Then [Jesus] called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
I don’t want a comfortable Jesus. Comfortable Jesus is the type of Jesus that puts up with a lot of stuff because, well, he’s trying to be nice. Comfortable Jesus is about being nice above all else. Being nice means not saying things that would raise questions or point out injustices or hang out with “those” people. Comfortable Jesus is really just a nice guy you see at Starbucks every day on the way to work, but you really don’t know. Comfortable Jesus is a nice neighbor from down the street who you wave to when they are walking their dog past your house.
I don’t need a comfortable Jesus. I have all that already.
Would comfortable Jesus be willing to mix it up, get in people’s face, question things, point out injustice? Risk death? Of course not.
What I need is a Jesus who is willing to go through death and hell and come back. It’s not a matter of wanting it. It’s a matter of needing it. Because if things rely on me, then I’m screwed. I’m going to fail and fall. Over and over again.
I need a Jesus who is willing to act out what he claims. I need a Jesus that is willing to stand beside me in the worst of circumstances.
Thankfully, then I read Scripture I see that Jesus. I hear Jesus tell his disciples to follow him. This isn’t an invitation to a BBQ. It’s an invitation to drop everything and follow him – he is the Lord of our lives.
I hear Jesus tell those who would follow him:
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Take up your cross. That’s not something like a hang nail that is bothersome and a burden. That’s pick up the thing that will kill you and follow Jesus. Willingly. Jesus is talking about death here. Not avoiding it. Walking right into it. Why? Because Jesus knows that death doesn’t have the last say.
I want a Jesus who gets in my face and asks me:
‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not do what I tell you?
Yes, a Jesus who won’t make nice and settle for me only wanting to follow him some times.
I want a Jesus who talks about gnawing his flesh and drinking his blood and then pointedly asking me:
‘Does this offend you?
‘Do you also wish to go away?’
He might as well be asking me this – are you all in on me? Or is that a bit too much for you?
Simon Peter responds to Jesus question by saying:
‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life’
Right on Peter. I’m with you Peter. Where else are we going to go? Certainly not some politician or political party. Certainly not to money or work. Certainly not to patriotism or capitalism or socialism or any other ism that exists. Certainly not to sports or health. Nothing else offers salvation.
And what will carry me forward and give me a course of action when I see a homeless person in need, or a hungry person, or someone who is sick, or dying, or in prison, or in need of clothes, or a listening ear, or who is in a broken relationship, or anything else.
Where else can we go?
This is the faith that I need. It’s the faith that is offered to each of us.
Last evening was a Flying J night. There’s a core group of half a dozen or so people from our congregation who go over to Flying J truck stop twice a month to make sure people can get showers, get their laundry done, and get a meal. We work with individuals and families who live in the parking lot, who are homeless, struggle with poverty, live in motels, and more. Many work and are doing what they can to get from one day to the next.
Last night there was a total of 22 people. That’s the total between people from the church and our guests who come each Thursday we are there.
We know each of these people by name. Often, we know a portion of their stories too. In many instances we have been working with them for a few months now – trying to assist them in ways that they want help and how we can actually help. We aren’t the savior of these people though. We’re not there to fix them or solve all their problems. We can’t.
We go to Flying J for a reason. We go because these are people we are called on to reach out to, get to know, spend time with, and offer what we can. This is what ministry is really about. It’s not fixing others. It’s about being with people. It’s about reminding people of their humanity. We do that when we listen to people, when we hear their stories. When we eat with people. When we talk. When treat people with respect. When we can offer dignity.
In many places, the church is re-learning that ministry can be hands on. In some places, the church has been doing this for a long time. In some places, the church is learning this for the first time. Regardless, ministry is messy. Anything involving people tends to be that way.
But there are times to rejoice too. We rejoice when we experience joy with a family whose life together changes for the better. We rejoice when a family went from living in their vehicle months ago to securing employment and moving into an apartment. That is a joy not just for them, but for us too. We rejoice when we hear another one of our friends finds a job so that his family can start to look for a place to live.
