Wednesday, February 02, 2011

February 6, Epiphany 5: Light and Salt and Beds and Water

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world.” Old First, you are the light of Park Slope. You are not the only light, and you are not only for Park Slope, but also for Prospect Heights and Windsor Terrace, etc. You are to illuminate your part of the world. By your good works.

Last week I ended my sermon by saying that in our life together as a congregation we could help little Schuyler Orr learn to see God, and that we can help each other see God. This week I’m going one more step by saying that we can help our community see the Kingdom of God, and what is in it. We can illuminate “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” And today I want to give two very practical examples of how we can do that. Both of them are from Isaiah 58.

First, Isaiah 58:7: “Is it not to bring the homeless poor into your house.” Here is a very clear message for us at Old First, to bring the homeless poor into our house. Look, a few months ago I got a request from a local service agency called CAMBA. (Check the link.) The CAMBA agency asked me if this July and August our church could host a respite shelter for the homeless right here in this room. I think this is something it would be good for us to do, so I passed the request to our deacons, and they are now considering whether the congregation would support it.

The homeless population of New York City is now the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. Our homeless shelters are packed to their capacities. The homeless who sleep in the city’s gigantic public shelters are more likely to stay homeless than those who sleep in the small shelters run by churches and synagogues. These small shelters are being opened up again after the city tried to close them all down. But most of the small shelters shut down for the summer, and there’s a great need for beds during July and August.

A “respite shelter” is a flexible shelter of five to twenty beds that is set up at night and taken down every morning. The agency screens the guests and brings them to the church at 6 pm. The volunteers make an evening meal, and they serve it and eat it with the guests, and then the guests set up their beds and most of the volunteers go home except for a couple folks who stay on all night. At 6 am the guests wake up for coffee and they pack up their shelter into storage and they’re out by 7, with the room completely cleared for other use all day.

We’d need to recruit volunteers. I have no doubt we would find them. I’ve already had expressions of interest from other parishes and civic groups. We have the space, we have the need, and we have Isaiah 58:7: “Is it not to bring the homeless poor into your house?” We can do this. We can respond to God’s call on us. Let the deacons know that you support it. If the deacons approve it, I’ll need six people to serve with me on a steering committee to get the whole thing going.

Second, Isaiah 58:11: “You shall be like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” I am proposing we install a public drinking-water fountain right outside the front of our church. And let me tell you why: Water is a gift of God for the life of the world; flowing water it is a powerful symbol in the Christian faith; public water is a human right; and a public water fountain can be a wonderful illumination to our community of what’s included in the kingdom of heaven come on earth.

Two years ago I read a book called Bottlemania, by Elizabeth Royte. (Check her link; she lives in Park Slope.) The book describes how public water is being privatized. In our public schools, the water fountains are being removed and replaced by vending machines which sell bottled water and give a cut of the profits back to the administration. In September of 2009 I attended a conference in South Africa and I heard stories of third world governments in the global south which were selling their public water sources to international conglomerates, and the poor no longer have the free use of it, and now they have to buy it, for which they need our foreign aid. At this conference, they said that this is an issue for the churches, because water is a gift of God.

Last spring Elizabeth Royte called me up and said, “How about a public water fountain outside Old First?” Both for the real public need of it and for the message it would represent. I said I liked it but I needed time. Last summer I went to Grand Rapids for the General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (check their link), and they had a workshop on water justice and the church. I thought of Elizabeth’s idea, but it seemed like such a small thing, compared to the realities of India and Africa. But then I mentioned it to the leader of the workshop, who is a theologian from Switzerland, the home of Nestle, which owns Poland Spring. He’s a leader in what’s called the Ecumenical Water Network. (Check their link.) He told me he thought it was a very good idea and we should do it, and they wanted to be part of it: they want us to share with them the process of our doing it and any problems we might face. He said it might seem like such small thing, but it’s a very important thing to do.

We’ll involve the community. We’ll need the support of the Park Slope Civic Council, of which I am a member, and its Committee on Livable Streets. We’ll need the support of our city councilmembers, Brad Lander and Steve Levin; both of them are good friends of Old First. We’ll need to celebrate this thing, and to publicize why we are doing it, and we’ll need creative ways to use the fountain liturgically. We want it to express our faith. So, I’ll need six volunteers to work on this with me. I think I might have two already.

Beds and water. These two things are being asked of us. And Isaiah 58 is telling us to go ahead. You will ask what real difference do these things make? Well, what difference does a light make in the house? It doesn’t move the furniture, it doesn’t clean the dust, it doesn’t fix the walls. So how needs light, right? What real difference does salt make in the soup? What difference does salt make in the omelet? How small a thing is salt, how little it does, but you put it right there on the kitchen table, because it opens up the taste of everything you eat. It is the same with light, it opens up the sight of everything. We need to be salt and light, and we can do it with beds and water.

Look, Old First, you can’t change the world. You can’t even change this neighborhood. But Jesus doesn’t ask you to. He reserves that for himself, and he does it in his own way, by the power of his word and his spirit, which you must be patient with. He is the one who is perfectly in control of his kingdom, he is the one who makes his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. That’s why you pray to him about it, because it’s in his power to do it and not in yours. You can’t build the kingdom of God, and you are not expected to. But you can certainly receive it, and share it, and be witnesses to it, and point to it, and let people know what’s in it, and by your words and your good works you show the world around you what it means and what it stands for. When you host a respite shelter, you illuminate the kingdom of heaven. When you host a public water fountain, you open up the kingdom for anyone who wants to drink of it.

A skeptic might say that things like this are meaningless, but there are two more reasons that we do them. First, as our epistle suggests, not for the approval of the wisdom of this age or the rulers of this age, but as Jesus says, for the glory of God. If these things are God’s ideas, then we do them for the glory of God. And the second reason is to enjoy them. To enjoy them. To enjoy the light as God’s light, to enjoy the salt, to enjoy the water, and even to enjoy the beds. That’s how you know it’s the kingdom of heaven, by how much joy you get from living in it.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.


Jane Rowell said...

Hey Daniel - these sound like great projects! I was involved in a 'floating shelter' when I worked in Croydon, South London. The churches in the area each took a night to run a shelter - and the guests knew that Thursday night was East Croydon etc... I really valued being part of it and the blessing went both ways! The fountain sounds great too - what a great way to celebrate Jesus, the water of life!

Old First said...

Hooray, and thanks Jane. Already some international notice! Well, I will keep you in touch on how it goes.

Karen Vaughan said...

What a great idea to have a water fountain!