Home from vacation . . . with my hair still short but my tan fading away! Some folks go on dangerous vacations: bungee jumping, mountain climbing, swimming with sharks, etc. My vacation was much safer – from the Mission Trip in Washington D.C. to the lakes of Minnesota to the shore of Bethany Beach, Deleware. Many highlights: seeing the Speaker of the House John Boehner at the Starbucks on Capitol Hill each morning at 6:00 a.m.; worshiping at the Catholic church in Cold Spring, MN; surf fishing with Jack and catching a nice sting ray.
I am very good at vacation. Indeed, sometimes, I believe my vocation is vacation!
It is always good to get away, get distance, allow new rhythms to force you out of old patterns, giving you space to think new thoughts, get perspective. Vacations are fun, but they can be dangerous too, even mine, for they can change you – make you bolder.
This morning I want to share an experience I had while I was away. I want to talk about the faithful necessity to be in touch with poverty: the worlds and our own, and the need to worship, to be in community, to break bread together. On these pillars rest the Kingdom of God – and perhaps our own redemption.
It was Wednesday of the mission trip. We awoke a bit earlier than we had the previous days and headed to the United Methodist church on Capitol Hill. We participated in a breakfast and bible study with a group of homeless men. Some of the men were a bit peculiar (like the man who was called “Shine”) but the food was good and the conversation was lively – everyone participated.
Afterwards we met with Rob – a D.C. lawyer, who started this breakfast program. His story agitated me deeply. Rob moved to Capitol Hill. He walked his dog daily in the neighborhood of the church. He saw the police shooing away (sometimes not so politely) those who had slept on the church steps through the night.
So Rob began to arrive before the police and gently rouse the men with a more cordial wake up call. One morning one of the men asked for a cup of coffee and Rob invited him into the church and fixed him a cup. Soon Rob went to the lay council (like our Session) and asked if he could start a breakfast program and it started.
Rob shared with us that he was convicted by Matthew chapter 25: “What you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do to me.” And then, and this was the part that really caught my attention, he nonchalantly shared that he now lives with four formerly homeless men whom he invited into his apartment – homeless no longer. He is living Isaiah 58: “and bring the homeless poor into your house.”
There was another homeless man named “Gerrard” whom we met again, coincidently, later in the day, at dinner time. Some of our kids (Anna, Emily, Sarah, Megan) gave him money and ate with him. Gerrard followed us back towards the hostel and sat with us in the shadow of the capitol as we debriefed our day and worshiped together.
Gerrard shared that he had worked in the Clinton administration and had a PhD. I was skeptical (‘cause I have one of those), until I Googled him and found his picture… you usually don’t think of a truly homeless and on-the-street PhD. – but that reality is, for many, only one check and an untreated mental illness away.
To be in the shadow of the capitol as the day faded, listening to the reactions of our young people about homelessness with Gerrard sitting right by . . . It was a scene out of Matthew, as Jesus, in the shadow of the temple, spoke about the day when the nations will be judged by how they treat the hungry and the thirsty.
At that very moment, Senators and Representatives for Congress were within the walls of power, debating with partisan frenzy the debt, cutting programs, balancing the budget, and protecting the wealthiest . . . with no talk at all about the poorest – and here we were on the wall outside the walls – with Gerrard, reflecting upon our day.
I have my opinions about the deficit and the national budget as I am sure you do but the scripture teaches, and my recent experience so moved me to know, that God’s priority is for the poor and truly the biggest risk to the soul of our nation is how we treat or mistreat by ignoring or denying the reality of the poor.
God loves you and me and certainly most of us are facing our own economic tensions – we are stressed by bills, and overwhelmed by our own debt. We are stretched in our spending, and defined by the things we own. It all seems too much – aware of what we lack and wish we had. And yet, we are also so privileged, due to our stations and entitlements and opportunities. You and I are so vastly privileged.
I feel that I live in the limbo of the poverty of privilege. It is hard not to live a fearful life, a disconnected life – a life shaped by possessions and the protection of them. Fear breaks down community. Isolation breeds mistrust and discontent. Christ wants to set you free from that.
The words of the prophet Isaiah seem to resound across the centuries to our day and time. To our nation, who like to think of ourselves as a chosen people, living in a city on a hill, Isaiah cries:
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to the people their rebellion….” “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thong of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,… is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house… if you offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, THEN (Isaiah writes) your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom like the noonday…. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
According to Isaiah, according to Micah and Amos, according to the Torah, according to Jesus and the witness of the early church – the matter of faith is not one of protecting privilege but of relieving poverty, not of individual rights but of communal good, not right doctrine as much as right practice. It is in identifying your own poverty, and being with the poor, and breaking bread with those who are typically forgotten and overlooked – this is where you experience the kingdom of God.
Jesus said the matter of faith was pretty simple: Love God and love your neighbor. If you want to see the kingdom of God, give more away. Do with less. Worship more. Be a creative participant in that which you know God yearns for and delights in; not the protection of our wealth, but for the providing for the neediest in generosity.
A nation that prioritizes the poor – for this is what Isaiah is saying to the nation of Judah and Israel so many years ago – the nation which presumes to be a chosen nation needs to extend the boundary and witness not to scarcity but to abundance, to invest in the things that matter – care for the poorest – and this will rebuild the ancient ruins, and rise up the foundations, and repair the breaches, and restore the streets. Now that is a wonderful biblical topsy-turvy economic formula. It is not “trickle down” but an upward flood of compassion, a tsunami of righteousness and restoration. It is both giving more money away, but also inviting more into these walls and our homes – showing hospitality.
Restoring the streets, creating community, repairing the breaches of distrust between the races and the genders and the orientations and the political parties, that is our job, our number one mission. You and I will build this beloved community together.
On that Wednesday morning, three weeks ago, I and 16 others joined 17 strangers in a time of bread breaking and faith sharing. Old and young, black and white, mentally healthy and mentally ill, richer and the very poorest, fundamentalist and progressive, liberal and conservative, and yet no status mattered, and all were welcomed – the homeless showed hospitality to the high school group from Northeast Ohio and I had that wonderful sense of the Kingdom.
And here we are today: stranger and friend, gay and straight, divorced and married, young and old, woman and man, black and white, believer and doubter, Republican and Democrat, visitor and member – and yet no status matters. All are welcomed. And I sense again the wonderful beloved community that Christ gave his life for. Breaking bread together and offering our lives for each other and for the poor – it’s just that easy, and just that difficult. Perhaps the wise rabbi is correct who once said: “The Messiah will only come when he is no longer needed.” It is not for Christ to bring the Kingdom, it is for us to build it so that Christ will recognize it!
For, after all, you and I are the body of Christ. Jesus is present in you and me, in community, in his church, which exists not for itself for others.
And if we live to this task, then the second coming of Jesus Christ won’t be one of horrifying judgment, but Christ will come again and say, “Well done, good and faithful servants!”
I may never go on a vacation again . . . Too dangerous!
So be it!