Today’s Message, 5/24/2020

John 17:1-11

At the end of his life, Jesus prays for his disciples, for the people he was sent to teach and those with whom he has a relationship, but not for the world in general. This statement may seem strange. Or, it could be a paradigm shift in how we see and treat the people we encounter daily. People are beautiful, divinely created individuals, and not the sum of their interactions with the world.

            An urban church with small membership and a shrinking budget made use of its space for as much weekly ministry as possible. Families without homes found shelter in their church during daytime hours. A biweekly food pantry fed over 200 families. Every Sunday the soup kitchen offered a hot meal to as many as 150 people. Besides these ministries, people would pop by during the week, seeking assistance with an electric bill or rent. If the money was available, it was given. 

            There were never many people in the pews on Sunday mornings, but for most of the urban community surrounding the church it was an invaluable resource for shelter, food and community support. It was a place where you could go to have your most basic human needs met in the most human way possible. Each person was treated as a person, as someone loved by God.

            Of course, not all things were idyllic. There were occasions when the pastor and the leadership at the church needed to say “no.” When some homeless men and women started sleeping in the alleyway in the back of the church, making wary the families and children who used the inside of the church for safe shelter during day, the pastoral leadership told the people sleeping in the alleyway that they could no longer stay there at night. Besides, the alley way did not honor their humanity. Wouldn’t a warm bed at the YMCA or other overnight shelter be preferred?

            This news was not received well. One woman in particular took exception to the new rule. She felt that the church was showing preferential treatment to some people and excluding others like herself. For several weeks, she would return at night and throw bricks and rocks through the windows. One at a time, the pastor’s study windows were shattered. The glass in the front doors was broken. The windows in the store house rooms where pantry foods were kept were broken. Soon, most of the windows in the building were damaged.

            When the police came, they took footage from security cameras and inspected the damage. Unfortunately, they said, if caught, the woman could not be held in jail because there were no-bail laws in the city. Since she wasn’t posing any physical harm to herself or others, she could not be held in jail on bond. That meant that if she were arrested, she may be charged, may have a court date, but she would be back on the street again soon, likely angrier than she was now.

Praying on behalf of people

            Our gospel reading today shows Jesus preparing for the end of his life. He prays for his disciples one final time. He tells God that he has taught the people given to him as much as he could. He has spread God’s name as far as he could. He has told them that God sent him, and many believed him. Now, he is praying on behalf of the people to whom he was sent. Jesus is clear that he is not praying on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those God gave him.

            Did you catch that? Jesus says he is praying on behalf of those given to him, not on behalf of the world. This seems like a bizarre statement, particularly as churches around the nation and even around the globe routinely pray for the world. Why would Jesus not pray on behalf of the world?

            Jesus chooses to pray on behalf of the people he has met, people he has spent a lot of time with and knows intimately. He knows their names and their stories. He knows what keeps them up at night and what gives them great joy. He prays for the people, not their circumstances. Jesus prays for the disciples, but not for the events or environments in which they are found. Jesus is acknowledging that people are not the sum of their experiences or simply a product of their environments. Jesus prays for the disciples and not the world because the disciples are people and not conditions. His actions acknowledge that God made people in God’s image, beautifully and wonderfully, and that people deserve to be treated as individuals whom God loves. People deserve to be seen with all their humanity and dignity intact.

Personal relationships

            The people at the urban church I told you about also seemed to understand this. Weekly, this small congregation met hundreds of people where they were, meeting their most basic human needs. The congregation knew their stories and their families. They gave them groceries and dinner, rent and utilities. They offered safe shelter for their children. 

            Things shifted, however, when the building was vandalized. No longer was the focus of the church’s energy solely on a person who is a beloved child of God, but now they were concerned with the building, no-bail laws, security cameras and vandalism. The woman in question was no longer a neighbor but a perpetrator. She didn’t have the benefit of a story or even a human face. Even though she was quickly identified, her identity remained simply that of an at-large criminal, not as a beloved creation of God.

            It may be counterintuitive to pray for people and not for the world, but perhaps we would have no need to pray for the world if we could pray for each other by name. The world would be a different place if we invested in relationships the way we’ve invested in criminal justice. The world would be transformed if we knew the stories of the people we meet every day. We have the power to create and recreate circumstances. We have the power to treat each other with grace, dignity and humanity through one personal, human interaction at a time. It may seem a small or insignificant way to produce change, but God does not see faceless perpetrators or nameless victims. God sees our individuality, and all of who we are, and he still chooses to love us.

Tikkun olam

            There is a Jewish concept of tikkun olam, literally translated as “world repair,” that suggests that our acts of kindness, grace and justice can repair the fractures in the world. The way that urban church handled the situation with the woman who vandalized their building has at least elements of the tikkun olam concept. The vandal was ultimately apprehended by the police and held overnight until she saw a judge. She pleaded guilty to the vandalism and admitted that she had done it because she “hated black churches,” though she didn’t say why. After she was released, she spread trash across the church lawn but hasn’t returned since. The Girl Scouts, among other groups that use meeting space in the church, helped pay the deductible to get the windows fixed. In the end, it did feel as though the community came together and was not willing to be the sum of this singular experience of hate and vandalism. 

            Ms. Jones, a woman who is directly involved with that church’s weekly ministries, said she hasn’t heard anyone in the church express hate for the perpetrator. They simply wanted the vandalism to stop so they could make repairs. There’s no way of knowing whether the vandal got what she wanted, but there’s no ill will toward her. In fact, said Ms. Jones, the woman who broke the windows would still be welcome to receive food from the food pantry at the church or soup from the soup kitchen. 

            Tikkun olam — acting constructively and beneficially — is related to the biblical concept of loving your neighbor as yourself, and it suggests that if you choose to change your prayer life, you will change the world. If you choose to change the way you see people and the way you understand them, you will change the world. Begin to seek the humanity in each individual you meet. Pray for them and not merely for the systems and problems that swirl around them, and you will begin to be part of the change in those systems and problems as you become even more deeply invested in the humanity of the people you meet.

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