As we vested on Thursday morning for the funeral I was wondering whether anyone would show up. I knew many on the staff would come and I was pleased that the pastor from St. John’ s on the corner was going to be with us to help. But beyond that I didn’ t know if anyone else would attend.
After all, we were laying to rest someone many considered a nobody, a lost soul, a practically anonymous human being who had no family in the world. We were burying Charlotte, the homeless paranoid schizophrenic who slept in the doorway of our church for at least the past ten years. Charlotte had gone into the hospital a couple of weeks before suffering from dehydration. When the hospital asked for the next of kin, for the emergency contact, she gave them St. James’ s phone number. Dana, Torrence and I all visited Charlotte while she was in St. Mary’ s. We thought she was getting better but unexpectedly she died, one day after her 74 birthday.
So I made plans for us to bury her in our garden close to the doorway she called home for so many years. Bennett’ s Funeral Home helped us to defray the cost of her cremation and I prepared her funeral service. But when the time arrived to give thanks for Charlotte’ s life I thought it might be a very lonely service.
But in fact it was a holy moment, one of the holiest in my 15 years of ministry. As Torrence likes to say, on Thursday morning our garden was a thin place, a moment in time where that which separates heaven and earth is thinned down to a slim membrane and the awesome presence of the holy is palpable.
Dana, Pastor Heaslet from St. John’ s and I all gathered outside Thursday morning a little early. The garden was still damp from all the rain and I was proud of the beautiful space we have created through the generous gifts of so many people. Our lovely garden was a gift and we were there to give a gift to a woman who had so little in life. As we stood there waiting I began to wonder how many other gifts we might witness that day.
Slowly, quietly others began to arrive. Members of the staff emerged from their offices. Parishioners, many of whom had encountered Charlotte at one time or another, parked their cars and silently came through the gates. And there were numerous others as well. People I had never seen before. People – old and young, men and women, walking and in wheelchairs came through our gates and entered the garden. The policeman who patrols this part of town late at night was there in his blue pants and tee shirt having just gotten off duty. He regularly checked on Charlotte as she slept in our doorway, watched out for her as she walked the streets, protected her rights as she came and went day in and day out all over our neighborhood. In fact, he is the person who called the ambulance and got Charlotte to the hospital. There was a large group from the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Good people who had worked with Charlotte and helped her many times over the years. There were folks from St. John’ s who cared for Charlotte when she would camp out in the alley behind their church. And there were many others as well. Folks I did not recognize, folks I have never seen before but folks who had touched and been touched by Charlotte over the years.
It was a holy moment, all fifty of us gathered there praying together, responding together, mourning, laughing, crying together. When we read the passage from Revelation about those who have come out of the great ordeal and washed their robes in the blood of the lamb we knew these words were meant for Charlotte. When we read how God will wipe away all tears from their eyes we knew that St. John, the author of Revelation, was speaking about Charlotte. And when we read in John’ s gospel about Jesus’ promise to prepare a place for us, that we will all have a mansion waiting for us in heaven we were thankful that Charlotte finally had a place to lay her head.
After the readings and in place of a homily we just talked. Anyone who wanted to could offer up his or her memory of Charlotte. We laughed as we remembered how Charlotte used to yell at us if we left the porch light on because it attracted bugs and kept her awake. We remembered her good days when she was so witty and bright and her bad days when the demons of paranoia would drive her away from people. One gentleman recounted how he had served roast beef to Charlotte every Christmas for many years. With real loss in his voice he told us Charlotte was my Christmas. It was a Holy Ghost moment.
At the end of the service everyone lined up and as a final goodbye each of us took a little spade full of dirt and placed it on top of Charlotte’ s ashes. As I stood there and watched that diverse group of people file by that little hole in our garden I felt deeply thankful. I felt thankful for that moment, for those people and for Charlotte who had brought us all together. I realized that while we had all come because we had given something at one time or another to this homeless woman, we were leaving that morning with the deeper knowledge that in fact she had given much to us. Her poverty, her illness, her courage, her laughter, her need – had touched us, deepened us, made us better people for having known her.
Why give? Why give to the church, to Freedom House, Sacred Heart Center, Peter Paul Development Center? Why give to any person or any organization? Because life is about giving, life gets its’ meaning from giving. The more we give the richer this life becomes. The more we give the more we get out of living. And if you make a pledge to the church today don’ t do it because you ought to, or you have to, or you need to do your duty. If you make a pledge to the church today do it because you want to give a portion of what you have in gratitude for all that God has given you. If you make a pledge to the church today do it because you know that when you give to others you not only make their lives better but you make your own life richer, deeper, and more holy.
In a few minutes we will have an opportunity to come forward and place our pledge cards on the altar. Only come forward if you are ready, if you feel good about your gift, if you have peace about your offering. And if you do come and give your gift to God, do it not because the church needs it but because you believe giving matters. If you come forward do it because you believe it matters that someone like Charlotte can find a home and a family in the shadows of these buildings. If you come forward do it because you believe it matters that we care for orphans in Honduras and teach children in Whitcomb Court. Do it because you believe it matters that we have a place to educate our children in the faith, and a place where anyone can come for counseling and help. Finally, if you come forward do it because you believe in the Kingdom of God, not as some abstract hope, but as a reality right here, right now, in this place that we call St. James’ s. Amen.