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When the Faithful Act
When the Faithful Act
Jesus was not necessarily a handsome man, and he certainly wasn’t white-skinned, with pearly straight teeth, chiseled European features and a full head of wavy brown hair.
It’s hard to imagine him any other way than what we see in the Hollywood films. But how we imagine people is important to the way we think about them. John Thornton Jr. writes in his blog that our imagination gives us certain pictures about the world and the people who inhabit it. If you believe in Jesus, that he came here, took on our nature in order to make us like him, and like God, then how you imagine Jesus to have been is vitally important.
So, would we be shocked if Jesus had a high, feminine voice? What if Jesus had a lisp? What if Jesus' eyes bulged, his right leg was longer than his left, his skin was dark, his hair thin, and his muscles frail? Is this the savior we would want to follow?
What if Jesus was really a freak show, like someone you might see at a traveling carnival? Hard to look at a bearded woman, as Flannery O’Connor did, and listen to her tell us something like this: "God made me this way and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain't disputing His way. I'm showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I'm making the best of it. I don't dispute what God did when he made me."
What if Jesus is not good looking at all, but kind of grotesque, mentally disabled and un-athletic? What if Jesus was ugly, bedraggled and frail? Ok. Well, actually, he was poor; homeless; wanted by the law . . . does that change things? So now does this passage from the sermon on the Mount makes more sense? Blessed are you who are poor in spirit. Blessed are you who have been cursed. The poor, Jesus says, are just fine. They are, in fact, blessed. The rich, on the other hand, have quite a bit to worry about.
I believe it is hard for the rich, the sexy, the handsome to get into the Kingdom of God. Perhaps it's because the rich and beautiful are also arrogant and proud enough to think they know how to fix people. Money gives power and power brings the idea that the ability to make money grants some special privilege and responsibility to fix the world.
God’s Kingdom, however, might actually be the state in which love fills us to the point of overcoming our pride and arrogance and thinking about how little beauty, clothing, material things matter. And so, Mr. Thornton says, instead of trying to cure the deaf, maybe we should take time off work to learn sign language. In the Kingdom of God, maybe the deaf do not regain their hearing. Maybe the prideful who do have their hearing decide that they care enough to learn sign language. The Kingdom is not when the poor become rich, but when the rich realize that Jesus actually lived, breathed and traveled with the least of these, my brothers and sisters.
When we look at Jesus, it might look like he is in pain, suffering, not from any affliction God gave him, but from the imaginative world we have created around him. Perhaps the poor, the ugly, the blind Jesus suffers because we create a world that causes him to suffer. We create a world that divides people into categories. We create a world where racist police profile young scary black men; we create a world of high energy jobs that require certain types of mental "stability," we create a world where disabilities are the punch lines of jokes, and a world that rewards people who have the right skin color, the right gender, and are attractive.
Jesus doesn’t say, “Go forth and get a job, you bum! Go get yourself cleaned up so that society will accept you.” No. He says, “here is the healing you desire; you are blessed and beloved of God, just as you are. You are free to live your life, dependent only upon God, that makes true love possible.”
Christ, the savior, gave us stories and parables that portrayed an image of God, a just, forgiving and loving creator, who created ALL things GOOD and showed them how to live. The poor, the gentle, the ugly, the prisoner in solitary, and the slave are blessed. It is simply our job to live as if that's true, and enjoy a life secured by God.
This is how a Jewish-Canadian girl named Ronit Avni lives. She has spent much of her life studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where her heart was most deeply drawn. She is the founder and executive director of Just Vision, an organization dedicated to increasing media coverage and support for Palestinian and Israeli efforts to end the occupation and conflict without weapons of violence. Her film Encounter Point, about Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members, land, or liberty to the conflict yet choose forgiveness and reconciliation rather than revenge, gave me hope that peace can emerge from pain.
In the movie, Budrus, she tells the story of a Palestinian father and daughter who galvanize their entire community—and many Israeli activists—to use nonviolent means to achieve freedom for the threatened village of Budrus. Hailed in The New York Times as “this year’s must-see documentary,” Budrus helped me understand the power of nonviolent resistance.
Do you want to live differently? For inspiration, go to the website: www.justvision.org. Let Ronit introduce you to the hundreds of heroes on the ground in Palestine who work for peace and justice every single day. Learn from them. Pray for them. And whenever you have a chance, tell their stories.
Or live like Gio Andollo, who sifts through the trash left on New York city curbs for more than a budget-stretching strategy. Like plenty of other so-called Dumpster divers, he’s on a quest to preserve the planet.
He says the freeganism movement, or the practice of reclaiming and eating food that has been discarded, is motivated by a biblical mandate to care for the Earth. As a 29-year-old Christian, Andollo seeks to eliminate waste that leads to landfills and pollution.
Foraging in trash bags has taken off in cities around the world with organizations such as Food not Bombs, a group of volunteers that retrieves vegan or vegetarian food to share with the public. Gio says: “I have a strong belief in being resourceful and not be wasteful,” he said. “Part of that is being a good steward and being a Christian. But there’s also a selfish motivation. I can get these things for free for myself.” As he looked down at his phone, Andollo said he knows he lives with some inconsistencies.
