The heart of God.

(Photo taken in Philadelphia in October at a retreat for those engaged in street ministry)

(Photo taken in Philadelphia in October at a retreat for those engaged in street ministry)

The following sermon was preached this Thanksgiving Day at St. John’s Cathedral, Jacksonville, FL.

(Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Psalm 65; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19)

May we experience that Love
which is no respecter of persons.
In the name of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Recently I had an opportunity to visit at length with “Andy,” a man I met in the hospital.

Quickly I learned that he was homeless
and suffering from chronic health issues.

Our conversation was difficult at first.
He was nervous and frustrated and shared too much information about his bowel habits.

“No one cares about reality,” he complained.
“Nobody is living in REALITY.”
I waited to see if he might explain further.
“People don’t mean what they say.
They don’t really want to help.
They just want to feel better about themselves.”

I asked if I could pull up a chair and sit for a while
and he shrugged as if to say: “Why not?”
It was difficult listening to him gripe,
but I hung in there.
Eventually he told me he had been living in the woods
off of Mayport Road for the last four years.
He had lost his job and shortly thereafter was evicted.

As I lingered there, Andy began to review his life.
He spoke of his love for learning.
As a young boy, he often cut class –
which he found boring –
so he could spend time in the library.
Though he had only finished 7th grade,
it was obvious that he has spent his lifetime
reading voraciously.

He told me about growing up in Seattle in poverty,
where he took care of his younger siblings.
Brothers and sisters who are spread out in
other parts of the country now and
who have little to do with him anymore.

Eventually Andy told me about his faithful companion —
Tanner — a dachshund who was with him
for 10 years, both while he was housed
and when he began camping.
Tanner would always come looking for him.

One day, while Andy was waiting at a bus stop,
he saw Tanner a few blocks away,
crossing the road.
The next thing he knew, the dog had been hit.
When he ran over to Tanner, it was obvious
the dog would not survive his injuries.
As Andy got down on his knees to tend his pup,
who was barely breathing,
Tanner looked at him and somehow managed
to wag his tail.
To Tanner, Andy was not a homeless derelict.
He was a loving companion.
A loyal and generous friend.

There were times in our conversation
when Andy complained that no one is
interested in truly helping him.
I started to mention various non-profits that
assist the homeless and poor at the beaches
but I bit my tongue.
I realized he knows more about those services
than I do.

Folks who have been hanging on
the edge of life for some time
grow weary of being told what
we think they need to do.
Like you and I, they long for an independence,
that includes a sense of agency, to make choices
and determine the course of their lives.

Throughout our visit, Andy kept returning obsessively
to the idea that if he only had a computer,
then everything would work out okay.
Honestly, it sounded a little crazy to me,
but finally I asked: “It sounds like having
a computer is really important.
What do you imagine that would do for you?”

He paused for a moment to gather his thoughts.
“If I had a computer,” he explained,
“I could be here, communicating with
someone else at a distance.
Someone who could not see me or
make judgments about me.
If I had a computer, then we would be equal.”

As I sat and listened to that stranger,
he took me to church.
The power of his story connected us.
As I rose to leave, Andy took my hand.
“I hope one day we’ll have the chance to meet again.”
In that moment, I saw Christ in his face,
and his words blessed me.

The Thanksgiving before last, I mentioned
my mother’s faith tradition
— the Moravian Church –
which values the idea of a shared meal
as a sacred time of fellowship.
But this visit with Andy called to mind
another Moravian tradition:
In the cemetery at Home Moravian Church
all the grave markers are the same size,
showing that we are all equal in the eyes of God.
And, rather than standing upright, the stones lie flat
as a symbol of humility before God, the great I AM.

In our Old Testament lesson, Moses is speaking to
the Israelites 40 years after the original covenant.
He wants them to remember God
as the source of all life.
He wants them to remain humble and
to teach their children this truth:

We cannot love God without being grateful.
we cannot love God without giving thanks
for all that we are,
for all that we have and all that we experience.
We cannot love God without really
seeing our neighbor,
without loving our neighbor,
in good times and bad.

I want to tell you now about Robert,
one of our more active Church Without Walls
members, who is spending Thanksgiving in jail.

A few weeks ago Robert took care of some
unfinished business, knowing it would involve
2-3 weeks behind bars.
We are holding him in prayer and are grateful
he will be with us for the last weeks of Advent
and for Christmas.

For our stewardship season, Robert wrote this account
of his church experience:
“I am a homeless man. I guess I am the epitome
of a homeless man. I live in a tent in the woods
with my dog (Baby Girl) and
we take care of each other. Literally.

My church is the Church Without Walls,
mainly because I have felt the presence of
the Holy Spirit there. I still do.
That’s why I go to everything—Sunday service
and two bible studies each week.
The people you meet are real — good and bad —
and we are like a big weird family.
We have something in common though:
we all are seeking to be closer to God.
We are studying the Word.
We are doing our best to love one another.
Just as Jesus said we are all supposed to do.”

In the tenth chapter of Deuteronomy,
Moses tells the Israelites that their hearts
are in need of circumcision.
Selfishness and self-righteousness must be
cut away in order to reveal the heart of God.
He tells them this God of Gods shows no partiality
and takes no bribes.
This God executes justice for the orphan and widow
and calls his people –
who have been strangers themselves –
to love the stranger in their midst,
to feed and clothe those in need.

To experience the heart of God,
we must be willing to touch suffering –
in ourselves and others –
because that is where Christ is found.

For everything that we experience and
everything that we are,
may we remember to give God thanks and praise.
AMEN.

About Mother Beth Tjoflat

Episcopal priest, urban contemplative, playwright, lover of hounds, American of Chilean-Norwegian-Moravian descent. Interests include transformational ministry with the forgotten and marginalized; church planting and congregational development; 12-step spirituality; Hispanic ministry; radical hospitality, and spending time with dear friends.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Diocese of Florida, faith, Grace and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The heart of God.

  1. peterjfoster says:

    Beautiful stories of precious people who just want to love and be loved. Thank you for sharing. I just can’t get that image of the poor dog wagging his tail when his ‘master’ came.

  2. kaia fahrenholz says:

    fascinating. thank you for sharing Beth. Happy Thanksgiving! ​

  3. Ann Brackin says:

    I have been rereading and praying about your sermon since I first read it on Thanksgiving evening. I will see you tomorrow at The Church Without Walls.

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