While Jesus Slept Outside on a Bench, We Went Inside to Ring Gongs and Clang Cymbals

A homeless camp being bulldozed (HT for the image)

Keep It Covered

She had one sock raised higher than the other, which I thought was a little strange. She came to the rear of the church building to the little room where I was passing out sample size toiletries and the like to people experiencing homelessness who were coming to use the showers. This is a great ministry an urban congregation offers to their downtrodden neighbors three Sunday mornings a month, along with access to a clothing closet and a free hot breakfast. The missional community I’m a part of from Mill City Church volunteers at this ministry once a month, and my job this past Sunday was to serve in the shower area. This brings me back to the woman I met whose socks were not at the same height. She asked me for the usual items she’d need if she were going to take a shower- soap and shampoo, etc., but she wasn’t taking a shower; she wanted to take them with her. We also had toothbrushes and toothpaste, some razors, etc. to give out, and lotion. She kept looking for a particular kind of lotion, which it turns out she had found to be most helpful with the very bad eczema on her leg. It was so bad she had been hospitalized for it recently, and the doctor told her to keep it covered or it would get infected and she’d be back in the hospital. It’s hard to keep your eczema covered when you live on the street, but she was trying- hence the raised sock. She was older than me, I’m guessing in her 50’s or 60’s, and naturally there’s a lot more to her story. We didn’t talk long as she was looking for the lotion that would help her most, but I did learn that she had been “staying” at an “artist’s camp” somewhere- obviously an outdoor encampment of people experiencing homelessness, but had left one day to visit her daughter. When she came back, the city of Minneapolis had come in and bulldozed the camp. All her stuff was gone or destroyed. She was most upset about the two sleeping bags she had recently been given that were now gone. She said a young man came around doing homeless outreach and gave them to her. She said he told her they were donated, but they were nice; so she thought he must have bought them and given them away. They were now gone along with any toiletries she might have had with her belongings. So she said she was “starting over,” and she wasn’t the only person I heard say that. Before she left she asked if she could keep one of the towels and a washcloth that are there to be used for the folks using the shower, and are not supposed to be given out. As she said, she was starting over.

I’ll Just Start Over

The church that offers this ministry three Sundays a month goes a step further and will wash whatever the people who use their shower are wearing. They can come back in subsequent weeks and pick up their washed clothing. The clothes are in plastic bags with the person’s name written on the bag with a Sharpie, hopefully. As I was working last Sunday, I had a few people ask me for their clean clothes; so I went through the bags a few times. Some didn’t have a name, or had “no name” written on them. Those will likely be donated to the clothes closet the church runs to then be given away to others. I was able to find the person’s bag I think two of the times I was asked; another time I could not. That gentleman- whose clothes I couldn’t find- explained it had been a few weeks since he left his clothes to be washed, and he hadn’t come back he said because “honestly last week I was high on meth and I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to come.” I couldn’t find a bag with his name on it. He said it was no big deal, that he too would “just start over.” He may have only had the clothes he was wearing; I don’t know. He wasn’t too attached to the clothes he had left to be laundered, though. He was willing to start from scratch, perhaps for the umpteenth time.

I saw an older couple come through. The woman in the couple seemed to be in poor health, with the guy doing some caregiving for her, even as both lived on the street. I saw a family come through- a mom with teen and tween boys, a younger girl, and a toddler. I thought I heard the girl call the woman “grandma;” so I can’t say for sure what all of their relationships with one another were. The young men played basketball for a while in the nearby gym. At one point the woman sent the toddler into the gym and as she walked away, over her shoulder she hollered for the boys to “watch him.” I don’t know if that message was ever received. Soon the toddler got in the way of their game, and the oldest (teen) boy bounced the basketball off the toddler’s head to get him to move. It wasn’t vicious, but it sent a message. Later in their game the younger (tween) boy fell, hitting his arm hard on the gym floor, hard enough he started to whimper, if not cry. I asked if he was alright, and he didn’t respond. The teen just looked at him. His attitude could have been interpreted as cold, but I suspect their life is such that the teen knows if the tween is to survive, he’d have to learn how to not let a little pain bother him, or at least not to expect anyone to rescue him if he gets hurt.

