“Partners for Christian Transformation” by Pat Conover

April 12, 201515 Altar Easter

The Second Sunday of Easter

Reference: Acts 4:21-37

Seekers is not alone. We often image ourselves as alone, but we are not alone. We are not part of a denomination but we are part of a Christian movement with roots in the 1960s and 1970s, the Christian flank of the alternate culture that was suspicious of institutional authority in general and institutionalized Christianity in particular.

The negative sources of Christian momentum was dissatisfaction with the spiritual hollowing out of mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, marked by defending supernaturalism against science, white privilege that, at best, sat on the sidelines of the civil rights movements, and male privilege that denied authority to women in the institutional churches of all flavors. Good books were written and some hardy souls tried to live by them. Most of the clergy and laity that protested within the denominations were pushed to the sidelines or pushed out all together. In Seekers we count Sonya Dyer and Fred Taylor among those hardy souls, their way eased by the contributions of the Cosbys and Betty O’Connor. I came into Seekers in 1986 when the end of the remnants of clergy status of Fred Taylor was being resolved, when Seekers was considered not sufficiently deferential to the clergy status of Gordon Cosby, when Betty O’Connor’s books were treated as guidance even though she was a woman without clergy status.

We have contributed to the movement in various ways but my sense is that we have not thought of ourselves as responsible partners in the movement. We are not responsible to any ecclesiastical authority but we are responsible to God for our own community and for contributing to the wider church in the wider world. God has given us our lives, our world, each other. God has given us guidance for our lives, guidance for building community and for our ministries in Seekers and in the wider world, guidance for caring for the Earth and for the life forms that have emerged on Earth and are with us today. We have traditions, scripture, stories of Jesus, church history to guide us. We have the Spirit of God to inspire us and to help us understand what matters, what matters most, in our personal and shared lives. God has given all we need to become active partners in emerging Twenty-first Century Christianity.

We have things to share and things to learn a lot from others who are living, worshiping, and offering ministries in different settings. As individual Seekers we are spread out into a lot of situations where we find partners for our personal ministries. Collectively, we give a lot of money to other groups that we recognize as following the inspiration of the Spirit of God to do their parts in their settings. But who do we recognize as partners?

We have a three year commitment to contribute financially to PAVA, Othandweni, and Bokamoso, but we don’t  look to them for guidance with regard to becoming a better Christian Community. We have a sort-of partnership with Covenant Christian Community and have held joint worship services with them and shared a School of Christian Living Class with them, but we have no responsibility to Covenant. We have a limited partnership with Rolling Ridge that I call friendship plus a time-share access to retreat facilities. Through Marjory and some other Seekers we had a sort-of partnership with Faith at Work and learned from that experience. We had had sort-of partnerships in the past with some Church of the Savior churches and ministries but were rebuffed when we tried to build on that basis for more cooperation.

Think for a moment about the groups or organizations you personally relate to and ask yourself, could they be partners with Seekers, could they be more than just your friends, could they be more than just friends of Seekers?

What marks of the Spirit do you refer to when you consider such a question?

Some of you know that I am hopeful that Seekers might grow into a sense of partnership  with Dayspring Church, partnership with their Silent Retreat ministry and with their Wellspring Ministry. I wrote this sermon with Dayspring in mind. I invite you to listen with Dayspring in mind, or keep in mind any group, organization, church, or community you think has the marks of the Spirit that might make them constructive partners with Seekers. By partnership, I mean a wide sense of caring and responsibility in Seekers for giving and receiving what will help them and us to thrive. I image partnership as pilgrim bands following our own path in a shared way: glad when we come together at the end of a day’s journey, sharing landmarks and lessons learned, sharing spiritual and practical resources that give us heart when our paths are through deep dark valleys, placing a cairn or rocks to mark a good stretch of path.

The lectionary scripture in Acts offers a mark of the Divine Presence that was a mark of partnership of the early diaspora Christian churches.

The Acts story has several theological and historical problems that I would he happy to discuss during coffee hour. I want to zoom in on the good news in this passage.

The story praises the early Jewish Christian synagogue in Jerusalem, a synagogue that had been wiped out by the Roman destruction and genocide of Jerusalem, perhaps ten years before the writing of Acts, still a fresh and traumatizing memory for the author. Not only the Second Temple was destroyed. Dozens of Jewish synagogues were destroyed, including the synagogue I sometimes call the First Church of Jerusalem. Revolution was still in the air and more Roman repression was going to come in response against the Jewish terrorists, called Zealots, of the Second Century. Remarkably, Rome continued to grant religious freedom to conforming Jews. 

