Observe & Respond

Introduction by Kim Naten, GPNW Mission Center President, Community of Christ

This past week, I was blessed to be able to attend both the Samish Island and the Lewis River Intergenerational Retreats.  (I regret that I wasn’t able to attend the Camp Remote retreat due to a previous commitment, but I know it was a wonderful experience for those gathered there!)   The joy I witnessed from those participating simply to be together again, in person, was evident.  Certainly it didn’t feel exactly  like a typical Reunion, and I know there were some who came with some hesitancy, but it was clear that being in community with one another after 2 years apart was a blessing to all.  I’m grateful to all those throughout the Mission Center who gave so generously of their time and talents to provide a meaningful experience for those in attendance.

One of the highlights of these camps, for me, occurred this past Monday evening (Aug. 2nd) at Lewis River.  A lovely evening worship service was planned (thank you Brenda Sargent!) and Daniel Rose, pastor of our Portland Congregation, brought the message.  By the end of his sermon, my only thought was that this message needed to be shared beyond the geographical space and community of Lewis River Campground.  I am deeply appreciative of the depth of spiritual giftedness throughout this mission center, and I believe part of my responsibility as your mission center president is to ensure that everyone in our community has an opportunity to hear (or in this case, read) proclamations of God’s Word that enlighten and bless us all.

Daniel’s message speaks to all of us of hope, challenge and justice. . . . . of who we, as human beings, as Christians, as members and friends of Community of Christ, are called to be in this world.  We are called to Observe and Respond.  I am heeding that call by sharing Daniel’s words with you here. 

As a postscript, I must share that the day after Daniel shared this message, a dear Sister (Dar) approached me with a desire to “Respond” to an observation she’d made.  She asked me to meet her in the dining hall to share her idea.  When I entered the building, I saw a large pot of water placed on a few towels, with a chair in front of it.  Dar motioned me to sit, and proceeded to bathe and massage my swollen, aching and itching, mosquito-bitten feet in the cool Epsom-salted water.   She held my feet and prayed for comfort and relief for me, then gently dried my legs and feet and massaged a healing salve into them.   My sister in Christ observed my discomfort, and responded as a servant minister.  I can recall few times in my life where I’ve been so humbled, so tenderly cared for, as a spontaneous gesture of love and kindness such as this.  Thank you, my sister, for this blessing.   And thank you, Daniel, for sharing your message with all of us. 

Sermon by Daniel Rose, Pastor of Portland Community of Christ, presented August 2, 2021

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of
bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs
were being done by the apostles. AII who believed were together and had all things in
common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all,
as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they
broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God
and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their
number those who were being saved. – Acts 2: 42-47

I am obsessed with this scripture; not just for its picturesque depiction of the early Church; learning from one another, sharing their wealth, and most importantly “Eating food together”, but also because of what is implied in this scripture under the surface. There is so much sociological, theological, and demographic disruption implied by this text, and it’s all so very easy to miss. While I’m sure the ambition of all pastors is to have a non-stop, round the clock potluck, that somehow adds to our membership daily, there are lessons here beyond just pooling our wealth and green bean casserole. Today I want to suggest that, much like the early church described in today’s scripture, we have been invited to create something new. To take the first steps into understanding what being a community really means. To form a partnership with the divine that asks us to consider our surroundings, our culture, our short falls and failures as a people, and act. To act. To do something differently.

As with any scripture it’s imperative that we understand where this scripture fits into the greater historical context. We must ask ourselves: “Who were these people from today’s scripture? Why is it important for us to know who they were, and what is the
significance of their actions described in the text?” But before I jump too far into this, I want to acknowledge that in the past there have been some theological thinkers that have used this time period in Christian history as a means of justifying anti-Semitic thought and actions. To take the tensions that arose out of this time period seriously, I think it’s important to preface this just a little bit. Don’t use scripture as a means to attack people. Period. Just don’t. Just wanted to get that out of the way.

