Elder Jack Breisch’s description of the Kingdom of God, book-ended with muscial excerpts by the women’s chorus of Beth Zych, Julie Wolfram Smith, Patty Console, Shelly Jesberger, Melody Obery, Sally Wile, MaryAnn Breisch, Elizabeth Shaw, and Laura Minder.
Several years ago novelist Tim O’Brien gave a workshop at Hawken School where I teach. Explaining his view on the craft of writing, Mr. O’Brien reconsidered a passage from his 1990 novel The Things They Carried, a collection of stories about himself and a handful of soldier-friends struggling to re-calibrate their lives after Vietnam.
In a chapter called “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien recalls a lost love named Linda, writing: “Stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive.” He continued, “In a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.”
We’re also reminded of the power of stories when we lose people. In the same year O’Brien’s novel appeared, my father died. I recall my mom’s words, having lost her parents years earlier. She said, “What’s hardest about losing a parent is losing someone who remembers you, who knows your stories, especially the stories you don’t know yourself.” True and true.
I believe each of us is essentially defined by our stories. Stories bring meaning into our lives, give us memory and identity, and redeem us when we’re feeling broken.
Jesus, of course, also knew a thing or two about storytelling. Again and again he told starkly simple parables, all pointing us toward the Kingdom.
The Kingdom of God is inside you, he tells the Pharisees in Luke. And in dozens of other stories, Jesus offers more definite pointers. He compares the Kingdom to a vineyard or a garden or a fig tree or a hidden treasure. And in today’s gospel lesson, also from Luke, the kingdom can even be found at your own dinner table—when you invite the poor to your feast, when you feed and converse with them, and when you expect nothing in return. Your humility and your generosity will exalt you, Jesus promises us.
More and more I believe that stories, if we let them, also reveal the common bonds between all human beings, especially those who seem invisible to us.
And it’s the invisible ones whose stories I am increasingly drawn to.
But who are these invisible ones? They are the people whose stories we don’t know and can’t easily imagine. They are the poor and the homeless; they are prisoners here and abroad; they are the oppressed in all times and places; they are marginalized and vulnerable people everywhere. All persons, including the invisible ones, have stories, and their stories are like ours.
Climb out of the car at Denison and West 56th Street and walk with me south until 56th disappears into the woods. In a few hundred yards we come to Alabama Jim’s house. Alabama is homeless, has been most of his life. I don’t know why he’s homeless but, thinking about other homeless folks I know, I can guess. Alabama may suffer from debilitating mental-illness, although conversing with him is as natural as talking to an old friend.
Like most chronically-homeless folks, Alabama may have suffered a traumatic event—domestic violence, war or another unimaginable thing. He may have grown up in deep poverty without support and without the means to overcome the deficit. And yes he may exacerbate his homelessness by substance abuse, a ready escape for people on the street. But also remember this: homelessness is a trauma in itself, and escaping with alcohol or worse would be tempting for anybody living in desperate conditions. So who knows about Alabama? He and I have not shared stories about the why.
But we’ve shared other things: a love of gardening—Alabama keeps a small vegetable garden near the path to his house; and an appreciation for the critters on the land—he feeds the deer that come daily to his windows.
But mostly I think Alabama and I share a mutual love of place. He truly loves his home, the house and yard that he made from his own hands—so that when I’m there I feel at home myself. From found materials Alabama has fashioned a two-room wood cabin on a patch of undeveloped land just a quarter mile from I-71. There’s a deck and a bench-swing and a hand-made wood stove built from boiler scrap. Against a maple tree leans a bicycle. And on Alabama’s planked dining table there is even a bouquet of cut wildflowers. You’d be amazed.
A few miles east of Alabama’s house, on the other side of the river, a homeless Hispanic woman in her early 20’s wrote this poem as she recovered from a suicide attempt last spring:
I am Free.
These hips and thighs are all mine.
You no longer control me.
This is when I close that door
to all the pain with nothing to gain,
to all the sadness with no happiness,
to all the misery that didn’t love company.
You no longer have my mind or my soul.
I am taking back what you stole.
So now I breathe.
You took my voice so now I sing.
You tied my legs so now I dance.
I am no longer bound.
I am free to love and be loved.
I am free.
I am free.
The author of the poem, Sara, stays at the Norma Herr Women’s Shelter on Payne, and if you drive by the building you’ll see a flower garden in front. After Sara wrote her poem she decided to celebrate her new freedom by planting flowers in that garden—flowers for her, flowers for the other women at the shelter, flowers for the rest of us to enjoy—and they’re blooming. Sara and Alabama, you and me. Common human needs, inescapable bonds, and the stories that mark them.
Jim Schlecht is 61 years old. He wears long gray hair that reminds me of Jesus. Jim is an outreach worker at a health facility downtown called Care Alliance, a non-profit clinic offering medical and dental support to people on the street. Jim’s job is to minister to the long-term, chronically homeless—people who live under bridges, in tents by the river, and in other hard-to-imagine places. Throughout the local homeless community Jim is legendary—both to the people he serves and to his colleagues. Three mornings a week, in all kinds of weather, Jim heads out into the field—wherever folks can be found—and occasionally I go with him.
