This weekend we welcomed guest speaker Shane Claiborne to share with us a reminder of what it should mean to us this advent season that Jesus came into our lives as a homeless outsider in a violent, unwelcoming world.
This time of year, we as Christians anticipate and remember that God showed up in the world. After all, when we say Jesus, “the Word became flesh,” what we are saying is that Jesus is God with skin on! But during this season we can forget how God showed up: God showed up on earth as a homeless refugee, a little brown-skinned, Palestinian Jew in a world plagued by violence, while Herod was killing babies.
Shane told a story about a pastor he knew, around Christmas time his church was all decked out ahead of their big Christmas service. They had all the red and green sparkly ornaments and garlands up. But the night before the service, while praying, he felt God speaking to him just as clear as day — he heard God telling him to take those decorations down. Un-decorating the church would be hard enough to explain to the church elders, and what’s more, he felt God urging him to then go further, and replace the shiny, clean decorations with hay and manure! They went on to have the most powerful church service they’d ever had there. And when you think about it, it makes sense, because Christmas is about God showing up in the middle of the poop, in the middle of the funk of this world.
He knows the people who started a movement called Advent Conspiracy, which advocates celebrating Christmas humbly, beautifully, and generously. Some kids at that church decided the best way to express this was to limit the number of gifts they receive to just 3, because they didn’t want to get more gifts than Jesus himself received. It’s about taking the season back for compassion, not consumption. Ultimately, this is a season to remember God is close to the poor.
Shane grew up as a pretty lucky kid in a relatively small town in Tennessee. He was prom king and popular, and honestly somewhat self-absorbed. But someone once told him that when we find ourselves climbing up the ladder of status, we better be careful because on our way up, we might pass Jesus on his way down. Jesus expresses a God who left the comforts of heaven and joined the suffering of the earth. He was not too concerned about his comfort and safety. The moment he was born, he was born into struggle.
In Shane’s home of Philadelphia, during his sophomore year of college, there was a homelessness crisis in the city which had made the news. 3,000 homeless families waiting for shelter in Philadelphia, among these were a majority of moms and kids who had nowhere to stay. Many recognized that there were so many abandoned buildings in the city, it was ridiculous that these people should have nowhere to go. At some point they found an old abandoned Catholic Church building and moved in. This made the news because the church archdiocese said that they were trespassing (even though the church was currently abandoned). So this was on the news, and they held a press conference, where they said, “We mean no disrespect to the church, but we talked to your boss, the real owner of this building, and he says we can stay!” The Lord taught us to care for the widow and the orphan. As a reminder of the issue of homelessness, some advocacy groups hung a banner on the outside of the church — “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore him on Monday?”
The city of Philadelphia had a hand in creating this crisis by passing laws which made it illegal to sleep in public places, illegal to ask for spare change, and even illegal to feed people. People could technically be arrested for doing communion with the homeless! So as part of a demonstration, a group Shane was part of slept in the park in protest. They did this night after night, until finally the police came and at least 30 of them were arrested. At his court date, he wore a shirt that said, “Jesus Was Homeless.” The judge liked this, and when he gave his ruling he said this case was not about whether they broke the law, it was about questioning if these are the right laws. He mentioned the Underground Railroad, and said that if people had not broken the bad laws in history, we would not have the country we have today. He declared them freedom fighters and found them not guilty on every charge.
The city changed another law a few years later, which said that it was illegal to feed more than four people at a time — another absurd law which would have made Jesus sharing the fish and loaves with his followers illegal! So his group rallied against this too, and went out and served food to hundreds of people. They said when we feed the homeless, we believe it’s a sacrament, we are feeding Jesus. To say that we cannot feed the homeless, you are saying we cannot feed Jesus. So they won this fight too on the basis of Religious freedom.
But religious freedom was not intended just to win court cases, it is to demonstrate how we should be living as Christians in this free land of ours. How much does our country look like Christ?
One of the Pentecostal churches in his community had started welcoming immigrant families who had nowhere to stay. The government came in and wanted to shut them down because they didn’t have a permit to run a homeless shelter. To get around this, they announced that from now on, they’d be hosting an open revival (not a homeless shelter) seven days a week. Shane and a friend went one night, and it was a good time of music and worship, which ended around 10pm. At that time, the pastor got up and said the revival would continue, but that the next 8 hours would be for “contemplative prayer.” 🙂
The church is needed to be a prophetic witness. It should not be master or servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state — and the conscience of the state must say if you welcome the stranger, you welcome me.
Mother Theresa said, “Sometimes our biggest problem is that the circle we put around our family is too small.” Our love for our own people is not a bad thing, it’s just that our definition of who “our people” are must include outsiders. This is why Shane says that nationalism is a theological heresy if you consider yourself Christian — we are to love as God loves. After all, the Bible doesn’t say, “for God so loved America”, it says, “for God so loved the world.”
So what does it look like for Jesus to show up in a violent world as the prince of peace?
He answers this by telling us about a program he helped run in a Philadelphia neighborhood. This area is a mirror of the violence around the country. Each day, there are 105 lives lost to guns in the USA. There is one per day in Philadelphia alone. He was there one day when a young man named Papito was shot. He prayed with him as he died. A few days later, they had a worship service outside in the street where they reenacted the Stations of the Cross on the corners where people had died. This was meant as a statement connecting the suffering of Jesus with the suffering on the streets. They concluded the demonstration by carrying a cross down the street, ending outside of a gun shop. There are five times more gun shops in the US than McDonalds. The biggest day for gun sales is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. So they invited mothers who had lost children to gun violence to attend, where they wept there at the foot of the cross. At the end, Papito’s mother came up to him and said, “I get it — God understands my pain. He understands what it feels like to have lost my boy”.
In Isaiah 2:4, it is said that God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
Similarly, Shane shared another program they were involved with in Philadelphia, where they invited people to donate their guns. The first gun they got was an AK-47. Then they got some blacksmiths together and they heated the metal and beat them into a shovel and a rake. They turned another into a guitar.
This Season of Advent is a time of waiting for Jesus, but it is not a passive waiting. Something new is coming. Like when a couple is pregnant, they spend the weeks prior to delivery getting healthy, eating right, painting the nursery, and generally preparing.
So, what does it mean to know that Jesus is with us in the midst of violence, by our side, no matter our suffering? When we cry out and ask God, “why don’t you do something about this?” God responds, “I did, I created you! Now get out there and be my presence in the world!” And right now truly the whole of creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth, and we are the midwives.
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