Flying J has become more than a truck stop for me. It has become a place where I see friends and catch up on their lives. It’s a place where ministry happens. It’s a place where joy is shared. It’s a place Jesus shows up for both our guests and ourselves. And we get to encounter Jesus.
Ephesians 4:25-5:2 (NRSV) states:
25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5:1Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
This is a pretty good recipe for how to live if we claim to be followers of Christ – regardless of our calling and vocation. Would you agree with that statement? It’s easy to agree with that statement in a general sense isn’t it?
How do we measure up on this? How about those in leadership positions – both in the church in the secular world?
One argument I hear lately is that we didn’t elect this or that politician to be a saint, but rather to get a job done. The implication being that following Jesus’ way is a recipe for failure in the world. Instead, we apparently need people who are opposite of Jesus and his way to run things. We apparently prefer Caesar’s way to Jesus way of running the world. Who doesn’t love a guy on a horse brandishing a sword dripping with blood after all?
Considering that Jesus’ way got him killed, there is a valid argument for that. However, I don’t think Jesus really cared about the same things that our secular leaders do. Jesus wasn’t interested in accumulating power or wealth. He didn’t seem interested in making people fear him. He didn’t care about patriotism or raising an army and crushing the enemy with military might. He didn’t believe that the strong survive. He certainly didn’t believe in the ends justifying the means. He spent time with the lowest levels of society and the outcasts.
I suppose Jesus would never make a good president in America in modern times. But then again, his agenda isn’t about what is best for the nation, but rather the unfolding of the kingdom of God.
Often when I hear arguments defending politicians for their actions or words, some questions come to mind that I like to ask. Given what was said by a politician, would you defend the same words by a politician in the other party? Given the actions of a politician, would you defend those same actions if someone in the other party did them? If someone in the other political party got the same results, said the same things, acted the same way, treated people the same way, would you be defending this person the same way that you are for your favored politician currently? Be honest. Would you do that, or are your excuses really about loyalty to your political party and ideology over anything else.
I ask these questions because I think they relate to the Ephesians text. This passage from Ephesians is in direct contrast to how our world operates and has operated for centuries. This passage of Scripture, though, is radical in nature. It showcases Jesus way against and in opposition to Caesar’s way, the empire’s way. It comes down to this – where does our salvation lie? In Jesus and his way, or in some politician, political party, and their ways focused on strength and the ends justifying the means? Politicians and political parties come and go. But Jesus is eternal. I’ll take my chances with Jesus, thank you very much.
I met Lisa a few months ago. She, her husband Wes, their son Phoenix, and their dog bear were passing through the area and stopped at the church to seek some assistance for one night – a place to sleep.
They told me the story of how they were from Maine and had traveled to West Virginia so that Wes could start a job there. They packed up all their stuff into their van and headed down. They had a place to stay waiting for them. Turns out the job fell through when they got there. So they turned around and started to head home, stopping in Carlisle for the night. They happened to find out church and sought out some help. We put them up for the night in one of the local hotels and offered one of our handmade blankets to the family. They were grateful and had expressed a good deal of their faith during my time with them telling me at one point that God provides for them always.
Fast forward to last week – I received an e-mail from Lisa telling me that she and Phoenix would be traveling through the area again. Turns out that Wes had to finish out a parole sentence in a distant state from years ago and so it was just her and their son. They were heading back to West Virginia to be with family who could help them out. They would get housing in exchange for doing child care.
She still had Bear, their small dog who was friendly as ever. I met up with them when they arrived and got them taken care of for the night.
I learned a few things from my encounters with Lisa. First, no matter the situation, Lisa was always joy-filled. She always has a smile on her face. She doesn’t have much, but what she has she is grateful for. Second, Lisa has great trust in God. God always provides is what I heard Wes say. And here was God providing for this family again – this time through the church.
I couldn’t help but think of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus traveling when I encountered Lisa, Wes, and Phoenix. This time it felt more like Mary going to visit Elizabeth. Different circumstances of course, but the idea was there.
God shows us in mysterious ways. God invites us to participate in the unfolding of the kingdom too. God had invited me to participate in the unfolding through Lisa and Phoenix and Bear.
