Ezekiel 2:1-5 † Psalm 123 † 2 Corinthians 12:-10 † Mark 6:1-13
So I lead a bit of a double life. I have since I started in this work of ministry. I work part of my time here at St Andrew thinking and learning with you all about how we offer our gifts for the sake of compassion and justice and peace, and for part of the time I work outside of this congregation thinking and learning with others about how the church and people of faith best show up and partner to make a difference in the world. This arrangement is partly by necessity. The church is changing, and pastors’ jobs must look different if we are going to be sustainable. And it’s partly, maybe more so, by design. Jobs like mine and Julie Kae’s, and many others in bi-vocational roles, help position the church to be in closer conversation with how this life we proclaim gets lived out and what we can learn from the Spirit as it is at work in the world.
Currently the work outside of the walls of the church has me at Seattle University working with scholars and practitioners to see what we can learn around what it takes for congregations, and faith-based service organizations, advocacy groups, and community organizers to be effective in moving society towards one where all neighbors are able to flourish.
In the course of this work I get to talk with all sorts of people. I get to hear from leaders and activists and ordinary folks of all stripes about the work they are called to, what they are challenged by and what they are learning as they meet these challenges in innovative and life-giving ways. On Friday, I was sitting with two folks who work with an organization that has been on the streets caring for those with no safe place to go for years and years. They are out of a tradition that has the care of unhoused neighbors deep in their DNA. They work long hours and are grounded in a deep faith and prayer life. They have extensive partnerships and are looked to by their local police, hospitals and government as a reliable place to turn to when no one else can help. And on the spectrum of progressive to conservative, liberal to evangelical, it is pretty widely known that their tradition sits, for the most, part right of center.
At the very end of a long and full conversation where we introduced each other to our respective work I asked: so what is your question? What’s the thing, practically speaking, that you are really wrestling with? What is it that you are challenged by and that you need to be able to innovate around? One of the two glanced sideways at the other with a little smile as if to say, OK I am going to say it… he then started talking about the unsanctioned camp a few blocks from their shelter. “I want to talk about the existence of unsanctioned encampments and what to do about them”, he offered, “what to really do.”
Now there were some an unspoken and powerful assumptions behind his sideways glance that said to me that we both knew we were in a difficult area. And this was the point of his bringing this topic up As we talked it was clear that he was not at a loss for ideas about what to do about blue tarps and tents on the side of the road. He had some opinions and beliefs and they were complex and thoughtful. He feels strongly that living in a tent in an alley, on freeway embankment or underpass, with no amenities and no security, is no way to live. He knows from his many years of work how difficult it is and the extensive work and support it takes for a person to make the move to more stability. And he knows and thinks about the needs and concerns of all of the various elements of our community who are impacted by the current set up. He knows it’s a nuanced question and that there are lots of angles to think about. But what he wanted me to know was that the real challenge he faces is that he can’t find a place to talk about the issue constructively. He needs others to think with and talk with and figure it out with but he just can’t find a way to the constructive conversation that’s needed with the many people who have a stake in the issue.
Because you see encampments, like so many other issues that need our attention, is a triggering topic. As soon as we tread into this area, and others that are equally laden, equally charged, we usually find that political and theological fireworks start to go off. Powerful and deeply held values are offended, distrust abounds, and defensive walls often in the guise of barbed attack, dismissive arrogance, or scared, or maybe wise, avoidance keeps everyone in their separate corners. The challenge, the heartbreak, the very real hurdle was for him the inability to be able to even be in a conversation about some of our most pressing practical problems.
In the wee small hours of Saturday morning, a group of eight folks from St Andrew left for Honduras. Every three years starting in 2012 we have sent a group to be with an organization called Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos – NPH or “Our Little Brothers and Sisters”. The group spends a week on their ranch in the hills outside of Tegucigalpa – the capital of Honduras. The ranch is a home for Honduran children who do not have families that can support them and help then flourish. We have had some conversation over the years about mission and foreign mission in particular as we have gotten ready for these trips – conversations about their place and purpose. There is a historical and still powerful paradigm which says that missionaries of the church are sent to places in need to do something good and Godly for those who live there. It presumes that these things, things Godly and good, do not already exists in the places to which they are headed and that the missionary is somehow needed to bring them. There has been in more recent years a growing rejection of what has come to be known as voluntourism. A trend that is critiqued for sending people, usually white people, from richer countries to experience life in a poorer country. It is increasingly recognized that this type of trip is grounded to a large extent in this same historical notion of mission – where one goes to help those who are impoverished, sad and in desperate need of rescue.
NPH is attractive to St Andrew as the organization works very hard to protect their beloved family from such notions. NPH are realistic that we are richer in monetary terms. They are a non-profit like any other who need help from people financially and materially and so the groups take some things that they have better access to. Others who can afford it might sponsor a child or make a monetary donation.
But NPH set up this trip so that we are very clear on the ranch the group is not there to rescue or do anything that the folks on the ranch can’t do as well or better for themselves – or could do if they had the resources. The group that is visiting is there to be part of their family life. They will help out with chores: “We are a big family we can always use the extra hands in the garden or in the kitchen one of their leaders explains.” But the point of going is to play and eat and worship together. To share stories and live for a week learning from each other. Learning from this remarkable organization that has based their life together on a manifest spirit of generosity and acceptance. Ask the travelers when they come back what they learned as they were welcomed in to the home at NPH. Ask them about joy and life and what they came to know about themselves and others as they spent time in this place, this place that tells those who need love that we will love you here, we will help you grow and learn and live into the gifts you have now and that you will have in the future. Ask them and see if you don’t hear in many of their stories the way the Spirit of God showed up to remind them, and through them to remind us, what love and hope looks like.
Now it is perhaps easier as we get ready for a such a trip to do some thinking around how we go and what we take with us. To think about what it might be like to leave our baggage at home, and to go intentionally vulnerable, without the old coat of our assumptions, and a bag full of notions of superiority or knowing better, being better or even of pity and sorrow. We can take some time as we prepare for time in a place that we know will feel strange and new to think about the value of leaving behind the layers of protection we usually bear. Layers that keep us from being vulnerable to ideas that might challenge or unsettle us. It’s part of what makes an intentional trip to a new place, a place different and rich so very valuable.
But I wonder if it’s something we might think about also in our everyday life especially now when the levels of distrust and division are so very high. Now I am not suggesting that we put down our ideas of what is good and right and what is not or that we do not speak out against injustice and trauma especially now. But what might it take to give a little time to deciding whether we can put down those bags that carry all of our assumptions about what those who sit in different places theologically or politically must want and think. What about venturing out without the layers of protection, layers that keep us from getting close, close enough to hear and understand what sits in the hearts and minds of those that at first we want to dismiss, close enough to be able to talk constructively about the things that bother us. This way of showing up is what my new colleague wants and needs as he tries to engage some of the practical issues of the time, and if NPH is any guide, if the way of Jesus is any guide, I think it’s a place where the Spirit of God hangs out, a place that generates new understandings and the possibility of a way forward way.
St. Andrew Sermons