Accordingly, I present today the sermon I delivered on October 19, 2003 at Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ. I was reminded of this particular sermon after sharing time and conversation with a homeless man at a Minneapolis bus stop yesterday.
By Michael J. Bayly
Spirit of the Lakes United of Christ
October 19, 2003
By Lilla Watson
If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought to Jesus a blind man whom they begged Jesus to touch. Jesus took the man by the hand and led him out out of the village; and when Jesus had put saliva on the man’s eyes and laid hands on him, Jesus asked, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes again; and the man looked intently and his sight was restored and he saw everything clearly.
By Michael J. Bayly
I have somewhat of an affinity for the Jesus presented in Mark’s gospel. Mark’s Jesus is a driven individual. There’s an almost breathless insistence to Mark’s narrative and Jesus is the driving force at the epicenter of one whirlwind of activity after another – so much so that at one point his friends “lay hold on him,” thinking, “He is beside himself.”
If one wants to get theological about it, Mark’s gospel reflects what is called a “low Christology” – one which emphasizes the humanity, even the fallibility of Jesus. In today’s reading, for instance, Jesus doesn’t quite get it right in his first attempt at restoring the sight of the blind man of Bethsaida. Elsewhere in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is roughed-up by a crowd in his hometown.
John’s gospel, on the other hand, emphasizes Jesus divinity, his otherworldliness. Accordingly, there’s never any mention of the use of bodily fluids in John’s accounts of Jesus’ healing work. And in Nazareth, Jesus mysteriously slips through the hostile crowd without even so much as a finger being laid upon him.
One of the most insightful commentaries I’ve read on the Gospel of Mark was written by Australian punk rocker Nick Cave – lead singer of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. “The Christ the Church offers us,” writes Nick, “denies Christ his humanity, offering up a figure that we can perhaps ‘praise’ but to whom we can never relate.”
“The essential humanness of Mark’s Christ,” continues Nick, “provides us with a blueprint for our own lives, so that we have something we can aspire to, rather than revere, [something] that can lift us free of the mundanity of our experiences, rather than affirming the notion that we are lowly and unworthy. Merely to praise Christ in his perfectness keeps us on our knees, with our heads pitifully bent. Christ came as a liberator . . . and it was through his example that he gave our imagination the freedom to rise and to fly. In short, to be Christlike.”
I resonate with the words of this punk rocker as I too relate to a more human understanding of Christ. I too connect with a Jesus who knew suffering, struggle, and doubt in his life, yet who nevertheless continued to strive to express God’s unconditional love through pro-active and compassionate engagement with all whom he came into contact.
Yet Mark’s gospel not only tells us something about the nature of Jesus. It also has something to say about the nature of the journey by which we become Christlike – that often lifelong journey whereby we become conduits and expressions of that same transforming and liberating power that our brother Jesus embodied when he walked the dusty roads of the Middle East.
And as our scripture reading today illustrates, such a journey requires more than one attempt. It’s a process – often long and arduous – and comprised of various stages of insight we must go through before we can begin to see clearly.
It’s also a journey that we undertake both individually and collectively. Jesus walked and interacted with the blind man and the townspeople of Bethsaida. Indeed, the blind man was called to be an active participant in his own transformation. He had to respond to Jesus, and Jesus had to ask the right questions and listen to the response in order to proceed further. In a very real way, the blind man’s participation was crucial in helping Jesus become Christ, in helping Jesus incarnate and send forth the transforming sacred power that lay deep within him and which lies deep within each one of us.
How do we recognize and tap into this sacred power, this Christ within us?
Who are the people we walk with, interact with, who call us to recognize, welcome, and bring this power to birth through our words and actions?
The answers, I know, are many and varied. Yet this morning I’d like to share with you how my interaction with folks in the Families Moving Forward program have helped me recognize the embodiment of this transforming sacred power, this Christ, in both myself and others.
As you know, Families Moving Forward (FMF) is an emergency housing program for families here in the Twin Cities. It’s a model that uses one facility for the Day Center, and churches for the overnight hosting of homeless families. FMF is a free service – one that as well as providing emergency shelter for homeless families, also offers support and counseling in setting goals, getting jobs, finding affordable housing, locating household furnishings, and developing family budgets.
