I spent a summer as an intern with InterVarsity’s Urban Project in St. Louis in 2009. It was that summer when I first came to grips with the fact that following Jesus meant giving up my life. Literally.
It’s easy to sit in a nice church building singing, “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” Summer 2009, I learned that I never really appreciated the full weight of the songs I was singing to the Lord. Countless times I had sung about wanting God to take all of me for His purposes. Countless times I had sung about how I would give it all for Jesus.
Summer 2009, I realized that I really had no idea what I was singing or pledging to before God.
The second week of my internship, we lived with families in the neighborhood. These people had chosen to locate themselves among the city’s poor. During the day, we spent our time hanging out with the neighborhood kids in an apartment complex community. The people living in these apartments were mostly refugees. They came from all sorts of places such as Africa and Asia. Some of them came here seeking a better life, some left war-torn countries, some had to leave because to stay in their homeland meant death.
The kids we played with ranged from 2-year-olds to high school aged children. This one afternoon, I spent with a 2-year-old girl named Hawa. Hawa was a completely quiet little child. She made very few facial expressions and had a round little belly where she’d rest her hands while she twiddled her fingers. She was sweet. She hung by my side, held my hand, and watched quietly as I interacted with everyone around.
I had made my way over to the parking lot away from my team and the rest of the children when I heard something like fireworks. It was mid-June so I figured people were shooting off July 4th fireworks prematurely until a second round of noises went off and the windows of the car in front of me began to shatter.
I sank down in my spot. Heart racing. Not being able to wrap my head around the fact that these were not the sounds of fireworks but gunfire. I looked back to my team, they were gathering all the children behind one of the buildings. Nearby, I saw baby Hawa frozen in her place. I snatched her up and ran behind the wall where everyone else had hid.
I could hear my heart beat in my ears. I could feel the blood and the adrenaline rushing through my veins. I thought I could feel my heart racing in my hands but when the chaos had subsided a bit, I realized that it wasn’t my own heart I felt in my hands, I was holding Hawa. Her heart was beating out of her chest.
When the shots were over, we could hear the parents screaming out their windows and doors for their children. We sent the kids back to the apartments and ran back to the families we were staying with.
I couldn’t believe what had happened. I couldn’t believe how vulnerable and fragile my life was. I had never considered it before. I felt like I was dangling thousands of feet in the air holding on to a piece of string. I could go at any moment. The shooting stripped me of my perceived security, my invulnerability, and my control. I was two-weeks into this internship I had signed up for to learn to follow God in the midst of urban poverty.
The weeks after, I spent wrestling with my fears. The director of the internship walked closely with me helping me to process it all. “I understand if you want to go home.” He said. I did want to leave but stayed, out of fear that to leave would be shameful. I was terrified to be outside. Any time we’d leave to get into the cars or to go into another building, I was counting the seconds until we were safe inside somewhere. For the first time, I finally understood that following Jesus actually demanded my life, in every sense.
As I continued to process over the next few days after the shooting, I became very angry. Angry that for Hawa, this was an every day reality for her. In America! These refugees were fleeing poverty and violence in their own countries only to come to America to find more poverty and violence. The system was wrong. It was all so wrong. But that summer of 2009, I learned that my God was so much more than I could’ve ever hoped for. God cared for Hawa. He cares about the lives of the refugees in St. Louis. I learned that God did in fact, care about the hell that is present on earth today and that He wanted to use me in His restoring of all things. Yes, it would be dangerous. Yes, it demands my life. But as I thought of Hawa all summer long, there was nothing else worth my life. If God is a god who cares nothing of Hawa’s situation, of the endless poverty of the world’s poor, he is not a god worth worshiping. Thankfully, as I learned summer of 2009, He does care.
I am asking you tonight to get angry. To allow the brokenness that grieves the heart of God to grieve your own. I want you to get intolerant. We christians are intolerant of all the wrong things these days. We are intolerant of people who sin differently than us, people whom God loves and for whom He sacrificed His son for. Yet we are tolerant of the enslavement, the suffering, and the oppression of people whom God loves around the world many who suffer so we can have our way of life here in America.
We sit in our church buildings, sing our songs, memorize our Bible versus yet this is what the Lord says in Isaiah 58:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
The purpose Jesus has called His followers to what He has defined His ministry to be is found in Luke 4:
17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does it mean to be a Christian? Is christianity just about us, dropped down into creation and having to entertain ourselves, saving souls when we can along the way for some disembodied future?
N.T. Wright says: “The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term in the future. And what he was promising for that future and doing in the present was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way of the world presently is so they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose - and so they could thus become colleagues and partners in that large project.”
Friends, the good news of the Gospel is more than just saving souls from a hell to come, but it is saving us from the hell that is now. Do not reduce the Gospel so small that it is merely personally relevant. The Gospel is globally relevant. That, my friends, is good news.
Consider today what your faith has become about. Is it about the things that are great on the heart of God? Or have you been saved just to go about your days doing a G-rated version of normal? What does it mean to align yourself with His purposes?