Find Community in the Midst of the Crowd

Happy Palm Sunday!

I want to talk today about the loneliness epidemic in our country and see what we can learn from our own spiritual tradition for ways we can build community.

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday when we remember Jesus coming into Jerusalem. Despite being targeted by the religious establishment, he marches into the capital riding on the back of a donkey to crowds of adoring fans waving palm branches. This is the way a king is greeted.

This begins Holy Week. It starts with a crowd of fans. It moves to a deep sense of community on Holy Thursday night, which we know as the Last Supper. And it ends with Jesus, lonely and tortured on a cross asking why he’s been forgotten. That movement from the crowd to community to loneliness is dramatic in Holy Week.

It strikes me as very relevant to our country today. One day we can feel like part of a crowd on social media. Deep community over a meal is getting harder to find particularly after a year of the pandemic and, finally, we suffer a loneliness epidemic among our younger generation leading to a spike in suicide with particularly younger people feeling they have forgotten.

Let’s look first at the crowd. Jesus is greeted by a crowd on Palm Sunday, but crowds are not really community. Many of the same crowd who welcomes Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday will be the same crowd who will yell to Pontius Pilot, “Crucify him!”

So too on the crowds, we experience on social media. Today’s media or online darling will be ruthlessly canceled by the mob made of their followers. As more people pack into smaller rooms in big cities to be part of the crowd, the more the loneliness continues.

The crowd is no substitute for community and can actually lead to loneliness.

My favorite social anthropologist is Jonathan Haidt who wrote “The Coddling of the American Mind” with Greg Lukianoff and the “Righteous Mind.” He observed that around 2012 we saw a huge spike in loneliness, depression, and suicide among our young. It was worse among young women than men. His research concludes that this marked the coming of age of the first generation completely raised in the crowd of social media. Fear of missing out called FOMO and feeling that everyone else’s curated life is so good and mine stinks.

Our culture has substituted the illusion that the crowd is a community. But what we see is as the crowds grow larger, we grow lonelier.

In a recent strategy call on how we might market our church, one friend who is an expert in modern media suggested I join a new social media platform called “ClubHouse.” It provides rooms of people talking on various topics and the idea was and might be to create one for spirituality.

I actually enjoy the app to my surprise listening to topics from marketing advice to impact investing to politics. But very quickly I realized that everyone spoke in terms of their followers. Whom they follow and who follows them. If you have a lot of followers you are a star. Many of the speakers have millions of followers. It feels that they are confusing the crowd with community.

Even religion has moved from community to crowd. The most successful churches are mega-churches that broadcast on TV. They certainly have a crowd, but they lack a sense of community with the intimacy they fit better with our consumer culture where ministers sell books and items to an audience they do not know.

With social media, we’ve been able to silo into our own crowd—people we agree with. The pandemic made that worse. The culture of the crowd is growing. As religion declines people are moving their old connection to community to the crowd of political movements. art of community is being lost and people are less happy.

Jesus knew how to draw a crowd. Beyond Palm Sunday, we think of the multitudes whom he fed with loaves and fishes. But that wasn’t his focus. He worked hard to create a community. Think about that lesson. God coming to earth as a human could just have easily spoken to crowds, performed miracles, and preached. Instead, he gathered a loving community of very diverse people together including a tax collector, fishermen, prostitutes, and two sisters. Jesus taught us the power of community.

Thursday night before he was arrested he broke bread with his disciples and asked them to do that in the future to remember that special night. He washed their feet as a reminder that the leadership of a community is about service and humility. It’s not what’s in it for me. It’s how can I serve you?

When Jesus teaches us to love God and our neighbor, he’s teaching us that all spirituality is taught within community. It comes from growing from and with others. We cannot grow spiritually alone and this is hard work.

Swedenborg’s insights on this are interesting as well. He stresses that there is no spiritual life outside of the community. We each have spiritual communities working on our behalf that we cannot see. He has a great line that we are “In the Company of Angels.” Communities are so much a part of us that when we die we gravitate to the community that is most like our deepest love. If our love is self, we live with others like that. If we love others, we move to communities like that.

