Every so often, I make a confession to you all, and today is going to be one of those days.
About a year ago, other members of the warming shelter steering committee, in anticipation of Pastor Linda from HRVCC leaving the community, asked me to step up into the role of chair. And my initial thought...and the thought that I had for many months after that...was “no thank you...that’s a headache I don’t need”. I couldn’t see that beyond the administrative tasks of chair, beyond the grant writing and fundraising, beyond the recruitment and training of volunteers, beyond the securing of host churches to serve as shelter sites...beyond all that was people. I couldn’t see the people that would be our guests during the coldest months of the year. I couldn’t see them. But what I could see was paperwork, meetings, forms, and headaches. Stuff I didn’t want more of. So I said no. And for several months, I continued to say no. Then it was August. And the steering committee was still without a chair. We were hanging in there, but the work wasn’t getting done, and winter was coming. And so I said yes...begrudgingly. And all I could see was the paperwork, meetings, forms, headaches and a schedule that was quickly filling up.
So in September I had a bit of a melt-down. You see, I’m a task oriented person. I don’t really like to beat around the bush. I want answers and solutions. And I want them now. But a good friend of mine who is on the committee, told me to relax that God would provide. Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard that before...and part of my confession is that I wasn’t sure I believed that God would indeed provide. In my mind, God would provide not only enough money, enough site locations, and enough volunteers, but God would provide 4 people willing to serve as “hosts” who would rotate serving the first 2 hours of every shift, every night that the shelter is open. In my mind, that’s what God would provide.
And so on November 1, God had indeed provided enough money--thanks to our very capable grant writer and fundraiser, which I am not. And God had indeed provided enough site locations. And God had indeed provided enough volunteers...we now have 136 trained volunteers...more than we’ve ever had before. But God did not provide 4 “hosts”...God provided 2. And that’s the final part of my confession...that as I was approaching an early opening on November 13 and staring at the calendar watching the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season growing ever closer...I was frustrated. I felt abandoned by God. Hadn’t I done my part? Hadn’t I said “yes” when I wanted to say “no”? Hadn’t I managed everything just so? So why’d I only get 2 hosts instead of 4? Was God even paying attention??
And as usual, God was. God was paying attention and knew that my heart needed a little work. I don’t share this story with you because I want some kind of self-congratulatory “look at me, I’ve experienced God’s presence in the midst of craziness”, but because I’m starting to understand how God’s salvific plan operates on a very small scale.
In Isaiah 61, the prophet is sharing with his listeners what God’s salvation will look like. If we think of the Book of Isaiah as being in two parts, the first half is a lament about the people forgetting about their covenant with God and their feeling abandoned by God, and the second half about the renewal and restoration of God’s people because God has forgiven them and brought them out of exile. Our reading this morning is from the second part of the book, and are being told about the hope of salvation. So what is the salvation that Isaiah preaches? It’s the good news of God’s love and righteousness, it’s healing of the brokenhearted, liberty and release from oppression, and comfort to those who mourn. Salvation is the oil of gladness.
But it’s not just enough to “know” what salvation is...according to theologian Scott Bader-Saye, salvation is “a quality of life here and now that reflects God’s desires for human community…[and it] can be seen by others…” Bader-Saye goes on to say that salvation transforms the world and we are invited to participate in God’s “salvific intention” through our mission and ministry. Well, the task-oriented, begrudging chair of the warming shelter in me jumped for joy when I read that. Hooray! I’m participating in God’s “salvific intention”! I’m doing everything that the prophet Isaiah says we’re supposed to do in the coming Kingdom of God. All this work with the shelter--arranging transportation of supplies from one location to another, coordinating the delivery of meals each night, buying shower passes for the guests, serving as one of the “hosts”--I’m like their very own salvation bearer. And I felt very proud and satisfied with myself. No more grumbling.
Then I read this morning’s gospel of John and again, I realized that God was paying attention. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light...He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light”. The reason I think God was paying attention was to remind me that I am not the Messiah to the warming shelter steering committee or the guests. Instead, we work together as a team as witnesses to the light of Christ. While on the one hand I may be able to provide some temporary relief for our guests by coordinating meals, securing warm places for sleeping, responding to basic human needs, and serving as a host, on the other hand, the other members of the committee and the guests themselves, have been sharing their stories, their hopes and fears, and expressing deep compassion for themselves and one another. They have been the ones giving testimony to me and to this community about the what the kingdom of God will be like--a place of equanimity, a place where respect and dignity are available to all, a place where the oil of gladness flows freely. For me, the guests have been prophetic--they care about each other’s well-being, they speak up if something seems unjust, they rejoice, give thanks and hold fast to what is good. And while none of us is perfect...we all have our flaws, our vices and our shortcomings, at the end of the first shift, when it’s time for “lights out”, there is a sense of relief. We’ve all done our part to make this particular day meaningful and hopeful.
My story of the warming shelter, is one of many. I’m sure all of you have a story of how you’ve participated in God’s “salvific intention”. In our congregation I can think of many teachers, healers, mentors, sponsors, and volunteers who all in their own way serve as a prophetic voice in the community and the lives of others. And I’m sure that all of you have stories of when you have been the recipients of God’s salvation through the care and compassion of others. Like John the Baptist, we are both witnesses to and participants in the coming of the Kingdom of God; sometimes its a matter of getting out of our own way and saying “yes” instead of saying “no”.
Let us pray:
Give us, O God, the vision which can see Your love in the world in spite of human failure.
Give us the faith to trust Your goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness.
Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts.
And show us what each one of us can do to set forward the coming of the day of universal peace.
---Frank Borman, 1968
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.