“I own an iPhone, and I know that makes me a terrible person in a way,” he said. “I know how people in Apple factories are treated. That’s one compromise I’ve made in my life.” “. . . but, I’m enamored by the idea of living in poverty voluntarily,” he said. “Jesus taught about that and directed us toward something like that.”
Blooming in imperfect places – last summer we took a drive up to the highest point in the White mountains, Mt. Washington, New Hampshire, where (of course) the park system had installed a visitors center. Just off the visitors center there was hardly any vegetation to be found on this rocky mountaintop except for a purple flower blooming there, in a place where there was no soil and where the conditions were always windy and dry. This little beauty was amazingly hardy.
At the visitor center I asked about that flower. The ranger told me that the seeds are blown in by the wind and deposit themselves in the tiniest of crevasses, and that the plants have adapted to flourishing in a hostile landscape. Eventually, the ranger said, the plant itself could crack the rock in which it grew; it would just take time and persistence. How like that flower are the seeds of the new order that Jesus announces today, inviting us to lives of transformational living even in the midst of the hostile old ways. As communities of faith, we might just find ourselves practicing the kind of faith Jesus talks of in a hostile and unforgiving world. Sooner or later, we may just find that we have begun to shatter the old order, or at least open some well-placed cracks in it, so that the new order Jesus preached could begin. This may be what it means to work towards perfection. "Perfect" as in "whole" and "complete" – God’s kingdom will be perfect.
In our hectic, ego-driven world, this directive can become a spiritual legitimation for all sorts of Type A activity, from physical beauty and intellectual acumen, to spiritual heroics of all kinds. However, as Fred Craddock observes, "'Perfect' can also be translated 'complete' or 'mature.' It is not here referring to moral flawlessness but to love that is not partial or immature" .
Another translation of Matthew 5:48 sounds like this:
“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
To be perfect is to love in the way God loves, to practice the way of compassion and giving as God has demonstrated it to us in Jesus.
To be perfect might well be learning to live after an accident in which you were disfigured beyond recognition.
To be perfect might be finding the courage to forgive one’s enemies and hold on to hope. For instance, Nelson Mandela famously emerged from 27 years in prison as a reconciler and uniter, somehow free from bitterness and hatred.
To be perfect might be growing up like a young Palestinian man named Yousef Bashir, in the Gaza Strip, near an Israeli settlement known as Kfar Darom. Who remains nonviolent to this day, even though, at age 15, Yousef was shot in the back. A U.N. delegation was visiting his house. “I remember complaining to my mom about the lunch she was making,” Yousef said. “I went outside and sat with my father and the U.N. [delegation]. As I walked them back to their car, the soldiers were right behind me. As I waved goodbye, I got shot. It was a single shot. Everything was quiet before I was shot.”
After three days, Yousef woke up in a hospital in Tel Aviv, paralyzed from the bullet fragments that had hit his spine. Before the hospital, “I had never met an Israeli who was not a soldier,” Yousef said. “Every day I woke up, surrounded by Israeli doctors discussing how they were going to save my life. I was shot by an Israeli soldier, but saved by a lot of Israeli people. And that’s what changed my life.”
Afterward, Yousef said, “It became my absolute passion to spend and dedicate the rest of my life to the message of peace.”
Yousef, now 24 and pursuing a master’s degree in conflict and coexistence at Brandeis University, finds hope in unexpected places. “Hope is found when you are shot,” he said, “and then somebody else fixes you up, from that same people that is responsible for your pain.”
Violence, Yousef says, is a distraction from hope. Hope can be found in the worst places ever—that’s the purest hope you will find. When someone is faced with a gun and chooses to respond with respect and love, that’s hope.”
The world, rightly, recognizes the greatness of Nelson Mandela for his ability to respond to violent oppression with transforming forgiveness. But Yousef Bashir reminds us that most of those who respond to violence with love and hope do so in quiet anonymity. They help us to see what real courage looks like. They help us see what perfection is.
It’s OK to visit the carnival sometimes, because there we might get a glimpse of what perfect looks like.
Jesus cures torments, and jesus recommends to the disciples that they shall be ‘complete/perfect’ as your heavenly father is perfect/complete (5:48, poignantly at the end of the antitheses). And specifically, to be so complete/perfect because of his heavenly father’s equanimity in sending rain and having his sun rise on the good, evil, just, unjust.
Well, I did it again. I walked past a man asking for money outside the grocery store, and gave him nothing. He asked for a dollar, and I sort of smiled, shook my head, mumbled “sorry” and kept walking. I might as well have brought him home with me for all he continues to consume my thoughts. I have lived in cities for years, and have had the blessing of many such encounters. I have purchased food, I have asked about and listened to life stories, I have gone to restaurants to eat together, I have given money and I have passed by—and still I don’t feel at ease with one of Jesus’ simplest instructions: “Give to everyone who begs from you.” Give what? Give how?