Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sermon: "Counting Broken Windows"

I figured I'd share the sermon I preached this evening at Crossroads instead of a K-LOVE post tonight, but don't worry! Plenty of 30 Day Challenge thoughts to share this week. Just to keep you interested, tomorrow's post will be: "Matt Redman and Jurgen Moltmann walk into a bar."

The text was from Luke 4

            At the beginning of the month I had the opportunity to travel with 20 other seminary students to Baltimore for a 10-day class on urban ministry. Our professor, Dr. Anthony Hunt, told us that the first thing he has students in his urban ministry classes do is to split up in teams, walk neighborhoods, and count broken windows. Broken and boarded up windows, he argues, are a good first indicator of the sort of challenges facing a community. Broken windows and vacant houses are concrete symptoms of economic disparities. They present overt public health risks. They are often connected with the sale and use of drugs. More than that, though, they are symbolic of the feelings of abandonment and shattered hopes experienced by communities in crisis.
We visited the Sandtown neighborhood, part of an area of Baltimore that experiences some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection, incarceration, violence, and rates of school dropouts in the country. There, we learned about the work of New Song Community Church. When the New Song church first started in a row house living room, participants—including children—took crayons and drew their vision of what a renewed community would look like. Their first priority? No more vacant houses. The community members felt that, more than any of the other struggles of the community, those broken and boarded up windows most stood in the way of their dream of new, abundant life.
            Now, let me state what might be obvious: if you were to walk the area around this building, say from Massachusetts to New Mexico and down to say S Street—which is something that I’m going to strongly suggest we all do—you would probably not count a lot of broken or boarded up windows. I won’t list statistics right now—if you’re interested, we have them over there, at our new prayer station—but according to our demographic data, the average person living in this area is affluent, white collar, and well-educated. Broken windows get repaired pretty quickly around here.
And yet, St. Luke’s Mission Center and Metropolitan Memorial UMC together provide space for three homeless shelters, one advocacy and service organization for unhoused neighbors, and multiple hunger ministries. So what does that mean for who we are as a congregation? What does that mean for those of us who are trying to figure out how to be disciples of Jesus in this community and in this city?
            In last week’s passage from Luke, Jesus started preaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth. He preached about good news to the poor and justice for the oppressed. And it went really well. But in this week’s passage, Jesus starts going on about how the word of God and the messengers of God often show up, not where we would expect, not in our congregation or, as we might say, our church building, but rather in the Other, in the Outsider, in the Stranger. Jesus’ listeners were understandably upset about this. After all, they were Galilean Jews. They were under the thumb of Roman imperial rule and an oppressive puppet king named Herod. They felt victimized and oppressed. So here’s Jesus, the hometown boy, showing up and telling them that God’s going to do work somewhere else? Who do you think you are, Jesus?
            I think if any third party were observing the goings-on in First Synagogue of Nazareth that day, they’d probably feel pretty confident in declaring Jesus’ inaugural sermon a huge failure. Sure, he miraculously escaped. But if your first move in a campaign is alienating the hometown crowd, what are you left with?
            Now, as we walk through the gospel of Luke, we are reading it forwards and backwards simultaneously. What I mean is that, unlike Jesus’ first disciples, we know how this thing ends. As we read the narrative from beginning to end, we also read it all in light of the eventual execution and resurrection of Jesus. So, when the crowd drags Jesus to the crest of a hill to throw him off, my mind is drawn to another hill, where another crowd cries out for Jesus’ death and, this time, gets their way. The seeming failure of Jesus’ Nazareth address isn’t a blip in an otherwise successful mission. It’s a foreshadowing of the Cross.
            Declaring Jesus to be a failure is probably about as wise a preaching strategy as Jesus’ Nazareth sermon, but I’m not making this stuff up. In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he writes: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength….God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing that’s that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” And then he adds, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters….I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
Isn’t that interesting? You’d think Paul would want to emphasize God’s strength and wisdom. And yet he talks about God, and Christ, as foolishness and weakness. You’d think Paul would want to forget about that crucifixion business and focus on Christ’s resurrection. But no, he writes that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Nothing except Christ crucified.
            The word “Christ” is just the Greek for “messiah,” which means “anointed one.” In Jewish thought, the word referred to a coming figure who was going to bring about real liberation from Gentile oppression. So Paul is saying, “I only preach a failed messiah.” Which is an oxymoron. A messiah who fails is no messiah, no liberating king, at all.