We have no idea how many people there are who are in similar situations. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to things like this. But that’s not what we are called to. Instead, we are called to answer the e-mail that is sent to us, to answer the door when the bell is run, to answer the phone when there is a call, to answer.
My prayers remain with Lisa, Phoenix, and Bear – as well as with Wes. I pray that they are reunited sooner rather than later and are able to get back on their feet.
Sometimes I wonder if we have this preconceived idea of what participating in the unfolding of the kingdom of God is like – what it looks like. I wonder if we think it’s all nice and neat and organized. But then I get an invitation to participate in the unfolding of God’s kingdom. And it comes at the door right when I’m getting ready to leave for the day. Or in a text. Or at the Flying J truck stop. Or at Dinner with Friends community meal. Or in the elevator of the hospital. Or in the parking lot as I’m getting into my car. The invitation comes at random times – usually when I least expect it. And that’s probably a good thing. When it happens, I have moments to either accept the invitation or reject it. It seems that in the spur of the moment, I’m more likely to accept the invitation. God has different plans than what I’ve come up with.
And sometimes those plans come in multiple parts, with the knock on a door and an e-mail follow-up separated by several months.
Be ready. You don’t know when God will send your invitation.
The doorbell of the church rang while I was on the phone with a colleague. I was told that a man came in and needed prayers. When I finished the call, I went out to the man. His name is John. John proceeded to tell me that his mother was dying and is at the local hospital. He was trying to get there. He had traveled down from Scranton, a couple of hours away. His car broke down in Harrisburg and so he started walking his way towards the hospital.
Along the way, he stopped and asked directions, had enough money to get something to drink, and rest his feet for a few minutes.
When he came to New Kingstown, something nudged him to stop at the church for prayers. And he listened to that nudge.
We were able to get him some food and I spent time with him, listening to his story, and praying with him. He wanted directions to the hospital. He said that the prayer was all he really wanted.
I know that the hospital is a good 20 minutes drive, which includes highway. There was no way that I was letting him walk. So I offered him a ride, which he gladly accepted and reassured me that he wasn’t looking for a handout.
As we drove along, I heard more of John’s story. I heard about the loss of many family members over the last 10 years. I heard about challenges in the family with health issues. I heard about his own blessings with health.
I asked John how long he had walked. He thought for a moment and then told me that his car broke down in Harrisburg, he got a tow truck, gave the mechanic $1400 to fix his car – all his money – and then he started walking. It was 5 am when he started. He had been walking five hours by the time he had gotten to us at the church. I’ve run marathons, a couple of which have taken five hours before. I know what being on your feet for five hours is like. It’s not fun. It’s painful. But John said that he just kept going. He didn’t know if his mother would survive the day and he had to go see her.
He didn’t know where he was going to stay that night. He would have more money in 24-48 hours, so he was hoping that some motel or hotel would be compassionate enough to work with him.
On the way to the hospital we stopped at a hotel, about a mile from the hospital. I went in with him. The hotel requires payment upfront. So the church helped him out with a room for a couple of days until his car was repaired.
John was about ready to break down, I could see it in his face. He told me that he wanted to repay the church for the rooms and the gas. I told him that all he needed to do was to say thank you and that he needed his money more than we did. I told him that if he really wanted to repay us, then to do something good for someone else.
He didn’t know what to say. I told him – this is what grace is. I can’t preach grace if I don’t live it.
The woman behind the counter heard this exchange and said “God is so good, isn’t he?” Yes God is.
After getting the room taken care of, I drove John down the road the hospital. We said our goodbyes and I gave him well wishes for him and his mother. And off he went into the hospital to be with his mother for what is probably the last time.
I don’t know why God nudged him to our door. But I’m glad John came to us. And I’m glad we were able to give him just a little help. More importantly, we were able to share Good News with him and with others. Good News isn’t all about words. Good News is how we live. Our entire lives are an expression of Good News – or they should be for those of us to claim to follow Jesus.
Hang in there John. You are not alone.
