Tuesday, February 21, 2017

“On The Outside, Looking In: The Homeless & The Sojourners” - 2/19/17


A cornerstone of the proverbial “American Dream” is the idea of home ownership. Buying your first home was considered a milestone of independence. It used to be that to buy a home required saving enough money, 20% of the purchase price, as a down payment. 
But in the booming housing market of the 1990s and early 2000s, with the proliferation of government backed FHA and VA loans, and then with what were called “subprime” mortgages, down payments of 3% or even less became common. We were told that homeownership was good for the economy. And it was, until 2008 when this “housing bubble” burst and the market crashed like a house of cards around millions of families. Banks collapsed, interest rates spiked, and foreclosures skyrocketed as people were priced out of adjustable rate or other non-conventional mortgages and as shaky, even criminal lending practices around mortgages and mortgage backed securities wreaked havoc in the market. The “American Dream,” for many, had become an “American Nightmare.”

   For many people, then and now, the idea of owning a home has always been some kind of a dream - either of what once was, or of what had never been. Despite periods of both economic boom and bust, homelessness continues to be an ongoing social and social justice issue in the United States. 

According to statistics from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 

    • “On a single night in January 2015, 564,708 people were experiencing homelessness — meaning they were sleeping outside or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program.”                             (endhomelessness.org accessed 2/14/17)
  • The national rate of homelessness in 2015 [was] 17.7 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population.
  • The rate of veteran homelessness [was] 24.8 homeless veterans per 10,000 veterans in the general population.

   In Ohio, on a single night in January 2016, 10,404 people experienced homelessness, 930 of which were veterans. And according to the Community Shelter Board, the total number of homeless individuals in Columbus on a specific date in 2015 was 1,724. Chronic homelessness is an ongoing issue, regardless of the rise and fall of economic tides that lift some boats and send others crashing into the rocks.

   Our Mustard Seed Street Outreach ministry visits camps of homeless people in places that you probably didn’t even know existed. In addition to finding some people living in abandoned homes, cars, or on the streets, one of their regular stops is a homeless encampment underneath a bridge on I-70, right near downtown, that thousands of cars pass over every day without realizing that there are dozens of people living just below them. And down there, in tents and lean-to’s and whatever shelter they can create, you’ll people of all kinds, some whom are just down on their luck and others who, as we alluded to last week, suffer from mental illness of some kind. 

This wonderful ministry that Bill and Wayne Daugherty developed and that a handful of our disciples operate, provides food, clothing, prayer, sometimes medicine, Bibles, or whatever they can get, on a regular basis. 

The folks in the camps have come to know and trust our people. These are people who are outside the mainstream, outside of what would be considered “traditional” community. These are people on the outside of life, looking in. (Note - we just learned that this encampment under I-70 has recently been bulldozed and is not longer there)

   Now some have suggested that Jesus was homeless, while others point to one specific passage in Mark’s gospel that suggests Jesus did have a home. Regardless, if he did, he spent little time there. Jesus and his followers didn’t seek security and possessions as primary goals in life. Before answering Jesus’ call it’s likely that all of the disciples had homes, families, and stuff, but answering the call to discipleship, they left behind material possessions, becoming nomadic travelers, following this rabbi.

   Beginning with our first and primary passage for today, we enter what is often called “Luke’s special section,” or “Luke’s travel narrative.”  This larger section contains material found almost exclusively in Luke’s gospel and none of the others, including the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. After having borrowed much of Mark’s basic outline, Luke now leaves Mark for ten chapters, relying on his own sources to record material largely unknown (or unused) by Mark. 

   That’s why it’s special. In this section, even as Luke indicates that Jesus has turned toward Jerusalem, that “turning” seems to be more of an existential statement than a geographic one, as the stories that follow have Jesus heading geographically all over the place, even backtracking to places he’s already been, including Samaria, and not going directly to Jerusalem. 

   Abraham Lincoln is reported to have once said, “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.” Lincoln’s statement conveys an image of determination and steadfastness in pressing on with what is true and right, regardless of the cost. That is also what we see in this section where Jesus has, at least in his mind and his intention, set his focus on moving forward toward Jerusalem, and not backward.  

   Jesus’ first stop is a Samaritan village. Samaritans, being of both Jewish and non-Jewish descent, were the ultimate outsiders of his day. 

