Will you pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts open us to encountering you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Yesterday morning, I attended the spring meeting of the Metropolitan Boston Association (MBA) of the UCC (United Church of Christ). After the business of the association was attended to the agenda was handed over to Kate Omberg, and the Rev. Joan Murray who were asked to speak with us about their work with people who are experiencing homelessness.
Kate, the director of community engagement at City Mission, spoke about the crisis of family homelessness of which we will hear more about from Kathy Lopez later.
After Kate spoke, Joan shared with us about what she has learned about what she calls “companioning.” Companioning is the idea that it is by entering into relationship with people that healing and wholeness comes.
Joan has over ten years of companioning people who are experiencing chronic homelessness in a ministry she founded and now has retired from, a ministry called “Chaplains on the Way”. And she spoke to us about what she has learned.
She spoke to us of five things she learned.
First, she said we ought to be clear when reaching out to others of our own motivation. Are we reaching out because we want to fix, save, or change the other, or because we want to be in relationship? This is no small thing. Fixing and changing is actually easier than relating because of the second thing that Joan shared.
And that is being in relationship requires us to show up as humans and not hide behind the prideful summation of our perceived achievements, resumes, rank or status. Or conversely not hide behind our perceived failing, guilt and insecurities. Both put up barriers between us and true connection. If we can show up as nothing more and nothing less than the humans we are essentially are, then true connection can be possible. Easily said. Not so easily done.
The third move, Joan talked with us about, is to set aside the worry of what we are to do and simply call upon curiosity instead. Be curious, and that curiosity will help us be present. She mentioned drawing alongside of the other and walking with, is what Jesus does in the road to Emmaus story right, when the disciples are discussing all that has happened. Jesus does not confront face to face but draws along side and walks with. This disposition of companionship enables the revelation that will happen later in the story.
The forth movement, Joan offered to us was to cultivate an ability to listen and observe. Be present and take in what is happening. Instead of planning of the next move, we are to rest in the unknowing. Stay present, look, listen observe.
And then finally in doing so, we are to step into the opportunities for engagement, discovery, transformation that may be presenting themselves.
Be motivated by relationship; show up as a human and not a resume/or a pile of insecurity; cultivate curiosity; engage what is present/practice keen listening and observation; and have the courage to step into what presents. This is the pathway to companionship which is at the heart of transformational change.
The point of having Joan share what she has learned about companioning at our meeting yesterday was not just to inspire us and equip us for a ministry with those who are chronically unhoused, but to inspire and equip us to cultivate relationships with whoever we may encounter, particularly with those who may have a life experience that is different than our own, which, when you think about it, pretty much means – to inspire and equip us to cultivate relationship with everyone we meet, right?
Because let’s be clear, no two of us have had the same life experience. Each and every one of us here is fearfully and wonderfully made and each and every one of us has had a unique journey on this planet that has been full of heart ache and beauty, pain and praise. And that is true for every person we meet whether on the street, or in the board room, on the soccer field or at the AA meeting. On the chancel, at the door or in the pew. Every one of us is having a unique journey on this planet that is full of heart ache and beauty, pain and praise. Cultivating the capacity to relate, to really connect and honor their essential humanity by being present without an agenda of judging or fixing, to those around us is our most essential work as human beings.
Now, Joan is a great teacher in this and she learned a lot as the founder of this ministry of companionship on the streets of Waltham but she was not the first one to come up with this idea of companioning.
Turns out this ministry of companioning is written into the very heart of our Christian faith and is at the very heart of what it is, I believe, to be church.
And I would propose that perhaps the first expression of this companioning of being church, is in our passage from the book of Acts with Philip and the official from Ethiopia.
For what I find fascinating is that this story today was even included in the biblical account because at first it seems like such a diversion from what else is going on in the account. But the very fact that it was included speaks to the importance the early church placed on what happened to Philip.
For the first chapters of Acts are all about what the original disciples (those that followed Jesus when he was alive in flesh among them) are now doing in the wake of Jesus death and resurrection. The opening account of Acts is all about how they are organized themselves, and setting about doing the good work of proclaiming the good news and healing the sick, and how believers were of one heart and soul and no one was in want. These are testimonies of how the followers of Jesus are becoming church.
And then in the 8th chapter, we get the story from today. It is about Philip who is a newbie to all of this. He is not the Philip the disciple who was the CPA managing the resources in the feeding of the five thousand it turns out. This Philip is a newly appointed deacon, nominated to his office just two chapters before. Green and wet behind the ears.
And yet, we read that the Spirit has a special mission for Philip and sends him out all on his own far from Jerusalem, far from the newly forming church, far out into the wilderness. Philip is sent out far from the center of the action, far from Jerusalem to a people far from the people who have been the primary ones of the Biblical narrative. Philip has been flung to the edge.
And Philip has this really remarkable encounter far on the edge of what has been relevant thus far in the narrative. Philip has this encounter out on the edge of the landscape – out on the wilderness road, with one on the edge of relevancy, a foreigner, and someone who does not fit nicely into sexual or gendered binaries. This is the wilderness indeed and yet, and yet, the Spirit sends Philip there for what?
To show us companioning. To show us that companioning is a critical, essential part of being church. Philip does not have an agenda. He simply follows the Spirits lead and draws up alongside the Ethiopian official and they begin to talk. It is in the context of that connection that revelation dawns and baptismal waters flow. I am sure Philip had no idea at all of what would transpire when he drew along side that chariot that day. Philip came alongside with curiosity and presence. He was a companion to the Ethiopian official and that was enough to set it all in motion.
And if we really think about it, if we really think about who first crafted this ministry of companionship it would not be Joan and it would not be Philip, it would be Jesus. Jesus’ ministry was all about companionship. The first thing he did was show up and share himself with others and in doing so awakened in those he encountered a desire to share of themselves with him.
And then Jesus showed up all over the place, literally and figuratively. He did not hunker down in one place and fortify it but instead he was on the move. Not because place is not important but because the whole world is his place. Communion was happening not just in the upper room but on a hillside, and a sea shore. Healing was happening by the gate, at a pool, on the street, in a house.
At the heart of following Jesus, the heart of being church, is encounter. Companioning. Church not a building but a people, and not just a people but a way of being as people and with people. Church is about authentic engagement. Of being real with each other, recognizing our needs and opening to the something more of the divine and holy.
We too are facing the wilderness of our day. We are facing the challenges of living in a time of profound divisiveness in our national life and where gaping gulfs of experience separate us even in our own communities. According to a 2016 study, Boston is #1 in the country for income inequality. It seems like there is just so much that divides us and that the ways of addressing those divisions and the gulfs that separate one from another are so hard and so complicated.
But actually that is not true at all, and this is the good news that we as church are called to proclaim. We are called to step out onto that wilderness road and to enter in to authentic meaningful encounter and companioning with those right next to us in the pew and those across the city. We are a church with a defining core value of inclusion and we welcome all into this space but inclusion also means going out and making connections and joining with others in the spaciousness of God.
So this week, what if we ask God to lead us to companioning. What if we make a commitment to join in one of the house meetings that we are having here as part of our GBIO work to deepen relations one with the other inside this church. Or what if we make a commitment to say hello and really look the person sitting on the sidewalk outside your office building every morning and may be stop to have a conversation just for the sake of getting to know them and nothing more. Or what if we called up that elderly neighbor and took the time to really listen to what he or she is struggling with. We know how to do this. It is in our DNA as people of God. Walking with, sharing in is what we know as church. Let us take that out, down the road. Let see what the spirit has in store for us, what transformation, what healing, what hope is just waiting to emerge out of the connection of companioning, out of being church.