“You feed them”

“You feed them.” This is what Jesus said to the disciples when they told him that the crowd listening to him was hungry. The disciples were looking to disperse everyone so the people could go find something to eat. Apparently, Jesus wasn’t done talking. He asked the disciples to feed the crowd so they could stay together a little longer, focusing on his word. The disciples were perplexed as they didn’t have enough food to feed the thousands present. But Jesus stepped in to help, and they distributed so much that there were leftovers.

I wonder how many times people around me need something in order to focus on God’s presence, something I am oblivious to or maybe aware of but don’t feel responsible for. The Bible tells us that God is always near to us, beckoning us to acknowledge the grace that surrounds us and to be transformed. But it can be hard to focus on that Divine love if your stomach is growling from hunger or your heart is racing from fear or your head is pounding from stress. Our bodies tend to demand attention when something is not right, which means we often need God MOST when we can focus on Him/Her LEAST.

It makes sense that Christians interested in sharing the Good News of God’s love and redeeming grace start by making sure the intended audience is able to listen. Addressing any unmet basic needs of those we want to talk with about Jesus is the most logical first step to starting a conversation. To give an extreme example, if my neighbor’s house is on fire I should not invite them to pray before calling 911. But oddly, it seems the church is often making such invitations and then scratching its head in frustration when people are not receptive. Church membership and participation are declining. Those of us in the church spend a lot of time wondering why. Perhaps part of the problem is that houses are on fire everywhere and no one cares about our statements of faith until the fires are put out. In a broken world, it is preposterous to ask people to believe in Jesus without first offering remediation or at least acknowledgement of their pain and suffering.

Not only do such remedies and sympathy enable people to listen to our message, but they also manifest the very love we wish to share. And without such faith actions, Christians are just another group trying to sell something.

The implications for our own church are clear. First, if we want to reach out to people in the west end of Alexandria, we must figure out what they need in order to hear us. Of course, there is sure to be more than one issue with which people are struggling. But what is something many people in this community need help with that we have the resources to address? In order to discover the answer, we must develop relationships outside of our church doors and listen to what people have to say. This will take patience and authenticity. We must create partnerships built on trust. And we need to be open to what the community has to offer us as well. We don’t want to be paternalistic in our approach.

Second, each of us who are members of Saint James needs to consider what we can offer people in need. God bestows unique gifts on each of us. We should be aware of what those gifts are and how we can use them. We should also open our eyes to the needs of those in our proximaty. We cannot be blind to the desperation that surrounds us. And once we see it, we must act with more than just private prayers or proclamations of God’s goodness. Sometimes we only have our presence to offer, but that is valuable in and of itself.

Finally, we must not be overwhelmed by the brokeness that surrounds us. We serve a God who understands our suffering. Who walks at our side. And who can point to the resurrection as the promise and hope for something more. We need to be available to feed and to clothe and to house and to protect and to advocate. We need to listen for the voice that says: you feed them. But we do not do it alone. God works through us. And by offering to do the work, we open the door for Jesus to step through.

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