Not for You Alone
by Louise Westfall
It’s almost impossible to read the morning text without breaking into one of the memorable arias from Handel’s Messiah (in fact we’ll hear one sung later by our baritone section leader, Paul Griggsby). The soaring music matches the text’s larger-than-life vision of restored creation ruled by a powerful yet tender Shepherd. Fragile, impermanent human life is held securely by the word of God which stands forever. A reading from the prophet Isaiah, in the fortieth chapter, verses one through eleven. Pay particular attention to the recipients of God’s care. For whom is God’s glory revealed? [Isaiah 40:1-11]
Kudos to Gitanjali Rao, the 15-year-old Lone Tree girl who has just been named Time magazine’s first-ever Kid-of-the-Year for 2020. And what a kid! She’s created an app to combat cyberbullying, and other inventions. A sophomore at the public STEM School Highlands Ranch, Gitanjali is already a three-time veteran of TEDx talks, and developed a diagnostic tool to predict opioid use disorder. Clearly she’s brilliant. But I was most impressed by the motivation she cites for her work. As a three-year old she asked what she could do to help a person who was sick. Someone suggested playing music for them, so she began taking piano lessons, and is an accomplished pianist. But not simply for her resume; before the pandemic, she played regularly in care facilities and elementary schools. Her prize-winning “Tethys” device can instantly detect lead in water more reliably than test strips and more efficiently than lab testing. She worked on this after hearing about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, noting Everyone should have access to clean water. Though she hasn’t identified her future career, she says I know I will continue to create positive change in the world and make a difference, hopefully. (apparently she’s modest too!)
There’s no doubt that this young woman is exceptional and has had a supportive family, excellent public education, and plenty of opportunity. But is it simply the idealism of youth that drives her creativity to address the needs of others? Or has she caught a glimpse of human life as deeply connected as the aspens in her adopted state? Does she already value community purpose in personal achievement?
Important questions for us as citizens of a nation that struggles to balance individual freedom with community thriving, from wearing face masks to requiring health insurance, from levying taxes on vaping to socially-responsible investing. For people of faith, the questions are even more pointed: is the goal of our religious quest individual salvation and a heavenly destination? What responsibilities do we have to a world that is not our ultimate home, and to people who are different from us?
In his stunning book about the history of racial injustice in the United States, White Too Long, Robert Jones has carefully researched Christian beliefs and practices and found a direct link between a highly individualized understanding of salvation with reluctance to acknowledge social sins such as slavery and race-based segregation and bigotry. A practicing Christian himself, Jones bewails the emphasis on confessing personal sin and making intentional efforts to do better, while ignoring confession of complicity in sinful social structures and systems and resolve to change.
God never fails to surprise me in the way she shows up.
A fair assessment, and one that we should consider thoughtfully. But here’s the thing: the two are not mutually exclusive and I suggest that a growing Christian faith will engage us individually and as part of the Beloved Community, whose membership knows no boundaries. The words of the prophets speak to a God with an outsized vision of human flourishing, of justice that cares for the vulnerable lambs of the flock, and peace that echoes in every valley and from the mountain tops. The God we meet in Jesus is one whose concern for human beings is both universal and deeply personal. This God knows your name, and what keeps you awake at night. This God knows the name of everyone who has ever felt like an outsider; each person who hungers for food or love or meaning. The name of every migrant and refugee, the residents of every encampment. The name of every privileged one who lacks purpose, and every righteous soul who lacks resources. And this God will not stop mixing it up with the people of earth until the glory of the Lord is revealed and all people shall see it together. All people. Together.
Friends, it is not for ourselves alone that Christ came. It is not simply for our darkness that the Light shines; it is not only for our sickness that the Son of God appears with healing and hope. The Church proclaims God’s intentions for the whole world when we join in service that helps this beloved one, and in advocacy that helps heal broken, rotten systems that perpetuate wrong.
God never fails to surprise me in the way she shows up.
The other morning I walked to the post office to mail some Christmas packages. I loaded them up in a shopping bag, slung that over my heavy wool coat on one of the frosty days last week, and headed out, the click click click of my cane punctuating each slow step. As I trudged up 16th, I met another woman whose shabby coat, various bags and backpack identified her as a “street person.” As she approached she smiled a warm, toothless grin and called out cheerily “Just another block dear; they’re handing out hot coffee and bagels. They’re real good.”
It dawned on me that she saw me as family; someone in need the way she was in need. And because it was not enough simply to feed herself; she invited me to a meal, because everyone needs to eat.
Jesus invites us to this Table because we all need a good meal. We’re hungry and maybe we’re limping and a little flummoxed at what life has thrown at us. But Jesus is here. He’s handing out bread and drink. And they’re real good.
This Table reminds us that life is not for ourselves alone, but for the great, human family of which we are all members. The bread is broken and shared. The grapes are crushed and poured out for everyone to drink. This Table holds an antidote to our loneliness, healing for our brokenness, and joy for pandemic spirits grown weary and jaded and self-absorbed. Here, we all can see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Thanks be to God!