We began our time two weeks ago looking at the theme of repentance . The idea that before a congregation engages in the practices of community ministry – there is this necessity for people to hear the call to join God’s mission to the city, that deep inner sense that yes – we want to share in another’s experience, and draw near to the places where God is located – with those who are suffering. This is being a community of the Good Samaritan – a community that ‘goes to the people’…
Then last Sunday we explored the theme of relocation . Just as Jesus became human and lived here among us, we are called to become incarnate in the community we hope to impact – having a presence. Which can accomplished by choosing to live in the community, extending hospitality to community residents, through volunteering in community projects, establishing community ministries, partnerships with other local churches, shopping in local stores, eating in local restaurants…basically pursuing any point of connection with community residents that can be imagined. And entering those settings in pursuit of authentic, trusting, encounters, where hope and sorrow, gifts and struggles – sacred life stories are exchanged.
A third R is that when Jesus relocated – Jesus was about a larger work …that of reconciliation …bridging the gap between God and humanity… bringing together people groups that despised or feared one another…healing wounds…forming a community, a family defined by God and engaged in the practices of faith.
Urban ministry has seen its share of projects and mission efforts that are unconnected to congregations – where there is little connection beyond volunteers, money and other material support – very arm’s length and not fully engaged. Youth for Christ and Union Gospel Mission…are groups that have done important ministry over the years, they have committed to working with groups who were being neglected by congregations. But it is not holistic if we hold back a treasure; the common life of a caring, supportive, diverse, loving body of people – who are caught up in a passionate love affair with God, and called to serve God with “all their heart, with all their soul, with all their mind, and with all their strength.” For local congregations to engage in community ministry, is to reclaim the congregations place in God’s mission to the city – embodying congregationally based community ministry.
Our gospel story this morning, which tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, is a fine example of the reconciling ministry congregations are called to pursue.
- First, Refusing to remain at arm’s length from the Samaritan people, Jesus goes directly into Samaria, when common practice for Jews travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem, would have been to take the long way around – Jesus relocated..
- Second, When Jesus meets her at the well, Jesus asks her for a drink for himself. He did not start by saying “I can help you”. He wanted her to know that she could help him, and that they had a shared need. The Jews despised and separated themselves from the Samaritans, but by talking to her and asking for help, Jesus affirmed her dignity and bridged the gap of distrust.
- Third – is the uncovering of motives. The Samaritan woman understood the historical relationship between the Jews and Samaritans, and she needed to understand Jesus’ motives. She asks him “why are you asking me for a drink?” Motives are very important to people that are being helped. Ministry motivated by guilt or obligation can be sniffed out, and revealed as nothing more than a volunteer trying to make themselves feel better. I have been asked more than once this exact question by folks living on the streets of Lake City. Why do you love me while the police hate me? When will you move on, and get tired of dealing with the same garbage in our lives? Why are you here? Jesus does not hold back a treasure, but offers the woman the deep well of love that God has for people, a love that he himself is caught up in – demonstrating the paradox that: “You can’t truly love and serve people unless you love God. And you can’t truly love God without loving others.” It is God in whom live, and move and have our being – it is God who has established the baseline, the true identity of all people – that they are loved. This is good news for me, for all of us, and especially for the marginalized folks of the city – who have the justice system, social service agencies, and addictions attempting to define who they are. There is nothing more sad than seeing someone deep down begin to really believe they are hopeless, lost, criminal or useless – and even more so – when they come to believe that’s how God sees them.
- The Samaritan woman had many voices other than her Creator, who were attempting to define her. Having seen and experienced this reconciling love demonstrated by Jesus, the woman is filled with love and courage to overcome the gap between her and her community. She, who was despised and scorned among her own people, in turn becomes the bearer of good news to her whole community…a vessel of healing and hope. Having encountered God’s love, she also experiences a transformation of her community life.
I have had the privilege of basking in the glow of people caught up in the reconciling love of God – and seeing just how much of a lifeline that love is – when they feel alone, exhausted, discouraged, even disgusted as they engage in church-based Community Ministry. One of my favourite people is Mary Nelson, a Nordic-Lutheran from rural Minnesota, who ended up in one of the craziest neighbourhoods on the West Side of Chicago. Back in the late 60’s, she went to Chicago to help her brother, a Lutheran pastor – get settled into his new charge in an African American neighbourhood. She went to help him spruce up the parsonage, make him some curtains – good sisterly things – but while there the famed Chicago riots broke out. Bricks were flying, cars were burning, it was chaos…and she said to herself “Self, something is very wrong here, I better stay and help out.”
She could have got up and headed on out of Samaria, back to Galilee – but she knew something of this living water, through which God is creating a world where the barriers to wholeness are taken down. And that a socially, economically, and racially divided world is contradicted by the gospel of reconciliation. She stayed and is still there 30 years later, she is 78 years old, and retired this past year as the CEO of the Community Development arm of Bethel New Life Lutheran Church – which has an annual operating budget of 30 million dollars. But it began in the 70’s with a budget of $5000, put together with $10 a week pledges of members and friends, the widow’s mite.