Four times a year folks from Spirit of the Lakes partner with members of Lyndale United Church of Christ to serve as hosts for families in the program when they stay for one week at Lyndale UCC. Our last involvement with this program was in June – an involvement which I used as the basis for an “immersion experience” which I had to undertake as part of my studies at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
My “immersion” into FMF involved being one of several “evening hosts” and the sole “overnight host” for three nights. With the other evening hosts from Lyndale UCC and Spirit of the Lakes, I prepared and served the evening meals and cleaned-up afterwards. Later, we helped with childcare and/or assisted parents make packed lunches for the next day.
As the overnight host my duties were to ensure a safe environment during the night, provide a presence in case of any emergency situation, and to ensure that families were up by 6:30 a.m. the following morning for breakfast and the arrival of the bus which transports them to the Day Center. In June, FMF was accommodating seven families – four of which were housed at Lyndale UCC.
My intention from the beginning of my immersion experience with FMF was to interview members of the guest families, yet I soon realized that the families needed to get to know and trust me before I could start asking questions. Most volunteers come and stay for one or two “duties” – meal preparation, meal serving, childcare, overnight host, etc. I was different in that I stayed for three nights in a row and participated in all the various duties. The families genuinely appreciated this. They liked the stability of seeing a person they recognized each afternoon when they arrived from the Day Center – the same person they’d say goodnight to and who would greet them first thing in the morning. This consistency was especially helpful for the children.
For my part, I appreciated and enjoyed my time with the families. I got to know them in much deeper ways over the three days than if I had volunteered for a meal or one evening of serving as overnight host. If nothing else, this experience has shown me that volunteering for a short period of time, as important as it is, does not always allow one to really walk with others and share in their situation to any great degree. I’m acutely aware, however, that given the hectic nature of our way of life, not everyone can afford the time to do what I was able to do in June.
During this time I also soon realized that compassionate, transforming engagement with others is often most powerfully experienced through the simplest of things. For instance, immediately after dinner, I’d take the children over to the park opposite Lyndale UCC where we would enjoy the wading pool. Splashing around with the laughing children and talking informally with their mothers, I soon gained the trust of parents and children alike. Again, my continual presence aided in this immensely. As well, I genuinely enjoyed the time I spent with them – not only as a “volunteer helper,” but as a friend, as someone learning with them as we walked together.
By the time of my last evening with the program, each of the mothers was happy to sit down and be interviewed by me about their experiences of being homeless. The different responses I received were very insightful, and with help today from others within our community, I’ll share some of them with you.
My name is Rebecca and I’m here with my five children. We came to Minneapolis from Chicago last November. We initially stayed with a cousin until this relative’s boyfriend got very violent. We came into the Families Moving Forward program in February. It is our first time in a homeless shelter though I’ve known homeless folks before and so know that those who are homeless are often just ordinary folks. It’s depressing to have to be at the shelter at certain times. It’s very regimented – though it does provide services that we need.
My name is Laura and I’m here with my infant daughter Rose. My daughter’s father left the state after we broke-up last December. At first I moved in with a friend who helped with daycare. That fell through, however, as my friend couldn’t get paid by the county. I then lost both my jobs. We stayed with family for a while before getting into the Families Moving Forward program. Not many places accept a parent with only one child. At Mary Jo Copeland’s place, you have to have more than two children to get in. With only one child, I had to fight for a spot here.
Having a child with me while experiencing homelessness is the hardest part of my situation. As a teenager I knew homelessness but I could handle it then. I could easily move from friend’s place to friend’s place. Having a child, however, is hard – for both of us.
I think that this country is being built on the backs of the poor and homeless. The amount the government spends on the military is stupid, and George W. Bush seems more concerned about what’s going on over in Iraq than here. He wants to bully the rest of the world while everything here goes down hill – nothing for schools, nothing for homeless people. Things are messed up.
My name is Linda and I’m here with my three children. After my divorce, my children and I went from being very wealthy to being very poor. Being poor and homeless is like having a great glass jar put over you – there’s no room to breathe or move. You can look out at everything but can’t do anything.
We took a 30-hour bus ride from New York to Minneapolis and ended up in a downtown shelter for one month. We hated it. We then stayed briefly with a friend. In January, I sent the children to stay with their grandmother for five months, while I stayed at Harbor Lights Shelter in downtown Minneapolis with my boyfriend. The place was filled with crackheads, prostitutes, and addicts. You had to take everything with you – you couldn’t leave anything at the shelter during the day. You also had to sleep on all your possessions at night; otherwise they’d be stolen.
