Sermon for Barney

“I was talking to Barney the other day,” I said to my students one Tuesday morning.

“Who’s Barney?” they asked.

“Barney the Homeless Guy who lives in my neighborhood.”

One of my students–an eternally nerve-ridden young man, an eager hand-raiser with noticeably pronated feet–opened his mouth a little.

“Um,” he said.

I waited.

“You know the homeless guy’s name?  Why?”

Why indeed.  Why do I know Barney’s name?  I wish I could say I had the manners to ask him his name since I see him at least twice a week, but no, I can’t take credit for any such appreciation for his dignity.  My friend and former roommate, a woman with more moral fortitude than me when it comes to strangers, befriended Barney a few years ago when she worked at the local coffee shop.

Barney scares people.  He usually works the corner where our neighborhood dead ends into the Interstate.  Unlike other homeless people, he doesn’t sit with a cardboard sign or come at your windshield with a spray bottle and rag.  Barney storms right up to your driver-side window, his drug-pocked and sun-scraped face inches from the glass, and then turns his hands up in the air and squints his eyes as if he’s saying, “Come on, man.  What’s your f-cking problem?”  When the driver doesn’t acknowledge his begging, he often throws down his arms and walks away shaking his head; he looks seriously pissed off.  Plus, he’s got this shock of reddish hair that, unwashed, lifts up from his scalp like a Troll Doll.  If you didn’t know him, you’d be terrified.  I’ve seen people roll into the U-turn lane at the last second to avoid dealing with him.

But at his core, Barney is harmless.  The last time I saw him, my husband rolled down the window to apologize that we didn’t have any change on us, and Barney smiled and said, “No problem.  Have a nice day.”  He really likes our dog.  He really likes dogs, period.  Dogs are more generous with their affection than humans, after all.

My student’s question–You know his name?–has festered inside me this week,  my student’s horror that I might be intimately acquainted with a person of ill-repute, even if said person’s reputation comes from his housing status and not any really criminal behavior.

That student sits next to another student, a girl, who once argued in class that we should give homeless people Bible verses instead of money because, for one thing, they need Jesus more than money, and for another thing, they would use the money for untoward purposes anyway.  She didn’t use the word untoward; she used the words “crack or something.”

Let me offer a quick qualifier: my students are 13 or 14 years old and I’m not sure they need to ask people who scare them for their names.  I’m sure their parents have warned them about dangerous adults.  And, they’re of the uber-privileged variety, my kiddos.  They can’t and don’t want to imagine that good people might fall on bad times.  They can’t imagine about the homeless man, for example, who told a social worker I know that his wife died and he “just crawled inside a bottle and never came out.”

Mostly, though, my students and many of their adult counterparts in neighborhoods all over this country have not suffered enough yet to know the cruelty of handing a hungry man a Bible verse instead of food or money, the sadistic condescension in thinking that they know what the homeless person will spend his money on or that they should have any opinion on the matter at all.

Kindness requires empathy, and empathy blooms out of the dark earth of suffering.  I’m thinking in particular of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”:

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

it is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

 

You must see how this could be you.  Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.

Barney is scary, but he’s our scary.  I mean, my neighborhood belongs to him as much as it belongs to me.  In fact, he arrived before I did.  I should know his name.  I should take care of him.  I should enact those Bible verses I carry inside me rather than handing them out as counterfeit grace.

I worry less about those afternoons when I recognize Barney under the highway’s long shadow than about the day I stop seeing him there.  And I should.

Amen.

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Sermon in which I Ordain Myself

Because some things require a pulpit.  


Because some things scream, say me.  Teach me.   I have something to say.  I have something to teach you.  Yes, little ol’ me.  Yes, you.  There in the front row.  Upright and early.  And you in the back row too.  Reluctant and late.  Especially you folks sheltered snugly in the middle rows—noncommittal, passive doubters, the whole lot of you.  Thinking you’ll slip by on the sly.  For a long time I hid too.


Because I want my words to sniff you out.


Because I want my words to redirect their paths like tiny Doppler radars toward your heartstorms.


Because I want a pulpit.  (I say that as though it is an easy thing for a woman to say.)


Because I want a flock: with wings not wool.  


