Reconnect: Connect With Community – Life in an Elephant Monastery

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, September 18, 2016
Taken from Acts 2:42-47

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A fable about the days when Jesus walked the roads of Palestine, preaching and healing.  Two men, who once were blind but now healed by the Lord, encounter each other.  They begin sharing their experiences of Jesus, and as they talked they soon discovered this common bond between them of the Lord restoring their sight.

The one said to the other, “It was so strange…I heard our Lord stoop down in front of me and then spit and a moment later he was anointing my eyes with the mud he’d made of the dust and spittle and when I washed away the mud I received back my sight!  It was amazing!  What did you think when Jesus started putting that mud on your eyes?”
The other man said, “What do you mean?  The Lord never even touched me.  He just said, ‘Your faith has made you well!’, and suddenly I could see.”

The first man protested, “No…the best way to be healed of blindness is with mud!”  The second man said, “No!  The best way to be healed of blindness does not require mud; it is by faith alone!”

The two men quickly got into a shouting match with each other and there was shoving and then there was an all-out fist fight.  And that’s how the Mudites and the Non-Mudites got started.1

Sadly, that is pretty close to the truth about church-life at times, isn’t it?.   How could this once-stellar movement among the followers of Jesus, as Acts describes it, end up splitting off into this group and that group and another group and on and on?  Certainly, that is not what this thing we call ‘going to church’ is supposed to be about?

It is a stellar moment in the life of the gathered followers of Jesus.  Jesus restored his Apostles.  They’d selected one new apostle to replace Judas Iscariot who by this time is dead.  They select Matthias, who like themselves, had been a follower of Jesus from the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, right up through the horrible crucifixion and then the glorious resurrection and those forty days of teaching by the Resurrected Lord before the Lord Jesus returned into that Divine dimension hidden from human sight.

About 120 men and women, Luke tells us in Acts chapter 1, verse 15, gathered in prayer, expecting some kind of intervention from God, praying for that intervention from God.  And, what an intervening moment it was!  Starting with the second chapter, Luke describes the outpouring of God’s own Spirit upon men, women, young, and old, all empowered to witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Seemingly overnight, their numbers break the bounds of all expectation, as Jews gathered from across the Roman Empire for Passover there in Jerusalem, heard and believed this new thing God was now doing among them.  As verse 41, just before our Scripture this morning, describes, about three thousand souls were baptized into the Way of Jesus.

These verses printed in the worship bulletin sum up for us, the incredible bonding together of these Palestinian Jews and Jews of many other nationalities and languages in these early days of the Jesus movement.   The locals welcomed the pilgrims to stay in their homes and share in their meals; daily, they all would meet up in the large public square there on the temple grounds to hear more and more about Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God.  What is this Kingdom of God?

When I last visited my 85-year old father, he took me for a drive out to large tract of land to show me a site he’d put a deposit on.  It was a new development that promises to offer him the kind of home he can better manage at his age and health.  Of course the developer has a printed prospectus showing the various floor plans, the street layout, the clubhouse, the amenities.

The only thing my Dad objects to in the developer’s plans is this:  there are group mailboxes.  Dad insists, he’s gotta have his own mailbox at the end of his own driveway.  It’s not exactly a deal-breaker; he went ahead and put down his deposit.  But, he told me his plan to negotiate his personal exception to the rules the developer laid out in the prospectus.

That’s often what we today think Jesus was doing when Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God.  It was not!  Jesus was not handing out brochures about some future divine real estate development.  I know, when Jesus used his King James English, he promised, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.”  (John 14:2)

I once had a lady royally dress me up and down when I quoted Jesus using his Revised Standard English wherein Jesus says instead, “In my Father’s house are many rooms….”, not “mansions”.  For her, John 14, verse 2, in the King James Version, was a kind of prospectus:  Jesus promised her a mansion would be waiting and a mansion it has to be when she gets to heaven.

