About a dozen years ago, I traveled to Vancouver to attend an educational conference for Lutheran Mission Pastors. Most of the conference was spent inside a stuffy meeting room. But one afternoon about forty of us were loaded onto a school bus and we traveled down to the east-side of Vancouver to spend some time with Pastor Brian Heinrich, who ran the Lutheran Urban Ministry Society. I doubt that many of you have ever or will ever visit the downtown east side of Vancouver. Lutheran Urban Ministry was located near the corner of Main and Hastings in one of the poorest areas in all of Canada. It was the sort of place where forty Lutheran pastors stuck out like a sore thumb. At the time the downtown east-side was one of the roughest neighborhoods in Canada. This was before Olympic developers gentrified the neighbourhood.
As we arrived, I noticed the discomfort that was written all over the faces of my fellow clergy. Although I’d travelled to the eastside many times and even lived for a few months in a cheap apartment on the edge of the eastside, my journeys in the eastside were usually quick, with as few stops as I could manage, so that I could avoid the unpleasant sights and sounds that you encounter in places were poverty literally fills the air. Knowing that we were scheduled to spend the day in the eastside made me long for the mountaintops that I could see stretching up to the sky across the river. I could feel the same discomfort that was written on the faces of my colleagues take hold of my own face.
On the steps of the church, a young man was shooting up. In the alley next to the church, very young men and women were offering their bodies for sale. Inside the church we were greeted by several of Pastor Brian’s parishioners. Before we could get inside the sanctuary, a very smelly man extended a filthy hand in friendship. When I took his hand he grinned at me with his two remaining teeth and told me his name was David and that I should make myself at home. Eventually, Pastor Brian introduced us to about a half a dozen of his parishioners. All of them wore their poverty with a welcoming smile. Because the sight of forty Lutheran Pastors being guided around the neighborhood on a tour might have shaken up the local inhabitants, we were divided up into small groups and assigned guides. That’s how I met a woman, for the purposes of this sermon I’ll call, Gracie.
Gracie was probably in her early twenties. She explained that she’d known Pastor Brian ever since she first arrived in the big city about seven years earlier. Gracie was friendly and outgoing. Compared to some of the other guides, she was well dressed. Although, I doubt you’d ever see an outfit like Gracie was wearing in any other church that I’ve been in. Her halter-top, short skirt and high leather boots suggested that Gracie might be one of the local businesswomen. While we waited our turn to hit the streets, Gracie told us that if it weren’t for Pastor Brian she’d probably be dead. Over the years, Pastor Brian had helped her to stay alive. Gracie also told us that we were lucky, because she knew she’d make a much better tour guide than Pastor Brian or any of the others put together because she knew people and places on the streets that they could never show us. When Gracie raised her arm to signal that it was time for us to head out, I saw the fresh track marks and wondered how long it had been since Gracie’s last fix.
The next three hours passed in a blur. Three Lutheran pastors walked the streets of Vancouver’s Eastside with a woman who once walked the streets for a living. I’ve been a lot of places in my life. I’ve traveled from one end of this globe to the other. I thought I’d seen it all. But let me tell you, I saw some stuff that day that I never ever want to see again as long as I live.
Gracie introduced us to a lot of people. Some of them got angry when they found out we were out to see the sights. One old guy, who reeked of booze, asked us if we were from the government. When Gracie assured him that we weren’t from the government, he asked us if we were from the church. But, he didn’t give us a chance to answer before he started shouting at us that the only thing worse than people from the government are people from the church sniffing around sticking their noses in where they weren’t wanted. If we were from the church he had a few choice suggestions about what we could do with ourselves.
At this point I decided that I’d seen enough. I wanted out of there. That’s when a really rough looking guy grabbed me by the arm, and demanded to know if I knew Jesus. I tried really hard to smile as I admitted that I did indeed know Jesus. Then the strung-out addict clasped my arm a little tighter and said that he too knew Jesus and that Jesus was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Since he met Jesus, he knew that when this life was over, he’d be okay. Jesus would see to that for him.
Gracie helped me to disentangle myself and as we headed back towards the church, Gracie told me that a lot of her friends on the street know Jesus. She herself first met Jesus late one night after one of her customers had left her beaten and battered in an ally. Jesus helped her get through that night and many other nights since then.
Gracie told me that she does what she can, to help Pastor Brian in his ministry. She tries to stay sober, but she insists she needs the drugs to survive. Besides, when she’s strung out and can’t get a fix she’s no use to anyone, not even Jesus. Gracie insists that everyone needs a little help now and then. So, Gracie does what she can. She insisted that the only sure thing in her life is Jesus. When we got back inside the church, Gracie asked me to help her get some lemonade for the others who would be arriving soon. It was when we were alone in the kitchen that Gracie got real close to me and whispered, “I’ve been to the pig farm, you know.”