With my children gone, my boyfriend was the only thing that kept me going. Yet even so I once considered jumping off a bridge. When my children came back to me, I left Harbor Lights. We lived day-by-day – one night at a hotel, one night with friends – never knowing if we’d be sleeping under a bridge the following night. Via the Dignity Center we got into the Families Moving Forward program.
Families Moving Forward is a hundred times better than anything we’ve been in. The main problem is that you just get used to one host church and then you have to move on to the next one.
After being unemployed for seven months, I recently secured a good-paying job. Yet I had to start at a time early in the morning when no buses were running to my work site. I attempted to get transportation assistance – money for a taxi. The man I spoke to at the county was harsh and cold – and kept looking at his watch. He suggested I get another job.
My experience of poverty and homelessness has given me a unique compassion for poor and homeless people. I now see things that most people can’t see. I’ve become very knowing when it comes to recognizing signs of poverty and homelessness. People experiencing such things usually aren’t dressed in rags and asking for money on street corners. Because of this new awareness I’ve become more thankful for my situation – for the fact that things are improving. I see God as a loving father who has gotten me and my children through some very difficult times.
My conversations with the homeless mothers at FMF reminded me of writer and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich and her book, Nickel and Dimed (On Not Getting By in America). The book documents her experiences of going undercover and attempting to make ends meet while working at various low-income jobs – including a stint at a Wal-Mart here in Minneapolis.
When Ehrenreich was a guest on a Minnesota Public Radio morning show she was confronted by an irate listener who criticized her for referring to some Americans as “poor.” From this caller’s perspective there were no people living in poverty in America as he equated poverty only with the starving masses in Africa and India. Such a lack of understanding confirms just how invisible many of the poor and homeless are in the United States. Yet according to Ehrenreich, the problem “isn’t the ‘invisible poor’; it’s the vision-impaired rich.”
“As many have noted,” she writes, “these fortunates inhabit an increasingly insular world of their own, far from the customary venues of the poor or even the working class. They live in fortress-like apartment buildings, gated communities, or inaccessible exurbs. They do not use public transportation and are unlikely to send their children to public schools.”
This type of isolation means that the fact that a substantial number of those living in homeless shelters are actually working, never gets out there and, thus, never helps undermine the stereotypical notions many have of the poor. Indeed, the term “the working poor” is probably foreign to many people.
Yet according to Ehrenreich and others, the working poor comprise a sizable number of the U.S. working population. These are people employed in low-paying or minimal wage jobs and who, as a result, are simply never able to get a foundation, a footing, so as to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
My immersion experience with the homeless in the Families Moving Forward program helped put a very human face to a group of people largely, if not totally, invisible to many. It also reaffirmed my belief that God speaks to us through our openness to the experiences of others, and that our responses to one another’s stories are capable of manifesting that loving and sacred power spoken about earlier.
I used to think that my volunteering with such programs was being like Jesus helping some unfortunate individuals. I’ve come to realize that more often than not, it’s those I’ve come to “help” who serve as the vision-giving Christ for me.
Their stories are as real, as human and, at times, as uncomfortable as the presence of saliva. Yet these stories have helped opened my eyes. I don’t see stereotypes before me – things that, like walking tress, may look a little like people – I see real people. I see them clearly as my brothers and sisters, bearers of that same sacred love deep within me. And through listening to their stories I see clearly the deep dysfunction of our society – one that keeps so many of our brethren in poverty.
Such listening requires us to go out of our way – to step outside our consumerist-driven society and walk with others, like Jesus, on the dusty roads outside of the hectic towns.
So let us this day and every day, seek out opportunities whereby we walk not only with those accepted and valued by our society, but also with those whom our society renders invisible.
Let us walk, then, with punk rockers and homeless mothers, with anarchist activists and corporate executives.
Let us walk together, each of us part-healer, each of us part-blind.
Let us journey together, trusting that we have what it takes to be for one another both bearers and receivers of sight-giving, transforming powers; to be for one another bearers and receivers of Christ.
We have in place within our community [of Spirit of the Lakes] two structured opportunities for such potentially sacred interaction – Loaves and Fishes and FMF. The invitation to journey is held by each of these initiatives, and there are many already on the road who will welcome our presence. Let us journey together. Amen.
– Michael J. Bayly
October 19, 2003
October 19, 2003
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• What We Can Learn from the Story of the Magi: A Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany
• Praying for George W. Bush
• Soul Deep
• Somewhere In Between