Welcomed In, Sent to Serve

I was privileged to be invited to share some memories of my time as a student at the Wesley Foundation at Ohio State University recently. The occasion was Alumni Sunday at Summit United Methodist Church as we celebrated 60 years of ministry to students and the university community in the building at 82 E. 16th Ave. in Columbus. Summit church was created in the late 1970’s by a merger of the Wesley Foundation, Indianola UMC and University UMC. The Scripture for the day was the Prodigal Son story in Luke 15.

I identify with the prodigal son because my first memory of visiting this building when it was the Wesley Foundation was as a scared little kid lost on a huge campus. OK, I was 20 years old and a junior – but it was my first quarter on main campus after two safe years of living at home and attending the Lima Branch, as we then called it, of OSU. The year was 1966, and less you think I was a total wuss, you must know that my lecture classes that quarter in University Hall were bigger than my entire high school student body, and the number of students at OSU was about 6 times the population of my home town.

I was homesick for my mommy and without being able to name it also for a God I felt at home with. Having grown up in a loving United Methodist congregation, my parents had told me the Wesley Foundation was a place I would be welcome. Had my parents known what radical ideas and people I would encounter here they would probably have sent me to the Baptists – but thanks be to God, they didn’t know any better.

So, what was the first thing to greet me at the front door of this building? A warm smiling face? Not really. Instead there was a huge statue in the foyer of a 10 foot Abraham holding a big knife about to kill his son Isaac because God had told him to do so. Not exactly the kind of father figure one would rush home to. I realized later that that story of how God saves Isaac is a great metaphor for how God redeems us from very frightening situations in our troubled world, but at the time it was intimidating and too much like the wrathful God I had been taught to fear as a child.

My understanding of the nature of God began to change the next quarter when I got a phone call from Glenda Cail, a member of the Wesley Foundation staff. She invited me to a student gathering at her apartment on a cold January Friday night. It would be a gross understatement to say that no other women were inviting me to their apartments, and it sounded better than another night of bowling with my roommate. So I went to that gathering, and Glenda’s simple act of hospitality changed my life.
I met my future wife at that gathering, and I found at the Foundation a new home where I felt welcome and safe to explore the first serious theological challenges in my life. I remember in particular a book study led by Bill Trudeau on James Michener’s book The Source that introduced me to new and exciting ways of thinking about the nature of God, fellowship with guys in the Methodist service fraternity, STE, and my senior year living in Wesley House where everyone made a commitment to practice living as best we could according to Christian values.

Wesley House was exactly the kind of experience I needed. I grew up in a good Christian family, but one where the motto was, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It was quiet at our house a lot. Wesley House was a 180 degree turn where the philosophy was more like Ephesians 4:5 where we are encouraged to “speak the truth in love.” It was a place where it was not only ok to disagree and express our feelings, it was required. All 20 of us met every Sunday night up in the Hackler Lounge with “Whitie” (Lloyd White) and Jack Shepherd, a chaplain from Riverside Hospital who may have invented tough love. They facilitated open, honest discussions of whatever issues were going on at the house and how they could be resolved in a collaborative way that was fair to everyone involved.

Maybe the President and Congressional leaders should try living in that kind of covenantal arrangement? There must be room at the White House for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to move in. But seriously – the atmosphere of hospitality and honest safe communication we experienced here in the turbulent 60’s and 70’s wasn’t just good for personal faith development, it was critical for helping us become engaged and active citizens in a time of social transformation.

The Wesley Foundation was a safe place where we were nurtured, but also challenged to go out from this place to witness and practice our faith in ways that helped create a more just society and world for all of God’s children. Wilfred Cantwell Smith defines faith as “feeling at home in the universe.” The Foundation helped me feel at home in this big university, it introduced me to the social gospel, and prepared me to move on to the challenges waiting for me in seminary at MTSO and beyond.
I think what my years at the Foundation meant to me was best expressed by Jason Leighton, one of the MTSO students who helped plan this service. Jason said that without the theological challenges and growth he had through his campus ministry experience as an undergrad he thinks his head would have exploded when he got to seminary. Thanks Jason, I can’t sum it up any better than that.

I mentioned the Hackler Lounge earlier, and I want to pay a special tribute to Darold Hackler for whom that room is named. “Hack,” as we called him, was the founding director of the Wesley Foundation who served in that capacity for over 20 years. He was critical to the very existence of this place even though his name doesn’t get mentioned as often as others. That’s because “Hack” was a quiet, behind the scenes leader. He took care of the administrative details – kept the bills paid the Bishop happy so all ministry and programs could happen here.