As they pass through this village they’re denied a welcome - the Samaritans have apparently heard of him and don’t want him there. The text even notes that they did not receive him because “his face was set toward Jerusalem.” How they know that the text doesn’t indicate. But the Samaritans’ refusal to offer hospitality to Jesus and his followers is not especially surprising, given the long-standing racial and religious animosity between Jews and Samaritans. What is startling is the response of James and John.

   When the report of hospitality denied is given to Jesus, the aptly named “Sons of Thunder,” James and John, ask Jesus whether he would like them to call down fire from heaven to destroy the city. Instead, Jesus rebukes them - he has no time for these ancient rivalries, these silly border wars - he has work to do. 

The journey of Jesus was never a search-and-destroy mission; it was a seek-and-save venture. Jerusalem was both destination and destiny for Jesus. Thus he offers a rebuke instead of an elaborate instruction. They just move on - Jesus will not be deterred. This shows that it will take time for the disciples to come to understand discipleship, and to live life under the reign of God. Retribution and vengeance clearly have no place in the kingdom that Jesus inaugurates, then or now. 

   Following in the way of Jesus means being formed in the crucible of kingdom values: self-sacrifice, self-giving, and self-forgetfulness. Thought of another way, we’re called to be “selfless in a selfie world.” The way of the cross is costly and demanding. Approached by three different people who say they want to follow him, Jesus’ three brief encounters with these would-be followers establishes the rigorous nature of being a true disciple. These verses are not easy for us, but they must not be avoided or explained away as exaggeration on the part of Jesus. 

   The first person says, “I will follow you wherever you go,” and Jesus, likely thinking, “I wish I had a denarius for every time I’ve heard that,” responds that journeying to Jerusalem involves none of the comforts and security of home. “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests; 

but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He’s saying that there will be no stopping or comforts on the road. Each day, a strange landscape will await him, new people will meet him. Hospitality will vary from one place to the next. Jesus and his followers eat when they can and accept what is offered. Jesus describes a nomadic life where there will be no comfort food, no place to call home, and no place to truly rest. 

   The second encounter is even more difficult for us. After Jesus says to someone else, “Follow me,” he receives an excuse wrapped in a request: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus’ reply is disturbing, even jarring to us: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 

   The mourning rituals were meaningful, rich, and complicated in ancient times. Even today most people who suffer a great loss have to sort out many things. For example, when a parent dies, family members can become disoriented. There may be sleepless nights and days of exhaustion. Appetites diminish; food loses its flavor. At times the overwhelming effects of grief manifest themselves in curious ways — keys are misplaced, headaches linger, immune systems weaken. Those who suffer grief may become forgetful and find it difficult to sort out priorities.

Times of such loss can also be bewildering. 

As family roles are redefined, a person’s identity may be shaken in the process. The death of a parent may initiate a period of conflict as family members try to sort out who they are, what they believe, and often how they can forgive. This man may have come to Jesus with his life a whirlwind.

   Jesus speaks to the mans’ disorientation when he tells him to let the dead bury the dead. He’s not coldly asking this man to abandon his responsibilities. He’s setting him free from the swarm of details and personal confusion his father’s death holds on him and inviting him to begin a whole new life, to become who he ought to be. Jesus is letting the man know that his response to Jesus’ invitation is central to God’s greater purpose for his life and future identity. Heard in this way, Jesus’ words can comfort and assure him that things with his family be be sorted out; yet the words also confront him with the need to act on what is more important. 

   The third person that Jesus invited to follow responds, “I will follow you, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus senses in this longing a lack of resolve, and offers a severe reply: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for for the kingdom of God.” 

Now, we should not understand the words “fit for” as necessarily meaning “deserving of” but as meaning “fit enough,” as in able to withstand the demands, the rigors of life in the kingdom. This is not a Jack Nicholson from “A Few Good Men,” “You-can’t-handle-the-truth” type of moment. This is Jesus confronting the man’s waffling.

   As the Gospel unfolds, there are other examples of vacillation. Consider Peter. He follows Jesus into the sea without a boat, hesitates, falters, nearly drowns, and later even denies his friend. Determination, Jesus knows, will be an important characteristic for discipleship. Jesus’ ongoing challenges to religious and political authorities certainly risks placing all of their lives in danger. He needs to be surrounded by those who look to the horizon while plowing. “No turning back,” the hymn warns, “no turning back.” Perhaps Jesus also understands that all those who are considering discipleship shouldn’t delay their decision, sensing that he won’t be around much longer. 

