Daily, each of us is faced with the temptation to turn away from God and all others around us and act as a “city of one.” It’s not just an individual impulse, but is real for all groups, communities, and nations who interact and are affected by others. This temptation has always been present in history—from the beginning of time through now—sometimes becoming more explicit, and other times settling right below the surface. Our Bible, just like our history books, is filled with countless stories of when a people, nation, or individuals sought and/or isolated themselves in one form or another, which gave way to certain consequences. Sometimes this spells harm or death for others (Joseph, Saul), other times it means fear and anxiety for the group (Israelites), and in additional cases it can lead to internal conflict and scapegoating (James and John, Judas Iscariot). In our modern history, the Civil War, the Holocaust, the aftermath of 9/11, and other such tragedies and wars the casualties are reminders of such isolating thinking. Over the past year or so, not so coincidentally this temptation has become both particularly prevalent and, worst yet, publically encouraged. Xenophobia, the fear of others from other countries, has become rampant alongside racism and sexism leading to both increased violence and deepening isolation by some. Though the middle has nearly disappeared, the poles that separate us from one another on either side appear to have widened at their greatest partition in a long time. The divisive language of “us” and “them” has filled our media to the brim, spilling over into our daily interactions with each other—reshaping our bridges into walls. Most recently, we’ve seen this isolating thought and speech lead to the UK’s historic Brexit vote to leave the European Union. Analysts wonder if we here in the US will follow suit. More than its island geography in the North Atlantic, the United Kingdom serves right now as an ominous warning of our capability to isolate ourselves away from others in our global community as well.
The church is no stranger to isolationists or movements to separate from others. Many church historians talk about how, like history in general, the church goes through cycles—unifying, dividing, over and over, again and again—always reforming. Just within this denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 28 years ago it was formed from the great merger of three major church affiliations and then yet 7 years ago there was a major schism as many congregations left regarding the council of bishops’ vote on ordination of homosexual individuals in monogamous relationships. Beyond the ELCA, many look with eager anticipation as dialogues continue between various denominations, such as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches or Roman Catholic and ELCA, on how we might take steps forward in reconciling our differences and gathering together for the sake of Christian unity. Nevertheless, there are others who seek to further separate themselves from the rest—either in fear of being corrupted, or in hopes of becoming pure by their selectiveness. Many, if not most, of those who have left the church and now claim “none” or “done” statuses—an unfortunately growing demographic—are broken products of such divisive isolationism. Sin, as Martin Luther is credited with describing, is turning (or perhaps more appropriately curling) inwardly on oneself. Some term it “navel-gazing,” when we become hunched-over, so focused on ourselves and feeding our own gut, that we lose sight of those immediately before us. Nations, church bodies, and individuals all possess the capabilities, potential, and temptation to become a “city of one.” I’ll be honest, sometimes with all the things I hear on the news and what I see from others, it’s really tempting for me to do the same. The “me, myself, and I” thought has crossed my mind before, and is likely to swing by again in the future for additional pit stops. There are times when I become so self-consumed that I become my own Buford—hurting others and myself in the process.
Though we hear Adam is initially created alone without a partner, the Book of Genesis shows us that God seeks for him to not remain isolated. When no animal will suffice, God takes bone from the man’s bone and forms a woman to be with and accompany him. Together, they are far better than separate and alone. Later, when the Israelites receive God’s Law amidst their wandering in the wilderness, they are instructed to not isolate themselves from others. Since they were once foreigners in a foreign land (slaves in Egypt, under Pharaoh’s rule), they should care for those who are foreigners amongst them: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Job, suffering as the result of a divine bet between God and the Satan, mourns the loss of his children. Seeking compassion and comfort from his friends, they only serve to further isolate him. As he begins his ministry, Jesus surrounds himself with a traveling community of men and women—encouraging them, after he is resurrected before he ascends to the heavens, to continue in this unique community and its sharing and caring for one another. The Apostle Paul writes to numerous Christian communities, among many things encouraging them to not isolate themselves but welcome others in regardless if they are Jew or Gentile. From the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, we get the language of God being triune—three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—shaping our creedal statements of faith. God is not isolated, but in communion with Godself; and as Scripture shows us, God seeks for us to share in this same communion with one another and God.
We are not created to be alone or isolate ourselves. God does not intend or wish for us to stand as individual “cities of one.” We are lovingly made and blessed with relationships to be in community. Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One, calls us to gather together as the diverse though unified Body of Christ. The Spirit of Life daily fills us with gifts to reach out, build up others, and form loving lasting relationships with one another. Both as we draw nearer to Election Day and as we continually wrestle with sad and tragic news reports all over our screens, I encourage you to my mindful of your feelings. Do you hear yourself saying things that separate you from others? Do you feel yourself wanting to become isolated out of fear, anxiety, or anger? Do your actions resemble that of building bridges and nurturing relationships in Christ, or erecting walls and distinguishing boundaries for which you are on the inside and others outside? Keep in mind Buford (or PhinDeli Town Buford). It may be a cute momentary stop along the trek between Cheyenne and Laramie, but it’s not a place to call home—it’s not a community. When the temptation to isolate yourself pokes its head up, may the Spirit who draws us together lift your head to see those around you—those whom God loves dearly and calls you to love as well. We, the church, are the Body of Christ, and each one of us is a valued member of that larger body. Tend to the relationships God blesses you with in your life. Together, we are who God created us to be—far greater than separate or alone.