This Sunday's Gospel described John the baptizer's ministry of baptism in the wilderness outside of the walls of Jerusalem. Mark writes that the people "went out" from the city to seek John and the baptism of repentance. Far from the crossroads of daily life, God was doing a new thing through John's ministry of preparing the way for Jesus.
My sermon spoke of this movement of going out as a metaphor for the spiritual life. We can become blind to God's presence when we get so used to our routines that we fail to imagine anything different. Likewise, we can become blind to the challenges others face when things seem to be going well for us. How many times do people resist social change because they don't think there is a problem?
Example one for us at St. Peter's is Monmouth County officials assuring us there is no homeless problem in Monmouth County because the county's shelter's beds go empty. Never mind that their rules mean that most homeless don't qualify for a bed.
Example two is placing the Social Security offices in Neptune far away from any convenient bus transportation so that only those with their own cars can reasonably make a visit. Everybody drives, right?
How blind can we be, and how badly do we need to have our blinds removed to see how others face daily challenges that we take for granted?
But it's not jus the wealthy and established that can fail to see what God is calling us to do. Even those trapped in horrible situations such as addictions, domestic abuse, illness, poverty, depression, dysfunction, etc. can miss opportunities. However broken our circumstances may be we've learned how to negotiate them and they have become familiar and routine to us.
This was a challenge for Moses when he tried to rally the Israelite slaves in Pharaoh's Egypt with the promise of God's deliverance. Yet, the people wouldn't listen. Exodus 6:9 says "Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery." God was offering God's beloved Good News (Gospel) but they couldn't hear it because the oppression of their lives created such blinders that they could not imagine anything different.
This is the cruelty of poverty and of anything that diminishes the human spirit - it can rob us of even the ability to dream that something can be better. Maybe we simply believe nothing can change because nobody really cares. Maybe the idea of change is more frightening than the idea of things staying the same. Whichever is the case, we will never find a better way or accept help that is offered if we can't imagine anything different.
Yet, our first reading, Isaiah 40, promises that it's in the midst of such darkness and despair where God can be found. This passage was written when Israel was held captive in exile in a foreign land, their cities in ruins, the Temple destroyed, and their leaders capitulated or captured. In the midst of such darkness, God raises up Isaiah to "Comfort, comfort ye my people" and say to the cities of Judah, "Behold, your God!" It is precisely when things seem their worst that God comes and says "I am here, and I've got this." And historically, within a few years, Israel's captives were defeated and they were retuned to their homes and their Temple was rebuilt.
The Gospel is "God is here!" Yes, how can we see God when our the darkness overwhelms us? South African Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu once said that the Gospel to a hungry person is a loaf of bread. This is because we need our most basic needs met before we can ever imagine anything different coming into our lives.
It strikes me that a first step in social justice ministry is developing the ability to remove our own blinders to the real challenges others face and then foster the ability to dream how things can be different so that we can get to work as God's hands to make it so.
Equally important, social justice work is Gospel work because if we can connect with people in the midst of their challenges in a way that addresses the challenge, then the promise of the Gospel, "Here is your God!" can be seen.