It took me a moment to figure out what she was trying to tell me. She’d been to the pig farm. She’d been to the pig farm and lived to tell about it. Over fifty other women from the Eastside never made it back from the pig farm. The police spent years sifting through the remains of those women trying identify them.
Gracie said that she used to go out to parties at the pig farm. She said that sometimes things got a little rough out there, but she always managed to make it home okay. She asked me if I knew why she survived when so many women died such horrible deaths out there. She believed she knew why. She told me her theory. Gracie told me she believed the reason she didn’t die out there at the pig farm, was because God didn’t want her to die out there.
Gracie believes God has work for her to do. Gracie knows its not much. Just helping out at the mission. “But it’s something?” Her eyes pleaded with me, “Don’t you think it’s something?”
How about you, “Do you think the humble offering of a drug addicted whore is worth something?
To the good religious folks, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the dominion of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Just a few days after Jesus said that the tax collectors and the prostitutes were going into the dominion of God ahead of the religious authorities, the religious authorities saw to it that the guys from the government nailed Jesus to a tree and let him hang there until he was dead.
No wonder they killed him. We probably would have killed him too. No matter how much we talk about the free gift of God’s grace. No matter how much we Lutherans proclaim that we are justified by grace through faith or that God’s tender mercy comes to us by God’s grace, grace that we cannot earn, grace that we can only receive as pure gift, grace that only asks that we believe, no matter how much we talk about grace, we really don’t like grace. God’s grace is just too indiscriminate. God’s grace lets rotten sons, crooked tax collectors, and common prostitutes into the dominion of God ahead of good religious folks like you and me.
Even though we Lutherans proclaim, God’s grace will save us and God’s grace thumbs its nose at good works in favor of simple faith every time, we are not prepared for the reality that grace is wildly beyond the control of even our best theology.
We’ll sing a hundred choruses of Amazing Grace and quote Luther’s catechism, and proclaim justification by grace through faith over and over again. But deep down in our heart of hearts we know it must be nonsense. So we carefully explain to the scummy people of this world what grace really means. We assure them, that of course, God loves them and forgives them, but we make it clear that we expect them to clean up their act before we embrace them. We don’t want whores, and chiselers, or drunks and addicts, and God forbid the poor thinking they can just barge in here and fraternize with good religious folks. Let the sinners repent. Let them clean up their acts. We never did such terrible things, so we’re the faithful ones. We can hardly bear to think about what these folks get up to.
We are the second sons, the elder brothers, the law abiding Pharisees, the respectable religious types, the workers who have been working away all day in the fields only to be treated just like those other people; the Johnny come latelys, the thieves on the cross, the whores and the sinners. We are the resentful ones who don’t want to be the butts of the divine joke of grace that says that nothing matters except plain, old, belief in the Good News that Jesus proclaimed; the good news that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
We trust more in our respectability, in our rightful place, and in our good works than we do in Jesus. The gospel of Jesus Christ, declares that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the dominion of God ahead of the good religious types. It’s scandalous!
Nobody’s keeping score anymore; nobody ever was keeping score, nobody that is except for us. Our images of the Divine are far too small. It’s long past time for us to be looking to the heavens for a glimpse of a divine-dispenser-of-grace, even if that divine-dispenser-of-grace is far more gracious than we can imagine. It’s time for us to begin to celebrate the grace we find in one-another. Our images of the Divine must include the ones in whom Divinity lives and breathes, our images of the Divine One must include people like Gracie.
While Gracie and I do not share the same understanding of who Jesus is or how God works in the world, I have absolutely no doubt that Gracie is the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Our common humanity guaranties that the same Spirit who lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond me, also lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond Gracie. Grace is a quality of that Spirit and not something dispensed from above. May we learn to recognize the qualities of the Spirit in all those who open themselves to the power of Grace!
Amen! I hear you. I head up the jail ministry team from my ELCA congregation. In a metropolitan area where black people makeup under 30% of the total population, they constitute 80% of the county jail population. I think the One who said “I was in prison & you visited me” has great love & an aching heart for those prisoners. Mother Theresa used to tell hersisters to “see Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.” We need such vision more than ever as so many worship money rather than God and the gap between wealth and poverty grows ever greater. Thank you for the good word. I’ll borrow some of it for my preaching.
This is really powerful and awesome thinking! I’m preparing this morning to attend my Episcopal Diocese Regional Meeting, at which part of the discussion will revolve around preparing the Church for a world that increasingly seems to not want the church. And you show up to point me in a right direction. Thank you!