I attended a community meeting last Wednesday night.
The purpose was to introduce the city’s and the university’s new chiefs of police.
The purpose was also to continue a dialogue about the apparent rise of violence in the community — much of it centered near the university.
More than 350 people crowded into the worship space of a local congregation. (Thankfully, everyone was masked.) There were a whole lot of young people there — especially students who live on Greek Row, not far from where gunshots have become a far too regular occurrence. There were community leaders, a number of police officers, a smattering of clergy, and other concerned citizens, too. I was seated in the back between a colleague and our congregation’s intern.
We sat through what perhaps the new chief of police thought we wanted to hear as he talked about criminal influences coming from outside, their efforts to investigate and arrest, and their need for the community’s cooperation in reporting information. One young man, a leader in his fraternity, stood up and told his story. In particular, he talked about a job he held delivering pizzas and his experience in entering one particular apartment complex where drug activity was always apparent. He spoke of his fear.
I could feel my own despair rising within me as I listened to this ongoing exchange, wondering to myself how we might get past just arresting people and actually change the conditions in which people are living to the point where such arrests would no longer be necessary. Then our intern leaned over and whispered to me, even as the student was still speaking of the environment he had experienced in one particular place, “And there are children living there.”
And those words brought it all into focus.
For indeed. There are children living there.
And there are more people living there who are just trying to live their lives than there are those selling or buying or shooting.
None of them were at the meeting though. Apparently afraid of retribution, they feel they cannot be seen cooperating with law enforcement.
And I thought of how far distant my own experience is from these vulnerable ones — all of them.
And I see Jesus now reaching down to pick up one of those children and in that little one offering an image of God’s Reign — where everything is turned upside down —- and where the most vulnerable ones are where we meet (and welcome) Jesus. Always.
And I don’t know where all this leads or where it all ends or what exactly it calls us to be and do, but I do know this.
- Jesus urges us to see the children.
- To recognize that God’s values differ powerfully from those of the world which too often guide us all.
- And to realize that you and I who find ourselves ‘first’ in the places where we live and work and serve, are called to pay attention to the truth that we are a whole lot less likely to meet Jesus and have the chance to welcome him if we don’t put ourselves in the paths of those we might not normally encounter — those who are considered ‘last’ in this world. Or at least open our eyes to those we come across, but are too much more likely to walk by or ignore… if even just because of long held habit.
And yet, of late I have found myself considering this possible truth. Jesus is using an ill advised conversation between his disciples to move us to much larger questions. Indeed, he may be using the illustration of a singular child to make a bigger point, but I cannot help but wonder if the point is not much larger than just how we as individuals interact with one another or even how our congregations relate to our communities.
For this is certainly so. While we as individuals or groups of individuals may play our parts in perpetuating a world where some are first and others are last, very often large, insidious systems are that which ensure the world is this way and without intentional intervention is likely to stay this way. And along the way, because of fear or greed or weariness or just plain ignorance, we just buy into it.
The examples are abundant, but I will just offer a few.
- In the state where I call home, school funding is based on property taxes. As long as this is true, well funded schools will continue to be well funded and those which are not will keep scrambling for resources. Indeed, in more schools than not, the burden of paying for far too much falls on teachers themselves. What do you suppose Jesus would say to this as he offers us an illustration of first-ness and last-ness and servanthood and welcoming children?
- In the community where I live and serve even the best skilled nursing facility in the county falls short. It is understaffed and those who work there are not always well trained and are certainly underpaid. And the food is awful. I don’t know enough about how such as these are funded, but it says a lot that only the wealthiest among us can afford proper care in one of the times in our lives when we are surely the most vulnerable. And what do you suppose Jesus would say to this as he offers us an illustration of first-ness and last-ness and servanthood and welcoming ‘children?’
- At the community meeting I attended this week it was pointed out that many of the places in town where ‘shots are fired’ most frequently are places where absentee landlords are letting properties literally fall down. This is not a new insight or a new conversation. And yet, for all the ‘talk,’ there has never been a change in terms of how we deal with such delinquent property owners. And so children and other vulnerable ones are left to live in places which are unsafe even before ‘shots are fired.’ And again, what do you suppose Jesus would say to this as he offers us an illustration of first-ness and last-ness and servanthood and welcoming children?
I could go on. You could, too, I know. But for now, finally, this.
You and I who live and serve in congregational settings are tired. Exhausted, even. These last few years have taken their toll and keep doing so as we continue to grapple with a world which is more and more shaped by the implications of doing ministry in the midst of a pandemic. Perhaps you, like I, are also at the beginning of realizing that things may never look the same again (whatever that means) and maybe we feel like we are among the ‘last,’ among the vulnerable ones. And in some ways perhaps we do have a taste of this in a way we never really have before. And yet, as we step out into our communities and listen to the stories of the ‘children’ Jesus would have us pay attention to, we are certainly offered perspective even as I was last week.
Indeed, as I picture Jesus in the story before us now and as I hear his words once more, I cannot help but wonder what it would mean as we seek to listen where God is calling us next if we only just would stand still and listen to ‘the children’ who are right next door.
- What might it look like if we put some energy there in a time when it seems a though all that we do and all that we are about is being reconsidered?
- How might our way forward become especially clear if we recognize that it was always about the most vulnerable ones?
- And what might it mean if we were to put the resources of our own too much ‘first-ness’ into serving the world in such a way that even those systems which keep the last always last, were dismantled for the sake of welcoming Jesus?
Oh, I recognize that my reflections here are more about ‘doing’ than just ‘being,’ about ‘giving’ instead of ‘receiving’ the One who first welcomes us. And yet, I do wonder if we keep ourselves from truly encountering and welcoming and being welcomed by the one who picks up a child today and puts that little one in our midst. I wonder if by not going deep into the meaning of today’s Gospel in our world today if we cut ourselves off from actually welcoming the Grace which is also meant for us. At least this is where I find myself now. My prayers hold you all as you seek to listen to Jesus now and as you imagine what and where and to whom you are called next as you also discern what it means to ‘welcome Jesus.’