Building a Church: Phase 1

April 11, 2021           Psalm 133, Acts 4:32-5:11

What do you need to build a church?  Many things, for sure.  This morning I am going to ask for some input from you all.  Think about just one thing that is needed for building a church.   If you are online with us this morning, please take a moment to put that one thing in the chat.  If you here in person, shout it out so we can hear.  (Repeat and read some of the answers so all can hear.)

Building a church takes people.  It takes faith.  It takes commitment and time and energy.  The earliest groupings of Jesus followers we read about in the book of Acts illustrate phase one in church building.  It is not constructing a building.  It is not hiring a preacher.  It is not even deciding on what kind of music defines your worship style.  It is creating a community, a deep commitment to one another.  If you visited a congregation and did not sense that the people in the pews cared a lot about each other, would you want to come back?  If they don’t care for each other, how do they exhibit Christ to the world and how will they care for you?

The group of believers in Jerusalem (you notice that they are not called a church yet by Luke) are of one heart and soul.  They are devoted to one another and pay close attention to one another’s needs.  So much so that they agree to share all their possessions in common.  Those tools are for use by anyone in the group.  Those bowls belong to us all.  The wheat?  Anyone can use it to bake bread.  It is like they make a conscious decision not to use the terms “mine”, “not mine” or “alien” in their conversations with or about the other believers.  When you agree to share your possessions with the group, you are not only giving up your possessions.  You are turning over the control of your things, the ability to decide how your possessions are used, whether or not they are sold, or to whom they should be given.  You are also giving up whatever status or privilege you once had, and you lose your sense of security that was previously tied to owning something.  The believers agreed to turn their assets over to the apostles who would manage the funds for the good of the entire group.  That involves a deep level of trust.  The believers sold property and brought the proceeds to the apostles’ feet to be shared with the entire group. No one was left in need.  All participated, all belonged.  Barnabas is mentioned specifically as one of those who put his faith into practice by turning over his assets to the community.  He is sharply contrasted with Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife who also sold their property and only brought a portion of the profits to lay at the apostles’ feet.  Not only that, but each one of them lied about it, trying to make it look like they were supporting the community to the same extent that others were, but really withholding a portion of the proceeds.  Peter calls Ananias out on it, telling him that he has not lied to the group members, but he has lied to God.  Both Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead because of their selfishness and deceit.  The harsh lesson for the rest of the group is clear:  that is no way to be a part of a group of believers.  That is no way to build a church.

Sharing their assets in common perhaps rose out of the powerful testimony given by the apostles to the story of the risen Christ, a testimony that ended up showering the believers with great grace.  I have been wondering what great grace might have looked like.  Maybe it looks like a willingness to share my property.  Maybe it looks like my less well-off neighbor no longer must worry about how to feed his family.  Maybe it looks like the words of the psalm we read this morning: “Look at how good and pleasing it is when kindred live together as one … it is like the dew on Mount Hermon…because it is there that the Lord has commanded the blessing:  everlasting life.”  From the top of Mt. Hermon you can look down on the Golan Heights, Syria and Lebanon.  Today it is the only ski resort in Israel.  Apparently, the dew on Mt. Hermon was more than dew in the winter.  It was snow—snow that left behind life giving water in a mostly desert land.  Snow that melted to fill streams which watered fields and gardens and orchards down in the valleys.  Perhaps living together in harmony, living together because we are of one heart and soul describes us as both enriched and enriching, nourished and nourishing, full of life and beauty in winter and in summer.

Creating first a community of believers is phase one in building a church.  It is forming a group which recognizes the great graces of God’s love and power in their midst, of seeing that all are cared for and loved, of living a joy-filled life together. Without that cohesiveness, it would be difficult to move into any other phase of church building. 

