Have you heard of Arnold Abbott? Arnold has been in the news lately. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, in Florida, and he has been arrested for feeding the homeless. Arnold is a chef, and for the last 15 years, every Wednesday he sets up a small kitchen on the local public beach and feeds the homeless. Every Wednesday for the past 15 years, the homeless population of Fort Lauderdale, which numbers 2,766, knows that they can find some food - they can find some relief in the middle of the wilderness that is living on the street - by going to see Arnold. But in October, the city council passed sweeping restrictions on where precisely the homeless could be fed. No more handing sandwiches out at any old place. Someone on the sidewalk asks you for some food? You can’t give them the bagel you bought for breakfast. That would be breaking the law. Almost 3000 people every day are starving and they want some kind of meal? You can’t feed them like you have been doing once a week for more than fifteen years. In Fort Lauderdale, it’s now illegal. But Arnold refused to stop. And on November 2nd, the police issued him a citation for breaking the law. Feeding the homeless on the beach was now breaking the law. But Arnold continued. And on November 5th, the police issued him a second citation. But Arnold continued. And on November 12th, he was issued a third citation, told to stop feeding people who were hungry, and arrested. For handing out food. Arnold was arrested not for robbing anyone, or hurting anyone, or for threatening the country. He was arrested for caring about people who were starving and for doing something about it. He was arrested because he was doing what our reading from Isaiah proclaims that the Lord will do: bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim comfort. Arnold was arrested for attempting to repair the ruin and devastation of the people of Fort Lauderdale.
Arnold reminds me of John the baptizer. John was also out there in the wilderness, serving people in need. When he was asked whether or not he was the Messiah - in other words, whether or not he was the one that people were expecting and whether or not his actions were going to redeem the world, he said, no, someone else was coming. The focus wasn’t supposed to be him, but the one to come. John’s actions were pointing people to Jesus. John was acting so that people would be prepared to recognize Christ when he came. John was baptizing people for their forgiveness so that when Christ came, and proclaimed to them a complete baptism and forgiveness through the Holy Spirit, they would be ready. John wanted people to think of Christ, and not of him. And Arnold? Well the interesting thing about Arnold that has gotten missed in the news reports is that he was out there feeding the homeless with his two pastors, and in the name of a charitable organization that he started, called Love Thy Neighbor. Arnold was feeding the hungry because he is a Christian. He was risking arrest because he was motivated by Christ. His actions, like John’s, point us to Christ.
What do you do that points to Christ? How are your actions like John’s? Or Arnold’s? How does this congregation of St. John (although I think that refers to the disciple John, and not John the baptizer), how do this congregation’s actions point to Christ? When somebody walks by on the street, what do they see that makes them mistake you for Jesus? What actions are you taking that prepare people to welcome Christ? What are you doing that points to Christ?
I suspect that these questions might be a bit uncomfortable. They sound a little bit as if I’m asking you how many people you’ve brought to Christ, or how many times have you shared the love of Christ in your life with others, or how many new Christians does this congregation make every year? These are the kinds of questions that make Lutherans squirm. They make me squirm, actually. The kind of evangelism that these questions imply, the kind of “witnessing” or “missions” that they are talking about, is not natural to Lutherans. And that’s fine. Evangelizing in this way is not one of our denominational gifts - Lutherans are not called to do this the way other denominations are. That’s not what I’m asking.
What I’m asking is what things do you do in your life and what things does this congregation do in its life as a church that, when people on the street see it, they say ah, yes, they’re doing that because they’re Christian? Because that’s our job as Christians, you know. Our job is to be doing something, anything, that points people to Christ. Our job is to feed the hungry, to provide shelter for the homeless, to clothe the naked, to love the unlovable as Christians so that people learn to recognize Christ. Our job is to be in the wilderness, and doing things that point to the righteousness and justice and forgiveness of Christ. Our job is to prepare people for the love of Christ by showering them with our own imperfect human love. Our job is to, with our actions, point to Christ. And if we’re not doing these things, then we have to ask who exactly are we pointing to? If our lives as individuals, or our life as a church, does not consist of actions that feed others, or forgive them, or shelter them, or love them, then are we really pointing to the one we’re named for? Are we really behaving as Christians? Are we really acting like a church?
Of course, I understand that what I’m asking is hard. It’s a struggle sometimes just to get through the day, let alone do all these other things. We are not Arnold. I’m not sure that any of us has the energy or the gifts to cook up a meal for the homeless every Wednesday, particularly if it would get us arrested. We hear about people like Arnold, and we hear about churches that have wonderful programs for those in need, and we feel discouraged. Tired. Inadequate. God seems to be expecting these grand things - the reading from Isaiah talks about bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to captives and release to prisoners. Isaiah talks about building up the ancient ruins, raising up the former devastations, repairing the ruined cities and the devastations of many generations. Never mind living in the wilderness and eating locusts! What God expects us to do that points others towards Christ seems impossible. Or at least, it seems more than we can possibly take on. We do not quite feel up to the task.
But God does not ask the impossible. You are not inadequate. You are not too old. Remember Arnold, who was arrested a month ago for feeding the homeless? He’s 91. He started this work fifteen years ago, when he was 76. Nevertheless, God does not ask us to point to Christ on the basis of our age. God does not call us to enter the wilderness on the basis of our qualifications or our skills. God sends us to do these things regardless of whether we are up to it, because God is the one who equips us for the task. God has given you what you need to engage in this kind of work. God has given you exactly the tools and gifts and energy you need to live a life that points to Christ.
Yes, God has prepared you for this work. God prepared you when you were baptized. When you were baptized, God sent God’s Holy Spirit to be with you - to guide you, inspire you, and to give you strength. The moment of your baptism is the moment God called you and the same moment that God prepared you for a life that points to Christ. Which, for many of you, happened when you were a baby. And that’s kind of the point. Babies can’t do much of anything, let alone point to Christ. Babies are pretty unlikely candidates for preparing people for Jesus’ coming. They are pretty inadequate at feeding the hungry and living God’s kingdom here on earth. And yet God calls and equips babies precisely to that life. God has called and equipped you with the Holy Spirit to that life. Whether you feel up to it or not, whether you feel capable of it or not, God has called and empowered you.
So what, exactly, is God calling those of us here this morning to do? Shall we march out right now into the streets and feed the homeless and care for people so radically that we get arrested? How do we know what God is calling us to do? How do we know how each of us is supposed to point to Christ? Well, actually, I can’t answer that question for you. That is a question that you need to think about for yourself, knowing your own situations, knowing your own limitations, knowing your own gifts, and knowing that God has called and equipped you for the task. It may be that you point to Christ by getting involved in the volunteer work of your own communities. It may be that you point to Christ by donating to charities that have nothing to do with the church. It may be that you point to Christ by being kind to every one you meet. It may be that you point to Christ simply by praying, for the world, the church, and all people in need. It may be that you point to Christ by breaking the law in order to help people in need. God empowers each one of us in unique ways. My point is, though, that these are all actions that point to Christ. These are all actions that remind us of John the baptizer. These are all actions that prepare the world for the coming of Christ. And these are actions that you can do. God has called you to them, and God has empowered you to carry them so that you and all the baptized can point to Christ, who is coming. Thanks be to God. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.