My sermon topic this morning in Geneseo was “community.” I suppose that ever since our ancestors got expelled from the Garden of Eden, we descendants have been yearning and searching for some little pocket of community that could take its place. The original paradise itself, of course, eludes us: beautiful trees, stimulating animals, pleasurable and abundant food, shameless nakedness, conversations with God, harmony…
We settle instead for poor substitutes: our families, messy with love and dysfunction; friendship cliques; the Rotary Club; the bar where everyone knows your name; the church where everyone knows each other by their masks; the workplace. And we yearn on.
Community is where we are supposed to feel that we belong, that we are somebody. Before we ever think about who we ARE, we know intuitively where we BELONG. We might even sell our souls along the way… just to belong.
The first time I ever felt that I belonged, other than in my family, was the first church my dad served, in Symerton, Illinois. Only 50 or 60 people attended on a Sunday morning. My mom had her hands full with my two little brothers. And so I was outsourced to Ed and Alma, an old farm couple who sat about four rows back, right in the middle section of the church. I was a rambunctious three/four year old in those years, and didn’t see any reason why the preacher (my dad) should be the only one allowed to talk during the sermon. It was Ed and Alma’s job to set me between them and watch for me to open my mouth, at which instant they would whip out a piece of candy. Everyone delighted in talking to me both before and after church. And we would often be invited out to people’s homes for Sunday dinner. For a little guy, I felt really big in that church. It came pretty close to being the Garden of Eden for me.
That happens. Then the bishop moved my dad to another church, and pow! Just like Adam and Eve, I was sitting outside Paradise before I even knew what happened. And like the rest of the human race, I have stopped rooting around, trying to find paradise AND my way back in.
Family was good, and my grandparents were as good as it got. But still, something was missing. Eden had hippopotamuses and flamingos, waterfalls and seahorses. Grandma did have circus peanuts and orange jelly candies sitting all around her house, but it wasn't quite Eden.
It took me until the second grade to embark on creating my own Garden of Eden. During recess on the playground, we boys couldn’t stop talking about Dick Tracy, the detective hero of after school cartoon shows. We were most fascinated with his two-way wrist radio. Our good times were limited to recess on the playground. But… if we could all get wrist radios, we would be able to extend our “community” and our paradise to all hours of the week. We could talk to each other after school, during the night, on weekends.
Never mind that two-way wrist radios were still decades in the future. The one thing I did know was that they would cost money. And if you had money, I thought, you could get anything. But where to get money in the second grade? The very next morning, as Mrs. Tucker collected our milk money, a dime got you a whole week's worth of afternoon milk, a half pint each day, white or chocolate. As I watched Mrs. Tucker collect our dimes, nickels, and pennies, my brain started spinning.
The next week Mrs. Tucker noticed that no one in the class gave her any money. Nor were there any takers the next week. By the third week, she decided to investigate. That’s when she found a whole pile of coins stashed away in my desk. The whole class felt such a strong yearning for “community” that they gave me all their worldly wealth, just to belong.
Mrs. Tucker was very kind, as were my parents when they heard my enthusiastic dream of wrist radios for everyone. They then informed me that such a thing didn’t really exist, and that if I disband the Dick Tracy Club, they would let me join Cub Scouts. It was one one of the best bargains I ever made.
I suppose I have never stopped yearning for Eden, for a pocket of community, where everyone paid attention to each other, where everyone stayed in touch, where everyone pitched in to make things better, where everyone practiced discipline and sacrifice for the greater good, where everyone found their dreams and hopes nurtured. It’s why being a pastor of churches was probably a good career move for me. Not that I’m that good at shaking money out of people. But I still feel the fire and desire for us all to belong. Hope I always do.