The story in the Fourth Chapter of Acts is placed soon after the regathering of the disciples in Jerusalem, not in Galilee as Mark and Matthew tell the story. Mark ends the story of Peter as refusing to claim a relationship with Jesus and with no mention of forgiveness. Mark tells a story of Judas as a disciple traitor, and generally pictures the disciples as fools who never understood Jesus while he was alive.

In the Third and Fourth Chapters of Acts we get the story of courageous Peter empowered by the Holy Spirit challenging the Temple authorities soon after the crucifixion of Jesus. Peter heals a cripple at a gate of the Temple, draws a huge crowd, offers a charismatic sermon in which 5,000 become believers in Jesus as Messiah. The Temple authorities don’t like it, arrest Peter but are afraid of the crowd. The authorities let Peter off with a warning which he disregards. Apart from the details, think for a moment about the courage it took to create a Jewish synagogue in Jerusalem that proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, a story prominent in Paul’s writing as well. Is Seekers courageous? Is courage a mark of possible partners?

Peter and John return to their friends. Peter gives his friends a great speech on being united in heart and soul. Then we get the first of several stories of the early churches gathering their money into a common pot, of selling their land for money to put into the common pot. Then we get stories of distributing the pot to widows. We also have stories of Paul gathering an offering from the diaspora churches to support those in need in the Jerusalem Christian synagogue. The First Church of Jerusalem had caring partners. So did the First Church of Antioch where people were first named as Christians.

Their abandonment of investing for spending makes sense in light of the shared but wrong belief that Judgment Day was coming soon. The twelve disciples would return and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus would judge the Gentile believers. And yes, the likely reason that twelve disciples were are named in the gospels, and that most of them disappear after being named, is the theological need to have them as judges on Judgment Day. In addition, this story can be understood as the authors effort to inspire giving within, and sharing between the early diaspora congregations on the way to becoming primarily Gentile congregations.

I understand the kerygma, the saving truth in this story, to be the theme that we are all in this together. This is an inspirational theme and there are some marks of its reality in Seekers. The challenge of the inspiration is the question, Are you all in in Seekers or do you have reservations and escape hatches that still need to be addressed? The Acts story adds the question, Are you all in when it comes to meeting the financial  needs of Seekers who have very low incomes?

When I was coming into Seekers twenty-nine years ago I was inspired by the sharing of some Seekers who stepped forward to meet the big housing need of Abigail and Gary so that they could follow their call to be parents to developmentally limited children born to parents who were crack cocaine addicts. Twenty-nine years later we still have the marks of Seekers stepping forward through the Seekers budget, and independent of the Seekers budget, to meet the needs of low-income members. Better yet, Seekers does a pretty good, if imperfect, job of making it clear that low income members are just as important to us as members with higher incomes.

My sense is that we take the spiritual challenge of the lectionary scripture seriously with regard to Seekers Community and many of us are concerned about how we might be more practically and spiritually effective in the financial aspect our stewardship practices. This morning I offer the challenge of possibly becoming mutually responsible, and not merely friendly, with possible partner churches and religious communities.

Money is just one aspect of being all in it together. Indeed, the money part becomes much easier once we following the pleading of Peter, Paul, and Luke to become united in heart and soul.

What were the big spiritual challenges for Luke’s churches in the Christian diaspora to become all in it together? Two aspects of context can help us understand.

First of all, the Christian diaspora followed the Jewish diaspora and that indicates that Jews were important parts of the Christian communities in Gentile lands. Diaspora Jews commonly read the Pentateuch in its Greek translation called the Septuagint, a translation made at least two hundred years before Jesus. The Septuagint, rather than the Hebrew text, is quoted in portions of the Christian Testament and further points to the Hellenization of many diaspora Christian Jews. Paul was a Roman citizen and quite possibly read the Pentateuch as the Septuagint.

The second thing to recognize is that in the time of Jesus there were meaningful numbers of Gentile converts who worshiped in Jewish synagogues even though a lot of the male believers were not willing to submit to circumcision as a mark of becoming Jews, a cross-cultural issue up close and personal. We can recognize that there were serious conflicts between Jews and Gentiles in the late First Century without giving into enemy pictures of Jews, Gentiles, and the Roman Empire.

