Saturday, March 30, 2013

Resurrection Work

Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
-          Luke 23: 42-43

[Note: This reflection was part of First Lutheran Church of the Trinity's Good Friday service that featured 7 different speakers who gave reflection on the last seven words of Christ.]

I’m not much of one for pie-in-the-sky theology. I mean, why would God make the varying hues of a summer sunrise over Lake Michigan or the smell of lilac blossoms or the laughter of best friends—why do all that stuff if the world is only supposed to be a holding pattern for the next one?

These words of the crucified Jesus kinda strike me as promised pie-in-the-sky. It seems like final absolution that degrades all the life that was lived beforehand. Of course, in the midst of crucifixion, maybe all victims want is to forget this tortured life. After all, the thief to whom Jesus was speaking was not only slowly dehydrating and collapsing his internal organs; he seemed to be considering his entire wretched existence. Please, Lord, just get me the hell out of this cold, nasty, brutish, and short life!

Then again, Jesus was suffering the same things that the condemned people to his right and left were suffering. That’s not paternalistic absolution; that’s the ultimate solidarity. Jesus was literally speaking on the thieves’ level. Jesus had spent his life among poor, militarily occupied and terrified people. Jesus was just as naked and humiliated as the other two.

That puts Jesus’ words in a different light, and 1st century people didn't understand “paradise” the same way we do today anyway. As a pharisaic Jew, Jesus thought of paradise not as an eternal escape, the ultimate vacation get-away, but it was a place for divinely justified people to wait for the earthly resurrection. The kind of resurrection Jesus meant was the kind that the prophet Isaiah talked about: eating the fruit of one’s own labor rather than working as wage-slaves; living in safe, dry lodging instead of under bridges when they've been evicted; raising kids that can learn about all the beauty of life rather than being shoved about for the benefit of corrupt politicians.

And Jesus told this thief at his side that they will be together today in this place. That phrase seems to me like Jesus was inviting this condemned guy to come home to meet his folks. But, no, it’s even more than that. This convict simply asked Jesus to “remember” him in that resurrection-world—because obviously he won’t be there—but I think Jesus takes it even further. I think Jesus, by telling the criminal that he’d be with him, is saying that this criminal will also be part of the resurrection-work that brings the resurrection-world.

Instead of an immigrant doing day-laborer work in the yard, the immigrant is building Solomon’s temple. Instead of a homeless person dragging oozing, blistered feet to Catholic Charities, they are directing the Thanksgiving dinner for the whole family. Instead of the hardened gang-banger selling dope in the park, he coaches Little League teams for neighborhood kids.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, what kind of kingdom do we pray for? Is it a balcony view of all those sinners’ suffering like Tertullian talked about, or is it taking up the cross for the resurrection-world?

So tonight let us grief for a world that locks up teenagers for an ounce of weed, but then let’s get to the resurrection-work of being with me. Being with you. Being with your neighbor. Being with Jesus.

In paradise.

And we’ll be together today.

Want an example of resurrection work? Check out CeaseFire Chicago, the nonprofit
organization that was featured in the documentary The Interrupters. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Ministry on the 14th floor

Up on the 14th floor of the Wabash Building, conversation was meandering just as conversation often does. We were a small group—three of us total—looking at the passage in the Gospel of John where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. We talked about the different characters in the story, what it means to honor both devotion to Christ and sincere care for the poor, and what a funny word “nard” is. There were some long, somewhat awkward silences as we considered different images in the Gospel, and other times we rambled and waxed poetic. It was a good Bible study.

Then a couple students stopped by us and asked about our shopping cart. For the past two weeks Pastor Tom and I had brought a shopping cart with us to Roosevelt University to collect socks to hand out at our Sunday night community meals with homeless people. We hung out in the caf with our cart and “socks for the homeless!” posters, and students mostly gave us strange looks. Staff tended to be more positive about the impromptu sock drive.

Photo taken by Pastor Tom Gaulke, the campus minister for
South Loop Campus Ministry. And, yes, that's me in the hat.
And then, surprise! We got a couple dozen socks as we finished Bible study on the 14th floor.

One pair of students had met us as we waited for the elevator on the 2nd floor, and they returned to give us socks. Another pair of students saw our cart as we talked about the Himalayan origins of nard, and they too came back with socks. It felt like progress.

That’s when Roosevelt University security stepped in. See, the 14th floor separates the classroom part of the Wabash Building from the student residence section which includes the 15th floor to the 32nd floor. The 14th floor has two separate elevator banks: one set that goes down and another set that goes up. The 14th floor is a transition space from public to private, and so it is also a natural meeting space.  Or at least it is a natural meeting space as long you follow the proper protocols through the university administration.


The security guards on the 14th floor asked if we had gotten prior permission to ask students for socks. We responded that we had been collecting socks on the second floor, but we had brought the cart with us for the Bible study with Roosevelt students on the 14th floor. Oh, and we usually work with an RA to book rooms, we quickly added. The guards told us that without prior permission, a sock drive is solicitation and is strictly forbidden. At least it is on the 14th floor, they didn’t add.

My natural inclination is to follow instructions and respect authority. I suppose that comes from my  upbringing in rural central Pennsylvania and all those years as a Boy Scout. That day on the 14th floor was no different—we packed up and left down the elevator with our sock cart. One of the students asked why we hadn’t stood up to the guards. We were collecting socks for homeless people, for crying out loud.

One of my favorite teachings of Jesus comes from the Mission Discourse of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus tells his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16) in the midst of trouble. In my experience in community organizing, that means know when to back down (strategically, of course). Especially when I’m on the 14th floor.

I've found that ministry with South Loop Campus Ministry is a very 14th floor kind of ministry. With our “accidental” ministry with the homeless folks of the neighborhood and our outreach to the “anti-sectarian” folks of Roosevelt, we’re a bit on the edge. What we do makes people occasionally uncomfortable, and going back down the metaphorical elevator would ease the tension. However, being present on the 14th floor with our sock cart does open up that transitional space into a meeting space. It stretches us, molds us, makes us available for meeting each other, as well as meeting with our God.

Even though Bible study and our sock cart may move to another floor, I think our ministry needs to stay on the 14th floor. On the 14th floor, where community, action, leadership, and faith all meet.