Sunday was one of those days. It was one of those days when my eyes could not keep from seeing the pain of this city.
It started at 6:50 a.m., just as I was approaching the intersection of 13th and L Streets in downtown Washington. I saw one woman first. Her clothing (or lack of clothing) gave her away. Her tiny bag and high-heeled shoes had gone to places that night that I cannot imagine going. I passed her in my car and then saw four other victims. In addition to these five girls, I saw three different men working their cell phones while adorned in large gold jewelry. My heart started to break open as I saw each person. My eyes started to tear as I pondered the pain of their night. I said a few prayers. I gave thanks for places like Courtney's House that are doing a remarkable job of getting girls off the streets, out of the hands of pimps and into a better life. I then wondered what more we could do - how God was calling us to respond.
God captured my attention once more following worship. The quiet woman who comes in and sits towards the back was there once more. She is filled with humility and gentleness. She lingered after worship in coffee hour until almost everyone else had gone. I then learned again that she had no place else to go. Her eyes welled up with tears as she explained to me that she was living with a friend but had to roam the streets during the day. "I just want a place to call home," she shared. She then continued, "It is so hard to be on the streets all day and have no where to go." She explained how she was back on the wait list of a local shelter where our church serves and where we met her but that nothing had yet opened. She shared how she was looking for work and was a really good housekeeper but how nothing had yet opened. I wanted desperately to wrap her into my arms. I wished more than anything that we had a bed at the church where she could stay for the night - that we had put a little apartment in the space where our chapel is for people to rest. I had just preached about a Good Shepherd who makes us to lie down in green pastures. I had just preached how God wants all of us to rest on lush grass instead of concrete sidewalks, and here was this woman telling me how she had no place to go - no place to go during the day and only a temporary place to go at night.
These women - the women who were still on the street corner as I drove to church and the woman who shared her struggle to find work and housing - will not let me go. They have caused my heart to be heavy and my spirit to be dampened. They have also caused me to pray - to not just pray for them but to ask God what role God is asking us to play. How are we to work for the end of sex-trafficking and the end of homelessness?
I then came across the above cartoon. We can see all of ourselves in this picture. We are so quick to line up for a reassuring life instead of an inconvenient truth. We want a reassuring life as individuals, as families and as a church. So much of the focus of the church seems to be about saving individuals and saving the church as an institution. We often invite Jesus into our hearts and then fail to invite Jesus' friends into our hearts. We have gotten so caught up in these things that we sometimes cannot see the inconvenient truths all around us.
Retired UMC Bishop Ken Carder was recently interviewed at Duke Divinity School on the UMC's Call to Action. He shared in that conversation how "God's preoccupation isn't with how many members are in the United Methodist Church but with the salvation of the cosmos." He then continued to say, "God's vision isn't difficult to discern. It's just inconvenient to follow."
I believe what I preached on Sunday is true. I believe that our Good Shepherd longs for every child on this earth to have a place to call home and a cup that is overflowing. I believe this Shepherd longs to anoint all of our heads with oil and to provide us with complete care. And, I believe that our churches are God's only hope for making these things happen. Jesus says in the 14th Chapter of John that we who believe in Jesus will not only do the works that he has done but do far greater works. When Jesus ascended to heaven, he left us to care for the needs around us - to heal, to restore, to release, to provide, to forgive.
I have no idea how to end sex-trafficking. I have no idea how to end homelessness. Truth be told, I find it easier to throw my hands in the air and say, "There will always be homeless people" and then stand in the line for "A Reassuring Life." And then God catches my attention once more. God does not allow me to let go of the pain around me. God pushes me to see how God has answered my prayer - by causing my heart to ache. I then seek to move one step closer to faithfulness - one step closer to where God is calling us to be, overwhelmed the entire time because the task is so big.
God, help us to be the people you have called us to be. Please show us what we can do to be part of the transformation of this city. Let us not shy away from large tasks but instead faithfully trust in you to show us the way because you are the way, and the truth and the life, and you long for all of your children to have abundant life on this earth as it is in heaven. Please help the church be more like you each and every day. Amen.