When Jesus preached this Kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus meant as in now, on this earth, and here is what you are to expect and how you are to live with each other.  That’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” etcetera, etcetera, Amen.   That “Amen” means, “Make it so, God!  Make it so!”

These Apostles preached it that way; these people heard it that way; they received that news for what it was…it’s Good News!  The Kingdom of God is here!  And, so, they made it so!  They began reformatting their lives around the ethics of the Kingdom of God as Jesus taught, instead of the ethics of the assorted kingdoms from which they’d come to Jerusalem.

NPR ran an interesting set of reports this past week on a church up in New Jersey that’s resettling a Syrian family.   The family had been in a refugee camp, totally uprooted from their home in Syria.  The father is blind and bears profound facial injuries because of a mortar round that killed his extended family.

Members of the New Jersey congregation are teaching them English, teaching them to drive, teaching the father how to navigate using a white cane and other skills he’ll need to be independent, teaching them skills any typical American household already knows how to do.  They are learning the new ethos, the new ethics, of how to live American.2

These first century believers, they needed to learn the new ethos, the new ethics, of how to live together in the Kingdom of God.  And, they were doing it!  As verse 42 describes, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship….” because they were all refugees of a sort.

They’ve been resettled by the Holy Spirit of God, transformed and transferred by the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ, into a new land, among a new people, in a whole new realm of being and doing, a sacred place called the Kingdom of God.

Everything looked the same:  Jerusalem looked to be the same city, the Temple grounds were laid out as they’d always been, the same High Priest still ruled over the Temple, the same Roman Governor ruled over Palestine.  The market places and the thoroughfares, all of it was the same.

But these people?  They were not the same ever again.  Something more than the happenstance of time and place and citizenship had seized their devotion, something far more glorious than the eye could behold had seized their imaginations, a different agenda now demanded their loyalty.  The Kingdom of God had come among them.

The Kingdom of God had taken hold of them, and they took hold of it, and they did that by taking hold of one another.

Has the Kingdom of God taken hold of you?  Do you now live other than what circumstances of time and place and citizenship would dictate?  Has a sight far more glorious than your eyes can see, a sight far beyond your vocabulary to describe, entered into your soul?  In other words, has the Kingdom of God laid hold of you?  If so, why haven’t you laid hold of it?  How can you hold back?

How can you not take hold of one another?  Don’t you know the truth that we all are refugees now?  How do we speak the language of the Kingdom of God?  How do we navigate its streets and walkways?  Do you know its ethos and its ethics?  Where do we go to find our sisters and brothers that we might gather with them in celebration of our new heritage?

It is in this community gathered in the name of the Risen Lord, drawn in by the Spirit of God, inspired and eager to devote ourselves to Apostles’ teaching and to the care and encouragement for one another.

As it was for these of whom Acts chapter 2, verses 42-47, tells us.  So it continued for them, until they began living a different story.  When the fable of the Mudites and the Non-Mudites began crowding out the truth of Jesus among them.

Too many times, in my experience of church, and perhaps in your own, it seems to boil down to folks who once seemed to love each other in Christian love ending up fighting over differences that really just miss the whole point of church.  Kinda like our fabled fore-bearers, the Mudites and the Non-Mudites.

As I shared with you in my letter a few weeks ago, by Spring of 2003, I just had to get out of church-life altogether, for a lot of reasons, including the Mudite vs Non-Mudite sorts of stuff.  I moved to the northern California coastal town of Fort Bragg.  There, I entered what I’m calling today, “Life in the Elephant Monastery”.

I had been accepted into the fine furniture program at the College of the Redwoods.   But what the program really was, was a shop that the College had built in 1981 out on the edge of town to entice James Krenov to leave Sweden and come to America to teach his unique aesthetic and technique of woodworking.

By this time in his life, Krenov was 61 years old and had been practicing his craft for many, many years there in Stockholm.  Gradually, word had spread among woodworkers far beyond Sweden about this diminutive furniture maker, his elegant though seemingly simple designs, and his unique aesthetic.

