Where Will God’s Love Take Us?

“Where Will God’s Love Take Us?”

For those of you who don’t me, I am Scott Schenkelberg, the President & CEO of Miriam’s Kitchen.  I’ve been at Miriam’s Kitchen for eleven years or roughly a one-third of Miriam’s Kitchen’s existence. I’ve been fortunate enough to have my entire 20-year career focused on serving those who haven’t been served well by our society with 18 of those years in the District of Columbia.

I am honored and excited to once again be given the opportunity to preach at Western.  I was even more excited when I read the readings for today.  The two readings from Isaiah and Matthew are perhaps the best known biblical references for those of us who work in the world of assisting people in poverty and all who have been disenfranchised by our society.

Since these two readings are so well known I think they’ve lost their punch.  That’s really unfortunate since what they should be is a punch in the gut to wake up and start acting the way God wants us to.  Isaiah is so powerful because it is so clear. Isaiah says wake up and think about what you are doing.  He says, “Are you spending your time and energy trying to do what you think is right, or what God thinks is right?  Do I, Isaiah, have to spell it out for you because you are missing the point?  Ok, so I guess I will spell it out for you:  God wants you to stop fasting.  God wants you to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and let the oppressed go free.”

Here’s where it becomes personal for me.  Every Lent, I intend, emphasis on intend, to give up beer.  It’s my favorite vice.  However, sometime after the first week of Lent, I start asking myself.  Does God really want me to give up beer?  Who is that helping?  Aren’t I really supposed to be doing something like helping people instead of pointlessly giving up beer?  So, I then cease “giving up” beer, but then I never find that new thing to help people. Seems like that’s exactly what people were doing during Isaiah’s time…hiding behind the ritual and not living what we are truly called to do.

Similarly, Matthew says, “Look, if you are to be the light of God, you’d better let your actions speak for you.  God’s love not only better be in your heart, but in the way you act towards others and work. Don’t go around thinking that you are doing God any favors if all you do is keeps God’s love and teachings bottled up inside.” Or, as Eugene Peterson said in his contemporary translation of Matthew, “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.”

In either case, if you just stick with the ritual and live your faith in your mind only, you are missing the point.  Fasting and prayer has its place because it is what allows us to put our needs second to the needs of others. Fasting and prayer are tools to getting closer to God.  But the problem is that there are those who don’t see those as tools, but as ends in themselves.

How many things in life do we do because they are things we think we should do, but the external purpose if missing?  In Miriam’s Kitchen’s case, we are trying to help our community understand that IT IS NOT OK to have people living on the street.  For God’s sake, Isaiah says this directly.  Aside from this moral imperative, it also makes no sense.  Homelessness is costly to society.  It costs more to keep someone homeless and using emergency services than to house them.

In the context of our lives, perhaps there is no better place in life to examine why we do the things we do than in our places of work.  For many of us, this is the place that not only consumes most or our time but also most of our emotional and physical energy.  Think of the pointless rules that are implemented that are actually a hindrance to accomplishing our missions.  As Miriam’s Kitchen’s staff knows, one of my favorite quotes is from Friedrich Nietzsche.  He wrote, “The most basic form of human stupidity is forgetting what we are trying to accomplish.”

On the surface, Isaiah is calling us to what we would now refer to as basic human rights.  There are few who would argue with Isaiah’s mandates to give the hungry food, the homeless shelter, and the oppressed freedom.  However, what I think is the deeper meaning of Isaiah’s writing is the critical question of whether our actions are fulfilling what we are called to do as a people of faith, or are we just going through the motions?  Are our rituals and our structures perpetuating basic problems?  Forgetting our purpose happens all of the time.  Remembering our purpose is a clarifying moment.

The challenge for many isn’t remembering one’s purpose; it is often finding it. For the most of the past year, Miriam’s Kitchen has been clarifying its purpose.  For the past several years, Miriam’s Kitchen has been working toward the vision of ending chronic homelessness in Washington, DC.  To make sure that everyone understands, people who are chronically homeless are folks who have been living outside for a long time and usually have health problems like mental illness or substance abuse.  This is a really big challenge and something that almost everyone would say is unifying.  Miriam’s Kitchen is working for the day that all who are homeless have access to housing, and the help they need to stay in that housing.

