Nurturing Service

Mk. 10:46-52; Psalm 126

 

My grandchildren don’t just see deer out at our place. They call me excitedly to report that they just spotted some Reindeer. I started to make a correction early on but then I thought, why would you do that? Maybe our place is a little closer to the North Pole than I realize and maybe Nana is a little more like Mrs. Claus than I would know. It is true that I’m looking more like Santa than I should but what a wonderful thing if your grandchildren believe that the Christmas Workshop full of Santa’s elves is probably not far over the hill through the forest if you could just find the trail.

We need more of that in our world. I was thinking of our text this week and I was downtown to see one of my daughters. It was mid-morning and I was downstairs in Penn Station waiting for the C train uptown. The platform was pretty crowded with people and I could hear some guy panting or moaning, I couldn’t really tell and I couldn’t see him. It sounded like he was repeating himself and finally he appeared on the edge of my sight, actually grabbing a woman by the arm. He’d been asking people to dial 911 because he was having a heart attack. Here he was, surrounded by people with phones, crying out for help and no one could actually hear him because the entire group of people standing right around this guy all had their headphones on, plugged into their world, deeply immersed in their phone reality, almost completely oblivious to everything right around them. He cried for help a few times. Finally sensing that time was short, he grabbed someone by the arm.

It was just the oddest moment, all these people standing around these two, coming out of their trance one by one, pulling plugs out of their ears, and re-engaging the world immediately in front of them, most of them looked like they were kind of waking up. I thought to myself, this is a parable of our age. No longer are we indifferent to the world around us, we just aren’t engaged because we are completely preoccupied with our little virtual neighborhood.

Our text this morning takes us back to a similar moment in a different era. In that time, and even today if you go to the traditional cities of the Middle East or the Far East, every city has a public square where beggars are allowed to sit and make their appeal. This Blind Man, Bartemeus, is sitting in the public square, pretty much like he does on every day, when he hears that Jesus is in the area. Jesus had quite a reputation as a healer and you know that because even the Roman historians make reference to him and the fact that crowds of people came to see him because he healed many people. Blind Bartemeus does what any of us would do if we were in his shoes, he jumps up and down trying to get the attention of Jesus. Then, as now, people all around him treat him like he is a big nuisance, but finally Jesus comes over to him.

And then you have this wonderful line of basic humanity. Jesus looks at him and asks, ‘what do you need?’ It is a sort of elementary moment of humanity. “My friend, what is it that you need.” It can be such a touching question. How wonderful are those people that see you, really see you, and give you what you need to unlock the door.

I remember when I was a child, we had these college kids that had been hired to coordinate some activities, games and sports for the kids in Little Rock, Arkansas where we lived at the time. Back in that simpler place and time, Little Rock was not economically segregated like New York, so we had all kinds of kids together. There was one kid that we grew up with who had some sort of learning disability in an era before we diagnosed these things. He lived on the block and I remember him always getting into these frustrating situations where he would become angry and eventually get into fights. And then he was always at the principal’s office. Sometimes today, I can’t believe how little we actually did for these kids back then. But he was always in trouble and the kids in the neighborhood used to pick on him just to set him off and watch him get into trouble. It wasn’t pretty.

But we had these hippies that came from college to work with all us kids. And one of them decided to adopt Billy as a project. One day we were doing an art project and she noticed that Billy could really draw. The next day, she had Billy come over to a table and sit next to her. She pulled out a box of charcoal sticks. I remember they were really cool because I’d never seen charcoal sticks before and I wasn’t quite sure what you did with them. She showed him how to hold them and how to shade thing and how to make a tight solid line. She sat there with him drawing some pretty sophisticated figures on a big sheet of butcher block paper and then Billy would draw something like it near her. She must have been an art student because she was really good.

I never really noticed Billy much the rest of the summer, mostly because he wasn’t getting into arguments, and no one was beating him up. But at the end of the summer I had to move to Chicago and I went over to his house to say ‘goodbye’. I remember looking over his shoulder into the room behind his open door and there must have been two dozen of these charcoal drawings on butcher block paper and he was standing there with black on his fingers.

