by Jim Wehner
I was walking to work today. It is one of the benefits of our commitment to become neighbors in the community where we serve. I cannot overstate the life I gained when I gave up my commute and moved from the suburbs to our neighborhood of South Atlanta last year. Walking this morning, my heart was thankful for the places where I recognize God in the neighborhood. I even caught myself smiling at one point!
I’m not sure I could have done that a year ago. Having newly moved into the neighborhood, I was struggling just to feel safe as I walked. The streets are so much busier than my former suburban home and the neighborhood simply has a tougher exterior. This uncertainty made it difficult for me to see God in the midst of my surroundings. I didn’t know where to look and I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly.
So many stories in the Scripture show people looking for Jesus in the wrong places. This subverting of expectations is one of the reasons I love the story of the resurrection:
John writes, “Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:11-17, NIV).
Empty tomb?! What in the world is happening? I love how John, the author of the fourth Gospel, recounts this story. And I love that those closest to Jesus struggled to recognize him after his resurrection. Mary, one whose unfettered worship set her apart, did not recognize Jesus because she did not expect him there.
When I first moved into my current neighborhood, it took me a minute to recognize Jesus in this place. To learn how to pray. To learn that my brokenness is no different than my neighbors’ brokenness. I tried to fit my faith and my expectations into my new environment and the categories of my past experiences. In short, because of its rough exterior, did I assume that I was bringing God into the neighborhood rather than expecting to find God already here?
This last year has reminded me that life on the margins does not equate a life without God. It’s true that sometimes life does slip away in the midst of difficult circumstances. But it shouldn’t surprise me that Jesus is found in the margins of our society, in the places that are hidden away. He spent his earthly life rubbing elbows with people who didn’t fit the expectations of what the religious would consider appropriate.
Too often, we try to avoid spaces of pain or marginalization. We keep looking for God in safe, sanitized places. And even when we are in difficult surroundings, we sometimes fail to recognize His presence just as Mary wasn’t able to see Jesus for who He was. It wasn’t where she expected Him to be. But Jesus has always subverted our ideas and shown up where we least expect it. As I walk through my neighborhood, I am grateful for the ways I am starting to recognize how He has been alive and present all along.