To begin, let’s start with what exactly happened as the early church began to form. I think there is this easy misconception about how the early church came to be. There are some who might assume that after the resurrection of Jesus that the church just sort of “Started” and immediately distinguished itself from it’s Jewish heritage and customs, and looked something similar to what our churches do today. But the reality is much more complicated than that. It took time, decades even for the church to really distinguish itself as a separate religion. The folks described in today’s text were likely still very attached to their Jewish faith, as described in verse 46, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.” You wouldn’t go to the one and only Jewish temple without feeling like it bore some spiritual significance.

In fact, at the time of writing, participation in temple services was still a big part of practicing the Judaic faith. Over time however, there was just this gradual expansion of folks who on top of still following the law and the Torah, were now also adding a belief in Jesus into their spirituality. For the folks of the early church there was still a sizable amount of connective tissue between Judaism, and this new thing called “The way”, which would later be called Christianity.

This reality is absolutely essential to understanding the perspectives of the people described in today’s scripture. They were more than just freshly converted Christians; such language for that didn’t really even exist yet, they were more like Hebrews who still felt the cultural ties to their heritage and their relationship with the divine, but in addition to all of that felt the subtle pull of something new. Over time, the distinction between the two faiths would grow wider and wider until two of the world’s major religions would form. But I want you to imagine the complexities of such a transition between the two faiths. Take a moment and really consider how awkward this time period would have been. Imagine the friction and agitation between the Folks now claiming Jesus as messiah against the foundational structures of their culture and the very ancient religion that surrounded them. For the early church in Jerusalem, such a tectonic amount of change would have been intimidating for the early church, if not dangerous.

This charming scripture found in Acts chapter 2 describes an early church that is Pristine! They were loving, embracing new thoughts, challenging the conceptions of their culture, literally giving away their wealth to share with the less fortunate, and again
eating good food, so very important was the food. But if we are not careful, we will miss the forest for the tree’s here: underneath all this happy, lovely, enviable Christian community, there is RISK in what they are doing. The behavior accounted for here is RISKY. And yet they did it anyway. Truly, if the early church can be described as anything, it should be courageous.

So we must ask ourselves, so what? What does this scripture have to say to us in 2021? I would argue what makes this scripture so compelling is not so much the type of community the early church made, but that they felt compelled to make one at all. It is an indication that a core principle of Christianity, literally from it’s very inception, is about observation and response. Observation of the surrounding world, feeling where the spirit is pulling, and responding to that pull. That is the purest form of discipleship. To be
followers of the way, we are called to watch things; to see where there are inconsistencies between the way things are, and the way they could be. And to do something about that, even if it means hurdling over the steep, steep cultural norms that tell you to maintain the status quo. This is what makes the scripture so compelling, the type of community they built is nice and all, but it’s not as important as this: they were willing to take the uphill climb to rethink the way they thought about the world.

The significance of this scripture goes beyond the warm fuzzies of good food and shared wealth. This scripture tells us that since the very beginning, Christianity distinguished itself as a countercultural movement. To be frank, I want to purpose that the so-called blessings of Community come about when we are willing to shed the presuppositions of our culture, and to bravely ask ourselves, despite any and all societal pressures, where is God calling us? What around us is antithetical to God’s will for the poor, displaced, and the marginalized? This is what the population of Christians should be constantly asking themselves.

Here’s the cool thing y’all; as a denomination, we’ve been trying to do this for decades. This Observation and response thing, this practice of measuring how society treats poor people is kind of a legacy of ours. Community of Christ is not perfect, but we have a heritage of advocating for equality and justice, even as far back as our third President Frederick Maddison Smith, Joseph Smith’s Grandson. I want to thank Brenda Sargent for steering this resource to me a couple weeks back because it is breathtakingly relevant to our time. The Church’s affiliated podcast, “Project Zion” recently had an interview with Tony and Charmaine Chvala-Smith, two of our church’s theologians. In the episode they were addressing some of the sermons given by Freddy M. Smith and how they were aligned with something called the Social gospel movement of the 1920’s.