That seems pretty straightforward as a purpose, doesn’t it?   However, for many this purpose seems so intangible and unachievable that it needs to be decoded.  I think that is also what Isaiah is trying to do…decode God’s love for us. He writes, “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.”  Well, isn’t fasting what we were asked to do to draw closer to God?  Isn’t giving housing to those who sleep in the cold and the snow something that God wants us to do?

Much as Isaiah tried to decode for people what God wanted from them, Miriam’s Kitchen had to help people understand what we want from them.  We call what Isaiah did prophecy; Miriam’s Kitchen calls it messaging.

Ok, so let’s think about this for a minute.  We’ve got this enormous task ahead of us…ending chronic homelessness.  The map for solving this problem isn’t clear.  What are the road markers that can help people understand how we get there?

First, it’s about dignity. The dignity of our homeless guests.  Without a place that gives them access to the basics to survive both physically and mentally it would be impossible to do anything else. Moreover, if everything Miriam’s Kitchen does to help its guests was not delivered in a spirit of generosity, humility, and affirmation of the guests’ basic worth how could we move forward?  What Miriam’s Kitchen does is give people who have so little a sense of dignity. A place where they are respected for who they are not for what we wish they would be.

Second, by respecting our guests’ dignity, we give them a place where they can truly belong.  Belonging to a community is such an essential part of a person’s well-being.  For our guests, where can they feel belonging?  The park bench?  The street corner?  The dark hollows underneath a bridge? Miriam’s Kitchen is the place that they come to be themselves. We don’t judge, we know each of them by name, and we assist them with the tools to help make their own lives better through advocacy for more housing and better services.  Offering a place of belonging is something Western Presbyterian has not only offered to our homeless guests, but is also a place where congregants can serve and belong.  It’s a two-way street.

Third, Miriam’s Kitchen is about change!  We are about making a more efficient and just society that will allow our guests to find and stay in housing so they do not die on the streets.  Some of you may have attended the homeless person memorial that Miriam’s Kitchen’s guest lead advocacy group, the People for Fairness Coalition, coordinated in late December.  They walked through the streets of Washington with an empty coffin to symbolize the 26 people who died in the District in 2013 without a place to live.

Isaiah said you have forgotten you purpose. He had to remind people of their purpose and lay out for them what they needed to do to fulfill it.  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and let the oppressed go free.

Similarly, Miriam’s Kitchen had to decode its purpose.  Ending chronic homelessness is only possible when you attend to the dignity of those who are homeless; give them a place to be themselves; and to empower all of us to create a better system.

Miriam’s Kitchen has only come to this place due to Western’s partnership with Miriam’s Kitchen.  We have been gifted by your years of support.  We aren’t the same organization that started 30 years ago, or the same organization we were 10 years ago, or even three years ago.  We’ve grown, and we’ve changed.

I’d like to ask a provocative question as someone who is not a member of this congregation, What is Western Presbyterian Church’s vision for your partnership with Miriam’s Kitchen as Miriam’s Kitchen continue to grow? What is your vision for our two organizations to keep growing together?  Is there a place for your vision of yourselves within Miriam’s Kitchen’s vision of ending chronic homelessness?  Could you envision Western being a leader in the faith community around ending chronic homelessness?  To turn to Matthew, are you letting your light shine? Are you bringing “God-color” to the District of Columbia? As a church, you have been bold in standing up for what you are called to do according to Jesus’ teachings.  You supported Miriam’s Kitchen when other churches would have abandoned it, you offered a faith community where our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have a place of support and dignity when many faiths still don’t believe that.  The list goes on. What is the next step in that history of boldness? What is the next step in that history of bold action in the name of God’s love?

Could you be agents for change?  Could you see yourselves at the bright light on the hill ending chronic homelessness in Washington, DC?  Are you bold enough to say that this is what God wants for the people of Washington, DC?

As I said, I am not a congregant here.  This is not my decision, but what I can offer to you is that as much as you have been and continue to be a vibrant partner with Miriam’s Kitchen, we want to and will support you in developing your vision.  You have a history of faith in action and have demonstrated God’s love for Miriam’s Kitchen’s guests for over 30 years.  Where will God’s love take us now?