The Common Good

On Scripture: A Hard Word to Hear This Winter (Isaiah 58: 1-9a)

This has been a hard winter — from Minnesota to Alabama. It’s been a very hard winter for Tanya and Red and Jamie and Andre and Adrian and Mercy. They are my neighbors here in New York City. It’s not that the heat was shut off in their apartments because they didn’t pay their bills. They have no apartments. Since last fall, they have made their beds on the steps of Riverside Church, under the scaffolding at Union Seminary and on the benches near Grant’s Tomb.

Photo Courtesy of the Odyssey Networks
A Hard Word to Hear This Winter (Isaiah 58: 1 – 9a). Photo Courtesy of the Odyssey Networks

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“Will you be warm enough tonight?” I asked Tanya. “Oh, we’ll be plenty warm,” she said as she showed me their outdoor bedroom: the first layer was carpeting, then stacks of blankets for padding and many more blankets for covers. “Once you’re in here,” said Red, “it’s too hot to keep your jacket on.” I was grateful to hear that because, well, then I wouldn’t feel so terrible going inside my warm apartment.

You don’t want to be reading Isaiah 58:1-9a when standing on 122nd Street and Claremont in Manhattan. The prophet asks too many questions. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bond of injustice … to break every yoke? Is it not to share your breadwith the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” God is asking rhetorical questions. The answers are so obvious that God doesn’t give an answer.  

Questions won’t let us go

Questions keep bothering us, tugging at us. The life of faith is far more dynamic than a list of creedal statements. Isaiah’s questions feel too close: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?” In these winter months, many of us who live on 122nd Street have shared our bread with our neighbors on the church steps. But I’ve never invited the homeless poor into my house.  Well, once I did, years ago as a new pastor. A young couple knocked on the church door. They had no place to go, just two young people with one suitcase and a tiny dog named Leif. At least I thought it was Leif (as in Leif Erickson — a good Swedish name, like mine!). Turned out his name was “Reef” as in reefer, as in marijuana. I laughed at my own naiveté, but I let them stay. Two weeks they stayed, then they asked for a ride across the George Washington Bridge so they could hitch hike to Arizona. Members of the parish said I could have been murdered in my sleep. “You could have been robbed, or the church could have been robbed.” None of this happened, but I haven’t invited homeless strangers into my house again. 

It’s just too hard, isn’t it?

It’s too dangerous, too time-consuming, and never enough.

Isaiah knew it was hard. The prophet was writing to people who had returned from exile in Babylon to a city in ruins. These words are not for a private devotional time but for people gathered to rebuild the ruined city and the temple. The book of Isaiah is made up of three parts woven together into one. Today’s verses come from the prophet we call Third Isaiah. The hopefulness of Second Isaiah in chapters 40-55 now sounded foolish standing in the rubble of Jerusalem. Chapter 55 had ended with glorious poetry: “You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” Maybe the exiles had been “led back in peace,” but there was little reason to burst into song. They didn’t hear much music. It didn’t take long before they were fighting among themselves. “At least, we will worship,” they said, “and we will fast.” They wanted God to give them some credit for that: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

The inseparability of worship and compassionate justice 

God does not disdain worship or demean fasting. But God calls for a deeper understanding of fasting. “Is not this the fast that I choose?” God asks. We know how we should answer God’s list of questions and we often end up feeling only guilt. I haven’t done enough to share my bread with the hungry. I haven’t invited the homeless poor into my house. But feeling guilty will not feed or shelter anybody. “The challenge for each of us is to learn to distinguish authentic guilt from false guilt. … False guilt lures us from a focus on what we have done to an absorption with how bad we are. The mood moves from “I have failed here” to “I am a failure” (Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and James D. Whitehead, cited in Beyond Guilt: Christian Response to Suffering). When we spiral downward to that place of “I am a failure,” then we’re sure there’s nothing we can possibly do. But God knows that’s not true. That’s why God keeps asking those pesky questions. God wants us to see people sleeping on the steps as our own kin. The Muslim volunteers on the Midnight Run see people living on the streets as their kin — even if many in our country fail to see Muslims as our kin. Many congregations in New York City host meals for hungry neighbors without asking for identification or proof of poverty.

Assistance and Advocacy

God’s questions are addressed to a community of faith. Our answers are not only personal but communal. We can do much more together than alone and what we do together involves both assistance and advocacy. We not only share blankets with neighbors sleeping in the cold; we advocate and agitate for more affordable housing. We not only serve hot meals to cold guests on a Saturday; we write to our elected leaders to advocate for food stamp funding. David Beckman, president of Bread for the World, reminds us that, “all the food provided by all the charities in the country amounts to about 6 percent of food that poor people receive from federal food programs such as school lunches and food stamps” (Exodus from Hunger: We Are Called to Change the Politics of Hunger). After we pack groceries in the food pantry on Saturday, we can write a letter to our Senators on Sunday afternoon. 

In January, Tanya and Red found housing at the Y in Harlem. Mercy has been sleeping inside Riverside Church. We haven’t seen our other neighbors for a while. I hope they’re warm and safe somewhere. They are not strangers. They are our kin.

Midnight Run distributes food, clothing and toiletries to the homeless

Barbara Kay Lundblad, received a B.A. in English from Augustana College (1966), the M.Div. from Yale Divinity School (1979), and the D.D. from Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. An ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, she served 16 years as a parish pastor in New York City, as well as campus pastor at Lehman College and New York University. She has taught preaching at Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, and in the D.Min. program of the Association of Chicago Theological Schools.

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