The other day the name and face of a past friend of ours in Winchester, Virginia came to mind. I wondered what she and her wonderful family were up to. I thought to myself “John, you should just call.” Of course, I didn’t. But then, early on Tuesday morning, I awoke and saw our phone flashing with a message. It was from earlier in the evening. I must have missed it. It was now 2 a.m. So I listened to the message and guess who it was from – this very person from Winchester, Virginia.
Things like this happen all the time; these coincidences. Sometimes I think our whole lives are a series of holy coincidences. Sometimes as I review my life and think about how it has played out – it is simply marvelous – a conversation changed my life, a chance meeting moved me in a whole new direction, a chance taken placed me in a stream that pulled me where I had no previous intention to go. A tragedy turned my life around. A crisis pointed to a new opportunity.
It has made me feel that perhaps every moment is rich with surprise. I remember Herb Meza saying, “John, nothing is good or bad until God gets through with it.” It makes me want to hold things loosely and be steeped in wonder more than certainty and to respect the mystical.
I one time read a definition of a “mystic” – “a person who is puzzled before the obvious, but who understands the non-existent.” I guess I am kind of a mystic. Using the words of Simon Tugwell I am most interested in “rediscovering and cherishing a basic sense of wonder, of the precariousness of actuality.” Isn’t that nice? To consider that each moment is rich and we should be in a constant state of awe and wonder, just like the early church.
Honestly, I am beginning to feel that our church study of Acts is another one of these holy coincidences. Who would have known six months ago when Clover and the Adult Education Committee selected Acts that it was going to be the absolutely right book to study at this time in our life together as Christians of Forest Hill Church.
That today, on the Sunday when we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , who was, by the way a mystic – he saw things that most couldn’t, he understood the non-existent and led us to a new reality – we read a passage about a group of early Christians inventing a movement based on prayer, on worship, on bread breaking, on sharing everything – creating a new reality from something not yet existent, calling us to a new kind of community not defined by race, or wealth or class.
Dr. King was this human coincidence – called at just the right time in our history.
It is no coincidence that we are reading about the first church and what defined it on the day of our congregational meeting when you will elect leaders, hopefully approve Clover’s and my terms of call and hear the outcome of how the Session has balanced the budget for the coming year. As you have heard and should know – the balancing of the budget was no easy matter. Nobody wanted to freezes salaries, cut benevolences, tap Endowment.
It is all very sobering stuff. And all these meetings and conversations have led all to believe that the leadership must face the reality that changes are going to have to be made… we can’t simply go on doing business as we have done. We are a crossroads of crisis and possibility.
And we read this particular passage describing the first church. Coincidence? No.
The early church found itself in a new reality and it was precarious – leader gone, a small sectarian group on the fringe of Judaism, in the backwaters of the Roman Empire. Who was it going to be, what was it going to do?
We, a church of the 21st century, find ourselves in a precarious too – many visitors and a good turn over of membership but we have not grown in numbers.
An extraordinarily generous congregation but you can’t simply keep asking the same amount of people for more and more money. The older generation that has provided the foundation for faithful stewardship is simply not being replaced dollar of dollar.
We live in a suburb of Cleveland, a stressed city – young wage earners are not generally moving here. People don’t identify with the Presbyterian denomination as much as they used to. The growing churches in our area strictly in terms of numbers are either in locations of population growth generally, or they are offering an MTV style of worship that seems to attract, at least for a while.
I think the Acts passage is calling us to remember however, that people are attracted not by institutions but by living communities of faith that engage them in powerful encounters.
People are attracted not as much by where the money goes but by how they can get involved.
People are seeking belonging and meaning; not in programs but in practices of faith.
People are attracted not by apologies for Jesus but by honest proclamations about Jesus. We are all still looking for signs and wonders.
But this is where we must get mystical and see signs of holy coincidences that point in new directions. Church growth means more than mere numbers and health means more than increased budgets. I think it is more important to ask how deeply are the members are growing in faith. How many people spend time in prayer, read their bibles, engage in acts of justice and compassion? How many people practice spiritual disciplines? How many people have actually had a one-on-one with someone who is poor or homeless? How many tithe? How many adults are we baptizing? How many people are following the call to ministry? How many times have you told someone you are a Christian?
