Warning: This sermon contains some graphic descriptions.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be at least temporarily acceptable in your sight, O Lord. Amen.
At around 6 p.m. on a Monday about six weeks ago, I heard a banging at Mayo House’s glass back door, rattling the pane and frame around where the knocker’s fist landed, followed by a string of impatient doorbell chimes.
After a couple knocks I knew without looking who was at the door: a severely stooped and bowlegged man. A resident of Tiffany’s, our neighboring assisted living facility for the poor and often mentally handicapped. At full stature I imagine he’d be taller than me, but with his back hunched and legs bowed, he stood only as high as my chest. He’s always fidgeting, his weight shifting from foot to foot, as if his feet were constantly arguing over which should bear the man’s full burden. I’d guess he’s in his late-fifties, but he might be much younger than that.
He’d been coming to the door, almost always just after the office closes, most days for about two weeks. Usually whoever answers the door asks what they can do for him. If he asks for food or water, he’ll typically receive a snack from the kitchen and a to-go cup. If he asks for money, he’s denied and politely asked to be on his way.
That Monday was only my second turn answering the door for him. The first time I dreaded it, knowing on sight that my patience and charity were about to be tested and found lacking, if only in a small way. I guarded myself with an I’m-working-and-you-are-not-my-problem mentality and opened the door, being careful to open it enough to seem friendly but not enough to welcome him inside.
“Hey, man. How can I help you?” I asked.
His speech pattern is distant and disjointed, as if he’s talking to someone who just shook him awake and demanded that he defend his existence. Trains of thought travel from his brain, wracked by mental illness, through synapses and vocal cords, across jagged teeth, and out his mouth into a slow rush of raw, desperate need.
The first time I half-opened the door for him, he grasped for the words and eventually asks me “You know the light-skinned guy that works here? He…” and says something about a ring, or something else he was returning to Skeet. Relieved that I’m not the one being called on, I say, “Oh, you mean Skeet. Hold tight for a second, I’ll get him.” At that moment, Skeet came around the corner and I retreated back to my office.
On Monday, my second interaction with him, as I walked out of my office towards the door where he knocked, I prepared my script: “Sorry, man. I don’t have any cash. And the office is closed so you gotta go.”
I might have fetched him a snack or some water, but that was the distance I was willing to go for him.
But descending the half-flight of stairs to the door, I could see through the glass that his baggy pants were soaked along the inseam from the crotch down to his ankles.
He had obviously wet himself standing up.
Again I opened the door halfway and asked with a slightly more compassionate tone than I had planned, “Hey, man. How can I help you?”
He started in, in his dreamlike – maybe nightmarish – speech pattern, asking me if I knew about the car wash “up that way,” pointing back towards and through Tiffany’s. I didn’t, and I’m not sure if said car wash even exists, but I said I did and asked him again how I could help him.
He said that some guys up at the car wash had splashed him with water and asked, “Do y’all have any pants I can have?” I said that I didn’t think so, and he asked me about my car and if I could take him to the other house he used to stay at, this time pointing east, towards downtown.
I don’t know if he was referring to another facility where he used to live, or maybe to the East End where he might have grown up—having a daydream about a former, better home where he was clean and dry.
I told him I couldn’t drive him anywhere. He paused and asked again if there were any pants he could have.
Sometimes I carry an extra pair of shorts in my gym bag, so I told him I might have something I could give him, and then said to sit tight, outside the door, while I got my keys. I pulled a $20 bill out of my wallet and tucked it into the front pocket of my khakis, thinking I might give it to him, point him towards the thrift stores on Broad Street – which were almost certainly closed by now – where he might find some pants.
In a moment I passed back through the door and walked across the parking lot to my car. I looked back at him still standing by the door, looking at me with eyes that might have conveyed desperation, or anxious hope, or just embarrassment that he was still standing in his urine-soaked pants.
He choked a question out across the parking lot, something along the lines of, “Should I follow you?” I motioned for him to come on, and he stood beside my car while I looked through my gym bag.
“Sorry, man, sometimes I have extra shorts but this time I don’t.”
“You sure you don’t have any pants I can wear?”
Maybe stalling for time, I asked him what size he wore. He said, “About your size,” pointing his finger a few inches from my thigh.
I asked, “Do you have a belt?” still looking for a reason to dodge the unasked question between us: “Will you please give me your pants?”
He responded, louder and excited now, “Yeah, I have a belt. Right here.” And he lifted his shirt to show me.
I stood running through in my head all the remaining excuses I had not to proffer my Brooks Brothers khakis:
- These are the best khakis I have.
- They don’t need to be ironed to look nice.
- They were expensive.
And just as easily as my excuses came to mind, so did the rebuttals:
- So what, you have a car and the money to buy another pair just like these.
- You’ve had them for five years and, again, you’ve got money that this man doesn’t have.
A final excuse: This man’s problems are not my problems.
