The Common Good
March 2008

Word on the Street

by Laurel A. Dykstra | March 2008

This month, as we enter the high season of the church year, the common lectionary offers an overwhelming number of biblical passages for our consideration.

This month, as we enter the high season of the church year, the common lectionary offers an overwhelming number of biblical passages for our consideration. We leave Matthew temporarily, the gospel assigned for the year, and focus on the gospel of John. Certain aspects of Johannine theology dominate our understanding of Lent and Easter, and the church’s focus is on Jesus’ suffering, death, and divine nature. As a counterpoint I have chosen to reflect onthe life of Jesus and the community around him. Some threads that run through these reflections are resistance, action, and a rag-tag community of outsiders.

Although it wasn’t my plan when I started writing, another uniting factor in these offerings is the street, a place where I have most consistently found, or been found by, resurrection. Life in the urban core of modern cities is worlds away from Jerusalem 2,000 years ago and more different still from the rural life of peasant farmers and fishers like Jesus and his friends. But in the inner city, these margins at the center of our world and the biblical world intersect. The fragility of lives, the killing effects of poverty, and the stark reality that in the eyes of empire our lives are cheap—these are true in both places. In the city our sacred story encounters the sacred stories of the people who live there.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus. www.laureldykstra.com

March 2

Panhandling

1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

“Any spare change? Can you spare any change?” When we hear the words do we look or turn away?

The blind beggar is dependent on charity for economic survival; he lives in poverty. He is spoken about and not to. His disability is considered to be the result of sin. People feel free to use him and his body as an object lesson and his physical condition as a metaphor for ignorance. His word is not believed; when people want to know about him they ask his parents. His family only acknowledges his status as an adult out of fear.

This week we meet the third character in John whose encounter with Jesus provokes a crisis. Like Nico­demus and the Samaritan woman—whose stories we engaged in Feb­ruary—he doesn’t really get it, but of the three, the seeing blind man gets it best. He speaks about his experience of transformation with Jesus and for this is accused, denied, berated, interrogated, and ostracized. But through this storm of controversy his faith and his confidence grow.

John 9 is not a story about one man’s blindness but rather what and whom the disciples, the Pharisees, and the rest of us do not see. According to writer Wes Howard-Brook, the lack of either a definite or indefinite article in the Greek indicates that the protagonist is not only “a man born blind” but also “humanity, blind from birth.” Blind humanity is indicted subtly but profoundly in John 9:8-9. The neighbors of the once-blind man and those who regularly saw him begging are unable to identify him. They could see, they often passed by him, but they had never looked.

March 9

Coming Back to Life

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

This week’s readings are about death and new life. Ezekiel describes a valley full of bones, “very many bones” and “very dry,” reanimated by the word of the prophet. In the gospel passage, Lazarus, four days dead and stinking, responds to the voice of Jesus and walks out of the grave trailing his burial cloths. I have never experienced this kind of resurrection, but I have known people to come back from the dead.

In homeless shelters, drop-in centers, single-room occupancy hotels, drug-user groups, and sex-worker organizations, you hear about people dying all the time. Not from old age or natural causes, but from murder, overdose, exposure, suicide, disease, and accident. The life expectancy in my neighborhood is nearly 10 years less than anywhere else in the city and province. So when a conversation begins, “Did you hear about AJ?” we all know it could end with, “She ‘fell’ out a window, got stabbed, OD’d last night, didn’t make it through the surgery.”

But every so often the rumor mill, the reliable source, and even the coroner’s office get it wrong, and someone you knew to be dead walks in the door. When this happens you laugh, cry, or embrace them, or all three, and for a moment you live the gospel, knowing that death does not have the last word and that a life that maybe no one values is incredibly and absolutely valuable.

March 16

Street Theater

Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14 - 27:66

We may think that the processions of Palm Sunday recall a spontaneous affirmation of Jesus as Messiah. But a closer reading of Matthew 21 shows other dynamics. The procession is commonly referred to as the “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. Writer Ched Myers calls it political street theater.

As a stilt-walking, puppet-building street theater organizer and veteran of direct action campaigns against the World Trade Organiza­tion and the School of the Ameri­cas, among others, I found this description to ring true for several reasons. The bulk of the passage refers not to the event itself but to the organization, preparation, and planning. The movement described is complex; there is collaboration between the out-of-towners and the local resistance community. The political action is planned to coincide with a time when imperial power is blatant and feelings of resistance are high. The protest tools are low-tech and readily available, and the demonstration design is inclusive and participatory—there is no “audience.” Large numbers serve as security and protection for those who are identified and targeted as leaders.

At Passover, the liberation of slaves is celebrated with a pilgrimage festival to an occupied Jerusalem. Security is high and the situation volatile. In this fraught atmosphere the kingdom movement stages a performance that lampoons the Roman imperial procession. The “king of peace” is not a warrior but a peasant healer who comes riding not a war chariot but a donkey, and crowds fill the streets celebrating an alternative vision. Exciting, dangerous, transformative, participatory, nonviolent—this is street theater at its best. Hosanna!

March 23

Mary Magdalene

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

In each of the gospels, Mary Magdalene is one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. She is the apostle to the apostles who remained faithful to Jesus through his arrest, trial, and execution.

In the women’s group office where I work, there is a photocopy of a painting by Annie Bendez. Printed over the painting but not obscuring the central image is a list of tips by and for sex workers: “Remem­ber: An assault is an assault, whether you live in the White House or you don’t even have a house.” “Always check door handles before you get in to make sure they work.” “Any­thing around [the]neck is dangerous (it can be used to strangle or drag you).”

The painting shows five women against a night city. The women wear long robes and headscarves with elaborate decoration. Rays of light shine out from behind their heads; one woman is smoking a cigarette. Each woman’s heart is visible outside her clothing. The hearts, and therefore the women, are connected with vines or maybe fissures. The writing in the paint at the bottom reads “Mary Magdalene” and identifies her as the patron saint of prostitutes. Nothing indicates which woman is Mary—perhaps they all are.

I know there is no biblical evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and that her story has been sexualized, distorted, and conflated with those of other saints and biblical women. But I love the truth of that painting. I love that it shows women together with connected, wounded hearts, and I love that women who come to the office find not only strength and protection there but also love and acceptance.

March 30

‘Peace Be With You’

Acts 2:14, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Whenever I can in a worship service, but especially in street churches, before we “share the peace” I say:

“When Jesus appeared to his disciples, they were hiding upstairs in a locked room—the friends who knew him best, who had betrayed him, who had pretended they didn’t know him, who had run away when he was dying, who hid when he was arrested, who were frightened and ashamed. He appeared among them and greeted them. He didn’t say, ‘What happened?’ ‘Where were you?’ ‘You screwed up.’ He greeted them saying, ‘Peace.’

“No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done or think you’ve done, whoever you have betrayed or let down, no matter how far you have gone from God, from Jesus, Jesus doesn’t say to you, ‘Where were you? You screwed up.’ Jesus greets you saying, ‘Peace.’ You are not accused, you are invited.”

The first time I used these words, a tiny woman who is addicted to heroin and an occasional prostitute whispered, “That was the first time in so many years that I felt like I was good enough to be part of this.” Over and over again, people shyly approach and let me know that I must keep saying this.

Whatever it is that churches are saying, what poor people and people who are marginalized hear from us is: You are not good enough, you are not welcome, the food bank entrance is around back.

Peace be with you. You are not accused, you are invited.

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