Sunday marked the end of The Land’s year-long preaching tour. Though the overall goal was to communicate the vision of The Land, telling the story was a task I never mastered. The question people wanted to know, I couldn’t figure out how to fit into a sermon: “How did the Land become, The Land?”Pastor Stephanie Price
With gratitude that The Land’s story does not begin and end with my voice, I share the final sermon of the preaching tour. It is, perhaps, the best of my bad attempts to explain how seeds for The Land were planted before the work began.
Before the Food and Justice Initiative. Before Laurie Day and Ron Skarka and Greg Laudenslager. Before New Church Development and before The Land’s Board of Directors. These are the parts and pieces of the story of The Land’s beginning that matter most to me.
Inspired by John 4: 1-10
The story of The Land begins in 1895 at the incorporation of a nonprofit organization called the Denver Metro Ministries of the United Methodist Church. The purpose of this Conference-created organization was to purchase property for prospective new church development. Over decades of volunteer-led efforts, Denver Metro Ministries was responsible for the land acquisition for many metro area churches including Applewood Valley, Westminster, Brentwood, Smoky Hill, Hope, Heritage, Parker, St. Andrew’s, St. Luke’s, Thornton, Evergreen, Good Shepherd.
Until the deed was transferred to our faith community last June, The Land was the final parcel of property under the care of the Denver Metro Ministries. Ten acres of completely undeveloped property located in northeast Aurora, just east of the Murphy Creek golf course. Committed to developing alongside incoming residential developments, The Land has established itself as an outdoor faith community dedicated to connecting with and caring for creation.
At The Land, we worship weekly and work daily. Mission groups from all over come to The Land to plant, build and remember the call to discipleship in the 21st century. At The Land, our sanctuary is a 20×20 canopy structure, our offering basket is a composting bin, our outreach ministry is an enclosed dog park and our fellowship hall is the center of a cobblestone labyrinth where the fire pit is located.
Though not unheard of, the location of a faith community in a prairie field, remains unique. As such, the vision of The Land is confusing to multiple demographics. Everywhere I go it is a guarantee that a certain percentage of the people I am speaking too will have no idea what I am talking about and, if they do know what I am talking about, they will have no idea why anyone would do such a thing. This loss in translation is not limited to any one age group.
This past week at youth group from a United Methodist church in Texas came to The Land to lay pea gravel on the labyrinth and move cottonwood stumps to the perimeter of our parking lot. As lunch time grew closer and the sun grew hotter, I accompanied a youth to the shade of the canopy. About halfway to the tent, she stopped, smiled with excitement and asked, “Do you plan to build a church here one day?!”
The word “church,” as rendered in the New Testament, comes from the Greek term ekklesia which is formed from two Greek words meaning “an assembly” and “to call out” or “called out ones.” But if you Google the definition of Church what pops up first is not a verb, but a noun. Specifically, a building used for public Christian worship. As in, “they came to church with me.” Church as a verb reflects a pull out of a societal framework or an institutional structure.
Today, what was an action in the New Testament, represents our committed placement within the exact systems that Jesus was calling people out from in order to be the Church, Christ’s Body, in the world. Church has become synonymous with a place to go, a destination, as opposed to a journey woven with practices we commit our lives to. The Land, in all it’s literal openness, seeks to resurrect the language of Church, stretching it’s meaning beyond four walls and a steeple.
And, there is a loneliness that accompanies stepping outside of known definitions. Living into new languages is a journey taken whether we are starting a new faith community or not; our child begins taking medication for a mental health condition, our marriage falls apart when we reach the end of our rope, a parent dies and then another and we suddenly find ourselves orphaned in a world that regularly requires the reassuring words or presence of a parent at any age. The irony is this loneliness becomes the language of connection. This new language as the outcome of fresh exposure to circumstances for which no strategic plan could have prevented. It is life’s journey pulling us in and out of communities, changing the lens through which we see the reality within and around us, inviting us to venture to new places where new people wait unexpectedly to receive a welcome we barely worked to offer; “Would you give me a drink of water?”
