A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

photo of AVC sanctuary
Sermon: “How Then, Shall We Live”

“How Then, Shall We Live”

September 3, 2023


While I was traveling through Scotland, again and again I noticed the same phenomena:

*one morning,  around 9, over breakfast at the cutest spot in Edinburgh, the Honeycomb Tearoom, two late teen/early twenties Swedish males sat down with their parents; they were pale and practically mute, only speaking when it was time to order; otherwise, in spite of their parents attempts at conversation, their heads were in their phones.

*at lunch in a lively spot in Oban, the Cuan Mor, two young women, perhaps sisters from the subcontinent, were sitting across from each other; one kept trying to get the attention of the other, who barely lifted her head from her phone.

*on one sunny, pristine day on a tour boat on the way to the Isle of Staffa, with the most magnificent views in every direction, a young Italian woman practically missed the grandeur around her, because her face was in her phone.

Sadly, I’m sure that I’m not the only person here who has noticed this phenomenon.  Anyone else? I’m also sure that I’m not the only one who is deeply concerned about it. Anyone else? 

I can still remember – it was about ten years ago – the 20-something, male clerk at the AT&T store urging David and me to get our first so-called “smart” phones.  “You are going to love them!” he said.

Alas, it seems for many people from around the world, especially young people,  they love their phones more than other people; more than nature; more than God.  The addictive nature of this technology is so powerful   that it is amplifying one of the most pernicious aspects of our human nature and society –  individualism. 

The siloed character of our use of technology feeds our “baser” instincts and emotions- fear, anxiety, a sense of persistent discontent and dissatisfaction. As study after study has shown, the increased utilization of technology is correlated with a pandemic of mental health crises, especially for youth. 

As I witness what seems to be deeply unhealthy ways of living, I can’t help but wonder what might be another way. How can we help those who feel lost, alone, isolated, anxious,  despairing and hopeless  put down their phones and find meaning, purpose and joy in life?  

Friends, I think the answer is right under our noses. 

Would you read Romans 12.9-21 aloud with me? (This is something Kathleen suggested we do together this morning.)

Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

Love one another with mutual affection; 

outdo one another in showing honor.

Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Live in harmony with one another; 

do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; 

do not claim to be wiser than you are.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, 

but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, 

but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 

“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; 

if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; 

for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Put this message on your refrigerator.  Or on the bathroom mirror. Or place it on your desk. Or all of the above. Put it anywhere it will be a daily reminder. 

The key to a life of meaning, purpose, and joy can be found in the subtext of Paul’s words. It can be found by participating in a mutually caring, spiritual community. 

No amount of scrolling on the internet or even  individual therapy or personal beliefs or private spiritual practices can ultimately cure what ails so many of us and what threatens life on the planet.

Hope is born in spiritual community. 

The energy we need for our own peace of mind and to help heal the numerous pandemics we are in the midst of – mental health crises, gun violence, racism, and the biggest of them all – the climate emergency… None of these life-altering, life-limiting, life-destroying challenges will be healed in isolation; by individual striving.  

Hope is born in spiritual community. 

Hope happens when a grieving person feels the care of someone who has taken the time to write a card, make a call, or stop by for a visit; even more so when a whole community, like our Care Team, reaches out. Hope happens when the young adult who doesn’t know how to take that first step on a career path is mentored by a wise, caring professional; even more so when an entire alumni network is available and active. Hope happens when someone who has just received terrible news receives a hug from a church friend; even more so when a whole community shows their support, something I see whenever we gather on a Sunday.. Hope happens when someone who feels sick over the degradation of our environment gets connected to a group that is working on solutions, like our Creation Care Team. And hope happens when thousands of people animated by their faith march on Washington, like it did when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” sixty years ago. 

Hope is born in spiritual community. 

Writing to address what he sees as the spiritual crisis of our time, actor Rainn Wilson in his recent book, “Soul Boom: Why We Need A Spiritual Revolution” conveys this story: 

One afternoon he went for tea to the West Village apartment of  his acting teacher, the deeply wise Andre Gregory, subject of the film, “My Dinner with Andre.” 

“Mr. Gregory,” Rainn said, “sometimes I just feel so bitter. So hopeless about the future.  It’s so hard not to be cynical.”

Gregory grabbed Rainn by the wrist, pulled him closer, and looked into his eyes with a ferocious intensity. “Don’t do it! Don’t give into cynicism. If you do, they will have won. They want you to be cynical because then nothing will ever change.  You must keep hope alive. Keep going. Promise me you won’t give in!”

I have a hunch.  The more time we – and our youth – spend online, the less hope we will have. The more time we spend in community, especially a spiritual community that is actively engaged in caring for others and for the earth, the more hope we will grow. 

Following the retreat in Iona, my friend, Brigid, and I visited the village of Tobermory.  One day, we decided to take a one mile walk – nearly straight up – to the Mull Cheese Shop, a slice of  heaven on earth. Further down the road, about four twisty-turny, up and down kilometers, was a castle with standing stones that I REALLY wanted to visit. We didn’t have a car and it seemed like too far to walk to and from. 

“Brig,” I asked, “how about if we hitch?” 

“Sure. Why not?” she answered.

No sooner had I offered a quick prayer that God would send us some angels and stuck out my thumb, then a Mercedes came around the bend to a halt.  A young woman of about 30 years old rolled down the window. 

“Might you be going to the castle?” I asked. 

“We’re just driving around and don’t have any particular plans.  Sounds like fun!”

The driver, Ella, got out, to make room in the backseat for us.  She was a firecracker.  “Everyone seems to hate us around here because we are driving a Mercedes.  It’s my Dad’s.  We are borrowing it for a camping holiday across Scotland.  This is Areetz, she’s from the Netherlands.”  A lively banter ensued.  

After we arrived at the castle, we went our separate ways.  Fortunately, we ran into the two young women again, who offered to drive us back to the Cheese Shop, where we sat down for lunch. 

Over the most delicious toasties (a Scottish version of grilled cheese sandwiches), I began inquiring more about their lives.  We were fascinated to learn that both are professional conservationists working in Africa. They were fascinated that Brigid and I are ministers from the States  who had just completed an eco-spiritual retreat. When I told them about our church’s Creation Care initiatives they were amazed and immediately went online to look at our website.   

“We are scientists who long for a spiritual dimension to our work,” they said. “ We both have this inner sense of spiritual connection to the earth.  We long ago gave up being part of any kind of church – where we are from they seem to have nothing to offer us.  But, we know there has to be a way to connect the work we are doing with some kind of spiritual foundation. What you are doing gives us hope.”

Maybe you have someone in your life who seems to spend more time online than is healthy; someone who seems persistently distracted by their phone and may be struggling with loneliness or anxiety. Paul reminds us that we have something worth sharing – a way of life that offers meaning, purpose, connection and joy –  a life of hope. Is there someone you know who could benefit from being personally invited to be part of this or another spiritual community? Remember, hope is born in spiritual community. Amen.