““Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Shout aloud! Don’t be timid. Tell my people Israel of their sins! Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. They act like a righteous nation that would never abandon the laws of its God. They ask me to take action on their behalf, pretending they want to be near me. ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!’ “I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?
“No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
“Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. “Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.”
Isaiah 58:1-12 NLT
Friends, to say that it is an honor to be with you this morning would be a huge understatement. I will never forget when I first started working at city relief (formerly known as New York City Relief) I had just been promoted to Outreach Director in 2011 after being on staff for a grand total of 15 minutes or so when my former boss called up a Grace Church leader named Steve Buczkowski. After simply telling Steve that he was leaving to start a ministry in Texas and that I would be taking over as Outreach Director he handed me the phone. Since that moment I have had the privilege of serving with hundreds of volunteers from Indiana over the last 13 years, as you have sent literally dozens of teams with hundreds of volunteers and thousands of dollars to support our mission to love, serve and connect with our food and housing insecure neighbors in the New York City metro area.
Now, if you’ve never been on a short term service trip before, you might be asking why does a faith community in Noblesville, Indiana partner with an organization that serves homeless folks in New York City? Aren’t there enough people right here who need our help?
I mean the obvious answer is yes. Homelessness and economic uncertainty are sweeping the nation from coast to coast and while there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight, we know there is plenty of work to do wherever you happen to live. The economic fallout of a global pandemic continues to impact all of us as the collective whiplash from government interventions starting and stopping, stock market fluctuations, inflation, interest rates rising, mass migration, systemic racism, and political unrest continue to pull people down and make it harder and harder to get back up.
Simply put, there are likely many people in this room right now who are struggling financially, emotionally, and spiritually more than they let on. These last few years have been extremely painful and to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous at best. No matter what you are going through, please believe me when I tell you that you are not alone.
It’s like a perfect storm. As food and housing prices rise, more people need assistance making ends meet. SNAP/Food Stamps don’t go as far as they used to and that’s if you are able to receive government support in the first place. At the same time, stock market and political uncertainty make wealthier Americans hesitant to give financially to support nonprofits they genuinely believe in, because they are watching their investments and retirement numbers move in the wrong direction, making it harder for organizations like City Relief and others to increase our services to respond to the growing needs. The Nonprofit Times recently reported that US philanthropy plummeted $17 billion dollars in 2022 as donors have “disappeared.”
Our world is changing and we are all feeling it. So why does a church in Indiana partner with an organization that serves in New York City? Because sometimes the best way to shake off the rust that builds up through the repetition of work, school, sports, and yes, even church is stepping out of your context and comfort for a short period of time and hanging out with folks who are different from you. And the beautiful truth is that if you can learn to offer prayer and compassion to a stranger on the streets of Manhattan, there’s no reason you can’t do the same on the streets of Noblesville, Carmel, Fishers, or Indy.
City Relief was inspired by the words I opened with in Isaiah 58 over 35 years ago. Our founders stumbled onto an eternal truth in a Bible study that birthed our organization into being and continues to provide us with a North Star that I believe everyone needs to follow if we are ever going to experience the fullness of life that Jesus came to offer us.
Eternal truth: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and providing the poor wanderer with shelter is not something we have to do to earn God’s provision; it is something we get to do to experience God’s presence.
Quid pro quo:
This section of scripture is particularly relevant to us today because the book of Isaiah was written over a long and tumultuous period of history for the people of God. Many scholars think that while the entire book is attributed to one person called Isaiah, it was likely written by multiple authors. Throughout that time, the people of God were dealing with constant change and political turmoil. Empires were rising and falling, nothing felt secure. Many Israelites at the time were turning to religious activity like prayer, fasting, and religious ceremonies in order to provoke Yahweh to action. They understood the covenant made between God and Abraham as a cosmic quid pro quo that said, if we pray, fast, and worship by going to the temple and making sacrifices, then God will be obligated to protect and bless them. In other words, they were not pursuing faithfulness to experience God’s presence, they were doing religious activity in order to receive the benefits of God’s provision.
“Why have we fasted before you?”
“Why aren’t you impressed?”
The prophet sarcastically quotes believers who are disappointed with the results they are getting from the efforts they are making. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been there.
My wife and I moved from Central Pennsylvania to New Jersey in 2009. We connected with a growing church community online and felt God leading us to put all of our economic chips on the table to move out there to help them plant a second campus. We were so sure of ourselves, we emptied our meager savings account to cover the deposit, first and last month's rent of a home that we rented. I was convinced that this “risk” was exactly what God was asking of us and therefore trusted that God would provide for us. It never occurred to me that maybe God wasn’t going to give us good jobs, close friends, and financial security. I mean, I was certain. I was leading a college ministry group at the time, playing in the worship band, driving 3 hours one-way for over a year. I never would have expressed this at the time, but I believed that God owed me. Quid pro quo. I very quickly realized that the creator of the universe was not a cosmic vending machine that would spit out a chocolate bar every time I put in a dollar. We ran out of money fast. We moved in December. Part of our lease required us to keep the heat set at 55 degrees so the pipes wouldn’t freeze, and we honored that. Literally. We had a home, but it was cold. We would bundle up in our blankets and watch dvd sets of The Office and Friends because we couldn’t afford to pay for cable or the internet. I was getting calls from collection agencies so regularly that I changed the ringtone on my phone to something more melodic so I wouldn’t have an anxiety attack 10 times per day. And yet, as I look back on my life I can honestly say that it was in that season that I experienced the presence of God like never before. I was working at Starbucks and I made it my mission to love coworkers and our customers so completely that I prayed over almost every latte I made. I noticed a regular with special needs who would come into the store every day and do laps around the store before leaving without buying anything. I was broke, but I got him a gift card that I refilled with my tips every other week and taped it to the back of the register in case he ever wanted something to eat or drink. Maybe you’re sitting here and you feel like you’ve been doing everything right and still can’t make any progress. I can’t promise that God will provide for you in a way that allows you to have wealth and comfort. What I can promise you is that if you start looking for people around you who are hurting and hungry, God will show you creative solutions that may or may not permanently change their circumstances, but will reveal God’s presence in ways that you can’t even imagine.
