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Luke 4:21-30 – January 31st, 2016
At Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, their church slogan…their mission slogan…is, “stop helping people.” Situated in a less resourced part of town, Broadway had all the bells and whistles. Great after school tutoring programs, youth and outreach ministries, a Christmas store for 80 families, a food pantry, a violin program, summer care and daycare. They had it going on.
Then, in a nine-month span, 23 young men, under the age of 24, were murdered within a 4-block radius of the church. And the staff and the members couldn’t shake the feeling that for all their programming, they hadn’t gotten anything right. They hadn’t really done much of anything to help the community.
After some time away at a different church, in a different wilderness, one of the pastors came back to Broadway, determined to look with different eyes. He began to engage with the neighbors, walking the streets and listening to stories. He hired one of the congregants as a “roving listener” and, although they had lots of doors slammed in their face, they also discovered that being a good neighbor was more powerful than being a good institution.
Through listening and asking about people’s gifts, they began to match up lack with gifts in the community, connecting like minds, coordinating concern and even anger as motivation towards change, often even change with deeper realization of needs. The food pantry that had been run, they soon discovered, certainly did help people make ends meet, but the types of food handed out didn’t help people who also dealt with obesity and diabetes. The help offered actually made them sicker. But in talking they discovered 45 people in the neighborhood with gardens in their backyards. The church invited them for a meal and together they discovered that no one person thought that their individual garden could really do much more than help them, but they soon realized that together they were a force to be reckoned with. Now there’s a farmer’s market, with free or very low cost produce.
The church has become a networking hub, a place where meals help form the foundation of relationships…listening conduits, the ministers called them…where the unemployed have found jobs, the hungry have found food and the gifts and talents of the neighborhood have been, first, discovered, and then used.
These are also the values of community organizing. It centers on what is called the ‘iron rule’ – never do for others what they can do for themselves. It is, as you might imagine, a total paradigm shift. It is completely contradictory to the model that the church has used, and continues to use, for centuries. And change, as we know all too well, is hard.
Today we heard the second part of Jesus’ first sermon. He didn’t get into trouble in the first part, preaching back in the hometown synagogue. He speaks having made a name for himself, word getting around about some magical, even miraculous things done in Capernaum, and now he comes back to Galilee. And when he announces the soaring, comforting, messianic words of Isaiah as being fulfilled in him, the people who are “oohhing and awwwing” over him are happy! This is good news. The release and the sight and the Lord’s favor…all for them.
Part one of Jesus’ sermon is to pour those things out on the people gathered. But, in true Jesus fashion, he doesn’t just leave them there. They react as I think that we would – “Yes, Jesus, set the world right, feed the hungry and cure the sick and free the captives.” It’s a good message. And we should be engaged with that kind of work. But part two is as prophetic for us as it was for them.
For here Jesus makes the turn. He announces that same dream for everyone, even the people we hate. And we do hate, even us in the “I hate hate crowd”. Watch this – DONALD TRUMP! Yeah…I saw some faces turn, some eyes squint up, some frowns. The challenge of generosity, the kind evoked by the first part of Jesus’ sermon is part two, where we have to extend it out and to engage with people we don’t know, or, more to the point, people we have been taught to mistrust or to disparage, or even to hate.
We all have lines to cross. We all have boundaries that we have drawn with someone else on the other side. And we all get ticked off at Jesus when we feel really good about something that we’ve done – something that is so “kin-dom” – and he is constantly standing on the other side of the boundary that we didn’t even see in our peripheral vision saying…come on, one more step.
The Jesus plan is hard. The challenge of generosity is that we never know when our own personal privilege will get in the way of our well-intentioned giving. To say it another way, we’re never quite sure when we’re helping someone just to make ourselves feel better, or when we’re helping them in some sort of more “pure” way, selfless and full of that kind of perfect love that Paul talks about.
Maybe that’s the case with these blessing bags. I’m quite sure that I have no idea what it is like to live on the streets. I’m quite sure that I don’t have the first clue about who is standing on that street corner, what their story is or how it is that I could really help them. That kind of knowledge could only come by establishing some relationship. Blessing bags are controversial. Some people think that they are patronizing. And maybe they are. But I also think that no giving is perfect, and that these can be a chance to actually talk to someone, or at least to give them the direction they need to help themselves, which is truly the only way that charity becomes something better…
Will making and handing out one of these bags end poverty and homelessness, even for the person in whose hand you place it, much less the whole world? No. It will allow you to step across one line, and to see the next one. Will your advocacy, a single letter to your legislator demanding fair economic and social systems suddenly bring about the kin-dom? No. Because the kin-dom is about more than balancing the scales, it also about opening our hearts. It is about learning to see with new eyes, which can only be done a step at a time. When we worry so much about the exact quality of any step we might take across one of our boundaries, we will end up staying exactly where we are.
So let’s not think of this action today as the action, just one action…not the step that magically creates the kin-dom, but one more step towards it. And then consider another step after the blessing bags…consider joining an effort to do exactly what Broadway UMC did, all across the city. Consider joining first with your own institution right here, in a house meeting to listen first to yourselves talking about what issues you face as an individual or a family. That’s the first part, finding out what God’s liberation means for you, and then we find out what it means for our neighbor and then we see how those dreams collide, we learn about the power that resides in each of us and how we can fumble towards wholeness together…
And then? Well, I’m sure that Jesus will be there after we cross that line…beckoning us to take one more step.