In 1976, Krenov wrote a book about his manner of work, which was quickly followed by two other books in 1977 and 1979.  I, like so many others, stumbled across those works in our local libraries and bookstores.  We became devotees, inspired by the man and his manner of craftsmanship, which really seemed to be more a manner of seeing life itself.

One writer in a 2007 article described the Krenov shop in Fort Bragg this way:  “This isn’t so much a school where you learn a certain set of skills, it is more like spending a year in a monastery where you learn to think and act like the master.”  Yep, that pretty much sums it up.

Twenty-three students and a few instructors, sharing close quarters from 8 AM to 5 PM, six days a week, every week, from August of one year to May of the next.  We did get a short week for Thanksgiving and a week for Christmas.

The master, Mr. Krenov, had retired the year before I arrived, but he would still wander through the shop, eyeing our work, usually without comment and then leave.  All of us students at some point made pilgrimage out to visit Mr. Krenov in his home studio, to get a few words of encouragement from him.

The school’s emblem is an elephant-head with two chisels crossed just below the head.  Why an elephant is a story for another time.  But, every Friday night, without fail, we held what was called “the Elephant Stomp”.

Late Friday afternoon, while we cleaned up the shop at end of the workday on, two students would go around collecting money from each of us and go into town to buy dinner supplies for that night’s Elephant Stomp.  Someone would go build a fire in the fire-pit out next to shop.

Slowly, over the next couple of hours, former students and other craftspeople would gather along with us around the fire.  People would bring casseroles and dishes of all sorts and drinks to share in a common meal.

We’d go long into the night, eating and gabbing and talking shop.  People would wander over to rotate in and out of a nonstop volleyball game that was always in progress.  Groups of four or five would form circles for a quick game of hackey-sack.  Students would occasionally bring out a mockup of a furniture piece they’d labored over and toss it on the fire and everyone would cheer as it went up in flames.

So would go the Elephant Stomp, late into the night, every Friday night.  The last person to leave would make sure the fire was safely out and then go home.  Then, all of us would come straggling back in the next morning at 8:00 AM and put another day.

This was not in any way a Christian community; it was a Krenovian community.  But, in the years following my experience there in the Elephant Monastery, I realized, though Christian community it was not, it was a community of God’s healing grace for me.

I discovered, again, what it was like to be welcomed and valued by a group of strangers for no other reason than a shared experience of discovering a teacher from whom we wished to learn a different way.

Meeting daily, we encouraged one another as we attended to the teaching of those few whom the master himself had trained.  Weekly, we shared a common meal and cared for one another and played together.

As you might imagine, we sometimes aggravated each other, but surprisingly, we never argued.  What aggravations arose, quickly dissipated.  We never undermined or sabotaged each other’s work.  We celebrated our successes together, and we sympathized over the set-backs we all experienced.

Regardless of what the week had held, we gathered ourselves around that fire pit every Friday night for the weekly Elephant Stomp.  We wouldn’t miss that.

What bound us together through the year came down to this:  we knew a privilege had been given us, to share in the work of learning and aspiring to the qualities of a master we’d each discovered.  You don’t easily let go or get dissuaded from keeping your place in so great a gathering into which we’d been welcomed.

Why in the world, would any of those same dynamics of community be other or less for us who’ve come to know our Teacher and Master, Jesus, the Risen Christ?

If you need to re-connect with the Community of the Risen Savior, find your way to do that.   Keep at it.  I hope you’ll do that here, with this particular Christian community called University Baptist Church.  And, we, University Baptist Church, in whatever ways we need to re-connect as a congregation to the way of these first followers in Acts, chapter 2, let’s keep at it.  It is our sacred calling.

 

1 quoted in Martin Marty, Context, July 1, 1991, p. 5.

2 http://www.npr.org/2016/09/14/493881290/n-j-church-group-to-resettle-syrian-refugee-family-with-special-needs