power of proximity
“If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Mark 6:11
Frank commutes to work every day on the New York subway.[i] Most days it’s not an easy journey, as those of you who do it regularly know best. Frazzled people crammed into small spaces tend not to be on their best behavior. One morning as Frank went through the turnstile, he realized he was already in a bad mood. He’d had a fight with his girlfriend that morning. He was headed toward a meeting at work that he was dreading. The morning news had been terrible – again. And his lower back was hurting – again.
After three trains had passed his station without stopping, he found himself feeling angry that he would be late to work. When a train finally did stop, he realized it was packed with a group of middle-schoolers on a field trip. They were loud and boisterous, which didn’t help Frank’s mood.
At the next stop a woman boarded the train holding two heavy bags in one hand and her little girl’s hand in the other. She pushed her way toward the pole where Frank was standing and proceeded to berate him because, according to her, he was taking up too much space, and his big hand was blocking too much of the pole. How was her little girl supposed to get a grip on it? Frank resisted the impulse to argue with her. She was literally weighed down, he thought. And she would probably be later to work than he would be because she had to drop off her kid at school or child care. So he said, “You know, you’re right,” and he moved his hand higher. “Sorry about that,” he added.
About that time one of the middle school students bumped into Frank from behind. He hit Frank right where his back hurt. Frank turned around ready to yell at the kid. But he saw the boy’s face, full of genuine concern, and instead Frank said, “Hey, buddy, slow down. This train is crowded.” And then he had a conversation with the kid.
It’s risky to venture out into the world. The world is not always a warm and welcoming place. It’s crowded, and there are days when we seem to bump into everyone around us. Sometimes our patience runs out before the day does.
Jesus knows this reality firsthand. In the Gospel of Mark he’s had a pretty good run of it up until now. As he’s wandered through the world, he’s healed many people, including a paralytic, a leper, a man with a withered hand, people possessed by demons, and the woman with the hemorrhage. He’s done some good preaching too, including a lot of stories about seeds and how they get scattered. He’s calmed a storm and brought a dead girl back to life.
But along the way Jesus has also encountered people who question his motives and challenge his actions. His astounding acts of healing are seldom met with universal acclaim. People are intrigued, sure, but they’re also suspicious. And that’s never more true than when he comes back home for a visit. His hometown preaching seems to go OK at first, but soon he’s met with skepticism. Who does this guy think he is, the crowds ask. They refer to him as “the son of Mary,” which is not a neutral description. It brings up all that old gossip about who the father of Jesus really was. Do we even know? Some people still loved to question his parentage. Eventually the hometown crowd takes offense at him.
Jesus knows that the good word that he brings always gets met with resistance. One way or another, people are going to push back. They might not be ready to hear what Jesus has to say. His words might be too challenging. His inclusive message of God’s love for all people is just too scandalous for some folks to accept. The justice that he seeks is not good news for the people who profit from oppression. Jesus probably wasn’t named “Most Popular” in high school, and I’m guessing they didn’t have a superlative for “Most Likely to be Executed by the State.” He would have won that one hands down.
Notice that this rejection isn’t limited to Jesus. When he sends out his disciples, he prepares them for it: “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Jesus knows that for every time his followers are met with hospitality, there will also be a time they’re met with hostility.
That goes for us too. When we go out and live as followers of Jesus, when we speak and act as people who try to embody that same message of inclusive love, we should not expect to be met with cheers and celebration. When we seek the justice to which Jesus calls us, people will not throw us a parade.
So what do we do? I can tell you what we don’t do. We don’t just stay home and hide out. There’s a reason that our four-part worship service ends with a Sending. We are blessed each and every week to go out into the world and live our faith. We heard a lot of fantastic speakers at the Youth Gathering in Houston. One of the best was Bryan Stevenson, the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and an attorney who works as an advocate for the poor and the incarcerated. Bryan talked to us about the “power of proximity.” He argues that justice work is best done in proximity to the people we are trying to help. When we move closer to people, when we encounter them in a real way, we’re able to hear their stories and better serve their needs. When we stay at arm’s length, when we refuse to get close, it’s much easier to judge and dismiss people.
We have evidence that the disciples experienced that power of proximity. When they are sent out with Jesus’s authority, they find themselves able to cast out demons and cure the sick. But first they had to meet the people who were possessed and in pain. So when they encounter rejection, they do not let it stop them. At Jesus’ direction, they shake the dust off their feet and move on. The power of proximity demands perseverance.
Do you remember Frank on the subway? Do you wonder what helped him have a patient and compassionate response to the mother who yelled at him and the kid who pushed him? He happened to be reading a book about kindness. In writing about how we can be kinder to each other, the author says this:
“Few people are powerful enough, persuasive, persistent, consistent, and charismatic enough to change the world all at once, but everyone has the ability to affect the three feet around them by behaving more ethically, honestly, and compassionately toward those they meet. Just picture it: If more people acted from this space of love, there would be more and more terrain covered.”[ii]
Think about that. Think about the three feet around you, which you carry with you wherever you go – from subway to school to soccer field to dinner table to conference room to carpool. What if each of us goes out into the world and draws closer to people from all kinds of places and people in all kinds of need? And what if we try to make the three feet around us a space of compassion and honesty – a space where we seek to live as Jesus has called us to live, a space where we empower others to live fully as who God has made them to be? Just imagine it. All of those spaces intersecting until the world is transformed.
Perhaps the most important part of Jesus’s instruction to his disciples – both then and now – is that we do not go out alone. He sends his disciples out two at a time, a clear signal that we must stand with each other as we live as Christ-followers in a world that often has no use for the Christ we follow. When we travel together, we can cover more ground and survive the setbacks. And we are never, ever without the One who sends us, the One who gives us the power of proximity, the One who, again and again, gives us the grace to sustain us.
Whatever we do with those three feet of space around us, Jesus is always there beside us, behind us, within and around us. May we follow his lead, wherever it takes us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