“Somewhere.” It’s one of the great songs of musical theatre, from one of the greatest shows in musical theater, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. It’s one of those shows that probably a few of you have memorized, or close to it. But even if you’ve never heard of the show before in your life, this song, “Somewhere,” pulls you into the emotional depths of it in just the first few bars, really in the first three notes.

The nature of those connected musical intervals immediately feels us with a sense of wistfulness, of melancholy yearning, of reaching for something beyond your grasp. And the melody of the whole song is built around that tension, that unresolved longing.

Then there are the lyrics, written by Stephen Sondheim as his first real professional composition:

There’s a place for us / somewhere a place for us /
Peace and quiet and open air / wait for us somewhere
Some day / somewhere

We’ll find a new way of living
We’ll find a way of forgiving


You can know absolutely nothing about the show, the plot, or the characters and still feel that melancholy yearning for a place to be with the one or ones that you love, a place of true peace, not just an absence of conflict: physical peace of fresh air and open space, relational peace of a new way of living characterized by forgiveness. And it’s not clear from the song whether the singer believes that this will happen or whether she believes that it won’t but wants so desperately to be wrong.

If you do know the show, you know that it’s being sung by and to characters who are struggling to navigate the traps and snares of life in the tenements of the west side of Manhattan, which were notorious for their crime and violence well into the 1990s, people who are longing to live free of cramped apartments and street gangs and discrimination.

But I think that longing for a place of peaceful community is a human universal that is hard to resolve regardless of how privileged your social or economic status is. We live in an age where people are in far more contact with one another than they ever have been in human history, between social media and the ubiquity of cellphones among people even in the most impoverished areas of the world, and yet we also live in one of the most politically polarized times in our nation’s history, and social isolation and loneliness are so deep and widespread that the U.S. Surgeon General has literally issued a public health advisory bulletin that warns of their risks and impact. It seems that, if there’s a place for us, not many of us have found it.

This week we are considering the second of the Six Great Ends of the Church as defined by the Presbyterian Church (USA), the six purposes for which the church exists and towards which any congregation or council of the church should be working. Last week, on Pentecost, we considered the first Great End: “The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind.” This week, we are returning to the end of the Pentecost story to explore the second Great End: “The Shelter, Nurture, and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God.”

Our reading picks up at the end of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, in which, filled with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, he proclaims the essence of the gospel to all the bystanders who are marveling at the miracle of the disciples who are suddenly able to speak in various languages represented in the crowd, so that everyone can hear and understand them bearing witness to Christ’s resurrection. The crowd is persuaded by what Peter has to say, and asks him what they should do in response to this news. Peter tells them to be baptized in Christ’s name. “So those who welcomed his message were baptized,” the narrator tells us as our reading opens, “and that day about three thousand persons were added.”

Now, if we stopped there, we might think that was the culmination of Pentecost, of the coming of the Holy Spirit that sparked the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ: about three thousand people were baptized and were “added.” I have to confess, I don’t love that word: “added.” It sounds like somebody is weighing a harvest, with each person counted like bushels of wheat. And the church has been very guilty of doing exactly that through the ages. I remember being at an extended family celebration at the Fourth of July back when I was doing youth ministry, and a relative who had joined a very conservative, evangelical, nondenominational church sought me out as I was sitting down to the bounty of my hot dogs.

“So, I hear you’ve been called to youth ministry in Atlanta,” he began eagerly; “yep,” I replied, not very eager for the conversation that I expected to follow. Without missing a beat, he continued. “So, how many kids have you saved?” he asked. “Well,” I responded; “none.” “What?” he said in surprise and a little bit of disdain. “Jesus saves, not me,” I said. I hoped that would put an end to it, but no, he took that as a joke and laughed. “Amen to that!” he exclaimed, and then immediately got serious again.

“No, really; how many have accepted Jesus into their hearts?” he pressed. “All of them,” I finally told him, not bothering to mention that almost all of them had done so long before I got there, and that seemed to satisfy him; he pronounced blessings on my ministry and went looking for the deviled eggs, satisfied that at least some youth had been “added” through my ministry.

