Today's post is also part of this week's newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.
I have no doubt that you are familiar with the phrase, “If you give a man a fish, you will feed him for a day, but, if you teach a man to fish, you will feed him for a lifetime.” That’s nice, but what happens if someone is starving? Can a hungry person really concentrate long enough to learn how to fish? And, even if someone learns how to fish, who is going to buy the tackle? And, even if all of the necessary equipment is procured, what happens if the fishing pond is off-limits to those who do not own the land? Or what happens if the only available fishing hole is polluted by a factory upstream? On second thought, maybe we should just hand out fish to hungry people after all.
Ministry is messy, and it gets messier and messier the more meaningful and transformative it becomes. When someone walks into my office seeking financial assistance, it is much easier for me to write a check than it is for me to take time to hear her story. And spending a half an hour listening to someone tell me about the ups and downs of her life is a lot easier than investing in her circumstances by helping her work through a budget and find the job training she needs and line up the childcare necessary for her to start a job. Yet helping someone find those resources is still easier than sitting down with our elected officials to talk about Medicaid reform and organizing the rally that calls for an end to sales taxes on groceries and leading the campaign to educate the public about the need for reforms in state-funded mental health services. And none of that compares with the cost of selling all that I have and giving it to the poor so that, as a disciple of Jesus, I can know a little bit better the poverty that he inhabited so that all might be made rich.
As followers of Jesus, we need to give people fish; we need to teach people how to fish; we need to tear down the walls that keep hungry people from fishing; and we need to sit down and fish together. That is the kingdom of God—all of us gathered around a pond, fishing and talking and laughing and praying and eating together.
We live in a world where people are hungry and where those hungry people are willing to do almost anything to fix their circumstances and feed themselves and their families, yet the structures of our society make it difficult if not impossible for them to do anything about it. Our criminal justice system, which is better at locking up drug offenders than treating them, seems better suited for perpetuating crime than deterring it. Inequality in education, which is largely a reflection of the link between property taxes and education funding, reinforces the divide between rich and poor, black and white, urban and suburban, immigrant and citizen. But we know that God’s kingdom does not look like that. Paul reminds us what Jesus showed us: in God’s kingdom, there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one in Christ Jesus. When will the world look like that? And what are we going to do about it?
Advent is a season of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ and his kingdom, but that sort of waiting is not a passive pursuit. We have kingdom work to do! The end of the year is traditionally a season of giving—giving presents to our loved ones, giving alms to the poor, giving money to our churches and our alma maters and our favorite charities. This year, instead of only giving things away, think bigger. Consider what you might do to make a lasting difference in the lives of others. Will you tutor a child so that he might have a better chance of graduating from high school? Will you spend an hour a week helping an immigrant learn English so that she can apply for a job? Will you call your local school foundation and see whether you might join the efforts to petition nearby companies to support pre-K education and after-school enrichment programs? Will you write to your local, state, and national officials and remind them that our health and success as a society depends upon the welfare of all people, including the poor and the undocumented among us? Will you go to the Salvation Army not only to prepare a holiday meal for the homeless but also to sit down and break bread with those who have no family?
Several people in our parish are participating in a ministry that seeks to empower lay leaders to make positive, lasting, and transformative differences in our community. The project is called the Missional Engagement Initiative, and it is being coordinated by the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee. In its first iteration as Be the Change Alabama, this project helped bring an English as a Second Language (ESL) class to our church, but it has always been about more than that. We see this as kingdom work. By deepening a relationship with the people who live around our church, who attend the elementary school across the street, who call us neighbors, we have the opportunity to partner with them to make this corner of God’s kingdom look more like God’s kingdom. Maybe God is calling you to join in that work.
So far, most of what we do as a parish has been giving away fish. We provide much-needed food to students through the Backpacks for Food program. How might we advocate for greater nutrition programs in our community? We plant a community garden and share the produce with local agencies. How might we include more residents in the planting, maintenance, and administration of that garden so that it becomes as much theirs as ours? We tutor at-risk children in the Homework Helpers program. How might we raise up the issue of inequality in education until the whole community recognizes that it is dragging all of us down?
The church is uniquely positioned to be an agent of transformation because we believe that, in Jesus Christ, the differences and demographics that separate us disappear, and we hear Christ calling us to work in the world until they do. I dream of a church that measures its success not in terms of average Sunday attendance or the size of its budget or the beauty of its buildings but in the health and welfare of the community that surrounds it. Imagine what would happen to our neighborhood if our ministry was as much focused on those who live around the church as on those who walk through the door. That is our mission because that is God’s mission.
This year, be a part of what God is doing in the world. Think beyond the gifts that you will give, and be a part of the ministries we carry out in Jesus’ name. Whether in this church or through another organization, look for a way to be a part of God’s transformative work. Keep watch for the kingdom of God is at hand! Don’t let it pass you by.