The Soloist tells the story of gifted musician and one-time Julliard student, Nathaniel Ayers’. Nathaniel’s mental illness eventually leads him to a life on the streets. LA Times’ writer Steve Lopez encounters Nathaniel one day at a statue of Beethoven in Pershing Square. He’s playing a beat-up violin with two strings….beautifully. Intrigued, Steve tries to talk with Nathaniel. Nathaniel responds with a disjointed, rapid-fire monologue. Still, Steve is moved enough that he writes a column about the encounter. The Soloist is based on Steve’s newspaper columns about his relationship with Nathaniel and his attempts to get him off the streets.
The movie based on the book contains a haunting scene. Wanting to learn more about Nathaniel’s life, Steve spends the night with him on Skid Row. A clean-freak, Nathaniel clears a spot in front of a store’s door—carefully removing every piece of litter, every cigarette butt. He parks his shopping cart in front of the door, lays a tarp on the sidewalk and, as any gracious host might do, offers Steve a place to lie down.
Jarred by the scene around him—people mumbling incoherently, drug deals going down, people shooting up, rats and roaches everywhere, people offering their bodies for sale—disturbed by what he sees, Steve leans against the shopping cart, wide-eyed. Much more at home, Nathaniel lies down, closes his eyes, and says: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” It’s surreal to hear those words while viewing that scene. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What do those words even mean on Skid Row?
Today marks the end of the Church year. Reign of Christ, we call it. It’s the “The End” of the Christian story. The story will begin again next week with the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the “Once upon a time” of the Christian story.
The story begins with the people in darkness, longing for a savior. The savior is born—that’s Jesus. Then, during the season of Epiphany, we look for God in the world, like the Magi did. Everyone, of course, isn’t happy when saviors start speaking truth. Lent and Holy Week remind us of the dangers of speaking truth to power—the truth-tellers get killed. Ultimately, though, death is not the end. Love wins. That’s the message of Easter. The rest of the church year—the season of Pentecost—shows us how to live the Easter message and work at establishing God’s kin-dom here on earth.
The task of this day, Reign of Christ Sunday, is to check in and see how we’re doing in the work of establishing God’s kin-dom here on earth as it is in heaven. Last week, with some help from Isaiah, we heard a great description of God’s kin-dom. It’s a place where everyone has a home and enough food to eat; a place where children don’t die and old people live long and happy lives; a place characterized by harmony and wholeness for all creation.
Based on these images—and the one of Nathaniel saying the Lord’s Prayer on Skid Row—how are we doing? Are we any closer to living God’s will on earth as it is in heaven?
This is where it’s easy to get overwhelmed. We look at the statistics and so many people are homeless and jobless and don’t have adequate healthcare or food. Vickie Tawney told us of the abject poverty she saw last week in Rio de Janero. The gap between the haves and the have nots grows wider every day.
Sixteen states have legalized gay marriage, which is great…but this past Wednesday, we remembered 40+ transgender people in our country who were murdered last year. And that doesn’t include the even larger number of transgender people who have committed suicide….nor the people in Uganda and other places who are thrown in jail—and worse—simply for being gay.
And the earth…while stricter emissions standards and other environmental initiatives are making some headway in earthcare, the environmental picture is still pretty grim.
Has the kin-dom of God been established? Is what Christians call the Christ reigning yet? We might have made some progress in helping to establish God’s kin-dom on earth, but the scene from The Soloist reminds us of just how much work is left to do.
So, how do we do it? If the point of following Jesus is working to establish God’s kin-dom here on earth, how do we go about it?
A good place to start is with these words of Paul: “Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
So often, we look for advice on new ways to live our faith in the world. And so often, our pastor—rather gleefully—provides it. Lots of it. “Do this and this and this and this and all will be right with the world.” In his letter to the Philippians, Paul takes a different tack. He doesn’t give them yet another to do list. Instead, he tells them simply to keep on keeping on. “Remember the things I taught you,” he says. “You don’t need any more to-do lists or advice…just live the things you already know to do. Do that, and the God of peace will be with you. Do that, and you will be doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.”
On this Reign of Christ Sunday, as we take stock of the places where God’s kin-dom has come near this year—and those places where it’s still far off—we also will do well to heed Paul’s words. Because we, too, know what to do. We know about “loving your neighbor,” and “welcoming the stranger,” and helping create a world where people have homes and food and adequate work. We know what to do…we simply need to keep doing it.
We’ll have a great opportunity to bring God’s kin-dom a little closer in January. That’s when we’ll host our first set of families in the Family Promise program. Family Promise began 25 years ago. Under the auspices of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, congregations offer their buildings to house a small group of families a week at a time. We’ll be doing that four times in 2014. Many of the families only need housing for a couple of months in order to get back on their feet and into better paying jobs and affordable housing. By working with Family Promise, we’ll be doing lots of kin-dom work: “loving our neighbors,” “welcoming strangers,” and providing housing and food for families.
Last week, ten people from Pilgrimage participated in a Family Promise event called “See Box City.” Some of you slept in boxes, some in a tent, some in your cars. The event took place in the parking lot of St. James Episcopal Church near Marietta Square. From what I’ve heard, some of you slept—a little; some—not at all. Some of you made it for church; some didn’t. All of you, I know, learned something deep and real about the experience of homelessness. Participating in that event was one sign of the coming Reign of God.
Another sign was the poem written by Keira Dandridge, a member of Mt. Zion Baptist Church. She attached the poem to the box in which she slept last Saturday night. It’s called, “We are Not Art.”
We are not art; yet, often enough, people view us as spectacles on exhibit. However, we are humans, children of the Creator, temporarily displaced and searching for a beacon of hope and light during a dark and destitute time.
We are not art; yet, often enough, people view us as lazy, unusual, and entertainment. However, we are humans, children of the Creator temporarily living in boxes and tents that are dressed in our few possessions…our livelihood.
We are not art; yet, often enough, people view us as darkened souls, foreign, otherworldly, non-citizens. However, we are humans, children of the Creator, citizens of God who glow in the darkness. We produce and emit a different type of light manifested through our lives and testimonies.
Our light is fluorescent (bright); it calls attention to our state of being. It calls for our humanity to be considered. It cautions you to be aware that we are still your brothers and sisters in Christ seeking your light during our time of darkness.
WE ARE NOT ART. WILL YOU GLOW FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE DARK?
“Glowing for people in the dark…” It sounds like so little, doesn’t it? Sleeping in a box for one night, or staying overnight here at church with guests, or bringing food, or simply visiting with them? Can these really be the tasks by which we help usher in God’s kin-dom?
All through The Soloist, Steve struggles with how little he feels he is doing for Nathaniel. He wants to get him off the streets, he wants to get him on medication, he wants to get him performing again. What he’s told over and over is that Steve’s greatest gift to Nathaniel is friendship. “‘Relationship is primary,’ one doctor says. ‘It is possible to cause seemingly biochemical changes through human emotional involvement. You literally have changed his chemistry by being his friend.’” (196)Later Steve realizes that, “although I can help him, I’m not ever going to heal him.” (236)
Neither will we be able to heal the world. As hard as we’ve worked at and prayed for God’s kin-dom to come here on earth as it is in heaven this year, we still haven’t arrived. But as we end this year’s re-telling of the Christian story and prepare to tell it again next week, if we do as Paul suggests—keep on keeping on with what we already know—we’ll be closer this time next year than we’ve ever been before. And that will be cause for great rejoicing.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013