Perhaps Jesus thought the people in Galilee would be more understanding because we can see clearly that the way things are playing out now in Judea, there are some major miscommunications. Jesus has been working overtime doing the work of healing and teaching that he came to do, and he hears that the Pharisees are keeping count of the baptisms that he and John had performed. Maybe he could have just let it go but the Pharisees decide to push it just a little further posting the baptismal scores intent on manufacturing a baptismal rivalry. It’s a game Jesus doesn’t want to play; a sacred act manipulated for political gain. John against Jesus: Gladiators of the Baptismal Font.
But it is Jesus’ reaction to being misunderstood that launches him into a new stage of ministry reflective of God’s radical hospitality and love for all of creation. For Jesus, it is his subtle rejection of the institutional stagnation and his complete obedience to God’s call to love which opens the door to ministry beyond the expectations and assumptions of the religious institution. It took courage to leave the boundaries of Judea even if the intent was simply to arrive in the familiar terrain of Galilee.
It’s noon when Jesus arrives in Samaria; the place marking the absence of what has been and the anticipation of what is to be. Samaria is received as nothing more than a rest stop on a journey to something predictably understandable. The mid-day sun is reaching its peak, Jesus’ legs are weary from travel. His heart heavy with the residue of an ongoing drama toggling along like the rattling tin cans strung to the car bumper from a wedding long left behind. The honeymoon of a fresh faith over, Jesus arrives contemplating the liberation of a temporary separation. Losing none of himself in the journey, he breaks the rules, speaking to the Samaritan woman who has come to fetch water from the well, “Would you give me a drink of water?”
Four words like bulldozers crashing into the Berlin Wall; an interaction demolishing the fear of ritual contamination; a prohibition of all social interaction between two groups of people, and Jesus steps right over the wall and asks for a glass of water. She scoffs at his boldness, questions his intentions, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink of water?” The door has been opened. Jesus acknowledges her doubt and embraces his own certainty. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
This morning, I believe it is not Jesus alone that stands at the well in Samaria, but each of us with him. For we have woken up in a world that no longer recognizes the God we once knew, and we must look down in the deep wells of our souls and ask the reflection, “do we know who it is that asks us for a drink? Who offers us, again and again, an invitation to ingest a living water?”
Whether we are sitting in a pew or a prairie, we are all finding ourselves in a church that is being called to start over; to speak a new language. To redefine what it means to belong, who we hope to become, how we continually behave. The church, both in the universal and local sense, regardless of human-crafted definitions, remains the primary vehicle through which God carries out his purposes on earth.
I have found that people often overestimate the motives for my journey to this well called, The Land. It was not passion but pragmaticism, not rejection but loyalty, that has brought me here. This journey’s bridge has been built with bricks of love.
Dick Hanson, a long-time member of Hope served on the Board of Denver Metro Ministries. His job was to oversee the last piece of property resting under the authority of the Denver Metro Ministries; an undeveloped 10 acres of prairie land in the northeastern corner of Aurora, Colorado. Once and awhile Dick Hanson would come to Hope to make copies in preparation for a Board meeting. Each time I would run into him he would stop me to ask, “What do you think the Conference should do with this property?” I never had a good answer. Only an unspoken rebellion, “Who was I, an associate pastor, to decide how the Conference used their property?”
Dick had been in a rehabilitation center for months recovering from a car crash before I received news that he wasn’t doing well. Each day I planned to visit another task or demand on my time got in the way and when the call came in on June 7, 2013 that Dick Hanson passed away I grieved the goodbye I was never able to say. With regret in my heart and tears streaming down my face, I prayed that we would do something with this property Dick had always referred to as, The Land. I couldn’t do this alone, I prayed, so Dick was going to have to help me out.
It is love that transforms rest stops into destinations and happenstance conversations into holy visions. It is love that transforms the roads we walk on. You do not need to be courageous or creative. You do not need to be a risk taker or a radical to find your own well. To ask for a drink. To meet someone new. To see who you are in the reflection of a question asked by someone you barely know. It is the commitment to allow love to lead the way, that leads us to the living water. It is the act of following loves lead, that gives us enough faith to find our way.