Bethel Lutheran Church
November 4, 2013
Five years ago November a homeless man was found dead on the doorsteps of our downtown Madison, Wisconsin church. It was an event that sparked action on the part of the congregation and staff. Today we have a homeless ministry that, although nowhere near problem free, operates five days a week and attempts in every action and detail to be a solution as opposed to a band-aid for our homeless friends. If you lead or pastor an inner city church you have no doubt dealt with some of the same problems and growing pains we have in getting the ministry started. Inner city ministry is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing insofar as you are faced with a myriad of opportunities to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to live out the gospel on a daily basis. But at the same time cursed because you are faced with the hungry and the naked and no matter what you have on your “to do” list the gospel smacks you right between the eyes on a daily basis.
The church I serve is in the midst of a massive capital campaign, the largest it has ever imagined, raising funds to expand the current campus. The proposed additions would have several multi-purpose spaces, an auditorium, coffee shop, preschool, daycare and a whole host of other facilities designed to help us “be” the church in our downtown locale for generations to come. In discussions about the project I hear a lot of people comment that it will help us “meet people where they are at.” But the more I hear the phrase, the more I think it is as loaded as the term ‘evangelical’ or the phrase ‘missional church.’ In order to meet people where they are at we have to first understand where we are at. In order to meet people where they are at we may have to ask questions to which we may not like the answers, and realize that a shiny new building may not solve many of the problems and concerns in people’s lives.
So I will be thinking a lot this month about where people are at. Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist Chris Hedges defines the point from which I am starting. Hedges’ defines where America is “at” in his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. He testifies that Americans are dulled to reality, the economic, environmental, educational, and political realities of this modern US democracy, which look nothing, like the country we pledge allegiance to (that is in places where the pledge is still allowed), or stand to sing about during the 7th inning stretch.
Instead of facing and challenging the realities of injustice and discrimination that have permeated this meritocracy or oligarchy (take your pick) that we love, we retreat into the pseudo-realities of our modern world; reality TV, WWF, pornography, Facebook, video games, fantasy football, the list goes on. What many view as a culture of rampant individualism and materialism is, in Hedges eyes, a society where the biggest fear is to be unknown. Our cultural habits “expose the anxiety that we will die and never be recognized or acclaimed, that we will never be wealthy, that we are not among the chosen but remain part of the vast, anonymous masses. The ringside sagas are designed to reassure us. They hold out the hope that we, humble and unsung as these celebrities once were, will eventually be blessed with grace and fortune” (5).
As opposed to individuals Hedges would say America is mired in self-absorption. We have taken the neighbor out of Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), and sacrificed relationships and the difficult realities of our world for extreme forms of entertainment posing as reality. The modern American society is characterized by “superficial charm, grandiosity, and self importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation, and the inability to feel remorse or guilt. This is, of course the ethic promoted by corporations (and I painfully add most politicians). It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. WE can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy, and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. Once you get there, those questions are no longer asked” (33).
It may sound like a dark or macabre place to start but it feels real to me. It feels stripped of all the buzzwords and pithy aphorisms we so often use in church circles. It feels real because it is exactly where I find myself each and every morning (maybe this is one of those questions I didn’t want the answer to). Martin Luther once defined our Christian vocation as “daily rising and dying with Christ.” I think this is what he was talking about, the daily shedding of our own self-absorption so that we may be used to advance the Kingdom. Used to be in relationship with the homeless person at our doorstep, to advocate, to visit, to vote, to write letters and send emails, to challenge and invite, to listen and teach and share the love of Christ in a world that does not play well with others.
Real love, true sacrificial love that can only be shown by serving our neighbors. The kind of love that is so countercultural it can produce a reality that starts a movement. This kind of love finds value in understanding differences; it leads to communal transformation as opposed to individual, and transforms our narrative from self-interest as selfish, to self-interest as the self among others; love that leads us to the self-realization that the Christian life happens when my self-interest or concerns are united with the concerns of others for the sake of the common good. This is where all started for the Apostles. It is what we as Christians strive for every day. To prayerfully change our communities and local governments through the challenge and promise of God’s love.