Day 15: HOPE(LESS)
Matthew 11:3 “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Is it cheating to blog my sermon from this morning? I already wrote this verse.
I hereby declare it not cheating.
Here ya go.
Do y’all know about #biscuitgate?
Nine years ago, a group called Love Wins Ministries started sharing Bojangles sausage biscuits and coffee on Saturday and Sunday mornings in Moore Square Park in Raleigh. The ministry was supported by several churches in the area, and led by Mennonite pastor, a part of the Raleigh Mennonite congregation, Hugh Hollowell.
For six years, Love Wins shared food and coffee for free to anyone who showed up at Moore Square park on weekend mornings. They did this because at that time, there was nowhere that homeless women and men could go on the weekends – not just no food available, but nowhere to be, to sit, to rest, to exist. The official shelters closed on Saturdays and Sundays. Love Wins had been filling in the gap by partnering with churches and bringing biscuits every weekend morning for six years.
They didn’t have permits to operate in the park itself (each one cost $800), so they consulted with police and the city and determined that they could set up on the adjacent sidewalk, as long as they didn’t impede traffic and as long as they cleaned up afterward. They did this work out in the open, publicly, in view and conversation with Raleigh government and police. Every weekend morning for six years, they shared food.
Then, three years ago, on a Saturday in August of 2013, the Love Wins crew showed up at Moore Square Park and were met by Raleigh police officers who told them that if they handed out the 100 sausage biscuits they had brought to the 70 hungry people waiting in line, they would be arrested. It was, they said, illegal to feed people now.
The details behind why things changed so suddenly are not entirely clear, but the following weeks did reveal that city officials had been plotting for months ways to throw the sausage biscuit sharers out of the park. The chief of police and the director of the city’s parks department sought legal council and changed regulations to ban certain classes of people from public spaces. The moment that a Raleigh police officer threatened to arrest Pastor Hugh and others for sharing sausage biscuits was the culminations of a quiet campaign to keep certain ‘kinds’ of people out of certain public places.
(you can read about #biscuitgate here)
What happened next is hopeful: Congregations and supporters of Love Wins Ministries rallied. The City Council appointed a special task force to study the issue of weekend service provision for those experiencing homelessness. In the fall of that year, the Council voted to approve the recommendations of the task force: to find and secure a building near Moore Park that would serve as a location to offer multiple services to the city’s most vulnerable citizens. The Oak City Outreach Center opened in June of 2014, a temporary weekend space for meals and gathering, funded by the city.
The City also promised to work with the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End Homelessness to create a more permanent Center where people experiencing homelessness can find bundled services: mental health services, medical services, and access to government benefits like food stamps.
Pause the story there, with this lingering promise.
In our scripture for today, John the Baptist is in prison.
John is not in prison for feeding people Bojangles.
But John is in prison for some similar kinds of things. John stood up to Prince Herod, telling him that he could not marry his brother’s wife. John – in addition to his stint in the wilderness eating bugs and honey, wearing camel’s hair and preaching repentance and the coming Messiah – also stood up to those in power, calling them back to morality and what they knew to be the right thing to do. As so often happens, this made the ones in power angry.
And just like the Love Wins crowd in the park in Raleigh, the powers told them that if he kept it up, this practice of calling out the morality of the government, he would be arrested.
Unlike the people with Love Wins, John didn’t seek an alternative means to his purpose – there was no committee, no task force, no recommendation to City Council. John was arrested and thrown in prison.
So, here in this bit of Matthew’s gospel, John is sending a question from prison through his disciples to Jesus:
Are you really the Messiah? I have been waiting and watching, preaching and baptizing, witnessing to your arrival. I know I recognized you there at the Jordan River and told everyone that you ARE the Messiah when I baptized you, but I’m stuck here in prison and people are still asking me, and I can’t tell from here what’s happening, and, by the way, I am still in prison and aren’t you, the Messiah, supposed to be the one who takes over everything and rises into political power and sets prisoners free? Just, you know, wondering, Jesus. Signed, Your Prophet in Prison, John.
When John’s disciples bring the question to Jesus, I imagine he must have chuckled.
“Go,” he told them, “and report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. The people who had been cast out are welcomed back to the fold. The ones who were deaf now hear. The ones who were dead are alive again. The poor have good news proclaimed to them!”
These signs of the Kingdom – blind seeing, deaf hearing, the dead being resurrected and the poor having good news – these are ancient signs of God’s presence. Jesus isn’t just making up this stuff on the fly. He’s quoting Isaiah. John’s disciples would have known exactly what Jesus meant: are you guys not paying attention, here, he was asking. You know the scriptures, right? You know what a Messiah looks like. And here – right here and right now – you are witnessing all those things in real time. Tell John what you see. He’ll know what it means.
