Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Sunday, December 24, 2017 (4 Advent Year B)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him.
"Mary! Mary Nazareth!" I look down at the list of homeless people waiting for intake interviews to make sure I have the right name. It’s Monday morning at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, and I am helping to get through the list of six new people who have presented to the shelter over the weekend; that’s 6 of the 20 who have entered homelessness in Southeast Connecticut for the first time last week. First-timers stay in the shelter until they can be interviewed by someone like me, it’s part of the hospitality idea. If you are entering homelessness, we want to make sure you have a bed to sleep in. It’s scary not to know where you’re going to sleep, so we just wipe that worry off the table. But on Monday morning, we interview people to see if they are eligible to be here, to see if they have other options, to see if they are particularly vulnerable… very old… very young… very compromised. We are filled to the brim and there’s a waiting list. The beds are for those at the top of the list who are vulnerable and whose only option is to sleep in a car or outside. Those, for whom there is no room at the Inn, are welcome to sleep in the warming center, our modern equivalent of a Bethlehem stable.
The irony of this… the idea that I may be sending a modern Mary of Nazareth to sleep in the warming center is not lost on me. I recently moved from helping the nation manufacture defense weapons and train sailors for war to working at the shelter. I’ve moved from Roman Soldier to Inn Keeper, and it’s not clear to me that I have moved up in holiness… at best, it’s a mixed bag. I love this new work, AND it is ALSO work that seems to pit the needs of the institution against the needs of the homeless and the poor. I navigate that space… I help to decide.
The shelter is a loud and busy place on Monday mornings. There is a buzz of people on the computers and on the phones; there are laughs and arguments. "Mary! Are you here?" I shout over the din of sound and look through the constant motion of people. In the far corner, sitting alone with her hoodie pulled up over her head, a young woman1 raises her hand and looks at me. I can barely see her eyes. Mary seems like a monk, her hoodie, a kind of protection from the world; it isolates her from the chaos of the place. "Mary?" I make eye contact, and she nods yes. "My name is Ron. Come with me please". We go to the other, quieter building. As we walk, I ask "Have you called 211?" "Yes." "Did you sleep here last night?" She nods. "Did you sleep ok?" She shakes her head. We enter the building and into a small room with a table and two chairs. I motion to one… "Is this OK?" She sits, and I settle in the other chair facing her. I put the stack of forms I will have to fill out on the table, and set my pen on top of them. Then, with my hands in my lap, I give her my full attention. "Mary, tell me why you here."
And so it begins… I will need to pull out the story of her homelessness like a dentist pulls a tooth. It is almost never easy with first timers… they don’t want to say what happened. It’s hard enough for them to believe that they are homeless, and the story seems like the latest in a long chain of shame and humiliations, so I have to keep asking questions. "Where did you sleep Saturday night?" "What was the last time you had a permanent place to stay?" "So, you lost your job… then what happened?" If you didn’t have a bed here tonight, where could you sleep?" Mary doesn’t know it, but I have an agenda. I need to see if she is from this region… whether she has something that ties her to this place. A job. A family. I’m looking to see if she has other options. Has she been living with a friend or family member? Could she stay there longer? Another night? Another friend? Is she facing eviction? Many people present to shelter, anticipating that they will be homeless soon, so they may have other options for the near term… options they need to take. As Mary answers these questions, I am forming a picture of what I am going to say at the end of our conversation, and, what I am going to mark on the form. That mark will determine whether Mary gets a bed in the shelter soon when she gets to the top of the waiting list, or an uncomfortable mat in the stable, the warming center, for a long time. When I think I have her story, I ask if I can write things down. Mary nods, and I pick up my pen and adjust my papers.
The paper process is necessary, but dehumanizing: full name, birthdate, last permanent address, release forms. There is no privacy. "Mary, are you pregnant?" "No." "Do you have HIV or AIDS?" "No." "Are you a veteran? Have you been in prison in the last 30 days?" "No." "Do you have a substance abuse problem?" She hesitates a moment… "No." I pause and look at her in case she needs to change her mind; many do. "Mary, how’s your mental health? "I’m depressed" she says. I put my pen down so she can explain. "It’s nothing" she says. But I can tell by the tremor of her voice and by the tears brimming in her eyes that it’s not nothing. I look at her and tilt my head in that hospital chaplain way that tells her silently "go on"…
There are children, six and eight, who have been taken from her into foster care. The place she was living in included others who used drugs… she had been using too…someone reported her, and they took them away. Tears track down her cheeks now, and I let her weep for a while. As she regains her composure, we finish the forms. I hand her a piece of paper with a number she is to call each evening to see if she has a bed. I tell her about the waiting list and the warming center. As I stand to say goodbye, she just sits there, as though she doesn’t get the hint. I can’t see her face under her downturned head, still encased in its hoodie. "Mary… do you need me to sit here with you for a while". "Yes" she says softly, and I sit quietly with her while she cries.
This is the moment… a holy moment… when we are transformed from Roman Soldiers, Tax Collectors, or Innkeepers into Disciples of Jesus. It is the moment when we, with holy hands, hold the broken heart of another whose wounds are open and exposed to us. We’re not there in that moment to fix their problems, their poverty, or their homelessness. We are not there to offer them trite phrases of hope or speeches about getting back on their feet or taking responsibility for their lives. We are there to be with them; to love them unconditionally and without judgment. AND, we are there as ones who have something to offer in that silence, as ones who are fed week-by-week at this table and steeped in the Gospel proclaimed within these walls. And more, we are there as ones who carry the Holy Spirit within us, and it is that Spirit who fills to overflowing, the silence between our hearts with healing power. The same Spirit of God who, two thousand and eighteen years ago tonight, became human just like us. This Jesus, born of Mary who suffered the shame of being an unwed mother, was born in the warming center of a strange town, soon fled as an illegal immigrant to a foreign country, lived as a homeless person with no place to lay his head, wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, and suffered the most shameful and humiliating death imaginable at the hands of those he came to be with. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ, that God is with us and wants nothing more than to be with us. This is the God whose Spirit weeps with us in our lowest hours, and smiles at us when we are at our best. And we might be at our very best… most like Jesus… when we emulate God by being with another broken person and holding their hearts in our hands. May you have a most blessed Christmas, and may you have the joy of being with another as a healing heart, a loving presence in dark times as Jesus is with us. May the whole world see and know in this Christmas Season that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, the one who has lived and has died and is risen as one of us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
1. Mary is a composite person of several people whom I have encountered at the shelter.