A final rebuttal: Screw your sense of independence. Don’t try to deflect the responsibility before you.
You’re a liberal. You talk constantly about systemic injustice – what politicians need to do, what policies need to be implemented, what society needs to do to redress the ills of the systemically stepped-on, those grown men that the system leaves un-medicated and unloved to pee themselves standing up in broad daylight, leaves to beg for their needs.
You wonder about what the marginalized need from society in order to step out of the margins, yet all you really do is donate to a church and vote for “socially minded politicians.”
This man is standing right in front of you, telling you again and again exactly what he needs right at this moment to feel clean again, to regain some of the dignity that’s been slowly chipped away these past years at Tiffany’s, maybe his whole life.
He needs your pants. Please, just give him your pants.
I tell him, “Hold on a minute,” and walk back inside. I change into my Frisbee clothes, fold my pants and walk back out.
When I return he’s bent over in the dirt beneath the big tree. I get closer and see he’s undone his belt; he’s struggling with his wet pants which are now a quarter of the way down his legs, exposing his white boxers. I never told him that I would give him my pants, leaving the proverbial door half open again in case I conjured one more compelling excuse to keep them.
Maybe he knew before I did that I was going to give them up. Maybe his embarrassment was so strong that he was willing to take the gamble, or just unwilling to stand one more second of the urine-soaked cloth sticking to his leg.
I told him that he should get up and button his pants, that we should head back to Tiffany’s where he can change.
He gets up, shuffles and drops his shoes. When he reaches to grab them, his pants fall down again, exposing his backside. I tell him I’ll get his shoes and he should just hold on to his pants and walk. Even before we get to the door of Tiffany’s he says, “Here. Right here.” And opens the gated fence to the alleyway, slides in, sits down on a ledge and immediately starts undressing again. I set his shoes down, hand him my folded khakis, step out and close the gate.
* * *
Today’s Gospel begins with John whining to Jesus that “someone” is casting out demons in His name, and, to top it off, the disciples say they tried to stop him because he wasn’t “one of them.” If John’s an Episcopalian, my guess is his version of “trying to stop him” was complaining to the organist—maybe the disciples thought the man casting out demons was too low church.
Jesus rebukes the Disciples, saying, “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” If you draw this message out, it’s the kind of thing that makes Episcopalians itch: So no matter what the person does, if they do it because they see the person they serve as part of the Body of Christ, it’s fine? What about televangelist preachers raising funds for their next personal jet off the backs of the poor and elderly?
But I don’t think this is what Jesus means; I’m certain it’s not. His sentiments seem more in line with Thomas Merton’s prayer:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road…though I may know nothing about it. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
I haven’t been all that vocal about our relationship with our neighbors at Tiffany’s. The few of you who have heard me speak on the issue know that my thoughts tend to be along the lines of “let’s put in chairs, a water cooler and open up a break room under the tree.” But I have to realize that I’m speaking from my own place of privilege: as a healthy, white, twenty-something, American male, I have less reason to fear for my safety than probably anyone on the planet.
I don’t know what the right way to be in relationship with Tiffany’s is, I’m pretty sure it’s not mine, but I believe, as Thomas Merton did, that, “the desire to please God does in fact please him,” that if we desire to please God, and to serve Christ as a community, we won’t fear, we won’t face our perils alone. God willing, neither will Tiffany’s.
Four days after I gave him my pants, I saw Carl* again. I didn’t know his name was Carl at the time; it was Amy who told me that a few weeks later. I was getting in my car after happy hour at the Jefferson. He was still wearing my khakis, but rolled up to his knees, our pants splashed with the 40-ounce beer he was holding.
*Note: Carl’s real name has been changed.
I’m embarrassed to say that it hurt me pretty deeply to see him. Even more embarrassing that the initial pang wasn’t really about Carl’s condition, but my foolish, egotistical belief that my small act of charity had somehow saved Carl’s life.
He walked up to my car, gestured for me to roll down the window. He asked me if I’d come up to Chamberlayne Avenue, to help him get his wife back. He said she was up there with some guys who had tried to fight him.
I said, “Why don’t you just stay away from them?”
He said, “but my wife’s up there, and I’ve got to get back home.”
What I wouldn’t do to live in a world where Carl could go home.
I don’t really know Carl, his story, his family. I don’t know where the line is between fiction and reality in his stories, or if his illness has left him with any way to even make that distinction. I don’t know if Carl had opportunities and squandered them or if he’s the kind of guy who, “if not for bad luck would have no luck at all,” though I’d guess the latter.
But I know, I’m certain of one thing: Carl bears the name of Christ.
I don’t know what the right way is to be in relationship with him and with Tiffany’s, but I think we do.
I hope we never get comfortable with the sound of our neighbors banging at our doors. May the rattle be a constant reminder that the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t yet among us—that we have we have miles to go on the road to pleasing God. For now, I can offer a cup of water and maybe the occasional pair of clean pants to those who bear the name Christ.