Jesus Christ: Liberator

I have had a great year as a student at Creighton University. Earlier this year, as I was fulfilling some undergraduate theology credits for my master’s program, I was enrolled in an amazing class with a professor who inspired me. The class was Theology 331, Jesus Christ: Liberator, a christology class. Here is one of the answers I gave on our final exam last May. Who is Jesus?

Mt St Francis last supper

“For me, in the figure of Monseñor Romero, Christ passed through El Salvador.” This one line in a documentary has stayed with me since I watched it. This is the Jesus I have come to know in my life, through my readings of scripture and story and narrative. The Jesus who reaches out to those left behind or discarded. I first met this Jesus as a seven-year old whose mother had died. That poor lost little girl was tended to by three nuns when she made her first communion in second grade. They saw her grief and worry and brought her to the table.

I have seen that Jesus who cares in a very special way for the poor all over the world as I have walked the halls of congress with my own disabled sister as we advocated for food and nutrition policy, for sustainable development, for increased funding for HIV/AIDS patients.

I have seen that Jesus in Iraq and Syria as he walks in the refugee camps and tends to newborn babies whose parents have nothing and no one to turn to. I have heard others tell his story in the form of kidnapped and murdered priests, just like Oscar Romero.

Mt St Francis Love like FrancisAs I have participated in this class and read all three authors, I have read the words out loud to my precious husband. “Look! Do you see this? This is what I keep saying over and over! You cannot profess to love God and not love your neighbor. These two are inseparable! That neighbor on the side of the road who looks scary is obviously in need of help. We can’t walk by her like the others.” What would Jesus do seems so cliché…but how do we answer that question, cliché or not?

That question and so many others rise from the depth of a heart that has not been immunized against empathy and compassion by the consumer society around me, but inflamed by the lack of justice in our laws and institutions. Sometimes it has been a lonely journey to walk. To sit in church and hear about Jesus week after week, but only in the sense that he is some kind of ideal absolute, is not what has given me cause to step out and walk with him. That Jesus is an idol, a statue on the shelf that I cannot reach.

The Jesus in this class is the Jesus that asks me to open my eyes and look around to see that others need this hands-on, give-me-a-hug, wipe-my-tears-away, human contact that reminds them that they, too, are human beings, made to love and to be loved. This is the Jesus who tells me to conscienticize myself: ask the questions of why is the world like this? What have we done to make it this way? What can we do to liberate and heal it? See. Judge. Act.

From my first reading of the entirety of scripture upon discovering Micah 6:8, my faith finally had the simplicity of six words to guide me: Act justly. Love tenderly. Walk humbly. This is the praxis of Jesus that his life demonstrated and I believe him when he tells me in Matthew 25 that our judgment will be based on this. Even when we don’t call on his name and step out in this way not expecting to see him in the moment, he is there, and we are loving him by loving our neighbor.

This is the Jesus who calls out the rich who withhold from the poor and can’t understand how serving the common good is how we all develop fully as persons, and the hypocritical church leader whose letter-following legality keeps people out and denies them hope.

This is the Jesus I have met in the community of this class. This is Rutilio Grande, Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, anyone who stands against the commodity form and sees their lonely neighbor as a person in need of human contact and comes into her life as friend. I have met this Jesus in this class and will always be grateful that I had the chance to share him with others.

Dona nobis pacem.

Loaves and fishes

Amish friendship breadThe check-in question at staff bible study this week was “When have you been used by God in a way that you didn’t expect?” It’s the kind of question you search your memory banks to find an answer for. I couldn’t jog my memory in that way so instead came up with a story of how God used someone for me in an unexpected way. That was the subject of my blog entitled, “So Jesus walked into church today,” but that is not the subject of this blog!

My co-worker Kelley told the story of her 8-year-old son coming home from school and reporting that his friend only had a sandwich in his lunch and couldn’t they do something about it? As Kelley thought about who this friend was she remembered that he was the tenth child of a mother who had died while pregnant with what would have been her eleventh child. This mom was diagnosed with cancer and opted not to have chemo or radiation so she wouldn’t harm her still enwombed child. The sad ending of this story is that both died; dad and the other ten children are the remainder of this family.

