Vocation: The Art of Presence
[Following is the transcript of a homily delivered by Rev. Laura Shatzer on July 17, 2016. No audio is available.]
In the fall of 2010, I met a woman named Dolly. She was petite and vivacious. She drank too much. She lived part-time on the streets of Cambridge, part-time in the wet shelter at 240 Albany St. She spent her days with Tommy, who was also an alcoholic and wasn’t the best influence on her…but, she loved him.
The first time I showed up for outdoor worship in Porter Square, Dolly asked me if I was there for church. I replied, “Yes,” and she said, “Good. We need this church, this love.”
That year, interning with the Outdoor Church of Cambridge, I got to know Dolly. I saw her as God’s beloved even when the world didn’t. And she inspired me to deeper love.
And then, that February, she fell and hit her head. The bleeding in her brain sent her into a coma, and she was hospitalized. I went to visit her in the intensive care unit several times. She came out of the coma, but the decision was made to remove her from life support. She died the day after Ash Wednesday.
Dolly, and other prophets of love like her, are the reason I am here today, doing ministry with common cathedral, the outdoor church of Boston. You see, visiting Dolly in the ICU broke my heart. And, it was one of the times I felt closest to God.
There wasn’t anything I could do but show up, and trust that my presence meant something.
In my ministry with the Outdoor Church of Cambridge, we would walk around Harvard and Central Squares and hand out sandwiches, juice, and socks. We had regular routes we would walk each Sunday afternoon, and people panhandling and sitting on the sidewalks would come to expect us. They were hungry, and we offered them food. They were thirsty, and we offered them drink.
But people were also thirsty and hungry for something more: for connection, for God, for LOVE. They yearned for someone to sit at their feet and listen to their struggles, and their hopes.
From the streets of Cambridge to Boston, I have fallen in love with this ministry of accompanying folks experiencing homelessness.
My vocation is to offer myself. My presence, my listening ears, and a heart ready to receive the anger, guilt, sadness, shame, despair, and JOY of my community.
We often contrast Mary and Martha, the two sisters who were both deeply committed to Jesus and his mission of justice and healing. Jesus seems to scold Martha for being distracted by her work. “Mary has chosen the better part,” he says. What does he mean? Is Martha’s hard work of offering hospitality to be discounted?
In my experience, definitely not. Common cathedral couldn’t exist without its Marthas: the bread bakers, coffee makers, common art kitchen prep crew, and our churches who make and serve sandwiches every Sunday on the Common. And while my primary role is that of listening deeply like Mary, often times I too must take on logistical tasks like setting up the altar and directing the youth group.
Sometimes, like Martha, I find myself distracted. As I’m sure many of you have experienced, it is hard to listen well when a to-do list hovers on the edge of your thoughts.
Sometimes, in my work, I feel like I am accomplishing little. I wish, like Martha, that there were more concrete things I could do. And it aches, to have to say: I wish I could help you. I wish I could find you a treatment program. I wish I could find you an apartment.
I often remind people lamenting the struggles of their friends or family: “You can’t save them. You can only save yourself, by the grace of God.”
And I have to remind myself, every day, that I can’t save people, either. It is not my job to fix. There is so much suffering that cannot be easily fixed.
I couldn’t stop Dolly from drinking so much that she fell and hit her head. I couldn’t change the course of her dying. All I could do was be with her, in a time when otherwise, with very few family and friends in her life, she would have been alone.
I cannot erase someone’s pain, or absolve it. I can only sit with them in it and remind them that they matter. That they are God’s beloved, and no matter what difficult situation they have found themselves in, it does not define them. Being homeless can eat away at a person’s soul, my people tell me. It can make you feel like you are worthless, like you are garbage, like you are excluded from community.
And perhaps this is why Jesus lifted up Mary in our Gospel. By saying that she had chosen the better part in sitting alongside him, he was fully welcoming her into the community of his disciples. Martha was fulfilling traditionally women’s work of cooking and hosting, but Mary had boldly chosen to take her place next to Jesus.
Jesus refuses to allow social norms to diminish Mary’s calling as a disciple, just as we at common cathedral refuse to let social norms diminish people’s gifts and callings.
This is what you see before you today, tables set with the amazing artistic gifts of God’s people. In a world that seeks to define people and label them as Marys and Marthas, as housed and unhoused, as worthy and unworthy, our community simply seeks to remember that we are humans, created in the image of God. We don’t have to DO anything to earn God’s favor. We don’t have to busy ourselves with constant activity.
I am not a visual artist myself, but from accompanying our common art artists, I have learned that contemplation and rest are vital parts of the creative process.
Full attention is needed in order for the inspiration to flow from mind to canvas. Presence is just as much a part of creation as the mechanics of painting, or knitting, or beading.