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July 26, 2020

Within Reach

Preacher:
Passage: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition last Thursday: “New Orleans Musician Raises Money, Provides Instruments To Kids In Exchange For Guns.” Listen with me for a moment… 

DAVID GREENE, HOST: Now a story about a trumpeter who is hoping that music might help reduce gun violence…

SHAMARR ALLEN: My name is Shamarr Allen. I'm a trumpeter from New Orleans, La., a producer, songwriter, singer.

GREENE: Last week, Allen learned of a shooting in his city. A 9-year-old boy, Devante Bryant, was killed.

ALLEN: I have a 9-year-old son. So for me, it just hit me different, you know?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST: He wanted to find a way to get guns out of the hands of kids.

ALLEN: I had some trumpets laying around. And I know, for me, that trumpet saved me.

MARTIN: So he posted on social media and said, to all the youth in New Orleans, bring me a gun, and I'll give you a trumpet - no questions asked.

ALLEN: I wanted to build a relationship and trust with the kids so that they wouldn't have to worry about getting into any trouble.

GREENE: The musician called the city's mayor and got the police to agree that they would take the guns from him without asking for any details.

ALLEN: And I say, listen, I have a different connection with these kids because I grew up like them. I know what they're going through. I know the type of environment that they're in. And they aren't bad kids. They're just dealt into bad circumstances. They are trying and wanting to do other things, but it's nothing for them to do.

GREENE: So far, Allen has taken in four guns and given away four trumpets.

ALLEN: The first gun that I collected was from a girl - like a little girl. And it was the only gun that was fully loaded. And I just was like, man. Like, this a little girl - I would never suspect that she would have this. And she was the most excited about getting it. I gave her the trumpet. She has the information. If you want to get lessons, you could reach out to one of these teachers. They'll be willing to. I probably saved her situation. Yeah, I probably saved her situation.

MARTIN: Since he ran out of instruments, Allen started an online fundraiser. He has raised more than $10,000 for music supplies, and people have also donated their own instruments.

ALLEN: The trumpet was the first thing that showed me, oh, I really don't have to be here. It's really a whole 'nother world out here.

GREENE: And Allen is hoping that this instrument will have a similar impact for kids in New Orleans today.

ALLEN: So if I can create those little opportunities for one or two or three of them, they can actually bring that back to their neighborhood and do it all over again.

GREENE: That's the voice of trumpeter Shamarr Allen, who is trying to reduce gun violence in his community in New Orleans.

The reign of heaven is like a musician who trades instruments for weapons. The reign of heaven is like a trumpeter who is willing to give away all his trumpets if it means that one less kid gets hurt or killed. 

The reign of heaven emerges in and through small, seemingly insignificant acts. It takes work, for sure, being a mixture of divine and human effort. There’s a subversiveness to it, it’s sneaky in the way it takes what we’d normally expect and turns it upside down. There’s a foolishness to it, a wastefulness, even an absurdity (by the standards of the world) but once you catch even the tiniest glimpse of it, you realize that pursuing it is worth everything. You’re “all-in.”

Part of the genius of how the rabbi Jesus taught was that he drew his “material” from the scenery of the everyday lives of his listeners. When Jesus spoke about the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God — I love what the Episcopal layperson Verna Dozier called it, “the Dream of God” — he drew imagery from ordinary people and ordinary stuff. Rather than from something abstract or otherworldly, Jesus’ parables draw from the sights, sounds, and smells of First Century Galilean living: a farmer planting crops, a woman baking bread, a treasurer hunter on the hunt, a merchant selling his wares, commercial fisherpeople casting their nets. The “where” was right here. The “what” was miniscule: seeds, yeast, treasure, pearls, fish. Jesus makes enough room in his parables for people to crawl in there, and have a look, but then there’s always a twist, so that they leave having seen something extraordinary in the ordinary.

Like any good teacher, Jesus meets people exactly where they are. He points to their immediate surroundings so that they are able to put flesh onto the dreams of God — not somewhere, someday, but right here, right now.

The reign of God was his favorite topic it seems. And there was an urgency and a closeness to the way he talked about it: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” “The kingdom of God is near.” “The kingdom of heaven is within you (or in your midst).” It was always within reach.

It always is within reach… in small things and in fleeting instances until it comes in its fullness. And our call is to imagine what the dreams of God look like within the textures of our lives. 

Thinking back to Mr. Allen’s story, what is more New Orleans than a brass instrument? When you think about all the different approaches to ending (or at least mitigating) the scourge of gun violence in this country, how many of those approaches take as their starting place the 9th Ward and not Capitol Hill? 

Speaking of violence, when I read the news about what’s happening in Portland, I’m amazed at the creativity of the folks there. You may have heard about the “walls” between protesters and federal agents, walls of moms, nurses, veterans, and lawyers, and dads blowing away tear gas with leaf blowers. There was also a video on Twitter of somebody taking a whack at a tear gas canister with a hockey stick. I don’t know if that hockey player was thinking exactly at that moment, but I wonder if it was along the lines of “I can’t fix militarized law enforcement, but I can get this out of someone’s face!” 

To partner with God in working for God’s dreams of peace, we start small and we use what’s within our grasp. Small things add up to big things.

A final word about the net and sorting the good fish from the bad fish, similar to last week’s parable about separating the wheat from the weeds: as we do all of this, we remember that the sifting and the sorting — who is in and who is out, who is worthy and who is not, who is redeemable and who is unredeemable — is left to the one whose dream it is, whose reign it is. It’s almost as if Jesus bakes into the parable the acknowledgement that our judgment will be impaired, that we will get it wrong sometimes. Our task then is to stay focused on envisioning what life looks like when God’s will is done and to love indiscriminately in the process. And with that, too, we start with who is within our reach.

I’ll close with the wisdom of Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement:

“People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”

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