'for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'
Matthew 25: 35-36
For many of us summer brings a break from reality. Just thinking about summer evokes in us a feeling of pause; a pause from a school year, a sabbath from the busy season at work, an opportunity to travel, grill, and swim. For others though, summer in the desert can offer a harsh reality, a wake up call that reminds each day while the sun gives us light and growth and warmth, it can also burn, and torture, and kill.
According to the Maricopa County 2022 Heat-Associated Deaths Preliminary Report, 425 of our neighbors died last year due to heat-associated deaths. As you can see below from the graph "Heat-Associated Deaths Over Time", this represents a 25% increase from 2021.
Even scarier, we are entering the deadliest part of the year for heat-related deaths. According to the report "In 2022, more than. half of all heat-associated deaths occurred during the month of July. Compared to precious years, a higher proportion of deaths occurred in July (58%)." In addition, 61% of heat associated deaths involved substance use and over two-thirds of all deaths were individuals over the age of 50. Below you will find a chart showing that an increase in the number of heat-related deaths in Maricopa County have been our neighbors experiencing homelessness, as a vast majority (80%) of deaths in 2022 occurred in outdoor settings.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that God will separate the sheep from the goats depending on whether they clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the prisoner, and gave water to the thirsty. It is easy to read this as if we earn points for being nice and then God gives us a tally at the gates of heaven. We as Lutherans believe that salvation is a free gift from God, received through the Cross, and lived in us through the Holy Spirit in response to God's gift. Jesus earlier in Matthew 10, "You received without payment; give without payment." And so, we are called to give.
I give thanks to the community of St. John's for stepping up to serve our neighbors in need. When we were asked by the Arizona Faith Network to open our doors during the hottest times of the day to offer a cooling center all summer, we worked hard to make it a reality. When we were given an opportunity to partner with Cloud Covered Streets to offer showers, haircuts, and supplies every 1st, 3rd, and 5th Friday we too worked to make it a reality, dedicating room 14 to gather clothes, hats, sunglasses, belts, hygiene, and medical supplies to give freely to those in need.
Now, when we are being approached by neighbors in search of work, sober living, medical and mental healthcare, we are finding ways to increase our partnerships and informational resources to better serve our neighbors. St. John's Lutheran Church is saving lives this summer, not to earn points with God but to live out God's promise and share the Good News.
The root mission of our outreach ministry to our neighbors experiencing homelessness is to not only serve, but to love. Jesus commands us to to LOVE God and LOVE our neighbor. We cannot love God or love our neighbor (or love ourself) without knowing who they are and being in an ongoing relationship, personally and as a community. This summer, I encourage us all to remember the love God gives us freely, and in repines to give of ourselves freely to share God's love with our neighbor. Thank you for being the church, for taking chances in order to save lives, and for opening your doors, hearts, and minds to what we can accomplish together in the name of Christ.
In Christ's Endless & Unconditional Love,
Pastor Dan Potaznick
St. John's Lutheran Church