Keynote missions dinner speech given at the New Mexico Annual Conference, June 1, 2017
Good evening to you, mission leaders of the New Mexico Annual Conference.
I want to begin by saying thank you.
As a missionary with Global Ministries, thank you for the support you give to all of the missionaries who have come out of the New Mexico Annual Conference. It is only through your support that we can do our work and it is only through your prayers that we stay connected to God’s work in the world.
Thank you on behalf of your churches, whether they know it or not. For the last 50 years the Western Church has largely been in decline in terms of membership and worship attendance and resources. And yet, despite the fact that every 15 minutes a new blog post is written decrying the end of Christendom, you dare to spend resources of time and people and money on work outside the walls of your church. You are the ones who lead your people to do things they never imagined they would do. Thank you on behalf of those whom you lead.
Thank on behalf of the hungry who have been fed, the naked who have been clothed, the children who have been taught, the refugees who have been welcomed, the outcast who have been loved. I know that those whom you serve in mission don’t always know your name or even the name of the church. They might refer to you as that church with the food pantry or that church that has the addiction support group. Because of this, there is not always a direct relationship between the number of people touched in mission work and the number of people in the pews on Sunday. The people you serve may not improve the statistics in end of year reports or clergy evaluations, but they do know this, that they have been loved by you.
Thank you for who you are.
You are the inglorious leaders of mission work in the New Mexico Annual Conference.
I call you the inglorious leaders because it is when we are willing to do the unclean, uncomfortable, unpopular work that God is glorified. It is when we are willing to be vulnerable enough to really live in to the concept of risk taking mission that we are connected with God’s work in the world.
In John, Chapter 17, Jesus offers a prayer. Not a prayer that is prayed in a garden while the disciples slept, but a prayer that was offered around the communion table of the last supper, after Jesus washed the disciples feet, he looked up to the Father and said loud enough for them to hear, “the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”
In John 17, Jesus talks about glory and glorifying God seven times.
It probably would not be much of a reach for us, as Christians, to agree that no one ever glorified God more than Jesus. In this room, that would seem like an easy argument to make.
We can look at the high moments of Jesus life and hear that he glorified God. At his birth, the angels called out to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest,” at his baptism the dove descends, the light and voice of God fill the sky at the transfiguration, there are these handful of moments that make it obviously clear that Jesus glorified God.
But Jesus didn’t simply glorify God by having grand announcements made at his birth, baptism, and ascension, in John 17, Jesus said he did it by finishing the work that you gave me to do.
Think about much of the work Jesus did, not all of it was very glorious. In fact, some of it was downright inglorious.
He touched people’s whose skin was rotten with leprosy.
Earlier in the gospel of John Jesus made a mud pie with spit and rubbed that in a blind persons eyes and gave him sight.
Jesus walked in to the stench of Lazarus tomb to give him life.
He sacrificed himself on a cross, bloody and beaten.
A lot of the individual things Jesus did were down right gross and nasty and inglorious, and yet it was through the doing of these things that he glorified God.
Today I serve as a Church and Community Worker missionary at the Church for All People in Columbus, Ohio.
The Church for All People has become one of the leading mission institutions of the United Methodist Church. People from our church often go and share with others what we have done to equip and train other churches and conferences. Every October we host a training event and I would like to extend an invitation to you to come and join us. If you want to sign up or get more information, come and see me.
We are the church where the first Free Store started, we worship with an incredibly diverse group of people, we distribute over half a million pounds of produce a year, we run after-school and summer school programs that break the prison pipeline, and most people around Columbus know us for the $55 million worth of housing that we have done in the last decade.
And yet, while those are all things glorify God, I would say that the thing that has made all of that possible is our willingness to be vulnerable, take risks, and be inglorious.
Our flagship and foundational ministry is the Free Store. Through the Free Store we have the opportunity to be in relationship with about 20,000 people a year, we give out over two million dollars’ worth of gently used clothing and household items every year, in addition to providing all the school supplies for a half dozen local schools and new Christmas presents for 500 kids.
While the bottom line of all those things are glorious, the work of making that happen is rather inglorious.
When it was first created, no one ever imagined the Free Store would be as popular as it became. The expectation was that a dozen or two people might come in each day and soon we had 100 to 150 people coming in every day. So the first concern was, we are going to run out of stuff.
But 18 years later, we have never run out of stuff. In fact, we have a basement stacked floor to ceiling with stuff. Our problem is not running out of stuff, it is sorting and folding and hanging and distributing mountains of stuff.
From that we have learned that our God is a God of abundance, not a God if scarcity. We have developed a theology of a divine economy of God’s abundance that serves as the core of all our operations. We look at the world from an asset based perspective. Whether in our staff meetings or grant reports, we never talk about the world around us as a place of need or deficits, instead we live in to the opportunities God has given us. We learned these lessons through the inglorious work of having to trust in God’s provision. By trusting in God, we discovered that when you are connected to the work that God is doing in the world that God provides.
