From the Square Before the Water Gate
Nehemiah 8: 1-10, Ps 19, Lk 4: 14-21
Grace and peace to you all, in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are brought together to worship and rejoice in our God, and to learn to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are brought together as a body to be refueled for the great requirement: to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. We are brought together to be nourished on our journey of sharing the good news of salvation in as many ways as there are people who need healing in this world today. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are gathered here on this square before the Water Gate as an enacted, emboldened embodiment of Christ whom the Spirit has anointed to bring good news to the poor and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. “Today, the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing?” But how are you and I fulfilling the scripture today?
When you come upon this corner of Virginia and 24th, the first thing you notice are the homeless. Before 8 am, they line up, ready for breakfast. Ebbing and flowing from the sidewalk to the grass and the wall around the church throughout the day, by 2:00 or so, there’s an orderly cue of men and women – and occasionally children – eager for Miriam’s Kitchen to open and receive them in the warm space that is theirs as it is ours. You’ve known our guests for years. I’ve been getting to know them day by day in different ways.
One afternoon a week ago, I met Chief. It was, shall I say, an interesting encounter. He stood on the corner of the square facing the Watergate like he’s stood on that corner one hundred times. In a moment, he cut through the thick green shrubs that flank our building, approached my office from the outside and began to pound on my office window. “Let me in!” I wondered if the panes might break. He began shouting something else – something more difficult to understand, but it was clear that he was determined to let us know that an injustice was being inflicted upon the people of the street. They were hungry and they needed to eat. That was one thing for sure.
Our faithful secretary, Shenella, happened to be in my office. Tony, Miriam’s Kitchen’s security, happened to be in hers. Shenella went to Tony and Tony went to Chief. Chief stepped down. He moved to the sign post between the sidewalk and the street corner and began to prophesy again. A neighbor called the police who came within a few very loud minutes. The police initiated a truce. Chief, being a reasonable man, got quiet again, thus ending his proclamation on the good news that day.
There’s a lot to proclaim from the square before the Watergate. And when the floodgates open, hope and anger and suspicion and despair mix in a tidal basin untamable by the National Park Service. It’s a messy pool where all are free – relatively free – to be nourished and sustained for the hours ahead. There’s a lot to proclaim on the square before the Water Gate, where deep riches kiss poverty and a man like Chief lets us know for certain that we all have a right to be fed.
Chief shared his own version of the good news last week. A commentary on Luke, one might say, and Nehemiah, and Isaiah. – Jesus, himself. And we quickly learn that when a prophet stands before us to share a word from God, it can make us feel more than a bit uneasy. We wonder where we fit in the conversation – how we are being called to help the one billowing before us, or the one about whom the billowing one is being so very outspoken. Yet we likely agree that when a prophet stands before us to share a word from God, we are most often uneasy because that prophet is giving us something we need to hear.
It’s at the Water Gate of Solomon’s Temple where the people of Jerusalem experienced a great revival. When Ezra read the Law of Moses to the people of God on the square before the Water Gate – the word of God read to them for what might have been the first time in a very long time – they wept for their transgressions and mourned that their lives had been so out of step with the law. But of this, the prophets and the scribes and the Pharisees declared, they should not be grieved. Go your way! Eat! Drink! Rejoice in the Lord! Give a portion of it all to those without anything at all to share. And so the people of God from all of the paths that the generations of people of God walk do feed the poor, and bring healing to the sick, and advocate for the imprisoned. We insure a fine education on all levels for as many as we are able. We clean the streets that we travel and the air that we breathe, we support the less able in body and mind, we march to end mindless, senseless gun violence. You and I are creative in our caring and our enactment of the great prophecies we’ve been told. Emboldened by the word of God, we bring the word to life!
Enter the land of the living word, where Jesus tells us that the deed is far from enough. Today we hear that Jesus reminds us through the words of Isaiah that the scripture is fulfilled in our hearing and others’ hearing, too. Because it is from Jesus we learn that a meal doesn’t proclaim victory over hunger – it just quells our hunger for one night. Prescriptions might take away a presenting pain, while spiritual pain can persist beneath it all. One wrongfully imprisoned mother might be freed from her jail cell, but when she’s trapped in lament for any of her transgressions more permanent bars of injustice place a stronghold on her soul.
