This sermon was written and delivered by Faith Bessette at Church of the Beloved, Sunday, November 24. The audio of this sermon can be heard here:
Last week when Meaghan asked me to give the sermon today, she said it might be a good space to talk about my experience in Colorado this past year.
It honestly feels like some kind of fever dream by now.
It was a total whirlwind of change, and growth, and frankly some punches to the gut about the reality of what we’re facing as a nation, as a planet even.
I think we’re in a compassion drought. Maybe we always have been.
Maybe I was blinded by sweet lifetime movies and candy coated facebook videos of dogs reacting to their owners coming back from deployment.
Not that those things aren’t pure & good in their own ways..
But we’re lacking in long term compassion I think. We are living in an age of instant gratification. Constant access to content that fuels our feel-good cravings. We can click and swipe and watch- an infinite amount.
We have an ability to continuously shovel a synthetic feeling of compassion that feeds our human condition in just the right way.
Is that bad? I’m not sure. But I think we’ve lost a little bit of the rawness and realness of what it means to be human, in relation to others experiencing this flawed human world too. Or maybe I’m just full of it. Who’s to say?
When I read the gospel, an obvious connection to this idea popped out.
We’re dropped into the scene of Jesus’s crucifixion, this iconic picture of three crosses stuck perpendicular to the ground.
“They crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”
I reread the gospel a few times but just kept getting stuck on the people standing around, casting lots to divide his clothing, in that moment of crucifixion, of helplessness.
Rifling through his stuff for the things they wanted for themselves, when he was at his most vulnerable.
Even when I repeat it, I’m sure you can picture it in your minds eye.
It’s a pretty grotesque idea really.
But right beside this picture in my head, I saw a mirror image almost..
Of something that used to happen at the shelter sometimes.
For those of you that don’t know, I spent a year in Denver as a full time volunteer at an overnight shelter for youth experiencing homelessness. It’s called Urban Peak.
I met hundreds of young people, all unique in their situations, and levels of independence.
As is expected at a non-lock down facility, folks would come in for a night or two & sometimes we’d never see them again.
Others would stay longer, some had been there for years.
But often, we’d get teenagers just passing through for short periods of time, for one reason or another.
Some people showed up with rubbermaid bins, duffel bags, even trunks full of belongings they’d picked up along the way.
Some would show up with a single plastic grocery bag. Personal belongings change in value when you’re homeless.
For some, they can mean absolutely nothing. Things don’t carry as much value when you’re struggling to survive. There’s something that happens in the brain when you experience trauma like that.
Any kind of trauma really, but I noticed a specific shift while working with these young people.
Suddenly, anyone you meet, anything you do, anything you have, it’s all surrounded by this survival instinct.
This feeling of imminent loss that’s nearly impossible to shake. Especially at 17.
You could have a full wardrobe one day, a couple of pairs of shoes.
A cell phone. An ID, a social security card. But if something goes down that make you feel unsafe. You run. You run and you don’t look back. Because that’s all you know now. Your body is running on fear 80 percent of the time.
Fear of not making it out of this dark place,
fear of others who could hurt you like your loved ones did,
fear of not being enough for other people to see you.
Really see you as someone who is human.
At that point, a loss of things is just apart of surviving. That’s one common extreme.
But others hoard. They keep everything they can gather, anything that they can stake a claim on, huddled up in trash bags underneath their bunks.
Oversized clothing, broken electronics, even trash.
But on the day word would get out that so and so was MIA, hadn’t shown back up to the shelter in a few days, got picked up because they had warrants.
It was a free for all.
I want their shoes, I’m taking their backpack, etc etc.
Other kids, casting lots to divide their clothing.
At this person’s most vulnerable, most helpless and likely most fear filled moment. Their own possessions, some of the only physical things they have relationships with,
are stolen, snatched up, their owners forgotten.
In these two cases, those choices were often informed by an innate human instinct.
On one side, to run in fear. The other, to take advantage of that vulnerability to feed your own desires of gathering… stuff.