Because every good woman has a story.  She understands her story as part of a community story.  Her story is intimate, private, and also shared.  Her story is a small circle inside rings of concentric circles: family, neighborhood, city, state, nation, world, out and out like that into the universal.  A story needs a beginning, but not necessarily an end.  The beginning of my story will always be: I loved my grandmother.


Because I loved my grandmother.  When my younger brother and I stayed with her in the house in Richardson, Texas, we looked forward most to the off-white bedspreads on our matching twin sleepers in the small room that faced the front yard.  During the day we built mansions out of playing cards and watched them crumble onto the lush carpet in the den.  Or we counted the beads inside a smoky red blown-glass bowl on the side table and touched every pretty thing twice.  Because she let us. She never stooped so low as to speak a don’t touch that or be careful.  Somehow we intuited that in her eyes we reigned as Most Precious Objects in the house. 


At night, we knelt at one twin bed, the three of us—me, Ben, Grandma—in a semi-pious line, our elbows atop the mattress. 


“Which do you want to say?” Grandma asked me.  “The Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary?”


The Hail Mary was shorter, but more obscure, and I wanted to please her. 


We’d get part way through, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, and then–


A stifled laugh, a squirm fest, her unruffled voice. 


“Ben, say the words with us.”


Ben never knew the words.  To this day, I’m not sure why.  He could handle The Lord’s Prayer, although for a long time he misheard hallowed for Harold, as in “Harold be thy name.”  I still like to imagine God as such an everyman: Harold.  


When I ask him about the Hail Mary now, in our thirties, he says, “I don’t know.  It’s weird stuff, really, to make children say.  Fruit of thy womb?   All that tortured syntax.”


I liked the Hail Mary.  I liked the line he always forgot, blessed art thou amongst women.  Perhaps at that age I needed to believe the world might single me out from my kind: more beautiful, more talented, more sacred


My grandmother died of ovarian cancer the year before I began confirmation classes at St. Thomas More Catholic Church.  My reverence for that process betrayed less about my faith in God than my nostalgia for her voice in my little ear, “Which prayer do you want to say?”  Mr. Nelson, my confirmation teacher, wrote me a note that I kept for many years afterward.  It read:


I have this idea that some people have the Holy Spirit in them only after confirmation, and some have the Holy Spirit in them always.  You, Casey, are of the latter type.


Because if I have anything resembling the Holy Spirit in me, it will reveal itself as the breath of women past moving through my lungs, down the long hallway of my throat toward the light, their exhalations a mist that loosens the corners of my rust-red lips.


Because I hear voices.


Because I have a voice.


Because vocation means a “summons” or “spiritual calling,” from the Latin vocationem (nom. vocatio), “a calling,” from vocatus “called,” pp. of vocare “to call.”


Sing to me of the girl, Grandma, the girl of twists and turns.


Because a man I loved once complained that he felt I was lecturing him when really I wanted to talk out some big ideas.


Because if I’m going to be perceived as lecturing, I might as well have a pulpit, a little authority.


Because my grandmother’s memory authorizes me.


Because the word author lives inside the word author-ity the way I live inside my memory of her.  The way I wear her cool blue beads on my hot chest or push my nail beds into the soft bristles of her silver brush.


Because I respect form.  Because I need a new form, something novel that is not a novel.

Because things change.


Because some things never change.


Because she raised me Catholic, and even now I tend to respect authority when it implies a learned-ness, when that authority has been rightly earned and rightly employed.  I don’t want Joe-Schmoe down the street interpreting anything for me, especially any bible.


Because many Joe Schmoes preach.  Because many people abuse the church-pulpit, the chalkboard-pulpit, the page-pulpit too.


Because I have no idea what I’m doing (which is still such an easy thing for a woman to say).


Because I row out and out to drift on the fickle waters of the blank page and I wait and wait for the words to spawn and swim up so I may offer something of myself to the people I love. 


Because I am like a fisherman or sea-shepherd.  I am trawling for words; I am corralling them, I am searching for her.


Because my story is our story.   


Because we do not know when we are young that the body is an archive. That after years of amnesia, the body, without warning, will kneel down.  The body will remember and repeat its earliest prayers, and that those fledgling prayers do not change much over time, but only reach higher and higher toward heaven from their stubborn roots.


Blessed art thou amongst women. 


Amen.