Christ the King/Reign of Christ/Proper 29A
When I was Homeless, by Pastor Fred Kinsey
There’s no way you can’t feel something, when I say that word. It’s almost worse than the pejorative phrase we sometimes use: the problem of homelessness. And though the vast majority of us here have never been homeless – and I want to be sensitive to those that have – it’s hard for any of us not to feel something, even if it’s just in reaction to the concept of homelessness, and not from firsthand experience.
For example, we might feel, guilty, because, right here in the streets we walk, we continually encounter people who are homeless, not usually naked as in Jesus’ day, but certainly hungry or thirsty or sick. We might feel, angry. Angry for a variety of reasons: angry that we don’t do better as a society to curb or solve homelessness. Angry at the homeless person, thinking they should pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get a job. Or angry at ourselves for feeling guilty for not doing anything. And we may feel, numb, or depressed, about homelessness – we see it, but have become indifferent and jaded. I have gone through all these feelings since moving back to Chicago seven years ago, and have shared some of my stages of grief with you along the way.
But if you’ve done any reading about homelessness recently, your feelings may have been shaken-up about it! There’s a new, wide ranging study showing that, housing the homeless first, is the best way to turn people around from homelessness. Most people – most care givers and social workers even – have assumed that the root problem of homelessness, and the thing you have to address first is, addiction problems, or mental illness, or job training. Take care of these, and then the “homeless” may be ready to take responsibility for… a home.
But since 2010, when the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development launched its new program, “Opening Doors,” the country’s first comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness, those cities that have implemented it have seen “significant progress in spite of tough economic times”. Even in Detroit – but other cities in the U.S., and in Europe too – significant drops in the homeless population are being reported.
This is, counter-intuitive, compared to the way we’ve always done it. But yes, the program works, this study shows: give a homeless person a home, and then addressing the issues of addiction, mental health, and a job, are much more successful, as well. Whereas, doing it the way we’ve always done it before, it turns out, only enables homelessness to continue. That is, the way of providing emergency services – like food kitchens, shelters, even jobs – only keeps people coming back regularly, for continuous, and ongoing, “emergency” care.
Homelessness! Maybe we can actually begin to feel more hopeful about homelessness, knowing one thing that actually works to end it.
On this last Sunday of the Church Year, as we talk about the end, the time when the Son of Man comes to restore justice, we know one or two things about God. Our God, is a God of love, welcoming all and establishing a kingdom that does not tolerate injustice – the goats. As early as the prophet Ezekiel, whom we heard from this morning, we know this to be true:
As shepherds seek out their flocks … among their scattered sheep, [says the Lord GOD] so I will seek out my sheep... I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed [my sheep] with justice.
And, these past two weeks, reading from the parables of Jesus in chapter 25 of Matthew, have made us aware of who God is, too, and made us ready for this story of the Son of Man’s coming. Our God never forgets us, while also, never forgetting the evil in the world, too. Jesus opens our eyes to a God who acts in history, supporting us. This God rules from a kingdom not of this world, but which now, through sending us God’s Son, has given us a tangible, and world changing symbol, we can never forget – the crucified Jesus, is Christ the King – a Savior who lives in us, and strengthens us, at the feast of victory at Christ’s table. The love of God we know in Jesus, is a subversive message for a fallen world, a world we too often cede to the evil trickster, that noxious and invasive species. But in God, we now know, there is no death. Death does not have the last word. But the living God, lives through us, like God lived in Jesus, the Son. For truly I tell you, said Jesus, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family – the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger from another land, the naked, the sick or the imprisoned – you did it to me.
So where is the face of the living Christ to be found? Not usually in the beautiful people adorning the glossy magazines at the checkout counter, but in those who are forgotten or considered less than. Helping the homeless, the hungry, the sick or imprisoned, and welcoming those from far away, is what we do as the children of God, because we are a part of Christ’s family.
Jesus knows that a world of justice and love cannot be found in Institutions that become fat and strong, as Ezekiel said, at the expense of the hungry and sick and imprisoned. Institutions are not people, and yet they live on endlessly. Institutions are used by people, either for good or ill – like sheep and goats. And, as we know, there are false gods that continue to crop up in every age, and often clothe themselves in sheep’s clothing, but are ravenous wolves.
The Toronto artist Timothy Schmalz is famous for having created a bronze sculpture of a homeless Jesus. “[As a Christian,] I’m very sensitive about the stereotypes that people have of Christianity,” said Schmalz of his work, “so I wanted to give a fresh presentation.” The statue, is of a homeless Jesus, huddled under a blanket, lying on a park bench, his pierced feet sticking out.
When Schmalz’s statue was first displayed, there were a few complaints. Some people felt uncomfortable, and instead of recognizing that as a good thing, that it might be an image strong enough to evoke passion and thus have the possibility to change and transform us, they demanded it be taken down. Others thought it was blasphemous against the church. So apparently, Jesus, just being Jesus, was offensive, and they actually called the police on Jesus! And yet, said Jesus, when you help the homeless, you help members of my family… and me. After being rejected from both St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, his bronze Jesus finally found a resting place at a Jesuit school in Toronto, willing to risk it.
Our hope is in the one with the counter-cultural message, who counters the evil of this world, the bad stuff, wrapped-up in pretty packages. Handing out housing for free, no doubt looks like one of “those” packages to some, which makes it counter-intuitive that it’s the real deal. But in some cities around the world where the “Opening Doors” program has been found to work, it’s now being renamed as, “House Led,” because it’s more descriptive of the good news, that housing the homeless first, works.
And they’re also beginning to recognize that housing is, a basic human right. What that means for us as believers is, it’s not cheap grace, or pie in the sky, but more like the glory of Christ the King on his throne, God’s grace – which is free too – actually working in our world, a heavenly gift of the power of Christ, living, and incarnated, here, a presence that is, one and the same, with the one who is our host at the table. When you do it to one of the least of these, you do it to me, said Jesus. That is the realm and the kingdom I want to live in too – the inheritance of all the followers of Christ the King!