Volunteering at the Shelter Home is a blessing of great joy to me. The Bible tells us to defend the weak and helpless. Abused and hurting women and children are among those defenseless ones. My heart hurts for them. Court advocate Kim Watson invited me to come to the Shelter. Sorting donations was my first project. Then I got a raise (lol) and started at the office. My job is to do anything - clean, put labels on envelopes, answer the phone, monitor security cameras and doors, whatever needs to be done. One of my favorites is to visit with children and hold babies. But I’m working undercover. My real purpose is hugs, listening and praying for staff and residents. Sharing love and encouragement and the peace of God is what I really try to do: ‘Don’t worry! God is never blind to our tears, never deaf to our prayers, and never silent to our pain. He sees, He hears, and He will deliver.’ ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’ God has truly blessed me in this place.
When I first came to the shelter, I felt alone. Abandoned. How could this happen to me? Now I realize that being here was a divine appointment. Being here gave me the opportunity to stop and face myself, my mistakes and the fears that were crippling me.The group sessions, my advocate, the counseling and the interaction with other residents taught me about how I react in different situations and how my reactions either helped or hindered my progress. Being here forced me to grow as a person. I faced my fears, looked them in the eyes and saw them for the bully that they were. Now I am free to face challenges and opportunities without bondage or fear.My life will be different now because I am a different person. I am fearless! I am empowered! And I look forward to seeing what I can and will accomplish.
I once asked my beekeeper husband how a hive of bees makes it through the winter when it is so bitter cold for so long. The hives must remain open, of course, and so how can the bees survive the cold, I asked? And here is what he told me: all the bees inside a hive form a big ball throughout the winter. And the ball is constantly in a slow motion of moving the bees on the outside into the inside, with the bees on the inside moving to the outside, so that all the bees can survive by none of them remaining on the outside. AND the slowly moving ball also moves slowly around the hive throughout the winter, consuming the honey that is stored there. The constant movement from outside to inside allows all the bees to stay warm and to eat. It’s the movement that matters. And it takes all of them to do it.This is also true of any group of human beings who are going to survive and thrive: we must move those on the outside into the inside, to a place of belonging. In any group of people—a family, a parish, followers of Jesus, the Israelites out in the wilderness—there are insiders and outsiders. Or rather than just two positions, IN or OUT, maybe a good image is that of a bull’s eye. There’s the center, where people in the group are REALLY insiders. And outlying degrees of belonging as we move away from that center, with there being people out on the fringes who nevertheless are connected in at least some way to the group. And it’s the movement inward from those outer places that counts for so much in whether the group will even survive, let alone thrive. My view is that God acts in this world through community—the sense of connectedness and belonging among people. The very essence of God is relationship—so says the concept of the Trinity itself. God yearns for us to be constantly moving those outside our group to the inside, making friends from strangers, bringing the new person or the sick or the lonely person into the warmth of community, ever expanding our human family to include everyone.
Jesus loved the outsider, the alien. He loved those who were sick or outcast or in some kind of need. People on the fringes. And it wasn’t just because of his compassion, I don’t think. Jesus knew that’s where new life is. To be with the people on the fringes is to live with possibility. And this is the Good News for us:When we bring outsiders into any group, such as a church, that very movement changes us all, causes new life and new growth in us. It’s dynamic. It’s transformational. The purpose is not to grow the church. The purpose is to be disciples of Christ—welcoming, caring. The fundamental image of a Christian is or should be hospitality, invitation. “Come on in!” accompanied by a beckoning wave of the arm, maybe. That picture should be what springs to mind when we hear the word “Christian.”So that is one image from nature that I would give to you as illustrative of productive, good, wholesome community: bees in winter. The movement of bringing the outside to the inside. Here is another beautiful image, given to us by the prophet Isaiah in today’s Scripture: a watered garden. Isaiah may have been speaking to the ancient Israelites over 2000 years ago, but he could just as well have been speaking to us today. He is saying what it takes to make a people fruitful, which is to be a watered garden:
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