   To be sure, in that moment, following Jesus will be risky. The decision has to be made quickly and faithfully, with an understanding of the personal and emotional costs involved, because Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem. There’s not much time life. Yet in these three responses in that time, Jesus also calls out to those in this time who will follow him and be disciples. To follow Christ means a reordering of life that includes the possibility that one may never settle down. To follow Christ entails understanding oneself in relation to Jesus, even when experiencing disorientation in one’s own family and confusion in one’s sense of self. 

To follow Christ requires a single-minded resolve that looks forward to the work ahead, aware of the risk that accompanies discipleship.

   In turning toward Jerusalem Jesus models for us what the path of discipleship looks like. Discipleship requires a conversion to Christ, the source, goal, and model of discipleship, and is not a once-and-for-all event. Rather, conversion is an ongoing process that lasts a lifetime. As I’ve stated before, discipleship requires a thousand decisions on our part every day of our lives, because the temptations to turn away from discipleship come at us constantly from all directions.

   The Jesuit theologian Donald Gelpi proposes a theology of conversion that provides helpful insights for growth in Christian discipleship. 

He suggests that there five forms of conversion that involve turning away from irresponsible and toward responsible behavior. Responsible behavior measures those personal decisions against the ideals, principles, and values of the reign of God as taught and embodied by Jesus Christ.

   Religious conversion is first, and is always a response to God’s self-giving presence and loving action in our lives. The center of religious conversion is faith, understood not merely as mental “belief,” but as “trust.” Because God loves us first and initiates relationship with us, faith as trust requires being open and receptive to God, as well as obedience to God’s will. 

Faith also involves a dynamic commitment in our action, that is to renounce sin and evil and to love God through service to one another and the world. Our religious conversion unifies, integrates, and transforms all the other kinds of conversion. Religious conversion is most clearly understood in Jesus’ Abba experience, where his close personal relationship with God reveals to him his identity as the beloved Son. Likewise, our conversion comes when we understand our place as Beloved Children of God.

   Affective conversion seeks to promote a healthy emotional life. This affective conversion, modeled in Jesus’ teaching ministry, is exemplified in this passage whem Jesus rebukes James and John for their anger that motivates them to seek revenge on the unwelcoming Samaritan village. This lifelong process involves our confronting and seeking healing for suppressed negative emotions like fear, anger, shame, and guilt that result in personality dysfunction, in order to allow the life-giving and sympathetic emotions like love, affection, friendship, and empathy the ability to shine. By doing this our capacity to experience the true, the good, and the beautiful in life grows.

   Intellectual conversion takes responsibility for the truth or falsity of our beliefs. Intellectual conversion moves beyond the unquestioned acceptance of conventional wisdom - we’ve-never-done-it-that-way thinking - and engages in fair-minded, critical deliberation to weigh the pros and cons of different arguments. 

The intellectually unconverted are prone to authoritarianism, rigid fundamentalism, and dualistic, black-and-white, even know-it-all thinking. Humbly conceding that there could well be more than one right answer, more than one way to understand or interpret, the intellectually converted welcome dialogue, recognize the limits of human knowledge, and can freely admit their mistakes. Intellectual conversion to the Christian also entails correcting our erroneous or immature beliefs about God. Jesus proclaimed an unconventional, radical religious faith that drew opposition from powerful religious and state authorities. For example, his radical command, “Love our enemies,” violates the common sense and conventional wisdom of this world and points to a new perspective on life highlighted in the dawning reign of God. 

   Moral conversion, Gelpi suggests, takes on the formation of our personal conscience that promotes virtue, but also “rationalizes vice.” 

That is, it confronts both our hypocrisy and our various isms, like racism, nationalism, sexism etc. Moral conversion requires sensitivity to the needs of others and unwavering commitment to their well-being. Moral conversion brings about generous self-giving and perhaps even the willingness to die for one’s beliefs. 

For the Christian disciple, Gelpi says, “unconditional commitment to Jesus’ teachings delineates the moral path. As shown in Luke’s Gospel, the failure of the three would-be followers illustrates the radical demands of discipleship expected by Jesus.” Jesus overturns the conventional morality of blood solidarity, that is salvation only for Israel, and proclaims a new, all-inclusive solidarity of the human race.

   Finally, Sociopolitical conversion takes responsibility for promoting the common good, as opposed to the individual or even the group or national good, through the just reform of social institutions. Sociopolitical conversion awakens us from our inhumanity that is self-absorbed, biased, apathetic, or even indifferent to the social injustice that afflicts our suffering world. Sociopolitical conversion compels commitment to universal human causes such as the elimination of world poverty, nuclear disarmament, the opposition to sexism, racism, and classism, the protection of the environment - all causes that advance the common good of all humanity. 

