Every Sunday, rain or snow or shine, the Reverend Debbie Little rolls a portable altar out of the Episcopal Cathedral’s basement, across Tremont Street and into a small grove on the Boston Common. She is often followed by a hand-full of volunteers from the surrounding suburban churches armed with sandwiches and musical instruments. Together, they sound the call to worship, and the Common Cathedral is once again back in session.
The Common Cathedral bills itself as a church without walls. It is designed to be a homeless church for the homeless who inhabit the Boston Common. Through its ministry, many who otherwise would never be comfortable in a regular brick and mortar church have found a spiritual home, have access to food, medical care, and a place to gather for a weekly movie or two in the Episcopal Cathedral’s basement. The Common Cathedral is one of the few places which provides care and ministry without trying to force the homeless into shelters or into housing that most are either not interested in or afraid of.
Soon after I arrived at the Redeemer, I spent a night with the youth group learning about the lives of the homeless. Our experience included touring Boston late at night to experience what our guide called the unseen Boston. We also heard members of the Common Cathedral tell their stories and how they had come to live on the streets.
This is where I met Michael. Michael could not have been much more than 35 or 40. He was raised like many of us in a relatively upper-middle class family. He not only had a four year college degree, he also held an advanced degree. In his mid – twenties he held a job, got married and had children. And then something went terribly wrong inside his head. His behavior became erratic, even violent at times. What followed was a string of psychiatric hospitalizations and diagnoses along with the series of magic pills, some of which helped, but most just made him feel “strange”. Like many people with severe psychiatric disorders, the years that followed were chaotic at best. He had stretches of stability, but the erratic behavior always seemed to return over time. After a while of not being dependable at work, he was fired, then his wife gave up on him and they were divorced.
With no job or family supports, Michael soon found himself adjusting to the life of being homeless. He was now a member of what people in Toronto called the invisible population, with no address, no job, the homeless are invisible and nameless, often overlooked and unseen by the people walking by. Michael also spoke of having been like many who are homeless who are afraid of seeking help from the countless agencies designed to help the homeless. They are afraid, because they fear being forced into shelters that are often physically unsafe, or onto medications that will once again make them feel less then who they are.
As I think back over my experience of Michael, I am reminded of the Geresene in this morning’s Gospel. Even though the Geresene suffers from multiple demon possession, l am convinced if he were living in today’s world we would be told that he suffered from a multiple psychiatric disorders. Like Michael, the Geresene’s condition forced him to live outside the village and away from family and friends, because they feared for their safety when he was around. I think it was very telling on the writer’s part to include that he lived among the tombs, meaning his life was unclean and was considered among the dead, because for those who once knew and loved this man, he was all but dead to them.
When Jesus enters the story, the Geresene was even dead to himself. “ What is your name?” Jesus asks. The Geresene replies, “I am Legion, for we are many.” This tells us, the demon possession was so severe that even the Geresene had lost sight who he once was as his dis-ease had totally consumed his person. Then with this bit of information, Jesus surprises the ancient reader by healing the Geresene when he casts the demons out. Jesus act of healing the Geresene was a surprise to the ancient reader because, one, the Geresene was a gentile, not a jew, he lived outside of Israel, two it showed Jesus not only had the ability to forgive sins, but also had power and authority over the agents of Satan themselves, and three, It demonstrated that Jesus’ authority went beyond the boundaries of Israel.
Our passage also tells of God’s compassion. In this account from Luke’s Gospel, Christ willingly journeys into a foreign land, sees a gentile who has been cast out and left as dead by his own people, and yet. . Jesus seeks and finds the beloved child of God who resided within and casts out the rest.
If Jesus was able and willing to do that for him, just think of what God is willing and able to do for us.
For us, this passage serves as a reminder that we are called to seek and serve Christ in every person by perhaps altering how we perceive the homeless among us. So often we too look through them as if they are invisible, so often when confronted by those who panhandle on the streets we assume the worst. . . .and for some this may be true, for others they may truly be down on their luck through no fault of their own, but for many others, their lives are a constant battle with the demons who live in their heads and have lost everything as they continue to lose their personal battles.
The plight of the severely mentally ill is not easily solved. Thirty years ago, many who are now homeless and living on the streets would have been locked away in sanitariums for years on end. Many died there. During the Reagan administration, many of these people were de-institutionalized for better or worse. Today, we live in a world where resources for those with mental illness are limited at best. Inpatient care is expensive with most insurance companies unwilling or unable to cover more than and few days stay for stabilization. Perhaps there is wisdom somewhere at the root of this, because in order for many to get better, they need to learn to manage their illness in the context of their home environment and not in the context of the controlled, structured and safe environment of a psychiatric unit.
Finally, I offer no real solution, because there isn’t one for such a complex issue. Instead, what I hope you carry away from today’s passage is that the Geresene still lives among us and I ask you, as baptized children of God, the next time you encounter one who is homeless, not to avoid eye contact, but to willingly provide an acknowledging glance that tells them they are not invisible but seen by you and most of all, still loved by God.