This is the message that I am giving at Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church in Fort Montgomery, NY this Sunday, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 1st. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16; and Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14. The service begins at 9:30 and you are welcome to come on in.
Some years ago (a senior phrase for I can’t remember when) the comedian, actor, musician, and entrepreneur Steve Allen created what some called the “ultimate talk show”. Fortunately, if one does remember certain aspects of something, it is likely that one will find what they are looking for somewhere on the Internet.
Presented on PBS, The Meeting of Minds featured guests who played important roles in history. Guests included Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, Marie Antoinette, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Paine, Frances Bacon, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, Charles Darwin, Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas More, Karl Marx, Galileo Galilei, and Attila the Hun. Characters from Shakespeare’s plays were the guests on one show.
Allen noted that he felt that putting the greatest figures of all time together and have them interact with each other provided an interesting way to understand the world around us today and to prepare us for tomorrow. (notes from “Meeting of Minds”)
Along those lines, when I first began blogging, I was asked in an on-line interview to identify my “spiritual heroes”.
I listed Peter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dr. Meredith Eller (one of my college professors), and Clarence Jordan and gave a brief explanation of why I chose those four individuals. Bonhoeffer, Eller, and Jordan were chosen because of the impact their lives had on my own life. And while I was thinking of the impact their lives had on my life in the secular world, I quickly found that it was very difficult to separate the secular world from the spiritual world. And what each of these individuals meant to my spiritual life is perhaps one of the reasons why I am where I am on this journey with Christ today.
The choice of Peter as a spiritual hero probably had to do more with what I thought we had in common from reading about him. If I were to prepare this list today and keep one of the twelve disciples on it, I would probably pick Nathaniel Bartholomew. It isn’t that Peter has dropped off the list but I find that at this time of my life I perhaps have more in common with Nathaniel than the other disciples.
Nathaniel Bartholomew was said to be the scholar of the group. Tradition has it that he went to Georgia with Thomas on his mission trip after Pentecost. While the Georgia that Nathaniel and Thomas traveled to is not the Georgia in my own life, it offers a connection, both in terms of spiritual heroes and in terms of Methodism, that is so much a part of my life today (adapted from “Who Will Be The One?”).
Along that train of thought, if I were to have a series of these meetings, much in the manner of Steve Allen’s work, I would have dinner with Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley, and Robert Boyle. The choice of these three individuals is in part because of my own background in chemistry, physics, and mathematics.
I would hope that you know who Isaac Newton was and that your memory of high school chemistry hasn’t faded to the point where you have forgotten that Joseph Priestley was the co-discoverer of oxygen and Robert Boyle is considered the father of modern chemistry. It would be nice to have these three gentleman at dinner so that we could discuss many things and perhaps Newton could help me with that calculus problem that has bothered me all these years.
But any discussion with these three individuals would be more than simply a discussion of chemistry, physics, and mathematics; it would also be a discussion of God, Christ, and religion. While many individuals know of the scientific background of Newton, Boyle, and Priestley, very few are aware of their religious backgrounds.
Newton was required to take a religious position upon graduation with each of his three degrees but was able to get an exemption from that requirement. Boyle’s early writings were more of what we would call religious tracts rather than chemistry research notes. Priestley was a Dissenter, one whose beliefs differed from the orthodox view of the Church of England. His views about the nature of God would ultimately lead to his departure from England and move to America. Each of these individuals saw God as a part of their own life and the reason for their research; it was and continues to be a statement radically different from the views of many concerning science and faith in today’s society.
I would also invite the former Governor of Texas, Ann Richards, and my favorite political writer, Molly Ivins, to have dinner with my wife, Ann, and I. To understand who these ladies were and why I would invite them to dinner I need to retell a story that Molly Ivins wrote about Governor Richards and that I posted on my blog in “Three Women of Texas”.
At a long-ago political do at Scholz Garten in Austin, everybody who was anybody was there meetin’ and greetin’ at a furious pace. A group of us got tired feet and went to lean our butts against a table at the back wall of the bar. Perched like birds in a row were Bob Bullock, then state comptroller; moi; Charles Miles, the head of Bullock’s personnel department; and Ms. Ann Richards. Bullock, 20 years in Texas politics, knew every sorry, no good sumbitch in the entire state. Some old racist judge from East Texas came up to him: “Bob, my boy, how are you?”
Bullock said, “Judge, I’d like you to meet my friends: This is Molly Ivins with the Texas Observer.”
The judge peered up at me and said, “How yew, little lady?”
Bullock, “And this is Charles Miles, the head of my personnel department.” Miles, who is black, stuck out his hand, and the judge got an expression on his face as though he had just stepped into a fresh cowpie. He reached out and touched Charlie’s palm with one finger, while turning eagerly to the pretty, blond, blue-eyed Ann Richards. “And who is this lovely lady?”
Ann beamed and replied, “I am Mrs. Miles.”
