Texts: Isaiah 65: 17-25; Matthew 5: 13-16

Mark Gornik chooses as his starting point for his book on the renewal of the city, the day Thelma and Russell Sampson moved into their new home. [1]  Here’s what he writes:
“This is the day that the Lord has made in Sandtown, a neighbourhood on Baltimore’s hard-pressed west side. It is a day of reversal about which the Hebrew prophets had long ago enthused, a time Jesus had announced. This is the day when the last will truly come first, the gentle will be made strong, and the meek will inherit the earth. Arriving as a gift of the Lord, it is a day for being astounded, for celebrating the impossible transformed into the possible, for seeing what was hoped for come to life. For today is moving day for Russell and Thelma Sampson.

Following 37 years of paying painfully high rents to a string of disinterested and absentee landlords, in effect having bought their house many times over but never having gained the deed, the Sampsons are moving from a tiny 2-story alley-street house on School Street into a new home on the 1500 block of North Stricker St. Just a few steps from their present rental unit, the new house they will own has been renovated by Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, a neighbourhood-based home ownership program started by New Song Community Church.

All their lives the Sampsons worked hard and played by the rules, but you wouldn’t know it from the cost or condition of their housing. Rent consumed nearly half their income. … The house was plagued with problems: dangerous electrical wiring; a bathroom that leaked; ceilings that were falling down; windows that only sometimes kept the wind and cold out. …

Their new house had come a long way. Longtime neighbours estimated that the 2-storey brick row house at 1504 North Stricker St where the Sampsons would be moving had sat vacant for 20 years. Not so long ago, faded plywood boards had covered the doorways and window openings. Water had flowed down from the collapsed roof. The labours of scavengers hunting for saleable materials had left the house slowly collapsing from top to bottom. …

Along both sides of the treeless block, the pattern of physical dismemberments was similar. … Here we witness urban life gone awry, the entire fabric of existence opposed to God’s good, peaceable, and redemptive intentions for the city.

But by the power of the Spirit, who brings new life and renews all things, something different began taking place. House by house, this block began giving way to the rebirth of community rightly ordered, a transformation from ruin to the space where God’s peace and wholeness are more present. Amidst the ruins of this forgotten corner of the city, a resurrection of community began. A “new thing” began coming into being. …

Today, 1504 North Stricker is swirling with activity, since only a few hours remain before the afternoon dedication of the Sampsons’ house. … Inside, every space of the house seems to have someone working on it. The sounds of drills, hammers, and saws fill the house as the final cabinets are hung, plumbing is hooked up and adjusted, and the last pieces of molding are installed. …
The beauty of each completed Sandtown Habitat home --restored out of love for God and neighbour-- is found in it’s particular blend of participatory involvement that includes sweat equity and attention to local architectural patterns. …

At 3pm the joyful rhythms and harmonies of gospel music and singing replace the start-and-stop sounds of hammers and saws. Workers scurry out the back of the house as a bright ribbon is taped across the front door; the scaffolding is hauled away. The week’s volunteers -- neighbourhood residents, church members, friends and Habitat homeowners-- fill the sidewalk and street together in hope and expectation to celebrate the completion of yet another Sandtown Habitat home. …

With the sidewalk for their stage, the “house band” from New Song Community Church has set up and begun playing. Steve Smallman is laying down soaring amplified piano runs, and Elder Clyde Harris’s tambourine and booming voice are beckoning everyone together. The exuberant singing and clapping are filtering up and down the streets and alleys. No question. Rebuilding makes you sing with joy, even if your singing voice doesn’t’ adequately express your heart’s gladness!

As the music quiets and pauses for the invocation, Janice Jamison, an enthusiastic and committed Sandtown Habitat homeowner, welcomes everyone to the dedication and the house blessing.  Next comes a “welcome to the block” speech from William Elliott, the first Sandtown homeowner on 1500 North Stricker Street. As Mr. Elliott is talking, the members of New Song’s Voices of Hope choir move forward and assemble on and around the front steps. … Presentations follow: a new Bible from a local pastor; a bouquet of flowers to Thelma from the other homeowners; then the keys from Mayor Kurt Schmoke. These are great moments. But it is tears and an embrace that form the grammar of this new story now being written.

LaVerne Stokes, one of the first Sandtown Habitat homeowners and the organization’s co-executive director, comes to a microphone to speak. LaVerne is an extraordinary leader; a modern-day Esther, a woman that God has raised up for such a time as this to serve her people and community in a life-giving way. Given the intertwining history of LaVerne’s and the Sampsons, her words of congratulations offer a glimpse of divine glory. …

Before the crowd of nearly 200, LaVerne and Thelma embrace one another in tears, sharing a moment of overwhelming power as years of history now converge to signal a new beginning of community hope and possibility. Thelma Sampson then speaks simple yet profound words into the microphone: “How grateful I am to all of you and to God. Thank you!”