As I think about this encounter, I’m drawn to Psalm 23. In one sense because the Psalm is used for so many funerals, and here was an instance in which death was right on the horizon. But this was a bit different. It’s not about the person who was dying. It’s about the person who is seeing death of another.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
When I think about this passage of Scripture, I see John. He’s walking through the darkest valley. And God is the one who provides for him. God makes sure John is not in want. God restores his soul and leads him along right paths. It is God who is with John in the darkest valley and comforts him. It is God who prepares a table and blesses John. It is God who gives a future.
Psalm 23 is the Psalm for John – and all Johns out there.
April reached out to me by e-mail. I was recommended to her as someone she should reach out to as someone who could help her out. She wasn’t looking for help with paying the fee to live in the hotel, but help to get out. She told me that she had to leave – that she needed to set free of the bondage of the place she was living in. She was being reunited with her ex-husband who was living in Colorado.
I came and visited with her in her room just a couple of days ago. I didn’t know what to expect. She spent the first hour telling me her story, but with a twist. It was a story of God’s timing and God’s plans and how they are different from ours. She has been separated from her husband for 14 months, but that separation allowed healing to happen. That separation gave room for April to see how God is Lord, and not anything or anyone else.
We talked and shared our faith stories, moments in our lives when we have experienced God nudging us and tapping us on the shoulder, and sometimes shouting directly at us to get our attention.
She shared with me what it has been like living in the motel – like a trap. Things deteriorate, service is terrible, there is no kitchen or way to make food, except for a microwave, and things generally don’t work consistently. But there aren’t a whole lot of options for people in her situation. She described it as being in bondage – a term that is not used lightly. And a term that seems very fitting. It’s not just physical bondage, but bondage of the spirit, of the human will to live. Every week, the bill comes due to cover the shelter of the room – an expense that is way beyond normal. An expense that often times takes advantage of the poor who are sheltered there. But then again, where else are these folks going to go?
In this country, there is a creed that we live by – individualism. It’s the belief that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that everyone is able to get themselves out of trouble, and that only the lazy suffer the consequences.
And in this country, we like to claim that we are a Christian nation. Many churches proclaim the creeds of the church that were established centuries ago in far off lands. And we claim to follow Jesus who favored the poor and proclaimed Good News to the poor.
How do these two creeds and belief systems compliment each other though? Christianity isn’t so much about our personal salvation devoid of public implications, but as something far more greater. Revelation 21 paints a picture of the entirety of creation being renewed and restored. Jesus doesn’t proclaim that only the strong will survive and only those with material wealth are the ones who are blessed by God.
When I keep encountering more and more people who are struggling with the basic necessities of life, I have to compare our national operating creeds and beliefs with those of Jesus. And frankly, I find our nation’s operating beliefs to be lacking – failing in the promise of an American Dream. But Jesus has yet to fail to come through on his promises. If we are a great nation, then why do so many struggle to survive? If you think there is an easy answer for this, then you are dismissing the struggles that exist because you think they don’t affect you. And you are wrong.
Homelessness does affect you. When a homeless person without insurance gets sick, they go the hospital to receive treatment. Going to a hospital for routine care is expensive. Someone has to pay for that. It ends up showing up in your insurance premiums and taxes. When the poor don’t have enough food because they are being gorged with weekly payments, they become sicker and have health problems. Guess who pays for that? When the homeless sneak over to an abandoned hotel to find shelter and every day the local police department are sent over to kick people out – someone has to pay for the police to do this, as opposed to doing something else. Guess who pays? That’s right, everyone does, including the people who think that homelessness has no impact on their lives. Apparently, we like to lie to ourselves and think that we are like islands. Yet Christ calls us into community, to proclamation, and to service of others.
1 Peter 2:9-10 states:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
This isn’t only about individuals. It’s much bigger than the American ideal of catering to each individual. In the side commentary of the Lutheran Study Bible related to this passage of Scripture, it states:
What is the priesthood of all believers? This is a key concept for Martin Luther, who insists that all Christians are priests or God’s messengers. Proclaiming God’s mighty acts is not a job reserved for only a few people. God calls all believers – no matter what their vocation or standing – to share the Gospel and serve their neighbors to that others come to know Christ.
(Source – Lutheran Study Bible, pg. 2002)
Did you catch the end of that – All believers are to share the Gospel and serve their neighbor. Not make excuses. Not judge. Not put blinders on and ignore those around us. The Gospel is Good News to the Poor.