That dad and mom were special in our community because of how they lived out God’s call to love our neighbors as explained in Matthew chapter 25. They created what is now the largest provider of food to families in our community who know what the term “food insecurity” means, Mission For All Nations, now known as Heartland Hope Mission. They feed thousands every month in Omaha, Nebraska.

The irony of the story (as I saw it) was that this little boy whose mother has been gone for five years, does not have enough to eat. But the good news of this story that Kelley shared is that she just stepped into that gap and not only sent her son with lunch to school, but packed an extra one for his friend. Then she discovered that a number of people at this school have stepped up to help all of the siblings who attend this school. The community – the family of God – is sharing their loaves and fishes so that there is enough for all.

The passage we studied that day in staff prayer was John 6:1-14, which is John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000, the only story that all four gospel writers recorded other than the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Two stories so amazing, that all four of these storytellers remembered and retold them.

It is such a familiar story to me and others that we can hardly expect to see something new there, and yet on Tuesday I did, prompted by Kelley’s story and pondering something I have imagined about how it happened that Jesus could feed all those multitudes with five loaves and two fish.

Verse 5: Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”

And then in verse 6 is this part that struck me in a new way:

He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.

He himself knew what he would do…

Of course he knew. He is God after all. 🙂

But we spend a lot of time looking at this miracle and imagining Jesus just taking those loaves and fishes and using his magical miraculous powers to keep a basket of bread and fish from running out as the disciples pass it around to the 5,000 men seated there, and then collecting up the twelve baskets of leftovers. Haven’t you done a lectio divina study of this passage, closed your eyes as it was being read for the third time and pictured the basket with a level of bread that just doesn’t go down? I have. So maybe I’m the only one…

It is a memorable miracle recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which we read – again – on Tuesday.

But right before we read it, Kelley shared that story…

And then Jake, who was leading our study, said that God uses what he has right there in front of him to meet the need – their need, our need – while we are worrying about where we are going to get the food to feed all these people.

“Here, Lord, this little boy has his lunch with him. A couple of small loaves with some fish. Looks like the makings of a sandwich for one. That’s one. You will have to take care of the other 4,999.”

And Jesus looks out there – he himself knew what he would do – and sees…

…his creation. A community of people. 5,000 men (so the account says). What it doesn’t say is (but we always mention it because it makes the miracle that much BIGGER) is that there are women and children, too, maybe 10,000 or 15,000 total. We know there are more than just men because, hey!, there is that one little boy with his sack lunch that Andrew has just offered to Jesus. (We don’t even know if Andrew asked the little boy if he could take it!)

And this is the miracle that I think happened, and go ahead and disagree with me if you want. You can close your eyes and see the story however the Holy Spirit puts it in your mind, but this is my version.

Jesus looks out there and knows what he will do. He sees a community of people, including boys with lunches their mothers packed, and most likely their mothers, too. Mothers who do what needs to be done when their sons go to school with well-packed lunches and their friends have less. Mothers get together to meet the need. And surely if there is one little boy with a well-packed lunch in that crowd of people learning from the master teacher, the Lord of creation, there are hundreds of little boys and little girls and their mothers who know they need to eat so they can learn and work and live.

Jesus – God – uses what he has right there in front of him. He knows what’s there because he made it: US! He gave us what we need: FOOD! He created us to be a community: LIKE WHAT HE GATHERED AROUND HIM.

You’re right. It doesn’t say that in John 6 or Matthew 14 or Mark 6 or Luke 9. It doesn’t indicate how Jesus fed all those people. But like Jake said, he uses what is there to make his kingdom come.

I just love this story. Jana and I have been advocating on hunger and poverty issues for years with Bread for the World and will do so again in June when we head up with hundreds of others on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. We will be mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers asking our government – our WE the PEOPLE – to use what God gave us to feed the hungry multitudes in our midst, in our cities, in our country, in the world.

