Sunday, June 29, 2014

Taking the Stranger's Hand

[Sermon from Sunday, June 29]
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew (10:40-42) concludes a chapter that’s all about discipleship, costly discipleship.  And that’s OK.  As Fr. Marcus said last week, following Jesus ought to cost us something – in fact, it ought to cost us everything. 
Now, Fr. Marcus was discussing the Church’s call to take decisive stands on large issues – issues like marriage equality, and investment in Israel, and economic justice.  I guarantee you the Episcopal Church will debate these same issues next summer when we gather for General Convention.  Even now, the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council passed a resolution two weeks ago encouraging all Episcopalians to “stand in solidarity with our low-wage brothers and sisters” and commending the voters of Seattle for raising the minimum wage there to more than $10 per hour.1  Some of you are probably angry to hear that; others of you are trying not to applaud.  That’s what living in the Big Tent of the Episcopal Church is like.  But here’s what else I know about living in that Big Tent:  Faithful, passionate people can share a holy goal even as they disagree vigorously on how to achieve it.  In this example, one person might work for legislation to raise the minimum wage; another might extol the free market’s power to expand opportunity and raise incomes for all.  But both can make the case from deep faith, and both can share the same kingdom goal: getting people out of poverty.  Working toward that goal is one way we strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being.
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks here because issues of justice have kept knocking at our spiritual door, one after another.  The Kansas City Public Schools unveiled a plan last week to lease Southwest High School to charter school Academie Lafayette, which wants to add high-school grades to its successful elementary and middle-school programs.  After a conversation between the Southwest Faith-Based Coalition and school-board member Gunnar Hand, the writing on the wall seems clear:  Southwest would be closing anyway; and the Board sees partnering with Academie Lafayette as a way to give this historic high school a new lease on educational life.  We’ll see; it’s not a done deal.  Of course, the members of the Faith-Based Coalition are concerned for the students who won’t qualify for admission to Academie Lafayette – which is nearly all the students currently at Southwest.  What happens to them, other than being shunted off to an even worse educational environment?  The faithful folks on the Coalition, who’ve served the students and teachers of Southwest for four years now – they want to ensure these kids who’ve often been forgotten are not forgotten again.  The Coalition members are striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of these forgotten kids.
Then, two days after the Faith-Based Coalition meeting, 29 St. Andrew’s people gathered at Operation Breakthrough for perhaps the least likely bus tour ever: a tour of Kansas City’s east side, “the city you never see.”  Dorothy Curry organized it as the next step in a journey of relationship we’re trying to begin with people we basically never see.  When Sister Berta from Operation Breakthrough was with us in May, she spoke about the power of connecting with another human being – the transformation that can happen when individuals who live in wealth and individuals who live in poverty enter each other’s worlds by simply sitting down together for a cup of coffee or a meal – or, before that, by taking a bus ride.  On Thursday afternoon, just a few miles from this beautiful church and this beautiful neighborhood, we saw parts of our city that many of us had never even driven through.  We heard clients from Operation Breakthrough describe challenges most of us would never think about – the insane reality of getting a 10-cent-an-hour raise, and thereby losing your state child-care benefits, and thereby losing the job at which you were excelling.  That makes no sense.  Or how about this one:  A mother on the bus whose young son was shot to death told a story about talking with a teenage boy at Operation Breakthrough about the pervasive presence of guns, mostly illegal guns, on the east side.  The teen said to her, “Give me $10.  I could buy you a gun today faster than I could buy you a fresh tomato.”  Let me say that again, because it’s true:  With $10, he could buy a gun today faster than he could buy a fresh tomato.  That’s appalling – and it’s life on the east side.  On that bus, our hearts were stirred by the lived experience of other children of God – folks who’d suddenly become real people rather than representations of poverty.  Seeing “them” as human beings is the first, absolutely necessary, step in striving for justice and peace, and respecting their dignity as human beings.
