Faith Acts (V): All That God Has Done With Us
by Louise Westfall
A moon-lit night of summer camp. A car stops at the edge of a forest, the doors open, and out step four middle-school-aged youth, with backpacks and a primitive GPS (aka “compass”) to point them in the right direction to return safely to camp miles away. Is this the path? Could be. And so they take off, heading into the woods. This is the Dutch tradition known as “dropping,” in which groups of pre-teen youth are released together in the countryside and expected to make their way back to base. It’s meant to be challenging, and though in recent years some additional rules and safeguards have been added, “dropping” is understood as an important rite of passage, to assume the responsibility and self-reliance of adulthood. One young participant who had initially resisted the experience was enthusiastic afterwards, and said he look forward to having future children experience one, because It shows you, even in very hard times to keep walking, to keep going. [The New York Times, July 22, 2019, pp A1, A10]
The first century church’s travels to share the good news seem a little like a “dropping.” The apostles are sent in groups of three or four, by land and sea, to towns and cities and seaports throughout the Mediterranean world. There’s a sense in which they learned as they went, arriving in places they’d never been before, engaging the community, looking for opportunities, guided mostly by faith and a sense of calling. We’ve been exploring their adventures this summer through the Acts of the Apostles, which narrates the church’s opening chapters of a Story that continues to be told in each succeeding generation. Today’s text offers a glimpse into one of the journeys, and like most journeys, includes multiple routes and unplanned events, a few tight spots and a lot of recalculating. [Children, to get an idea of how far the disciples traveled, you might count how many names of cities and regions you hear—there are a lot!] You get the sense that though the apostles were in uncharted territory, they didn’t consider themselves “lost” but simply way-finding, led by the Spirit of God. And they kept going. I wonder if their telling of the story can become a kind of GPS for the church navigating its way through this challenging time. A reading from Acts, the fourteenth chapter. As always, we must remember that “The Way” (as the Jesus movement was first called), was a subgroup within Judaism. So when the text refers to “the Jews” it describes this early conflict viewed as heresy by the devout. It should not be heard as a blanket condemnation of Jewish people. Listen for God’s Word. [ACTS 14]
Did anyone keep track of the number of towns and regions where the apostles traveled? I counted nine! The point is they went all over!
…and the pace is relentless! They preached and taught and engaged with people–both insiders (in the synagogue), and outsiders (in the marketplace). They healed the sick and infirm. The signs and wonders they performed provoked admiration and scorn. Sometimes they argued and debated; other times they beat a hasty retreat. They survived attempts at their lives, and ordained leaders for the new congregations. There’s something so compelling about beginnings—when everything is fresh and untried and participants are motivated largely by their passion and willingness to risk even their lives to accomplish the mission.
It’s not so easy to summon that energy when you’re part of the institution the movement became–generations and millennia later. But I wonder if their example does offer a spark that might re-ignite the church.
Did you notice that little preposition in the report they gave upon their return? They called the church together and related all that God has done with them. “With” is an interesting word choice there because we often talk about the power of God outside human agency. God working THROUGH us. God working in spite of us. God performing miracles. God creating without help from us. But here it’s about what God has done WITH us. “With” connotes partnership. And it seems to me the power and effectiveness of the first-century church lies in its understanding that God’s presence, God’s love, God’s plan to redeem and transform the world is exercised through human beings and human communities. God with us is the formula for peace and justice and the kingdom on earth is it is in heaven.
It isn’t easy--this enterprise of joining with God in heavenly work here on earth. It’s messy, and risky, and fraught with dangers, toils and snares. It isn’t easy, but O my friends, it is worth it. Because the thing is, life drops us into strange and unfamiliar places. The forest surrounding us is dark and deep; the path is faint. But the hand of God is sure when it is extended by a human being. Together—and only together--we will find the way home.
Someone has imagined Jesus’ welcome into heaven following his earthly ministry, death, and resurrection. The angels are crowding around, eager to hear everything. What’s going to happen now? The angels wonder. What’s your strategic plan, Jesus? Well, I left things in the hands of my followers. I commissioned them to share the love of God everywhere, with everyone. The angels are a bit crestfallen. You mean you left this work to Peter, who denied you? To Mary, a woman without voice or vote? To Thomas, filled with doubts? What happens if they blow it, Jesus? And the story says that Jesus smiled broadly and proclaimed “I have no other plan.”
Friends, what if we understood the mission of Central Presbyterian Church to be part of Jesus’ strategic plan to share the love of God everywhere, with everyone? What could happen if we envisioned the stuff we do–from planning faith-formational learning experiences to summer of service projects; from searching conversations over a craft brew to nourishment around the Communion table –-and dinner tables; from music sung and heard that lifts us up and sermons that provide comfort and challenge for the living of our days; from planning meetings and budget development and the process of selecting leadership; from New Genesis and Central Visitation Program and the capital campaign expanding our ability to serve our downtown neighbors; from Denver Philharmonic concerts and twelve step groups in our basement… what if we understood all that as the means by which God works with us?
Frankly, it takes my breath away. And inspires me–even on a hot summer Sunday–to recommit to this work. We think our new tag line captures it well: Creating beloved community with everyone. God is working with us in ever-widening circles to create a place of welcome, acceptance, growth, service, and joy.
I attended the Colorado Health Symposium on housing this past week, and participated in state-wide conversations about the connection between stable housing and healthy individuals, families, and neighborhoods. In one panel discussion, a former city councilwoman from Colorado Springs described her city’s decision a decade ago to address homelessness and acute housing shortages. City government asked the community to submit proposals, with the winning proposal receiving a million dollars as seed money and a tangible sign of the city’s commitment. They received exactly ZERO appropriate proposals. Then as she told it, someone on the council remembered the Baptist Church that ran a rescue shelter –basically just a bed, a shower, and a hot meal–for about 200 homeless people. Might they have some ideas? I can only imagine the church board meeting where this was discussed…! But whatever fear caught in their throats; whatever roadblocks they encountered; whatever potential failure they foresaw, they kept walking, they kept going forward. That congregation stepped into the future with faith that they were working with God. And you know what? Through wide collaboration with government, business, church and non-profit sectors, they have just opened Greenway Flats, the first-of-its-kind in the Springs, 65-unit permanent supportive housing project and opened the door to their first –-formerly homeless–renters.
It isn’t easy–this enterprise of joining with God in heavenly work here on earth. It’s messy, and risky, and fraught with dangers, toils and snares. It isn’t easy, but O my friends, it is worth it.
Because the thing is, life drops us into strange and unfamiliar places. The forest surrounding us is dark and deep; the path is faint. But the hand of God is sure when it is extended by a human being. Together—and only together–we will find the way home.