Friday, September 9, 2016

August 21, Sermon by Rev. Paul Gaffney, Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy

Isaiah 58:9b-14Psalm 103:1-8Hebrews 12:18-29Luke 13:10-17

Billy was dying, it was clear. His body had shriveled to nearly nothing and his skin stretched tight against his skeleton, eyes sunken and ribs pushing out, clearly defined. He couldn’t eat anymore, and the cancer that had infected his liver had spread to his stomach leaving him in a truly miserable state.

I’d wheel him out to the patio behind the convalescent hospital where we would sit together, him clutching his cigarette between yellowed, gaunt fingers, and me struggling to find any words of peace to share with him.

About a month before he died, a few of his friends signed him out on a day pass. Now, Billy was an elder (a young elder at that, being only 47 when he died) in a group of pretty rough and tumble folks. These are not people who would ever stay at Mill Street or in the REST program, as they prefer the freedom of sleeping outside and are uncomfortable sleeping in enclosed spaces with so many others. They are rebellious and loud; dirty and untamed.

Billy himself was well known as a drug user, and he looked after a number of young people who shared his particular vice. So, I was a bit concerned when I heard that they were planning a BBQ for him in a local park. I was even more concerned when, 2 days later, I got a call from hospice that Billy hadn’t checked back into the convalescent hospital.

I went out, asked around, and discovered that he was staying on the floor in a room at a young man’s mother’s house – a room that had become a crash pad for a number of homeless young people who had been offered sanctuary unbeknownst to the young man’s mother. I arrived there one morning to find Billy on a mat on the floor, surrounded by his closest friends, watching cartoons.

“I guess you’re here to kidnap me back to that hospital,” he said.
I was all at once relieved and frustrated. Doesn’t he know what’s best for him? I had to somehow convince him to get back to the nursing home. He was far too sick to be laying on a dirty floor with God knows who doing God knows what.
His friends excitedly told me about the BBQ, with over 50 people in attendance, everyone there to love and honor Billy. “I never saw him eat so much,” one of them told me. “He was so bright, and so happy – he had more energy than I’d seen in him in months,” another said.

In that moment, any anger or worry or fear that I was feeling melted away as I digested this profound teaching. Billy could not die alone, closed up in an institution with its cold machines and medical professionals – at least not without first being fed, clothed, and sheltered by the love of his friends. In him, in that moment, I saw a glimpse of myself, needing freedom and love, needing to feel held in the face of the dark finality of death.

“I’m not here to kidnap you, Billy,” I said, “I’m just here to make sure you’re OK. The hospital and hospice are worried about you, because they haven’t heard from you in a couple of days.”

“Screw them,” Billy said, “I’m going to go take a bath.”

The truth is, I did want to kidnap him back to that convalescent hospital. But there in that moment, I had to fight my reaction to the filth and the fear that I saw and felt and work to trust the faith that I profess and that Billy and his friends were invoking between each other to create healing and wholeness. Because there are many ways to heal and be healed. And this healing can arise and manifest in so many unexpected ways.

We helped him to his feet, and for the first time since he got sick, we saw him walk…by himself…to the bathroom, run the water, and sink into the tub.
My phone rang, and it was the hospice social worker. I couldn’t tell him where Billy was, only that he was OK, and when I shared the story of Billy’s adventure and mentioned that he was taking a bath the social worker laughed out loud. “Wow. Well, I guess he had some things to take of, didn’t he?” The social worker explained to me the implications of Billy’s disappearance – Medicare was paying hospice to care for him, and if they didn’t have access to him, they would have to discontinue their service. I shared this concern with Billy and he said, “You know, I haven’t taken a bath in over 10 years. I’m just going to enjoy this right now. These guys, they are giving me more than anyone has.”

Billy knew what he needed more than hospice, more than medical care. He needed to feel warm water on his jaundiced skin and the love of his closest friends in his weakened but still-beating heart.

Later that night, his friends did call hospice, and Billy had to go back to the hospital. His decline from that point was swift, and his death was peaceful. At his memorial service, one after the other, his friends stood up and told story after story about how Billy had helped to heal them.  “15 years ago, when that hillside burned, I was down in town but Billy was still up on the hill,” one of his friends said with tears in his eyes, “He went to my camp and saved all of my stuff. He put it on his back and carried it all the way down. Up and down that hill he went, until everything I owned was safe.”
A woman stood up and said, “I had just lost my apartment, and everything I owned was stacked up next to me on the sidewalk. I had to get it to my storage, but I was just a wreck, standing there crying. Well, Billy pulled up just then on his bike, pulling that trailer of his. He loaded everything of mine onto his trailer and pedaled it all the way to my storage unit. I’ll never forget that.”

And another woman shared, “On really cold nights, Billy would let me stay in his tent with him. He was a perfect gentleman. We would just talk about life or movies or whatever. I felt comfortable with him. Safe.”

I’ve never witnessed a healing like the one in this morning’s gospel reading. But healing happens in so many different ways. And I can honestly say that I tend to identify more with the religious leader in this story than with Jesus or the crippled woman, or even the rejoicing crowd.

I mean, even Billy’s friends knew how to heal him, and I was wanting to tell them to save it for another day, to ask permission to do the work of healing that they didn’t even see as real work. I wanted them to see him in his illness, his fragility, but they just kept calling him closer, blessing him, laying their hands on him, inviting him into healing. Quenching the thirst of his suffering.

A friend of mine posted a meme to my Facebook wall that read:
“I was hungry and you formed a humanities club to discuss my hunger. I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly to your chapel and prayed for my release. I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health. I was homeless and you preached to me of the spiritual shelter of the love of God. I was lonely and you left me alone to go and pray for me. You seem so holy, so close to God. But I’m still very hungry and lonely and cold.”

