Yesterday as I was driving to a local church to speak, I passed a homeless man standing on the street corner. That was not unusual. The corner he stood at was a popular place for the destitute to beg. His face was hidden by a sign that read Homeless and Hungry. That wasn’t unusual either. As the impact of the recession continues, more people are being driven onto the streets to live. What was unusual was that the sign was written in seven different languages.
My first response was to want to reach for my camera which unfortunately I did not have with me. But then I started to think. This man obviously knows the neighbourhood far better than I do. He knows who lives in the area and how to communicate with them. He knows where and when people are likely to be generous. He probably also knows where he can get a meal and shelter for the night. And I am sure he is very aware of who will show a little compassion and who is more likely to respond in anger and hostility.
The church I was heading for on the other hand seemed to know very little about their neighbourhood. Not only were they unaware of the man that stood on the corner only a few hundred yards from their door, they were also unaware of the rich ethnic diversity that surrounded them and certainly had little desire to reach out and encounter that diversity. Not surprisingly this church was shrinking. And the parishioners were withdrawing in fear and denial, talking about removing the last row of pews so that the seats did not look so empty.
We live in a strange world when the homeless are better acquainted with their world and can respond better to changes and transitions than the church does. Yet maybe it shouldn’t surprise us. The church is good at setting up walls that tell the world – “This is as far as I am willing to go”.
As I mentioned in a previous post – God took the Hebrews out into the desert in order to teach them the freedom of living for God alone. Out into the desert was away from the walls of Egypt – not just the walls of their own oppression and suffering, but also the walls of a culture that didn’t even notice the slaves that tended to their comfort and was indifferent to their suffering. It was in this desert place that God showed those that would become known as “children of God” a way of life that was both more human and more divine.
The desert experience gave birth to a new set of laws that spelled out a new way of living that was both more human and more divine. These laws presented God’s people with new principles of morality, new social disciplines that emphasized mutual responsibility, new agricultural practices that respected the earth and a new economic system that encouraged generosity not acquisition.
Like us, the children of Israel found it hard to follow these laws and made them into legalistic rules and regulations. So God sent Jesus to show us not in words but in deeds and actions how we were meant to live in order to be fully human and to fully represent the image of God.
One of this morning’s scripture readings was the story of the mustard seed which is the smallest of seeds but grows to provide a place for birds to nest. (Mark 4:31, 32). It is a beautiful picture not just of who Christ is, but of who we are meant to become. God has planted mustard seeds in all our hearts that are meant to grow into huge plants that protect and shelter those in our neighbourhoods that are suffering and marginalized.
So maybe, like me you would like to grapple with the following questions during this season of Lent: “What are the walls that separate me from the world that God calls me to be a part of?” What do I need to learn in this desert time and place that will enable me to be both more human and more like the image of God? What will it take for me too to become aware of my neighbourhood (both local and global) and the suffering that is a part of it? How do I really follow Jesus in these volatile times in which we live?