Bless This Home
by Louise Westfall
Housing first. They say that’s often the key to lifting people from poverty into independence. It’s the philosophy guiding New Genesis Transitional Housing and Denver’s policies and practice. Housing first. From a safe and stable place, you can work to address other issues threatening human flourishing such as lack of employment, substance use disorders, mental health challenges, family dysfunction.
It’s a sound philosophy, and one that deserves our attention and support. Children should not have to live in a car. Tents offer very little warmth against winter winds. SOS–Safe Outdoor Spaces–provide services and support for just a limited time. As vital as these are, none really offers a viable, long-term alternative to affordable housing.
I’m struck by how much of the Christmas story concerns housing and shelter. Most notably, of course, is that the Little Lord Jesus was born in a barn. Far from home, with no room in the inn, his parents took what was available and made space in a feed trough among animals to rest their newborn son. In the pageant last week, we were reminded that murderous threats from jealous King Herod necessitated the holy family’s escape from their home to another country where they were strangers. Today’s connection is not nearly so dramatic, but it reveals again the importance of a home. There’s pregnant Mary, not yet married to Joseph, and we know from other texts that there was a certain stigma attached to this situation. Perhaps to remove herself from judging eyes, Mary heads to the home of her much older relative, Elizabeth, who is also unexpectedly expecting. Here she finds welcome–housing first. And then…well, just hear what happens second. A reading from the first chapter of Luke, verses 39 through 56. Listen for God’s Word. [LUKE 1:39-56]
Colorado Public Radio’s “carol countdown” happened last weekend (and will be repeated several more times this week). Listeners send in their favorite Christmas carols and the station plays them, starting with number 50 (this year, The Holly and the Ivy) and continuing through number 1 (Carol of the Bells slightly edging out Hark the Herald Angels Sing). Now, there’s a certain consistency in the chosen carols, even if their ranking changes year to year. Heavily represented on the list are carols describing the joys of home and homecoming. I’ll Be Home for Christmas, of course, and many others reflecting the warmth of gathering in front of a blazing fire; the intimacy of shared space; delight in reunions with family and friends from afar, and the particular pleasure of decorating your home for the holidays.
I think these carols may get promoted this year due to pandemic restrictions (last year for the first time I didn’t get a big live tree, but instead purchased a sad little artificial one without even the charm of a Charlie Brown tree with friends singing around it). We’ll see. But the longing for home is universal to the human experience and is something more than just “housing.” We all need a roof over our heads. But “home” is a place we are loved and cared for. At home we find comfort and rest. Did you hear the way God’s love was described with metaphors of home in the evocative reading as the Dempsey’s lit the Advent candles?–sunlight streaming through windows, shelter in the storm, a table where there’s room for everyone, a streetlight illuminating the way. Home is a safe place where we can be ourselves and find acceptance; conversely it’s where we are inspired and motivated to become our best selves.
There are a lot of homeless people. Some of them literally have nowhere to lay their heads. People on the streets, but I think also of those Kentucky folks whose homes were blown away in recent massive tornadoes. The poignant photographs of people surveying the rubble of the place where they once lived were heartbreaking. The child of one family described how their Christmas tree and all the presents “got sucked up into the big tornado.” The reporter mentioned afterward that people had responded with thousands of contributions just for immediate needs, including replacing Christmas gifts.
I think of the more than one thousand Afghan refugees who have come to Colorado since August–including 31 who will arrive in Denver next week and stay temporarily at a state-run transitional housing site. A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Human Services called the situation a “humanitarian crisis…We are talking about people who have been through enormous trauma and hardship, and they have literally run for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs… “ (reported in the Denver Post, 12/17/21, p. 5A) The Post mentioned how church groups were leading volunteer efforts to provide clothing and housewares, enrolling children in school, coordinating health care needs. Housing first, yes, but what comes next?
Love as an act of will--the choices we make and actions we take to enhance the lives of others and our life together as a whole.
Even the most beautiful homes will feel emptier and lonelier at Christmas following a year when a beloved family member has died. And in homes of dysfunction and discord, the images of a happy family gathered around tree, smiling, eyes shining and holding each other tight will mock the reality. Every one of us has experienced a certain degree of isolation during the pandemic; restrictions about when and how we gather; where we work; how we can socialize. Tender feelings about home may have shifted when it has become our world.
Bless these homes, dear God. And ours. Amid the vast array of conditions in which we live in them, show us the source of your blessing.
Could it be through Mary’s exuberant song of praise, presented as a spontaneous reaction to Elizabeth’s blessing on her and her unborn baby? Mary herself personifies the good news of God’s work among people: a young, unmarried female who carries the child who will save the world. She—and her prophetic witness–represent a complete reversal of the entrenched social order, for here God has been a strong support for the poor; brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. But it’s not that the proud and powerful and rich are permanently excluded. Salvation, it seems, grows from God’s compassion toward those in need, and the actions it takes to move against systems that perpetuate injustice. Salvation results in the formation of Beloved Community where everyone is home…where everyone experiences welcome, abundance and love. Not just housing, but a home.
Now, it’s the height of cliché to say that love makes a house a home. But it’s true. Love as an act of will–the choices we make and actions we take to enhance the lives of others and our life together as a whole. The death of author/activist bel hooks this week brought to mind her decades of work exploring the intersectionality of race, economics, and gender and the way they contribute to systems that exclude and oppress certain people. Her bedrock conviction was that love was the only power to produce lasting change–and there was far too little of that from both the left and right. It will take more than politics to generate love as the ethical foundation of society. It will take people who understand love is what love does. Caring–-as God does–for vulnerable people without means or power to thrive. Seeking justice–as God does–for those caught up in systems that disfigure and destroy them. Transformation of the ones who control and benefit from those systems.
Love. It’s as simple and complex as that. It’s at the heart of this congregation’s mission. We say “service is Central” because we know that service strengthens our capacity for empathy, and empathy builds love, and love as Jesus taught shows up in acts of compassion…and service. The Church’s life, our heartbeat, our breathing in and breathing out, Christ’s body, transforming Spirit.
Our church home is under construction, with all the attendant costs, uncertainties, and noise. You’ll hear an update on all of it in a few minutes. But please don’t think for a moment that this construction is only or primarily about bricks and mortar (and steel and drywall and cement and glass and money, lots of money). This is the work of love, the intentional extending of ourselves and our resources for the purpose of creating a home. A home with an open door to an entire neighborhood of others, some of whom are different from some of us in color, age, sexual identity, economic situation, beliefs, national origin, and on and on. A home in which we are beloved and so secure in that knowledge that we are moved to act on behalf of those who don’t know or experience it. A home where all are welcome and accepted, and nourished to become the very best version of themselves…and ourselves. Impossible? Hmm, yes, probably. Until we remember the way God works to make the impossible possible.
Both Mary and Elizabeth were blessed by their time at home together, because they understood the Source of blessing: the faithfulness of God. Blessed are they who believe what was spoken by God. Blessed are they who trust in the One who is coming to set things right, according to long-standing promises. Friends, we wait in this Advent season, and it is hard to trust those promises of “peace on earth, goodwill to all.” But we have more than wishful thinking to sustain us. With the trust of Mary and Elizabeth, pregnant with possibility, may we too perceive the God who–with nothing more–and nothing less–than love is turning the world around.
Bless our home, dear God, with your love…in human hands.