October 27, 2019
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished. When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.”
“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you. And it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out from the people.’ And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, also predicted these days. You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
The early church ran on a shoestring. It wasn’t that the community wasn’t generous; far from it. They were radically all in. They pooled all of the resources they had, and cared for each other out of a common purse. Imagine that stewardship campaign; “We are asking for 100% of your income this year, and that you sell all that your own, just in case.” And still, they founded one of the great traditions of the church; looking at the budget and feeling like it’ll never be quite enough. There has always been unending need around Christians, and before Jesus, the Tribes of Israel, and before their establishment the children of Abraham. There has always been, and continues to be, an entire world that needs to be flipped upside down and remade in the image of the Kin-dom of God. The dream is an old one; a world where all have adequate shelter, food for today, and bright hope for tomorrow, where children and the aged are cared for, the poor freed from the shackles of poverty, and the abilities of all accommodated so all may live life abundantly. I love reading about the early Church in the Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the book of Acts, because while the early church is running on a shoestring, they also run on something far more powerful than their money. They also are run on the Holy Spirit. Their hope is much deeper than their common purse. The mission they are engaged in the world, It’s about healing and wholeness, the quality of life that the Holy Spirit makes possible, the continuation of Jesus’ ministry to a broken and fearful world. The early church understood itself to be partners with God, participating in a mission that is not their own, and the deep peace that comes from knowing that saving the world is not all up to them. They are on the lookout for opportunities to do their part, but they also give witness to what God is doing outside of their labors.
I’ve been meditating on the early church a lot this past year. In conversations with our mission team, SAGE, and our Session, we’ve been facing the reality that our finances are challenging, while also sensing that our call to ministry is much larger than our bottom line. How can we be a part of what God is doing in the world when we’re not sure how to make ends meet? The early church has been a guiding light, aflame with the Holy Spirit.
Part of being a Disciple, and part of a church family, is having the kind of vision the Early Church had, being open to change, to risk re-imagining how to share the love of God, while staying true to our values, rooted in our relationship with the God who is at work around, and among us. Change is hard, and scary, but the Living God invites us to be of good courage, and risk being made new. The people of God have changed how they partner in God’s mission throughout scripture, to become more aligned with what God is doing in the world. They changed to be able to manifest the kind of community God asks the church to be. And throughout history followers of Jesus have changed their life together so they can be good stewards of what has been entrusted to their care, so that future generations of folks can be welcomed into God’s family.
One of the central teachings of our faith is that the mission of the church is not something we create. Instead we learn and discover what God is already doing in the world, and respond to the call to partner with that work. But we also can get stuck. Mission has had seasons in the lives of people of faith where it is flattened to the idea of helping others, while forgetting that we need help too. Yet when we read Scripture, when we dig deep into reformed and liberation theology, there is a striking challenge to this way of thinking; if we make our neighbors “the other,” we forget that God is also pursuing us. That we are part of what God is doing in the world, and that means experiencing transformation in our own lives. Jesus is at work in our lives as well as our neighbors, and sometimes the Mission of God means that we are the folks who are healed, set free, and transformed. This is a bigger sense of mission, but also a much more personal one. This can be hard for Church folks because sometimes it can feel almost selfish. Make sure we are being sheltered, nurtured, and loved? We’re going to be transformed and challenged? Can’t we just help those people? Our tradition reminds us though there is a shadow side to a selfless idea of mission; the idea that we don’t need Jesus’ saving grace and redemption, as if the economic class some of us experience somehow makes us less in need of God’s liberating love and the Holy Spirit’s activity. One of the most helpful ways of understanding this for me has been a quote by an indigenous community leader, Lilla Watson who says, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Our liberation is bound together with that of our neighbors. Creating and enforcing systems of charity, leaving us in positions of power, can get in the way of what God is up to.
