So my mom called me a few days ago and said, ‘wasn’t it this time last year that we were down in the city handing out 20’s like they were dollar bills?’ This is true. They came down to see the Macy's Christmas windows and every time they saw someone sitting on the corner with a cup, or asking for a buck, they gave them $10s and $20s. And it was pretty unusual for my parents… I mean, don’t get me wrong, my mom and stepdad are generous people. But they rarely visited Chicago, and when they did, they were even less likely to do so in a way that allowed them to encounter panhandlers on every street corner like most of us who live there. It just happened to be a combination of events – on a day that they were planning to visit me, the pastor happened to give an amazing Advent Sermon that inspired my usually frugal parents to take out a few hundreds at the cash machine and give it all away. And – the funniest thing – they were kind of giddy as they did so.
I never heard that sermon, but I wish I had. In fact, I wish I was giving it right now!
A few years ago in Seminary I walked to get lunch with one of my favorite Seminary classmates named Seamus. Seamus is one of kind in his trust in the gospel. This day, we went to get Medici’s pizza and he pulled some cash out at the ATM. Now, Seamus had a terrible habit of paying for everyone’s meals – and this afternoon was no different. (Terrible for him, I mean. It was always good for me, but I worried about his budget.) As we started walking back to school, a man stopped us on the street and asked for a few dollars to get something to eat. Seamus put his hand in his pocket, handed it to the guy and said, “God Bless, brother” before the guy finished his sentence. We turned and continued walking. I had glimpsed the fold of money he handed over but knew Seamus well enough to be nonchalant. After a few minutes, I asked, ‘how much do you think you just gave him?’ “well,” said Seamus, “I took out $60, the pizza was $18, so I’d expect about 42 dollars.” All I said was, ‘you made his day.’
I’m not trying to admonish you all into giving away all your money today – rather, I want to share stories of the unexpected joy of generosity. We follow an unexpected God. Rather, for centuries people expected God, but expected Him to show up in a certain way. Even John the Baptist here is looking or a different kind of sign. He’s expecting God to yield fire and sword, and separate the wheat from the chaff. God doesn’t follow the expected route, and John has to send disciples to ask, “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?”
We are living in a time of waiting. God has broken into the world, and started us on a path to redemption, but it is not yet, not complete yet. We are still waiting, living into that which is already and still, not yet here.
I spent some time in bible study talking about working with the homeless through an organization in Chicago called The Night Ministry. The Night Ministry operates a bus that runs every night, from 6 pm to 12 am, and makes 3 stops in neighborhoods where there are high densities of people living without housing, or people who are transient between homes. The bus offers coffee, sometimes food, and access to a nurse, but most importantly the night ministry offers conversation with no obligations. The mission statement of the night ministry is primarily that all humans require the dignity of relationship, and secondly, that change is more likely to happen when one has relationships in their lives.
My job, as a Seminarian intern, was to be in relationship with the people who came to the bus. Be their friend. Make small talk. Care for them.
And I tell you, I was kinda terrified. I had spent over 10 years being an organizer and advocate in Chicago for ‘the least of these’. But I had never actually been in relationship myself. I wasn’t sure that I could do it. I had the usual worries, of course – the same ones we all have. People who live on the street are sometimes dirty. Smelly. Mentally unstable. Could be violent. Might resent me for having some money. Might ask me for more than I want to give away.
The unexpected was that, as the summer wore on, I found myself as comfortable in community with those folks as I had ever been anywhere else in my life. Their welcome was surprising. Their joy in seeing you was sincere. And our time spent together was just as fun as spending time with the people in my social strata. That summer, because of those relationships, I actually felt more grounded and joyful and content than most times I can remember.
I know in the world we’re in right now, it can be difficult to imagine the kingdom of heaven on earth. We have school shootings and terrorist bombings…raging forest fires and melting glaciers… personal illness and deaths of loved ones…and political discord and the very real feelings that our values – each of us – are under attack by some other segment of society.
In the midst of all this, we have the words of scripture, asking us to rejoice in the coming of something – crocuses blooming and deserts greening and lions laying down with lambs and water springing forth bringing new life… a place where the blind see and the lame walk and the deaf hear…diseases are cured and the dead walk again. And we have good news for the poor.
In the midst of our anxiety, God asks us to have joy. Rejoice! Scripture says. Rejoice! Says the song.
In this time of waiting, of living in a world that has felt the touch of God, and yet still is not fully redeemed, God never gives up on offering the world opportunities to become more like the realm of heaven. And that in that new realm, there is joy in knowing that anything is possible. Maybe, rather than looking for that external sign, we have to look within ourselves to see how to bring the gospel to life.
Do you know what’s trending on facebook since the election? In my facebook newsfeed, I keep seeing random acts of kindness that go beyond kind. Someone paying for the coffee and leaving a $20 gift card for the person behind them at Starbucks. Someone offering a ride to an elderly stranger struggling on the sidewalk – and spending the day making sure they finished all their errands! Someone bringing food to the homeless but returning to build tiny homes for every person sleeping on the ground under a particular overpass.
Maybe the new realm heaven is in the lunacy of excessive generosity. Maybe it’s in giving of ourselves in unexpected ways. Maybe we have to be open to unexpected joy. Maybe we have to go so far in caring that we surprise ourselves. Living into the new realm may require us to take a leap of faith, a leap of trust, to leave our common sense behind. But in that, there is joy! Because that is the gospel!
My parents were giddy that day in Chicago not because of the gratitude they received for the money, but because they were surprising themselves with their generosity. Seamus is one of my favorite people, not just because of his incredible gift for scripture insights, but because of his stubborn insistence to live into the gospel without regret. I was happy that summer I worked with the homeless because, it turned out, the generosity it took for me to make room in my life for people I’d normally never be friends with gave me unexpected joy.
What would it cost us to live into the new realm of heaven as if it was already here? Because, truly, we have the unique power to express the joy of the gospel every day. Maybe we are the sign that the gospel is real. Perhaps this is one of those instances where we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.