I trust that you understand the humor and irony of this story. I grew up in the South during that period of time when the color of your skin was the determinate factor in one’s acceptance in society and it was very easy to understand that judge and his behavior. But I also understood Ann Richard’s sense of irony and her ability to put ignorance in its place.
Perhaps you have wandered into some meeting and received a similar greeting as the one given by the judge in my little story. And while I hope that it has never happened to you, I know of too many situations where a visitor to a church has, in fact, encountered a similar greeting. And I would hope that if you were the witness to such a greeting, your response would be as much like Ann Richards as it might be for Christ to greet someone lost.
Now, the term for all of this is “Radical Hospitality”, one of the five fruitful practices of a vital and viable church (see “Five Practices with Robert Schnase”.
Robert Schnase provides two definitions for this idea, the first that focuses on the congregation; the second which focuses on the individual.
Congregations that practice Radical Hospitality demonstrate an active desire to invite, welcome, receive, and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ. Radical describes that which is drastically different from ordinary practices, outside the normal, that which exceeds expectations and goes the second mile.
In our personal walk with Christ, radical hospitality begins with an extraordinary receptivity to the grace of God. In distinctive and personal ways, we invite God into our hearts and make space for God in our lives. We say Yes to God and open ourselves to the spiritual life. We accept God’s love and acceptance of us. We receive God’s love and offer it to others.
Now, radical hospitality is not really a new idea. After all, what did Jesus say to the 72 he sent out on that first mission trip? And did the early circuit riders, including the many who traversed this part of the Hudson Valley some two hundred and fifty years go, make it from charge to charge? If it were not for the hospitality of the churches and the individuals who welcomed those 72 and the early circuit riders, the chances are the church would have died a long time ago.
And, as noted in the reading from Hebrews for today, how many times did someone unknowingly feed one of God’s Angels? How many times did one of the early followers of Jesus in those early post-Easter days greet a stranger and tell them the story, only to find out it was Jesus they were talking with?
But it would seem today that hospitality is, in itself, a radical notion; something that should never be tried. We have regressed from the idea that anyone may enter into God’s House to the notion that the sanctuary is a place for only a privileged few. And while we may think that this is acceptable, we ignore the words of the prophets, such as Jeremiah, who warned the people that in doing so they were deserting God.
Dan Dick started one of his blogs a couple of years ago with a note about a conversation he had recently.
I was talking with a small group of young adults about the potential of the church to transform the world. My argument was simple: if we would strive to find a meaningful way to engage 7 million plus United Methodists in the United States in some form of life-affirming missional service, we could impact the very roots of a wide variety of social ills. Snorting coffee, one young woman barked derisively, “Are you serious?” I confirmed that I was, and she replied, “The churches I have been to are some of the most inward-focused, uninvolved, cautious, conservative, and apathetic groups I have ever known. Sure, there are a few individuals in the churches who get their hands dirty, but very few. (Adapted from http://doroteos2.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/are-you-serious/) – I first used this in “A New Set of Guidelines”
Despite having the advantage of knowing what happened to the people of Israel, despite hearing the words of the Old Testament prophets warn against turning from God, we go out and do the same things over again and 1) we don’t even see what we are doing and 2) we wonder where we are going wrong!
At least today we are aware that we are in trouble but no matter how hard we try we can’t find a solution because we don’t know what the problem is.
So how do we do that today? How can we, how should we show the love of Christ in a world where hospitality is often times a forgotten word? How do we engage in radical hospitality when the thought of many people is to not let people in? Maybe we need to step back and reflect on how we got here.
Let us go back to Jesus telling the people to open the doors of the banquet hall and invite all who can come to come, even if they are unable to repay the host (and I can hear almost every finance chair across the country cringing in their sears at that thought). Let us remember the hospitality shown by the early post-Easter church, even when to openly declare your faith probably meant persecution, arrest, trial, and execution.
Let us remember that we are the inheritors of a movement that gathered in the homes of believers and invited not just believers but non-believers to be a part of their community. Let us also remember that we are also the inheritors of a movement that faced intense opposition and persecution, and I am not necessarily speaking of the early, post-Easter Christians.
Methodism here in America was often marked by the clergy of other denominations denouncing Methodist preachers for “preaching delusions,” “working to deceive others,” spouting heretical doctrines,” and “promoting wild singularities”. These “wild singularities” included dramatic preaching, exuberant worship, and weekly class meetings where members shared their inner most selves.
Also, in the 17th and 18th centuries, many of the states supported established churches and these entrenched denominations did not welcome new religious groups. In some places, it was against the law for non-established religious groups to hold services. (adapted from The Heritage of American Methodism, Kenneth Cain Kingham)
Isn’t it nice to know that once we were the rebels, called by Christ to preach the Gospel wherever and whenever? Isn’t it frightening to know that we are know like everyone else?
How was it that this church and all other churches in this area along the roads that parallel the Hudson River came into being? At a time when the people cried out for the Gospel, when the people cried out for spiritual freedom as much as political freedom, the early Methodist circuit came bringing the Good News.