“My friend has a very small lunch,” said Kelley’s son when he came home from school. The tenth child of the man who created the biggest supplier of food for hungry people in our community, is hungry himself. And God looked out there and saw Kelley and used her and the lunch she made for her son that day when he went to school. And just like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, she told us the story so that we would know.

God uses what is right there in front of him. You and me and our lunches, because it is more than enough for all.

So Jesus walked into church…again

Matthew 25I need to start this somewhere, so I’m starting it with our Tuesday staff retreat.

As part of our all day staff gathering, we took turns affirming each other in the gifts that we see in each other. It can be humbling to listen without responding when others say really nice things about you. In my case, I wonder if it’s me they’re talking about or some other Julie I have never met. But this is not about me!

We didn’t get around to everyone – we’ll finish that at another staff meeting next week – but we did get to Nancy. And what I wanted to affirm to everyone else about Nancy is that she has never met a stranger. Friday afternoons here at West Hills Church can be very quiet, but I can almost guarantee that Jesus will walk in the door in those quiet times and find Nancy. And she always recognizes him and strikes up a conversation. You should see this. It’s amazing!

Today being Friday, and quiet, well…Jesus walked in again.

The phone had just rung and Nancy answered it at her desk just as the doorbell rang, so she hit the key button on the door security system and let him in. This time, he was a she and her name was Rebecca.

She needed help. She wasn’t hungry or in need of clothing or a drink of water, and being as how she was now in the church building, she didn’t need a visit in prison either. Those are things we read about in Matthew 25. “When did I see you, Lord?” The sheep, the goats…you know the story.

She did need help in another way. She needed $86 to make up the difference between what she had in her hand and what it was going to cost to register her car at the DMV. And here was Nancy, listening to Rebecca, and seeing her own daughter sitting there.

Rebecca lives by herself, with just her dog for company. Her only income is from Social Security, just like Nancy’s daughter. Such a little bit, $721 per month (just like Nancy’s daughter), to take care of rent, food, heat, car payment. And Rebecca showed Nancy the paperwork on all this to make her point. She had $69 in her hand and she needed $86 more to make up the $155 needed at the DMV. Her car was her lifeline and she just couldn’t lose it or be without it. So she did what she needed to do: in her humanity and humility she reached out in need to the one place her heart told her she would find what she needed and that happened to be our church and there was Nancy to listen.

Nancy sat down and listened to her story and then gave her the $26 she had in purse. (When did I do this for you Lord? “I tell you the truth, whenever you did this for one of the least of my family, you did it for me.”)

And then I happened by and honestly, I was going to walk right by. But then another image flashed through my brain: Katie.

Katie is Katie Davis and about three years ago our staff read her book, “Kisses from Katie.” It tells the story of Katie going to Uganda on a summer mission trip and having her heart completely consumed by the orphans who live there in uncountable numbers. Katie went back, adopted more than a dozen as her own children while still under the age of 21 herself, and founded Amazima Ministries. It’s a great story. You can read more about it here:

http://amazima.org/

The big lesson I learned from Katie in that book was this: you can’t love everyone who needs to be loved. But you can love the one in front of you at any given moment with the love of Christ. When did I see you hungry? I was right in front of you. And my name is Rebecca.

So Nancy introduced me to Rebecca and I heard her story, too. And now she had $95 in her hand. I did the math quickly in my head (love numbers!) and deduced that she still needed $60. I had $60 in my wallet today that I did not have yesterday. And now I know why it was there. It was there for Jesus/Rebecca. When did I see you needed to register your car? (That’s the Matthew 25 paraphrase.)

Open your hands. Release what’s there. I will guarantee you that as fast as you think you are emptying them, they will be refilled in ways you can’t imagine. You will get the privilege of holding Jesus in your arms, praying for a safe journey to the DMV and knowing that at least for this day, you loved him in the only way he asked of you.

And if it’s a quiet Friday afternoon, you might just get to meet him with Nancy, who has never met a stranger because she knows them all by name.