Sermon by The Rev. Kathy McAdams
January 12, 2020 - The Baptism of our Lord / 1st Sun after Epiphany
St John’s Episcopal Church, Franklin, MA
Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River marked the beginning of his ministry on earth. The Holy Spirit empowered him with the gifts necessary to carry out that ministry. The heavens opened to him and God’s voice was heard, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Just as Jesus’ baptism links his identity (the “beloved Son”) with his mission or vocation (to “bring forth justice”), our own baptism reminds us of who we are and what we are about. Baptism marks a reorientation of our lives to be God-centered, a turning away from evil and a turning toward Christ. The whole body of baptized believers is called into a life of oblation, of lives offered to God in servanthood. We Baptized Christians are all called to live sanctified lives, to offer ourselves for God’s purpose, for God’s justice, to God’s people. We have all been given different gifts, and our particular Christian vocations are found at the place where our own gifts and passions meet the needs of the world. Everything we do in our lives as Christians springs from these baptismal waters.
During the time I served common cathedral, there was an occasion when six members of our community decided to reaffirm their Baptismal Covenant. We spent three weeks of preparation talking about what Baptism means to them, and what they understand to be their covenant with God. This is the covenant they wrote, and with which they renewed their vows with God:
“I will be open to the Holy Spirit’s movement in my life; to rely on God’s power and grace; to trust God deeply and to not give up; and to believe that God never gives up on me. I will strive to see other people for who they are – children of God, instead of what I want them to be; to love and treat them as I would be loved and treated; and when divisions arise, to seek reconciliation with God and with other people. I will be Christ’s hands, heart and feet in the world, spreading the Good News of God’s love through word and actions.”
These words, and the conversations that we had over those three weeks, tell me that these people know themselves as beloved to God, and that God is indeed well-pleased with them.
That’s why it’s so ironic, the questions I used to hear from people when I would tell them that I worked with a homeless ministry in Boston. The questions from these very well-meaning people who have never experienced homelessness, nor been in relationship with people who have revolved around why the people are homeless, and what the quick fix might be. They asked questions such as, “Are they just lazy?”, “Don’t they choose to live that way?”, “Why can’t they find work?” “Many of them look perfectly able to work; do they need job training?” In the mind of the general public, the answer to homelessness is work. In America, we’ve been engrained with the Horatio Alger ethic that says we should all be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get over whatever obstacle has temporarily befallen us. And truthfully, miraculously, many people do that every day. These are the people with whom most of us probably never interact, because they are homeless for only a short period of time. They were perhaps living close to the edge already - paycheck to paycheck - then suffered a lay-off, an injury or illness, a divorce, a death in the family, or a house fire. With the support of family, friends, church and community, they have recovered from their malady and gotten back on their feet. They may have used the emergency shelter system for a short time, and eaten free meals in churches, but they always knew that this was a temporary situation for them. Within a matter of weeks or months, they were back at work and back at “home.” These people actually account for the majority of those who are included in homelessness statistics, but they use only a small percentage of the allocated resources. And, they are not the people we think of when we talk about “the homeless.”
Most of the people in the common cathedral community have come to own that label of “homeless.” They are far beyond those first weeks or months. In fact, many of them have lived on the streets or in shelters for many years. Homelessness has become their identity and their way of life. There are many reasons why they lost their homes in the first place – some of the reasons already mentioned above. But for them, there may have been added tragedy – loved ones killed in an accident, perhaps an accident that they feel responsible for; there may have been repeated childhood abuse that continued into adult relationships (for women, this is almost always a factor in homelessness). Usually, when someone ends up on the streets for years, there are multiple reasons. For example, a house fire that resulted not only in loss of home, but disability and loss of family members, for a person who was already struggling with depression. The depression itself did not land them on the streets, but compounded by other losses, it was too much to handle. Depression became despair, and the most apparent way to cope was to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. If a person doesn’t have family, church, or community support to carry them through such a tragedy, it is hard to imagine them landing anywhere else but on Boston Common – not on their feet, but on their knees.
I think we all, as a society, and especially as the Body of Christ, have some culpability in the fact that people sleep on the streets. We have let our economy become one where even people who do have a steady income – whether from work, disability insurance, or public assistance – cannot afford a safe, decent place to live. The solution to homelessness is housing – safe, affordable, stable housing. It should be available to every human being, regardless if they are able to work, regardless if they have physical, mental or addiction-related disabilities. Housing is a basic human right. If our families, churches and communities were better safety nets, and were willing to carry people even when they can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps, even when they are dealing with things we don’t like to talk about – alcoholism, mental illness, or poverty; if we would model our actions after God’s economy, where Grace is freely given and never earned, then none of us would have to experience homelessness. And let me be clear that any of us, including me, could become homeless sometime in our lives!
Think for a moment what “home” means to you. (pause) “Home” is a place that offers physical comfort – that is warm and dry and nurturing, a space that you might share with people you love, where you can lock the world out or lock your stuff in, where you can feel safe and can keep your belongings safe, where you can have privacy. It’s a place that you can decorate the way you like - as an expression of your identity - and where you can entertain guests. Now, imagine for a moment what it would be like to not have such a place, not to have “home.” (pause)
In addition to stable housing, another basic human need is community. Common cathedral is about forming supportive spiritual community to help people rise above the despair and hopelessness that they feel so that they can advocate for themselves to receive these basic necessities. Common cathedral’s ministers meet them where they are – on the streets – and try to help them find some hope through witnessing to them of God’s love. The ministers, volunteers, and partner congregations build relationships with the poorest people of Boston, to walk with them on their journey, and to be the embracing, loving family that they need. Everyone needs a place where they are known by name, and where they can feel safe, loved and valued. Just like St John’s is that place for many of you, common cathedral is that “place”, that spiritual home, that family in which people who have experienced homelessness for a long time can begin to find hope for a better life.
Common cathedral is not supported by the Episcopal Diocese or any denomination’s governing body. It is an independent, ecumenical ministry, completely dependent upon our generosity. If you are so inclined, please drop something in our second collection today, to help sustain this important witness of God’s love.