The kid everybody beat up, this college kid saw in a way that was different from what we saw in him. And she gave him what he needed and it bloomed this other dimension for him, even though people still beat him up. It was one of the first times I’d ever seen people who did something noble. It left an impression on me that I can still recall 45 years later.

It is so basic but how like us to miss the obvious for such a long period of time. I am reminded of a story from our church from a previous generation, my friend Geoff Worden. Geoff was working at Kidder Peabody in investment banking and for many years took the same basic route on his commute to lower Manhattan. Every day, he would walk by the same homeless guys that were sleeping in their cardboard boxes, every day he would step over the same guys that were sleeping off last nights MD 20/20. For probably a long time he wondered what their life was like and how they ended up on the streets living like they were living but he never did anything about it anymore than any of the rest of us would do anything about the same guys we walk past every week on our daily commute to work.

One day, he broke the mold. As you probably know, when we actually did the studies on who gives money to panhandlers, white wealthy guys from the suburbs that commute to New York came in dead last for charity. They are least likely to actually engage a panhandler, least likely to reach for their wallet if they can’t avoid an engagement and if they give, most likely to give an absolute minimal amount. As it turns out the vast majority of people who actually help the homeless with food or money are other people that are just slightly higher than them on the socio-economic scale. And women are way more generous that men. One suspects that the common thing they share is a sense of compassion. Apparently college educated guys on their way to work are not generally engaged with their compassionate side. And most of us go to jobs every day where, for 12 hours, we get paid not to be compassionate or to pretend like this part of us does not exist. So I suspect we are even less engaged on the evening commute home, right?

Anyway, one day, after stepping over the same guy near the office for quite a while, Geoff stopped and offered him his lunch. The guy took it and they had a conversation about this and that and now every time he passed that way, they exchanged some conversation. A couple days go by and he offers him his lunch again. They have another conversation and pretty soon Geoff is asking him what we all are slightly curious about, what is it like living on the streets of New York? And the guy starts to tell him.

Way leads to way and the guy starts to tell him how it was that he became homeless and what might have been different in his life if this or that bad break hadn’t happened. This encounter changes Geoff and it probably had some beneficent impact on the homeless guy as well.

And this is where that wonderful phrase from Jesus comes in. Jesus says, “your faith has made you whole”. When I used to read these stories, I thought that the moral of the story was that we should believe real hard that a miracle of healing would happen and pray for that real hard and then it might actually come to pass.”

Knowing what I know now, I look at these stories and see these wonderful encounters of touching, nurturing compassion and that encounter makes everyone whole and holistic.

Geoff, foolish Geoff, actually tells his wife about these series of encounters and she encourages him, probably by asking him for more questions to ask, obvious one’s that us limited husbands usually don’t think about asking. And foolish Geoff, he asks the guy more questions and has a real interest in his life.

Foolish Geoff, he tells a few of his friends about this guy and what he has been doing and a group of them decide that they’d like to experience something like that themselves, so they decide that what they will do is meet in Manhattan Friday night after the work week is over at one of the designated places where the homeless guys hang out all the time and they’ll make some lunches, hand them out to the homeless guys and engage them in a conversation about their life and what that is like.

They do and much to their surprise, a pretty good percentage of the homeless guys are glad to talk about their lives, which probably no one had asked them about in quite a long time, so it was really interesting and different from rushing home from work to have drinks with other successful people that work at jobs like you do, and graduated from colleges like your college, and vacation at the same beaches you vacation at every year.

They decided to do it again. And they did. Pretty soon, someone made a thermos of soup to hand out and someone else made a thermos of hot chocolate. And these people asked their friends to come along and more people went on the trip.

So they decided to make it a regular thing on every Friday night because there were enough people that wanted to do it that they could. They came up with a schedule and signed people up to bring sandwiches or to make soup.

Now they needed volunteers, so Geoff comes to Christ Church one Sunday morning and tells us all what he is doing during ‘joys and concerns’. And a whole bunch of people signed up to be part of the experience. This goes on for a while and one of us steps up to help with the coordination, and groups of us start volunteering to make sandwiches.

Eventually someone says, we should distribute used clothes, so we started collecting used clothes and handing them out and by the time I got to the church, we had so many used clothes in the basement of the church that we were practically filled up with clothes; Bridges had been formed with a director and a really interesting program whereby our homeless friends actually helped coordinate our runs to New York, so that we were able to get a deeper conversation going with the homeless to find out better what they actually needed.

