Helen, the Homeless and our Hospitality

A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.

Helen, the Homeless and
our Hospitality

Luke 15:11-32

July 22, 2007

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends
of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian family. While effort is
made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use
material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the
notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered.
Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore
prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written
accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

It was after worship on ASP Mission trip Sunday when a woman was
sent to me. I was heading to the church office. I could tell by
her clothes and demeanor that she was likely going to ask for some
help. (Later I found out she was sent to me by Stephanie because
she had asked to talk to the minister.) To be honest, I simply wanted
to go home. I was tired after the ASP mission week and an emotionally
charged week as we said goodbye to Sara Saunders after her fight
with cancer. I was tired simply because it was after worship and
I'm always tired. But what do you do? You deal with the person,
the opportunity, the child of God who is before you. She and I sat
down in the office. I asked the usual questions- What is your name?
Helen. Where are you from? She had lived in Charlotte for a number
of years. How did you get to Cary? She is on the way back home to
Michigan where she grew up. What do you need? Food and clothes.
Her clothes had been stolen. She was homeless. I had to tell her
that we didn't have any clothes closet here and that the agencies
that normally help are closed on Sunday. But I could buy her a meal
across the street. Wendy's or McDonalds? Wendy's. I took her over
there where I bought combination number 8, I think-a Chicken sandwich.
I also gave Helen the apples and grapes that were leftover from
our refreshments after church. But can I tell you that I felt so
inadequate and helpless to deal with her needs?

A couple of days later she showed up again at the office. This
time I brought Stephanie and Bonnie in on the conversation. What
might we do to help? I asked her where she had been sleeping. In
the woods. We thought about WIHN but that is for families…
and then Stephanie had the good idea to refer her to the Helen Wright
Center… but she didn't want to be in a homeless shelter. Stephanie
offered to drive her there. I'm not sure we could offer what she
wanted from us.

On Thursday of that week, I saw Helen again… sitting on the
bench at Trader Joes. I wondered, how had her week been… what
must it like to live like that? How many are like her…living
quietly all around us?
[1]

I share that story of Helen because I have met the homeless from
time to time at the church. Often they are transients. Some are
mentally challenged and no longer have the support of a mental health
care system. I'm sure some are looking for cash which we do not
give away. I'm sure I've been "taken" by some. Such is
the cost of grace in my book. I assume the homeless are no more
and no less sinners or saints than those who live in homes. That
is, than the rest of us.

I assume that were I homeless, I might even try some manipulating
to make ends meet. I don't know. I've never been homeless. I was
smart enough to be born into a family that was stable, living at
2818 Grand Avenue in a 1700 square foot house, with educated parents
who made sure education was a priority… who had the means to
send me to college. Man, was I smart to be born into that family!

In preparing for this sermon I learned even more about the homeless-
you can see more details in the bulletin. What jumped out to me
is that in Wake County 1235 people were counted as living in shelters
in a snapshot survey of homelessness. Another 102 like Helen were
found outdoors or living in the streets. Another 15,000 people were
living doubled up with family and friends because they couldn't
afford on minimum wage the average rent of $800 a month it takes
to live in Raleigh. Even people earning twice the minimum wage are
having a hard time finding affordable housing. Those who do often
end up spending more than half of their pretax income on rent which
means they might have a roof over their head but it comes at the
cost of food, clothing and medical care. Perhaps what really saddens
me is to realize the number of children who are homeless. 25% of
the homeless are children and youth under 18 years old. 42% of those
are under 5 years old. We see many of those children here at the
Kirk when WIHN comes to visit.

I don't think I understand how hard it must be for single mothers
and families trying to live in poverty. I know I don't understand
how close many of the working poor are to being homeless.

When I'm told that 22% of children in NC live below the poverty
line and when I learn that the poverty line for a family of three
is $17,000 a year. I wonder, how in the world do they do it?

Of course it is easy to get lost in those statistics, isn't it?
Truth is, I am getting to know more about the homeless thanks to
WIHN and my trips to places like Washington and visits to Wake Urban
ministries and people who come to the Kirk looking for help.

Like you I have seen the homeless hold the signs asking for food
on the highway exit ramps and passed by them in downtowns all over
this country. Like you, I have wondered how many are homeless because
they cannot help it and how many are homeless because they choose
to be homeless. Up close and personal I see that the statistics
seem to be true… that many are single mothers with children.
Look up close and personal and do you see what I see?

Of course, the question for us in the Christian faith is not so
much about what you or I see. It is about what God sees. I wonder
if I see and you see what God sees. That each one is a child of
God. Each one is every bit as precious as we are to God. And I wonder
if God worries about them in a unique way… as we would worry
if any one of our own children were left homeless and alone on some
street.