So as we celebrate 60 years of student ministry in this building, I’m grateful for Darold Hackler and all the other leaders who have and continue to serve here. And I am thankful that after 60 years Summit is still a place where all of us prodigals are welcomed and nurtured and prepared for the challenges of being agents of transformation in the world.


We’ve had a series of medical emergencies during Sunday morning worship at our church this winter when it was necessary to call the emergency squad.  This has happened so often we’ve thought of asking the EMT’s if they’d like to join the congregation.  After all, they’ve been more regular attendees than some of our members!

I suppose that’s why I dreamed the other night that they came again, but there was a major difference in my dream.  Instead of one ambulance, a whole herd of them arrived in our parking lot, and they loaded up the whole congregation and took us to the ER to check our congregation for signs of life.  Ironically we had just finished singing the old Methodist hymn, “And Are We Yet Live?” when we heard the first sirens.

In the ER there was another patient in the cubicle next to ours, and HIPPA privacy laws or not, I could tell from the conversation I overheard through the flimsy dividing curtain that it was another congregation.  From the pieces of conversation I got between the doctors and nurses, I knew that other patient was in trouble.  They were checking the vital signs and none sounded good:

  • Spirituality – detected in the brain but not in the heart
  • Mode of Worship– luke warm and dropping fast
  • Small group involvement – below normal
  • Loving Community relationships– compound fractures and divisions
  • Evangelism and outreach – barely detectable

Pretty soon I heard the steady hum of a heart monitor that had flatlined.  I heard someone, I guessed the hospital chaplain, explain the death by quoting parts of the New Testament letter of James.  I questioned his bedside manner, but the words rang true –“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers…Faith without works is dead.”

That got me to wondering.  When new people first enter our church building do they see those signs of life?  Do they experience the final vital sign that is our topic for today — a congregation that shares God’s gifts in ministry and service to others?

Mark 6 says the disciples came back from their mission trips and their evangelistic efforts at school and work and “reported to Jesus all that they had done and taught.”   How different would our lives and our church’s life look if we intentionally reported to Jesus every day what we did that day for the good of God’s creation and God’s children?

Please note, I celebrate all the wonderful ministries our congregation is already doing – the ones going on for years, decades, some even for the 177 years we’ve been here.  And I love the new ministries, like the Knit Wits (who make warm hats for homeless folks) or our Kids Morning Out program that reaches out to the smallest members of God’s family.     So this isn’t about a guilt trip – those don’t ever take us anywhere God wants us to be.  This is about examining our hearts to see if we are discerning correctly what God wants us to be doing here in this place as a church in 2012.

One of the Jesus tests for answering that question comes from Matthew 25 where Jesus reminds that what we do for the least of our sisters and brothers is what we do for Christ.  Sometimes the least of us go to great lengths to hide their needs from others and from God.  The least could be someone who appears to have the most.  I read in the news this week that actress Jennifer Aniston spent—are you sitting down–$141,000 last year to maintain her youthful appearance.  After being shocked and angry at what she spent on hairdressers, personal trainers, a private nutritionist, and laser peels (I don’t even want to know what that is), I wondered if anyone is also ministering to her spiritual needs.  Is anyone sharing with her the good news that God loves her just the way she is without spending all that time and money on her exterior image?

The ministry of gifts is the rubber meets the road vital sign for the church.  Health professions measure our health by checking blood pressure and heart rate, weight and cholesterol.  What yard stick do we use to check how alive we are as a congregation?  Is it good enough to be doing better than the Presbyterians or Baptists?  Or more than our unbelieving friends and neighbors?  Sorry, Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook that easily.  Jesus himself is the gold standard, the best model of servanthood and the sharing of gifts.

Look at how Jesus lives that out in the familiar miracle story of the feeding of the 5000.   First, Jesus sees the crowd as they get off the boat on the way to a much-needed spiritual retreat.  Mark tells us that Jesus and the disciples were so busy ministering to the crowds who pressed in upon them to be healed and taught that they “had no time even to even eat.”  That’s way too busy.  Jesus sees the weariness and the need for a time away to rest and renew.  So they get in a boat to cross the lake, but the crowds saw them leaving and started texting and tweeting to their friends; so when Jesus and the disciples got to their destination to get away from it all – it was all there waiting for them.

How does Jesus respond to the needs of the crowds clamoring for time with him?  What we’d expect – he sees they are like sheep without a shepherd and he has compassion on them.  That’s all well and good.  I have compassion every time I see a homeless person standing by a freeway off ramp holding a “will work for food” sign.   I pray for them or even give a little cash, but then I quickly move on to my intended destination.  Not so our mentor servant Jesus.  He responds to the need he sees and postpones the R&R he and his boys really needed and were counting on.  He sees and feels the spiritual hunger of the crowd, and he teaches them.  He doesn’t toss a pious platitude to them or say “take two proverbs and call me in the morning.”   He sits down and listens to them, teaches them until the sun begins to set and his disciples interrupt to say it’s time for supper.

