NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Prayer of the Day: O God, powerful and compassionate, you shepherd your people, faithfully feeding and protecting us. Heal each of us, and make us a whole people, that we may embody the justice and peace of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
It is Easter Sunday. Though thoroughly exhausted by the ordinary rigors of Holy Week and the extraordinary rigors of a funeral for a suicide victim and the hospitalization of a young girl tragically rendered comatose by a brain anyrism, I am nonetheless pumped for celebrating the resurrection. This is one of the few Sundays when the church is filled to capacity. The morning is clear, warm and sunny. It is everything you could ask for on Easter. Led by the choir, the congregation breaks into a chorus of Jesus Christ is Risen Today. I look out over the congregation with satisfaction-and suddenly my heart sinks.
Standing at the rear of the church I see him. It’s Neil. Neil is well known to every pastor, priest and rabbi in Bergen County. He is sure to have a problem that only cold hard cash can solve. He always shows up on Sunday morning when he knows very well that you are too busy to give him much attention and that any state or county agency to which you might refer him is closed. He does this because he knows that you know that the easiest way to get rid of him is just to give him a twenty dollar bill and be done with it. I don’t want to deal with Neil this morning. I just want to rest in the light of the resurrection with my people. They deserve this. I deserve this.
I can’t help but suspect that Jesus felt something of the same dismay when, after finally escaping the crowds in a desperate search for solitude following God only knows how many days of ministering to needy people, he is met by yet another crowd of needy people. I would not be surprised if Jesus’ disciples, who had just returned from a healing mission themselves, were hoping that Jesus would direct them to turn the boat away from the shore where the crowds were gathering. But the Good Shepherd will not leave a flock of helpless sheep to wander in the wilderness. Jesus goes ashore to meet this bottomless pit of need head on.
None of this is to say that we should deny ourselves the rest we need to remain healthy and whole. Pastors, of all people, ought to know that we can’t take good care of others unless we take good care of ourselves. Airplane rule: put your own oxygen mask on before attempting to assist others. It appears from the gospel narratives that Jesus did, in fact, take such care for himself and for his disciples. But Jesus will not separate himself from the people he came to redeem. He will not let anything stand between himself and the world for which he ultimately will give his life. Jesus identifies fully with the crowd and its needs. That is the hallmark of his ministry. Jesus does not merely heal broken bodies. He restores broken relationships. Jesus does not merely teach. He befriends his disciples. Jesus does not merely feed the poor and hungry. He invites them to the messianic banquet.
Very often I think that the church prefers to “help” those in need rather than befriend and incorporate them. That is understandable. The needs of people we confront often defy simple solutions. Clearly, Neil needed a lot more than a twenty dollar bill that Easter morning when he graced my church with his presence. But I am quite sure that Neil would not have been receptive to the kind of help I thought he needed. There was no way I could possibly have “fixed” Neil and that is why I just wanted him gone. He obviously needed help from someone with greater expertise than me. So why bother? Why not simply contribute generously to food pantries, homeless shelters and social service agencies who might actually be able to help Neil with his problems? The trouble with such “generosity” is that it can too easily absolve me from making eye contact with the guy on the street corner holding up his cardboard sigh, conversing the woman who notices my clerical collar and begins babbling incoherently about God and space aliens or, for that matter, taking time for Neil on Easter Sunday. Better to leave these tough cases to the “experts.” Often I think that our “hands off” attitude toward those in dire need is reflected in the prayer of this anonymous poet:
A Rich Man’s Prayer
God bless the beggar.
Fill his dirty cup with change.
God bless the lunatics
Whose ravings are so strange.
God bless the runaways
Lurking in the subway.
God bless the sad eyed girl
Who sells herself for money.
God bless the drunkard
Who can hardly even stand.
God bless the junky
With the trembling, shaky hand.
God bless the prisoner.
May he one fine day be free.
God bless all suffering souls
and keep them far from me.
In short, writing a check is much easier than forging a relationship. But relationship is what Jesus’ mission is all about. The gospel is about solidarity, not charity. Disciples of Jesus are not called upon to “fix” people anymore than they are called to save the world. God has both of those jobs covered. What we are called to do is invite folks like Neil into our community, recognize them as gifts to our fellowship, learn to love them and come to understand what Jesus would teach us through them. That’s a tall order. I know because I have served churches that are home to people nobody else would have. I cannot say that we have always been able to change their bad habits, alter their unappealing behavior or put them on a trajectory for substantial improvement. But we have learned through them to see ourselves more clearly and honestly. People like Neil remind us what Jesus looks like and what it really means to love him, serve him and follow him. The they teach us that their need is but a pale reflection of our own desperate need for a new heart, an open mind and an accepting spirit. They teach us to pray that God might “make of the eyes of others [our] own eyes.” Here is a poem by Phillip B. Williams that touches on that very point:
What can I do but make of the eyes of others
my own eyes, but make of the world a ghazal
whose radif is a haunting of me, me, me?
Somewhere there are fingers still whole
to tell the story of the empire that devours fingers.
Somewhere there is a city where even larvae
cannot clean the wounds of the living
and cannot eat on the countless dead
who are made to die tomorrow and tomorrow.
Carrion beetles and boot bottoms grind corpses
powder-soft to feed the small-mouthed gods
of gardens and wind. Roses made to toss their silk
to earth like immolated gowns, hills
spewing ribbons of charred air from cities
occupied by artillery and pilfered grain, limbs
blown from their bodies and made into an alphabet
that builds this fool song, even now, presented
before you as false curative, as vacant kiss — even
what is lost in the fabrication of strangers needs naught
from strangers. Even somewhere stings with stillness,
stings with a home not surrendered but a given.
But I have not been with my feet on the earth
there where bullets make use of skin like flags
make use of the land. My thinking is as skeletal
as the bombed-out schools and houses
untelevised. What do I know of occupation
but my own colonized thinking to shake
free from. While my days themselves tremble
from time and shake off place to feel falsely
placeless, a hollow empathy as if its soft chisel
could make of this wall — my ignorance mighty
before me upon which drawn figures alight
against the stone — my own; what is mine is
the wall my votes and non-votes, my purchases
wrapped in unthought have built and stretched,
undead gray. There are no secrets in debris.
I have a home I hate, its steel and lights
red and blue upon me. Home itself a mist
through which I pass and barely notice.
Home, to assume you are home is to assume
I am welcome in you — to what degree let the wounds
say so — and can come and go as I please.
The television tells me Over there, and one must point
with a fully extended arm to show how far from,
how unlike here there really is. Over there
where they blow each other up over land and God.
And it feels good to stretch as if from waking —
this silence could be called a kind of sleep — and think
beyond, where I am not and where those who are
are not — wall upon which drawings of fists
strike skyward and faces of activists stare into me
from my Google search. Turnstiles separate
home from home. Barbed wire catches clouds
in its coil saws. What do I know of injustice
but having a home throughout which bullets,
ballots, and brutality trifecta against
people who were here before here was here
and people were brought here to change
the landscape of humanity? That word has rolling hills
and towering walls. To hammer against it not to get
to the other side — believe nothing is there —
but to make obsolete side — know there is nothing.
I know this: my metaphors have small arms,
my wallet has made monstrous my reflection,
I have done terrible things by being alive.
I have built a wonder of terror with my life.
Phillip B. Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois and earned his Master’s degree from Washington University. He is the author of several books of poetry and a winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Williams is currently the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry and teaches at Bennington College. You can sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.