I can't help but think of the Prodigal Son story. The Son who became
homeless-and let's admit, in this case, it was mostly his own fault.
His selfishness and greed and arrogance led to his homelessness.
He threw it all away-a loving home, a loving father, a secure job
and future… to try life all on his own. And he blew it.
And some would say that when he was left homeless and eating leftover
slop from the pigs… he got exactly what he deserved. And many
would say that the Father owed him nothing and that the older brother
was right in being mad at the way his father welcomed him back home.
The older brother might have said, he deserves to be homeless. But
the father welcomes him home… gladly because the son that was
lost-even if it was his own fault-has come home and is found. Jesus
said, God is like that. And Jesus might say – we should be too.

The Homeless are God's children thereby making them our brothers
and sisters. The story tells me that we have a couple of choices
in dealing with the homeless. We can take the elder brother approach
and simply resent them for getting another chance, or we can help
our parent celebrate and welcome them home. We can offer them the
gift of hospitality.

To me it is why Wake Interfaith Hospitality Network is a great
ministry. More than simply give food and clothing to the homeless-we
can offer grace and hospitality… moments of friendship and
love in a world that often ignores them or wishes they'd go away.
We have an opportunity several times a year to treat the homeless
families under our roof as the children of God.

I don't know if you know this, but there are 124 similar programs
across our nation. Last year almost 3000 families were served in
churches and synagogues and communities across our nation. Of those
who came, over 61% secured permanent housing and 19% secured transitional
housing.

I'm also proud of the Kirk for supporting other ministries for
the homeless through our budget like the Step-Up ministry that helps
the unemployed find jobs and taught life skills that can lift them
out of homelessness or prevent them from becoming homeless.
I'm grateful for our support for the Carying Place and the Kirk
members committed to that ministry to provide transitional housing
for the homeless.

I'm grateful for our support of the Helen Wright Center for Women
as they try to reduce homelessness by providing temporary housing
and support services. I'm so glad that groups of volunteers go there
from the Kirk to share a meal and to extend God's grace to those
living in crisis. Thank you. Last year over 520 homeless women were
served.

I have no doubt God is pleased with us in those moments when we
are able to leave the safety and security of our homes to engage
with the homeless. Jesus even said that it is among those who are
the most needy that we will meet him.

In Matthew's gospel as he talks about the final exam at the final
judgment, he says as much. He says that when we serve the hungry,
clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, welcome the stranger…
we have done this to him. When we have ignored them, we have ignored
him. And there may be hell to pay for that.

Those are strong words perhaps meant to shake the disciples up
and help them focus on caring for those God cares for the most-his
vulnerable children.

One of my favorite preachers Fred Craddock learned this lesson
early in his ministry. He tells of reading for the first time Albert
Schweitzer's book, Quest for the Historical Jesus. It's the
kind of book our Faith and Theology SS class would study.

Craddock said that he was about 20 years old when he read the
book. As he read it he thought, "This Christology is woeful
material. It is water more than wine." As he read through the
book he marked it up, crossing our paragraphs, putting big question
marks in the margins. He said he was extremely critical. Not long
after he read the book, he heard that Schweitzer was coming to this
country from his missionary service in Africa. He was coming to
play a dedicatory concert on a new organ in a big church in Cleveland.
Remember Schweitzer was a philosopher, a theologian, a concert organist,
a medical doctor and a pastor.

Fred Craddock was down in Knoxville, Tennessee. He bought a ticket
on a Greyhound bus to go from Knoxville to Cleveland. He said that
all the time he was on the bus traveling up there he had his book
out, and he was going over his notes again. He had a pad of paper
with him and he was writing down questions. He was including the
page reference in his notes so that when he had a chance to talk
to Schweitzer, he could say, "On page so and so, you said this,
and I don't believe it" and then follow up with, "On page
so and so, you said this and that contradicts the other." He
was ready.

He went to the concert. It was a great concert. When it was over
he ran into the fellowship hall, and sat down in the front row,
because the announcement had said that there would be a time of
refreshment and fellowship afterwards. He had all his questions
laid out in his lap.

Finally Schweitzer walked in. He was a man with shaggy hair, a
big white mustache, stooped over, 75 years old. He was carrying
a little cup of tea and a small plate with a couple of goodies on
it. Schweitzer walked up to the microphone in front of the room
and said, "You have been so kind to me, so hospitable. I thank
you very much. I can't stay very long. You see I operate a little
medical clinic down in Labarene in Africa. My people are there.
My people are dying. My people are hungry. My people are diseased.
I need to go back. If any of you here have the love of Jesus in
you, would you consider coming with me?"

Fred Craddock looked at the questions in his lap. They were utterly
stupid. He said, "In that moment I was changed. I know what
it was to be a Christian, and hoped someday I would be."

It was a moment of transformation-when Schweitzer helped Fred see
that faith is about seeing the world God sees-a world with people
in pain… and that faith is a means by which God reaches out
to those who are hurting the most. The nice thing is that if you
don't feel the call to go to Africa or can't for some reason or
another… that's okay. They are right here in our county. Some
weeks, they are downstairs in our fellowship hall. Shoot, some Sundays,
they are right there in the narthex. Each and everyone, a child
of God, an opportunity to share the message of God's love for them-especially
when they need it most. Amen.


[1]
The story of Helen is true but her
real name was changed to allow anonymity.


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