   Sociopolitical conversion for the Christian means working with other people of good-will for a just society that reflects the ideals and principles of the kingdom of God. Modeling sociopolitical conversion, Jesus announces the reversal of values so that the last shall be first and the first last. In proclaiming the Kingdom of God as being at hand, Jesus turns the hierarchal structure of first century Roman society upside down. God’s kingdom raises to the places of highest importance those on the outside: the poor, the oppressed, and those considered nonpersons; while the aristocracies, both secular and priestly, are called to humble themselves in lowly service to those in greatest need. Jesus proclaims a radically egalitarian Jewish society where justice and peace reign and the poor and marginalized are privileged. 

   In sum, Gelpi says, transformation into the image of Christ for a Christian disciples requires all five forms of conversion because they mutually reinforce and strengthen one another. 

Likewise, the lack of conversion in one area can sabotage and even subvert conversion in another area. Finally, the radical demands of discipleship require a lifelong commitment to ongoing conversion that is fully achieved only in the death and resurrection we share with Christ our Savior. 

   By ongoing conversion, I mean we have to be converted every day. We have to make those thousand decisions every day. We have to do the right thing, to display mercy and kindness, to curb our tongue, every day. We’ll do better some days than others, but overall what is our tendency? It’s like how a dieter monitors calorie intake or weight. There will be good days and bad days, good decisions and bad decisions, but is the overall trajectory going in the right direction or not? If not, then maybe we have conversion work to do.

   Our second passage today offers an affirmation of this idea of discipleship, as well as what we talked about last week when we talked about the priesthood of all believers. The sending of the seventy-two confirms that ministry was not limited to the Twelve - that is, the call to ministry is to all believers. And it affirms that discipleship as costly, not cozy and comfortable, is the gist of Jesus’ message here. The journey to Jerusalem is not a vacation. It’s a vocation, and an extreme one at that. Authentic devotion to Jesus is a daily practice of dying to self in order to live in Christ. No delays. No distractions. No turning back. No walking backward. But always remembering: Jesus walks beside us every step along the way.

   So in sending the seventy-two out to heal and preach and teach, Jesus is both letting them get their feet wet in ministry, and also taking his message viral. 

   Remember that old shampoo commercial on TV, where it showed a woman washing her hair and it said, “and she told two friends, and then she told two friends?” Before long the screen is filled with images of many, many women washing their hair, presumably with this shampoo. Well, this is Jesus’ version of “he told two friends.” Entrusting the mission to the 72 expanded the number of people whose lives would be impacted by the gospel. If Jesus had not empowered other disciples at this critical moment, the stories might have been silenced, the healing might have ceased, and the message might have faltered.

   So many Christians, so many churches, abdicate this call -  focusing inwardly on their own personal salvation, their own church building, their own programs, care, and comfort while ignoring the outside world. That’s one of the things I love most about Crossroads - they we truly do have an outward focus in our ministry! Jesus sends out the 72, empowering them to bring healing, to offer peace, and to declare the love of God for all people, to speak love and thereby expand the reign of God in significant ways. The church, by extension, is called to continue this work: sharing peace, spreading the gospel, and providing a safe and secure home for the homeless and the sojourner - both the actual and spiritual the homeless, who journey through life with nothing but the clothes on their backs.  

   Following Jesus, truly following Jesus, compels us out of our comfort zones. It calls us into the streets and other places, to serve those who have been trampled underfoot, and to protest the institutional injustice that does the trampling. Jesus is a light for those who walk in darkness, a voice for the voiceless, and a pain in the you-know-where for those who would seek personal gain at the expense of the downtrodden or the common good. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote eloquently of “the cost of discipleship,” making it clear that following Jesus is never an easy road, but is the most rewarding one of all. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann once wrote, “whoever gets involved with Jesus Christ gets involved with the kingdom of God. For what is Jesus Christ but the kingdom of God in person?” The lesson here is that we dare not get involved in a haphazard or casual way - it requires commitment to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God in person. Jesus invites us to come in from the outside, to be fully converted disciples, to follow him wherever he may go, and to make our home in him. So that’s the question we must answer: will we follow him? 

   I invite you to consider how you will respond to Jesus’ invitation to follow, as we prepare our hearts and minds to bring our gifts, our tithes, and our offerings to support the work Jesus call us to here, for the benefit of those on  the outside looking in. Amen.