Brian McLaren frequently refers to Christians as secret agents of the Kingdom of God. I love that metaphor! The first time I read that metaphor, I was in! Sign me up! Isn’t being a secret agent more fun than being a disciple? Or an ambassador—that sounds so stodgy. I can talk to kids and teens about being a secret agent. So what’s the difference? There really isn’t any. The subversiveness of the secret agent metaphor appeals to me. What we do speaks so much louder than what we say! Instead of lecturing people, we are about surprising acts of kindness, and mercy, and justice and all other kinds of goodness.
Let’s start within our families and then take the idea out into the larger world. If you are a secret agent in your family, how do you go about plotting goodness for the people to whom you are the closest? Plotting—that suggests that it takes some forethought and planning. What would it look like to carefully think about making your family life good? Would you think about how you use your time? What you eat to maintain or restore health? How you use your resources? Wouldn’t it also include asking the other members of your family what “good” looks like to them? Maybe you’ve heard the old story about the newlyweds who loved each other so much that whenever they ate chicken, they each made sure the other got the best piece. He always gave her the white meat, and she always made sure he had the dark meat. It was years before they discovered that she preferred the dark meat, and he liked the white. We need to ask each other what makes life good.
What about plotting goodness for your neighbors? When my grandmother baked a pie, she always baked two—one for her family and one for a neighbor. That is so outside the way I think, and yet that’s what keeps neighborhoods connected. Maybe your driveway is too long, and your neighbors too far away, but the food bank is a great way to share goodness with local neighbors.
Let’s think bigger. What can we do to plot goodness for the neighbors that are beyond our driveways? I’ve had the privilege of being in dynamic discussions this week about active faith in the public square and we talked a lot about racism in racially mixed settings. The first thing I learned is that we need to ask our neighbors what they need in order for life to be good. I heard that there need to be jobs that pay a living wage. There are any number of arguments that deter us from increasing the minimum wage. The one I hear most often is that small businesses can’t afford it and it would effectively decrease the number of jobs. Most of us don’t want to pay more for products so that argument holds a lot of sway. But our history has not borne that out. If fact, Henry Ford wanted the people who were building his automobiles to be able to afford to buy one, so he raised the pay of his employees. Sure enough, his cars flew off the assembly line and the middle class was strengthened. We are watching our jobs leave our shores because American workers are too expensive, but American workers are our neighbors! What we end up paying as a result of high unemployment and low wages in health care, crime, addiction, policing, and prisons, is significantly greater than the cost of creating a healthy system in which people can take care of themselves and their families.
Now you may tell me that I’m being too political, but politics is about the real lives of real people—yours and mine and our neighbors. Markus Barth, the son of the great theologian Karl Barth, wrote during the Cold War that, “to propose in the name of Christianity, neutrality or unconcern on questions of international, racial or economic peace—this amounts to using Christ’s name in vain.” If we belong to Christ, we cannot remain neutral. We must care about and the welfare of our neighbors and act to alleviate suffering and injustice.
I am so grateful that this congregation is already engaged in conversations about issues that impact our neighbors. We are in the process of discerning how we can be in ministry to and with gender minorities. And we are getting ready to offer community-building activities for middle school youth. And we are preparing meals for our homeless neighbors. And we are part of the Interfaith Council on Homelessness. And you sit on the boards of the service agencies on Vashon. You are awesome! There are days when I think it would be so nice to rest on our laurels. And yet we have neighbors that need our advocacy. We have neighbors that need our votes. We have neighbors that need us to walk alongside them. Did you know that approximately 10 percent of our Vashon neighbors are Latino? Our neighbors have stories that need to be heard and real concerns. I got to hear a lecture this week by the Rev. Spencer Barret, presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Pacific Northwest. He told about asking the members of an African American clergy association in Tacoma how many had been pulled over by police when they were driving for no violation. He said every pastor raised his hand. Pastor Barret also told us about the time he was serving a church in Kansas. He had left his garage door open and walked out of his house through the garage to find a police officer with his gun drawn pointing at him asking, “Is this your house?” Have any of us had an experience like that? The rest of the week, I listened to similar stories. We don’t know about our neighbors’ lives and struggles unless we ask. Can we find ways to listen, to ask, to help, to walk in solidarity? How can we plot goodness for our neighbors?
We each have to find the way to engage the serious issues of our day that suits our abilities. I can’t march. But I can become better educated by reading and listening. I can write letters and sign petitions. I can work with existing agencies and volunteer my time. I can get to know my neighbors. And I can vote. The story of the good Samaritan applies as much to our collective neighbors as it does to individuals. The Church and “good Christian people” cannot cross the road and pass by on the other side. The good Samaritan was a secret agent of God’s Kingdom, kneeling down by the side of the injured and paying for his care. So God is looking for secret agents—are you in?