To be a Christian leader in the city and not be impacted by last week’s World Vision controversy was nearly impossible. I fulfill a unique dual role in the world of Christian ministry here in Denver. I co-direct a modest hospitality ministry for the chronically homeless, which allows me to be in close relationship with some of the most vulnerable and poor of our city. I also lead a spiritual formation community made up of young educated middle-class Christian leaders who seek a fresh and prayerful way of connecting and growing with God.
Within my work a clear common thread emerges throughout all people regardless of economic status. Loneliness. My friends who live on the streets are incredibly lonely. In many cases they’ve been rejected by both their family of origin along with the authorities that hold and withhold power. Even though the friends within my prayer community are housed they too often find themselves kicked to the curb by family members and/or religious leaders. It’s as if all of us have or are currently experiencing a spiritual homelessness for the way we believe or live out our faith.
I see this pervasive loneliness in the people I work with as an issue of sin. That’s right it’s a sin issue. But the sin issue isn’t their own. The issue that is creating so much loneliness comes from a pre-occupation with pointing out sin. It seems, in fact, that the Christian obsession with pointing out the sin of the other actually is the root cause of much homelessness.
This is the story of the blind beggar. The blind man found in the 9th chapter of John’s gospel started out as a desperate poor beggar, Jesus miraculously but non-traditionally transformed his sight, and as a result the religious leaders made a homeless man out of him.
You remember the beginning. Jesus encounters the blind man panhandling on the side of the road. Jesus spit on the dirt rubbed mud on the man’s eyes and told him to wash off in the Pool of Siloam.
He does exactly as he’s instructed and for the first time in his life he’s able to see.
What happens next in this gospel story helps me understand the pain and displacement experienced by so many as a result of the World Vision controversy.
The Pharisees bring the formerly blind man in to interrogate him. The healed man testifies to Jesus being the one responsible for the transformation, but the Pharisees don't buy it. They don’t accept the man’s story. They tried to tell him he wasn’t born that way. Then they began to bully the man’s parents. The parents became afraid and out of their fear they throw their son back under the bus so that they wouldn’t be kicked out of the church. According to the Pharisees, Jesus’ unorthodox and out of bounds way of restoring the man’s sight didn’t jive with their holy book. As far as the Pharisees were concerned this man's kind grace-giving healer was nothing but a sinner who didn't follow the real scriptures.
In the conclusion of the story the man courageously stands up for himself and for Jesus and the resulting response by the religious leaders goes like this, "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out. (John 9:34) The Pharisees took a formerly blind beggar who was restored by God’s grace and made a homeless man out of him. The Pharisees couldn't hold the tension and ambiguities so they needed someone to shame and scapegoat. The Pharisees pre-occupation with pointing out the sin in the other (an already marginalized person) perpetuated the epidemic of loneliness and in fact created homelessness.
As a religious leader myself as much as I’d like to deny it and as detached from rigid fundamentalism as I think I am I have to confess– I am that Pharisee and I help create homelessness. Whether as a first hand offender or by association we current day Christian leaders are responsible for displacing people and sometimes actually make it harder for them to encounter the ridiculously unconditional grace and love of God.
Last week’s social-media driven World Vision scandal was a stumbling block for so many sojourners looking for a spiritual home. Until we humbly acknowledge the planks in our eye, our addiction to sin management, and inability to love like God we will continue the ancient tradition of the Pharisee by encouraging loneliness and even creating homelessness.