So, John’s disciples leave, and Jesus turns back to the crowds that he’s been preaching to. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” he asks. John had quite a following, and people were flocking to him. “Were you looking for a stalk blowing in the wind when you went out there to hear John preach? What did you go out there to see? A man dressed up in silk and refinement?
Look, you guys, the silk-suit wearers are in royal palaces. What was it you went to see? A prophet? Yes. And more.”
Jesus knows the ways we humans fail and falter – even John himself, the one who announced Jesus’ arrival, recognized him there at the Jordan river and baptized him into the start of his ministry on earth – even JOHN was wavering in his faith that this was really the Messiah he had been preaching about. Of course all those people who had traveled out into the wilderness to hear John preach would be wondering and wavering, too.
We are like those listeners: we expect a Messiah to be wearing silk-suits and sitting in powerful Oval Offices. We expect that the Kingdom will look official, will be televised, will come with pomp and circumstance and trumpets announcing its arrival.
And so, Jesus’ words are for us, too: What did you expect?
Have you not read the scriptures? You know – YOU KNOW – that the Messiah does not come in silk and sit in royal palaces. Remember Isaiah? Remember John? You know that the Kingdom is near when you see blind people seeing, sick people being healed, outcasts being welcomed back in, poor people hearing good news, dead people being raised back to life. You KNOW what to look for. So what else did you expect?
I don’t know about you, but I am prone to forgetting all this stuff I know. I am so easily taken in by the overpowering political and cultural discourse of our day, so easily distracted by pomp and circumstance and electoral statistics. I forget, over and over and over, that God’s record for showing up is consistently among the poor, the outcast, the blind, the deaf, the ones deemed unimportant or unworthy of attention or airtime by the ones in power.
I find myself hoping and despairing in sync with the rise and fall of celebrities and politicians and forgetting, entirely, to focus my attention and my energy on the places where the kind of Kingdom that Jesus inaugurates is emerging. I need reminder after reminder from Jesus: what did you expect? Don’t you know where to look to find the Kingdom?
There is a lot of news coming out of Raleigh this week. The old governor has finally conceded defeat in the election and taken a meeting with the President-elect, who was named Time’s Person of the Year. Our former senator has listed his $7 million dollar home for sale. Parties are arguing about adding seats to the State Supreme Court.
But here’s another thing that happened in Raleigh this week:
The Oak City Outreach Center – that temporary space created by the city back in 2014 after police threatened to arrest people for feeding other people in the park – was up for a vote about its expansion by the City Council. Remember that in its original decision, the City agreed to fund a more permanent space, where vulnerable citizens could come for all kinds of support? Well, they had finally found a location in SE Raleigh, but people were up in arms about it. Several City Council members even went on record as opposing it.
On Tuesday, the Raleigh City Council had the Outreach Center on its agenda. Love Wins had gotten word out that the proposed site was in jeopardy and that they needed support. When the council asked those in attendance to support the project to stand, over 100 people did so. When they asked those opposed to do the same, only 2 people stood. The City Council voted to move forward with the construction plans for the new Outreach Center.
I confess that I don’t know any of the people who will show up at the Raleigh Outreach Center. But I trust Pastor Hugh and Love Wins, who say that this decision by City Council is a victory for them.
I’m not sure exactly what will happen there, but I suspect that if we got to visit when the Center is completed, we very well might find crippled people being helped to walk, poor people hearing good news, outcasts being welcomed back into the fold, people who had been as good as dead finding new life.
And we might find that we ourselves had been blind, and that we were given new eyes.
Here’s what Pastor Hugh wrote after Tuesday’s vote:
There are people who will tell you that the way things are is just the way things are going to be. They will tell you that your voice does not count, that you have no power to effect change, that the fix is in and the best we can do is try to survive in a broken world.
Do not listen to those people. When we work together, our ability to move the marker toward the better world we all dream is possible is near endless. If the last three and a half years teaches nothing else, I hope it shows that.
In this Advent season, I am grateful for Jesus’ reminder of what we’re supposed to be expecting, what it is we’re supposed to be waiting and watching for. I am grateful that even John the Baptist was unsure, because that helps me have grace with myself for the times that I am unsure. And I am grateful for glimpses of the Kingdom unfolding, even, especially, in the shadow of political corruption and silk-suited people with the power to arrest, detain, and discourage any attempt to call them back to their innate moral duty.
What other glimpses of the Kingdom have you seen?