We drank our sodas from Ziplock bags with straws because that’s how the villagers drank them when they wanted a special treat. They couldn’t afford the bottles. The village was what you’d expect of a third-world village: one- to two-room houses where women cooked on open fires with water they’d tapped from shared outdoor pumps. Our group worked construction during the day at what would become a retreat center for churches. We had two outhouses that we poured kerosene down at night to burn off the methane gas. Some of the women from the village served us our meals. I fell in love with empanadas there. After dinner, they led us in song. We alternated verses: a verse in Spanish, one in English. The joy in their music made me jealous.
We had traveled to Honduras to give to the less fortunate, but I went home taking so much more from them, and I wondered, who are the fortunate ones?
Almost twenty years later, I come to God with the same question. Who should thank God every night in their prayers for the lot he’s given them?
“Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said, “for God populates his kingdom with them.” Blessed are the hungry; blessed are the rejected; blessed are those who suffer injustice; blessed are those who are socially ostracized. Jesus turns the worldview of the Pharisees upside-down.
The people of God are those who though marginalized, forgotten, and discounted in this world, depend on God alone.
Still, the Pharisees didn’t get it. “Why the heck are you eating with these people?” The spittle of the their disgust smacks Jesus in the face.
Jesus answers with three stories, each one upping the stakes of the previous: the story of a woman who lost a coin precious to her retirement and to her ability to care for her family, found it, and celebrated its discovery with her friends, most likely over a meal; the story of a shepherd who lost one of his sheep, found it, and celebrated its discovery with his friends, most likely over a meal; the story of a man who lost his son, found him, and celebrated his recovery and reconciliation with his friends over a feast.
This is the heart of God: finding that which was lost and celebrating the recovery and reconciliation over a feast.
We want to be popular. We want to be trendy. We want to have discovered the band before anyone else heard of them. But building a church is not about having the hipster band leading worship or the pastor preaching from an iPad or the dry ice spilling from the stage during the music (seriously, I’ve seen it). Paul didn’t gather people with free giveaways, the latest technology, and the coolest youth group activities. (In fact, neither Jesus nor Paul were very popular at all.) I wonder if we’ve made ministry about being attractive to the cool people so that the cool people will be attracted to us.
This is not the message of Luke. Jesus attracted not the trend-setters but the outcasts, the socially unacceptable, dare I say it, the unhip. He went to the periphery of society and ministered to the forgotten. He gathered in those who the religious and the rich and the hip considered a menace to society.
We see the Corinthians struggle with this. They wanted to find and follow the most charismatic leader. They used the church for their own agendas of finding some sort of status. And when it came to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, they used it to exclude the less-than-worthy.
Paul reminded them that they were all less than worthy. They were all nobodies in society, but that’s who God calls. The intelligentsia and fashion setters and politicians considered God’s ways unwise and unhip and unpatriotic.
God brings into his kingdom the helpless, the misfit, the hurting, the poor, and even the sinner. He brings into his kingdom those who recognize that they can’t rely on their smarts or wealth or piety or position but on God alone. He brings those who have nothing to offer him. And when they return to him, in their spent and tattered rags, smelling like the pigs, he runs out to meet them, embraces them, and does the most elaborate, excessive thing he can to celebrate: he slaughters a calf and throws a feast.
Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Are you willing to join in the celebration for the recovered no matter who they are?”
God’s kingdom transcends income brackets. It transcends the kind of kitchen countertops we have. It transcends housing square footage, clothing brands, and vacation photos.
Our churches do not.
In my suburban life, I don’t pass the homeless on my way home as I once did when I lived in the city. Flowers and shops line the streets, and it’s easy to think this is all there is. My life is not made up of the marginalized, poor, and forgotten as much as it is by the social, political, and economic decision-makers.
True, my church crosses to the other side of the highway on occasion to “do ministry”: to serve a meal at an emergency youth shelter, to rebuild a fence for a poor widow, to take donations to the Samaritan Inn, but Jesus’ gospel calls for more from me. He asks that I eat with the hurting, as he ate with the hurting. He asks that I befriend the forgotten, the periphery of society, those who can’t repay me, those who’s favor won’t gain me any public recognition or status.
It’s easier to hang out with people who dress how I dress, read the books I read, enjoy the Broadway plays I enjoy, but that’s not the model I find in Luke.
As I type this post at 3:26AM, my insomniac heart cries because I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to tear down the Berlin Wall of my suburb. I’ve looked at churches in the poorer section of my suburban town, and the question comes down to the ol’ ecumenical issue: when do you sacrifice theological agreement with church leadership in order to celebrate unity? I am not willing for my children to be taught that there’s a second baptism of the Holy Spirit. I am not willing for my children to be taught that King James is the only inspired text. I am not willing for my children to be taught that they must attain forgiveness through church ritual. These are the churches I find where the poorer reside. Can this be the only answer?
I know it must not be. I know there must be other ways of transcending socio-economic status without either swooping in with the intermittent ministry fix-it or immersing my family in theology with which I don’t agree.
So I pray: God, help me build unexpected friendships in unexpected ways. Help me to live out your all-embracing kingdom in my oft-exclusive life. And I go to places like Rhyme Time for the toddlers at my library hoping that one day I’ll venture a hello to the mom next to me (which might cause this introverted heart to fail right then and there), and maybe someday I’ll take my kids to the emergency youth shelter to serve and eat meals with the forgotten kids awaiting CPS rulings (if I can stop procrastinating the mound of paperwork required), and I’ll stop worrying about how to bomb the Berlin Wall but allow God to work through small friendships.