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Romans 15.1-2, 7-9, 13-14

Collective Effervescence

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Last Sunday morning as we were driving to Maine to see some dear friends – there were ten of us together, staying at a home one of them has on one of Maine’s many small and spectacular lakes - Debbie came across this bit of wisdom from that morning’s New York Times:  “Research has found that people laugh five times as often when they’re with others as when they’re alone.”  Research has found that people laugh five times as often when they’re with others as when they’re alone. And boy, did we ever laugh that weekend!  We’ve known  these friends for more than twenty years, and every time we get together it is difficult to find a moment that is not filled with laughter.  And it made me wonder how many times I laughed out loud while we were all still isolating – I’m sure it wasn’t much, and only then probably when we were with our kids and their doggies running around the back yard.

The line about laughing five times as often together than alone was in a Times Op-Ed piece written by Adam Grant, an Organizational Psychologist at The Wharton School.  Grant was describing the positive effects of spending time with groups of people.  “Many people view emotions as existing primarily or even exclusively in their heads,” he writes.  “But the reality is that emotions are inherently social:  they are woven throughout our interactions.” Grant goes on to reference Émile Durkheim, a pioneer in the field of the social sciences who coined the term “collective effervescence,” which describes the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose.

You might remember a few weeks ago I described seeing the band Eight to the Bar at Water’s Edge in Westbrook, watching both the band and an exuberant crowd listening to the music, dancing and laughing, and having a wonderful time on an early summer’s evening.  What I didn’t know at the time is that there is a sociological term for what I was witnessing:  it was a wonderful instance of Durkheim’s collective effervescence.  It is just so good to be with people again, isn’t it?  And think about all the ways we have experienced a similar feeling in Chester since Spring:  the return of First Fridays and the return of the Sunday Market, finally a chance to see neighbors and friends again after more than a year of missing them.  Then came the Chester Rotary’s Four on the Fourth road race; and even though the morning of July 5th dawned cloudy and cool, it was perfect weather for the runners, and once again, the sheer joy of being out doing something together as a loosely-defined group, of both runners and spectators mixing it up, was a tremendous feeling.  I’ve seen enough of you at these and other activities to know that you understand what I’m talking about.

As we have said before, one of the places this happens on a regular basis is in church.  It happens in plenty of other places, and it also happens here.  The words of the psalm Diane read for us this morning articulate the shared and mutual joy, the collective effervescence, if you will, of the worshiping congregation.  This part of Psalm 24 is a Song of Ascents, a psalm sung by the congregation as they are going up into the temple for worship.  “Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up O ancient doors, that the King of Glory may come in!”  In fact, let’s experience it the way the Hebrews did:  let’s turn back to the bulletin and read this part of Psalm 24 responsively as it would have been in the psalmist’s day.  I’ll take the first three lines, you take the next three, and so forth:

“Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in.

Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord,  mighty in battle.

Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in.

Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, this is the King of glory.”

And having shouted this joyful litany together, the congregation filed up the steps of the Jerusalem temple and into the collective effervescence of worship in the presence of God and one another.

          As I wrote on Friday, Durkheim’s sociology does not make a place for a deity per se; instead, it focuses on what happens when people congregate.  Specifically, he focuses on the idea of the sacred, on beliefs and practices, and on what he calls “the moral community.”  I think his combination of the sacred with the moral community is also the focus of what Paul wrote to the Christian church in Rome, in the fifteenth chapter of Romans. 

“Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up our neighbor.  Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.  I myself feel confident about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another.”

It is this kind of building up our neighbors and one another, this kind of warm and generous welcome, this sharing of knowledge and experience, that I so value as you and I continue to navigate our way into what many have called a post-covid world.  Now to be sure, we do not yet live in a post-covid world.  The positivity rate is climbing again in every one of the fifty states, and the virus continues to rage around the world.  The need to remain vigilant and careful is, I think, one aspect of building up and caring for one another.  In other words, our collective effervescence needs to be balanced by our collective caution.  As Adam Grant wrote in the Times,

“When Émile Durkheim first wrote about collective effervescence in 1912, it was the eve of World War I and six years before the Spanish flu began its deadly spread.  But the Roaring Twenties brought it back in full force.  People sang and danced together and watched and played sports together.  They didn’t just find collective effervescence in the shallow fun of frivolous activities; they also forged it in the deep fun of creating together and solving problems together.  That decade brought an explosion of popular art like jazz and talking films, recreation like water skiing and medical advancement like insulin.”

And while it is still a little early to take stock of the ways our emergence from a pandemic begin to take shape, we can celebrate the rise of Black Lives Matter with its focus on social justice and equality; we have begun to experience what the new virtual workplace, the virtual classroom, the virtual town meeting, the virtual service of worship look like; and what better metaphor for escaping the deadly grip of a pandemic than the first civilian flight into near space early this week?

          It is human nature, Durkheim would argue, to gravitate toward things we can do together.  It is worth noting that even in the earliest days of our isolating, we found ways of connecting, and no, I’m not talking about Zoom.  Remember when entire neighborhoods in Italy opened their windows and people began singing together?  Or folks in New York and other cities banging pots and pans on fire escapes and sidewalks 7:00 every night to celebrate the front-line workers?  Friends who organized socially distanced outdoor picnics, everybody six or more feet apart, bring your own food and drink, and take your mask off every now and then to offer a smile and a laugh.  Even when we were separated by necessity, we found things we could still do together.  We laugh five times as often when we’re with others as when we are alone.

          And we are finding things to do together once more, still with caution and community health as the side rails to our regathering.  “Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up O ancient doors!”  “Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up our neighbors… I feel confident about you, my brothers and sister, that you yourselves are full of goodness.”

          Adam Grant concludes his essay on collective effervescence this way:

“The Declaration of Independence promised Americans unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  If we want that pursuit to bring us bliss, it may be time to create a Declaration of Interdependence.  You can feel depressed and anxious alone, but it is rare to laugh alone or [to] love alone.  Joy shared is joy sustained.” 

As you and I prayed together this morning, “O God, you have fashioned us for joy.”  May we live and work and play and laugh and worship together into the collective effervescence that is God-fashioned joy.

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