But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7)
Last night, several car windows were smashed in my neighborhood, Bocage. I saw the glass on the road when I was leaving this morning to take the kids to school. I wondered at it, but then my wife texted me and told me it happened in several places throughout the neighborhood.
Of course, these incidents are in line with the rising crime rate across the city. According to some statistics, New Orleans is now the most violent city in America (per capita). More than that, the crimes themselves have been particularly shocking, such that I won't recount them here.
More than a few temptations come to the surface. My own was to express bitterness toward the city itself, to shake my head and grumble. Another temptation might be to despair or to take a cynical attitude, to believe that there's no hope for the city, that things will only get worse--or at least that we shouldn't hope for improvement. Another temptation might be to flee, to move to a different part of the city or even to leave the city all together. Some of us will just ignore it.
But as Christians, the question is, what are we called to in moments like these? What am I responsible for?
It's a weighty question because one of the key tenets of Christianity is taking responsibility for yourself as an individual. In fact, it's where the faith begins. You can only receive the salvation of God when you have taken responsibility of for your sins, for the ways that you have fallen short of the glory of God, for you you've harmed yourself and others, and have offended God. We have to take responsibility for our messes.
But here's the crazy thing. As followers of Jesus, we are even called to take responsibility for the messes that we did not create.
I know that's more than a little disconcerting. "But that's not my fault! I'm not responsible for someone else's mess!" Sure. Okay. But if that's your main concern, then I'm afraid you may still be looking at the kingdom of God in terms of weights and measures, in terms of the shrewd calculous of earnings and debts. That's the way of the world, the way of the dishonest manager (Luke 16). He knew how the world worked, he knew how to make sure he was taken care of.
Or perhaps it's like the rich man in Jesus' second parable in that chapter (go read all of Luke 16). According to the standards of the world, the rich man didn't owe Lazarus anything. He wasn't responsible for the man outside his gate. That wasn't his mess to clean up. But when they died, this was Father Abraham's judgment: "Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish" (v. 25).
Jesus is (as usual) talking to the Pharisees "who were lovers of money" (v. 14). He was calling on them to see themselves as the rich man, and to be warned. "Take care of the poor," is the first and most obvious lesson. But the problem with the Pharisees was that they were less like the rich man than they knew. They couldn't see that they were actually more like Lazarus. In fact, the reality is, we are all Lazarus. The real rich man is Jesus.
The critical difference, of course, is that Jesus doesn't stay in his castle, feasting sumptuously. He doesn't stay behind his gate where it's safe and comfortable. He comes down from his heavenly palace. He becomes one of us, walks with us, even dies for us. More than that, he opens the door to his Father's house for us. He makes room for us. He doesn't just give us his scraps; he invites us to his table.
We are not his mess. He is not responsible for us or for our sins and failures. He isn't responsible for the disaster that humanity got itself into. He isn't responsible for broken windows in my neighborhood. But, you know what? He takes responsibility for us anyways. He looks at me and at you and he says, "This mess is mine." He extends the umbrella of his responsibility outward to the underserving. He goes out into the streets and invites the poor, the destitute, the marginalized, the wretched of the earth--without (apparently) any regard for whether or not they were the cause of their own problems. His is an indiscriminate offer; all are welcome here.
So you can see it now, can't you? If we owe it all to Jesus and if Jesus is our model, our icon, our Lord, then we have to take responsibility even for the messes that we didn't create. In our case, it is to take personal responsibility for the mess that is New Orleans.
But the good news is that Christ has already done what he's calling us to do. He seeks the welfare of the city, even now. He lays claim to it, broken windows and all.