I met my friend Kelli and discovered how much trouble two people could create all at the same time. We were sixteen and exchange students in Austria. As exchange students, we all had host families and attended local schools in different towns and cities, but once a month we would gather together with volunteer counselors (Austrians who were former exchange students themselves), stay at a guesthouse somewhere, and have a chance to check in on how things were going. The idea being that we’d become a good support system for one another.
The trouble began on one of these weekends when Kelli and I found ourselves a bit bored with the regular activities planned, and starting hatching some plans of our own. Wouldn’t it be fun to sneak out at night and go explore the neighborhood a bit? They locked the guesthouse each night, so we’d have to climb out a window one and half floors above the ground – but we ran to one of our rooms and tried it out a few times on one of our breaks and found that it was doable. We’d have to carry out this plan in secret so the counselors wouldn’t find out, but we could leave after lights out and carry our shoes so as to make less noise. There were so many yellow and even red flags flying in our faces as we made these plans, but Kelli and I happily ignored them all as we plotted and hatched.
We thought we’d invite along a few friends, which with word of mouth being what it could be among a bunch of teenagers gathered in a guesthouse for a weekend together in Austria, meant that by that night over twenty of the thirty-five students at the camp were whispering and hushing each other as they tiptoed single-file down the hallways from their rooms with shoes in hand to my room, where they dropped out the window. Then we went dashing off through the neighborhood, laughing and talking. We even climbed into a public pool area, thinking we might take a swim until the first of us yelled “halt” as he came to the edge of the pool and discovered there was no water!
We were only gone a short while, and the night’s escapade ended with a very disgruntled volunteer counselor meeting us outside when we arrived back at the guesthouse. A volunteer counselor who, I might add, was I think rather impressed as he watched us launch a few students up the story and half and back into the window from which we’d come. Hupsi – that was this counselor’s name – then cried “halt!” and brought the rest of us back through the door he had already unlocked.
The point of this story is that we all make choices that influence the communities of which we are a part – for good or for ill. In our passage from Romans today we hear a beautiful description of how we are to strive to live in community with one another. It’s worth hearing again, and as we listen, I invite us to imagine what our lives might look like, individually but especially in community, with these words from Romans as our guide:
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. 1Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 1Rejoice 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. (Romans 12:9-18)
Whether we realize it or not, all of us have power, agency, and opportunity for helping our communities to enact - carry out – activities for good or for ill. And while much of United States society thinks in terms of the individual – what do I need to do for me and for mine, part of what is so radical about true Christianity is its invitation not just to think about the needs of others, but to build communities through which our collective wills and lives can be harnessed to make “good trouble.”
That, as many of you might know, is a phrase oft-quoted from the late, great John Lewis, who as a young man marched with Martin Luther King Jr. to end segregation and fight racism; who was beaten and tear-gassed and yet marched on many more times, and who brought his fight for justice – our fight for justice – all the way to Congress where he served for decades, and told us all many times that we needed to spend our lives and build communities making “good trouble.”
But let’s face it, no matter what age we are, it can be really tough to stay focused on building the kind of lives and community that matters and that manufactures good trouble!
The apostle Peter, who we heard just last week was the one who correctly names Jesus as the Messiah, the one foretold to come and change the world and everything in it – the true Author of all good trouble as John Lewis himself acknowledged on many occasions; Peter who got things so very right in naming Jesus as Messiah in almost the next breath and next part of the story that we hear this week tries to deny the challenges and suffering that Jesus will have to go through in order to fulfill God’s purpose of bringing the possibility of redemption for all the world. Say it isn’t true Jesus, that you will have to suffer and die! And I can’t help but wonder if what Peter is railing against is the realization that he and the other followers of Jesus will also have to suffer. That life inherently includes suffering.
Oh Peter, this is precisely why Jesus came for us! Because life does include suffering. But God’s redemptive work of love through Jesus doesn’t magically take suffering away. It can, this side of heaven, be part of transforming suffering into liberation – as with the work of John Lewis and so many others. And God’s redemptive bringing new life out of suffering work can, this side of heaven, be seen in the arms of human community gathering to allow the good to be amplified through us and what we can collectively become that is not possible on our own. And community at its best and with God’s help can help us stay sfocused on what really matters.
As some of our youth get ready to head for ice cream, bowling and laughter today I can see in my mind’s eye photos of them packing sandwiches last year for the homeless in NYC and gathering ASPCA items for pets, or just playing games and laughing around a room here at the church. As I think of the power of God present in community I think of Redeemer’s many service projects, but also of how we gathered pre-pandemic for Brunch Church –with a full meal and conversation and laughter as part of our Eucharist – Holy Communion – worship service. I think of us heading outside on Easter a couple of years ago to bless newly planted trees and remind ourselves of our call to care for God’s good creation. I think of us joining together with our Episcopal and Methodist neighbors to build an ecumenical Sunday School. In all kinds of ways God helping us through community to stay focused on the things that really matter.
These days, my friend Kelli works full-time as a stay-at-home mom of three boys, and moves around the world every few years with her husband Bahram, who works for United States embassies in different countries. And here I am, a pastor, dad, husband. So, I guess it would be true to say that my friend Kelli and I, though in very different ways than when we were sixteen and planning a night-time escape in Austria – that we are both still a part of building community – and making trouble!
Yes, it is amazing how much trouble two people can make - and it remains true that I am excited to see how you and I - how all of us together – can be discovering God’s invitation to us to be building community as a church for the sake of making good trouble in the world at large.