One of the things we notice when we are up here in ShrineMont together is that we interact a lot more than we normally do. We’re with each other for a few hours at a time back when we’re in Richmond. At most, four hours at a stretch. Up here, we are together from about 5 pm on Friday to 1 pm on Sunday. Forty-four hours, right? 11 times as long.
That means an adjustment in how we deal with each other. Back home, if we have an uncomfortable moment with someone at church – yes, I know it’s rare, but it can happen – we know by lunchtime we will be in our own houses, no longer having to face whatever or whoever it was that caused us that discomfort.
But here, we eat together, we talk together, we play together, we talk some more, we do some silly stuff, we worship together. Sometimes the conversations open us up to a new understanding of someone whom we didn’t really know. Sometimes we see Christ in a person who never seemed to really connect with us. Sometimes we feel a moment of peace and quiet even in the midst of the activity of the weekend, and we feel the worries of this past week slip off our shoulders and we suddenly laugh, for no good reason except that we feel good. We see our children running and playing, we see our grandfathers and grandmothers watching with joy, and we find our moments of being aware of God’s presence in our midst.
That’s why this time together is so important…we build community. Our relationships with each other deepen. We cannot simply rely on assumptions of who another person is. We live in close contact with a person for more than 24 hours, and it changes how we see them.
There’s a reason for this. God builds us to want community, even though it isn’t always easy. The story of God’s people repeats this message over and over again. The great challenges that God set for his people were designed to bring them closer to each other and closer to him. God challenged his people, and his people challenged each other. God builds us to desire community, to be with each other, because God knows how he wants to be with us. Neither he nor we are meant to be alone.
And these past forty hours, we have not been alone, have we? We have enjoyed the food, wandered up to the labyrinth, taken a hay ride, searched for things in the scavenger hunt. We’ve watched a movie, we have played games, we have told bad jokes and sung a few songs, and we have given thanks to God for the time and space and place to do all these things. It has transformed us, if for no other reason than our cell phones don’t work up here!
Now we may have found it transformative to have been together for forty-odd hours. Imagine how it was for the people of Israel, wandering together for forty years! Imagine how their relationship with each other and with their God, a God who loved them even when he was angry with their moments of pettiness and infidelity, had evolved over those forty years! Imagine how they felt now that the journey of forty years was over, and they were finally in that land that God had promised them…
But even then they weren’t done. They still were bound together in community, for the next steps of the journey. And they knew in their hearts that the journey would still not be easy. God told them so. There were people already living in the land God had promised them, and they would not relinquish their land without a fight. God would get them across the great river with dry feet, but then they had work to do.
That work would be aided by God, of course, but it would also be aided by the way they had learned to live and pray and worship and work together over forty hard years. They had built a scarred and imperfect and beautifully human community, hallowed and supported by their God, and they would continue to struggle. Not as solitary individuals, but as a group of travelers bound together.
There’s a lesson in that for us, we who have built community together. It's a lesson that we saw lived out these past few days when we saw the search and rescue of little Robert Wood, Jr, the autistic boy who had been lost up in Hanover. Members of the community gathered together to search or to pray or to support those who were outside searching. The rescue could not have been effected had it not been for the community, for its work and prayers, and for God's grace. The community worried and worked and did what it could...and the result was an extraordinary gift.
We, too, have built community together, as a parish and as a subset of the community that is our parish here at ShrineMont. It hasn’t always been easy, and it hasn’t always been perfect. We have struggled, we have shed tears, we have rejoiced together. By learning to do that together, a band of human children of a heavenly father, we have learned to be in relationship with God, because it is in each other that we find the glimmers of the divine.
We have spent our forty hours here at ShrineMont. A long time, and yet not so very long. Some of us, after all, have spent forty years or more as members of this family of faith. We have had deserts and bountiful harvest, icy winds and the warm glow of the summer sun. Most of all, we have had God supporting us, loving us as he loved those stiff-necked Israelites, sometimes in spite of what we have done, sometimes because of what we have done. And we have had each other.
So this time of being together in this special place, these forty hours, reminds us that we do not walk in this world alone, because we do not walk on our faith journey alone. We do it together, by God’s grace. We bring back home with us this afternoon the reminder that, forty hours or forty years, we are all in it together, and God is in it with us. That is the reminder and the gift of this weekend and this community. Thanks be to God!