An excerpt from a sermon I preached at All Angels Episcopal Church entitled Remember Who You Were by John Paul Ross
Please check out this absurd article or blog about the history of Schenectady. The one truth to author mentions is the irreparable damage GE leaving did to my hometown. The result being homelessness, addiction, incarceration and, dropout rates. Absurd Schenectady blog
I am from upstate New York, near Albany in a small city called Schenectady. Many upstate people would often joke about Schenectady about how nothing good can come out of that city. Haha, no really, nothing: when I was in high school a friend of mine who was in a band called, “The Miserables” once wrote on his army jacket God Save Schenectady, which summed up what it meant to grow up their. As you can tell already by my earrings “plugs” and demeanor that I come from a punk rock background.
I believe that God has provided punk rock in my life to help me, understand reality for those on the margins of life, It took me from wanting a private sheltered life into wanting to spend my time with those that are considered “unclean”. I believe it takes radical faith to wrestle with the great challenges that people face in everyday life. Punk Rock offered that courage and eventually to develop a radical faith.
My life verse for you this afternoon, comes from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians chapter 1 verse 26; “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth…” This scripture goes further on explaining how foolishness and weakness are what God calls us from, not to lose that humble beginning but to proclaim from it. Brothers and sisters, my message to you this afternoon is, “Remember Who You Were”. Remember who you were and where you were when you first heard that gospel message of good news; or if you are here today and have not believed in this same gospel, think back to a time before you felt you knew what you wanted from life, or what you were made to do. I believe in understanding our beginnings we can speak into our present with confidence and humility!
When I first moved here I was homeless, not in the more comfortable transitory, I don’t have my name on a lease, but I’m staying with a friend. I mean I had nowhere to live. So I stayed in shelters. I couldn’t live anywhere else because at the time I had burned all my bridges and exhausted all my resources. I tried to get in contact with my Dad but I couldn’t reach him. He was unable to be reached because he too was homeless. My dad that same year was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, my dad lived his entire life with this mental illness and we never knew, he especially didn’t know. So being that my dad was unable to help me, and my mother living in Florida and I not having a close relationship with anyone else in the family. I found myself in New York City the home of The Ramones! That’s how I justified my circumstance. “I’m living in the home of the Ramones, my favorite band of all time.” But it was not cool at all.
My first night here I was scared to death. I didn’t know where I was going or what would happen to me. I found refuge in a place called Bellevue Mens Shelter on East 30th Street and 1st Avenue. I stayed there for a little more than a week. Every day I would let my caseworker know that I wanted to go to college, because an OG or seasoned veteran of the shelter system said that would be the only way I would find myself in any place but Bedford & Atlantic Mens Shelter in Brooklyn.
Bellevue Men’s Shelter 30th Street in Manhattan, NY
When someone arrives in Bellevue they are put thru metal detectors and checked for weapons or any other contraband. I was terrified! My first night there I waited for a bed for like 7 hours. My friend from Queens would come and encourage me, but every night I still stayed there and I still had no contact with my dad, and my mom was in Florida. I wanted to be on my own, I got my wish. But I didn’t want it. I quickly started recanting all my decisions but I knew that God had me there for a reason. I often had to encourage myself that God had a plan and purpose for my life. That I am bought at a price and that I don’t own my body any longer. That I go wherever God wants me to go. I can not begin to explain to you the feeling I would feel when I would arrive to the shelter late, because I was lost and have to beg for my bed back. The fear of not knowing, where will I sleep tonight? But, it’s in these moments that my ministry was unfolding. I didn’t understand it then, but now I see clearly why I had to experience homelessness.
Paul similarly explains the foolishness of God, as in order for God to get all glory. Paul was concerned with being a radical difference to the ways and customs of modern life, but he also was strangely aware of how insignificant all of our pursuits at prestige and know how can be. Paul articulated to a people who did not know the knowledge of the aristocrats or pharisees a nobility that in their very low circumstances that they were a chosen people. To show the glory and goodness of God. That it was to confound the wise and provide a stumbling block to the old guard.
I remember being a new christian and wanting some incredible conversion story, which seemed to be so popular to have in evangelical circles. But, I was just an ordinary young man, who did not know anything except that I was filled with fear, anxiety and anger and then I was filled with peace. There was no Billy Graham experience or theological degree, not even a GED. It was solely God and for that He gets all the glory.
I believe that when Paul was encouraging the church of Corinth, he was saying, who you are and where you are from is enough! It’s not your wisdom, in the essence of the Hellenist or the rigorous obedience to the Torah. It’s in your weakness, your foolishness, your humbled circumstance that you are going to change this world. It’s not what aristocratic position you have. It’s not man’s ways but God’s.
A commentary I researched for this message suggested that the very usage of words like wisdom, foolishness etc…found in 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31, speak to the hierarchical oppressive nature of class division in Rome. In that day the value was on aristocratic wealth, hellenistic philosophy or wisdom, and for the Jews attention to the Torah. But, the audience that Paul was preaching too were not privy to such knowledge or had the luxury of prestige. These were ordinary men and women, like you and I. Paul, was calling them out. He was saying and reminding them that although you are being persecuted by Rome and experiencing friction with other Jewish believers you are not to be caught up with their standards, for its in your simplicity that you will bring glory to God. It’s in your “foolishness” and “stumbling” that God will get all the glory.