At the end of my conversation with April, I got her set up with transportation. And we spent time in prayer.
April was having a true Jesus moment that had nothing to do with me. Her old life, the life she was living here – a life in bondage – was dying. Today her old life will die as she gets on the bus. Following Jesus is about dying. It’s about trusting what Jesus tells us – that following him will lead to death – death daily, death to self, death of life, death of bondage.
But it doesn’t end there. Death doesn’t get the final say. Jesus does. In order to experience resurrection, we have to go through death. When April steps on the bus, she will also begin to experience resurrection, new life. A life of hope. A life where bondage has ended and there is a future. A transformed life. This is what Jesus promises. And it’s not just for some time in the distant future. It’s here and now.
Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we are stop fighting with God and allow God to take over. Sometimes we have to get to a point of complete loss of hope in order to let go of the chains that bind us, that hold us bound.
April is a reminder that death and resurrection are real and are what Jesus calls us to – right here and now. April left the bondage of a motel room with a life that was hopeless and she is getting on a bus filled with hope, looking forward to the embrace of love and family, and experiencing Jesus’ mercy and grace. This is the Good News of Jesus in our midst.
I met Lynn by accident. She is a housekeeper at a motel just off the interstate about 20 minutes from the church I serve. I was there to assist a homeless person get emergency housing for a couple of days for herself and her dogs as she made plans to move in with her sister in Maryland. She told me her sister couldn’t come to get her for a couple of days and she had no money and nowhere to stay. Lynn overheard this and as I was leaving, she approached me to seek assistance for herself.
Lynn shared with me that she lives in the motel. She is paid just enough to cover the weekly cost of living there, with a little left over for her other expenses. Not a great life for her and her two children. But it’s what she had to do after her husband walked out on her. She was trying to save up some money to move out to an apartment, but just couldn’t get any savings going. And she isn’t alone. Somewhere between 50-75% of the rooms of this particular motel are occupied by people who live there and pay their bill weekly.
Jeff lives in a motel just a few miles from the church I serve, along the Miracle Mile, just outside of Carlisle, PA. Jeff’s been there for several months, along with his two cats, which keeps him company. During his time, he’s racked up a debt and owes the motel owner enough that eviction proceedings have gone forward. Jeff will be evicted by the eighth of the month – becoming homeless in the more traditional sense of the word.
But really, Lynn and Jeff are homeless. They are what I call sheltered homeless – living in a motel, but not secure in their housing. They have shelter, but it’s hardly home.
In recent months I have spoken with several motel managers and front desk employees about people who live in these motels and pay weekly. Depending on the motel, anywhere from 25%-75% of the occupants of these motels are weekly residents, meaning that they pay an ongoing weekly rate to stay in a motel room. And that doesn’t count the more traditional homeless who will “splurge” for a night or two by getting a room at one of these motels in order to get out from the heat or cold, get a shower, and a free continental breakfast.
Along the Miracle Mile there are well over a dozen hotels and motels. At least half a dozen of these have weekly paying residents. Add this up and it’s easy to estimate that there are hundreds who live like this in just this area alone. At one motel, of the 64 rooms available, 16 had weekly residents. Other motels had higher percentages of weekly residents.
Homelessness is a growing challenge in the US, especially in the region of the country I live in – South Central PA. Our congregation comes in contact with the homeless regularly: doing ministry twice a month at the local Flying J truck stop where we make sure the homeless who live in their vehicles in the parking lot there are able to get their laundry done, can take showers, and get a meal. We also come in contact with the homeless and poor through our monthly Dinner with Friends community meal held in our fellowship hall and we do what we can to help these folks with emergency food and connecting them to other agencies that can help them. Sometimes the homeless will call or stop by the church during the week, seeking food, shelter, or references to agencies that can help.