Ninety-two years ago, our ancestors in the faith built this church building.  Since the group of believers began worshipping at Hunting Ridge in the fall of 1930, the church building had to be under construction when the stock market crashed in late October 1929.  Undeterred, the group of believers carried on.  Based on the funds they had available, they intended for this structure to be the chapel, hoping someday to add a big sanctuary like the one they had sold.  If they had, we would not have the beautiful green space we have now.  They moved west, beyond the city limits, at the time and changed their name since they had previously identified themselves geographically by Lafayette Square, where that church building still stands.  With our new name, we are still identified geographically by the neighborhood behind us.

The story behind why this group of believers wanted to relocate is the oft-repeated story of Baltimore and other urban areas in early 20th century United States.  It is the story of white flight from neighborhoods which rapidly changed from all white to almost all Black.  This is the kind of story that we will be digging into with the help of a researcher hired by our In the Loop Ministry group.  We are a group of 12 Presbyterian churches, mostly in the city of Baltimore.  We work together on various projects and programs to strengthen our faith and to deepen our relationship with the communities in which we find ourselves.  Recently our biggest effort has been to provide a monthly thought provoking and informative series called B’more Human.  Kudos to Annette Snyder, who, along with Kenny Walker from Knox Presbyterian, serves as co-convenor of our ministry group.  Coming up next Monday evening will be the next installment, a panel of experts talking about liberation theology—pulled together and moderated by our own James Parks.  Be sure to register through the Presbytery website. 

In the Loop leaders have recognized that the American church as a whole–and also our 12 churches in particular– have histories that are intertwined with racism, inequity of pastor salaries or physical space or sizes of endowments, and views of the surrounding neighborhood with ignorance, indifference or flat out avoidance.  Damella Dotan, the researcher who has been hired, will be meeting this week with Suzanne Jewell and Jill Harrison, our liaisons for this project, to begin digging into our racial history.  In exploring our history, we may be motivated to act in some new way—maybe by offering reparations of some sort, seeking reconciliation, and/or experiencing personal and institutional reflection and change.

I wonder what Ms. Dotan will find out about Hunting Ridge?  She will explore old session minutes, newsletters, and budgets.  She may interview some of our long-time members like Ernestine Alston.  Ernestine Alston lived with her 5 children on Cooks Lane, just around the corner.  After Ginny Callahan knocked on her door one day and invited her to church, Ernestine enrolled her children in the Sunday School program at Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church in 1972.  Soon afterward, in 1973, Ernestine became what she remembers as being the second Black member at Hunting Ridge.  She remembers a mixed reaction from the congregation to her family’s presence in its midst. Some members welcomed her warmly.  Others would speak to her, but she read in their faces and in their tone of voice that they were not comfortable sharing their pews with a Black family. They might not have spoken aloud the words, “mine”, “not mine” and “alien”, but I am guessing some of our ancestors in the faith certainly thought those things.  Ernestine chose to not let those attitudes bother her and went on to teach Sunday School to children for 20 years!  She also served on a pastor nominating committee and as an usher.  Ernestine is an ordained deacon in our congregation.

Two decades later, after multiple Black members had been drawn to Hunting Ridge for various reasons, our congregation made an intentional commitment to be what was called at that time a multi-cultural congregation. Fast forward to 2021, some 25 years after this church committed to being multi-cultural.  What joy we had last Saturday as Blacks and whites and Asians worked side by side in our gardens, digging up weeds, transplanting plants and spreading mulch as we prepare our gardens for vegetables to share fresh, nourishing produce with our neighbors.  We are not in the habit of practicing common ownership of our assets.  Yet we find that we create community as we pull weeds together, as we celebrate a good afternoon’s work with immediate rewards, as we munch on grilled hamburgers and hotdogs.  Creating community is phase one of church building.  It has nothing at all to do with a physical structure.  It has everything to do with the way we relate to one another, the level of trust we have in each other, the care we offer to those who are suffering from scarcity or pain or loss, the extent to which we think about we over you and us before me, and the ability to recognize the great graces showered upon us as a group of believers in this place at this time.  Amen.

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