Yet Unfinished: Urban Possibility

Yet Unfinished: Urban Possibility

Yet Unfinished: Urban Possibility

Isaiah 65:17-25, Luke 13:31-35

 

Roman Catholic Archbishop Romero of San Salvador was assassinated because of his work on behalf of the poor. He said:

 

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

 

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

 

The account of the prophet Isaiah documents a three-part movement in the evolution of the great, ancient city of Jerusalem. At first, the city is at risk, under assault. Then, Jerusalem is displaced ‘til at last, she is restored and on her way rejoicing. This is where we are with today’s reading. Renowned Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann asks that we consider each of our urban centers as small interpretations of this holy city.1 In other words, where is our city in the complex evolution of what is yet to come? Is it at risk, or in displacement or in it’s very own way rejoicing, restored? I would hope that we could say that there’s been great progress in each of the urban centers of the United States. And yet, our work remains unfinished. We are in the midst of experiencing great urban possibility.

The challenge for a Christian is to identify for himself how he is called to join the movement to help each of our urban centers reach its God-given, glorious end.

A conversation about urban possibility would be incomplete without a reflection on the progress – yet unfinished – of today’s great urban centers of New York, New Orleans and, of course, Washington, DC.

Ed Koch, Mayor of New York City in the 70s and 80s, was memorialized upon his passing this month as one whose “tough, determined leadership and responsible fiscal stewardship … helped lift the city out of its darkest days and set it on course for an incredible comeback.”2 I’m going to bet that everyone here has heard of the dark days of New York. Maybe some of you lived in Manhattan when Times Square was no place to walk alone, when race riots carved deep holes into the sides of towering brick apartment buildings, where homelessness was epidemic and heroine syringes littered Central Park. Maybe you’ve seen it all on TV. Ed Koch was elected Mayor of New York – the city he loved until his death – in the midst of such disgust and he continues to be celebrated for its incredible transformation. New York City today is one of the safest, most service-minded cities on earth where you find soup kitchens in every direction of a 10-minute walk but affordable housing is not to be found. Urban decay met urban possibility, yet the task remains unfinished.

Yes, Walter Brueggemann says, “if we do our work well (when we hear the cries of the prophet about Jerusalem,) we will be hearing our home city, the home of our hopes and our fears, our duties, our dreads, and our delights.”3 To take this a bit further, it is then we will come to understand that risk, surveillance, and joy in every city, as in Jerusalem, depend on the management of God’s resources that have been entrusted to us for proper use and compassionate care.

It wasn’t long after I arrived here that I learned about Western’s work trips to Gulfport and Biloxi. Mark Finks, Betsy Carter, Mickey Voigt and Jean Yablon went on trips that Joan Romaine coordinated with Vienna Presbyterian Church to restore houses ripe from mold and rot and slimy, debris fill water. Memories fill your heart when you return from a trip like that: memories of the exceeding loss all the people have experienced, memories of how much work still needs to be done, memories of families who would have found it nearly impossible to return to their homes were it not for your friendship and care, memories of new friends who fed you and laughed with you and commiserated with you over horrible smells…

While not all of us had hands-on-deck, who doesn’t recall images of Hurricane Katrina, ripping through Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005? It is universally agreed that were it not for the churches’ hard work and generous support, few would be able to call New Orleans home again even today. Yet New Orleans remains unfinished. Immigrants who also came to help rebuild are being swept into retention centers and left to suffer there without representation. Housing is still a problem. Drug houses and violent crime is commonplace.