From Tony: “So social gospel theology (from) 1870 to 1920, 30, it’s a movement in progressive Protestantism, mostly in the United States, though there…were precursors in Europe, essentially..(this movement hoped)… to take some of the main themes of the Christian tradition, especially related to love and justice, and start to applying them to modern social problems created by industrialization.” End quote.

For example, some of the problems industrialization created were child labor, excessive poverty, rampant illness, unnecessary houselessness…does any of this sound weirdly familiar? We can all agree child labor was a bad side effect of the capitalism of the 1920’s yeah? Tony continues by suggesting that most protestant and catholic churches in the united states at the time were resistant to the social gospel movement, favoring theology that fixated on the afterlife and heaven. However, there were many
protestant movements that embraced the theological machinations of the social gospel, including our very own Freddy M Smith. Here is a quote from one of his sermons on the topic. Mind you, he wrote this in 1924.

“It is not enough for the church in its efforts to promote Christianity, to call on individuals to come to Christ. But the call must be to come with the tools of service in hand, ready to devote time and energy and talents to the common welfare… That there is something wrong with our present system in the matter of wealth distribution as evidenced by the fact that less than 5% of the population in our country own more than 95% of the wealth. This means that to a high degree, the surplus is individualized. In other words, there’s all this wealth that’s been created jointly, but only a few people have it. And they individualize it. They’ve made it their wealth, when in fact, it needed to be the society’s wealth.”

Freddy’s sermon here sheds light into a kind of observation and response style of Christianity that I want to suggest is our birthright as a denomination. Friends we are living through tumultuous times, I don’t need to be specific here because I know all of you sense it. We are fatigued, worn out, lonely, and cynical. I do not blame anyone for feeling on edge considering the year we have had. But it is precisely moment’s like these where we are given unique opportunities to stop. Observe. And finally respond. Freddy suggested that our call as a faith movement is beyond the spiritual well being of the people, but in fact extends into their earthly welfare as well. That ever baptism should come with a members manual and the “tools of service” needed to build the kind of world that reflects God’s love.

We must be unafraid to question the ethics of the world around us. What do you sense the world is getting wrong? Where do you see God’s vision for the world being delayed by our inaction? When Billionaires find themselves more interested in playing
peekaboo with each other in space, than ensuring safe work conditions for their employees, the church should be observing and responding. When there are global systems in place that require some countries to have little to nothing so that others may flourish in abundance, the church should be observing and responding. When access to quality education is denied through budget cuts and intentionally underpaying educators, the church should be observing and responding. When the world is literally engulfed in flames as a result of unchecked ecological consumption, the church should be observing and responding. When the majority of our people have been economically disadvantaged by a sickness of greed from a very small number of people at the very top, we as followers of Christ, as followers of the way ought to start responding.

Our scripture today is about a courageous group of disciples who dared to try something new. We should be emulating that. And I’m not saying we should just form a commune in some place and live just like the early church. No, I don’t want us to be just like the early church. Copying exactly what they did to establish their community is a bad idea. Instead I would rather follow their example of courageously listening to where god was leading. We are called to observe where there is injustice, ignorance, division
and hate, and do more than passively pray for resolution. No, we are called by God to do more than wait for God’s response. Instead, we are to follow in the footsteps of our Christian ancestors and do. Something. New. To break with the convention’s of our
culture’s rabid individualism and embrace the truth that when one suffers, we all suffer. To embrace the truth that Christianity is at it’s best when it is problem solving, not exclusively offering fast passes to heaven. The blessings of Community are blessings that come about not from a modernized repeat of the early church, but are brought into fruition when we finally admit to ourselves, and to each other, that so much in our world that isn’t working. That for so many there is inequality and pain. And it’s about time to
start asking why.