I was blessed to preach at The Land’s parent church this Sunday. Below is the message and video I shared with the people of Hope United Methodist Church. Ultimately, for me, this message is a recognition of the ways in which people from Hope UMC answered their doors before I knocked and offered help without me ever asking. I pray all church planters have parents as generous as these.
Inspired by Luke 11:1-13
“Why didn’t you ask us for help?”
This was the question offered by a pastor of a local United Methodist Church who was completely shocked upon hearing the news that my friend’s church plant was closing. This was in June. The announcement of the new church’s closure had been public knowledge since at least April.
Images from The Land
Since April, I had witnessed the decisions culminating in the closure of the new church. The church planter’s need to have a full-time appointment matched with a congregation who could pay him only half-time now that their institutional funder declined their funding request in this fifth, and final, year of their grant cycle. All this in spite of a significant, albeit last minute, bump in worship attendance.
It was difficult for me to see the church plant close for many reasons. The most selfish reason being that the pastor and I were the most senior members of the church planters monthly conference call. As such, we participated on the congenial common ground of cynicism in spite of our political and theological divides.
That night, sitting together in the winery at the church planters gathering at Annual Conference, united in the pain of his departure and the joy of his new beginning, my friend did a fabulous job of deflecting this question offered by a pastor months too late; “Why didn’t you ask us for help?”
Though my friend circled around a direct answer, I knew well enough there wasn’t much hope in looking to local churches for help. Unlike the context of the Galilean village in our scripture this morning, in 21st century America, it is rugged individualism that is normative, and hospitality that is uniquely newsworthy. As citizens of this culture, our immediate concern tends to be the ground under which we stand versus the knock from the person in need next door. Churches being no exception, we guard our resources to ensure the congregation where we belong survives. With progress being limitless and financial security remaining unattainable, little, if anything, remains to invest in risk-taking models of ministry that might help the capital “C” church survive.
Hospitality becomes optional pending its compatibility with the individual or institutions sustainability. In the setting of Luke’s scripture, however, hospitality was an inescapable obligation. Any failure to provide for a guest would bring shame on the host. Accountability was literally built into the fabric of communities where women would bake bread in common courtyards so that everyone would know who might have bread left at the end of the day. It would have been unthinkable for a neighbor to refuse a fellow neighbor’s request; even if it meant getting up, waking up his family, and supplying his neighbor’s need.
In our society, shame is solicited not from the denial of a neighbor in need but from having a need of a neighbor. To indicate any sign of dependence, regardless of the reality that we are all connected and deeply dependent on one another, puts one at risk of being branded as unworthy of equal belonging. Charity, a perversion of hospitality, becomes a power move we choose to make when it is convenient.
This extreme shift in cultural stigma might not matter except for the direct link laid out in these passages between our expectation of a neighbor and our assumption about God. In a culture promoting independence and self-sufficiency above all else, it becomes difficult to maintain the correlation between the generous hospitality of our neighbor and the unending love and grace of God in response to all who seek God’s presence and support.
There is a specific formula laid out in today’s lectionary reading that in and of itself centralizes our role in communicating God’s radical generosity and hospitality for all people. First, we are told exactly what to pray for as we are given Luke’s version of The Lord’s Prayer. Next, we are given a relatable example of hospitality given and received in biblical times. Specifically, the impossibility of being turned away by a friend regardless of the hour of need.
Finally, we are assured that God also wants to hear our knocks at the door. It is our example of opening ourselves to the world’s persistent cries for help, our ability to demonstrate compassion and commitment to changing unjust systems, that foreshadows God’s ability to be even more responsive, even more compassionate and even more committed to justice on behalf of those in need.
Sandwiched in the center of the promise is our own willingness to open the door and show hospitality, of course. But less obvious and as critical is our willingness to get out of bed and risk knocking on the door of our neighbors. To acknowledge our own needs; a need to be connected, to be cared for, to be the recipient of concern. Our reluctant surrender to interdependence is the practice field of faithfully following Jesus. Buried beneath the surface of this scripture is the deeper truth that it is our need, not our self-sufficiency, that unites with God.
A 2-year study of 266 ministries completed by The Center for Progressive Renewal found that on average, it takes eight years before a new church becomes financial self-sustaining. “Overall,” the study reports, “growth of new congregations is slow, with many taking eight to ten years to become viable in terms of finance and membership.” The study continues, “expectations of viability in one, three or even five years may be unrealistic and may create unfairly negative assessments for new ministries,” noting that “communities comprised of younger people with fewer financial resources may take even longer.” Jesus knew that faithfulness would push us to a place of need; to a lifestyle of desperate reliance on external providers as the journey closer to Christ increases our vulnerability and exposure in this world.
I waited five years to pastor The Land because I was horrified that I would be reliant on outside sources for funding. I would’ve waited even longer if the Bishop hadn’t pulled me out those front doors. It took a year of working on The Land to realize it wasn’t selfish to find joy aligned with my job of following Jesus out into the world. It took me a year of being present with The Land to understand that the concern should have never been relying on others but on believing that I could ever be in a position to rely only on myself. It took a year of answering the knocks on a door that wasn’t built to learn that I had never been asking people to help me. I was asking them to help the world see the God I had always known to be present in my life.
My Prairie Prayer is packaged in a mountain of memories to unwrap and remember. A million “Thank You’s” for needs met that I never knew I had.
Thank you, Jesus, that Connor didn’t fall down that 20ft hole we forget was there because the snow drifts covered it.
Thank you, Jesus, that we were able to push Greg’s car out of the snow bank when, after about two solid hours of pushing, Bev found two pieces of cardboard in her truck.
Thank you, Jesus, that the storm that demolished our Weatherport canopy structure was followed by a flood of generosity that allowed us to purchase replacement parts as well as an additional canopy structure.
Thank you, Jesus, that we had purchased this additional canopy structure so we could have a canopy when we found out two days before Easter that someone had stolen all the parts to our original canopy structure.
Thank you, Jesus, that Libby has a place to bring her children to worship on Saturdays now that her ex-husband cares for the children on Sundays.
Thank you, Jesus, for a communion table that serves those who have never sat there before and widens to honor the furry faithfulness of Tracey, Blaze and Carpenter.
Thank you, Jesus, that the geese danced for us when the grasses were flattened beneath the snow, that the meadow larks dependably sing us into worship, and that the pronghorn remind us there is a worthiness in the wandering.
Thank you, Jesus, for laughter and tears and silence and stories.
Thank you, Jesus, for bringing us here.