Ok, another need has arisen, this time not spiritual but physical hunger.  Notice the difference between Jesus’ response to this need and that of the disciples.  The disciples are anxious to get on with their own agenda.  They say, “Let’s send them over to Chipotle or Subway so they can buy themselves some food.”  “ Nope,” says the Lord.  He looks Peter and John and the others right in the eye, and he says, “YOU give them something to eat.”     And what does he get from the disciples?  Excuses.  “We don’t have that kind of bread, Jesus; we’ve barely got enough for ourselves.  There must be 5000 of them.  We can’t possibly feed them all!”

Jesus says, “Go, and see what you’ve got.  Check out your available resources.”  Jesus asks us to take that kind of inventory too.  What do we put on our list?  We don’t think about all the gifts we have as a congregation.  The big ones are obvious – the music program, the mission trips, the weekly trips to serve a meal to the homeless, Sunday school teachers & youth leaders, committee chairs – but what about the gift of a friendly smile to a stranger, the ministry of calling a child by name so she knows she matters, setting up chairs for worship, rocking an infant in the nursery.  And the ministry of gifts is an even more effective witness when we do it away from the church building.  Forgiving a rude driver on the road or giving up your spot in line at Kroger’s to a harried father with 3 squirmy pre-schoolers in tow – those are gifts of ministry to God’s children.  And let’s not overlook the gifts of ministry children offer us –their curiosity, pure innocent honesty, exuberance and energy.  In the Gospel of John’s version of this miracle (John 6) the food Jesus uses to feed the masses comes from a little boy in the crowd.

It is a gift to grow food for the hungry in your garden or to lead a community organization, mobilizing efforts to change things in our society and world that are unjust or just plain wrong.  We all have unique gifts,  and our call is to take whatever God has gifted each of us with and re-gift it to those who need it.

So the disciples report back to Jesus with a meager 5 loaves and 2 fish.   They give it to Jesus; he blesses it – offers it to God and has the disciples share it with the crowd.  Not only does everybody get food to eat, Mark tells us that they all are satisfied.  And not only that, there are enough leftovers to feed the next hungry people already coming down the road.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7), Jesus says, people will know us by our fruits.  [I held up a beautiful large red apple in one hand and a very black, over-ripe banana in the other]  What kind of fruit do we want to be known for?

Remember we’re not talking about buying new expensive gifts, just sharing the talents we already have.  When he feeds the multitude, Jesus doesn’t ask the disciples for more than they have – that would be terribly unfair, but he does ask us to trust him with ALL that we have – whatever that may be.  There’s a great example of the miraculous results the  spontaneous ministry of gifts can have in a short documentary on you tube about a little known part of the events of 9/11.  “Boatlift: The Untold Story of 9/11 Resilience” tells how immediately after the towers collapsed thousands of frightened people were desperate to get away from ground zero.  They had no idea what other attacks might be coming.  But the subways and bridges were all shut down, and as the film’s narrator Tom Hanks says, “Many people realized for the first time that Manhattan is an island.”  The miracle is that 500,000 people were evacuated from Manhattan in just 9 hours by a group of volunteer tug boat and ferry boat captains who saw a need and put out a radio plea for other boats to join them.  They had no plan, no organizational chart.  Dozens of good people simply decided to share the resources they had available – no more, no less – and their gifts bore great fruit.  (For the full story, go to  www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDOrzF7B2Kg.

When they do the EKG to check on the heartbeat of Jesus followers at Jerome Church, what fruits will they know us by?   What can we report to Jesus that we have done in the past and will do today to feed the spiritual and physical hungers of his children?

The bottom line is this – when the time comes for Jesus to check my spiritual vital signs he’s not going to ask me why I didn’t take my canoe to help with the boatlift on 9/11, or why I didn’t sing like Josh Groban, or minister to the desperately poor like Mother Theresa.  Those gifts belong to others, not me.   All Jesus is going to want to know is if I’ve been the best Steve Harsh I could be and used the gifts and talents God gave me to show God’s love and mercy to my sisters and brothers

Jesus will remind me that life isn’t Facebook.  We can’t just push a button and unfriend the annoying or the needy.  We are called to share the gifts of ministry with them all, the least and the most of them – the poor and the poor in spirit — to share with them all the gifts we’ve been given.  And when we do, miracles happen, and it is more than enough.