It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…
These are the opening words of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. (slide)” Dickens’ Tale is a classic piece of literature. My favorite definition of a classic comes from Mark Twain, does anyone know how he defines a classic…?” Classic: a book which people praise and don’t read.
So in the interest of full disclosure I will confess that I have never read Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities.” Those opening words however, man those words get me. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Twice this last winter I connected with high school classmates and in both instances I walked away struck by the power of their respective stories. And over the last weeks and months, as I have reflected on our calling as Christians and what it means for us to live out that calling in community with one another, I have continued to come back to and reflect on those stories.
And so this morning I want to share those stories with you, changing the names of those involved, of course. And as I share these stories I invite you to continue reflecting on who it is that God is calling you to be as an individual and who God is calling us to be as a community of faith.
Our first story is about Ralph. I don’t think there was a Ralph in high school during my time there so that seems a safe enough name to use…
I reconnected with Ralph last December during a time when I had just begun conversations with our District Superintendent about the possibility of me coming to serve here in Tonganoxie. I remember asking Ralph what he thought of the possibility of raising kids here. Ralph’s response really knocked me off my feet…
Ralph didn’t hesitate to say, “Tonganoxie was a great place to grow up and I would raise kids there in a heartbeat.” He continued by making the bold statement, “That community saved my life.” I asked him to clarify a bit and he did…
You see Ralph didn’t have a great family life growing up. His mom had a number of issues and was probably emotionally abusive toward him. I remember Ralph receiving next to no support from his mom for anything that he did. His mom wasn’t there for concerts or plays or football games. In fact she was downright antagonistic regarding his involvement in anything extracurricular. She was mean and nasty. It wasn’t pretty. But, the people who knew who Ralph was also knew who his mom was. This was an important part of how this community came to be life giving for Ralph.
He said people knew him and knew his mom and felt sorry for him and were willing to go out of their way to be helpful for him. In a bigger community like Lawrence or KC he explained, he would have just been a number, that people wouldn’t have known his story and that they would have simply looked at him as another punk kid. He earnestly believes that had he grown up somewhere else people would have been less patient and supportive of him, that he likely would have gotten into some serious trouble of some kind and that he would not have been able to achieve what he has, that he would not be the person that he is today.
In today’s Mark reading we encounter a story of Jesus healing that reminds me a great deal of Ralph’s story. Picture this scene, Jesus is in a home and the crowds are surrounding the home to the point where no one can get into the home. A man who has been paralyzed for years is carried toward the home by his friends with the hope that he might encounter Jesus and be healed. As they come close, however, they realize the incredible magnitude of the crowds. These friends refuse to give up hope though and they climb up on the roof of the house, tear a whole in it, and lower the man down into be healed by Jesus. Mark explains that when Jesus sees the faith of these friends, he heals the man who has been paralyzed for such a long time.
Mark tells us that this man is healed because of the faithfulness of those around him, of those in his community. Ralph believes that growing up in a community where people knew him and knew his family, literally saved his life. He sums it up simply by saying, “that community saved my life.” It was the best of times…
The second story I want to share this morning is of a guy we’ll call Peter.
Peter works in downtown Lawrence and I ran into him this winter. We chit chatted a bit about life and conversation turned to growing up in Tonganoxie. He was a bit younger than me and I had forgotten that he actually left Tongie partway through high school to live in Lawrence. He explained that prior to his Junior his parents divorced and everyone suddenly wanted to be in his business and offer him advice and it was just too much for him. Surely people were trying to extend care in a helpful way, but he found their investment in his life, especially at that point, to be too much. It felt like people were meddling. It felt like people were gossiping. It felt like people who hadn’t been that interested in him or in his life previously, were now sticking their noses in his business. Peter’s experience of this community was that it was stifling and oppressive. He couldn’t wait to get away from it. It was the worst of times…
My guess would be that these two stories capture the experiences that many have with our great town. For some community can be life giving and sustaining. For others it can be alienating and oppressing. This tension that exists within communities is the core of much of the conversation in the book of Deuteronomy. As a whole the book of Deuteronomy talks about the history of faith as the basis for a communal faith. The book of Deuteronomy contains foundational principles of community and it contains extensive conversation about the role of God in the community and the covenants that God’s people are invited to participate in as members of the community. This entire tension comes to a focus then in verse 19 that was read just a bit ago, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life…”
Ralph and Peter both grew up in this same community during the same period of time. Yet their experiences of this community were as different as they could possibly be. One found the community to be life giving and affirming while the other found the community to be stifling and oppressive. One remembers the community fondly as a great place to live and the other can’t imagine ever coming back to be a part of this community. These two had seemingly very similar experiences, but they were really quite different.
You see, the type of community that Ralph experienced, a community that is life giving, requires hard work and investment up front. People knew him and cared about him and invested in him in ways that were helpful and nurturing. Peter’s experience was that people never really had that much interest in his life until his parents got divorced. At this point the people who he really didn’t know engaging in his life in felt strange and uncomfortable. It seemed to him that people were more interested in being in the loop and having the latest dirt than they really were in helping and supporting him so he found their engagement to be alienating and painful.
So what does all of this mean for us? It means that whether or not people experience our community (the greater community of Tonganoxie as well as our community of faith) to be life giving or life draining depends, in large part, on how we live in community and engage one another.
We are called to be a community that in the words of Deuteronomy, chooses life. We are called to be a community that takes the time to truly get to know one another and that supports, cares for, and nurtures one another in real and authentic ways. We are called to know one another and to be engaged in one another’s lives so that when the storms of life do hit we are able to be present and supportive in truly helpful ways.
Thursday evening I had the opportunity to spend some time at the high school following the news of the tragic accident that took the life of a student in our community. I spent an hour or so there with students and administrators and as I prepared to leave I ducked my head into to the office to introduce myself. As we wrapped up our conversation I asked Principal Carlisle if he yet knew anything about services for the student. He did not and shared that the family had left town.
At first I couldn’t understand why the family would leave town, but then I realized I was making some assumptions. I was assuming that the family would have experienced the support of community in the ways that Ralph had while growing up. I assumed that the family would find the support of this community to be helpful and even maybe healing in the midst of their terrible tragedy. I was making these assumptions, but realized they weren’t fair to make.
I don’t know why this young woman’s family left town Thursday afternoon, but I imagine it could be that they were experiencing this community in much the same way that Peter did. It could be that all of a sudden a whole bunch of people who hadn’t shown much interest in them to date were all of a sudden sticking their noses into their business. It could have been that though people were reaching out with good intentions it felt stifling and invasive and even painful.
I have to wonder, when tragedy strikes those around us, will they experience the support of the community to be the best of times or the worst of times. And again, it’s up to us. When we interact with those in our community we have a choice set before us, to choose actions that lead to life and healing or that lead to pain and isolation.
The good news, friends, is that God loves us unconditionally. And as we seek to live in community and to make this community the kind of place where people experience God’s life giving love, we don’t go at it on our own. The very God who created us, who seeks to save us, and whose spirit guides us every day is with us always. And so I pray that you may be filled with God’s spirit so that we as a community of faith might be empowered to do the important work of sharing God’s love with this community and with the world. It is my hope that we will play a part in the best of times.