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Brothers and Sisters

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It always happens after we’ve already described the bounty on the table in all of its delicious variety. It happens while the welcome knowledge of a soon-to-be-full stomach mingles with the smell of macaroni and cheese over the promise of second, eighth, and seventeenth chances at a loving family meal. It happens with an assurance that nobody will look at you funny if you’re not ready to participate yet. It happens when we take a few pieces of bread from the banquet laid before us and break them for everybody to see and pour a little grape juice into a cup as a reminder of what has been shed to unite us as family. In that moment—when we proclaim again what Jesus did and is doing for us—something changes and the meal becomes a sacred thing, set aside for God’s use and God’s people.

As each member of the crowd makes his or her way forward, plate in hand, they join the feast. For some it happens because they are sharing a meal. But others join the feast first by taking a piece of bread, dipping it in the cup, and partaking in the Lord’s meal. It is my privilege (a privilege I’ve written about before) to speak a promise into that holy moment of communion, a promise that I give as it was given to me: “The body of Christ broken for you, sister” and “the blood of Christ shed for you, brother.” That last word, that familial “brother” or “sister,” is as much a promise as the more theologically laden language that precedes it, and it is all too often the harder promise to make. Jesus demonstrates time and time again in our scripture that his body was broken, his blood was shed, and his life was given for sinners like you and me. But my own ego and pride often stand between me and that final promise; between me and the promise that taking up the cross of Christ means laying down all illusions of division and separation.

So, while it is with great joy that I call Tomas as my brother, it is with an ego-stained sense of obligation that I say the same for William. When Tomas pinches a piece of bread between his fingers, I can so easily recall the sacrificial gifts he has made and the meal he hosted in his home even though he has only recently gained secure housing. When he dips it in the cup, I give thanks for the vigor with which he maintains his sobriety and the people he has led from bondage to freedom. But, when William does the same, it is far too easy to remember the broken trust, the suddenly empty hospitality room in our home, and the night filled with bloody faces, screamed epithets, and shaky voiced ultimatums. But, somehow we profess to believe that God is knitting all of us together anyway.

It is easy to give thanks for young Katie, not quite three years old and new to the community. Katy, who is eager to serve pretend coffee, juice, and grits to a table full of our people—some homeless, some housed, some addicted, and some recovering. When she and her family come through the line, it is easy to offer a blessing for her and call her “little sister.” But, it’s not yet as easy to give thanks for Mary, who sometimes forgets to make room for other folks around our shared tables and is quick to fill up her own plate even if it means that others might get less food. Having already carried away enough food for multiple meals of leftovers before everybody has been through the line, it’s hard to call her “sister” when she comes to partake of the body and blood of Jesus. But, somehow we profess to believe that there’s room for both Katie and Mary in Jesus’ Kingdom.

The truth is that most often we find a strange mixture of blessed and broken in any of us. When Brent shuffles up to the plate and cup, we have a wealth of stories to draw on in those too short moments. Maybe it will not be the Brent who  opened his life, home, and table to those in dire need that will gather a piece of bread from the plate, but the Brent who relapsed in secret and had to be restrained from violence who will dip that bread into the cup. But somehow, Brent is our brother regardless. When Heather prayerfully contemplates the cup, she is not just the woman whose anxiety sometimes drives her to say things she doesn’t mean. She is also the Heather that volunteered to sell a treasured possession to provide shelter for a homeless brother last winter. But somehow, Heather is our sister, regardless.

At the end of the story of the Prodigal Son, the elder brother describes his brother—the one we’ve learned to call prodigal—to his father as “this son of yours.” But, the Father is very careful to correct his eldest son and describes his younger son to the elder as “your brother.” God, our Father, will not permit us to disown any of God’s children and still call ourselves part of the family. God is teaching us to call each other brother and sister, not because God is going to make it so, but because that’s what we already are if we dare to claim the cross of Christ: brothers and sisters made so by God’s broken and bloodied body. The words may stick in our throats at times since we are still being remade, but somehow we must learn to profess that ours is a God who loves the doubter and the self-assured, the addict and the advocate, the ragamuffin and the righteous, the misfit and the hypocrite. Even more, our God teaches us to call them all family.

The Feeding of the One

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The following story was written by Matt Bailey, a leader at Grace and Main, who has been a part of the community from its beginning around five years ago. 

I’ve always been struck by the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and how beautiful it was that Jesus was filled with compassion for the empty stomachs of ragamuffin sinners. But I was taught that Jesus’ concern was not for the bellies of those hungry people. My well-meaning teachers insisted that the food was just a way to get an audience. But, my friend Jessie taught me better. When Jesus fed 5,000 folks on a hill somewhere in Judea, he was showing us that he cares not just about souls and sin, but also about hunger and our physical needs.

