We Need the Middle
Last Sunday, during the commercial fest that was occasionally interrupted by a football game, Jeep aired an ad that has had people talking. The singer, Bruce Springsteen narrated what amounted to a short film about unity and finding common ground.
There’s a chapel in Kansas, standing on the exact center of the lower 48. It never closes. All are more than welcome to come meet here – in the middle. It’s no secret: the middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and fear. Now fear has never been the best of who we are; and as for freedom, it’s not the property of just the fortunate few; it belongs to us all. It’s what connects us, and we need that connection; we need the middle. We just have to remember that the very soil we stand on is common ground. So, we can get there. We can make it to the mountain top, through the desert, and we will cross this divide. Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there’s hope, on the road, up ahead.
“We need the middle.” I think that this commercial has struck a chord in Americans as we recognize how divided we are. I don’t need to rehash all those differences – you know what they are. They have vexed us for a long time, even if they are so much more pronounced today. Even our own beloved Church is victim to the petty tribalism and vilification of “the other” that the rest of the world experiences. Some aren’t “Catholic enough”; others don’t care enough about the “right issues”; certain few seem to know the mind of God better than others; and we throw anonymous insults at one another that can be even more painful that the proverbial “sticks and stones.”
“We need the middle.”
Jesus comes to us today, not surrounded by the curious crowd from last week, not in the synagogue, not even in the marketplace. Rather, He has “gone out” on the road, away from most people, where He is able to encounter one of “those people” – a leper who has been marked off and separated from his people and their worship. Of course, according to Jewish law – the law of their faith – lepers needed to be separated from the community. It was a practical health measure. However, it also provided an easy excuse for “religious people” to ignore, and even vilify, their fellow Jews. Therefore, lepers spent their days apart, isolated, lonely, far away from their friends and family, far away – it seemed – from their God.
It would be easy for Jesus to spend His ministry in the populated places and crowded synagogues. As a minister, He’d get more “bang for His buck.” Going out to the countryside meant sparser populations, fewer interactions, and stranger people. However, that is exactly where we find Christ today. Jesus goes to “the middle.”
The middle is not some sentimental, sappy, wishy-washy place where everyone can “play nice.” At least, it is not in this regard. No. The middle is the place of real encounter – life-changing encounter – where God meets us, and we can meet one another. Jesus knew that His mission was not a simple one where everyone would simply come to Him; some of them could do that. However, that did not keep Jesus away from them or deny them that transformative experience of meeting Christ.
More of us need this middle. Too often we choose hills to die upon and we miss a real experience of each other’s humanity. We stand apart and shout at others, deaf to their experience, their pain, their joy, their life. More and more, we are lured and pushed to the fringes and isolate ourselves from true interaction that can bring about understanding. Jesus never did that. Be like Jesus!
St. Paul is our cheerleader in this move toward the middle. Of all people, Paul was not a man to compromise his values and beliefs. However, he knew how to encounter people – even those with whom he had a difference of opinion. Why? Because in all things he looked to “do everything for the glory of God.” He tells us today to look toward the middle, not to our safe and comfy extremes: “Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews [on one side] or Greeks [on the other] or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
See? Be like Jesus!
Fear has never been the best of who we are. It is fear that pushes us to the sides – to the extremes – into camps that vilify others. It is what kept people away from that leper in the Gospel. Jesus was not afraid to go to that middle, where the suffering and lost are. This is where we need to be as well. Be like Jesus; because our light has always found its way through the darkness, and it will again if we know where we are going with Christ. He’s there – in the middle.
And we need the middle.