The “yoke” he says we need to remove from among us, the “pointing of the finger” and the “speaking of evil”—in our modern times, these may be said to refer to ways in which people in any kind of group can harm one another. Oppressing each other. Accusing each other. Talking negatively about each other. These must all be replaced by kindness and love and support in order for a people to prosper, Isaiah says. But that’s not enough. We also have to help people OUTSIDE of our group. The “hungry” and the “afflicted” Isaiah speaks of—in our society they are usually people we don’t really know, given that our churches are usually made up of people a lot like ourselves. Not just here in Isaiah but throughout scriptures we find words that tell us we are to take care of everyone in need—widows, orphans, prisoners, homeless, aliens, the hungry, and the list could go on and on.I have been thinking this week of a woman newly arrived at the Shelter Home who told me about herself. She had arrived very late one night, slept most of the next day, and on the morning after that, she told one of the counselors that if they saw her lying passed out on the floor not to worry. She is diabetic, but they didn’t need to worry, she said. What was happening, she said, is that she had no “test strips” because she ran out and couldn’t afford to buy any. So she didn’t know how much insulin she needed to be giving herself. She was just guessing. And often she guessed wrong and gave herself too little or too much. So that’s why she said they might find her passed out but they didn’t need to worry. And the counselor said to her, “Oh, no. This will not do.” And, the woman told me, in the span of one hour the counselor had called Helping Hands Clinic and got her over there, and they gave her some sample test strips, and she got back to the Shelter, and had used the strips, and given herself the proper dosage of insulin. With each of the things she ticked off that had happened that morning, she tapped her finger on the desk, ending with one final punch and the triumphant words, “In one hour flat.” She’s still got plenty of problems. Not the least of which is a husband who “is REALLY mean when he drinks mouthwash when he hasn’t got anything else to drink.” And who has tracked her down at the two places she went to for safety before winding up here in a totally strange town in another state. But on THIS day, in THIS place, telling me about her morning, life was one big miracle for her. She was in a watered garden, you see. Her needs had been satisfied in parched places.I have been picturing that woman in my mind’s eye as someone who, metaphorically speaking, was held up and carried along in the hands of many strangers to this safe place in another state. And was being held up and carried along in the hands of many people here. She was being moved from the outside, from the place of danger and isolation, to the inside, to the place of warmth and protection. And it isn’t just the people in the present tense of the story who are helping her. It’s all the people who were ever involved in starting up the Shelter Home all those years ago and in running it now. All the people involved in starting up and running Helping Hands Clinic. All the contributors who have given time and money to both places, keeping them open. Police and public safety people who provide back-up and involvement. Even, really, all the ancestors who caused those people to be born and to be the kinds of people they are. And on and on and on back who knows how long into the past. The energy that helped that woman this week has been ongoing for a long, long time. All those beautiful hands that have built the watered garden!Multiply that by other agencies and individuals helping other people in other ways. Look at all those hands! They bear aloft people in need, passing them on to others who pass them on to others and those are the hands of Christ, my friends. The hands of Christ are the hands of people who say “Oh, no. This will not do.” And then they cause things to change for the good. Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of “a readiness for responsibility” as being the thing from which action springs. A readiness for responsibility. That is the stance from which a person says “Oh, no. This will not do” and from which that person then takes action. To in some way move people from the outside to the inside.Watered gardens are everywhere you look, if you have eyes to see. Look at the response to the idea of the Emergency Homeless Shelter this past week. All the people who turned out to say “Yes, I want to help!” The energy was palpable in our Hogan Room last Saturday. And more have joined in online. The energy and the spirit of working for the common good—what a beautiful phrase, “the common good”!—that spirit is present and huge. And from it all kinds of actions will spring that we cannot even see at this time, though we sense their possibility. They are the hope of watered gardens to come.Such surprising and wonderful signs of watered gardens are everywhere. Maybe you read in the paper about a food pantry springing up here or there in the county. Or you go to the vet and see on a bulletin board the story of some people who worked together to take in and find a home for a long-abandoned feral cat and kittens and you see at the end of the story that the writer is someone you know. And it makes you happy because love is love wherever it lands. And we must applaud it wherever we see it. Because wherever love is, a watered garden grows. Love is the water. Love is the garden. An open and tender heart coupled with a readiness for responsibility—that is the place of the watered garden. The constant and intentional movement of bringing outsiders inside—that is the action that speaks of welcoming. And welcoming speaks of Christ. It is a holy act because it is a generous act.Jesus speaks of how a city built on a hill cannot be hid and of how a light must be put on a lamp stand, not under a basket, in order to give light to a room. Isaiah speaks of the possibility of being like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. To be that city on a hill, to be that light, to be that unfailing spring takes three things: tender hearts, readiness for responsibility, and action that speaks of welcome. Then can begin the constant and beautiful dance of redemption, moving from outward to inward. Then can grow the watered garden. Both are about community. And God smiles, I think, to see God’s people in such communion with one another. God loves our watered gardens.
Melissa Eggers is an ordained Deacon at Saint James Episcopal Church in Lenoir, NC. This is the text of a sermon presented on February 6, 2011.