With these two points of context in mind, it is reasonable to image Luke’s early Christian synagogues as having a culture core of Jews who were adapting to Gentile culture and language and Gentiles who were adapting to the guidance of Jewish religion. Such syncretism did not sit well with the First Church of Jerusalem and later in Acts we get the first ecumenical conference between the First Church of Jerusalem and the First Church of Antioch. The First Church of Jerusalem is presented by the author of Luke and Acts as sending Jewish guidance regarding food and eating to the First Church of Antioch while remaining silent on circumcision.

Paul, Luke, and the other Christian Testament authors offer inspiration and guidance for Hellenized Jews, Gentile Believers, and other converts aimed at sharing one heart and soul, even while arguing about the contents of being of one mind. The gospels and Acts repeatedly point to dramatic marks of the Divine Presence as a source of spiritual unity including spiritual healing, speaking in tongues, and charismatic preaching. The mark of loving one another with financial sharing was an additional mark of being all in this together.

The theme of being all in it together lives in a very different context today than in the early churches of Paul and Luke. The poorest among us in Seekers have food and shelter beyond the imagination of First Century Jews and Gentiles. The poorest among us would be fools to trade their access to health care for the health care available to the Caesars. But the spiritual guidance of becoming all in it together, of taking care of each other in Christian community, is still a hard challenge.

I have a personal story to tell and I hope it will help you think about your challenges of being all in with Seekers, of risking putting your full weight down in Seekers, of taking personal responsibility for your share in providing caring, mutuality, ministries, and resources so that all in the community can thrive as well as survive. I also hope it will help you consider the possibilities of Seekers becoming partners with other groups.

In 1971 when I was thirty-one years old I moved from Tallahassee to Greensboro, North Carolina with my wife Joyce and our two children, Daniel and Dawn. I had my newly minted Ph. D. and an Assistant professorship to teach sociological theory at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. One of my reasons for choosing UNC-G was the opportunity to reunite with Bill Love, a childhood friend. Earlier our two families, and a third family, came very close to buying a rundown resort hotel and a couple of hundred acres of land in central Kentucky. I remember us walking that land and loving it. It had a cave with Native American art and two small unobtrusive oil wells. Out hope was to start a Christian Community and retreat center. We passed when we tried to justify a business plan to each other and recognized its folly.

As a graduate student and part-time campus minister in Florida State University I had led the formation of a Christian Coffee House ministry and community, modeled on Potter’s House. It became a housing cooperative as well, leasing and rehabilitating a big old house. A half dozen community members helped us make the transition to Greensboro and three ended up joining me to create Shalom Community. We were eight adults and eight children who bought 46 acres of land just north of Greensboro in Browns Summit. We paid cash and got three run down dwellings, a half dozen outbuildings, and a great amount of trash along the dirt road access to our property. The land was affordable, in part, because it that had become an informal trash dump. The land had an acre lake fed by a stream rising from several spring on our land.

In three years we cleared the trash, cleared the springs and stream, rehabbed the dwellings and several of the outbuildings and moved to the land. We built the first phase of a new common dwelling and began to offer retreat and conferences that became a catalyst for creating the first two of what would now be called public charter schools in Greensboro. We had a road and a well and an architectural design for a lovely small retreat center overlooking the lake.

We were an all in community in multiple ways including a financial structure that fully met the standards of the Fourth Chapter of Acts. We all paid all we could to buy the land, rehab the dwellings, and build the Pala dwelling. One person got a small inheritance and it all went into buying a medium sized Kubota tractor which was much used and helped us create an acre plus food garden. We took care of each other’s children, and everyone including the children helped with cleaning up the trash, a job some of us felt would go on forever. I put in a lot of labor and led the rehabilitation of the dwellings, as well as the ecologically oriented design and construction of Pala. My family moved into a small dilapidated wooden house. The floor of the dining room/living room had fallen in and there were other similar failings. I have tales to tell of working in a twelve inch crawl space and having my boot get stuck between the dirt and a floor support.

