I want to refer to two items that were in the news recently, one far more prominently than the other, and how they relate both to the passage we read from the book of Acts — and in the bulletin I expressed my doubt as to how accurate a description of the early church it might have been — both to the passage we read from the book of Acts, and to what I consider an important part of the figurative meaning of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that we are celebrating.
The first of those news items, and it was fairly easy to miss, was the issue of the US Postal Service’s newest “forever” stamp. If you are not familiar with that newest stamp, it is of Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers, the late children’s television personality who was also a Presbyterian minister.
When he was three years old, and we were living in Pittsburgh, which, it so happens, is the place from which “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” originated, my older son, Michael, who turns fifty later this year, passing his own father in age, got hooked on the TV show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” And neighborhood is an important part not merely of that show’s name, but of its concept.
It was easy on first blush to turn up my nose at what seemed the overly soft-spoken tone of Fred Rogers; his was a relatively high-pitched voice, and — well, it was easy at first to turn up my nose, but it took very little time to realize what he was doing with the soft and relatively unwavering tone of his voice: he was creating a comforting and “safe” environment into which he was inviting children to enter a fantasy world in which they shared his den with him.
Mr. Rogers’ opening song was, “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, / A beautiful day for a neighbor. / Would you be mine? / could you be mine? /“ . . . and, skipping a bit, “I have always wanted [to have] a neighbor just like you! / I have always wanted to live in a neighborhood, with you. / So let’s make the most of this beautiful day, / Since we’re together we might as well say, / Would you be mine? / could you be mine? / Won’t you be my neighbor? Won’t you please, / Won’t you please? / Please won’t you be be my neighbor?”
And forty-plus years ago off Bower Hill Road in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, I knew at least some of my neighbors, and however loosely, I am sure those neighbors helped give Michael a sense of what Mr. Rogers meant by “neighborhood,” and allowed Michael to have some sense of community.
I really do not know any of my neighbors in Tucson, at least since one family who had introduced themselves when first we moved in ten years ago themselves moved away maybe two years later. A year or two after that, when their son was in a lower grade and catching the school bus in front of our house, I met the family from more-or-less across the street, but I am not sure I would recognize anyone of them now.
So strictly speaking, while I live in what most would call “a neighborhood,” I have no sense of community there.
The Mr. Rogers stamp. It is a shame that news came fifteen years and a month too late for him to know about it.
The other news item is really the steady stream of news about Facebook, the “social media” giant of which supposedly almost two billion people around the world are users.
My relative disdain for Facebook is pretty well known: people post pictures of the meal they are eating, as though anyone really cares, or post pictures of cats, which I hope Congress does investigate. People get offended by what is in fact the unfriendly act of being “un-friended,” but also by something as trivial as no one’s commenting on their posts. Patricia’s sister-in-law used to fall into that pattern, but I think no longer. Indeed, she recently made good use of Facebook to raise funs for Cystic Fibrosis. But my disdain for Facebook grew as I found that some people rely on Facebook posts for what they consider to be actual news of the world, which is quite frightening, and why the Russians thought Facebook to be a good way to influence US politics.
Yet, at the same time, Facebook does succeed to some extent in what I think is one of its aims, serving its users as a virtual community, helping its users to find or to maintain communications with old friends and to establish at least some online contact with new “friends.” In my text I put quotation marks around that latter “friends”; calling someone with whom the limit of contact is Facebook postings a “friend” removes much meaning from the word, friend. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he would lay down his life for his friends, and you are my friends.” I think by that standard, one would unfriend everyone with whom he or she has contact on Facebook, save family.
Despite what I will for the sake of discussion label Facebook’s founder’s lofty goal, building or maintaining community, much or most of the contact on Facebook is superficial, sometimes involving people who are competitively trying to build up the number of people whom they can consider to be “friends,” and so, for a number of reasons, some of which I have already named, I believe that Facebook is an unsatisfactory substitute for real social relationships, for real socializing, for real socialization. Whether or not people call it “Social Media,” Facebook is an unsatisfactory substitute for real community.
(I must add, parenthetically, that updating dormant Facebook pages is part of what is comprehended in our work on the new website; in fact, we have progressed quite a bit on the Florence site, which will be essentially duplicated for Community. You can now see videos of my recent sermons — or read what I had meant to say in them — by going to www.florenceazchurch.org. You can see notice of upcoming events there, as well.)
Real community, what is that? I am fond of saying that to be a church there must be three legs on which to stand: worshipping together, sharing fellowship with and supporting one another, and doing mission and evangelism outside the membership of the church family.
That second item, sharing fellowship with and supporting one another, is at the core of what those of us old enough to remember such neighborhoods visualize with rose colored glasses from Mr. Rogers’ song. An ideal — or idyl — of living not just in a “neighborhood,” but in a community — a community, as opposed simply to living in a particular geographic area.
But all three items I mentioned are part of being a community in Christ, what Jesus wants of us as His Church. In those rose colored visions to which Mr. Rogers’ song point us, there were neighborhood gatherings, such as picnics and potluck meals (I know, I know, in some places there still are). For us, a community in Christ, there are gatherings, too, and specifically this gathering, gathering around a table for a particular kind of meal in which we celebrate that we are neighbors whose home is not here; we are neighbors whose home is the Kingdom of God.
As we share this communion — I choose the word communion on purpose, its common etymology with community — as we share this communion may it strengthen our sense of community, not just in the sense of sharing fellowship with and supporting one another, not even just with the added sense of worshipping together, but as well in the sense of uniting us as a community to take Jesus into the world, and in so doing to add to the number of people who shall be our neighbors, not merely in the coming Kingdom of God, but here, on earth, as well. Perhaps not physical neighbors nor even Facebook friends, but brothers and sisters in the larger community in Christ, the fellowship of all believers we call “His Church,” Church with a capital “C.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, friends, in that larger community in Christ, as we gather as a particular church with a small “c,” gather around His table remembering that . . .