We haven’t grown overall in numbers but our Adult Education has grown from 12 to 70 in just over 5 years. Fifty or so have gone through the Faith Leaders experience – and so we have added 50 members who have committed to prayerful disciplines. It will bubble up! This is how the spirit always works.
We haven’t grown in numbers of people but we have grown vegetables in our Abundance Acre’s community garden. In some ways that is more important.
In 2012 the Session will cut the money we direct to other social service agencies – but we have welcomed the poor into our space with Interfaith Hospitality Network and our food cupboard.
Congregations do not have to have buildings: there are many styles and forms of churches; large, rich ones are not necessarily the most successful ones. I remember being in Ethiopia and being amazed at the hundreds and hundreds of people coming out of the bush, some in rags to hear the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I remember the church in Nicaragua singing and praising God in a barrio, a slum. It was one of the most powerful services I have ever been to and I hardly understood a word of it.
Sometimes I wonder, in the topsy-turvy reality of the beloved community if the church isn’t at its best when it is poor, and marginal, and even -God forbid- persecuted and small. That is why I don’t like the idea of us being a Christian nation – national religion is never a good idea!
And yet we have this wonderful space and we have made a commitment to stay on the point of land right here – that is a statement of moral courage – when all sorts of congregations are moving east. We have put money into much needed restoration so that we can be a building for others; a launching pad for remarkable mission; a market place for interaction and community and education and conversation and fellowship –equipping you, the Saints, for ministry.
We are called beyond these walls of course, into the world. But this means more than charity – and our future is dependent not on giving away more money but in equipping and activating those who are able in engagement, teaching one and all how to live frugally, and justly and generously – the money will come.
There is no one formula. However this passage agitates me deeply to consider: who are we, who is God calling us to be, what is God calling us to do? I am kind of in awe of everything that is going on. We don’t have to try to become the church of Acts 2. That church didn’t even stay that way for very long. But we can use the description as a model and guide.
The leaders were doing signs and wonders. I remember a description of a pagan in a Roman city in the first century commenting about the new group called Christians: “see how they love each other?” They were attracting attention – there seemed to be a vitality that was palpable, you wanted to be there. Are we doing that?
“All who believed were together and had all things in common…” – I don’t think this means that everyone agreed on everything. The late great William Sloane Coffin used to say: “Unity in Christ does not mean unanimity.” In fact we are better when there is rich diversity of opinion – it makes it harder to manage, no doubt – but the early church was NOT in agreement on theology – a desire to seek after and follow Jesus – was the key – not a belief in the virgin birth or what Paul had to say or NOT say on human sexuality. Heck, there wasn’t even a Bible in the way we think of it. The key was a focus on Jesus a desire to follow and be together in community. Are we doing that?
All things in common?
There was an early church father who commented on this verse: “Christians are to have all things in common… except wives!” I think that is something we can live by, no?
“They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
This is rather blasphemous in today’s individual, capitalistic climate. Those in need weren’t blamed, they were taken care of. In monasteries, convents, and new communities like Shane Claiborne’s community in Philadelphia, it still happens – among us. I know of folks right now who are selling their possessions to give to the work of the church, reaching out to those in need.
“And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Our gospel message is still about salvation, not safety; about getting young and old to think about their lives in relationship to Jesus. I have never thought that salvation should be narrowly defined by where you will spend eternity – rather it is a challenge for each of you to consider how you are spending your life now – are your living joyfully, are you giving and forgiving, do you see each other as beloved child of God, do you feel connected to a big idea, when was the last time you were awed by something?
Where does this all lead us? How is this all going to work out? I don’t know. But frankly, I am excited – it is precisely where we have to be – we are the right people at the right time, hinged on the precariousness of actuality.
So keep your eyes and ears open, hearts generous, hands ready to work – bibles open too, voices raised in song, minds ready to be stretched, extending the fellowship – staying poised to respond to the holy coincidences which will, in time, bear much fruit.