Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jesus saves, and the people on our doorstep

Sign on the roof of
the Church of the Open Door,
Los Angeles
Today's readings are 1 Samuel 2:1-10Psalm 16Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25Mark 13:1-8.

Here is my sermon for today:

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“My heart exults in the LORD; 
my strength is exalted in my God.” 
 -- From the Song of Hannah

Last Wednesday, as is our custom here at St. Paul’s, we had our community night dinner and fed everyone who came through our doors.

We had adult classes, showed a film, and the youth group went bowling. People prayed, they were fed, and had a little fun, and, we hope, they learned something.

It was a good evening – until the very end, when a young man in a hoodie asked me if he could sleep in the church. He said he had nowhere else to go.

I told him he couldn’t sleep here. I made sure he had something to eat, and let him stay inside until it came time to lock up.

It was too late for him to get to PACEM, the program whereby churches in our area take turns housing homeless people in the cold months. Our turn to host PACEM will come, but it wasn’t yet our night. I talked to this young man about how to get to PACEM the next night, and I haven’t seen him since.

I went home praying he would be OK, and feeling low and frustrated that I offered so little when the needs are so great all around us.

Could I have done better? Certainly.

Yet the truth is we see a great many homeless people regularly on our corner, and sometimes they sleep in our bushes.

We live in a deceptively bucolic community, but beneath the surface we have a great deal of poverty and homelessness right here.

You may not know this, but Charlottesville adopted a plan in 2009 to end homelessness by the year 2012. The plan had concrete steps, and a few have come to pass, like a low-income apartment house called the Crossings.

But very little else has happened with that plan.

And we still have people who arrive on our doorstep. If we are to truly claim to be followers of Jesus, then we here have a role, and we have just got to do better.

I want to take you to another place today, a place that in its own way gives me hope. Many years ago, when I was a news reporter, I carried a notebook into gritty neighborhoods where life is hard, and often violent and short.

One of the places I used to go is Skid Row in Los Angeles, where there is an old bleached-out boxy building, dating from 1935. On the roof is a big red neon sign that flashes “Jesus Saves.”

You can see that sign for miles.

I must admit, the sign has always entranced me, but also bothered me. Why would anyone who lives on Skid Row even believe it?

It may not seem very Episcopalian to talk about “Jesus saves” – and we certainly don’t like neon signs, and I am not putting one on the roof of this building, thank you.

Yet, that neon sign underlines an audacious claim by this Christian religion we practice:

“Jesus saves.”

It is up to us to make that sign real. Why? The Bible tells us so.

If you read the Bible closely, you will discover that most of the stories of God’s salvation are in this world, with real people in real places. Very few stories are about salvation in the next world.

The Bible and our prayer book, our baptism and our Eucharist, and the very words of the hymns we sing, all proclaim the very same thing:

Jesus saves – now, here, today.

So what does that mean?

Back up a little. Our religion is built on the idea that we follow a Jewish holy man who lived 2,000 years ago half a world away, in a place very, very different than Central Virginia.

He was no hippie, no Zen monk. He worked with his hands and he enjoyed a good meal and strong drink, and he could spin a good yarn.

But he could be quite harsh with his followers, and he did not shy away from telling them about the gritty realities of the world – and what they had to do to be his follower. Feed the hungry, heal the sick, turn the other cheek, give away your possessions.

Why would anyone follow this Jesus? Why would anyone claim he saves anyone? He could not even save himself from the Cross, as his detractors pointed out. Over the centuries, many have tried to explain why Jesus willingly goes to the Cross, and to be candid, some of those explanations fail.

We get one explanation today in the Letter to the Hebrews. The letter writer wants his listeners to believe that Jesus saves.

And he explains it with words that are strange to our ears, words about blood sacrifice and “curtains of flesh” – language that meant a great deal to people steeped in the ways of the Hebrew Temple.

The problem is that the language of blood offerings doesn’t resonate well in our own time, and, worse, is easily misunderstood.

Some have heard in these words the image of a bloodthirsty hateful God. If we take these images literally, as many do, we end up with a God who is satisfied only with death.

Is there another way to understand this?

I go back to the neon sign on Skid Row:

Jesus saves.

Jesus loves the world enough to experience everything we experience, even the pain and loss we suffer, and to live with us, especially in our hardest most perplexing moments. That is why he goes to the Cross, to be there with us – and not to satisfy some bloodthirsty deity.

He brings every ounce of his own divinity to be with us in the lowest places, to live on all the skid rows of this world.

In today’s gospel lesson from Mark, a passage laced with images of apocalypse, Jesus tells us wars and famines do come. Great buildings like the Temple will fall.

Yet Jesus offers us another way of seeing: look beyond the appearances, he says, because pain and hardship will fade into history, and I will be right here with you, and will never let you go no matter what.

But there is a challenge for us in this:

If, indeed, the Risen Christ is within us, then what are we doing to bring God’s dream of compassion alive here and now? How are we the hands of Christ?

Skid Row is right outside our doors some nights, and the weather is getting colder. It is up to us – all of us – to make real that Jesus saves. It is up to us – up to me – to do better.

But have heart: All will be made new, all will be blessed, and God’s dream of love and compassion is coming alive within you and around you – so have eyes to see and ears to hear – and hands and feet to act!

This is the faith of the ancients; we hear it echoing in the Song of Hannah, our Old Testament lesson for today:

“He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts up the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”

And this is the faith of people I’ve met on Skid Row:

Jesus does save, here, now. Today.

1 comment:

Mary Beth Rivetti said...

Thank you Jim. You started my sermon last week, it being November 11, and memories of your encounter with the guy who slept in front of All Saints Chapel, the veteran, homeless, on Veteran's Day. I see you're still at it, preaching that good news stuff...