Living by faith

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A sermon on Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

It was on Columbus Day weekend, a Sunday evening, when we set up a Labyrinth downstairs, in the multipurpose room of our church. We rolled out a giant heavy canvas with a maze painted on it. The labyrinth has been a tool for meditation and prayer for thousands of years, and over many cultures. And so we brought one to the multipurpose room here at Western, so that the college students could walk it.

And that’s what we did. We set the labyrinth up that night, the college students brought fruit and cereal for the clients at Miriam’s Kitchen. John Austin and Erin Echo led us in chants from Taize and we prayed. I found myself praying for all of the people who came to that space. It was a profound experience. We began, each stepping at a different pace, moving next to and around each other. And it was a beautiful feeling of solitude and community at the same time. I had this acute awareness that I was not on a journey alone, that there were all sorts of people moving around me.

We gathered in the middle of the labyrinth and talked about how we often came close to the center when we walked it, and that was comforting for the students. As I stood in the middle of that space, surrounded by young men and women who would eventually go out from this place and have an impact on the world, I was also reminded, once again, of the importance of that room.

I thought about all of the people who streamed through the doors: the homeless people who come in from the cold hard streets to be greeted each morning by smiling volunteers and warm food. I thought about the Muslim Student Group. They had been meeting on campus, but had to move from one space to the next to the next, until they finally found a welcome space here, at Western. And now they are able to gather for Friday noon prayers. I thought about the Ethiopian Church who congregates there for services. It’s a busy room. While this is a room of gathering and worshiping, that is a room where we go out and serve. While this is a sanctuary where we nurture our faith, that is a room where we live out our faith.

I was reminded of the importance of that room again this week. As we mentioned, there was a fire in the multipurpose room. Around 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, an arsonist climbed over the metal gate that enclosed the entrance for Miriam’s Kitchen, broke a double-paned Plexiglas window on the east wall of the room. It wasn’t a huge break, about the size of a plate, I think, but it was large enough for someone to pour a great deal of gasoline into the room. And that’s what they did. They poured the gas in until it sputtered along the wall and soaked the floor. Then they lit a match, threw it in, stepped up the stairs, climbed over the gate, and walked away.

This has been in the background of my mind, especially when I read the words of the prophet. Habakkuk is talking to God, and we sneak up on him and get a glimpse of this internal dialogue that he’s having:

Oh God, how long must I cry to you for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?…
Destruction and violence are ever before me,
contention ever arises.

Habakkuk is a truth-teller, a prophet of Israel, who has seen the destruction and suffering of his people. And, he is looking at this violent situation and challenging God, “Why won’t you listen? Why won’t you save us? Why do you allow all of this contention?”

It is an interesting passage for us to think about this morning.

The fire didn’t burn for long. The sprinkler system turned on, soaking the floors, and putting out the flames before they could gain any momentum. The fire department responded, and John came to the church soon afterward. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the damage was minimal. A couple of Miriam Kitchen’s clients were waiting for their breakfast, so John asked them to help him clean up the mess. John, Miriam’s staff, the volunteers, and clients mopped the soaked floors and made quick work of the cleanup. There was short debate about whether they should serve breakfast at Miriam’s that morning, and it was decided that they would open as usual.

There were reporters in an out all day. And of course, there were questions about who might have done such a thing. The interviewers were asking it, our members were asking it, everyone who called to console us asked it. I was even asking myself the same question: “Who would have done such a thing?”

I often recall when I first visited Miriam’s Kitchen, I got all choked up and wanted cry. I didn’t though, because I was on my job interview, and it’s never good to cry on a job interview.

It’s just that I’ve been to soup kitchens before. I have served rice and beans, and an assortment of canned vegetables in dingy, dark, dining rooms. Yet, that morning when I first visited Miriam’s, there were fresh flowers on the table. And when I admired the framed artwork on the walls, I was told that the clients painted them during the classes after breakfast. And when I looked at the menu board, I saw the food that was carefully and thoughtfully prepared. And there were so many volunteers, working hard. And I watched Steve, the chef, who had this kitchen crew with amazing loyalty.

I think the thing that caught me off guard was the dignity. The meals were nutritious, with careful attention to dietary needs. There was the undeniable sense that people were cared for there.

And so it made me wonder, as I stood before the burnt, blank menu board this week, “Who would do something like this?” I surveyed the damage, and it was minimal, but the intent loomed large.

Now working at this place is my job, but it’s become much more than that, it’s the source of my spiritual life because of the connection between what is done here and what is done in the multipurpose room. Here in this place, we praise God our Creator, and as we do, we recognize the dignity of each person who is a reflection of God’s image. And we do the same in Miriam’s Kitchen, we treat each person with respect, as God’s children.

Here in this place, we confess our wrongdoings, we recognize our selfishness, pride, and greed, and we pray that God will change us. In the multipurpose room, we have an opportunity to put some elbow grease behind those confessions. We have a chance to change and to be changed.

Here in this place, we baptize beautiful children, welcoming them into this community of faith, reminding ourselves of our commitment to teach each child, to care for them. In the multi-purpose room, we realize that our responsibility as a community of faith extends beyond who we are here, but it recognizes our commitment to a larger community.

The tables downstairs are intimately connected with the table here. While we feed one another with the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation, we remind each other that Jesus Christ is with us because we are gathered. And we are to be the hands, feet, and mouth of Jesus. Miriam’s is a place where we can work as Christ body, as people are looked after, and they’re cared for.

It’s a place where so many of you have served. It’s a place that many of you fought long and hard to keep open, because it was important to our faith. It is where we practice our religion.

Yet when we ask, “Who would do something like this?” there are a variety of answers to that question, because just as this is such an amazing and sacred space, there are a whole lot of people who walk by those doors and walk by the gates, bringing with them anger and frustration. And the question, “who would do something like this?” points to a level of hatred that flows through this world that I don’t always want to acknowledge. Something that I don’t want to see. And yet it’s there: the brokenness, bigotry, fury, and hatred.

God did answer Habakkuk. God heard the prophet and spoke to him clearly. In fact, God told Habakkuk to have the words carved in stone. God said, “There is a vision for the appointed time…the righteous live by their faith.”

God gave a word of hope in the midst of the violence, reminding the people that there will be a day of peace, when justice will rule, and there will be no violence. It is that day that we pray for and work toward.

And God said that the righteous live by faith. That’s the truth of our situation. That is why Miriam’s Kitchen was opened and serving on Tuesday morning. That is why we have fought long and hard to keep the kitchen open. That’s why we open our doors to college students, to an Ethiopian congregation, and to homeless men and women. That’s why so many businesses, churches, and people of faith gather in that multi-purpose room, so that we can work out what they believe. And even in the midst of threats and violence, we have a vision that people will be fed, addicts will receive help, victims of domestic can find safe shelter, and Muslims will continue to pray in peace. We have a vision that this will be a place in the heart of the city where people will gather from around the world to be fed in their faith.

And so we continue our work in this great hope, and we will continue our faithful work,
to the glory of God, our Creator,
God, our Liberator,
and God, our Sustainer. Amen.

photo’s by Merowig

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4 thoughts on “Living by faith

  1. Thanks. The support was amazing.

    A little background on “It’s a place that many of you fought long and hard to keep open”…our church moved (before I got there), and the neighborhood association didn’t want us to relocate with Miriam’s Kitchen. It was a long legal struggle, until we appealed and won the case at the US District Federal Court. Western argued that feeding the homeless was central to our religious practice. The Court ruled that Western’s freedom of religion was being threatened.

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