A few years ago I attended a seminar on church growth, and one of the critiques of clergy is that we become locked in their ivory towers called the church office, and we forget how to get out to be on the streets. You see, there is always more administrative work to be done, meetings to be held, bible studies to be planned, but to grow a church means all of this PLUS interacting with folks who are NOT currently attending said church. This applies to more than just the pastor and staff too.
We are all guilty of becoming so comfortable with our tasks and jobs to take care of the church as it currently exists that dreaming bigger and going out to invite others, listening to what’s missing, and tending to the needs of those who haven’t yet made our church their church is all too easily put off for another day.
I love that we have a beautiful building, where we can point and show people where our church is. I love that we have meeting rooms and bathrooms and a kitchen to make meals, not only for ourselves but for others too. Yet, we can sometimes become so enamored with our structure that we forget this simple truth: The Church is the People. (Remember the old childhood expression: Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people)
What if the church people weren’t only in the church, but also were serving the community through the Health Commission or through Solid Rock Carpenters or were out trying to make the city of Chicago a safer place?
What if the church was full of people who went to yoga class and the office place to share with others just how much their lives are impacted by being a part of this kind of community? What if we promoted Vacation Bible School to children, not just from our church, but who attend the summer school programs run by the Park District and might be looking for program that would help teach them who God is. What if church was always on the lookout for places we haven’t gone to share, or people who might be especially left out?
The Church is Acts teaches us about a church that is growing and literally bursting at the seams, but it also shows us that they are willing to try new things, to go new places, and to be a little out of their comfort zone in order to be faithful. When Philip was instructed by the Spirit to go to the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch, there are a few important things to point out:
1. Eunuchs were castrated men who served in the ancient Near East as keepers of the royal harem (like in the story Queen Esther) and were officers. According to Deuteronomy 23:2, eunuchs were prohibited from fully participating in Jewish assembly. He is coming from Jerusalem from worship, but his participation would have been limited because he was a eunuch.
2. He’s studying Isaiah but needs a little help making sense of it. Any of us who have spent any time in Bible Study have likely felt the same longing for help. …though I’m not sure how many of us are looking for help while travelling on the train, bus, or Lyft rideshare.
3. This man from Ethiopia is the first convert from Africa to this new movement of Jesus followers, and his skin was likely much darker than those from Israel/Palestine. Yet, when he asked questions, he understood the good news of Jesus, and wanted to be baptized. Though, as much as he wanted that sign of inclusion in the community of God, he still opened the door for Philip to refuse him – “What is to prevent ME from being baptized?”
Religious barriers, Ethnic barriers, Social barriers – were all overcome as Philip took ministry to go, and shared the good news of Jesus with this stranger. Philip was faithful here on the wilderness road to Gaza, and then he went to Caesarea. This Church was on the move, going from town to town. Saul became Paul, and he traveled all over the place, teaching, sharing, loving, healing, encouraging, and commissioning more folks into ministry.
Even the most unlikely characters in the strange meeting places became prime targets for sharing the story of what Jesus had done. And people were signing up each and every day. People who previously might have been discounted as out of bounds, or beyond God’s reach.
I have a couple of stories for you today that I ran across this week.
STORY ONE: You have all heard of Al Capone, famous for the mob, the prostitutes, the bootlegged booze. Capone had a lawyer named Easy Eddie, who was quite good at keeping Capone out of jail, and he was handily rewarded, including an estate so large it filled an entire Chicago City block. Eddie, however, had a soft spot, and that was for his son. While his boy had everything money could buy, Eddie wanted to help make sure he knew the importance of being good and right. So concerned with what he was teaching his son, he decided to rectify his wrongs and go to the authorities to tell the truth about Al Capone. So, he testified, and within the year, he was murdered.
