If this story isn’t true, it ought to be. I ran across this urban legend in one of Brennan Manning’s books. He’s a favorite author who writes with singular focus on the gift of grace, and how grace goes to work in the world. In this troubled time in our world, this story which he told came to mind:
During the Great Depression, on a cold night in New York, Fiorello LaGuardia went to a night court serving one of the poorest parts of town. He sent the sitting judge home and took the judge’s place, apparently something mayors can do. An elderly woman was brought before the bench, accused of stealing food from a local store. She explained that her daughter was sick, her son-in-law had abandoned them, and there was no food in the house to feed the grandchildren, no money to buy food. Despite this compelling story, the store owner insisted on prosecution. He couldn’t afford leniency because there were so many people in so much need. He’d be overrun. The mayor agreed, and told the woman that she had to either pay a fine of ten dollars, or spend ten days in jail.
Then he reached in his pocket and found ten dollars, paying the fine. And he spoke to the group gathered in the courtroom. He said, “I am fining each one of you 50 cents for living in a city where a woman needs to steal bread to feed her family.” Policemen, court officials, those present for traffic violations, even the shop owner paid the fine. The woman ended up with $47.50, a lot in those days. The mayor had made the point that the whole community bore responsibility. Justice and mercy were on display that evening. The story captures my imagination with the mayor’s sense that we are all connected, all responsible and even complicit in the brokenness of our world. What’s our part in it?
Our scripture poses that question, perhaps most famously when St. Paul addresses the religious and the not-so-religious and says that all have fallen short of the glory of God. We’re all in this together. Our liturgy poses that question, when at the beginning of Holy Week, in another courtroom scene, we read the Passion Narrative and the congregation cries “Crucify”. I know parishioners who skip that Sunday, claiming they would never have been part of the crowd, never part of a process that would put love to death. “Never. Not me. I’m not part of it.”
Facebook now echoes with images that say “I am Orlando.” just as a while ago we heard “Je suis Hebdo.” There is sad empathy there. But perhaps also a challenging message to think of our connection and our responsibility to address the brokenness of our world, to work for justice and peace. What part do we play in it? What we can do about it? Speak? Pray? Learn? Listen? Vote? Advocate? Serve? Be present? Pastor the community?
Along with the challenge is hope, perhaps conveyed in St. Paul’s image that we are all part of the body of Christ. All that we do is related to the rest of the body. We need each other. Below, find a message from Martin Luther King to the clergy of his day, well-meaning main-line Christian ministers who remained dangerously silent as Dr. King led the charge. He gave them an image of interconnectedness that speaks to all who would follow Jesus, who would be his hands and feet in the world.
This Monday morning, is there a way that God is calling you to pastor the community, to work for justice and peace, to participate in the healing of a hurting world? Can you see yourself as part of an inescapable network of mutuality, a single garment of destiny? Ask God to show you that way.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an excerpt from his letter from a Birmingham Jail
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