Today is All Saints Sunday, and saints don’t come solo. They come, as our first reading says, as a great multitude. They come, as our second reading says, in sentences that use the words us, we, us, we, us. They come, as our third reading says, as a community of those whose values are not the world’s values: all the merciful, all the poor, all those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Saints don’t come solo.
The irreducibly communal nature of being in Christ, being part of his body, has always been good news, but I think it’s particularly so right now, when so many traditional forms of connection and community have broken down in American culture. All around us we are seeing signs of fragmentation: angry partisanship, a widespread opioid crisis, cyber-bullying, a rising rate of major depression among adolescents, and the list goes on. Obviously broad societal trends like these have many, many contributing factors, but I can’t imagine anyone claiming that the breakdown of stable forms of community has had no effect.
In this kind of world, being part of something that, like Christian life, is irreducibly communal, is increasingly important, and it’s not just Christians who think so. Some of you may have read the commencement address that Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former Surgeon General, gave at the University of Arizona last year. I want to quote him for a few moments.
After some standard wishes for the graduates of “good health, a fulfilling career, [and] a happy family,” he continues: "But there is one thing I hope for you more than anything else: My hope is that you live a connected life. Now, you might think to yourself: 'Hold on a minute, it’s 2016 and I feel the world is pretty connected. I’ve got thousands of followers on Instagram and Snapchat, I’m available by text 24/7 and the GPS locator on my cell phone is turned on. How much more connected could I get?'
But I'm talking about a different type of connection — the kind that makes you rich in life currency, not in monetary terms. I’m talking about the connection you have with friends you trust deeply and with whom you can be 100% yourself. I’m talking about the connection you build with people who are entirely different from you because you are able to look past labels and see them for who they really are. I’m talking about the kind of connection that inspires you to feel kinship to people around the country and around the world because you recognize that, deep down inside, we all have the same fundamental hopes and dreams and we are better off when we are helping each other.
To live a connected life is to cultivate this kind of connection. It is to recognize that such connections don’t just enrich our lives but they serve as a building block for strong communities and a resilient nation.” The lack of this kind of connection, Dr. Murthy goes on to say, is “the great challenge facing [us]. Rebuilding strong communities…is an essential and urgent task of our generation. But it begins with each of us living a connected life.”
In the kind of world Vivek Murthy is addressing here, a world that is crying out for the health that comes when people are truly connected, the irreducibly communal nature of being in Christ, being part of the system of connections that we call his Body, is especially good news. It’s not news that’s easy to notice and hear, because it goes against what’s happening all around us. It’s not news that it feels natural to implement in your own life for the same reason. But it’s good news, and the more you notice it and begin to implement it the better news you realize it is.
If you read the emails we’ve sent out during this month of focus on stewardship, in which some of our parishioners told stories of how God opened their hearts here, you’ll have noticed that more than one of them had to do with making a deeper investment in the communal aspect of Christian life. When these parishioners made the choice to do specific things that made them more connected with others here than they had been, they were blessed. I’ve been a priest more than 20 years now, and I have to say one of the most precious things about it is having a front row seat for the way God works through those kinds of connections within his body. To witness the grace and growth and energy that he pours out on people who take the steps to invest in community, to seek him through even the most seemingly boring and routine aspects of the life of a local church.
Understanding why that kind of commitment is so valuable is such a hard sell today, and if seeing it work is one of the most precious things about being a priest, seeing people miss out on it has got to be one of the hardest things about being a priest. Seeing people lose that grace and lose that growth and lose that energy through choosing disconnection and independence, withholding their time and energy from God’s activity in case they get a better offer somewhere else. When people do that, they pay a price. When several people do that, the church pays a price. And when millions of people do it, as Vivek Murthy points out, society pays a price.
Saints don’t come solo. Flourishing, whole people don’t come solo. God didn’t design the world that way. Flourishing, whole people come in community, both making and receiving regular, costly investments of love and time and prioritization together. For us as Christians, we would want to add that flourishing, whole people come foremost as members of the Body of Christ, fully invested, fully alive, taking ownership of your part in our shared ministry and then acting together for the benefit of the whole. When we show up for life with that attitude, instead of viewing the hours of each day as a solo project, God does all kinds of interesting things. Some of them he does through the most ordinary possible activities: talking to the boring person in the next pew, helping rake leaves on the work day, wiping down the bathroom sink for the next person when you notice it’s dirty, smiling. But where else but in ordinary connections like these would a God who deliberately chose to be born in a barn be found?
In the world we live in, the irreducibly communal nature of being in Christ, of choosing connection as part of his body, is especially good news. We have in him and in each other almost infinite resources for flourishing and resiliency, if we’re willing to make the investment to receive them. And almost infinite resources to show this disconnected world that another way is possible, by living it ourselves. This is good news. It’s not news that’s easy to notice and hear, because it goes against what’s happening all around us. It’s not news that it feels natural to implement in your own life for the same reason. But it’s good news, and the more you notice it and begin to implement it the better news you realize it is. Being the human beings God made us to be happens in community. On this All Saints Sunday, thanks be to God that it’s true: Saints don’t come solo.