But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” For John came neither eating or drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton, and a drunkard! A friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But Wisdom is vindicated by her children.” (Matthew 11)
We had driven ten long hours to Chicago, woken up the next morning and headed to the St. James Food Pantry. There were mountains of cereal boxes and pasta sauces so high that we could not see the shelves we were supposed to sort and organize them on. But these middle schoolers and other sponsors and I, we finished that task, we made those chaotic piles into neat shelves, and packed a week’s worth of groceries for the three hundred families that would each come by the next day to pick up their bags. So we were feeling pretty good, like we were doing some meaningful work for people in the city, like our mission trip was putting us to good use. And that’s why it hurt, I think, when we got to our next work site, and the guy managing it – Ken Dunn – told us we should’ve stayed home. Well, not exactly…I mean, his comment wasn’t totally about us…but he did say that if we – all of us – hope to sustain life on this planet, we’re all going to have to stay home.
That was my first clue that he was a prophet. Prophets say things the rest of us don’t want to hear. In his old little book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann points out that in the Biblical pattern, prophets don’t tell the future; they tell the truth. They don’t warn people of what’s to come, but they do look honestly and critically at the world as it is, and then they tell the people what it is that they see. That’s why people don’t like prophets; that’s why prophets are never accepted in their hometowns. That’s why it’s no surprise that Jesus complains in Matthew that these people cannot be pleased. John the Baptist sets himself apart by his habits, and they condemn him. Jesus enters fully into the lives of his community, sharing their habits, and they condemn him. There are lots of ways to be a prophet, these verses tell us. But people cannot be pleased. Abstain or enjoy – we will find fault with either one. Because we don’t really object to who the prophet is. We object to what the prophet says, to what the prophet tells us about ourselves and our world.
Ken hadn’t stayed home early on. He also came from Kansas to Chicago, but now he’s been there for decades. He grew up here, though, in an Amish community, and said that here he learned two principles, said all of Amish life and teaching and wisdom can be summed up in two commands: be kind to people and be kind to the soil. When he was about twelve, he started seeing what he thought to be violations of those commands, as the Amish farming community began to change some of its practices, started introducing toxins and other unkind formulas to their land. He tried to argue it but went unheard, and so he decided, at a young age, that he needed a more philosophical approach.
He ended up as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, still looking for ways to be kind. And so one morning he drove by a liquor store and noticed a few men sitting out front, waiting for the store to open. He’d seen them on those benches before, and he knew that these were the same men who would enter when the store opened, buy their bottles, and return to the storefront porch to drink them through the day. He said he also knew the men weren’t really drunks, but that they just had nothing to do.
So he came back the next day and saw the same men, but this time he’d thrown a couple of 52-gallon trash cans in the back of his truck, and he hopped out, and he called the men over, and he made them an offer. He said, “If you’ll help me fill these with the bottles and broken glass pieces from that vacant lot across the street, I’ll take them all to the collection site and split the proceeds with you.” In an hour the lot was clean, and Ken returned to the men two dollars and sixty-five cents each, and kept the same for himself. It was a pretty good hourly wage, he told us, for 1967. The men were thrilled.
He hopped back in his truck, and his mind was racing. He was pretty sure he’d just come up with a way to heal the world. It was really simple, he remembers thinking: find a devalued, disregarded human resource: those guys on the porch. Pair that with a neglected natural resource: that vacant lot. Let the two resources improve each other, and pretty soon you’ll have people who feel a new sense of purpose and land that experiences renewed possibility also. He had started daydreaming, drafting the first few paragraphs of his dissertation in his head, all based on this formula, and he was excited about its potential for all of Chicago, for his home back here in Kansas, for other cities and other farms, for the whole world. And as he turned to wave at the men who had inspired this revolution as he began to drive away he was surprised to see a face suddenly, right at his window, motioning for him to roll it down. And the man asked Ken, he said, “Hey – where are we working tomorrow?”
The question would prove to be prophetic – the truth the man spoke was the desperation of his own life – and Ken responded to him the way people often respond to prophets: with silence, and with dumbfounded shock. But he took up the challenge, because he realized that if his work was going to matter at all, it would have to be far from over. He came back in two weeks with a map of the neighborhood. He’d marked all of the lots that could use some attention, and the guys got to work. And pretty soon the neighborhood was full of clean vacant lots instead of littered ones, so Ken started a couple of community gardens, and hired families to maintain them. But over the years, he noticed that when the sons of those families grew to be teenage boys, they stopped coming to help out at the gardens. He heard it was because they could make more money as look-outs for drug runners, and he knew gardening was not a competitive alternative. They needed something faster, he said – and so he created Blackstone Bike Works, where young men and women work on rehabbing bicycles, and where they also ride together on the streets and in old warehouses and create a kind of productive, supportive community that rivaled the kind they could have otherwise found in a gang.
And after all this – after seeing littered lots and forgotten men and endangered teens and creating clean spaces, then community gardens – we worked with him at one of these, an acre of organic produce growing right next to the Cabrini Green neighborhood, after this, and then the bike shop – after all this, Ken’s newest project is about sustainable living. And he is convinced that the key to preserving resources and revitalizing communities is simple – we just need to stay home. We need to pay close attention to our own space, to ask what it needs from us, and to tend to it. I think I believe him. Ken Dunn has spent the past four decades responding to that first man’s question – every time he’s seen a new challenge facing his community – unemployment, or disinvestment, or exploitation, or neglect – he’s figured out how to transform that hopelessness, to make something new and creative and energetic and to give people a way to think about working tomorrow.
