Personal and Communal

“Personal and Communal”

by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen

Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ

Hingham, Massachusetts

 January 13, 2019


Luke 3:15-18, 21-22 and Acts 8:14-17

Have you ever heard the song that goes:

Jesus walked that lonesome valley

He had to walk it by himself

Oh, nobody else could walk it for him

He had to walk it by himself

What do you think about the message? It’s a beautiful little song, but I’ve never been completely comfortable with it.

Undoubtedly, for Jesus to be Jesus, to fulfill his life purpose, he has to go to the cross. No one could do that for him. At the same time, a solitary figure, coming to the end of his life in humiliation, pain, despair and loneliness is hardly the ending we’d choose for such a good man.

The next verse is the one that is even harder for me to connect with:

We will walk that lonesome valley

We will walk it by ourselves

Oh, nobody else can walk it for us

We have to walk it by ourselves

I don’t know. Is it just me, or does that not really sound like the good news?

OK, yes, there are times in life when it’s up to us as individuals to do what we need to do. We each have to decide which ideals to embrace, which roads to take, when it is time to speak up or to take action.

If we always waited for others to lead us or promise to walk alongside us, we would never take risks for the benefit of others… might our lives be marked by cowardice and a lack of decisive action?

I just went on retreat on Friday and Saturday with a dozen guys from here at HCC and we talked about masculinity. It was a wonderful time away for spiritual reflection and fellowship. We asked a lot of good questions and came to a few conclusions. One of them was that the traditional masculine traits of decisiveness and risk-taking can sometimes lead us into foolishness.

When we strike out on our own, we can get ourselves into trouble — and not for noble reasons.

I’m sure each one of us has sent an email or a text and immediately regretted it. Maybe we sent it in anger or in desperation, heedless of the personal or professional consequences.

We all know about Twitter and other social media platforms and how countless celebrities, politicians, and ordinary people get into trouble or cause outrage when they post something offensive, hurtful, or controversial.

If they (or we) would think to ask for input from a trusted friend or partner before posting, most of these mistakes would be avoided. We still have to take personal responsibility for whatever post, but relying on the judgment of other, cooler heads, can be really helpful.

American hyper-individualism takes many forms: The decline of institutions that bring is together and nurture positive values, including the church, Scouting, an many others… The idea that we need guns in our homes to protect ourselves, despite the danger of an accident or a suicide… The relentless pursuit of money and possessions…

And if course screen time. Does your phone ever tell you what your average screen time per day is? Mine does, and I am always shocked and disappointed in myself. I realize that our phones now provide much of the information we need and desire and that we found elsewhere in the past, but it still bothers me to realize how much time I spend by myself, looking down at my phone.

The worst part is that many of us, including me sometimes, often look at our phones when we are in the company of others, even on dates or when sharing in an important conversation. I apologize if I have ever done that to any of you.

These are society-wide issues. They touch every home and community.

This extreme individualism also shows up in American religious life. Many evangelical churches emphasize the personal choice of faith even over the power of God’s grace and definitely over the importance of community.

In churches like ours, individualism takes a different form. Because we don’t demand much from one another, we often don’t get as much as we really need from each other when it comes to things like attendance and stewardship.

One of the things I really like about the baptism service the way we do it here at Hingham Congregational is that part when we promise to provide a quality Christian Education program for our kids. With excellent leadership from Sara and help form many of you, we do follow through on that promise.

But are there are there other ways we could strengthen our communal life? Let’s be sure we are talking about that and following through on our promises.

When John baptizes people in the Jordan River, he is nurturing the fulfillment of promises — God’s promise to embrace the people of Israel and Israel’s promise to be God’s faithful ones. In a very challenging time and place, he is doing his best to bring the community and the Divine together, one person at a time.

In the reading from Luke this morning, the people wonder whether John might be the Messiah. Resisting self-promotion, John points to Jesus as the real deal. John is a leader, but he is also a team player.

It’s really interesting that Luke’s description of Jesus’ baptism is almost an afterthought.

Now when all the people had been baptized, he writes in verse 21, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens opened…

This major moment in Jesus’ life only merits a passing mention!

I like to think that was on purpose. I like to think that Luke does this to downplay the individual nature of baptism and to emphasize that Jesus was just doing what everyone else around him was doing, that he was humbling himself and giving himself to his Creator.

OK, so the heavens opened and God spoke and everything, but for at least a little while, Jesus was just part of the crowd, one of the faithful, a human brother longing for connection with the community and with God.

Some of you know that the person who wrote Luke also wrote Acts, and we hear a similar message in our passage from that book.

It wasn’t enough for the believers in Samaria to have been baptized. Representatives from the church in Jerusalem had to come and finish the job by offering them the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. An individual choice to have faith and be baptized needed an element of community to become truly meaningful.

What about you? When were you baptized and by whom? Was it your decision or your parents’ or your grandparents’? At what point did you really own your baptism in a personal way? Have you ever done so?

I invite you to truly embrace your baptism — not in a lonesome valley kind of way, but in a way that opens you to a more profound experience of the Holy Spirit.

How might your community help you to do that? Let’s talk about it.

Because, in the end, we are not simply a collection of individuals seeking faith; we are brothers and sisters, on the road together, moving forward, in covenant, supporting, guiding, sometimes correcting, serving, leading, and following one another to the heart of our God, our truest home.