More than that, we had school groups that wanted to participate and the program was so well regarded that our principals were inviting us into to our schools in the area to talk about homelessness and enlist our classrooms to sponsor a run, making lunches, and in some cases delivering them with soup and clothes on Friday nights. I used to have the wonderful job, if I happened to be around on Friday late, of praying with all these groups in a circle before they would go to New York to do a good work.

It is a funny thing about these things, it changed our church. So many of us have done a Bridges run, every year we added a gift for the homeless to our Christmas shopping, our children made those runs, they were moved by the encounters that they had with our homeless neighbors, and I would say that, quite independent of our intentions, ‘our faith has also made us more whole’. Service does that in a good way. And it all grew from Geoff asking a guy that he sees every week, a simple question, ‘what do you need?’ It came from an ordinary encounter of compassion and humanity.

A couple years ago, I was in New York with my teenage daughter, walking through Central Park on our way to the Metropolitan Museum. My teenage daughter disappears, so I stopped. And I was very annoyed, the way Dad’s get annoyed with their teenage kids. Finally she appears.

I’m like, ‘what are you doing?’

She says, ‘I was talking to the homeless guys under the overpass.’

I’m like, ‘And why are you doing that?’

She says, ‘Dad, these guys all had Christ Church blankets, the ones we get from Church World Service. These are our homeless guys.’

I’m like, just a little embarrassed right now the way Dad’s can get when their successful entitled identity trumps their compassionate, humane servant leader identity when they aren’t watching. I realized that Annie has grown up her whole life just watching me with the homeless and reaching out to them is as natural as going to worship on Sunday morning. I was a little chagrin about myself, but really, deeply proud of our Church that we have created this climate for our children to be formed in. By the way, it became one of those things I did start to notice because Annie noticed. We’d be walking past the Port Authority building in winter where all the homeless guys gather on 9th avenue and she would say to me, “look Dad, there’s a Christ Church guy”. Sure enough, I would turn and no it wasn’t a lawyer running for the train, it was a homeless guy wrapped in a gray blanket that says “Church World Service” on it, the blankets that we bought to distribute.

And I don’t know what impact that her experience will have on her as an adult, but she works in the fashion industry, doing makeup and hair for models at Vogue, models at Elle and the whole glam world that makes New York so ultra chic. And she’s right in the middle of that, right out of Art School. And I’m glad as hell that she’s had some grounding in what is real, some sense of community that includes everyone in our great Metropolis. And I know that she’ll find herself in a situation where she can lead her people to give back, and I know that she is much more likely to lead and come up with an idea of how the vain and beautiful can serve, for a moment, the dispossessed in the future. And she will do it.

About 5 or 8 years ago, I was talking to a couple families from our church. They were lamenting for a moment about their kids right out of college. Both of their kids were very accomplished in school and had done very well in college. Both of these children had gone in different directions after college. They wanted to give back, so one of them had gone to work for a year in a women’s clinic in Tanzania or some place like that, for no money, and this is where their fathers are lamenting just a little bit. And the other one was doing something with an orphanage in Nepal I believe. The parents were worried about their girls being so far away and in such precarious place. But at the same time, when I asked them about the work their girls were doing, they perked up and became animated about the creative and interesting projects that their daughters had found and were supporting and how they were raising money back here in the States to make the projects go.

I’m sitting there at dinner looking at these parents who have been involved in doing interesting service their whole lives and who have clearly modeled a life of giving back for their children, who deeply believe that giving back makes you more whole as a human being. So finally, I say, ‘You know if you model service for the younger generation their whole life and you live like that, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised if one day our kids grow up and take it seriously huh?’ And we all just sat there for a moment. And it will be all right. Our kids will figure out a balance when they are older.

But how important is it that we make service just part and parcel of the spiritual life. How important that we give our children opportunities to serve when the homeless are here, when we go on Bridges trips. How important is it that when they are teenagers, we have leaders like Caroline and Ali and Vinny Caravano that will take them to Nicaragua and live for a bit in the midst of the poverty that defines life for over half of our planet? We are giving them the gift that might just make them whole.

Amen.