Sermon – March 31, 2019
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
After seminary, I served as a chaplain in San Francisco for two years. I spent the bulk of that time as a street chaplain in The Tenderloin district. Are any of you familiar with The Tenderloin? It’s most well known for is its dense population of unhoused people. It’s dirty. It can be dangerous. It’s a rough place.
Many of the people I worked with struggled with mental illness. Everyday, I worked with people who claimed the government was following them. One person was sure that a sniper’s gun was trained on them at all times. Once, I sat with a woman holding an empty blanket like it was a baby. She said that inside it was the priest from her church who was on his deathbed, and she didn’t know where to go. So I prayed with her and did last rites for her priest.
I spoke with people so depressed that when I arrived the next morning, they were still sitting in the same place on the sidewalk where I had left them the afternoon before. They couldn’t move.
And some people had just given up. They had been laid off their job or had the audacity to get injured when they didn’t have insurance, and they lost everything. After attempting to navigate the nearly impossible maze of social services, they decided it was actually easier to take their chances living on the streets.
So I couldn’t blame a lot of these folks for self-medicating. Some drank themselves into a false comfort. The more privileged abused prescription opioids, and when those prescriptions ran out, they turned to meth, which is much, much nastier—so much harder on the body. I’m not condoning this choice, and I always invited folks to explore how they thought those substances were contributing to their situation, but I couldn’t blame them.
The Tenderloin is an entire neighborhood of prodigal sons and daughters.
Prodigal is a word we don’t use that often. I only hear it when this passage comes up in the lectionary. Its original Greek word is asotos, which means “extravagantly wasteful.” Someone who has all that they need—more than they need—and then squaders it spectacularly.
The prodigal son made mistakes, yes, and he squandered the vast resources his father had given him, but what really sent him over the edge, our gospel tells us, was something beyond his control: famine.
I talked to hundreds, maybe thousands, of people in The Tenderloin, people who literally carried their lives on their back. And their situation was never just of their own making. It takes two things to get into that situation: bad decisions and bad luck.
We have all been prodigal sons and daughters. All of us have made bad decisions. All of us have squandered what we had at some point—money, skills, relationships. But I’m willing to guess that most of us had a safety net. Extra savings. A parent or spouse who could support us through something rough. Health insurance. We had the good luck of privilege.
A lot of the people I worked with were foster kids who bounced from one abusive home to the next every few months until they were kicked out of the system when they turned 18. A lot of the people I worked with didn’t have access to quality education growing up so they couldn’t get the kind of jobs that provided health insurance. Many of them had the bad luck of being born into a tough situation. Yeah, they probably made some bad decisions. Maybe a lot of them But when you’re born into famine, into bad luck, those decisions become exponentially more devastating.
You know what else I saw in the Tenderloin: I saw that brother from the gospel. Well, brothers and sisters. People who were “put together,” people who were working hard and making their own way in life. People who were resentful of these people squandering their lives. At best, they were indifferent, walking past with their headphones on, not making eye contact. At worst, they glared, said things like “get a job” or, well, things that I won’t repeat in church. Ugly things. Vicious things.
I’m not going to lie: I got judgmental myself. It was sometimes frustrating, even as a chaplain, watching people I cared about do terrible things to score another hit. Just forget to make it to the shelter by 5 and so didn’t get a bed, a safe place to sleep that night. Some of their decisions made absolutely no sense to me, and I sometimes just wanted to shake them and say GET IT TOGETHER.
But I was lucky to work at a place that taught me the lessons of the father in this parable: radical acceptance, extravagant welcome. The Gubbio Project operated out of two churches, one Catholic and one Episcopal. Those churches opened their doors during the day every weekday and let people rest in their sanctuary. They didn’t have to be sober. They didn’t even have to be lucid. So long as they could behave safely and respectfully for their neighbors, they were welcome, whenever they came to the door.
This was a big deal. There weren’t a lot of places for people to go during the day. Daytime drop-in centers filled up quickly and weren’t very peaceful. Soup kitchens had limited hours. Public spaces like libraries were technically open to everyone, but people with lots of bags and who clearly hadn’t showered in awhile were reluctantly tolerated in those spaces, at best.
The folks at the Gubbio Project warmly greeted everyone who came to their doors. They learned every person’s name. They took the time to listen when someone had something to say. They had lists of resources ready when people asked where they could eat, could shower, could find help with housing. They tried to keep blankets and socks in stock, though they went quickly. There was no evaluation of worthiness, no questions about how hard they were working to get out of their situation, just love and grace and resources ready when it was asked for.
That’s what the father in our gospel offered. When his wayward son reached out for help, for love, his father gave it joyfully and unconditionally, without a need for an explanation.
Gresham isn’t so different than San Francisco. Just this week, I sat with a woman who was sleeping on the lawn here at St. Luke’s. It was Tuesday, a beautiful warm day, and she said the sun felt nice. She told me she had spent the night outside, and it had been freezing, and she was finally able to get some rest here, in this place we call home.
I offered her a bottle of water and some crackers I found in the parish hall. Then I let her use the office phone to call 211 to figure out where she might sleep that night. 211 directed her to St. Henry’s Catholic Church just down Powell where she could get a meal and access to resources. I drove her there and she was instantly offered a shower, socks, underwear. Later, she could have dinner there.
I talked to a man there named Ron who runs No One Left Behind out of Mountain View Christian Church. He said that he works with a lot of churches here in Gresham to provide care for the growing population of people who have nowhere to go. He was happy to talk to me and said he’d love to bring another church on board: a place to offer radical acceptance, extravagant welcome.
Paul writes in today’s epistle: “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
You have already done something new here: you invited me into this community, you have already started moving into a new chapter of life in this community. I have a feeling that we’re ready for more new things, new ways to see the people in this community, new ways to welcome them, to love them. I can’t wait to see how we do.