Take One

A couple of years ago, during one of our weeks of hosting Room in the Inn, I was standing near the kitchen counter downstairs, waiting in line with our guests to have our plates filled. The food smelled wonderful, and from every side I could hear bits of conversation. Just as I was about to grab a plate, the man in front of me, one of our guests, turned to me and said, “I know what we need to do to end homelessness.”

“You do? That’s awesome. Would you mind telling me?”

“Every congregation in Nashville adopts one of us and then you all help us get the help we need. Some of us just need a place to stay to get back on track, others need medical attention or a job. If every congregation adopted one of us, we wouldn’t be back here night after night.”

“Man, what an idea, and so simple! You’re right, one each ought to be doable and that would change things dramatically.”

Then he turned to ask one of the volunteers on the other side of the counter if they had any hot sauce, and I thought about Isaiah’s call to share our bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our house as a way of fasting that is righteous and God-pleasing.[1] But it wasn’t long before I thought about how much easier it is to open the doors to God’s house to the homeless poor on a cold night for shelter and a meal when we know that the next morning they’ll get a ride back to the Campus for Human Development. Organizing shelter and meals for a few nights a year requires the commitment of many helpers, but it is nothing compared to a congregation committing to embrace one individual with their gifts, their story and their needs.

This doesn’t change the fact that the man was right. Homelessness is caused by many factors, but most of them represent a breakdown in community, a fracturing of relationships, separating and isolating us one from the other and pushing some of us to the margins. And congregations are communities that embody and display in their life together God’s power to reconcile and make whole. Congregations are communities of hope. We are being called together by God who doesn’t turn away from our brokenness but says, “I am with you.” The big question is, how do we translate that promise of God into a life together that embraces not just some of us, but all who need community to be made whole?

The end of April, I got a letter signed by one of our state legislators and by the Commissioner of TDOC, the Tennessee Department of Corrections. Take One, it says in big, bold letters.

“Dear Faith Leader,” it begins, and after some introductory remarks it continues,

It is estimated that more than 90 percent of offenders currently housed in Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) prisons will eventually be released back to our communities. It is also well known that having positive influences to assist and support these men and women in their transition is crucial to their return home.

Take One seeks to have individual organizations agree to mentor just one offender and his/her family for a period of one year. The idea is that faith-based and non-profit organizations can provide a level of support, encouragement, and guidance that could be the difference between a successful transition home or a return to prison.

Take one, just one, for one year. Reconciliation heals broken community, and reconciliation is such a big word, but here it translates into support, encouragement, and guidance that say to one individual, preparing to return to life outside the prison doors, “You are not alone. You are not on your own. We are with you.” It’s the promise of God, embodied.

In this Easter season, we are given a reading from the book of Acts, the Acts of the Apostles, a book about the wondrous ways in which church happens. It’s the day of Pentecost, and Peter stands up to address the crowd, to say a few words about how the world has changed for good. Christ is risen from the dead, the Spirit of the risen Christ is on the loose, and the world is no longer what it used to be. Everything’s become new, and you’d expect Peter, this newly made apostle of the kingdom to grope for words, perhaps stammer a bit, but no. Luke has him preach a sermon without notes, complete with lenghty quotes from scripture, flawlessly structured according to the best practices of rhetoric, and all at nine o’clock in the morning. And to top it all off, we’re told that those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about 3000 persons were added. One sermon – and 3000 new disciples! What is this, preacher intimidation Sunday?

Well, not just preachers. These 3000 plus newly baptized along with the first followers of Jesus, we’re told, devoted themselves to Christian education and fellowship, to shared meals and prayers. No worries about worship attendance or Wednesday night programs, Bible study or budgets. Everyone spoke highly of them, and there was not a needy person among them since everything they owned was held in common. Everything was just perfect.

Why is Luke doing this to us? Why is he painting this picture of perfection where no one is hungry, no one is homeless, sinners are forgiven, and all are devoted to learning and growing as God’s people? Doesn’t he realize that no congregation we have encountered is like that? Doesn’t he know that among us devotion to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship is not exactly enthusiastic and that most of us are glad to be able to make it to coffee hour occasionally and perhaps to the waffle breakfast on Mother’s Day? Doesn’t he know that he’s making us feel small and insignificant in comparison, that somehow we’re not measuring up?

If Luke had written solely as a historian or a chronicler, we’d be looking at nothing but the sad fact that the church has been going downhill, and fast, since the day he wrote about it in chapter two. If he had written on rose-colored paper with nostalgic, golden ink flowing from his quill, we’d find little comfort in his words as we struggle to embody and proclaim the gospel in our day. If, however, Luke wrote as a visionary theologian with a pastoral heart, then he looked at the struggling congregations of his day and thought of a way to support, encourage and guide them in their tremendous and sometimes terrifying mission as Easter people. He wrote to remind them and us that we are participating in a movement of the Holy Spirit, the powerful, unstoppable, life-giving Spirit of God who draws us and all creation into life redeemed and made whole. He reminds us that the work is God’s and that we have the privilege of participating in it, anticipating the conversion of multitudes when we tell one of the compassion of God; anticipating the just sharing of earth’s goodness among all people when we give of our abundance to the need of another; and anticipating the signs and wonders of the age to come when we take one, just one, for one year. He teaches us to see God’s purposes perfectly fulfilled in the seemingly small things we do faithfully, day by day.

Think of it as Luke taking a picture of an ordinary congregation of ordinary people on an ordinary day, but then he doesn’t just post it on Facebook with a quick comment, “Hang in there, friends, and keep up the good work!” No, he applies a set of filters that render the everyday scene in the light of heaven, and suddenly the ordinary moment glows with the promise and presence of God’s reign.

You may be standing in line with a group of homeless men, waiting with them to have your plates filled with fried chicken, mac ‘n cheese, and green bean casserole. And you talk about stuff you enjoy talking about, a movie perhaps, or the biscuits your mom used to make when you were little, or how to end homelessness in Nashville. And there, on an ordinary Wednesday in November, suddenly it dawns on you that we’re all made for each other, that we all need community more than all the things we want, and that we’re all being saved by being drawn together by the Spirit of the risen Christ. It’s a wonderful moment, and you don’t quite know how to talk about it without sounding corny, but you know in your bones it’s true.

[1] Isaiah 58:6-7 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with 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?”