Our worship times were informal and powerful. A spiritual healing as dramatic as any mentioned in the Christian Testament occurred, as well as other more modest healings. People found and claimed their callings and we mutually financially supported two graduate degrees and one of our members who spent a couple of years as a missionary in Africa. Our life together was also shaped by a steady stream of visitors and sojourners, particularly a sojourner from the Findhorn Community in Northern Scotland.

We put our eight vehicles in a motor pool and chose the most appropriate vehicle for any transportation need. We ate dinner together every night prepared and cleaned up by rotating pairs of one adult and one child. We ate well in the attic of a small house, a dining room in which I couldn’t stand up straight.

Life in Shalom Community ended for me when Joyce and I divorced. The divorce happened to follow losing my job at UNC-G for reasons I am proud of. Because I had made a lifetime commitment to Shalom Community, I had made no effort to seek an academic job elsewhere. At the same time my mother collapsed with a stroke back in Tallahassee. I managed to move mother to a nursing home, distribute all her furniture, sort out her confused finances, sell her house, and protect her treasures in one weekend.

I was so poor that at one point the only way I could get some cash to buy food was to sell blood, and that didn’t work well. I hadn’t counted on how much poverty was going to limit my opportunities to stay close to my two children. However, when I prayed with regard to my financial need, I started with thanksgiving that I had been able to help get Shalom Community underway, thankful that Shalom Community was a good situation for Joyce, Daniel, and Dawn, and prayed they would do well without me. The hard spiritual part was that I broke my lifetime commitment by moving out. The remaining members of Shalom Community had given up career opportunities and made the same depth of commitment I had made to come and build the Shalom vision with me. They were angry, understandably so.

The full intensity of being all in it together looks like Shalom Community to me. I left Shalom Community with my clothes. Our family owned two cars and both stayed in Shalom Community because they were key elements of shared motor pool. I wasted no energy on resentment or regret and treated my new financial challenges as just that, challenges I needed to meet and somehow met.

When I came into Seekers it soon became clear to me that no one wanted to hear stories about Shalom Community. It wasn’t the Church of the Savior story and I wasn’t adequately deferential in my approach to Seekers. For the record, let me be clear that I understand that Seekers is not a residential Christian community like Shalom and that I have no interest in prompting Seekers to move in that direction.

After a recent sermon I was asked what I would keep from Christian tradition. My answer was beautifully imaged last Sunday. Easter Sunday has long been a low point for me in the Christian calender. However, the community quality of this year’s Easter Breakfast, the words of our liturgy focusing on emerging love, the peace and justice prayer by Keith, the Children’s Word by Dave, the terrific sermon by Deborah, the feeling I had when Katie shared a piece of her small bit of bread with me when I came late to the Communion Circle, made it an almost perfect Easter for me. I felt my love for everyone standing in the circle. We are keeping what matters about Easter and letting go of atonement theology and Christian triumphalism.

The Spirit guidance for our future will be enriched when we grow in our understanding and appreciation that we are not an isolated community, that we have things to learn from other communities, responsibilities to share our good spiritual gifts with other Christian communities. We don’t have any denominational ties to hold us back from embracing fellowship wherever we find it. Seekers is stronger organizationally and financially than most of the communities I know about who are following similar paths. Humility has to be one landmark of any path to partnership. One prompt to such humility is recognizing and remembering that Seekers hasn’t fully lived up to its inspirational guidelines and images. We will be bereft of possible partnerships if we judge other Christian communities by standards we fail to meet ourselves.

Some progressive and emergent Christian communities are focused on monastic-like inner journeys. Some are focused on service or justice ministries. Some are focused on discovering and making real what church can become when stripped of the burdens of clergy and denominational authority. Some are on the growing edges of the Pentecostal tradition. Some are on the growing edges of what Women’s Religious bring to Roman Catholicism. Some are exploring solidarity with non-Christian communities. Some are young people trying to figure what to do with their remnants of faith measured against the bad odor of ugly behavior by some Christians and by the spiritual emptiness of their parent’s churches.

I’m not bringing a program proposal to you. I don’t have much organizing strength left in me. I am hoping some of you will join those of us who are interested in exploring the possibilities of collaboration and cooperation with Dayspring Community. I hope that other Seekers will start exploring possible partnerships with other Christian communities and groups. I believe the guidance of Jesus and our shared experiences of the Divine Presence can take us to a  better future than we already know, can help us do our part in regrounding Christianity for a future far better than its history.

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