It’s chilly today, but I don’t mind. The sun takes a bite out of the bitter Chicago wind and I smile as I weave my way through the morning crowd of briefcases and suits rushing into high rise office buildings. I cross the bridge and watch as sunlight bounces its rays off gleaming metal skyscrapers, softening their severity. Hugging the straps of my backpack tightly, I feel truly alive as a sense of freedom and anticipation takes over.
As I wait for my bus to depart I notice a woman shuffling through the piles of luggage, sweeping bits of trash into her dustpan and emptying it into the garbage can. Wearing a reflective vest and dejected expression she performs her duties and fades into the background. I hop on the bus and roll away from the hustle and bustle of downtown but I can’t get her out of my mind.
I begin to realize my ability to live a life of privilege, to travel freely and experience the world around me, depends on people like her. My position in the middle class of a functioning society depends on a caste system where immigrants, single mothers, and minorities remain marginalized. You see, we are not all equal participants in this broken system of lower, middle, and upper class. We cannot all become educated, wealthy, and successful. If so, who would collect our garbage? Who would landscape our manicured lawns? Don’t misunderstand, I am not devaluing these tasks or the people who perform them. But I can’t help but question a system that is founded on a hierarchy that necessitates inequality. I can’t help but feel shame for benefiting from the unfairness of a capitalist society. Americans in the middle to upper class will argue that our country provides opportunity for those go-getters determined to work hard for a better life. Upward mobility is the American dream, but each rung is built on a lower one. Class distinction is required for a functioning society where competition and individualism are core values for achievement. The dream simply isn’t possible for everyone.
Other societies offer an alternative. Governments who use socialist or communist principles place high value on the Whole. Resources are allocated not based on what’s best for the individual, but what is best for the community. Forced labor camps and eugenics are often byproducts of the glorification of the whole. In these broken systems the uniqueness of the individual is ignored and people become cogs in a well-oiled machine.
Of course, I am simplifying the intricate and complicated ways societies function. However, sometimes layers of complexity need to be peeled away to see the heart of the matter. Earthly kingdoms oppress. They perpetuate cycles of poverty, shame, and greed. Earthly kingdoms value people based on monetary worth and outward appearances. So what’s the alternative?
I’m in St. Louis now standing on a corner waiting to cross the street to buy some coffee. Before the light turns green, I’m approached by an older woman selling newspapers. Her clothes are ragged and some of her teeth are missing. She asks me if I can spare some change for her and her daughter who are living in a battered women’s shelter. I shake my head and apologize. “I don’t have any cash,” I say. “Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” (Matthew 6:42) My heart feels a sharp pang and I want to run back across the street and give her everything in my wallet. The words of Jesus echo in my soul, “Then the King will turn to those on his left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was in prison and you didn’t visit me.” (Matthew 26:41) How many times have I looked away and apologized for having nothing to give, all the while clutching my purse closer?
I attended a mega church nestled in the suburbs of Nashville as a guest this Easter Sunday. Walking in, I immediately noticed the stage filled with brown paper bags overflowing with groceries. As the minister spoke, he asked for the congregation to bring their “first fruits” to the front. I cried as the crowd moved to bring forth their offering, filling the stage to capacity with food for inner city children. It stirred a remembrance in my heart, a knowing deep within of a Kingdom way of life.
This way of life is described in the Bible as a system where generosity and gratitude rule. This way of life is governed by love for our neighbor instead of envy. It’s a system where we are told to prefer a stranger above ourself and to pray for our enemy. It tells us we are not only equal but unique individuals created in the image of our Father, part of the body of Christ with unique responsibilities yet part of the Whole. It describes a society without class or poverty. “But Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be the first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 21:25-28)
After the bags of food were brought to the front, the minister began to talk about that very first Easter. He depicts the reaction of the disciples of Jesus as they saw the empty tomb for the first time. He reads about their initial feelings of doubt, confusion and wonderment. Jesus had foretold this event, yet they pondered in their hearts if it could really be true what He had said.
Luke portrays the encounter at the tomb like this, “But very early on Sunday morning, the women went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. So they went in, but they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes. The women were terrified and bowed with their faces to the ground. Then the men asked, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Remember what he told you back in Galilee, the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and that he would rise again on the third day.” Then they remembered that he had said this. So they rushed back from the tomb to tell his elven disciples and everyone else what had happened.” (Luke 24:1-7)
The minister went on to say that truth can also be translated to mean “unforgetting.” After the experience of the empty tomb, they remembered the words of Jesus foretelling His resurrection.Truth is the cumulation of remembrance and experience. They experienced the empty tomb and remembered in their hearts what they’d been told.
Jesus asks us to remember his commandment to serve the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the naked. We are not only to ponder and wonder at His calling, we are to experience what it looks like to do this in a world filled with broken societies and governments that oppress, impoverish, and destroy. I know God is calling me to act. I know I have been given opportunities to let His love, mercy, and generosity flow through me and I’ve turned away.
The truth is, I’d rather theorize and write checks than actually get my hands dirty washing the mud from someone else’s feet. But God speaks very clearly when He says, “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in Heaven will enter.” (Matthew 7:21) This verse makes me extremely uncomfortable.
The Kingdom of Heaven is radical. It turns everything we know about race, class, and power on its head. Its laws are upside down and backwards in today’s society. There is no government or society on earth that truly practices the principles of peace, equality, and social justice. The standards of God’s Kingdom seem impossible to achieve in this world. Yet, when I look at the alternative I see it is the only way. I know I don’t have the courage or compassion to do this on my own. But I trust Jesus when He said, “Teach these new disciples to obey the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 20)