One of the challenges of mission for churches is the idea that the only measure of mission is how much money we give away. A guiding principle in our work this past year as leaders of this congregation has been “what you measure matters. If you don’t measure what truly matters to you, then what you are measuring will become what matters.” Historically here at MPC, there has been a focus of giving away a large amount of our money each year. And there is a beautiful vision behind this. However it’s only part of what we could be measuring. For one, many of us can’t give away large amounts of money, while a few of us can. If we only measure money given away, then we are saying, implicitly, that some of our contributions of time and energy are less valuable. Measuring only money or material goods doesn’t prioritize relationships, or transformation in people’s lives. If instead we measure “how are people’s lives, including our own, different?” Or “who do we have relationships with now that we didn’t?” We measure something much more human, and indeed more in line with Jesus’ continuing work in the world. The Salvation that Jesus Christ brought to the world was not fundraising. It was a new way of understanding and experiencing our relationship with God, each other, and ourselves.
We also can measure the kind of life together we are giving witness to, the counterculture of Jesus that we can manifest in all that we do. The church is called to exhibit what the Kin-dom of God looks like, to live into the promises of Jesus for all to be loved, and share that with the world. When we understand that how we love and live together, moving our little corner of the world from how it is, closer to how it should be, is part of God’s mission in the world, our sense of what matters changes. Taking time to know and love one another, to grow in our love of God, and the knowledge and experience of God’s love for us, becomes more central to engaging in Mission. When we see taking time to raise children that is shaped by God’s love, our love, and their love for others and themselves as part of God’s love in the world, mission takes on a new meaning. When we stive to be a place where everyone has something they can do to be a part of God’s mission in the world, of all abilities, ages, races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and economic resources, we can step more fully into the Kin-dom of Heaven. Our money can make that possible, but there is a larger call on our lives. The way we do life together can be, in fact, a foretaste of the world Jesus ushers in, where the old systems of the world are turned upside down and new life bursts forth.
Beloved, I’m asking you to this week to take some time to think about how you would like to be a part of what God is doing in the world, and to help us, as a community, to step more fully into God’s dream for us. I’m asking you, this week, when you receive a letter from MPC, to take some time to look at the proposed Ministry priorities for 2020, and mark the ones you think are most vital for us to engage in. And then I invite you to consider how you might want to be involved. There are a variety of ways to volunteer, all sorts of different ways to partner with what God is up to. Some will seem very familiar, others excitingly new. When we gather next Sunday after worship for our congregational meeting, we will have discussions around tables, with an Elder to listen and answer questions, about how we want to do life together, and engage in God’s mission. We will sit and talk for awhile, because we are facing a big shift. It’s not a change that our Elders are suggesting lightly, but one born of urgency and a deep sense of calling. Currently we are facing mounting deficits as a congregation. And it’s not because of a lack of generosity. Many of you are giving sacrificially, and we are amazed as your elected leaders and your called ministers. But the ways we have been utilizing those gifts needs to change if we want to continue to be a part of what God is doing in the world. We can set ourselves on a path to stability that ensures our ability to engage in ministry for the next generation. Currently, we are projected to encounter difficulty engaging in Ministry as a congregation in September of 2022. In three years, if we don’t shift how we do ministry, we could find ourselves in a place of extreme financial hardship where we would have to make difficult decisions about continuing, either selling our building, calling a part time pastor, merging with another congregation, or creating a plan to close our doors. We’re not yet at a place where we have to make these kinds of decisions, but we need to act soon. We have a chance to stay true to our values, to partner with God’s mission in the world, and be able to be a family of faith, but it’s going to take trust in your elected leaders in the congregation, and everyone discerning how they would like to be involved. We have an opportunity to do something far more world-changing than just survive; we could thrive through the power of God’s love for us, our love for one another, and the love of our neighbors. But it’s going to mean changing how we engage in mission, while also staying true to our values. So I ask you to pray for our church, prayerfully read the letter and consider the Opportunities for engagement we will share with you, and join us next week as we step into a new future together, where God can make something beautiful possible within us, around us, and through us.
I share all of this not to scare or shame, but to celebrate the difficulty and opportunity of this moment. In this moment, Christ is clarifying God’s call on us all. So let us risk being empowered by the Holy Spirit, just like the early church did. Let us see what is possible with God when we come together, to be healed and empowered, to be sent as emissaries for Christ’s wholeness and world upending peace in the world.
May it be so, in the name of the one who was, and is, and evermore shall be. Amen.