“Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.”
God answered me by fire last week during a conference in New York for young, progressive Christian ministers. As we got to know each other and began some initial reflection exercises around our previous justice work, I made a confusing and unsettling discovery: while I am committed to the principles of social justice and equity for all, I haven’t done much to live out those principles for some time. Suddenly embarrassed and unsure of this identity I had claimed for so long, I realized that my passion for justice work had been contained, by my own doing, for years. I felt disheartened and admitted as much to our group. I then entered into an intense few days of introspection and called to God for answers.
What God helped me to claim was a call to do justice that extended back to my childhood. I noticed that when I responded actively to this call throughout my teens, 20s, and 30s, God gave me strength and passion and joy. A flame of understanding from above had come down and consumed my confusion in dramatic fashion.
Why don’t we always live out our particular calls? Why don’t we always make our faith alive by acting on it? Alas, this is no simple thing. Every day we are bombarded by temptations to put our trust in idols that persuade us that what we do doesn’t matter. We are tempted to trust in the idol of easy optimism that convinces us that all will work out if this or that politician wins or the economy finally gets back on track. Or maybe we succumb to the idols of denial and apathy by devoting ourselves to the entertainment industry’s cult of celebrity. Maybe we embrace the idol of despair because we see clear-eyed a reality of suffering and devastation before us that seems insurmountable.
All of us fall before these idols from time to time. But what they drain from us is hope and courage. They tell us that we are not good enough, not worthy of love. So we need constant reminders that the power to change our lives and our world for the better doesn’t reside in us alone, doesn’t reside in worthless idols, but rather in the power God has flamed down on God’s church — on the People of God. So that’s why we gather, week after week, like the Israelites on Mount Carmel in today’s reading, to experience God’s fiery Spirit coming down upon us as we share in the bread and the wine of Christ’s Body. That’s why I’m up here, to proclaim with all my being that our God really does love each of us for who we are, right now, no exceptions. And if we can hear and trust this Good News, we can avoid the ridiculous dance before idols that left the prophets of the Canaanite storm god bloodied and exhausted on Mount Carmel that day. Even better, we can begin to look around us at a world that needs to hear and experience God’s Good News as much as we do. The fact is, there’s something else to this Good News besides the wonders of God’s love; and it is this: that God wants each of us to have enough to thrive in this world, in this time and place, here and now. Indeed, God dreams of justice and peace in this world, and is already working to bring this dream into being.
Now you may naturally wonder where exactly this good work is already being done. In Jesus’ day, we’d say that this world-changing work was being done through our Lord and Savior’s teaching and healing ministry. But we no longer live in a time when, like the faithful centurion in today’s Gospel, we can summon a sojourning Jesus to stop outside our front doors and heal the pain inside our homes. Instead, today WE are the Risen Christ’s body bringing God’s dream into being — together WE are to sustain the faith and hope of this suffering world — together WE (alongside millions of people of faith — we can’t and aren’t called to do this alone) are walking through this world responding to anxious summons, and praying to God that miracles be done through our hands, and heads, and hearts — through our caring touch and through our courage and our strategizing and our advocacy and our imaginations.
Now that may be more than you thought you signed up for by entering this beautiful sanctuary today. Trust me: it is an adventure of a lifetime that you don’t want to miss. Besides, we can do this! For St. Paul’s is no stranger to justice work. In the 1950s a group of parishioners founded St. Paul’s Senior Homes to provide affordable housing for seniors. We played a leading role in the local fight against Proposition 8, staging phone banks and making our voice heard for marriage equality. We took on sole responsibility for a 40-child foster home in Tijuana — Dorcas House, now called Vida Joven — when their previous supporter suddenly split. We at St. Paul’s use our God-given brains to reason out, as best we can, how to better the world around us, and then we take a risk together — something working out God’s dream always entails.
So what will we do next together? Let’s keep our eyes open and pay attention to where God’s Holy Spirit is already at work. For we begin this world-changing mission by seeing truly what is before us, and what is before us is beauty and abundance and poverty and suffering. Perhaps Balboa Park embodies this reality best for us. Each night, many people sleep on its benches, against its trees, in its canyons, and under its bushes. And each day, the park’s many amenities are making the property along Sixth Avenue, and Banker’s Hill in general, more attractive to luxury housing developers. As the gentrification of this neighborhood intensifies in the years to come, who will we fight for? Who will we serve? What will it mean to welcome all? How will our bright Cathedral lights shine as a beacon of hope for housed and unhoused alike?
Indeed, our proximity to Balboa Park may very well shape our next call to justice work together, for the city’s twin crises of homelessness and affordable housing are not unrelated. Through our monthly Showers of Blessings ministry, we are entering into relationship with more and more folks without homes. These relationships are changing many of us — I know they are transforming me. I find myself believing in a God who wants a safe and permanent place to live for Christian and Francisco and Henry and Randy and Poodle and Don and Robert and Jenny — every person who spends the night in a park or on a sidewalk or in a canyon or even in a homeless shelter — I believe in a God who dreams that this may one day be. And I feel more ready than ever to do this justice work alongside God’s Holy and Fiery Spirit, and alongside each of you.
So when I hear that our city just spent $57,000 on “landscaping” with sharp rocks a portion of Imperial Avenue under the Interstate 5 overpass — obviously designed to deter street sleepers from using the area at night — I now have faces in mind and stories on my heart. Surely there is a more humane and fiscally responsible response to the valid concern nearby residents had for the safety and cleanliness of the sidewalks along that stretch of street. So I’ll plan to join Sister Raymonda of Catholic Charities and Father Joe at the next City Council meeting on June 13 to invite our elected leaders to engage their imaginations and their hearts a bit more when it comes to relating with those without homes. Be in touch if you’d like to join me at the council meeting and we can go together.
Alas, this is no simple thing. Loving our neighbor never has been. But our powerful God is by our side, and we, the Body of Christ, have much work ahead in this community and even on this sacred campus. For week after week, our unhoused neighbors keep showing up at our doorstep. How will we welcome them home?
The Rev Colin Mathewson
29 May 2016