The thing is, we may like to pretend that kind of crass head-counting is unique to the nondenominational, evangelical world, but it’s not. One of the first couple of questions I’m always asked when I introduce myself as a Presbyterian pastor is how big is the church I serve, because people equate the size of a church’s membership rolls or worship attendance with its status and success, never even considering whether and how to accurately measure what really matters, which is the spiritual growth of individuals and the missional impact of the congregation.

Many Protestant churches I know carry tens, hundreds, even thousands of people on their membership rolls who have not darkened the door in decades because they want to be able to claim a larger active membership than they actually have. Honestly, if we’re going to make the mistake of making who’s being “added” our focus, I think I prefer the evangelical approach exemplified by my relative: at least they’re worrying about adding up souls for salvation instead of resources for an institution!

Thankfully, we don’t have to choose between bad or worse approaches in response to the Pentecost story, because it doesn’t stop at the statement about people being added; it explains exactly what happened next. “They devoted themselves the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,” it goes on, “to the breaking bread and prayers.”

They do NOT simply devote themselves to the teachings of the apostles, but also to the fellowship of them. The Greek word used there is koinonia, a word that doesn’t just mean fellowship in the sense of chatting over lemonade like we will at the end of this service, but of authentic, vulnerable, mutual sharing of your mind, your heart, your spirit, and your resources with others.

It’s why, when the small groups ministry of this church was created decades ago, the name that was chosen for them was not just “small groups,” but “Koinonia Groups.” We tend to shorten the name to K-Groups because it’s easier to say, but what that K stands for is what sets those groups apart from just book clubs, or social groups, or even Bible studies. They have always been intended as a place where people of differing backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences could come together, care for one another, and share with each other in the journey of faith together.

That’s the kind of fellowship that the disciples cultivate with one another immediately after Pentecost: “All who believed were together, and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, they spent much time together in the Temple; they broke bread at home” (the Greek actually says “from house to house,” making it clear that they were taking turns hosting meals for the community), “and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”

You see, from the very beginning, the Christian faith has been not simply believed, but lived, and lived in community with others. Christianity is a team sport; it cannot be done alone, because its most basic reality is not individual, intellectual conviction, but spiritual fellowship, koinonia, mutual sharing, because authentic, shared community is transformative in ways that individual intellect can never be.

One of my favorite contemporary poets is a Palestinian-American woman named Naomi Shihab Nye, and one of her best poems is about transformative shared community that forms somewhere unexpected: “Gate A-4” at the Albuquerque Airport, which gives the poem its name. It’s a story poem, and begins with Nye hearing an announcement asking for an Arabic speaker to come help with a passenger at Gate A-4. That happens to be her gate anyway, and when she arrives she sees an older woman, in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, crumpled on the floor and wailing.

The gate agent asks Nye to find out what’s going on, because all they know is they said the flight would be late and she did this. Nye addresses her consolingly in Arabic, and the woman immediately stops crying. It turns out she needs to be in El Paso, Texas for major medical treatment the next day, and she thought the flight had been cancelled and she would miss it.

Nye explains the flight has only been delayed, and promises to sit with her. Nye offers her phone and suggests they call her son, who will be picking her up, to let him know about the delay. Then, to pass the time, they call her other sons, then Nye’s own father, who of course has ten friends in common with the woman. Surrounded by all this community, the woman’s whole demeanor changes.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.

To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

There’s a place for us; somewhere a place for us. A place we can find a new way of living, a way of forgiving and loving and sharing and welcoming, a place we can find shelter, and nurture: the place of spiritual nurture of the children of God. It’s not only in the church; as Nye herself notes, this can happen anywhere, even at an airport gate for a delayed flight. It’s not always in the church; many of us have experienced its absence at some point, and maybe even the pain of its opposite.

Which is why it is so very important for us to dedicate ourselves to cultivating spiritual fellowship, koinonia, all the more. Because when we do, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit breathing in and through us, this truly does become a place for us, the place for us to be who and how God has always meant us to be: mutually sharing in the fellowship of the love of God, together.