Preached on January 31, 2016 (Epiphany 4C), at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Seattle.
I find it hard to like homeless people.
I find them disturbing, scary. I am put off by them. Sometimes I even resent them: I like to shop at the grocery store across the street from here, a store filled with warmth and light and food I can afford; but practically every time I go, I have to walk past a homeless person asking for a handout.
I find this frustrating. I wish it weren’t so. I wish the store had the ability to shoo the panhandlers away. But it’s a city sidewalk; they can’t do that. I want to believe that I don’t want them to do that, because, I reason, kind and ethical people don’t want them to do that. Kind and ethical people want to help the panhandlers, somehow. But I know my feelings in that situation aren’t kind and ethical.
I know this about myself.
Homeless people are scary to me, I realize, for one primary reason: I see them as harbingers of death. Practically every problem they have is a problem that signals death, threatens death: they lack nutritious food, the sustenance of life. They lack warm clothes and shelter, the basic protections from the treacherous winter elements. They lack health insurance, and health itself—self-evidently two more deathly problems. They lack social support, a sound work history, the safety nets I take for granted that would catch me, if I were to fall—and I have fallen, one time very badly—in a strong net of companionship and warmth and a health clinic and a bank account and gainful work and dessert every night.
Death: that’s what homeless people represent to me. Or maybe worse than death—desperation and despair. And no safety nets. I learned last week that if a person has only one experience—even a brief experience—of homelessness, that person’s life expectancy plunges. This is frightening to me. I don’t want to be close to it.
I know this about myself.
I do not want to cover this over in reassurances about my character, or my baptismal identity, or a litany of things I’ve done that would show you that I am a kind and ethical and hard-working and generous person. I can be those things, sure, but the fact remains that I often have felt this way about homeless people.
Maybe you don’t feel this way, or maybe you used to, but you’ve gotten to know your neighbors experiencing homelessness, and you truly have broken through the many social, economic, and cultural barriers that separate you from your neighbors. Maybe you are no longer afraid, frustrated, or repelled. If so, then you can call homeless people by the term “neighbors experiencing homelessness,” and you won’t sound fake or P.C. You’ll sound like you authentically see your neighbors this way. You see them apart from the problems they face.
Or … you might be someone who has experienced homelessness yourself at one point. If so, then you are likely even further along: you really get it, and so you can come close to your neighbor and not feel frightened. I learned that when someone at my husband’s workplace organized a food drive, donations from a working-class neighborhood poured in, but a wealthy neighborhood was stingy, offering a fraction of the canned and dry goods that their less-well-off neighbors had contributed. Maybe this is because folks in the poorer neighborhood just get it, they really get it, and they want to help out. They’re not scared. They’re not frustrated. They’re not repelled. They’ve been there, and they see their neighbors experiencing homelessness as God does: they see them as human beings, infinitely valuable, wondrous, worthy of friendship, and liberation.
I’ve come close to seeing my neighbor this way when volunteering at the Fatted Calf Café, our monthly offering of hospitality to our neighbors. I don’t volunteer that often, because of my day job. But I made it last week, and I sat at a table and talked with a guy, not about theology or Christianity or income inequality or economic privilege or my own interesting life, but about … the Mariners. Was he a homeless guy? Sure…? I don’t know. Maybe not. None of my business. He was friendly. He wasn’t a “them.” I felt a little less self-centered, and a lot less afraid, than I usually feel.
This morning we sit here in church, with most or all of our neighbors experiencing homelessness outside of this room. Inside this room, we see a startling and disturbing image rising before us. We see the crucified Jesus. It can be hard in this graceful, minimalist room to miss him. Our eyes may be fixed on him, even, just like his kinfolk and townspeople were staring at him after he read from the Tanakh that day, in the synagogue.
What do we see when we gaze up at him? I can tell you what I see. I see the very neighbor I fear, the very person who frustrates and repels me: I see someone who experiences homelessness. Years before his death, reading in the synagogue, Jesus may still have had the opportunity to live out his whole life with his safety nets beneath him, the safety nets of an educated male member of a respectable family who could learn his father’s trade and carry his head high.
But even that day, we see him setting aside his safety nets. We see his people rising up against him when he told them what he was really about, how he really saw things, what he really wanted to do.
And by the end of his life, which is depicted so gruesomely in front of us today, he has lost everything. His friends have fled. He is dying the humiliating death of a criminal, writhing high on a pole as a warning to others who might be considering doing what he did with his life.
He chose to do the following: “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
He chose to recover the sight of insiders like us, so that we could look through his eyes at our neighbors outside this room. He chose to expand our vision of God’s Kingdom to include every living person, even and especially those we fear, those whom we find repellent or repugnant. And because of this choice, life was able to flourish, a new community filled with life, and love, and food, and blankets. We find him in the synagogue today, proclaiming what his ministry is all about. Later, in the Acts of the Apostles, we see the loving community that emerged in his name, a loving community that grew and flourished, and finds its way into this room, by way of this Table, a table set for all.
He rises above us now, our eyes fixed on him. He invites us to let go of our fears. He proclaims life that defeats death.
Today this Good News can be fulfilled in our hearing.
Biblical Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10 Psalm 71:1-6 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Luke 4:14-30 (the verses from last week’s Gospel were added because they were displaced on January 24 by the Gospel for the Conversion of St. Paul)