On one of my very first visits to Sydney, I was taken by a friend who worked with homeless youth to some of the places in which such young people live and hang out. I recall the time I was with them around a campfire near St. Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. They had got the campfire going from some curbside formwork and were preparing to shelter against a winter Sydney night. Most of them were on drugs of some kind, many of them prostituting – all of them with background stories of enormous tragedy.
And yet, as I left them that night I could not but be struck by the words given in the Gospel this Sunday when Jesus says, “I tell you solemnly tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you.” In other words, those people whom no one would consider religious or upright, those people whom society would label as simply delinquent, and whom many of us might even label as immoral and undesirable, are the very ones for which the Kingdom of God is first open.
How can this be? It seems such an affront to our instinctive notions of the Kingdom of God as reward for a just and moral life. But then, what of the warmth that John’s humour gave to the group in Darlinghurst shivering from the cold? Or Anne’s care for someone younger than her? Or the hope which infused Jane and Eddie’s plans to get back to the country? Amid extraordinary darkness, these so-basic human qualities rolled back the shadows. These people had nothing with which to cover their vulnerability. In their vulnerability, they had discovered a new sense of hospitality to one another. And in their vulnerability, they could still care, they could still hope, they could still laugh.
I had a very similar experience on a visit to Mt. Isa, in the west of Queensland. I was invited to join an Aboriginal Men’s group in the Centacare Office one night during my stay. The group is comprised of about 20 men mostly in their twenties and thirties, all profoundly broken in some way, most before the courts. They shared news; two provided testimonies on their personal issues. We watched an educational film and reflected on its content. Then there was a rather animated discussion on a forthcoming local parade in which the men’s group was going to participate. The evening finished with a breath meditation. It was a powerful experience to be in the room with these men in meditation.
Like the teenagers in Darlinghurst, these men in Mt Isa were on the very margins of society. According to ordinary standards they were failures. And yet, their commitment to be present for each other in the group demonstrated enormous courage. Their solidarity with one another was a way by which they gifted each other with a renewed sense of hope in an otherwise extraordinary cycle of alcoholism, violence and poverty. Their vulnerability had become a place of hospitality, too.
In both situations, in Darlinghurst and in Mt. Isa I felt close to the Kingdom of God. Neither situation was remotely religious. Yet, in both places the Kingdom of God was breaking through into the world. This is because the Kingdom of God is known in the way that people are brought together out of their alienation into a sense of community and belonging. This is the divine life: the ultimate experience of communion, and wherever we see intimations of communion, no matter how obscure or anonymous, there we see the Kingdom of God. We see the Kingdom of God showing itself whenever the forces that impel people towards alienation are transformed into opportunities that create a new sense of community and belonging amongst people
These moments occur in the most unlikely of places. Most often they are not religious in character. They need not be for the Kingdom of God to have its inbreaking. In this sense, the Church never exhausts the potential of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is a larger reality than the Church, and even though the Church is what we call the necessary sacrament of the Kingdom, the Kingdom comes about all around us. No place is too obscure or too forsaken for the intent of the Kingdom to be realised.
As disciples of Jesus, and as members of the Church, we are those who have been given the eyes and the ears to see and to hear when and how the Kingdom of God is showing itself. We are those, therefore, who can perceive in the most unlikely and the most ordinary of places that something extraordinary is occurring. We are those who have been gifted by our faith to read in something that at first might seem a long way away from the Church and from what is religious, the presence, nonetheless, of a genuine spiritual reality.
When our ears and our eyes are open in this way, we are amazed at where and how the Kingdom of God is manifest. We see it in our neighbourhood, in our society, in the big events and in the very mundane. Where inclusion overcomes exclusion, community overcomes marginalisation, kindness overcomes distrust, there the Kingdom of God becomes intimated. Yes, even in situations that at first appear to be less than holy.
If this is so, then it is our responsibility to work for inclusion, for community and for kindness, to look for opportunities to do this, no matter how small or unnoticed our efforts might seem. For then we might find ourselves in the Kingdom of God along with prostitutes and tax-collectors, the young people of Darlinghurst and the aboriginal men of Mt. Isa.
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