Providing the meal is vital. But when we sit at Jesus’ feet and learn to proclaim Christ in serving the meal, it says “I will be here again tomorrow, because it is God’s good news that God desires that you be fed.” And when we are an active member of the body of Christ – when we proclaim Christ in feeding the hungry – it says, “If I die or move or – whatever, somebody’s going to come and take my place, because the Body of Christ is following God’s desire that you be fed.” When you and I rise from Jesus’ feet and proclaim that Jesus Christ is our food for this journey and can be theirs in this difficult journey of a lifetime, too, we are saying, “our efforts will not be in vain, because it is God’s desire that you be fed.” Extending our commitment through the church of all ages, the good news insures an endless food drive long after the seasonal baskets are gone.
You and I have come to know that feeding the poor is more than a transaction; it’s the beginning of a relationship that involves a series of encounters and touch points. And as I was saying to Clara and Matt and Ben from the Crosslinks board on Thursday morning, true relationships are formed when we allow our whole selves to be a part of the conversation. That’s what lasts long after the visit it shared, in the multiplicity of ways we share a visit, and becomes the impact of the encounter. As an enacted, emboldened, embodiment of Christ, we are certainly to extend our time and our talents and our treasures; but a complete proclamation of good news to the poor is truly fulfilled when we boldly – or quietly – proclaim the enduring word of God to a deeply impoverished world so in need of a full dose of hope today. If this is who we are, a people gathered beneath the banner of church, this is what we must know and are called to proclaim. As it says in our Book of Order, this is the church’s charge, even at the risk of losing our life.
You will hear me say this again and again. When anyone has experienced how the depths of her sadness has been overcome by the greatness of God’s glory, when any one of us can recall how his own insatiable hunger has been met by the bountiful harvest of God’s love, when we think back on how our burdens of sin have been lifted by the power of God’s grace, when you and I remember when each of those experiences of anxiety and mourning and entrapment of many kinds have been overpowered by the peace that otherwise passes all understanding, not only will we not want to contain it, we will not be able to. We will want all those we meet to know that there is promise after pain and that we are here to share with them not only food to sustain them for the day, but nourishment that will carry them through their whole lives. There is eternal promise after all of the pain of the world, thanks to the saving life and death of Christ.
You and I weep that this world is filled with poor people who certainly require our persistent acts of justice and mercy. Let’s be clear, folks. Chief stands on his corner of this square before the Water Gate because John Wimberly and Western Presbyterian Church fought for his right to be here and be fed. Thanks be to God. The good news of Jesus Christ requires that we do good deeds all the days of our lives. – Big deeds, like starting Miriam’s Kitchen and smaller ones like offering someone a granola bar from your bag. But good deeds are not, in and of themselves, sufficient as good news. The good news of Jesus Christ affirms to the world that the good deeds will continue and triumph. The doing is incomplete – our doing is incomplete – even in Jesus’ life without the lasting good news of his saving death.
Now, we know that Luke’s is a very practical sharing of the good news. He’s been called the great physician not only because he might very well have been one, but also because he documented Jesus’ teaching of the very tangible ways we can show God’s ways of healing intended for us all. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus lifts up widows and tax collectors, prostitutes, and Samaritans. He heals those filled with demons and all sorts of ailments. He embraces the most indulgent son and delivers him home. Most likely, Luke’s audience was this diverse and poor community who are given prominent roles throughout his gospel. But Luke’s presentation of the good news doesn’t end here, remembering the story from Luke chapter 10 when Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. Martha immediately busied herself with preparations for a meal for her guest. Mary, her sister, sat at Jesus’ feet. Martha, much chagrinned, asked Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Then tell her to help me.” And Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
And so we learn from all this and more, found in Luke’s account of Jesus and so many accounts of our own, that complete faith requires us to be like both Mary and Martha. Can we layer upon our good deeds even a gentle proclamation of the reason for the strength in our step and in doing so extend a word of hope to a suffering world today so that they’re receiving both a deed and a word of our hope every one? The challenge for you and for me today is that we commit ourselves to harnessing our gratitude for the love and the mercy, the grace and the peace that God has poured into our lives in order to share this good news with even a sentence as simple as, “I’ll pray for you” to revive the most downtrodden soul. – Or a word of assurance like, “God is with you,” for a layer of perpetual warmth over the blanket you’ve just delivered, especially on those nights that seem the loneliest or longest.
Let’s be a prophetic people, dear hearts, bringing good news to the poor today and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor for the sake of all of the suffering saints of the world, now and forever more. Amen.