This has been edited since it was first posted.
When I first began graduate school at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) one of my professors spoke of the time you could take the train from the campus to Crump Stadium for the football games. When he spoke of this, we had this image of games in perhaps the 1930s or 40s and not the 1950s when they actually occurred. Those of us who heard him speak of those games knew about the train, or rather the railroad, since the tracks ran right by the campus. We, or some of us, knew of Crump Stadium but we knew it as the place where Memphis high schools played their football games, not the Tigers of Memphis State. (For the record, the Tigers, more aptly named the Kittens for the way they have played lately, play in the Liberty Bowl.)
What I don’t think anyone of us could imagine was the fact that taking the train was more than just a short ride from the campus to the stadium; it was a trip from the country to the city. When the campus of Memphis State was first built, it was outside the city limits of Memphis. Now, of course, the city of Memphis has grown around the campus and, if nothing else, limits the expansion of the campus. The train still runs by the campus but instead of passenger traffic it is mostly commercial traffic. Woe be the student who is on the south side of the tracks when one of those long, long trains pass by and traffic stops for twenty minutes and they have to be in class in ten minutes.
I bring this up because I have to ask if you, the reader, can tell me what the area around your church looked like when your church built its present building. Was it built with the future in mind or was it built to accommodate the present? I think of one of the churches that I was a member of; when it was built, it was in the middle of farm land and was easily accessible. Over the years, the town and the college that was part of the town grew around the church. In one sense, this was good because it gave the church a population from which it could draw (though, to be honest, it never got many college students to attend). But, as the town grew around the church, parking for the church disappeared. And many church planners will tell you, if you do not have adequate parking, you will have trouble growing the church.
What do you do in situations where the area around the church is no longer the area it was when the church began? In the case of my old church, they began looking for another site, realizing that growth was not possible without such a move.
But sometimes the move is made for other reasons. One of the mega-churches in Memphis, long an established presence in the downtown area, saw an interstate go through the center of town. It also saw the decay of downtown Memphis plus the flight of its membership from the city to the suburbs. Ultimately, in light of where its congregation lived and the neighborhood around the church, the church decided to move out to the suburbs and leave its historical place behind. The good news is that the church was bought by another congregation seeking a bigger building.
A few years ago, I wrote of another church that saw the neighborhood change and recognized that with its congregation living elsewhere the mission of the church needed to change (“What Do We Need?”). And if I am not mistaken, there is a church in my area that recognized that if it wanted to maintain its presence in the community, it must recognize that the community around it had and was changing as well.
By now, you know about the “Call to Action” that is to be the guidelines for the future of the United Methodist Church. You also know that I am a little leery of this call, if for no other reason than I am always leery of directives created at the top which call for the ones on the bottom to implement. I am leery because I am aware that true change is initiated at the bottom and embraced by the top. I am worried because the measure of success for the call will be measured in terms of numbers that tell little about the church. The true success of a church can only be measured in terms of souls saved and that is a metric that cannot be truly measured.
As I noted a couple of weeks ago (“Who Shall Feed My Sheep?”) people do not come to a church because of its numbers; they come because they hope to find God and answers to their questions about life. We have to ask ourselves a very critical question, “what exactly did Jesus want to do with His mission?”
Was it merely to get everyone to follow Him? Or was it to make a fundamental change in the world and the way people treat each other? We can easily count the number of people we baptize, who complete confirmation, and become members? But have we changed the world that way?
Are we not changing the world when we do the things that Jesus did – feed the hungry, heal the sick, bring a new hope to the oppressed and forgotten?
But let us be realistic. Feeding the hungry is more than coffee and doughnuts and calling it breakfast or making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and say that it is dinner. It is having a meal with real plates and being able to use real utensils instead of paper plates with plastic forks and knifes. It is preparing food fit for a king because the King may be among those who sit at the table.
Too many people today feel that one’s economic status determines how you eat and what you will eat.
Let us also realize feeding the hungry is not the solution to the problem. People are hungry for a reason, i.e., the lack of food. There needs to be an organized distribution of food within each community and ultimately the lack of food for the people needs to be addressed.
The same thing can be said about medical care. I can tell you from personal experience that many who come to Grannie Annie’s Kitchen lack in basic medical care. Some suffer from high blood pressure and/or diabetes; for one or two, the conditions can be life-threatening if not monitored carefully. At one point this summer five of the women who came to the kitchen were pregnant and only receiving minimal care. If I could do it, I would see that there was some sort of free medical clinic in operation on Saturdays so that those who come to the table can be checked out medically as well. This, like feeding ministries and food banks, is a partial solution; there must be a concentrated effort to see that all the people of a community have reasonable healthcare.
And, when you stop to think about it, the response of the early Methodists was to do just that. Provide food, health care, and education to a portion of the population that most of society would just as soon forget.
If we as a people, a church, and a denomination are to respond to the bishop’s call to action, it should be to respond as those who began the Methodist Revival did. It wasn’t about numbers back then; it was about the people. And that is the way that it should be today.
Paul reminds us that the King is coming. He just doesn’t tell us how He is coming. We tend to think that when Jesus does come, He will come in splendor and glory. But what if He were to come in the rags of a homeless person? Would we then welcome Him? Or would we treat Him as some sort of uninvited guest?
The Gospel passage for today speaks of five foolish and five prepared people. Those who are prepared are prepared for any guest, invited or uninvited; if we are foolish, then the important guest will be missed and we will not be ready.
Joshua stands before the people and the people tell him that they will follow God. But Joshua reminds them that they have forsaken God too many times in the past. How many times have our worship services and our church conferences been like the conversation in the Old Testament reading today?
How many more times will we continue to echo the voices of the Israelites, willing to follow God but unwilling to take the steps? There will come a time when we will not have the opportunity that lies before us.
The table has been set and the doors are opened. Are you prepared for all the guests who will come or just the invited ones? What will you say to the uninvited guest who is hungry and homeless?
And Joshua said to the people, “my family and I will serve God.”