But where, if they could not meet in established churches, could they meet? What was it that the writer of Hebrews told those who received that letter?
So let’s go outside, where Jesus is, where the action is—not trying to be privileged insiders, but taking our share in the abuse of Jesus. This “insider world” is not our home. We have our eyes peeled for the City about to come.
It’s easy to see that they took the heed of the Hebrews and meet outside the confines of the regular church.
We need to recapture that spirit, if for no other reason that it will help people understand why we are Methodists. It was at those gatherings that we began to understand why we are called Methodists. To gather at one’s home was often times the only way they could worship.
But I think it is important that we do more than simply meet in other people’s homes, much in the manner of the early Methodist classes. I think that is important because if we do is transfer the church from the church building to someone’s house then we do nothing that solves the problems that we face. We must find ways to do church outside the framework of “normal” church.
In the vernacular of today, how can we “do” church without “doing” church? The one thing I cannot do on a single Sunday morning as the guest of the congregation is tell you how to do this. You know more about what you have, what skills and capabilities you have and where to draw your resources from; all you have to do is look. The question then become what ideas can you draw from to decide what it is that you all can do. I can say, as I said last week, that one should take the Spiritual Gifts course offered by the NY/CT District. This course will give you some idea of what your gifts are and what you can do to utilize those gifts.
How can I see church outside the church? We are so used to church on Sunday we forget the role the church played in communities the rest of the week. And with so many other groups grabbing Sunday time for their events, maybe we should take some other time to offer people that all too critical moment away from the secular world.
We must ask ourselves today how we can be witnesses to the crucified servant Lord. Our answer must be rooted in knowing that we are to be with him in the midst of the world’s needs, by His grace seeking to be the signs of his ultimate fulfillment and not the bringers of that fulfillment. In doing so we free ourselves from the conformity of the world’s self-assertive way and transformed into the way and manner Christ assumed in his ministry for us.
I used this quote from Will Cotton, the Senior Pastor at St. Barnabas UMC in Arlington, Texas, and the pastor whose words and actions were instrumental in my beginning this part of my own personal journey with Christ last week but they bear repeating today. He wrote that he sees a different ministry for the church in the coming years.
The 21st century (for at least the rest of our lifetimes) in ministry will not be primarily about the local church. Churches and denominations will be wise to train people for ministry in secular situations. The gospel is returning to the streets, the marketplace, the classrooms, the chat rooms, the homes and even the bars. My job description has shifted in response to the leading of the Spirit. I am not just a performer of ministry; I am a leverage person, equipping people for ministry in places I will never be able to go. I used to lead Bible Studies with up to 80 people in them and they were enjoyed. But two years ago, I moved to more intensive studies that prepare leaders who then start classes, small groups, and even lead “in the marketplace” studies and support groups. My favorite book on this shift is Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal. My two CLMs came out of those classes. If I train 15-20 people (which I do at near seminary level with some texts actually from Course of Study for local pastors) and they lead groups of even 10 people, then the yield is three times what I was doing in the large studies before. The Church you and I are a part of will be so different in just 20 years from now, and the truth is, no one knows what it will look like (nearly every Bishop worth his or her consecration will tell you that). But the shift from church-centered ministry to community-centered ministry is part of it.
The church today, wherever it may be located, on a country road somewhere, in the suburbs of a city, or even on a street corner in the city, can no longer just be a Sunday only operation. It has to be, quite literally, a 24/7 operation. It can no longer be the repository of holy relics; it has to be the source for all who seek answers. It has to be a fulfillment of the Gospel message to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, lift up the downtrodden, and bring hope to the lost and weary. (from “Thinking Outside The Box”)
So, let me invite you to be a part of Grannie Annie’s Kitchen on Saturday mornings at Grace UMC in Newburgh. Come and be a part of the worship that we offer every Saturday morning and come and be a part of a community of sixty to seventy souls that gathered for the breakfast Ann has prepared.
This is not an invitation to come and work, though that would be nice. But I also think that to just come and sit with those who have come would be just as nice. We open the doors to the community at 8 and begin our brief worship service at about 8:10 – this Saturday Pastor Jeff will lead the worship and offer communion; Lay servants in the district have the chance to lead the worship on the other Saturdays of the month; call me if you are interested in that aspect).
And maybe, as you sit in a different setting but experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, which I truly believe is present at that time each Saturday, an idea will come into your mind about what you can do.
We did not set out to change the world when we began Grannie Annie’s Kitchen, only offer a decent and nutritious meal to who all who came.
But in the Spirit of those who offered meals to the weary travelers of the Old Testament, in the Spirit of those who offered meals as part of the worship, so we have begun opening the doors to God’s Kingdom just a bit wider.
So I will hope you will accept this invitation, just as I hope that you will accept the invitation that Jesus gave to you when he told the host to open the doors of the banquet hall. And I hope that you will then let the Holy Spirit come into your heart and mind and soul and empower you to invite others to be a part of that wonderful banquet found in God’s Kingdom.