Homelessness is on the radar for many people. But it’s also something that remains an abstract issue for many, especially if a person doesn’t know a homeless person by name or know their story. If you don’t know someone personally who is homeless, you probably never think about homelessness at the end of the day when you go to your own comfortable home that is warm in the winter or cool in the summer. It’s just another issue that can be debated by politicians, or it’s something that we can be against generally, as long as it doesn’t directly impact us, make us uncomfortable or inconvenienced. But when you know the homeless by name and know their stories, going home at the end of the day becomes another day in which you see how broken our world is.
People like Lynn and Jeff are a different variation of homeless – the sheltered homeless. Or rather, the trapped. They are caught in a vicious cycle that keeps them on the edge. While they are paying anywhere from $250-$300 a week for their small motel room, they are often going without other necessities like food, upkeep for vehicles, medication, and more – things they need to survive.
Often times, these sheltered homeless are working, but are not being paid enough to meet their living expenses. These are not lazy people. And they aren’t blowing money on frivolous things, unlike the false stereotypes that persist around homeless people. Those exist because someone, somewhere, worked the system and so the popular thought is that this must be true of all poor or homeless people. Except it isn’t.
They are spending anywhere from $1000 a month for their housing up to $1200 a month. That’s almost a mortgage payment for most Americans. All for a motel room. Not a house or an apartment.
The challenge arises because many of these people don’t have enough savings to pay for a security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment that would in the long run make more financial sense, costing almost half as much as they are paying for a motel room. But they make enough money to pay for the weekly expense of a motel room. They end up getting trapped in this cycle – not enough for a long-term solution, but enough to stay off the streets or their vehicles. And the government assistance offices don’t help pay for motel and hotel rooms, considering these as not a long-term housing solution. Considering how much a motel room costs over the course of the month, I agree.
And then the trap really takes hold – an unexpected expense comes. Maybe it’s their vehicle that needs a repair. Maybe it’s a medication. Maybe it’s a death in the family. Maybe it’s all of those things. A bill comes due for several hundred dollars. Where does the money come from? And that’s how people get behind so easily. When there is no room for error or accident, errors or accidents are bound to happen and suck a person down.
Often a challenge in talking about homelessness is getting an understanding of a different sense of time. For many middle-class people, their focus is on the future. They have a bright future ahead of them. Middle class people are concerned about things in the future too – saving for a vacation, education for their children, retirement, etc. But they are always looking ahead.
But someone who is in poverty, either poor or homeless, doesn’t have that luxury. The only time that really exists for them is the present. There are immediate needs that need to be met and met now. And when someone is poor or homeless, there isn’t a lot of hope for the future. The future becomes daunting and unbearable. When you don’t really have a future to look forward to, why would you plan for it? No wonder Jesus kept saying that he was bringing Good News to the poor. He was bringing hope for a future for people who lacked any sense of future.
Crossing this bridge of understanding difference in time is important. It’s what allows us to connect with the poor and homeless. It’s what allows us to be where they are and also hopefully assist them in getting out of their situation if they so desire. Often that starts with a simple question – what are your goals? Not our goals – your goals. This isn’t a silver bullet, it’s only a start – a baby step.
When I asked Jeff what it was like to live in a motel, he said that there are benefits – you get everything you need: a bed and TV and Linen and towels. You don’t have to worry about utilities. Most places give coffee and juice and bread in the morning (his breakfast). And the most striking statement of all – You can move fast to a cheaper place if needed. People who live in what they consider home don’t try to move fast to a cheaper place.
Jeff, Lynn, and many others are the sheltered homeless among us. When we think that homelessness is just about making sure someone has a roof over their head, we are missing several things. Homelessness goes beyond just material needs. It involves people, relationships, and being trapped in an endless cycle that feels like a black hole. Just when you think you get a step away from it, it sucks you back in and keeps you down.
If we are ever going to eradicate homelessness in our midst, then we need to acknowledge the extent to which it exists in its many forms. From there, we learn people’s stories, we walk alongside them as best we can, and we celebrate with them when they finally do get a step away from the black hole that grips them. Overcoming homelessness, whether sheltered or not, is about relationships and community. It’s about value and worth of each person.
