Sunday, May 27, 2007

Let Everyone Who Hears Say Come

Easter 7, May 20, 2007
Acts 16:16-34;
Rev 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21;
John 17:20-26
Psalm 97
The Rev. Mary Ann Brody


Isaiah says, Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God! … He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Is 40:9-10a, 11) Isaiah says also to us, lift up your voice with strength, O Rochester, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear.

I spent most of my childhood afraid of the city. I grew up in a suburb outside Pittsburgh, PA. My father worked in the city and took the bus in and out every single day. Life in our suburb was safe, which implied that the city wasn't. I walked or rode my bike just about everywhere I wanted to go from home, but not to the city. During the day the city was filled with people working downtown, or shopping in the stores. Sometimes I would ride the bus down to shop at Gimbel's or Kaufmann's department stores around Christmas time. I'd meet my Dad and ride the bus home with him before dinner.

When I was in high school, I'd ride the bus to Girl Scout meetings at the council headquarters downtown. At night the streets were eerily deserted. The absence of human activity made it all the more terrifying to me. What if something happened? Who would help me? I ran without stopping from the bus stop to the office doors. If I saw anyone else out on the street, I'd put my head down and ran faster. Something in me said that the city was full of people who weren't like me, that the city wasn't safe. I'm not sure I ever thought there were good tidings to tell about the city. I think a lot of people are afraid of the city, like I was.

Over the last several weeks, we've been hearing a lot about the New Jerusalem. Last Saturday we celebrated 190 years of Episcopal ministry in this city. On Sunday we heard a beautiful description of the New Jerusalem, the glorious city of God, the very place that will call us all home at the end time. God brings life to the city and it's filled with God's glory. Yet our city isn't there yet. Many here are struggling to survive. We're divided about how to move forward, and that is often complicated by racial and class differences. What are the "good tidings" we're meant to be shouting here as the Spirit and the bride encourage all to "Come"? When they say … let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

Where is the "water of life" in our city? For a long while the river and the canal were our life blood … but these are no longer our "water of life". The water of life is the power and glory of God flowing through us, and through all those God uses in building this city anew. Our good news is that God is here! Do not fear! God has not abandoned the city, and neither will we. Our gift to the city is a pledge to stay, to be a church that will seek to nurture and care for the city. Part of our vision is to be a center for Episcopal ministry here. If that is what we are really going to become, it means we have to think about doing our work in a different way. It means we need to seek partners in ministry wherever we can find them. We need to offer the water of life as a gift.

A freely given gift! A gift we offer precisely because God gave it freely to us, to flow through us to others! But here's the real rub, it's not just faith we're talking about here. It's shouting the good news and daring to live it. It's to hope in a place that all too quickly tends to despair, and criticize as soon as something begins to look as though it just might not work. It's giving up fear that gets in the way of transformation. Give water for life – give what is needed to those who will take it so that life can flourish here.

An urban ministry center can be a font of living water. It's living water that enables people to find steady employment, or get the coaching they need to keep a job they already have. It might mean running an after-school program that helps kids be successful in school so they can begin to imagine a real future for themselves, and just maybe, stay in school. It might look like providing a free hot meal to a family to help make ends meet at the end of the month; maybe it means companioning with a literacy program to help people learn how to read, or how to file for social services. Maybe it's coordinating a Community Watch program, or running a parent support group. Maybe it's about training leaders for urban ministry and shouting from the mountaintop, "do not fear". It all depends on what we hear from those who come, - even if it seems to be the annoying voice of a demon, like the one that followed Paul and Silas. Even that voice spoke truth.

It means saying "come" to a lot of people whose stories will touch our own in sometimes painful ways, and whose lives will make us look at the messiness of life we might rather avoid. It means stepping out of the comfort zone of our own parish to engage people in other urban congregations to talk about issues that concern us all. It means lending a hand to the work that's already going on, and working collectively on projects that represent good ministry, whether they happen in this building or somewhere else.

The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. That is our calling we've heard.

The kind of work we're talking about involves people, not just people living on the streets, but people in neighborhoods. It means exploring links with community agencies and supports that already exist. Our work will be more effective if it can be provided where people live, in actual communities. An urban ministry center makes sense in a neighborhood, where people can come. Our building, as much as we love it, is situated in an urban center surrounded by businesses and government buildings. We need a neighborhood as a ministry field. If we build it, they will come! St. Stephen's recently received a service award from their neighborhood association for the ministry they're already doing in that community. We have much to learn from them, and much to gain by doing ministry together on the west side of the city.

I've come a long way from my childhood fear of the city. I still have a love/hate relationship with it. My heart longs for the quiet and slower pace of a more rural life, but there is also something beautiful about the buildings and bridges here. I've found that the sky is just as blue, and the lilacs smell just as sweet. I look people on the street in the face now, and I smile. They often smile back, and I get a glimpse of the face of God. "Do not fear", says the prophet. "Here is your God! … He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

The Christ we seek will be in those who seek us. Christ will come in the faces of the hungry and the homeless, in bodies frail and strong, in the humble and the proud. Christ will be present in the suffering we see and the joys we share in the building of God's kingdom. Our lives will be gifts of living water that build a new city, and the rewards we receive will be in the work we do.

So with the Spirit let us say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. And let everyone who is hungry come. And let everyone who is lonely come. And let everyone who is seeking God come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

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