In late July, as Jim and I were driving down Superior, a homeless man, Kyle, ran up to our van. Kyle and Jim know each other, and Kyle, standing in the street, was excited. “Bus tickets!” he blurted out, holding up a packet of unredeemed tickets. “I found these bus tickets and I want to return them. Will you drive me?”
After Jim explained to Kyle that it would be easier if we returned the tickets for him, Kyle handed them over and Jim and I drove off toward the bus station on Chester. With the van double-parked I ran into the station with the tickets. There was a long line at the ticket counter, but in the corner an agitated Italian man was talking to a clerk.
Heading over to the two of them, I explained that a packet of tickets had been found on the street and that I was there to return them. I looked at the man. He was looking at me, his mouth hanging open. Glancing again at the name on the bus ticket I finally thought to ask, “Is your name Anthony?”
Anthony was too surprised to answer me. Yes, the tickets were his, hundreds of dollars’ worth—from Cleveland to Dallas, Oklahoma City and several other distant cities.
“I’ve been planning to visit my family this summer and they live all over…” Anthony’s voice trailed off.
Then I handed him the tickets and turned for the door.
“Wait a minute,” Anthony stopped me. “May I take your picture? My family won’t believe this.”
“No, “I said. “I’m just the messenger.”
“Then God bless you,” Anthony replied.
“No again,” I said. “I don’t deserve that. Bless the homeless man who found your tickets and wanted to return them to you.”
As I walked out of the terminal I couldn’t see Anthony’s face, but I felt then, and I still believe now, that this was no ordinary moment, not for any of us.
Now mix together storytelling and listening with an urge toward social action and you end up with a project like Labre here at our church. When our Labre volunteers go to East Cleveland twice a month we bring food, clothing and other essentials to needy folks, but truly at the heart of our hospitality is story-telling—helping people feel known and visible again, giving them a voice, and creating new stories together.
Steve and Kelly, Dion and Wendy, Russell, Jeff, Tom and the others—gradually we’re becoming friends. And as a volunteer I like to think that today’s gospel parable is playing out in our work in East Cleveland—inviting folks to dinner, expecting nothing in return, and receiving back more than we could imagine.
If you do direct service for folks in need there is surely a transformation—for the benefactor as well as the recipient. Poet e.e.cummings captures this theme in a striking retelling of another famous parable, the story of the Good Samaritan.
You recall the plot. Ignoring their lawful duty, a priest and a Levite pass by an injured Jew—perhaps an outcast—reluctant to get involved in a messy business. But when the Samaritan passes—and remember that Samaritans were traditionally the adversaries of Jews—compassion boldly intercedes. The Samaritan dresses the bleeding man’s wounds, puts him on his own donkey, bears him to an inn, and even leaves money, a lot of money according to the gospel writer, for the man’s care. In the end Jesus uses the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what a good neighbor is called to do for a stranger in need, for in the Kingdom compassion is our first nature.
But here’s the interesting part. While Jesus shows the benefit of direct service for the victim, he leaves out the impact of the event on the Samaritan, the benefactor. In the original story the Samaritan aids the injured man and then quietly disappears, as if his intercession were routine. Mr. Cummings, however, focuses almost exclusively on the Samaritan and the story’s aftermath. Here’s the poem, a favorite of mine:
a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
and wearing a round jeer for a hat
fate per a somewhat more than less
had in return for consciousness
endowed him with a changeless grin
whereon a dozen staunch and leal
citizens did graze at pause
then fired by hypercivic zeal
sought newer pastures or because
swaddled with a frozen brook
of pinkest vomit out of eyes
which noticed nobody he looked
as if he did not care to rise
one hand did nothing on the vest
its wideflung friend clenched weakly dirt
while the mute trouserfly confessed
a button solemnly inert.
Brushing from whom the stiffened puke
i put him all into my arms
and staggered banged with terror through
a million billion trillion stars
In Cumming’s retelling of the parable, the Jew becomes an invisible person with no name, and the narrator—the Samaritan—is you and I. And as we hear the poem we sense that, in the past, this injured man has been repeatedly marginalized and ignored—so often that he has become invisible to the world. But you and I, acting spontaneously and with courageous compassion, see the vomit-crusted man, stop, pick him up, clutch him in our arms like a baby, and then stagger together “banged” with the enormity of our act into a new reality, which Jesus calls the Kingdom.
So, what is the Kingdom?
For the poet, the Kingdom is a limitless space under a brilliant sky. It is an attitude, a state of mind and being, an inner place opened up in each of us, transformed by faith and by grace-filled compassion.
Alabama and Kyle, Sara and our East Cleveland friends—we’re all in the Kingdom together, under the brilliant stars. And if one of us hurts, like the outcast in the parable, another will lift her up.
For in the Kingdom everyone is visible.
And oh the stories….
what stories we will tell there….