I once believed that this scripture was a simple one, that I don’t have to have the greatest education, be a philosopher or rich. But, this is much deeper than that. It truly means that the kingdom of God, is not by human standards. The calling of God is grace and that grace will make the world’s wisdom foolishness. Only God, can take a high school dropout from a broken home and not only change him from antisocial to a humanitarian but even transform him into a socialite and owner of not one degree but 2 degrees and working toward a third, He could restore a relationship with his mom, restore a broken silent relationship with his dad for 10 years and bring it back full circle to have a healthy thriving relationship. That He could take a broken young man who has only seen divorce and teach him how to love someone else. I testify to you that these are only some of the glories that God has done in my life and He will do even greater in you! Remember when you were called!?!
To some of you sitting here you may be on the fence about Jesus, you may be thinking that this all sounds good, but what about suffering, oppression, class division now? I am only sharing scripture, what about their reality and to that I would say, I have known pain, I have known sorrow but it was God and His Word that carried me through. Many times in those rooms cluttered with others who may not have had my best interest in mind, God was with me, and like the Psalmist David said, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.”
I know that it can be hard to believe the gospel message when your life seems so far away from it, but I can assure you that God cares about you where you have been, where you are and where you are going. I believe that my time in Bellevue helped me to trust in His faithfulness.
Years later I would learn and study about the holes in the system, which brought me back to my humble beginings of homelessness and dependency on the goodness of God and the kindness of others. We are not excused from responsibility but it is with this humility that we can pick up the shattered pieces of our pasts. Not everyone might be able to relate to this, I ask you to think of those moments in life where you have felt most vulnerable, the teaching applies. It’s God’s goodness and grace that you are here today, not just human will.
To help me stay hopeful, I would often walk over to the water by the shelter and I would look at the Hudson River and sometimes I would cry, I would argue and talk with God, “why did you bring me here, to only suffer”, “I know that you are with me, but sometimes it really feels like it’s just me”. God would show up in those moments, I have always found great peace in looking at the water or going to the Cloisters near Washington Heights and would lose myself in the park. I love nature and I believe that we need that connection.
I have often struggled since those days with why I had hope and support and others don’t; or don’t get to realize it. We have hope all around us. A friend of mine when I was beginning to write this shared with me, that I had hope and support but I also had a will to understand and fight for change. I not only fought for my own change in life but for others. That’s why I am here now. Because, after that experience I realized that everyone deserves dignity and respect. Everyone deserves to know that God loves them and actually cares about their suffering, I believe that I have been homeless in order to help others understand homelessness. I was not homeless for a long time but I internalized those experiences and when I am in seminary or helping others make a latte at work, I am aware that my purpose in life is to bring hope to this world. I am to be an agent of God’s agency to humanity.
Those times in my life has challenged me in so many ways. It’s hard to erase the stigma that the past can put on us. Sometimes it seems its not enough that Christ has washed all of our sins away. Oppression seems never ending and justice seems like it may never roll down like a river, but I know that God is for the weak and in time, all those that were cast away will be brought back. So if we are struggling with doubt, we don’t have to stay there, its in our struggle and in our lack of qualifications that God signs our approval and we begin or continue to excel and grow in service to others. We can relax and find solace from the storm in the first chapter of 1st Corinthians verse 26 and take a deep breath and remind ourselves where God called us from and where he take us, it’s not us, it’s all about God. What we consider folly, inexperience, lack of education or too much, God calls wisdom and our opportunity to remember who we were and rest knowing that it’s not man’s will but God’s.
All Angels Episcopal Church located on 80th and Broadway behind Zabars. AAC was established in 1846. This was the sight of this sermon and the dynamic homeless outreach that inspired me for seminary. The ministry was called Our Place Cafe and the founder was Eric Mull. Eric is pastor of Ascension Table in Long Beach, Long Island.
Heavenly Father we thank you for your wisdom and your foolishness, because your ways are so much beyond us. Give us patience and grace to accept our challenges and blessings with humility and seek to do all we can to provide a place of restoration for others who also may suffer or need someone to celebrate with. Lord, help us to remember who we were when you called us. How many of us didn’t have all the degrees or homes or cars etc… That we have now, but that we were in a place of desperation to a tumultuous storm raging inside of us. You are the calm in the storm. Father, I pray for every person here who maybe experiencing homelessness, that you would provide them sustainable housing, If there is anyone here who is experiencing drug and/or alcohol addiction that you would help them to get clean and/or sober. Lord that you would bless those hear who are not in those circumstances but have other circumstances, that they too would experience your grace and mercy that they too will remember who they were when you called them, and that in the end it’s not our wisdom or strength but your spirit that we can confound the wise and bring glory to your name!!! Praise God!!! in Jesus name Amen!!!