Angels in our midst:
After working at Starbucks for 6 months, I was introduced to City Relief. I was just about ready to call our New Jersey experiment a failure and move back to Pennsylvania when I was invited to a banquet to raise money for this organization that facilitated pop up outreaches in the streets of NYC and NJ. I walked into this work with very little experience and even less confidence. I was in way over my head. So much so that when I was approached by my former boss to ask if I’d take over the Outreach Director position my response was “I’m already 1,000 feet underwater, so another 500 feet won’t make a difference.” I prayed every day for depth perception so I wouldn’t smash our mobile outreach vehicles that are retrofitted school buses into telephone poles and double parked vehicles. Prayers that were largely answered with the occasional exception. I doubted my calling almost every single day, but over and over again God would send angels in the form of homeless and hungry friends who would speak life into me and give me a glimpse into God’s heart.
One time, I was in East Harlem on Park Ave and 124th Street. This cross street was right across the street from a methadone clinic and a bus stop where one of the roughest shelters would drop people off on a daily basis. In 2013 this corner was the location of the most felony assault arrests in NYC. There was a guy who many of you have met over the years who’s name is Angel. Literally. Angel had an older brother who was addicted to crack and while he was high ended beating Angel over the head with a baseball bat when he was a child. It created long term brain damage which ultimately froze Angel in a child-like state for the rest of his life. Angel would come to our outreach every week for a haircut and a shave that we would provide with a set of clippers that were purchased by a friend from Grace Church. If I’m being honest, I struggled with Angel. He was so sweet and gentle but for a solutions oriented person like myself, it was frustrating to have him interrupt me every week to ask about his haircut. I would try to pawn him off on volunteers as much as I could. But one time, I didn’t have any volunteers. It was me and 4 folks who were doing court ordered community service. And it was a hot day. The heat often creates conflict because desperate people don’t have any good ways to escape it. I had broken up about 4 skirmishes and halfway through the outreach, and Angel had asked me for a haircut 4 times. He was sitting in our outreach bus waiting for me when I ran into our little office in the front to catch my breath. I was frustrated and angry. I didn’t want to be there any more. I put my head in my hands and sat for a minute. I had forgotten Angel was there. When I looked up he was staring right at me.
I expected him to ask about his haircut, but instead he was smiling. And for those of you who know Angel, his smiles are incredible. Our eyes met and he looked into my soul and said, “It’s going to be alright, Josiah. Everything is going to be alright.”
Friends, in that moment I experienced what the prophet says in Isaiah 58:
“Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. ‘Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.’”
Maybe you’re sitting here and you don’t know if you’re going to be alright. Maybe you’re sitting here and you are deeply wounded because of a relationship that went sideways. Or maybe you’re dealing with an illness or mourning the loss of a loved one. Or maybe you’re here and you have been doing all the “right” things to try to get God to do what you want him to do. Maybe that’s why you’re here this morning.
But what if God isn’t as interested in getting you where you want to go as much as God wants to meet you right where you are? There are angels all around you who would love nothing more than to give you a glimpse of God’s love for you like Angel did for me. Is it possible that you are missing out on a powerful, dynamic, world changing experience with God simply because you care more about God’s provision than you do about God’s presence?
I’d love for you to consider how you might find ways to experience God in the people all around you who are struggling. Maybe that’s by volunteering in the Care Center. Or signing up for a short term trip to New York City? Or maybe it means carrying some new socks and toiletries in your car so that when you see that person panhandling you can smile and offer your name and a gift instead of looking the other way or just saying a prayer. Maybe it means paying the bill for the person in line behind you at the coffee shop or grocery store? Or helping the low wage employee in the parking lot collect the carts instead of just leaving yours stranded where your car used to be? I promise, if you prayerfully open your eyes to see the people you normally pass by and look for Jesus in their faces, you will find him staring back.
And if you’re here and you’re struggling yourself, I want to tell you that God is closer to you than you realize and that you have more to offer than you know. The body of Christ needs you just as you are right where you are. Not as a token or charity case, but as a contributor and leader. In the book of James it says, “Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him?” James 2:5 NLT
God has an inheritance for you. It may not be financial stability or a big house and a nice car, but we see in the person of Jesus that God is far less interested in that stuff than we are. You don’t have to accomplish worldly success to be of heavenly value.
I’m going to be in the lobby after the service with my colleague Dan Sadlier and some volunteers who have been to NYC many times in case you’d like to learn more about City Relief or sign up to learn more about trips in 2024. If you’re interested, I wrote a book called Neighbors With No Doors, that I wrote to dismantle toxic narratives about homelessness and provide tools that you can use to care for your vulnerable neighbors. I brought some with me in case you’d like to pick up a copy. It is such an honor to be here with you today and I want to end with a quote from the great theologian Bono:
“God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”