This past week much attention has been paid to the death of Queen Elizabeth and to her extraordinarily long rule, characterized by duty, faithfulness and sacrifice. It is right and proper to honor her and to pray for the repose of her soul, for those who grieve her passing and for the future of the land and people she loved.
Locally we were shocked by the fatal crash of a float plane near Whidbey Island and the tragic deaths of 10 persons and the fetus of one of the passengers. Nationally on this day we remember the 2,996 persons killed in the attacks of 9-11 at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on flights that had been hijacked and then deliberately crashed. Last September my husband Bryon and I were profoundly moved by the memorial in NYC on which all the names are etched.
Today we are invited to memorialize a different tragedy, one that is ongoing, desperate and often overlooked. St. Luke’s is hosting the Annual Dedication of the Leaves of Remembrance for those from our neighborhood who died while living unsheltered. Who counts these deaths? Who searches out their full names, birthdates, any family or friends who might know them? Who locates their bodies in abandoned RV’s, in tents in the woods or next to train tracks?
I’ll never forget the first of the now many deaths I have attended as the Vicar of Ballard. I was in my office in my first year here when some of our Edible Hope guests and friends came to the door asking me to come immediately. Gary had died next to a dumpster in the alley off of Market Street. The coroners were coming but his companions on the street needed someone to honor his body, to perform last rites, to pray for him and for them in such a desperate situation. I was honored to do so.
The work of identifying those who die alone and unsheltered by overdose, hypothermia, violence and natural causes begins with the medical examiners. These unsung heroes treat each corpse with great respect and do all they can to find any family who might want to give a proper burial.
The medical examiners contact an incredible band of mostly women, the Homeless Remembrance Project and the Women in Black who stand vigil on the steps of City Hall for every person who has died while unsheltered. They raise money for beautiful bronze leaves that are fixed into the sidewalks in the central areas where people last lived. For Ballard, that means the sidewalks outside Ballard Commons Park and the Ballard Library.
Over the past 5-7 years St. Luke’s has hosted the memorial and a reception for all those who grieve. Sometimes family members show up. Sometimes friends from the street come by. Often staff and volunteers from local service agencies or even businesses who were familiar with the person come to pay their respects. And there are always those who simply wish to stand and acknowledge the ongoing tragedy of an increasing number of deaths in this community. On average, those who are unsheltered die over 20 years earlier than the average adult.
These are the same people, whom I have heard referred to by some of our other neighbors as vermin, vagrants, addicts, dirty, lazy, criminals. There are never any obituaries for them. If they make it into the newspaper, it’s only as a statistic, not as an individual. Many die estranged from everyone they know.
In his lifetime, Jesus attracted those on the margins, those the respectable and religious labeled as “sinners,” who violated the laws and customs of society and “criminals,” like tax collectors who supported themselves and their families by stealing from their kin. It didn’t make him popular with those who considered themselves defenders of righteousness and order. These are the people who are grumbling about Jesus. They don’t confront him openly. They are the equivalent of the anonymous or veiled people who post in the neighborhood blogs complaining about those who feed, shelter and care for the vulnerable.
I get it. I get fed up all the time with those who don’t respect our property and the incredible efforts of our volunteers and staff. I get frustrated with those who receive housing or rehabilitation but then relapse and end up back in the same place. I want to turn away from those whose mental health issues and disabilities make them difficult to converse with, angry or abusive. So few ever come back to thank us or to apologize for abusing our kindness. I break my baptismal promise to treat everyone with respect and dignity nearly every day. I recognize my own faults and failures in those angry, despairing, blaming comments online.
Jesus knows an argument won’t convince those who consider themselves right, shaming those who consider ourselves righteous won’t change our behavior and confronting someone directly will only harden their position, so he tells three parables: the parable of the lost sheep; the lost coin; and the lost son. In each case, the character standing in for God’s grace and mercy invests an inordinate amount of energy, unwisely for what may be a lost cause.
The shepherd has plenty of healthy, obedient sheep which he can control and keep safe. But instead of tending the source of his wealth and security, he leaves them. He takes a huge risk to seek out the one last lamb who is in grave danger in the wilderness. It doesn’t make good economic sense. He’s going to so much work and effort for one out of a hundred. In fact, he may not come back alive himself. The wilderness is filled with danger and he will be unprotected.
The woman (a woman standing in for the God figure! This is another shock to the religiously righteous) spends all her effort, all her resources in recovering her lost coin. She even uses up precious lamp oil to stay up late in the night seeking something as small and easily hidden as a coin. A cost/benefit analysis would recommend she invest her time and effort into something that would pay off better.
Then there’s the lost son. Everyone knows he wasn’t worth it. He left by his own choice. He burned through the inheritance he wasn’t yet entitled to. He scorned his religious upbringing, societal customs and even the law in dissipate living. He didn’t deserve to be welcomed back, let alone to be given even more food, clothing, respect and love. That type of behavior from his father was simply enablement. There’s no guarantee he wouldn’t go out and do it again. The sheep could wander away again. It’s easy to lose a coin. All that effort may be wasted.
And yet, we all hope that someone, the good shepherd, the faithful steward, the prodigal parent will not give up on even one of us. We pray that we will not be abandoned, left on our own, forgotten and ignored. We long for a community that will welcome us home and throw a big party where everyone receives food for the soul and the cup of new life. We ask for a holy death at the end, with love surrounding us, no pain and the peace of a presence that will carry us through the transition from this life to the next.
Today we will name and remember those whom the Good Shepherd carried home, who were found by One who never gives up on us and who were loved unconditionally by the God who calls us each beloved child.
And then we will start cooking again to get ready to feed all those who are hungry tomorrow morning. We will sacrifice some of our own money and possessions to provide resources, clothing and support to those who are lacking. We will step out of our own comfort zone to welcome the stranger, to greet the one who is often despised, and to include the outcast. And we will sacrifice some of our privilege, our wealth and security to create housing and space for those who might otherwise suffer from lack of shelter.
Today we will rejoice in a God who seeks and saves the lost, including each one of us. We will share the meal of communion with the holy and the human. And we will enter into a joy that is not based on emotion, but rather on the faith, hope and love that calls us each home at the end. Amen