A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 23, 2012
Luke 2:1-8 KJV
A few weeks ago, Zabrina Minor, Executive Director of the newly formed TORCH social service agency, spoke to our Wednesday night crowd. TORCH is an acronym standing for Trinity Outreach Center of Hope. They are seeking to address the needs of the homeless population in Oak Ridge and Anderson County. A conservative estimate is that there are at least 120 persons in Anderson County in various degrees of homelessness. Homelessness can range from being what is termed “couch homeless,” where one sleeps on the couch of a friend or relative, moving from one couch to another to another after they have worn out their welcome; to living in a trailer or other structure that does not have electricity or running water; to living in the woods in a tent or on the street and sleeping on the steps of public buildings.
Well, Zabrina told the story of one man, whom I will call Jeff, who had been homeless for six years. Jeff often slept on the steps of the Oak Ridge Civic Center, and had been arrested and put in jail on a number of occasions for trespassing. One of the common stories of those who are homeless and on the street is frequent arrests. For many, that is not such a bad thing. Think about it: if you were homeless and on the street, when the temperature drops below freezing, would you rather be sleeping on the steps of the Civic Center or in the woods in a tent, or in a warm jail where you knew you were going to be fed a few hot meals? Well, Jeff told Zabrina that he was tired of being homeless and sleeping outdoors. So Zabrina said, “Let me find you a local shelter where we can take you.” Now, as you may already know, there is no homeless shelter in Oak Ridge or Anderson County. So Zabrina called all the homeless shelters in Knoxville and the surrounding counties and they all said the same thing: “Sorry, but we are full.” In other words, there was no room in the inn for Jeff and others like him. So Zabrina had to tell Jeff, “I am sorry, but all the shelters are full. I don’t know what we can do with you.”
But, Zabrina didn’t give up and eventually was able to work something out for Jeff. But her story does illustrate a powerful point: Up until now, Oak Ridge and Anderson County have had no way of dealing with the local homeless situation. Well, no way other than to put the homeless in a police car and transport them to Broadway in Knoxville where they might be able to get into the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission or the Salvation Army shelter. But that is not really addressing the problem, is it? I am told that there are some in Oak Ridge who contend that there is no homeless problem in our city, which seems odd considering the fact that there are persons living in the green belt and who often sleep at various locations in and around Oak Ridge.
Well, as I think about all of this, it occurs to me that homelessness, no room in the inn, if you will, is at the heart or core of the Christmas story. How beloved those words have become for us: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” That verse in the original is a little ambiguous. What that verse means is “there was no place for them in the guest room” (CEB). Luke’s reference could be to an inn that accommodated travelers, or to the guest room of a peasant house in which family and animals slept on different levels in the same enclosed space. It could have been a home of family or friends that was so overcrowded that the baby would have to be placed in a feeding trough.1 In other words, they settled for a spot in the space where the animals were housed. And the Baby Jesus was laid in a manger. If, indeed, homelessness, no room in the inn, is at the heart of the Christmas story, what does it say to us?
As I reflected on this, I had come to me the image of the homeless Christ. In one sense of the term, Jesus (or the Christ) has been homeless from the beginning. Jesus’ birth in a manger stall was almost a foreshadowing from the very beginning that his would be a wandering, homeless existence. In fact, in one place Jesus said of himself to a would-be follower, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).
And yet today, to the extent that when we look into the face of the hungry, the hurting, and the homeless and see the face of Christ, the homeless Christ continues to roam the streets of our city, looking for shelter from the cold. How can I say this? you may ask. You may remember Jesus’ parable of the final judgment in Matthew. In speaking of the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and in prison, Jesus said, “As you ministered to one of the least of these . . . you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
This week I remembered that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had a lot to say on this issue. Mother Teresa’s theology led her to believe that whenever we encounter the needy of our world, we encounter Christ. As recorded in her book, A Gift for God, Mother Teresa said, “If sometimes our poor people have had to die of starvation, it is not because God didn’t care for them, but because you and I didn’t give, were not instruments of love in the hands of God, to give them that bread, to give them that clothing; because we did not recognize him, when once more Christ came in distressing disguise—in the hungry man, in the lonely man, in the homeless child, and seeking for shelter . . . . Today, the same Christ is in people who are unwanted, unemployed, uncared for, hungry, naked, homeless. . . . Actually we are touching Christ’s body in the poor. In the poor it is the hungry Christ that we are feeding, it is the naked Christ that we are clothing, it is to the homeless Christ that we are giving shelter.”2
And so, we tend to get all warm and fuzzy when we hear the verse “they laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” But when you think of it in terms of the homeless Christ, it loses some of its warmth and fuzziness, doesn’t it? But it also leads us to look at those who are homeless through a different lens.
Consequently, if we want to get at the heart of the Christmas message and do something from a human standpoint, it seems to me that we should have a concern for the growing homelessness problem of our city, county, and world. Now, obviously, we can’t fix all the problems of all the homeless persons of our world, our county, or even our city of Oak Ridge. But we can donate to organizations that care for the homeless, like the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army. But more importantly, I think, we can be advocates for new programs in Oak Ridge and Anderson County that are seeking to address the homeless issue. Agencies like the newly created TORCH and the NOVUS program at Ridgeview Behavioral Health Services. In a way like never before, perhaps, things are beginning to happen in the greater Oak Ridge community to address this important issue. But in the process of rescuing people from homelessness, they need to be empowered through training so they can get a job and learn to support themselves so their circumstances change. Such is what these new programs are aiming to do.
When all is said and done, we cannot change the lives of all the world’s homeless. But if we are willing, we can lend our support through this church to help change for the better the lives of some. And that is all we can hope to do, isn’t it—change the lives of some? And that is not a small thing in and of itself, if you believe, as Mother Teresa did, that when we encounter and help change the life of any homeless person, we are encountering the homeless Christ. And that is something we can feel good about. Amen.
1New Interpreter’s Study Bible.
2Mother Teresa, A Gift for God. New York: Harper & Row, 1975, pp. 24, 28, 39.