By Father Casey

This fall, I’m team-teaching a class with Mtr. Rebecca and Fr. Ted on the letters to the Corinthians. We wanted to study these epistles as part of a broader exploration of the idea of belonging, because they contain important teachings on the struggle to maintain a healthy Christian community. I’m grateful that this Sunday, we’ll welcome Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles from Perkins School of Theology to lead the class. Dr. Clark-Soles recently authored a wonderful book on 1 Corinthians that the clergy and I are using as a guide, so it will be fantastic to learn straight from the source.

The topics of community and belonging have been much on my mind in recent months, so in addition to letters to the Corinthians, I have also recently reread the spiritual classic by Dietrich Bonhoeffer titled Life Together. He wrote it after leading a small, underground seminary of the Confessing Church in the mid-1930s, and it shares some of the wisdom he gained from the experience. It’s a short book, and there are many poignant passages, but this one has always stood out to me:

“Innumerable times a whole community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. [God] does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream…Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse.

Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”[1]

Bonhoeffer certainly knew what he was talking about. When the seminary at Finkenwalde was founded, Bonhoeffer dreamed that it would be an idyllic community of prayer, study, fellowship, and growth. And in many ways it was, until it was discovered by the Nazis and shuttered. But it was also a community of human beings, gathered in the midst of a strange and stressful time, which meant that it fell far short of the “wish dream” he had imagined. He knew doubt had to battle through disappointment in order to realize the holiness of what it was. Only when the fantasy of what the community “should be” faded was he able to embrace the grace of the actual community around him.

I have often joked that being a priest would be the best job in the world if it weren’t for the people. If only the church existed in a hermetically sealed bubble of perfect liturgies, perfect attendance, and perfect behavior! I remember when I was called as rector of St. Peter’s, the church I served before Transfiguration, and I was absolutely sure that we would quickly become the “best church in the area.” I knew just what they needed to grow and thrive, and I was going to lead them there! Looking back now, my naivete and hubris are embarrassing. I had fallen victim to the age-old temptation to love my dream of what the community “should be” more than the community itself, and it wasn’t until I learned the lesson Bonhoeffer describes, and allowed my “wish dream” to fade, that I had any ability to truly and faithfully lead the community around me.

I share this with you, because we are in the process of slowly resuming our rich congregational life at Transfiguration. We can attend services instead of watch them on YouTube, we can attend classes in-person instead of on Zoom, and life is steadily beginning to feel more familiar. So much about this feels amazing, and I have gone home the last few Sunday afternoons with a heart brimming with gratitude.

I hope, though, that as we return, we will remember that as good as it feels to be together, and as much as we love the feeling of belonging, our church is no fantasy. It is a community of very real human beings – people who make mistakes, who may hurt our feelings or disagree with us, and who will sometimes let us down. Not, I hope, on purpose, but because we all, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, suffering “from an acute case of the human condition.” So we need all be careful about projecting our dream of what the church “should be,”  lest we find ourselves disappointed when the very real people – including yours truly – cannot attain to it.

I’ve come to appreciate how much more I want to be your priest than the priest of that church in my dream, because Christ is not made known in fantasies, but in real, live, actual human beings – lambs of his flock, sheep of his fold, sinners of his redeeming. We may not be perfect, but we’re something even better: citizens of the Kingdom, vessels of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s body in the world.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (Harper One, 1954), 26-27.