So you can breathe easy. I am content to let the mystery remain a mystery. But I want to make an observation. Trinity is community. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit work together to accomplish no less than the redemption of the world. Presumably one does not operate without the other. It may be beyond us to understand exactly how this holy community works, but we might heed the example. Deep within our church’s doctrine, at its roots, is a testament to the value of community. We believe that Christ is present when two or three are gathered – when we talk together, eat together, cry together, celebrate together. Trinity is community.

The church at large may not have as many members as it once did. What do you expect in a world where individualism has become prized above community? But we keep our doors open. Because we know that somewhere deep down inside, all of the individuals out there need each other–in fact, to encounter Christ in each other. We continue to speak our strange tongue, a symbol that we value the wisdom and tradition of the community of believers who proceed us. And we continue to uphold this ancient and mysterious doctrine of community, this doctrine of the Trinity.

Enter the narthex, walk through the nave, enter the sanctuary, rediscover relationship – and find redemption.

Trinity Sunday, Year C


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