Imagine the most selfish person you’ve ever met who lacks any empathy for others. Now imagine that person in a community of others like that. Pretty scary, huh? That community is what’s known as hell. Now imagine a community of that most loving and caring person you know. Imagine a community people like that forever together and you are imagining the community called heaven.

How about us, what can we do here to create a healthy community in a society focused on the crowd? How can we combat loneliness?

To start, we need to gather together in worship on Sundays. recent surveys of how people’s mental states have survived the pandemic showed, not surprisingly, that the rates of loneliness and depression have skyrocketed. The collective trauma of this last year will impact our society for years in ways we don’t yet know.

There was one silver lining in the results that have gotten little to no attention. The one group that experienced a four-point increase in well-being was those individuals who attended weekly church meetings. Imagine that, the secret of ending loneliness might just find a faith community. I don’t expect that solution to gain must traction in our secular culture.

The art of creating a community well known among previous generations is becoming a lost art. We’ve been trained to be consumers. We get what we want when we want it. We’ve lost the art of compromise.

In my work at Pepperdine School of Public Policy, I’m asked to arrange conferences with thought leaders in the political sphere. One young woman I met was Rachel Barkley, a young sweet woman who served as communications director for the House Congressional Caucus. A few years after working with her on various panels and events, she announced her pregnancy. Those in her community were stunned to hear the news that as she was giving birth the doctors found a rare tumor on her spine.

She gave birth successfully but was told she would likely never walk again. Over the next few months, her network put out the call for help and using online platforms someone delivered dinner to her family every day for many months. I also took part. I was stunned at the community.

Today, Rachel is beating the odds and beginning to learn to walk. I held another webinar last fall on the power of social capital. We spoke openly about her new life and her new community—people with disabilities. What I’ll never forget was her answer to my question about community. I asked how she had such an amazing response to her crisis.

She explained that it wasn’t an accident. She and her husband had very purposely invested in community before the crisis. They spent many hours helping others and doings with and for others. She explained that as a retirement account, she viewed social capital as of high importance and she invested in networks of friends the same way she invested in her retirement fund.

Community, she taught, needs to be invested in. It’s more than showing up. It’s taking the time to make social capital investments by serving others. It raises the question for us, what are we doing to invest in a community now.

Will we have deposited social capital so that we can make a withdrawal in a crisis?

I’m grateful as your pastor. Many of you trust me in deeply personal parts of your life. You’ve also allowed us to grow our time together. In my series this last fall on topics pastors doesn’t preach about you allowed me to tackle issues that most communities would not. You didn’t necessarily all agree and that wasn’t the point, but you heard my thoughts, shared your questions, and registered your thoughts. I believe we are remembering what community looks like and I thank you for the diversity of our group. We don’t need to agree. We need to respect each other. We don’t need to like each other, but we do need to love one another. I feel that from you on our virtual community.

This past week, I felt the pain of Sheri living in Boulder CO, and having connections with those killed in the shooting there. I felt the pain more closely because though separated by distance we are in one community.

As the attacks on Asian Americans increase, I feel for Annabel and her mom who was worried about going to the store for fear of being attacked in Pittsburgh. This past week I spoke with Rev. Kim our Korean Swedenborgian church pastor who told me that he no longer can ride the subway in New York for fear of being attacked.

I’m looking forward to being back in church, but Shalonda and I are working on a plan to make sure that both those present physically and the present spiritually around the world feel part of a loving community. I look forward to co-creating this new world with each of you.

Creating community means we have to invest in it.

Crowds and fans are great, but they are no substitute for community. The illusion they create can often lead to loneliness. We at this church may never be a crowd but we must work to be a community. We gain greater self-awareness by engaging with others

Thanks to each of you for being part of this great adventure of building community.

AMEN