And then, on Friday, another 20 of us went to the housing projects east of downtown for an evening with Freedom Fire Urban Ministries.  We brought dinner for the 80+ kids there, but this is no feeding program.  This is an eating program and a playing program, a ministry of simply hanging out.  You don’t do “mission work” at Freedom Fire in the sense of doing a project for someone; the things being built there are human connection and faith.  You eat hot dogs with a few boys and throw a football around; you sit and talk with a few girls and paint their faces – and something happens.  Something changes.  No longer are they “them” – those people in the projects who … fill in the blank with whatever judgments you want to make.  Instead, they become kids who like to play football, and have their faces painted, and eat hot dogs.  Again, it’s a way to redeem our perception of “them.”  It’s that vital first step in striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of other human beings.
I know people who would argue that the way to live out that baptismal promise is at the macro level, working for systemic change.  And I know people who would argue that the way to live out that baptismal promise is at the micro level, working to build relationships.  And I would say … yes.  They’re both right.  One of the absolute requirements for practicing faithful, costly discipleship is to look carefully at your own context and ask, “How can we best reveal the kingdom of God where we are, who we are, here and now?”  And then – like the members of the Faith-Based Coalition, and the people on the bus tour, and the people who went to Freedom Fire – then we have to take what may be a huge risk for many of us, the risk of taking the stranger’s hand in ours.
This is small-time ministry.  It’s not going to change the state’s rules about qualifying for child care, or get guns off the streets, or bring a decent grocery store to the neighborhoods of the Northeast.  But in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus raises up the blessedness of small-time ministry.  After spending an entire chapter outlining the costs of being his ambassador, sent to bring the kingdom of God to life in the world around us, he ends with a counterintuitive model of success.  Not only will the one who endures costly discipleship receive the reward of eternal life, but even those who simply welcome Christ’s ambassadors will receive their reward.  Bringing the kingdom to life is not always about large-scale metrics of success.  Sometimes simply extending hospitality, extending relationship, leads to blessing enough.  We strive for justice and peace by showing up – to work with a kid in a classroom, or to hear a mom tell her story, or to throw the ball around in the yard.  It’s thinking globally – or thinking “kingdomly” – and acting locally.  As deeply as we want to solve the problems around us, as badly as we want to fix the Kansas City schools and get poor people decently paying jobs, we can’t make it happen tomorrow.  And we can’t make it happen at all without first loving people as children of God. 
How do we do that?  Well, here’s a very direct suggestion.  It won’t apply to everyone here today, but maybe the Spirit is whispering directly into your ear this morning.  The idea is simple yet simply transformative:  Strive for justice and peace, and respect human dignity, by crossing a boundary to build a relationship.  Take a stranger’s hand in yours.  You’ve heard before, from Sister Berta, about one way to do this – by being part of Starfish Ministry.  The idea is that a small group of women here would get together with a mom who lives east of Troost, not to “fix her” but just to get to know her.  Maybe God is calling you to be part of this, to build the kingdom by building a relationship.  Or here’s another possibility.  You know about our partnerships with Southwest, and Benjamin Banneker, and Gordon Parks schools.  No matter how those partnerships may look in the coming year, I can guarantee you this much:  There are people in this room right now who can offer what these kids need deeply, which is someone who cares enough simply to show up consistently.  So whether it’s through Starfish Ministry, or by working with a teacher or a student, or some other way of crossing a boundary – some of you, right now, are hearing God whisper new life in your ear.  So talk to me or Dorothy Curry – or to Gerry Barker, or Pete Vogt, or Sally Tudhope, or Jerry Kolb, or Joy Bower, or Ann Rainey, or any of us who’ve already heard this holy whisper. 
In these relationships, at first, we might imagine that we’re in the role of Jesus’ ambassadors, and we’d be right about that.  We are his disciples; and we are called, in word and deed, to “proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 10:7).  But the beautiful paradox is this:  In being sent to bring God’s healing, we are healed ourselves.  In being sent to proclaim the kingdom, we hear the kingdom proclaimed to us.  Jesus’ ambassadors aren’t just church people.  Sometimes the ambassadors with the clearest message are those God sends to talk to us.  God wants us to sit down and get to know those ambassadors of Christ we usually don’t hear. 
When we do, the relationships will cost us something, because we’ll have to let go of some of our favorite pat answers and presuppositions and prejudices.  “But I tell you,” Jesus said, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” who speak on his behalf – truly, they will receive their reward (Matthew 10:42).

1.  Schjonberg, Mary Frances.  “Council takes action on both justice and governance issues.”  Episcopal News Service, June 12, 2014.  Available at:  Accessed June 27, 2014.