Poor people, especially people who live outside, make us uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable to walk out of a restaurant and see hunger staring us in the face in the form of a disheveled, desperate person. It is uncomfortable to walk out of a clothing boutique and see a person dressed in rags.

Signs in shopping centers discourage us from giving money to panhandlers, inviting us instead to give to agencies incorporated to provide services to them. “If you wish to discourage solicitors from interrupting you,” one sign outside a local supermarket reads, “we simply suggest you ignore them.”

Ignorance is the easiest way to avoid interruption. If I don’t pay attention to it, maybe it will go away. Or even if it doesn’t, it’s not my job to deal with it.
It is difficult to look at suffering. Even more difficult to invite those who are suffering into the center of our religious experience. Better for them to stay at the edges, on the margins, so that they do not disrupt our peaceful worship.
It sure doesn’t feel like a day of rest if I have to work out my feelings – those indignant feelings that arise when someone calls attention to something or someone that I don’t want to look at. Something or someone that I have easily ignored for months or years.

Something gets threatened when someone whom I have understood to be broken, wounded, or ill suddenly becomes whole, healed, and healthy.
What is that thing that is threatened? Could it be that we somehow want or need people to be broken, wounded, or ill?
How does our system work to keep people in their place? How does our system actively work to keep people broken, wounded, and ill?

It requires a certain amount of work to really engage these questions, and a willingness to admit that I am so deeply entrenched in the way things are that I am usually absolutely unable to see how I play a part in the problem.
Poor people are the least valued people in our culture. Even in the church, I was raised hearing using adages like “There but for the grace of God go I…” There is this implication in that statement that God’s grace touches some, but not all of us. That somehow, God blesses me with abundance while others are left with nothing.
The woman in Luke’s story just shows up, probably exactly how she has for years. She doesn’t come looking for anything. Most likely, she wants to stay in the back, unnoticed – not that the people in her congregation pay her much notice anyway.
But Jesus sees her. And as she moves through the crowd to stand with him, the margin where she spent the last 18 years moves with her. The edge of the circle, by Jesus’ invitation, becomes the new center.

This is upsetting to the way that things have always been. Those people have always occupied the margins, the edges. And for the religious authorities, the ones who are working to keep things as they have always been, this is unthinkable and terribly inconvenient.
“We are trying to have a restful worship experience here! This isn’t how things are done! There are six other days in the week to do the work of healing! Come back some other time!”

But Jesus’ response is profound – Healing is not work. Healing is like leading a thirsty animal to water. It is simple. Intuitive. Someone seen in their suffering does not even need to ask for healing. Through being seen and touched and blessed, healing arises and moves all on its own. From God through the Spirit. No work required by us. And there are so many different ways to heal and be healed.
The work of the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy is geared toward the recognition of the inherent value of all of us together. We want to move away from the model of charity and toward an enlargement of community. Toward a new way of being with each other in the world where no one is the least.

The centerpiece of The Street Chaplaincy is a Tuesday gathering that we call “Wellness.” Each week, we gather for hospitality, reflection, silence, prayer, and conversation. Everyone is welcome, and nothing is required. We sit together in a circle in a borrowed church social hall and hold space, doing our best to be who we truly are. There are homeless folks, housed folks, addicts, retired clergy, mental health consumers, lay monastics, and volunteers from local churches (you all join us on the first Tuesday of each month),

Everyone holding space for each other as we share silence, prayer, and reflections. 
20 chairs are set out in a circle. A rack of chairs at the door.
12 of us in the opening circle outside.

We burn sage together, and welcome each other.
Then inside, we sit in our seats, ring a bell.
Sometimes I close my eyes. I open them. The chairs are filling up.
We pass a feather around the circle.
Whomever holds the feather offers their prayer. Silently or aloud.
More people arrive. The 20 chairs are full.
We move back to make space for each other.
The feather passes through many hands.
All the while, there are sounds coming from the kitchen.
The dinner is being prepared. More people arrive.
The circle has doubled, tripled in size.  
I share a text.
We invite discussion, and we share from our experiences.
What do these words mean to us?

The most unpredictable people, when invited into simple ritual, the opportunity to hold space for others, and the experience of being surrounded by people holding space for them, can offer wonderfully enlightening insights.
Over the course of the dinner, the group can swell to over 75 people. The church where we meet has a huge commercial kitchen, and a couple of folks from the group who have extensive cooking experience offered to be our lead chefs.
Communion is something that is very important to me. It’s not so much the symbols of bread and wine that hold particular meaning, but the idea of sharing sustenance in the form of food around a common table. This act of eating together is so very human, so very necessary, and it allows an opportunity for us to relate with each other in a very intimate way.

Tuesday Wellness Dinner is our communion – we share this meal to remember that we are worthy of care, that we are held and loved, that through the great effort that was put into the preparation of the food by a few, all of us receive its benefits.
The salads that you bring, the cookies that you bake, the smile and the presence you offer – are all sacraments, sacred elements which are vehicles for healing.
Because there are so many different ways to heal and be healed.

Every Tuesday, we welcome those from the edges to hold the center of the circle. We do this together, because none of us can do it alone.
We simply see each other in the various ways that we show up:
Broken, whole, wounded, healing, ill, well, angry, sad, joyful
And we invite each other into our collective healing
as simple as offering a drink of water
as profound as a spoken blessing
an invitation into wholeness
and everyone is welcome
Join us, won’t you?


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