Tuesday afternoon my 13 year-old was walking down a busy street when an unknown group of high school-age boys asked him for a dollar for bus money. Steven had recently been told by someone he trusts about the possibility that a stranger in need might be Jesus in disguise, so he pulled out his wallet to give them a dollar from his limited funds.
Just as one boy reached for the dollar, another boy grabbed his wallet. Steven was surprised, but assumed the boys were teasing. “C’mon,” he said, “give me back my wallet.” But the boys laughed, quickly divided the money between them and ran.
Sadness, anger, and confusion rush through me as I recall these events. What is the moral to this story?
I had a friend who loved to quip “No good deed goes unpunished.” I don’t believe this. But anyone who watches life closely knows that giving and loving and caring and trusting can break your hearts and cost you more than you bargained for.
Last summer I met a young Presbyterian minister named Landon. He lived in a rough neighborhood with his wife and children because he believed that is where Jesus would live. He was joyous and full of life. In fact, he was the one who planted the idea in me of buying a scooter as a means of economy and creation care. “I loved my scooter,” he said. “I miss it. One night someone broke into my locked garage and stole it.”
People in Kentucky know the story of Boni Frederick, a social worker who was killed last October in the line of duty. I don’t know a sane person who goes into social work for the glamour or the pay. Social work is a mission of love for humanity. Frederick was killed while taking a baby to a home visit.
Rachel Corrie was a 23-year-old college student who felt called to go to Palestine to work with children in Rafah Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip, one of the poorest places on earth. When the Israelis came to bulldoze her host family’s home, she stood in a neon jacket in front of the bulldozer, pleading for them to stop. The bulldozer ran over her and killed her on its way to destroying the home.
Last year we remembered Tom Fox, part of the Christian Peacemaker Team that went to Iraq to be a presence of peace amidst war. They were abducted and held hostage; later Fox was found dead.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It is a call to journey with Jesus to Jerusalem and to the cross.
I’ve made this trek many times. Each year I drape a simple cross around my neck for the season, partly as a witness to others, but mostly as a reminder to me that I have pledged to follow Jesus anew.
You think that it would get easier as the years go by. Been here, done this.
The opposite is true. Each year the stakes are higher, the call is clearer, the cost is dearer. Following Jesus can break your heart. It can get you robbed or killed. This gospel can be an inconvenient truth.
Last night we marked the beginning of the journey, literally, by placing ashes on the foreheads of our congregants. It is such an odd, dual message. Mortality–ashes. But we smudge the ashes in the form of a cross–an eternal Way that we believe leads to Resurrection and Life–in the next life and in this life. Ash Wednesday calls for a dying to our selfish selves, to self-preservation and self-focus, and to trust the Way, Truth, and Life to resurrect us to what God dreams the world can be.
It is not for the hesitant, the skeptic, or the spectator. Those who prefer the “don’t worry, be happy” school of thought need not get in line. It’s also probably not for those who prefer their picture of Jesus to be limited to what He did for us, rather than what He calls us to.
We’re talking commitment here. Are you ready?
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Louisville, Ky.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.