Get Up and Go: Engaging Our Community
by Louise Westfall
Discovered in 1947 in a cave by Bedouin shepherds looking for a stray lamb, they’ve been called the greatest manuscript treasure of modern times. The Dead Sea Scrolls, currently seen in a rare public exhibit at the Museum of Nature and Science, contain the oldest extant copies of Old Testament texts, as well as other religious writings from … two thousand years ago. The sheer age of the fragments is mind-boggling as well as the miracle of their unearthing and preservation. I experienced the exhibit with a clergy/rabbi group of which I’m part, but I’m glad our Adult Faith Formation Committee is arranging some tours this summer and opportunity for conversation here about the Dead Sea Scrolls’ significance. The words of an Israeli poet capture the mystery and allure of these amazing documents when she wrote And it always seems to me that if we dig deeply there, we will reach that layer of soil on which God’s footprints are still engraved. [Leah Goldberg, quoted in the exhibit]
God’s footprints … I love that image for evidence that God walks upon the earth. God is here, but sometimes signs of God’s presence get obscured under layer upon layer of complexity and our own preoccupations. Archeology is not the only tool to uncover them.
The morning text is a story of discovering God’s footprints in an altogether surprising place and situation. A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in the eighth chapter at the 26th verse. Listen for God’s Word to the church: stewards of a treasure all too often buried under the weight of history, steady decline, and fear. [Acts 8:26-40]
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south[a] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”[b] 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[c] baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
The rich detail in this narrative is significant. The disciple Philip experiences a call. There’s no mission statement attached; he’s just sent to a particular road the author makes sure we know is in the wilderness. On the road he encounters a person identified as Ethiopian and a eunuch — two facts that reveal his outsider status, both as a non-Jewish “foreigner,” and as a member of a sexual minority deemed to be “impure.” Though he is returning from a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the Ethiopian man seems dissatisfied with what he’s learned at the mothership. Philip is traveling that same road and again feels a nudge to engage the man with an open-ended question. At the Ethiopian’s invitation, Philip joins him in his chariot and they have a conversation. The Ethiopian man is so moved by the picture Philip paints of Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love, that he asks to be baptized and oh, look here’s a little pond. Let’s do it! We have to imagine what the Ethiopian eunuch did next; how he described the experience and to whom; what difference his impromptu baptism made. The Bible never mentions him again, though the Christian Church in Ethiopia to this day attributes their founding to this man. Well.
Did you notice how the text begins and ends with action verbs: Get up and go to the road … go over to the chariot … he ran … he went … ?
From the church’s very beginning, the call of God has been to go … go outside the sanctuary walls; go to the city and surrounding region; go to wilderness places; go to outsiders and “other people;” go and listen; go and tell; go to the ends of the earth with the good news Jesus showed us: that the heart of the almighty God is love. Unconditional, inclusive, and transforming. Get up and go!
In response to this primary call, your Session has authorized the formation of a Task Force for Community Engagement, a team (not to be confused with a committee!) who will lead our efforts to do so in a distinctively original way through visioning, experimenting, brainstorming, and digging deep. You may remember that the highest priority recommendation for Central’s thriving future was to “take church out into the world.”
In some eras we might have called it “evangelism,” but frankly that word has so many negative connotations associated with pressure tactics, exclusivism, judgy attitudes and a kind of superiority complex so far from its root in “sharing good news,” that it seems counterproductive to use it. Instead, we will seek to engage with individuals and institutions and groups, and together find the places where God is already at work. Call it a journey of discovery, an excavation process to uncover the footprints of God who has been walking here all along.
I think the morning text helps us understand what this enterprise is not. Philip had no agenda when he responded to God’s call to go to on the wilderness road to Gaza. He just went and was present at what turned out to be a very opportune moment. He didn’t recruit the Ethiopian man to come back to Jerusalem and join his church, nor did he assume he knew what the Ethiopian guy most needed. Instead, he listened to the man’s heartfelt questions. (I smiled a little at how naturally the baptism followed, contrasting it with the “decently and in order” process required today). So this community engagement ministry is not about going out there with the purpose of getting some more people to come in here. It’s not about developing clever ways to proclaim our point of view to convince the people to get with our program. It will not even focus on communicating information about us that we hope will attract them. It’s not doing it the way we’ve done it before, only better.
Instead it’s re-orienting ourselves as individuals and church to see the world out there as the place where our neighbors live and work and play … and the place where God is. Get up and go is a call to find out what is going on in our neighborhood. It’s a call to get to know our neighbors the way God knows them; to hear their concerns, their hopes and fears, where they are thriving and where they feel harried, pinched and exhausted. For truly, friends, how can we love our neighbors as ourselves, if we don’t even know our neighbors?
One pastor calls it becoming a “front porch” church — one that faces the neighborhood and conveys warmth and welcome and a desire to get acquainted. [from a NEXT Church blog, April 11, 2018] Does this sound a little familiar? It’s an idea, quite frankly, that has dominated the design decisions for our capital campaign projects. We want to make enhancements in our magnificent building so that it is more accessible, more engaged at the street level, more transparent and open to our neighbors. Just as we seek to do this through our physical building, so also will we do this through our spiritual outreach. The Session has authorized the formation of this community engagement task force, but has not yet selected its members. Might you consider a call to serve? “You” means people of all ages, Central member or not. Over the next few weeks all of us will have opportunity to learn more, but honestly none of us knows precisely where this will take us.
I think it will prompt us to wonder in what ways might the church hone its mission to locate God’s footprints in our landscape. What skills do we need to develop, or practice more consistently?
The vitality of our downtown neighborhood hints at some possibilities. The new 5280 loop, being developed by the Downtown Denver Partnership is a 5.280-mile walk connecting neighborhoods and prioritizing people, health, culture and nature. It will pass right by our front door. We’ve been approached by a young entrepreneur to participate in his new non-profit, dedicated to mapping safe and low-traffic bicycle routes and building community around them. During the month of June, bicyclists will be incentivized to bike to various venues (including Central) where their “passport” will be stamped and we will give them one of our “let’s be neighbors” water bottles. Oh, did I mention we receive their names and contact information? Hmmmm. Every month at Theology on Tap we’ve been joined by at least one new person, curious to join the conversation (over a Colorado craft beer) that takes us beyond surface chit chat. Sounds like get up and go is going to involve walking, biking … and even brewery-hopping. Who knew?
On an Uber ride to the airport recently, I struck up a conversation with the driver, who told me he’d been in Denver for about a year. He had a “real” job in IT, but wanted some extra income and casually mentioned that he hoped it would help him meet people in his new city. “I haven’t found Denver very friendly, at least compared to back home in Oklahoma,” he said a little wistfully. “It’s been hard to make friends.” Suddenly I felt as if I were hearing a chorus of voices: the Ethiopian eunuch’s longing, the young person’s vulnerability, the millennial’s restlessness, the empty nester’s loss, the senior citizen’s desire to make the most of the time … different expressions over a life time of the one need within every human being.
My voice seemed small but grew as I responded: I know a place … there are these people … I belong to a community …