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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe

Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, February 27, 2011

Text:  Isaiah 49:8 – “I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people….”


     Robert Fulghum is annoyed.  [Maybe, Maybe Not]  Over the past few months he’s received solicitations from the following organizations:


                                    *   The National Tattoo Association

                                    *   Clowns of America International

                                    *   The Burlington Liars Club

                                    *   Thimble Collectors International

                                    *   Fairy Investigation Society

                                    *   The Spark Plug Collectors of America

                                    *   Bobs International

                                    *   National Pygmy Goat Association

                                    *   Procrastinators’ Club of America


     Fulghum speculates that there must be thousands of organized groups, finding kinship around almost every human interest or point of view.  He concludes that these organizations illustrate our need for company – to know we are not entirely one of a kind, despite a paradoxical need to be unique.  Speaking to that point, of course, is the myriad of one-person groups, like the International Association of Single-Minded Rogue Males and One Person Clubs.  Go figure.


     In the 1980’s, sociologist (and Episcopalian) Robert Bellah wrote a watershed book called, Habits of the Heart:  Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  He suggested that many people live in what he called “lifestyle enclaves.”  He defines a lifestyle enclave as a group formed by people who share a common preference.  Members express their identity through shared patterns of appearance, consumption and leisure activities.  The Harley Community.  The Airstream Community.  The National Rifle Association.   The National Book Club. 


     Why so many?  Well, that’s a bit complicated.  On the one hand, most people try to fit in.  At work, for example.  Chances are if you work for a Fortune 500 company, they have a uniform of the day.  I’m guessing it’s not jeans with fashionably placed holes in them.  I’m also guessing that you can’t really tell the boss how you feel about him or her.  So fitting in’s the key to prosperity. 


     On the other hand, there’s your private life.  Your home is your cocoon.  But home is only part of it.  You have other interests, too.  There are actually times when you’re separated from your family and your religion and your work.  Those are the times when you want to express yourself.  So you express your unique identity by joining a lifestyle enclave. 


     You hang out with people who are socially, economically or culturally in the same boat as you are.  And, because your group is like-minded, it is by its very nature exclusive.  But exclusivity is not the end of it.  If you can define yourself by your preferences (which are pretty much arbitrary), then you have your own little moral universe.  You’re disconnected  from any story larger than your own.


     That’s why Amazon and Barnes & Noble have such large New Age and self-help selections.  That’s why people who are on a spiritual quest camp out there.  As a private matter, the individual, quite apart from the constraints of any religious system, is free to cut and paste a spirituality of his own.


     [Bellah]  Take Sheila, for example.  Sheila Larson has faith.  But she’s named it after herself.  “Sheilaism” is based on “her little voice to love yourself and be gentle with yourself and take care of each other.”  Those are all good things, of course, but it would be nice to have a couple of other people to help her struggle to make those good things happen (and not just when Sheila “feels like it”).


     Author Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book, After Virtue, describes the antidote.  He describes what he calls “communities of memory.”   These are communities in which individuals see their own story as being woven into the greater whole.  You can see this with family mythologies.  You can see this with national holidays like Memorial Day and Thanksgiving.  You may be singing “God Bless America” using your best tenor voice…but you’re singing it with everyone else.  Sometimes you can see even this in church. 


     Speaking of churches:  how can we be something more than lifestyle enclaves?  How can we be more than people who like the same music or the same homilies or the same social events?  You may be familiar with Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California.  His approach to community-building is to have small group “connection sessions,” where people sit in sections of the hall that correspond to where they live and briefly tell the others about themselves (with a one-minute limit).  It is “affinity” – or “likeness” – that allows these groups to remain together.



     Taking an entirely different approach is All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.  They intentionally bring dissimilar people together in small groups to “reflect belief in inclusiveness and the essential oneness of all people.”  The problem is, the small groups don’t stay together after finishing their sessions to the same degree as Saddleback.  The obvious lesson is that likeness trumps diversity.  Personally, I like diversity.  But not when it becomes an idol:  diversity for its own sake.  That diversity needs to be hitched to a common goal – and it’s the common goal that brings the group together.


     The prophet Isaiah pictures God speaking to His people Israel:  “I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.”  I don’t think God had a lifestyle enclave in mind.  God’s people were gathered for a reason.  To be a light to the nations.  Big job.


     One minister [Fred Craddock], after the last Sunday service, happened to see a member of the choir putting her robe away.  “I appreciated very much the anthem this morning,” he said.


She said, “I hope so, because that’s it.”


“What do you mean?” he replied.  “Are you retiring?  She’d been in the choir 104 years, it seems.


She said, “No, I’m quitting.  I sat up there in the choir loft this morning and looked around at the other choir members.  I looked at the minister and the worship leader.  I looked at the ushers and just looked out over the congregation.  I said finally to myself, ‘Nobody cares.’”


     When he got home that afternoon, the minister called her.  “What would we have to do to show that we cared?” he asked. 


“Take me seriously,” was all she said. 


“We most certainly do,” he responded.  “I get to travel to churches all over the country and everywhere I go there are people who care for each other.  They take care of each other.”


“Really?” she said.  “Name some.”


She wants names.  When I talk with this minister, can I give her your name?