What’s so powerful about this gospel is that we’re seeing Jesus be human. He is at his weakest point. Nailed to a cross and one thousand percent vulnerable. As are the criminals beside him.
As they cast lots for his clothing, they are bidding on pieces of him, pieces of his humanity.
When you’re homeless it’s hard to see other people as human. You can barely recognize yourself as one. When you’re at the lowest of lows, with what feels like no one to turn to, it’s hard to remember what it feels like to be a part of a civil society. To follow the polite rules put in place to show each other basic compassion. To think that you still have a right to your own humanity. It’s easier to live into the idea that others look down on you, because you can then allow yourself to be spiteful and self serving.
And I won’t blame them for it!!
We all have the capacity to act in the same way, and we often do!!!
When I sat with these kids, talking, laughing, arguing. Experiencing the most beautiful and ugly parts of them. I could feel a constant itch at the back of my brain, this could be you. This could be any of us, the right set of circumstances and there we are digging through someone else’s trash bags for stuff to fill our own.
There’s a document we fill out with each client when they entered the program at Urban Peak. An intake form to gather some more info about where they’re at, and how we can best help them.
And there’s a section asking about where they slept the previous night. There were subcategories, and the most common one checked was filed under “not fit for long term human habitation”.
Filed under this were places like tents, cars, the street, mental hospitals, shelters. Shelters like the one I worked at.
The government classifies those things, and a few others, as places unfit for humans to exist long term. And they’re right!
These kids are obviously cared for, fed, clothed, given access to free hygiene products and facilities, free medical care, and free options to further their education.
BUT. There is a shift in the human psyche when you are labeled homeless.
There is a fight or flight switch that is flipped on.
There is a dog eat dog mentality when people look at you like you’re no better than a dirty animal.
I’m sure that’s hard to hear. And it’s also hard to see.
Not to say that all people view homeless teenagers like that. They don’t.
But that’s hard to believe when you’re in the thick of it you know?
To look into the eyes of an 18 year old boy, pretty much thrown away by any loved one he’s ever known, in and out of detention centers and jails for crimes he committed to survive, crimes he committed to be spiteful of those who can no longer see his humanness.
To know inside that he needs love and care and someone to trust in.
To know how funny and kind he can be.
To know he writes poetry in his bunk when he feels sad.
To know that he is being nailed to a cross and put on shameful display when he begs for money on the street because Mcdonald’s won’t hire a convict with a face tattoo.
To know that when we lose our ability to recognize humanness,
we make others feel less worthy of love & support & basic human rights like affordable housing and good food.
I don’t tell you all this to make you feel bad. To paint you a sob story of a poor homeless teenager. Because he wasn’t that. None of them were. They were human.
Humans who were resilient. Humans who were funny. Humans who were so so smart. Humans who have potential. Humans who are capable of incredible feats of compassion and love and kindness.
Humans who are capable, of nailing others to crosses because they made a few choices that we might not understand right now.
Just like you and I.
I tell you all this to make the point that the people you make assumptions about, the people who are different than you, the people who have made choices, or had choices that were made for them, who landed in less than ideal situations.
They are human.
They deserve that title.
They deserve grace.
They deserve to be seen as whole people who are capable of great and wonderful things, capable of change.
They just need a little love, understanding, and consistency to get them there.
We are all capable of that.
Capable of giving that to criminals, to the bad guys, even to people less than like-able like the guy in charge of our country right now. (I know.. barf.)
We can look at this gospel as a lesson in recognizing humanness, and the importance of treating people with dignity. Even those who we find it hardest to give.
Jesus was crucified between two criminals.
But there were three humans nailed to crosses that day.
Three humans humiliated by the hands of their fellow man.
Three humans who deserve better.
Who deserve compassion with longevity.
Let’s give it more freely, to others, to ourselves. Sometimes we’re crushing this human thing! Sometimes we aren’t.
Let’s give compassion to the idea that there are some circumstances that leave us feeling nailed to our own cross, naked and vulnerable.
Move with intentions of love, look people in the eye,
and grant others grace in their moments of unbridled humanity. Amen.