Before the benediction is pronounced, Elder Harris and Steve Smallman lead the “congregation” in singing “This Little Light of Mine.” “Some people may think we don’t know any other songs!” Janice Jamison has remarked. But among Sandtown Habitat and New Song’s repertoire of songs, it is the song that is always sung at benchmark neighbourhood achievements.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Shine all over my neighbourhood, I’m gonna let it shine
All around the neighbourhood, I’m gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

Now I realize that Victoria is not Baltimore, and James Bay is not Sandtown … and New Song Community Church is not James Bay United Church. Our stories are different. But the urgency for transformed life in our city is just as real and present. Ask Shawn who is desperate for housing. Take stalk of the number of lonely people in our neighbourhood -- among them, new arrivals, people who’ve been recently widowed, and folks waiting out their days in places like the James Bay Care Centre. There are people wearied with overwork, and others craving profitable, even purposeful employ. The kingdom of God -- that new day, that new way of God’s dreaming -- it hasn’t fully arrived yet in James Bay… maybe you’ve noticed too. But present here too, along with the urgency, is that same life-giving Spirit who has been and is even now doing a new thing, a life-giving thing, a healing thing right here among and around us.

Every week I receive a note from Marg Luman about what happened on Friday at the Thrift Shop. You can’t miss it--the fun that transpires and the spirit of gratitude. The gifts that arise, both great and small, on any given day -- they’re a big part of what energizes that team for their work. Of course that ministry not without its moments of disillusionment and frustration --it involves people after all! But so also, in and through people, there are these holy happenings … people being met by a deeply needed yet unexpected grace … people finding themselves being given all that they need to be there for one another in, quite literally, life-giving ways. A big part of this ministry is the way it makes for caring connection … the way it brings people into relationship, creates friendships … opening up this flow of life, of love. It’s like a little demonstration garden … where the love of God and love of neighbour is being sown and cultivated, and its fruitfulness enjoyed and savoured, and shared.

Can you see it? This is the church in action, living out our calling to love our neighbour … where our neighbour isn’t people in general, but those very particular people with whom we share this patch of God’s good earth -- you know, or maybe you don’t, the people who live next door and down the street; the people who play their music too loud or bring to your door the best chicken soup when you’re sick as a dog; the people we see almost every day but have no clue about their life, their ache, their dreams; the people you call when you can’t contain your joy or bear your grief alone.

Neighbours … not only, but very definitely, those particular people who are right here where we live. These are the people we are called to love. These are the people with whom and through whom the Spirit calls us to be about the holy task of that great reversal … where the poor are lifted up and the grief-stricken comforted, the lonely are drawn out of their isolation into the community of the beloved, the weary strengthened in body mind and spirit, the hopeless are given a reason and the resources to live.

Sound fanciful? … like wishful thinking?
I’ll bet it would have sounded like that to Thelma and Russell Sampson and all the folks of Sandtown at a time. But then there arrived among them these two families who trusted with everything they had that God’s love for the world included those very streets, that very place and those very people who inhabit it. They trusted with every ounce of their beings that, if God’s love was to reach that ground and rise up among those people, there could be an unimagined future of well-being. “One of the best things they ever did was they became a neighbour … one with us, working side by side with neighbourhood folks,” says LaVerne Stokes, that woman who offered the Sampsons words of congratulations the day of their move.

“One of the best things they ever did was they became a neighbour.”

This abundant community initiative we’ve been talking about … it’s about becoming a neighbour. It’s not about us doing something to the neighbourhood … it’s about working side by side with our neighbours. It’s about helping people meet their neighbours and learn about each other … discovering the wealth of resources that exist right here in the way of gifts and skills, experience and dreams. It’s about connecting as neighbours with one another, so that we might put those resources to work for the well-being of all of us.

I am convinced that just as God wasn’t and even now isn’t finished with Sandtown, so God isn’t finished with James Bay. God loves this place and the people who inhabit it. And just as that love is already working its wonders among us, so I believe there is ever so much more love waiting to be released in this place … not only through us, but surely, by God’s grace, not without us!

Over the next few weeks when Ryan begins to put out the call for people to go in pairs to meet the neighbours living right in your own block, you needn’t worry about arriving at anyone’s door unannounced. Word will be out ahead of time to generate curiosity and anticipation. Even better, know this: saying yes is about having a hand in building the kingdom of God here in James Bay.
How fearsomely awesome is that?!

[1]  Mark Gornik, To Live in Peace -Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company; 2002; p. xv-xix.