How does a passionate faith in God and a reconciled church prepare Bethel New Life to do what they do? Mary says that “Faith has provided the church with the GLUE that holds them together when racism, ageism, and sexism would pull them apart. One can disagree and discuss, but after getting down on their knees together, they rise reminded of God’s vision for the human community, and carry on together. Faith is also GASOLINE for the long haul, the reminder that God does not give up on people, that God is with them in this effort for the long haul. Sunday morning worship refills their tanks, making them ready to go out and tackle the problem, reminding them of community. Faith is also the GUTS, to make risky decisions, to step out in faith, to stand strong against the tide of doubt and hopelessness.” A community of faith which reminds one another of the limitless well of loving water that God has for humanity, is an essential to a community of faith being empowered to love a neighbourhood. What goes on here, in this sanctuary, in your small groups, in your praying, in sunday school, in paying attention to conflict…matters… our ability to go to ‘Samaria’ and engage God’s work of reconciliation – is rooted in the reconciling life of a congregation – person to person and people to God.
Yet the reconciling and loving life of a congregation is not just about congregational renewal – it is also about preparing to welcome the new friends that you have and will make in the course of our ministry of relocation. Moving into the neighbourhood, offering hospitality, volunteering, taking dancing lessons at the local studio, having a local restaurant cater our next church banquet…all those things we will do to increase our presence and profile in the Lake City in the years to come.
The challenge that many congregations who are active in their communities face is this: Through SDR and Community Meals we have met over 80 different people, but few participate in the common life of the faith community.
- People may already have a church home of their own, or are active in another religious community.
- People may fear that the church will be a place which will condemn them for past or current lifestyle choices.
- People may not feel like they have appropriate clothes to wear.
- Single people dread walking into a room of strangers alone.
- Parents worry about their kids’ behaviour.
- People have jobs that mean working on Sunday.
- People are never personally invited.
- The most difficult barrier is the perceived stigma attached to being a beneficiary of a church ministry.
Newcomers need to be welcomed as an equal, not as that “the single mother from our parenting class”. Community ministries can create an awkward dynamic between volunteers and those being served…putting up barriers rather than taking them down.
Ron Sider has a number of suggestions for churches who want to move beyond the barriers that prevent the community of faith of welcoming new people…
- Make friends as you get to know people in the community. We spoke about this in greater detail last week, but nothing takes down barriers like authentic, mutual, supportive, positive friendships. This is more about the church going into the community, than waiting for people to come to us. A lot of attention was dedicated to this by John Perkins at the conference we attended – John said time and again that the community between ethnicities and social classes will blow up if it is based on latte’ fellowship. With no real discussion of the issues that we face in society, and in our personal lives…how the lifestyle choices we make each and every day hurt other people, naming the hurts and prejudices we may experience from each other in this church and its community programs…how do we address and pay attention to difficult stuff.
- Welcome whoever walks through the door. Home Street Mennonite Church in Winnpieg has developed a ‘Third Usher’ ministry, to welcome people who walk into church on a Sunday morning, but don’t want to participate in worship. They extend welcome, a place to sit and warm up, refreshments and conversation. Entire congregations need to be committed to loving the people who come to them, but also balance that with some awareness…I recently spoke with an Aboriginal person who had visited a Winnipeg church. He was offered a coffee, which was nice, but then he had to suffer through a line-up of about 20 people who tried to strike up conversation with him. He felt like he had instantly become everybody’s project, and that is annoying.
- Networking in the community…exchanging information, ideas and resources. This is very much the focus of the Lake City Task Force. When we attend the events of other local churches, join the chamber of commerce, visit with leaders and staff of key community institutions, social service agencies, schools, police…we find potential partners and allies in community ministry, and all these other groups learn about the church and will hopefully see us as a potential partner.
- Incorporate a commitment to the community into church life. What music do we sing that reinforces God’s love for the world? What art and religious symbols in the church reflect themes of service, evangelism, restoration and transformation? Does SMC pray for the community? Do we have a place where newspapers, community events and activities are posted? Do we have books and other resources in your library on holistic ministry? It is all about enfolding a loving awareness of the community into the ‘ordinary’ aspects of the church.
- Create an alternative opportunity for worship and spiritual expression, for those who just cannot bring themselves to walk in on a Sunday morning.
- Interweave our internal care with community care. We do this in a significant way through the emergency fund, but what about the next time we raise money for any church project, for a building or a youth project, dedicate a percentage to a Lake City organization.
- Oh..and yes…pray that some SMC members would relocate into Lake City. Pete reminded me last week that Lake City is going to gentrify regardless of what SMC does, so come on down.
God calls us to be followers of Christ, and by the power of his Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flows through us to the world. May God continue to inspire a common life at SMC, which in turn is a blessing to all of creation and our neighbour next door. That with thanksgiving to God, you may make known the Lord’s gift of love to our community, they may ” see a mighty flood of justice, a river of righteous living that will never run dry.” AMEN