When we minister to and with a homeless person or family, we make a great deal of effort to ensure that they are reminded of their humanity, we hear their stories and get to know them, we invest ourselves and our time into their lives, we remind them that they are loved and that someone cares about them and their wellbeing. We empower them and tap into their value. We tell them that they are not alone – and we try to live that out. We proclaim Good News to them. We pray with them. We do what we can with them. We be with them.
And a big part of this ministry is about not being satisfied – not being satisfied that people have shelter even though it is keeping them poor and trapped. There is a different way – a much better way. We can do better. We are called to be better. Let’s eradicate homelessness here.
I’ve been thinking a good deal about models for church – how church runs, if you want to think about it that way. For many decades here in the US, we’ve been using a pretty standard model. There’s a building, a pastor, limited other staff, programs, committees, and worship is the big thing that we try to get everyone to on Sunday morning each week. There’s other stuff in that model too – education, ministry, budgets, and service projects. I’m sure I’m missing a few things, but that’s not the point. You know what I’m talking about.
But here’s the thing – this hasn’t been the only model for church. In Europe, the model has been different – mostly because of the relationship between church and state is far different from the US traditionally. When the church is an official state religion, you end up with a very different model. The state collects taxes for the church, staff is usually greater, with larger and older buildings, worship happens, but has few attendees, and the church provides some services to the general public – weddings, funerals, baptisms. The churches in these countries are usually more bureaucratic.
There are other models – African churches are different from American and European churches. Some countries have more evangelists than pastors – a role that doesn’t exist in American Christianity. The services are joyful expressions that last hours and are the heart of Sunday, with multiple offerings. The church is more central to the life of the community, and the church hierarchy has more influence on government in many instances.
In all of these examples, the models have worked…until the don’t. There were other models before these. And when they didn’t work anymore, the church changed. There are a variety of reason why a model doesn’t work any longer. The current model for the church in the US is not working any longer. The numbers show this. Attendance has been in decline for decades. Membership has too. Offerings to church has gone down as well over all. Although, the people who remain are actually giving more. There is a focus on seeing results for what is given. The numbers don’t lie.
Recently I made the argument that the church needs to be open to different models. There isn’t going to be a one-size-fits-all silver bullet. I do think there is something fundamental though – a shift in focus.
In the current model, there is usually great focus given to getting more people into worship first. There are reasons for this – worship is the center of Christian life. And so churches have spent a great deal of time, energy, and effort at figuring out ways to get people to worship. Some of this makes sense. It is during worship that an offering is made – the revenue for the running of the church. Churches adjust worship, add new things, have the latest technology, go old school with the liturgy, using social media – all with an effort to get people into the pews for worship.
Let me say this – I have nothing against worship. I’m a pastor and worship is a big part of what I do. I enjoy worship very much. But I wonder if there are other models that draw people in outside of worship. That’s not to say that worship should be excluded – it’s still a central part of Christian life. I’m saying there are other models that draw people in that will lead to worship. But worship isn’t the end all, be all either.
If you are like me, maybe you need a visual. Here’s a rough draft of the concept.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus is inviting people into relationship with him. He’s telling them to come and follow him. He’s inviting them into the work of the kingdom. He’s got a mission that he is sending them on.
But he isn’t inviting people to worship, in the sense that we think about it today. He invited people into ministry and mission, and he invited people into discipleship.
As you can see from the drawing, I put those two areas at each end of the church “pipe” as I’m calling it. They are entry points into relationship. And each of those moves towards and through worship and drives us out to do the other end. Think of worship as a pump that moves us through to the other side. In other words, if someone is invited to mission and ministry, they will be drawn towards worship and be sent out towards discipleship. Worship still has a central place in the life of the church – but a different role maybe. Ministry and mission, as well as discipleship are ways that Jesus brought people in and I think Jesus calls on us to begin relationships with people.
People want to be a part of ministry – especially hands-on ministry. People want to take part in mission. They are drawn to it. As a result, they will want to grow deeper in relationship with the people they are doing ministry and mission with. Worship is an opportunity for that. Worship is a communal activity in the church. At least in the Lutheran tradition, it involves gathering people in, hearing the Word, being in meal together, and being sent out.
Sent out where – for more ministry and for discipleship. Discipleship is going deeper in living the way of Jesus. It involves learning, listening, thinking, questioning, relationship, and more. While ministry and mission are hands-on, discipleship is heart and head on.