More happened that morning, of course, but those are the stories that stand out, now a week later. What, then, am I to make of all this? Am I to make anything at all, or is my role simply to show up when I can and love the people in front of me as best as I can, whatever their circumstances? I’m me, of course; so I can’t help but think about the implications of it all. One thing I was struck by was how willing the folks I served that morning were to simply “start over” with possessions as basic as having more than one set of clothes. Of course this may be a willingness born of necessity, but it was there nonetheless. This is one of the gifts the materially poor have to offer we who are materially rich. I and my family have been struggling to learn how to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, and have therefore been working through what it looks like to hold possessions loosely, recognizing that everything belongs to God, not us. The materially poor do this as a matter of necessary habit. We do well when we do likewise. This is at the heart of our recent efforts to “get small.” We know that we follow Jesus more closely when we do so from “under,” not “over.” Those on the margins of society- the poor, the disenfranchised, the dominated- not the dominators- they are much more ready than we who are privileged to both receive the good gifts God the Giver wants to give his children, and to embrace, I think, a kingdom that is not of this world.

The Gospel Breaks Out

An old acquaintance of ours recently posted a link to an article and YouTube video featuring Jim Carrey talking to a group of formerly gang involved and incarcerated folks who are part of the amazing Homeboy Industries. In our acquaintance’s intro to the link/video, he said:

Throughout history, when God’s “official” messengers get off track and begin to seek power, spew condemnation, and set up walls of exclusivity, God gets his message of grace, truth and forgiveness out in unconventional ways. I think I see that happening more lately in this day and age.

Meet Jim Carrey, preacher of grace. This is powerful. Praise God.

Here’s Jim, in his own words:

 

If you’re short on time, just watch the first half of this 7-ish minute video; if you get nothing else from this post, but watch that, my “work” here is done. Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, says: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” Indeed, as I said above and keep learning, the poor have much to teach us. When I was a student at Luther Seminary, I had a great old prof.- Dr. James Nestingen- who always talked about the “gospel breaking out.” In Lutheran theology, there’s much talk of “law and gospel,” of sin and grace. The law serves to show us our sin- to highlight the condition in which we are caught in which we are unable to live and love as we should- and the gospel is the good news that God has already saved us, that we are set free from this entrapment. Too often this gospel word can get cloudy, muddled, and muddied, lost amidst all the other things would-be “Christians” dare to say on behalf of God. Too often the good news that we have been set free from a life enslaved to sin and death gets lost in the midst of the condemnation of others, and especially in the midst of our own self-condemnation. In such times, Dr. Nestingen would say, the gospel “breaks out.” Good news of God’s grace comes from unexpected places. When “professional” would-be Christians bless the greedy violence of empire and insure their place within the fold of worldly power….

 

Image HT

 ….rock stars remind us that while “God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill,” we can far more readily find him with the poor, with the sick and suffering, among the ravages of war, and therefore “God is with us, if we are with them:”

Image HT

Ironically, as we drove to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering this morning, we passed a scene not entirely unlike the one above in our own NE Minneapolis neighborhood. A man was sleeping on a bus bench, kind of like this:

HT for the image. The irony in this picture defies words.

Instead of continuing on our way and attending the worship gathering, which we did, no doubt the best worship we might have given this morning to Jesus- that (homeless) “preach of peace-” would have been to be good Samaritans and stop and render whatever assistance we could to our bench-sleeping neighbor. Instead, it was more important to us to go hear a sermon that would in some way, I hope, touch on how to follow Jesus by loving our neighbor, never mind the one we passed by who, just like Jesus, had no place to lay his head. Thus, if the mission of the church is, like Jesus’ mission, in no small part to proclaim good news for the poor, the irony of a person experiencing homelessness sleeping on a bench festooned with an advertisement for the “new life” that comes through the covenant to be had among God and his people is no greater than that of I and my family this morning ignoring an opportunity to love an actual neighbor so that we could go hear about how to be in right relationship with God and our proverbial ones. Even worse, if we meet Jesus among “the least of these,” we skipped right by him this morning on that bench, preferring to meet him in a more comfortable setting, among other privileged people like us.

Give Away Your Shirt(s)

During that worship gathering we skipped out on loving our neighbor in order to attend, Jesus drove home the point. I didn’t get to hear all of Pastor Michael’s sermon due to an unruly 6 year old (mine :/), but the passage he opened with was in itself sermon enough for me, from Luke 3:

…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[a]

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.

