A sermon given by the Rev. Deacon Susan Bonsteel on September 2, 2018 (Proper 17, Year B) at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston NY. You can read today’s scripture by clicking here.
She was perhaps 5 years old…a tiny little child quietly holding her mother’s hand, waiting her turn for a new backpack. Mother and child stood to the side, away from the raucous confusion, as parents and children lined up in single file. Each parent had to show their identification to the women seated at the table as proof of their need for assistance. There were probably 20 or more people in line to begin with, most of them quite familiar with the routine.
And for those of us volunteering, it was a bit overwhelming at first…the numbers of those seeking help steadily grew along with the noise level. So many people picking up boxes of food; so many children getting free haircuts under a tent set up outdoors…and then the long line for backpacks…a few people inevitably became impatient and demanding…it was a very hot morning and people were standing for long periods of time…and we thought how very difficult it must be to always be on the receiving end, asking for help from strangers and trying to follow the rules set by the agencies upon which they depended.
As a nation, we certainly don’t make it easy on the poor. For the most part however, folks seemed resigned to the wait but also appreciative for all that People’s Place could offer them.
The young mother standing with her little girl lightly touched my arm as I made my way through the crowd and asked me about a backpack for her daughter. Her information card with the child’s gender and grade had never made it back to where we were working. The two of them had been apparently been waiting for their turn for a long time. She asked if someone could help her.
I’m sure that you have also experienced that emotional tug at your heartstrings when you are moved by something or someone. It was such a touching scene…this little girl holding her mother’s hand patiently waiting amid the chaos around her. It brought a few of us to tears. The mom’s anxiety showed in her eyes as she looked around her at the large number of people gathering. “Please,” was all she said.
Now Michelle had just dropped off a second pile of new backpacks from St. John’s and we searched for something special for this child. Hidden among the pile was a sparkly pink backpack with a smiling cat’s face on the front. And we quickly filled it with crayons, paper, glue sticks, markers and all good things that were needed for kindergarten. How I wish all of you had been there to hear the sounds of delight from both mother and daughter as we came around the corner. To the eyes of some it may have seemed to be just a sweet little backpack…but truly…it was so much more. That moment was a reminder of what you and I are called to do… and to be… in the world. We become more than just helpers…more than just kind volunteers…we become tangible signs of God’s love in the world…handing God’s love out in the guise of notebooks and rulers to children in our community.
And it all began with your backpack donations collected right here in this room.
Food collections, hygiene product collections, winter hat collections may seem rather pointless to some who wonder how a few bars of soap or a can of soup or a single winter hat will be much help in the midst of the needs around us.
And perhaps we wonder at times if we’re actually helping…if we are changing anyone’s life for the better.
Let me say this: seeing the happiness in the face of that young child and the gratitude and relief of her mother convinced us that these moments matter more than we might ever fully appreciate.
Relationships begin to be nurtured when we meet the women, the children and the men being served by programs such as People’s Place. By standing with those who may in difficult circumstances, we begin to understand more deeply the challenges that confront these – our brothers and sisters – on a daily basis.
And how important it is…to our own spiritual health… to understand that we’re doing more than simply packing up a box of food or stuffing a backpack with school supplies. We’re sharing God’s providence with people in desperate need – the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and the immigrant. We get to know them by name…who they are…where they come from…where they live…and their hopes for themselves and their children. And…as some of us learned this past week…their stories are often very difficult to hear.
One father walked from Hurley Avenue to People’s Place on St. James Street pushing his baby in a stroller on one of the hottest days this summer in order to get formula and some food. The infant was in distress when they arrived and the good folks at People’s Place jumped into action, offering medical assistance and supplying the food and transportation the family so desperately needed. Even the volunteers, who see a lot in their work, were deeply upset by the seriousness of this father’s circumstances.
Another day a grandmother appeared, along with several of her grandchildren, wondering if she could get shoes for the tallest boy. They had no money to get him sneakers to begin school and he was wearing well-worn flip flops. We watched as the boy was taken aside by one of the male volunteers. Moments later a smiling teenager came out of a back room showing off a new pair of sneakers. The volunteers gathered and we watched as they whispered among themselves. Quickly 2 gift cards for a shoe store appeared and were handed to the grandmother so that she could buy her other grandchildren shoes as well. One volunteer quietly wiped tears from her own face.
A pile of clothes for a young girl hung near the backpacks. They were for a homeless child who was starting school next week. Volunteers were waiting for her to arrive so that they could help the youngest one try on what they had. They didn’t know what if anything would fit her.
The next day we were told that the child arrived in a dress that was way too large for her, the only suitable piece of clothing she owned. One of volunteers offered to go shopping for the child that evening while others continued to search through bins of used clothing for socks and underwear.
Over and again we watched as more than just food and shampoo were given out…compassion and love for others was offered in abundant amounts.
Standing among the many volunteers this past week served as a reminder that acts of compassion do not need to be heroic. Simply showing up…caring enough to give of one self and willing to take a risk and cultivate a relationship with one of our neighbors in need is God’s call to us. And our response may be the most priceless gift we can offer.
James tells us that every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. There is a monumental shift in our hearts every time God stirs us into action. For many of us watching those in need standing in long lines with their reusable bags, collecting whatever food items were available, it was a painful reminder of the huge problem of food insecurity in our own city. The faces of those living in dire poverty within our very own community became imprinted upon us. And, for some of us, people we knew from our own neighborhoods, our children’s schools, even our own church – appeared seeking assistance. The poor are everywhere.
Be doers of the word, the Letter of James continues. By choosing to stand with our brothers and sisters in need… God will show us the way to use the blessed gifts God has given us so that we might act as agents of change in this broken world.
If we could imagine God’s voice at this moment, we might hear something like this:
Use your eyes to see the needs of your brothers and sisters around you…and simply love them.
Use your voice to speak up for those who are powerless. Protest the injustices that continue to allow your brothers and sisters to live in poverty…and simply love them.
Use your hands…to reach out and lift up the oppressed who have been worn down by circumstances beyond their control… and simply love them.
You can do all of these things. You can do them because you have done them before.
We have an abundance of love and compassion within these walls. Just consider what has been done these past few weeks! Over 50 beautiful backpacks were collected and more were purchased from our parish Outreach budget line. Fourteen parishioners joyfully gave of their time, delivering and sorting and filling backpacks on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That’s quite a powerful display of God’s love!
I was asked to thank all of you by the staff of People’s Place…for your kind and generous hearts and for caring so deeply for those in need. And before Wes and I left on Thursday, the staff gently reminded us that People’s Place will soon begin preparing for Project Santa, their Christmas toy drive.
As we departed the building, heading to our cars, we looked at one another and said… I’m ready. How about you?