Life in the street

RCL Year A, Proper 13

Last week I was up in Seattle visiting friends in the old beautiful neighborhood of Capitol Hill. We walked along lovely old houses with gardens on our way to playgrounds and ice cream. My friends are thinking about how to spruce up their front yard, so we stopped often to note several newly redone gardens, many of them with high cement walls topped with iron fences – elegant but completely shrouding the house and garden behind them. Walking by those houses, we noticed, felt very different than walking by the ones with sloping grass and flowers right down to the sidewalks – very different indeed from one of them that had a little free library box of books to entice passersby to stop. I wanted to walk more slowly past those houses, the friendlier seeming ones. The others made me want to keep going.

A writer named Jane Jacobs, in the middle of the last century, made a case for why that is so. Over time she developed an idea of what makes healthy cities and neighborhoods. In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she noted that when houses and shops border right on the sidewalk, with their windows looking out onto the street, the street is safer for everyone. The community is facing out onto itself, people watch over what is happening on the street, and that kind of shared public life makes the crime rate go down. Everyone is safer because of it. In cities given over to the car, however, when houses are built behind walls and stores are in shopping strips surrounded by parking lots, neighborhood streets are less safe. People grow more isolated and don’t see and watch what is happening in the streets below them, so there’s more opportunity for criminal behavior.

But there’s a reason city planning changed to be like that. When your front door opens onto the street instead of your garage and you’re walking to where you’re going anyway, life demands more interaction, more involvement with other people in order to go about your daily life. It’s less convenient. You’re out in the weather more, you have to carry your stuff further. You come out of your house and there’s your neighbor who wants to talk. You spend a lot of time around other people, instead of zooming along a fast road alone in your car. It feels like you take more risks, because all those other people might do you harm as well as good. There’s a lot of reasons why people individually choose a more secured, guarded way of living – and as more and more individuals do so, why a society begins to do so also: to be safer, to be less troubled by other people, to live life more efficiently. There’s something in the modern psyche that seems to prefer that, choosing safety over community and convenience over relationship. We seem to opt naturally for what suits ‘me’ over what is best for ‘us.’

But then again, it’s not really just a modern phenomenon. Think of the story in today’s gospel, when Jesus feeds thousands of people with only a few loaves and fish. At the beginning of the story, he went off to be by himself, but the crowds found him – all those people tromped out to be healed by him, each of them there for their own reasons. Some of them were there for their own needs, some of them there in hopes he would cure someone they loved. And there the disciples found Jesus, and immediately stepped in to shield him from the needy crowd. It’s late, they said. Send them away so they can meet their own needs elsewhere. They need food and we can’t feed them.

But Jesus said, You feed them. What?? The disciples said. All we have are five loaves and two fish. All we have is barely enough for ourselves. Those people can all fend for themselves; we need to take care of our own needs now. But Jesus says, Give the food you have to me. Give it up, and have the people sit. And then he blessed and broke it, and the disciples gave it out and there was enough for everyone and more to spare. The crowd of needy people became a community breaking bread together; the disciples became servants instead of merely followers.

Think of how everyone in this story has to change. All those needy people, lined up and pushing to be first, sit down together and share bread. They have to trust that Jesus will provide for all of them, even in that deserted place – rather than jostling for his touch, waiting for him to cure each one in turn. The disciples, tired and hungry themselves, have to give up their own food and serve others. Everyone has to stop looking out for number one – and when that happens, all are fed, and all are made well.

It’s not a safety-first kind of approach to life. It’s much riskier. It demands more of each person, even as it gives more to everyone. It creates life the way we wish it were, a community of love and care where we know and are know. But sometimes it’s hard to do what each of us has to do to make that happen.

But that’s the way God is. God doesn’t play it safe or hold back to be sure. God goes all out, being incarnated as one of us and dying for us, loving us and waiting for us in our rebellious freedom to love in return. God risks everything and calls us to follow and do the same. It’s the only way to make life the way we wish it were. It’s the only way to really be community.

What would this look like for you, right at this point in your life? If you stop to look at your life, is there someplace you’re holding back, lingering in fear and worried about number one? Perhaps you’re uncertain about a new thing, worried about the change and what it will mean. Maybe a health problem or personal issue has you preoccupied, caught up in the drama in your mind and body. Maybe there’s some routine, some set of habits, that have become so deeply engrained that you’re angry when they’re disrupted, even by someone you love. Maybe there’s someone you keep being annoyed with, because they’re too ‘out there’ and don’t behave properly the way you wish. All kinds of things can have us in that fear place, the place that’s the equivalent of the houses with big fences, the ones where no one ever seems to come out to say hello. All kinds of things can have us turned in on ourselves and away from the street of life with others.

But God is always inviting us out, out of that kind of fearfulness. Jesus stands there saying, You give them something to eat. Bring what you have to me. It’s not just enough for you. It’s enough for everyone. Sit down, all of you, and share this food together. There is more than enough – trust me.

So I leave you with this question to work with this week, one that turns up sometimes on motivational posters: ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ What could you do, today, to take one step out, away from fear? God is already there in the street, waiting for you to come out. The greatest risk has already been taken, God loving you no matter what. Take a step toward that love, and see what happens.