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God’s Child

When I am making my home near Asheville, the day of the week I am easiest to find is Wednesday. I will rearrange a lot of commitments on my calendar so that I can be on Haywood Street by the middle of the morning. The parking is lousy, but once I find a spot, I join the crowd of people coming and going from a red brick church right by the freeway.

My friend Brian Combs is the pastor of that church. He came to town about 10 years ago. He began his ministry by spending time in camps by the river and under the overpasses, getting to know members of our community who are homeless. If they expressed any interest at all, he asked them to describe the kind of church to which they’d like to belong. He was told that folks had plenty of places to go on Sunday mornings. What they needed was a place to be in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day. And since they often felt pressure to be quiet—invisible, even—they wanted a place they could move about freely and be heard. They didn’t want to be passive recipients in worship and at the table; they had stories to tell and gifts to offer. They wanted everyone to eat together; they wanted everyone to serve together.

After sharing this vision with the pastor of the big downtown Methodist community, Brian was handed the keys to the abandoned church, still in pretty good shape, but no longer in use.  And that’s how the Haywood Street Congregation was born; that’s how “holy chaos” came to Asheville.

Now more than 400 people eat there most Wednesdays; they’ve added a Sunday afternoon meal and evening worship, too. More than 30 of the best restaurants in Asheville are in the rotation providing food. Trader Joe’s puts fresh flowers on the tables.  And the place keeps growing. A clothes closet was an early addition, and haircuts so that people can clean up for job interviews and daily life. Being Asheville, acupuncture is offered in a quiet room off to the side. There are places to pray, places to sleep, a needle exchange and referrals for counseling.

Because Asheville is a regional medical center, it did not take long to realize that homeless neighbors needed a place to recover after surgery or major illness. Soon, a respite center was added to the property.

I am told that the next step will be housing for those who need 24/7 support to cope with mental illness.

But I have skipped over what happens in the sanctuary.

At 12:30 on Wednesdays, bankers and downtown workers slip into the pews next to folks who panhandle outside their offices. More than a few clergy are also in the mix, hungry for what happens there. The organist is a formerly homeless man who plays stately hymns with great vigor. As they arrive, neighbors are enlisted to lead portions of the service. Brian sits in the back until it’s time for the sermon, when he comes to stand in the center aisle. Someone reads the day’s scripture and Brian supplies a question to the congregation. We listen as our neighbors reflect. Brian receives each response with grace, then offers a few comments, and we pray.

The prayers of the people are like nothing I’ve ever heard.  Scattered on all the pews are homemade noisemakers: mostly empty plastic bottles with dried beans or plastic beads in them. When someone shares a prayer request, we all shake our bottles as a noisy way of saying Amen—So be it—God bless you. We pray for work to do and help facing addiction; we pray for troubled relationships and give thanks for those who have died; we pray for friends who are in prison and for friends we’ve just met. There’s a lot of noise when someone shares that he or she has gotten a job, or housing, or that a family member has reached out after a long silence. Children and dogs wander around while we pray, and every week there is communion.  Anyone who feels led can bring the bread and the cup to the table. And the hands that offer the body and blood of Christ to you may or may not have been recently washed. It is as deep an experience of the body of Christ as I have ever known.

I cannot hear today’s text from Matthew without thinking of Haywood Street, in part because of how the service there always ends. After we have sung a final song, someone in the congregation asks a question. It’s the same question every week. Someone steps into the aisle and says simply, “Who are you?” Each member of the gathered congregation responds in unison “God’s child.” Three times the question and answer are parried; each time the volume increases as confidence builds.

Jesus says, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. What do you suppose he meant?

Scholars tell us that in the first century probably 30% of children died at birth; another 30% were gone before they turned 6.[1] Those are hard odds. Children were vulnerable and they were powerless in a culture in which they had no legal standing until they became adults. They were without status, and they were at risk in ways we can hardly imagine from our cultural context.

Yet when Jesus’ disciples ask how they are to succeed at this life they have chosen, he invites a child into the center of their conversation, saying

“Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

We need to be careful here, because there is no evidence that the humility ascribed to the child is a personality trait. In Warren Carter’s words, what the child embodies is a “social location of powerlessness.”[2] That interpretation has particular resonance in Matthew’s gospel, because the way Matthew tells the story, Jesus was at risk from the day he was born.

Matthew’s is the only gospel that describes the holy family’s flight to Egypt in an attempt to preserve Jesus’ life. It is Matthew who tells us that Herod slaughtered all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. Jesus knew what it was to be a vulnerable child. He knows what he is asking of his followers.

In the words of Eugene Boring, “the first rule for life together in the new community formed by Jesus is to abandon the quest for status and accept one’s place as already given in the family of God.”[3] Did you hear that? Our place in the family of God isn’t earned, it’s given—it’s a matter of course—and Jesus says we are to organize our life together around whoever among us is most threatened, most vulnerable. For what it is worth, that sounds to me like “We Choose Welcome”.

Over the years that I have worshiped at Haywood Street I have seen a lot of people come and go, but there are certain faces, certain stories that define the place in my heart. One of those faces belongs to a man named John. He is in his 50s, sinewy, with a scraggly beard and kind eyes. John suffers from mental illness, though I don’t know what label to attach. He tells me simply that there’s something wrong with his brain.  That’s probably true, but I am here to say there is something right with his heart. He is as unselfconscious as any person I have ever known.  When he feels the need in worship he sometimes stretches out on the floor in front of the cross in a gesture of submission. And when he is overcome with joy, he literally skips around the perimeter of the room. I did not know grown men could skip, but for me that’s a picture of heaven.

My husband and I ran into John one evening in Asheville as a light rain was falling. Lee and John had not met, so I introduced them. Right there in the rain John pulled a pirate costume from his backpack which he said he knew Lee would love—and then John became more serious, telling my husband, “when I started coming to Haywood street I was nobody, nobody—but now—now I am somebody.” —John has come to know that he is God’s child—precious, beloved, delighting God’s heart.

Another person who has ministered to me there is a 23-year old, transgender, African American woman, named Zykeela.  Almost every week she offers to sing, unaccompanied except by her tambourine. She sings with deep conviction, if not always tunefully. I tell her that I marvel that with all the rejection she has experienced from Christians, she still finds herself in the church. But our scriptures are deep in her bones; she grew up singing hymns—and she longs for her family.

I will long remember a service when she stood to sing a hymn that is frequently incorporated in worship there, a hymn that is in our hymnal—#770, a spiritual called “I’m Gonna Eat at the Welcome Table.” I had heard other people sing it and several of the verses were familiar to me: “I’m gonna eat at the welcome table; I’m gonna feast on milk and honey; I’m gonna walk the streets of glory”—but then Zykeelah began a verse I had never heard—one that is not in our hymnal. I went home and Googled it straightaway. It turns out that the lyric has long roots; it’s traditional.

Without knowing that she was piercing my heart, Zykeelah sang what was for her just part of the song: “I’m gonna tell God how you treat me.”

Jesus said: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Children of God, every day you and I are reminded of our own humanity; every day we have opportunities to welcome others who feel belittled by the world. Jesus says, “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones be lost.”

Our best chance of doing this hard work of submitting our lives to Jesus, becoming God’s children, welcoming the ones who make us uncomfortable, whoever they may be—our best chance of doing that work faithfully is to do that work together.

And so today we come as a congregation, to offer our gifts and offer our lives to God, to use as God sees fit. How fitting that the baskets in which those offerings will be placed will be held by our children.

 

[1] Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 117.

[2] Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 362.

[3] M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, The Gospel of Matthew, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 374.

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.