STORY TWO: World War II produced many heroes. One such man was Lieutenant Commander Butch O’Hare. He was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific. One day his entire squadron was sent on a mission. After he was airborne, he looked at his fuel gauge and realized that someone had forgotten to top off his fuel tank. He would not have enough fuel to complete his mission and get back to his ship. His flight leader told him to return to the carrier. Reluctantly, he dropped out of formation and headed back to the fleet. As he was returning to the mother ship he saw something that turned his blood cold. A squadron of Japanese aircraft were speeding their way toward the American fleet.
The American fighters were gone, and the fleet was all but defenseless. He couldn’t reach his squadron and bring them back in time to save the fleet. Nor could he warn the fleet of the approaching danger. There was only one thing to do. He must somehow divert them from the fleet. Laying aside all thoughts of personal safety, he dove into the formation of Japanese planes. Wing-mounted 50 caliber’s blazed as he charged in, attacking one surprised enemy plane and then another.
Butch wove in and out of the now broken formation and fired at as many planes as possible until all his ammunition was finally spent. Undaunted, he continued the assault. He dove at the planes, trying to clip a wing or tail in hopes of damaging as many enemy planes as possible and rendering them unfit to fly.
Finally, the exasperated Japanese squadron took off in another direction. Deeply relieved, Butch O’Hare and his tattered fighter limped back to the carrier. Upon arrival he reported in and related the event surrounding his return. The film from the gun-camera mounted on his plane told the tale. It showed the extent of Butch’s daring attempt to protect his fleet. He had in fact destroyed five enemy aircraft.
This took place on February 20, 1942, and for that action Butch became the Navy’s first Ace of W.W.II, and the first Naval Aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. A year later Butch was killed in aerial combat at the age of 29. His home town would not allow the memory of this WW II hero to fade, and today, O’Hare Airport in Chicago is named in tribute to the courage of this great man. Butch’s memorial displaying his statue and his Medal of Honor is located between Terminals 1 and 2.
SO WHAT DO THESE TWO STORIES HAVE TO DO WITH EACH OTHER?
Butch O’Hare was Easy Eddie’s son!
Sometimes the heroes in our lives, the heroes in our world, are those persons who might have been dismissed or discounted because of who they are or where they’ve been. Yet, God’s Spirit reminds us that nothing is impossible with God, and in fact God is always accomplishing the impossible through unlikely heroes.
You might say, well, Pastor that was a nice story, but it’s not about the church or ministry to go. That’s about a valiant soldier, and I don’t hear a story of faith. And that’s exactly the point. The church grows when we realize that the demarcation line between church life and real life fades. When we live our faith in such a way that others notice something’s different, and when we understand that being the church is about more than what we do on Sunday mornings.
We have to take ministry to go. Don’t be afraid to talk about church as it exists here…and bring folks along! Invite others and tell them you’ll sit with them! Let them know everyone wears name tags so they won’t have to be nervous about forgetting a name! Some of you are hearing: uh oh, she’s talking about evangelism. And maybe, but also maybe more importantly, I’m talking about life-sharing, story-sharing…God’s been up to some pretty incredible things – and you and I are witnesses of these things – sound like Acts? I think so.
On this Memorial Day Sunday, and Memorial Day weekend, we have parades to watch, candy to collect, BBQ to eat, but we also take time to remember those who have given their lives to protect this country and the principles of freedom and justice, making time to consider how we don’t let their sacrifices be in vain. We pray for peace. We pray for an end to the atrocities of war.
We pray for the wars that rage on our streets, as Memorial Day in Chicago is also a signal to the beginning of summer, when the violence amps up and communities abandoned by society at large search for purpose, belonging, love, and loyalty in the families of gangs and violence. They need a church willing to go.
The Church HAS to be on the go. There are too many people who are locked into their own chariots of ignorance, doubt, exclusion, disaffection, pain, grief, and so much more…and they are longing for someone to pull alongside.
May we be a people, willing to pull alongside, leaving our ivory towers and meeting people where they are. May we meet them and be willing to share the story that has shaped us…the story of God’s expansive, healing, hopeful love… until the Kingdom comes. Amen.