But in answering that first question, he’s grown to be a prophet in his own right, which means now, he speaks challenge to his community. And to those who wander in from his home state. And the challenge is: go home. Get used to paying attention to the people that you share space with, real people, not celebrities who will take all of your emotional energy and offer nothing back. Cultivate a hunger for the kinds of vegetables that will grow in your own backyard. If the world is going to survive, he says, we’ve got to arrange our lives so we can get anywhere we might need to go by foot or bike or sailboat. Otherwise, we’ve got to stay home.
Our verses for today take us far away, though, and they may be strange for those of us who haven’t spent a lot of time hanging out in first-century Near Eastern marketplaces. Remember the children from the Scripture, hanging out in that city square, one group calling out for people to dance and celebrate, the other trying to convince the people to wail with them? In his commentary Matthew and the Margins, Warren Carter writes that it’s possible to think of this as a sort of game, a game of celebrations and funerals, maybe – and that it might be helpful to think of that game, even, as an allegory. The kids – Carter says it’s probably the boys – who want to celebrate – they can represent Jesus, and how he comes preaching good news, and fulfillment of promises. The girls, though, refuse to join in the dancing – their call to play “funeral” mimics the work they see their mothers and sisters and aunts do, as professional mourning women – they call the boys to join in the dirges, and maybe their sobriety is meant to be understood as referring to John’s ministry and his calls to repentance. We learn just after this that Jesus is criticized for not mourning enough, and John for not dancing enough.
But Carter also suggests that the passage doesn’t have to be read as an allegory, and a more straightforward reading just leaves us with children who will not play each other’s games, and so soon the dancing and the mourning both die out… Despite the children’s call, no one will enter into the emotional life of the marketplace. The boys cry out that there is something to celebrate, and they go unheard; the girls try to rouse tears from others, but no one will join in their sadness. This is a community that refuses to feel.
So it’s no wonder they don’t like prophets. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote this massive study of the prophets and in it, he says that what really separates prophets from the rest of us is that they feel, deeply, those things the rest of us have just gotten used to. “The things that horrified the prophets,” he writes, “are even now daily occurrences all over the world… To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight, to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people, to the prophets, it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode, to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.” In a community that refuses to laugh or cry with children, prophets are sure to have a hard time. Jesus’ message of the coming of God’s kingdom and John’s calls to repent must have sounded just like all this child’s play – and so easily ignored.
But the Scriptures tell us that, even though they were so different, John the Baptist and Jesus were both children of wisdom. Ken Dunn is a child of wisdom, I think – I think all of us listening to him that day, munching on carrots he’d just plucked out of the ground, I think we all thought that. And just recently, I discovered another one, closer to me than I ever thought.
Some of you know that when my grandpa passed away in October, my husband and our two young sons and I moved in with my grandma. And, as many of you know from similar situations, or as you can imagine, there are some pains that come with that kind of adjustment, for all of us. One of them, a big one, I think, has to do with stuff. When we moved, we didn’t bring much besides our clothes and some books, but we did bring a lot of the boys’ toys with us. We all wanted to make sure they felt at home in the new space. And most of the time, we keep them tucked away in three small Rubbermaids that slide under the coffee table. But one day, before I’d cleaned up, my grandma and I sat facing each other on opposite sides of the living room, and there was this vast sea of primary-colored blocks stretched out between us, just scattered everywhere, not a safe place to step on the carpet.
And I motioned toward the blocks, and I said to my grandma, “I’m so sorry.” And I meant, for the mess. But I also meant for the intrusion into her life. And I meant for the pain it must cause her every time she sees Rick cooking dinner on her stove, or every time she bumps into me in the hall, or even every time Oscar brings her a fairy tale and asks her to read, or Beckett grins at her and tosses a ball in her general direction. Because every time any of those things happen, it must be a reminder to her that her husband is dead. That we live there now because her partner of sixty years does not live there anymore. And so I said I was sorry.
And she looked at me sternly, like only a grandmother can, and there were tears welling up in her eyes but she did not let them fall. And she mimicked my motion, and gestured toward the floor, and she said to me, “Every single one of these blocks is so beautiful.”
And she meant, don’t worry about the mess. But I think she also meant, of course I miss him. Blocks on the floor or blocks in Rubbermaids, I miss him. There is no not feeling this loss. But it is also good to have my great-grandchildren here; it is not only sadness; it is more than that. And I know that; of course I know that. But for her to call it beautiful – for her to say that, really, loss is messy, and so is joy, and the only thing to do is live in that mess, to embrace it, to stay home and to feel what that means – my grandma spoke to me like prophets in the ancient Near East spoke to their communities, like Ken Dunn speaks to Chicago now: she looked at the ground around her and she saw it, and then she saw through it. And the truth she saw was this: she saw that the only thing to do is to stay home, to plant herself right in the middle of the mess that follows the loss of great love. When we are wise enough to do that – to plant ourselves in a place we can call home, and give our sustained attention and energy to it, to really feel what our children and our prophets call us to – we begin to see the holiness all around us. This is the story of our faith – we are messy people, in a messy world, but God sees beauty and makes a home here with us. May we have the courage to live here, too.