            So we have Paul saying “I only preach Christ crucified,” and Jesus starting off his ministry by getting himself dragged out of his hometown synagogue and almost killed for saying that God’s word is going to show up somewhere else. Which makes me wonder whether we need to be looking for Christ in places that the world sees as failed or weak or worthless. And that brings me back to counting broken windows.
What if we, as disciples called to “take up our crosses and follow,” are sent exactly to those places with broken windows, the places that people look at and say, “Drugs. Violence. Poverty. Failure. What good could come from there?” Jesus could come from there. So we need to go there, looking for Jesus, looking for the hope and beauty and strength hidden where the world sees despair and ugliness and weakness.
I’m going to be really concrete here. We have grate patrol next week. If you’ve never been out in the van to meet some of our unhoused neighbors, sign up. Tonight. The sign up sheet is back there on the table. Don’t just give people food. Look them in the eye. Wish them a goodnight. Treat them like what they are, humans created in the image of God. If you haven’t gone to one of our services or events with our partners at Brighter Day ministries in Southeast DC, where people are trying to get the city to reopen affordable housing unit that have been shut down, do it. If you don’t want to go alone, that’s cool—a group of us will go. I’m serious. We’ve got a church van. Let’s talk about this after worship. There are hurting people out there, and Jesus—the crucified one—is calling us to be in relationship with them.
            Of course, even in communities where there aren’t literal broken windows and boarded up houses, there is plenty of brokenness, plenty of shattered hopes and abandoned dreams. There is poverty and hurt hidden in the most affluent community. It’s always struck me, the times I’ve gone out in the van on grate patrol, that we stop at a Starbucks on K Street. Not a lot of broken windows around. There we are, in the midst of an area symbolic of DC-insider-status, giving food to people who are sleeping outside of a coffee shop they can’t afford. And it’s closed, because none of the people who work in that section of the city live there. So we pass out sandwiches to people who are experiencing not only hunger and homelessness but also social isolation.
Rev. Rodney Hudson, a pastor in Sandtown, told our group that the most important thing he’s learned in urban ministry is to shift from thinking of his church as the people in pews on a Sunday morning and to begin thinking of his church as all the people in his surrounding community. The kids on the street corners selling drugs, the single mother who has to work on Sundays to support her family—they are just as much of his church as the faithful worshipers on Sunday. Another pastor, Rev. Yo-Seop Shin of the Eden Korean UMC, told us that in Korean, there is really no way to say “my church.” It’s always “our church.” Can we make those shifts in our thinking? Our church includes the folks in the shelters. Our church includes the families in the park. Our church includes the women who dance at the strip clubs that are a one minute walk from here. Our church includes the college students at Starbucks. Are we talking to them? Are we hearing their stories, their needs, their dreams? If not, why?  What would it look like for us to walk the neighborhood together, saying hello to people, and asking if there is anything they would want us to pray for? Because as Jesus told the congregation in Nazareth, God might be showing up in places outside of the circle that we’ve comfortably drawn around ourselves. There are hurting people right here, in Glover Park, and Jesus is calling us to be in relationship with them.
            And then there’s us, sitting here in the sanctuary of the St. Luke’s Mission Center. And we all know, whether we have found words to talk about it with each other or not, that we have some broken windows in our own lives. Some abandoned hopes. Some dreams that we’ve boarded up and forgotten about. There are failures and weaknesses that we are scared to share. But “God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. God chose what is considered to be nothing to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing.” What if, in the broken places in our own individual lives, Christ is waiting as well?
            By looking for Christ in our own hurt, brokenness, and failure, we’re not indulging in selfishness. In fact, when we take time to welcome our own strangeness, our own hunger and thirst, we are paradoxically pulled outside of ourselves, to the hurting places in our community and world.
Dr. Brene Brown, a sociologist and researcher, talks about the between sympathy and empathy. She says that sympathy sees someone in a hole, looks down into it, and says, “I’m sorry you’re down there.” Empathy is getting down in the hole with someone. She doesn’t mean reappropriating someone else’s story, or saying things like “Oh, I know exactly how you feel.” But, in Dr. Brown’s words, “in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” In order to connect with the brokenness of the world, we need to connect with the brokenness of ourselves. The inward journey is the outward journey. The outward journey is the inward journey. Vulnerability breeds solidarity.

            Friends, Jesus is waiting. Calling us into places of failure and violence. Places of hurt and abandonment. Places of crucifixion. Because remember—the resurrection happens after, and in the same city as, the crucifixion. So as we go to participate in God’s healing and reconciling work in the world, we go with great hope, knowing that “those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts” (Ps 126:5). We go looking for signs of a new kingdom, a new community coming into being right here in our city.

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