Through the community built around the Free Store, the United Methodist Church for All People opened in 2003. Our church on Sunday morning is an amazing place. It is probably one of the most diverse churches in the country. On a typical Sunday morning it is about 2/3 low income people from the neighborhood and about 1/3 middle class and upper class people from around Columbus who think what we do is cool and they want to be a part of it. It is about half white people and half black people. We have people who are lawyers and CEOs sitting next to people who have drug addictions and are prostitutes. When you look at the diversity of the church you would say, glory to God that there is a place for all people, but we sometimes joke that all people don’t always like all people. Everyone is glad that they are included in the circle of God’s love and grace, but why did you include “that” person?
Our service is not always clean or perfect, sometimes the sermon gets cut short because of the large number of shared prayer requests which often include people openly talking about their struggles with addictions, stories of neighborhood violence, and harshness of poverty, but in the ingloriousness of it, it is real and raw and honest and God is glorified.
In the last decade, we have done more than $55 million of housing rebuilds and renovations, transforming abandoned and burned up properties in to new homes. In 2015 we opened a brand new senior living center and this summer we will be opening a complex of 68 apartments and townhouses that will include 2,400 square foot of workforce development space. A person can move in to the complex with a section 8 housing voucher and within that same facility receive training for specific jobs.
And yet the process of getting to that point was inglorious.
When we first started doing housing we knew so little that we hired people who claimed they had tools and knew how to do the work, but really didn’t; we learned that you don’t pay people at lunch time because they might go get something to drink and not come back; and, we didn’t even know enough to pull permits and got shut down by the city before we ever got started.
At the Church for All People I serve both as pastor and director of the Healthy Eating and Living program. As part of that, last year we shared over 640,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables with more than 28,000 people. When you can bring that much healthy food in to a food insecure community, God is glorified, but the actual work of it is inglorious. This last Tuesday, as part of the shipment from the truck, we got a box with 850 pounds of onions. One giant box, 850 pounds of loose onions. So I was out on the sidewalk, me with all of my important titles, bagging onions. An older, African American woman who is a member of our church, Linda, came by. She asked if she could help and we had a great time together just talking, getting to know each other, and bagging onions. After we finished I thanked her for helping me and she said, “I can’t have the pastor out here bagging onions by himself.”
In doing the inglorious work of bagging onions, our relationship grew, and God was glorified.
The question I want to ask you with this evening is what is the inglorious thing can you do that would glorify God? How can you get your hands dirty, how can you make yourself uncomfortable, in a way that would bring glory to God?
I know that many of you are already doing this kind of work and have learned this same lesson.
St Paul’s UMC in Socorro implemented a program called “A Time to Serve” in which 49 members of the congregation contributed over 180 hours of service to the local community.
At Central United Methodist Church a member began a running club with a local elementary school. A few weeks ago, 27 kids from this program ran in the Run to the Zoo 5K in Albuquerque.
El Calvario in Las Cruces has engaged in a number of mission initiatives, most notably in their neighborhood and with immigrants
University in Las Cruces has a thriving Community Garden that only happens by getting hands dirty.
St. Paul’s in Las Cruces has an ongoing mission outreach in Clint/Fabens.
Four Corners has their Thrift Store, the Childhood Education Center, and hosts a number of work teams throughout the year.
Community UMC in Ruidoso has a strong mission partnership with Santa Elena Mission in Mexico.
Cornerstone in ABQ continues their work on Pajarito Mesa, one of the most inglorious places I have ever been to in the United States.
A number of the churches in the Clovis area partner with the Matt 25 center, which is a service hub for community outreach efforts
The fact that you are here probably means that your church is already doing some kind of inglorious work that is glorifying God.
But if you are already involved in some kind of work, I want to ask you this one question: what are you doing to build relationships with the people you are in ministry with?
The greatest asset we have at the Church for All People is the relationships we have with our community. The people of our neighborhood trust us, they volunteer at the free store and fresh market and make it work, we have hard-living people that play and sing in our praise band and read scripture and lead worship, they are as important to our organization as the paid employees.
So what are you doing to not only feed people or clothe people or teach people, but to fully include them at your church, to invite them to the table where decisions are made, to give them voice, to be vulnerable to create relationships of mutuality where your life and the life of the person you are in service with are connected.
As people who are mission leaders, we are called to do the inglorious work of being with the people we are ministry with. Eat with them, pray with them, when you hand them something hold their hand, look in their eyes, offer them words of kindness and compassion. Be inglorious!
This will lead us in to deeper relationships with those we are in ministry with. We are not called to be the ones who simply give things to people or do things for people, we are called to live in relationship with people.
To be in relationship with people means being vulnerable enough to share yourself with a person different from yourself and to receive who that person is. It means to know the names and stories and life situations of vulnerable people as much as you know the lives of your committee chairs.
So may you go from here and go back to your churches looking to do inglorious work. Get uncomfortable, push the envelope, live in relationship like the good shepherd, and when we do the inglorious work, God is glorified.