Last fall was the inaugural gathering of the Economy and Theology Lecture Series at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The panelists were a distinguished philanthropist, an ethicist, a theologian, and an economist. I’ve talked with a few of you about my awe-inspiring experience of Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and what he had to say about his new book, The Price of Inequality4. Here’s my take: something that’s worked on me ever since. A lot in life – most of our decisions about how we apply our resources – all of our resources, from our financial wealth, to our time, to our thought processes to yes, even our votes – depend upon how we view the world. Do we view the world as an economic system or do we see the world as a community? I’ve asked that question of myself probably 200 times. Do I view the world as an economic system or do I see the world as a community? What do my actions indicate? What do my reactions to life-unfolding tell me? In a very pure economic sense, it’s not to say that one response is better than the other. Each has merit, which is why we attempt a democracy in this country and around the world with good people on both sides of the conversation. I’ll leave it to you to ponder this binary as you think about your life prayers, actions and reactions. Then, ask yourself how your perspective is manifest in how you live within it, even as part of this church?

Mary Lynn McKenzie remembers Washington, DC when ramshackle row houses with outhouses lined the streets near this very location. She and Jean Johnson went back and forth as old friends do to remember wide pockets of poverty just as they remembered trips to Garfinkel’s Department Store, where ladies shopped while wearing their gloves. As a personal aside, when I worked here in the early-80s, 14th Street was hardly to be walked unless you were, well, street walking. (I owe the realtors who tried to get us to look at apartments near there a real apology.)

Washington, DC: What an incredible transformation! Yet the work remains unfinished. Sidewalks around here may be clean, but impoverished people who once lived on these very streets have been pushed out by urban renewal, we’ll call it, to some pretty tough parts of town where rent and services are more affordable. We may be more racially integrated as a whole, but racism is evident at every pass. Thanks to your good work with Miriam’s Kitchen and HIPS, our streets may not be lined with homelessness and prostitution, but the crisis still peppers the city.

The Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, who was pastor of Harvard’s Memorial Church and Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard’s Divinity School before he died almost two years ago today said, “we are called to transcend this culture in which we live for one to which we belong by virtue of our baptism and our faith, but which has not yet established itself among us. “Jesus…is the one who was to introduce the new age, a new and radically different culture from the one in which he lived and died…(H)is resurrection (that to which Jesus was referring when he responded to the Pharisees that day in Jerusalem), was the unambiguous sign that the new age had begun.”5 Walter Brueggemann identifies our “tension between what is and what is to be (as) unavoidable in a Christian faith that takes seriously Old Testament prophecy and New Testament experience.”6 From this very tangible place of tension in our urban centers, we’re challenged to ask ourselves where we see ourselves within economic systems that are our communities and work toward a righteous end.

A lot in life – a lot of our decisions and the effects of our decisions – depend upon how we view the world. Do you view the world – do you extend yourself and all of your resources, from your time and treasures to your talent and your conversations in Washington, DC – from the starting point as a member of an economic system or from the starting point as a member of a community that God has entrusted to our care? A tension between the two is unavoidable, encapsulating our human struggle between what is earthly and what is eternal.

 

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

Roman Catholic Archbishop Romero of San Salvador (assassinated: 24 March 1980)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem….your main streets are tidy for the world to see. How are your side streets today?

As prophets of a future not our own, we have not only the opportunity but the responsibility to deploy rightly our resources of today, with a mind for the hope of tomorrow. The work remains unfinished. Yet there is real urban possibility, where Project Create is not the only pathway for kids in Anacostia to receive arts education. Where Miriam’s Kitchen and others like it are not the only hope for a healthy meal, advocacy and support for finding housing. Where each person receives good, nutritious food to eat, has a bed for her head, receives adequate medical care, benefits from a quality education, can find full time work for full time pay. Where 11:00 is no longer the most highly segregated hour on a Sunday morning, so said The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is not an economic concern. This is not a partisan concern. This is our vital concern. And there is nothing more vital than the body of Christ.

 

Amen.

1 Brueggemann, Walter, Using God’s Resources Wisely. (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1993). p 4.

3 Brueggemann, Walter, Using God’s Resources Wisely. (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1993). p 4.

4 Stiglitz, Joseph, The Price of Inequality. (New York: W. W. Norton and Co, Inc., 2012.)

5 Gomes, Peter J., The Good Book. (New York: Harper Collins, 1996.) p 47.

6 Brueggemann, Walter, Using God’s Resources Wisely. (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1993). p 77.