Some people may be invited into discipleship and be drawn to that as well. In growing deeper in discipleship, there will be a desire for relationship with other disciples where people can gather, hear the Word, be in meal together, and be sent out. Sent out for more discipleship and ministry and mission.
A new model for church isn’t a total scrapping of everything the church is about. It’s really more a change of what already exists. Instead of focusing on getting people to worship first, the change is on reaching people through mission, ministry, and discipleship. Those relationships will drive engaged people towards worship and send them out for more ministry, mission, and discipleship.
The practical question becomes, how do you pay for the running of the organization? Good question. Maybe offering in worship is just one aspect. Maybe our idea of offering needs to expand because isn’t ministry, mission, and discipleship exactly what the church is called to? Is that not participating in the unfolding of the kingdom? Are there opportunities to support these efforts directly? I have no idea. But I’m willing to guess that there are.
This also raises other questions – what does the structure of the church look like? What is the role of the pastor? What does church look like as an organization?
These are really big questions, which I don’t have the answer to. But I think it’s important to ask the question, to explore, to test, to try things. It’s important to recognize the reality that what worked in the past isn’t working any more. It’s important to look at the reality of the numbers and face them, rather than kick the can down the road. There is no more road for many churches. And even though many church should have been tackling this challenge years ago, it’s never to late to start. But the longer we wait, the worse the options will be.
But the good news is that this is a great time to be the church. Yes, the numbers look bad. But all that means is that we are given an amazing opportunity to do something that happens once every 500 years or so – rethink church and discern how God is calling the church to carry out the mission. We have an amazing opportunity set before us. We can approach it with fear, clutching onto a model that doesn’t work, saying things like “we’ve never done it this way before,” or we can respond in trust to the faith that God gives us, opening our arms to new models that haven’t been tried, and saying things like “We haven’t tried that before, I wonder what would happen…”
God is giving us an amazing opportunity. How will we respond?
I’ve been thinking about the means and the ends a lot lately. The means are how things are done, the process. The ends are the results, the fulfillment of an action. There is an age-old belief that the ends justify the means. If that is so, then it doesn’t matter what you do, or how you act, or how you treat others so long as you get what you want. If the ends justify the means, then it is perfectly acceptable to manipulate people, to dehumanize and degrade people, to abuse people, and even to use violence. It’s the ends that matter after all. This is the theology of this world, of politics and certain politicians (both current and from throughout history).
But what did Jesus think about the means and the ends? If we are to call ourselves followers of Jesus, then we probably should not only pay attention to what Jesus said, but also follow it. Or we should just be honest and stop claiming to be a follower of Jesus.
‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
The tree is the thing that bears fruit. It is the means to the end. The end is the fruit. And Jesus is saying that bad trees produce bad fruit while good trees produce good fruit. Going back to the main question and applying Jesus’ logic, it might sound like this. Good means produce good ends. Bad means produce bad ends.
Here’s another passage that makes the case even clearer:
‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’
If you were to build a house, would you only care about the end product – a house that is built? Or would care about what was going into that house and how it was built, what products were used, and who the laborers were? If the house is built well, it will be a good house. If it’s done shoddy, the house will be shoddy. The ends are far less important than the means of how the house came to be.
Yet, why does this idea of the ends justify the means persist when we know that it is wrong? Why, especially does this idea carry any weight within the church, the institution that supposedly claims to follow Jesus? I have heard self-proclaimed Christians, and even pastors speak of this belief system. I have watched them carry it out. And I have wondered, how is this following Jesus and his way?
It’s not. There’s no other way around it.
Jesus concerned himself with the means. Discipleship is about the means – a way of living. Ministry is about the means. Mission is about the means. If the end was all that mattered, then God would make us as robots and get the result God wanted from all of us. But God is love. And love isn’t about being controlling, but rather invitation to deep relationship and community. Love is the means. The ends will take care of themselves. Jesus calls us to be good trees, to build the house on a solid foundation, to follow his way of living and discipleship. The means are important. The means are what following Jesus is all about.