In my early teens, my parents, brother and I used to make road trips to Florida on our summer holidays. On the way, we’d drive through South Carolina and Georgia.
And occasionally we’d to stop to buy pecans, or to admire the palm trees.
But what I remember most about those roadside stops was the way the local people would talk to us, and welcome us. With that southern accent, and warm hospitality, they’d say: “Ya’ll enjoy yourselves, now! Ya’ll come back again!” “Ya’ll!”
I remember that word, “ya’ll”, and the way it was said. And the thing about it was that it was directed, not to any one individual, but to our whole family: “Ya’ll!” Not just to me, or my brother, or my mom, or my dad. But to all of us, together. A kind of all-embracing, all-inclusive address. “Ya’ll!”
Did you know that almost all the “you” words in the Bible are almost always in the plural form? As in “you all”, “all of you.” In the original New Testament Greek, and Old Testament Hebrew, the second person pronoun “you” is almost always the plural “you”.
In other words, the Bible isn’t addressed to any one person, but to a people.
I know that might sound like a small point, but I think it’s important.
That’s because we already live in such an individualistic society, and so we already tend to read the scriptures in a very individualistic way, imagining God as relating only with each of us individually, as if faith is only a very private business. Just “me-and-God”, “me-and-Jesus.”
But if we want to read and hear the scriptures in the way they’ve always been meant to be read and heard, we need to imagine ourselves, and place ourselves, in the context of a community of faith.
We need to learn to read and hear the words of the Bible, as if God has something important to say, not just to any one of us in our private lives, but to all of us, to all people, in our personal and public realms, as if God is saying: “Ya’ll! Listen up! Listen to the Good News of love and grace for you all!”
On this Epiphany Sunday, the familiar story of the “Three Wiseman” visiting the Christ Child is all about this all-embracing, collective aspect of our faith.
To begin with, the Magi are among the most odd, and least likely of characters we’d expect God to reach out to. They are so thoroughly non-Jewish, non-Hebrew, non-“religious” in the typical sense in that culture, day and age. And yet, God sends them a star.
Originating from what is present-day Iraq, these magi are essentially astrologers, studying the stars, knowledgeable about ancient prophesies and sacred texts.
The Bible never says how many of them there were, nor their names. In the Christmas story, most likely there was a group of these Magi journeying west to seek out, and visit this promised Messiah. Only centuries later, did the tradition of “three wise men” by the names of Melchior, Casper and Balthazar arise.
But even so, listen to how the 7th century Venerable Bede describes each of them. Melchior was “an old man with white hair and a long beard.” Caspar was “young and beardless” with a “ruddy complexion.” And Balthazar was “black-skinned and heavily bearded.” What an interesting, diverse group!
And this is the essential message of the scriptures: that God’s healing, reconciling, and compassionate love is for all people, Jews and Gentiles, Hebrews and Greeks, for all people of every time and every place, no matter cultural or ethnic background, socio-economic status, or personality distinctions.
And these Magi travel as a group. They journey from Babylon to Bethlehem, following the star, across windswept deserts and through dangers, not alone, but together in a group.
We too – on our spiritual journeys – we yearn for, seek out, explore our faith, and try to follow God, not alone or by ourselves, but together, with others, in a community.
It’s interesting that many, in fact, yearn to be part of a genuine, caring community of faith, even in our highly individualistic culture.
Statistics show that almost 75% of young adult church members surveyed
report that they “long” for community, while half of young adults outside
religious denominations say they “long for community.”
As someone found out, if you Google “longing for community”, you’ll get
more than 10 million hits.
The Christian faith is truly a relational, communal-type faith. From the very beginnings, God has shown concern for a people – whether the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, the Exiles in Babylon, or the early Christian communities in the Mediterranean Basin during the first centuries. Jesus promised to be among the disciples as a group, and sent the Holy Spirit to descend upon the gathered faithful in worship.
Community is where God is at, where God is found, where Jesus shows up.
I like this true story – a typical story of many, really – that is told of Judith, a thirty-something mother of two young children.
When Judith was a young girl growing up with her parents, they were all regular, core members of an Anglican church in her home town. Religion was very important to her whole family.
But then, in her pre-teens, her parents divorced, and a lot of things began to unravel for Judith. As she entered her late teens and young adulthood, church and religion gradually faded into the background, and she stopped attending worship. She moved away. In college, she met her husband, a non-practicing Catholic. They married, and had children.
But then, at around that time, she admitted feeling that “something was missing.” She was concerned with instilling good values in her children. She felt a bit at a loss, drifting, searching for something.
Someone at work suggested a church that was in their neighbourhood. And so, one Sunday, they all as a family went to this church.
And immediately, Judith felt at home, that she had finally arrived to a faith community that mattered. Judith said, “it felt like home from the beginning. I found a place where I can be myself.”
Her spiritual yearnings led her to find a home, a faith community, a safe place to bring her questions, to be herself in all honesty, to experience a respect, a love and care. What a gift!
She found a community within which to seek, and experience the Divine;
a place to be found by the loving and living God in Christ Jesus.
We thank God for our community of faith. A true gift.