15, Easter 4B, Readings here
Jesus With Skin On
Many years ago now, as a youth outreach worker in inner-city Cleveland, I coordinated programming for the children who attended the community hot meal we offered at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. St. Luke’s sits in the midst of a poverty stricken neighborhood known for drug trafficking and you could watch teens and young adults slowly wheeling their bikes up and down the streets as cars pulled close and transactions occurred. Yelling and car horns, deep bass reverberating, and the ding of gas pumps at the “convenience” on the corner--the gas station that served as the only grocery store within walking distance of the church and its neighborhood.
The children who came to us, usually came alone. Big siblings with littles in tow, eager for a hot meal and ready to participate in the crafts, story times and open gym we made available. But, mostly they came for the safe space to play and the grown ups who would listen carefully and earnestly to the stories of violence and abuse which plagued the community. One night it was a thirteen year old’s swelling belly, another night meeting a child living with the after effects of severe lead poisoning, and then on more nights than I could count, the eager tattling and awe of littles as they spoke of siblings and cousins sent to juvenile detention.
In my second year of ministry at St. Luke’s and its sister parishes (it was a yoked ministry), I wrote and received a grant requesting funding for children’s books. I read reviews, visited bookstores and libraries...searching for books that would speak to the children within their own context. Books that would reinforce what we would tell them again and again and again--you are a beloved child of God. God loves you. We love you. You are worthy of love.
One of the books I found, illustrated by artist Tim Ladwig, used psalm 23 to provide the backdrop to a day in the life of two urban African American Children. From morning to night, each moment of the children’s day is accompanied by a verse of the psalm--Grandma bathing the children, “anointed my head with oil”; menacing teens leering from the front stoop as Grandpa walks the children home, “even though I walk through the darkest valley I fear no evil”.
Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., the author of "Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction." reviews the book as follows
“In "Psalm 23," Ladwig translates onto canvas the most famous Psalm of all, incorporating stirring paintings of African children in a loving family setting. Ladwig has applied the ancient rural setting of this Psalm to the modern urban world. No Pollyanna portraits, Ladwig combines the bleak nature of potentially menacing city life with the comfort of God's presence. The scenes are not so much "heavenly," as they are depictions of God's earthly provision through "Jesus with skin on"--loving parents, teachers, and other adults and extended family members.”
I read that book again and again.
Jesus with skin on--an invitation to imagine the psalm as a mandate to create a place in which children could find a community of restoration, a table spread and waiting for them and real, concrete, manifestations of God’s grace.
We tried to be Jesus with skin on.
And with that we lived as resurrection people in a resurrection time. God’s revelation is an incarnate one. And, we become the incarnation of God’s hand and feet in the world.
I have said again and again, to this community over the past year, that psalm 23 reminds us that we spend our lives in the valley of the shadow of death--whether we realize it or not. The comfort of the psalm is that we are not alone in that valley--and as a community of faith we are charged with the mandate to keep God’s promise that no one shall be alone in the valley of the shadow of death. We stand in solidarity with each other and those shadowed by all that brings death into the world.
Being Jesus with skin on--for and with each other.
He is here because we are here. We are here because he is here.
Jesus with skin on.
The epistle invites us to the living of our faith, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Or as a contemporary writer notes, we may be the only Gospel those we meet read.
Loving in truth and action--living our lives in remembrance of who he was, who we are and who he is in us. Christ is indwelling in us and we are participants in the body of Christ--we are not first but last and not last but first. I John begins with an enjoinder to lay down our lives for each other, to engage in actions where our own comforts and concerns are set aside for the interest of another.
The epistle is clear--God's love abides in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and helps. This all seems daunting, doesn’t it? The need so big, the pain so great, our resources so scarce!
There is a famous Breton Fisherman’s prayer, half petition and half lament, that’s used by the Children’s Defense Fund in many of their materials
"Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small."
The boat may be small, but it floats. And, keeping in mind the prayer’s origin as the prayer of a fisherman, let us remember that our boat rocks upon a sea which provides all the sustenance we need. Perhaps that’s a helpful reminder on annual meeting Sunday! Small boat, vast sea, and the company of a God who loves us. We will with God’s help we proclaim when we affirm our baptism. The Bishop of the Diocese of Ohio, would refer to baptism as our first ordination. Our first public commitment to love in truth and action. And, as a community of faith, we love in truth and action with God’s help. With God’s help there is grace enough, love enough, mercy and goodness enough. There is enough--for everyone.
Recently, I have found myself saying, “we love and value and create beauty here at St. Clement’s--and we live in a world in desperate need of beauty--we have what the world needs--we just have to figure out how to take it from in here, to out there!”
We have beauty, the world needs beauty, the world needs us...part of the one flock and the one shepherd—with the power, to “pick it up” and “lay it down”…
The world needs us.
Jesus with skin on.