I first met Jessie at a run-down apartment building with trash for a lawn and boarded up windows for insulation. Jessie was really quiet and somewhat hostile when I first met him. He would talk to me rarely and only if I had food. When I would knock on his door, he would demand angrily, “Who is it?!” After I announced myself again, he would crack the door a few inches and peek out to see whether I had food or not. If I didn’t, the door was quickly slammed. If I did, Jessie would reach out through the crack in the door, take the bag of food wordlessly, and slam the door a little more politely.

After several months of knocking, getting yelled at, and him taking the food and closing the door, Jessie began venturing out on his porch to talk while we ate near each other—not quite together, but closer. Typically, I would talk ad he would listen. When I had talked too much for his taste, he’d go back inside without a word. Eventually, I learned the hard way to leave silence for Jessie to speak if he wanted to. From the silence blossomed togetherness and often wordlessly Jessie opened up a little more each time I visited him.

Over those lunches, he told me stories of growing up in the projects with his single mom who worked several jobs to take care of him and his siblings. He told me all about the kind of mischief he got into while his mom worked, and eventually he even told me about his struggles with mental illness and homelessness. Over countless turkey sandwiches, Jessie shared with me the pain and frustration of his schizophrenia. He told me how he hallucinated and grew anxious around people he didn’t know, so he trusted no one.

On one occasion, Jessie recounted through hot tears how he regularly didn’t have food for the last week or two of each month because his food stamps only stretched for three weeks—a woefully honest refrain we’ve heard time and time again from so many of our sisters and brothers. Jessie told me and helped me understand what that kind of hunger feels like for days on end, his isolating hallucinations and anxiety intensifying with hunger. The wall between Jessie and me was beginning to crumble, because he could see that I wasn’t trying to manipulate or take advantage of him. I just wanted to be his friend and eat lunch with him—together.

After becoming friends with Jessie, I and other Grace and Main leaders began talking with Jessie about ways we could make sure Jessie didn’t go hungry at the end of the month. Though Jessie was still hesitant, he did allow some assistance from friends during the direst parts of the month. Jessie would go with several of us to the grocery store and would educate us on how to make money stretch a little father. We’d all go shopping for bulk items together and split them between us. And sometimes, on special occasions, we’d go get some good, greasy fast food. After all, we can’t forget that justice is our goal, but stomachs are growling now. Relationships are what create real change—not great programs or just education—and relationships are built together, slowly and often over meals. Jesus never forgot that either.

One particularly long month Jessie was without food for longer than usual. He didn’t want to call and ask for help, but after he couldn’t handle the shakiness, the weakness, and the hallucinations any longer, he took a leap of faith and called me. “I don’t want to ask for help, but I’m out of food and I really need to eat something,” Jessie lamented over the phone. So we went to one of Jessie’s favorite fried chicken joints to get some food into him fast. He ordered a small portion, but I ordered a larger portion for him, knowing he needed more than the one piece of chicken he thought it was okay to order. Sitting in the car in the parking lot, Jessie couldn’t wait any longer. He ripped open the box of chicken and began eating ravenously. He ate one piece, then the next, taking few breaks for breaths. He licked his fingers between pieces of chicken. After his third piece, he lay his head back against the head rest, and with eyes closed, face up to the ceiling, he started mouthing, “Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!” Tears began running down his cheeks and mingling with the grease on his chin. His soft cries of praise became racking sobs of thankfulness and appreciation to the God who cares about empty stomachs and feeds not only 5,000 with loaves and fishes but also the one with fried chicken.

Seeing the effect that simple meal had on Jessie helped me realize how interconnected our physical bodies are with our souls. Jesus told us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and take in the homeless, we do so for him. Jesus also tells us that when we deny food, shelter, and clothing to our sisters and brothers we are denying Him those things.

After years of food insecurity and hunger, the image of God in Jessie was being stripped away. It’s no stretch to say that with each missed meal, the image of God in Jessie was slowly being starved and tortured—crucified even—reducing Jessie to something less than human. Jesus tells us in Luke 6:9 that we have the power to destroy life, but we also have the power and the obligation to restore life. In sharing food and our lives with Jessie, the image of God we find in Jessie was gradually being revived and healed—resurrected even.

Behold the good news: God’s compassion and abiding love for humanity is so profound and limitless that Almighty God, the Ancient of Days, the Holy One of Israel feels and hears even the growls of empty stomachs, and we eat—together at last—in celebration of the Kingdom that has no end.

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