The 2013 World Baseball Classic games were being played exactly four months ago this weekend in Japan. On March 6, Alfredo Despaigne hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning, helping Cuba defeat two-time defending champion Japan 6-3 to finish first in Group A of the World Baseball Classic and advance to the next level. I was in Cuba along with some other Pullenites, the week leading up to this final game. Now, I’m not exactly an expert on the World Baseball Classic games. Honestly, I didn’t even know there was such a thing until this past March. But it seems that maybe it works like most sports tournaments, teams playing the best three out of five games to advance to the next level. Anyway, as the Pullen group was enjoying our visit with our Cuban friends, at some point we became aware that Team Cuba was playing baseball in an important tournament. Everywhere we went, Cubans were crowded around small televisions trying to catch a glimpse of their team through wavy and fuzzy televised pictures. As we would walk down the street, men would be huddled together with their transistor radios to their ears trying to place the antenna in the perfect position to hear the baseball announcer call the next play. Throughout the week, at unexpected times, you could hear coming from side street alleys loud cheers or deep moans depending on the latest score update. Being a sports fan myself, I caught the Cuban baseball fever that week, and I would catch myself ducking into the oddest places to sneak a glimpse at a TV to see how Team Cuba was doing in the World Baseball Classic.
On the day we left Cuba, March 11, Team Cuba having advanced was playing a critical game against the Netherlands. As we boarded our “pastors for peace” school bus for the hour and half ride from Matanzas to the Havana airport I was grateful to see that Elaina had brought along a small hand-held radio. For an hour and a half, she would walk around on the bus trying to position herself and the radio antenna so as to get reception of the game. Throughout the ride, she would yell, “I got it” and then relay to the rest of us what was happening. Or she would say, “I’ve lost it” and we would sit quietly wondering what was happening. At one point, after a long stretch of not having reception, she yelled, “It’s back. I got it.” To which I yelled excitedly, “Are we winning?” With my question still hanging in the air, Karla turned to me and said, “Did you just hear yourself?” I said, “No, what?” She said, “You just asked if we are winning. Then I got it. I had become, in one short week, a part of Team Cuba. I was invested. I was committed. And I was excited to be cheering on our baseball team. The question wasn’t, “Is Cuba winning?” The question was, “Are we winning?”
This story raises for me questions about community and belonging. Questions like: What does it mean to be part of a community? How does community form? How do we belong and what nurtures belonging? What does our faith tell us about being community to and with one another?
When I read the lectionary text from Luke 10, two things stood out to me that I think are connected to these questions of community and belonging. First, Luke tells us that the disciples go out in teams – in pairs. Jesus is sending them out to proclaim the kingdom of God, and he anticipates resistance. He said from the outset that he had come to set those society deemed criminals free, to heal those who had been cast aside, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor in an empire that worshiped Caesar as Lord. And so Jesus knows that plenty of people will resist this message, whether from fear or disbelief or self-interest. When the powers of the world are challenged, all kinds of things get upset. And so Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs. When one falters, the other can help. When one is lost, the other can seek the way. When one is discouraged, the other can hold faith for both for a while. That’s what a community does – we hold on to each other, console each other, encourage each other and even, at times, believe for each other.
But we forget that. We live in a culture that insists that it’s all up to us as individuals and that there’s not enough for everyone. And so we’ve been taught to look out for ourselves, and that the one who has the most toys is the winner. Jesus’ reminder that we find success only with and for each other is a timely gift to his disciples both then and now.
Along with sending them out in pairs, Jesus also tells his disciples to take nothing with them as they go. This means that the disciples – men, women and children – must depend on the generosity of others for their food, for a place to stay, for everything. For most of us, such dependence is uncomfortable. It makes us feel like we’re not prepared and leaves us feeling vulnerable. But maybe that’s Jesus’ point. We are vulnerable. We forget our vulnerability, going to great lengths to fool ourselves into thinking that we are in control, independent and invulnerable. But it doesn’t take much as most of us know – an illness, a loss, a disappointment – to remind us of just how incredibly vulnerable we are. And so Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs and instructs them to rely upon the hospitality and generosity of others. Why? Because we are stronger when we stay together and our welfare is inextricably linked to that of each other.
Luke 10 offers us a prophetic word on this weekend following the celebration of our independence. David Lose writes:
In the United States, we sometimes see [the Fourth of July] as a tribute not just to our independence from Great Britain but also to the spirit of American individualism. Yet the individualism we celebrate is as much a myth of the culture as in our invulnerability. The pilgrims and pioneers who settled this land were incredibly aware that their survival depended on each other. The colonies they eventually established, after all, were called “commonwealths,” places where the good of any individual was inextricably linked to the good of the whole. And as Benjamin Franklin said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.”
And so, my real question this morning is this: “Are we winning?” Are we, here at Pullen, being successful at building community and nurturing a sense of belonging for one another? Do we have that Cuban spirit that is all about “we” and not “I?” When one of us falters, is another of us helping? When one of us is lost, is another seeking the way? When some among us become discouraged, are others holding faith? That is what this story from Luke is asking us. That is what it is teaching us about community and belonging. Luke reminds us that indeed we are stronger when we stay together. And we are more faithful when we recognize that we are dependent upon one another – that our lives are inextricably connected each to the other.
Knowing that forming community is an important aspect of being God’s faithful people doesn’t always make being community with each other easy. Being community can be hard. When we bring our whole selves to community, we bring our hopes and fears; our light and our darkness; our securities and insecurities; our seeing and our blindness; our spirit selves and our ego selves. And dealing with all of that in community, in togetherness, can sometimes be challenging. But it is also the beautiful part of belonging to a community. To have a place where we can be our most authentic selves and at the same time know a sense of belonging and find a place of connection with others may be the greatest gift we receive in life. To know that there is another person that will go out into the world with you, walking beside you is an amazing gift. To know that there are others whose hospitality and generosity you can always count on is an unparalleled comfort in this sometimes unforgiving world.
And so, when we want to give up on community because it’s too hard, because we’ve been disappointed, because we’ve been hurt, because we don’t like what someone else in the community is doing that is when we have to remember that community isn’t something we have to put up with, it is actually something that we are called to. Being community is, in fact, living out the gospel.
So I’m wondering this morning, “Are we winning?” Here at Pullen, are we winning at being community for one another. Are we valuing enough our calling to be a place of belonging for all who walk through our doors? When one of us falters, is another of us helping? When one of us is lost, is another seeking the way? When some among us become discouraged, are others holding faith? Luke reminds us that when we are together we are stronger.
Late yesterday afternoon I received a text message from one of you. It read, “Hey preacher, you preaching tomorrow?” I wrote back, “Yes, if I can finish writing this sermon. About half way through now. Should have it done by morning.” To which she responded, “I can help. What’s the topic?” I texted back, “Being community to one another.” And here’s what Paige Moody wrote back: “Well sister, that’s the reason Austen and I are coming tomorrow. I miss my community and even though I am busy, I can’t get it from CBS Sunday or working just a little more. Pullen evokes all sorts of emotions. Worship always makes me think harder. And Austen loves to help direct the choir. So we will see you tomorrow.” When we are together we are stronger.
In the same spirit that I became a part of Team Cuba back in March, may the gospel call to be community bind our hearts and souls together, here in this place, as we seek to be the community of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church.