Just like a valley is exalted when it is filled in, again and again the way of Jesus is revealed to be a way that exalts the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the sick and in prison- those on the margins. Just like a mountain or hill being made low, likewise the way of Jesus is revealed to be a way that humbles the rich, the oppressors, those who can easily access worldly political systems, the well and those who can easily access healthcare, and those who leverage the language of “law and order” to maintain their systems of power and control. In case the point is missed, John makes it plain. To we rich (do you have more than one shirt? I do), he says:

“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none…”

To we well-fed he says:

“…anyone who has food should (share with the one who has none)…”

To tax collectors, he says:

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to.”

The importance of God’s economy is so very important that to soldiers, instead of addressing the violence of their occupation, he makes an economic appeal:

“Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

I was able to be present toward the end of the worship gathering, when we sang the Chris Tomlin version of Amazing Grace, which quotes this part of the original:

The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures

If you hear those words as I do, Jesus is still making his point. God the Giver has promised good to me. In other words, he who causes bread to rain from heaven and supplies enough for today, day after day after day, promises to continue to give us this day our daily bread; so we need not store away “bread” for tomorrow here on earth, where thieves break in and steal and “moths and vermin destroy.” The point is again reinforced in the lyric above with the reminder that the Lord “will my shield and portion be.” Jesus is our “portion;” he gives us enough, and we need not violently defend the good gifts of God the Giver, because Jesus is our “shield” too. He has defeated the power of violence by surrendering to it; thus, it was put to death with him on the cross. As a result, violence has no more power over us than death or sin does.

Again and again I see more and more every day the interlinking of violence and the world’s economy, and conversely how both are put to an end through Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we live as part of God’s economy in which there is more than enough for all; if we share freely and give to those who ask, what reason would anyone have to take up arms against us, and what reason do we have to take up arms ourselves?

Am I saying (repeatedly now) that following Jesus is mostly about how we order our economic lives and whether or not we reject or embrace violence? Yes…and no. To speak of the creator God is of course to speak about cosmic, spiritual truths that defy any words we might seek to ensnare them with. Who God is and what God does, and who we are and what we ought to do in response, is a sublime mystery. But if the gospel is true, God has chosen to reveal the fullness of who he is in Jesus, the one in whom all things hold together. It can be said, and I have often said, that God hides. We do not find him where we expect to. But that it not to say that he cannot be found. God, after all, can be found “in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house.” He can be found “in the cries heard under the rubble of war.” He can be found lying defenseless in a manger, or on a cross.

God may very well be found in me, and in you.

Because God chooses to be with us, how we order our lives and live in relation to one another matters profoundly, and we ignore at our peril the fact that in John’s ministry and in that of Jesus himself, both lead with literal “good news” for the poor. Most of us spend the majority of our days pursuing economic activity. We work. We spend. We consume. We buy, and we sell. We barter. We support the bottom lines of multi-national corporations, or resist them. Likewise, most of us spend much of our days deciding whether or not to live peacefully together. We honk at the person who cut us off, or not. We return a smile, or we don’t. We respond to a harsh word with one of our own, or we swallow hard and forgive right then and there by choosing not to retaliate. We consume violent media, or try not to. Often, the two are inextricably intertwined. The cheap shirts we buy at Target and Wal-Mart may have been made by basically enslaved people half a world away who are prevented from leaving their workstations by violence or the threat of violence. The taxes we dutifully pay to our government support the ever-growing military-industrial complex, and are used to rain death from the sky around the world, all in the name of “keeping us safe” or “defending” (our) freedom.

Sure, God wants to heal our broken hearts, make us whole, and bring us into right relationship with God’s self and with one another, and with God’s good world. The good news is that God has done this, and still is. Just because this is so, we are entrusted with the family business of reconciliation. We are charged with the sacred task of practicing resurrection. We are to live as if God’s other-worldly kingdom really is upon us, already. We don’t have to serve Mammon anymore. We can freely give to those who ask of us. We can share with one another in radical, counter-cultural ways that can’t help but facilitate the gospel breaking out. Following Jesus means following him into such a life. Maybe we just need to be willing to start over. The poor can show us how. We just have to believe that another world is possible, but that’s not so hard to imagine, is it, especially if even in this world Bono is among our most truthful prophets and the good news of God’s grace keeps breaking out such that even Jim Carrey can be heard proclaiming it.


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