Sermon: Sunday, 17 November 2013

Sermon for 17 November 2013, Proper 28, Year C

The Rev. Theo Park

A printable PDF file of this sermon is available here: 20131117 - Proper 28, Year C - The Rev. Theo Park

"Will work for food.” "I just need change for the bus.." "Can you help a hungry old lady out?" "Can I bum a smoke?"

We’ve all heard such words at least once. Do you remember the last time you encountered a homeless person? How did you react? Did you look away? Did you ignore them as if they were invisible? Or worse, did you think something hurtful like "...get a job."?

Today is set aside as a sabbath to remember the homeless. It’s not an official feast of the church, but I think it’s appropriate for the followers of someone whom our tradition tells us began his life as a homeless refugee and who spent his ministry “without a place to lay his head.”

So. The homeless — we see them in all the so-called obvious places: at freeway exits holding hand-lettered signs, on shady public-park benches, standing in lines outside social service facilities waiting for food or shelter. What goes through our heads—and our hearts—during these encounters?

It's difficult to come face-to-face with such profound suffering and not have a strong reaction. With every homeless person you encounter, understand that there is most likely a very long and sad story. Nobody wakes up one morning and decides to be homeless. You just are.

What does homelessness and lack of decent housing mean to the churches in twenty-first century Minneapolis? There’s a resource sheet with your bulletins this morning that gives you statistics. These are collected in Minnesota every three years by the Wilder foundation. It’s eye-opening information on the basic stories of homelessness. I won’t cite them to you; you can study them for yourselves.

We know how local and central government are responding— there’s information about that too on the resource sheet— but what do the churches have to say - is there anything distinctive about our response? What is our vision?

The central Christian message is that as God loves us, whoever and whatever we are, so we are called to love God. But Jesus commands more. The Gospel of Matthew has Jesus cite the Torah—his scripture—and say this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Everything in the Torah and the prophets is secondary to these.”

Love: that is, care about; that is, honor; that is, see to the needs of your neighbor just as you would do these things for yourself. Who is our neighbor? Again from Matthew we read that Jesus directs us to see our neighbor in anyone in need and in that person to see Christ himself. “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. Truly I tell you, just as you do it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you do it to me.”

What is it that are we called to do? Now I’ll turn to Isaiah, the prophet Jesus seems to have quoted the most. “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?"

In our baptismal covenant we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons. And so we are called to bring new hope and opportunity in an atmosphere of unconditional love and compassion so that those who are broken-hearted and wounded can rebuild damaged lives.

We promise to respect the dignity of every human being. And so we are called to restore the self-respect of those who have been humiliated by what has happened to them. In humility, we listen to what they want to tell us about their lives. By listening and responding in compassion, our own lives are transformed.

There is one more promise of which I would remind us: that we will strive for justice and peace among all people. And so we are called to work to bring about a change in the status quo. There are many ways to reach out and contribute to the cause of the homeless. We all have different gifts to bring. It might be in the form of practical help – preparing food for homeless people as the Shelf of Hope does every week – it might be in the form of charitable giving. But while such gifts are appreciated and can alleviate immediate need, our money will not end homelessness because our money by itself does not get at the root causes of homelessness: racism, underemployment, domestic abuse. What will end homelessness is action, and action begins with advocacy. People experiencing homelessness need a voice. That voice is us.

Churches are not simply in the business of binding up wounds – we are also called to ask awkward questions about why the wounds were inflicted in the first place. We can’t avoid raising structural and political questions about housing and homelessness. We will do that best if churches, of whatever denomination, can work together. This is why Gethsemane is a dues-paying member of the Downtown Coalitions to End Homelessness, an interfaith collaboration of 14 synagogues, mosques, and churches joined together to seek long-term solutions to the problems of through education, advocacy, and action.

When we work alongside homeless and badly housed people, we are responding to the challenge to love our neighbor, we are responding to the call to put our faith into action, we are responding to the vision of a society where everyone is valued and everyone has a home. When we work together our efforts at transformation have a better chance of success.

More work is needed at Gethsemane to make this vision— the vision of God’s kingdom—a reality. Volunteers are needed at the Shelf of Hope every Wednesday; talk to Jim Cunningham or Kathy Hoglund about how you can help. Creative problem-solvers are needed to help the Bishop’s Committee make decisions about how to use our space not only to raise income but to expand our options for reaching out to our brothers and sisters; talk to Elaine Madigan about getting involved in this way. Faith-driven religious activists are needed to contact city, state, and national representatives so that the churches may have a voice in creating a renewed society, allocating resources and dollars in ways that benefit all of us; if this moves you, talk to Lou Schoen, our representative with Downtown Coalitions. And if you are already engaged with this issue or its tangents in some other way, be sure to bring your work and your voice to the attention of this congregation that we may support you and join you.

The opportunities to get involved at any or all of these levels are many. May God grant us the strength and the vision to respond.

This sermon was created by The Rev. Theo Park for The Episcopal Church of Gethsemane, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sources are credited where applicable.

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