I am blessed and humbled to share here today at St. Barnabas. St. Barnabas is a treasured support congregation within the Family Promise network. You partner with Skyline United Methodist when they host the families. Congregations come together to provide temporary housing to families with children for one week at a home, on a rotating weekly basis. Volunteers here provide meals and hospitality, you sleep over, and drive the van. Collectively you all help to end family homelessness. And if you are wondering what I mean by “driving the van” and how that even relates to ending family homelessness, then you have yet to experience the beauty of Family Promise! And, stay tuned, because in roughly 10 minutes, I hope to connect those dots and tie it to the Gospel of Matthew.
The Gospel reading really hit home with me. The parable suggests radical forgiveness. A servant owed a huge amount of debt to his king. One talent is equivalent to about 20 years of working at an average rate, so it was an impossible amount to pay off. The punishment would be harsh: repayment and sold into slavery. The servant did not directly ask for forgiveness, he only plead for patience so that he could repay. And the king had a change of heart and freed the servant of his debts. Then, the servant meets up with a fellow servant who owed him. The second servant also pleaded for more time to pay back his manageable amount but was met with refusal. The first servant was brought back before the king at which point, he was shamed, tortured and told to repay all his debt, an insurmountable feat. The last sentence is powerful, reminding us that God will do to unto us if we do not forgive others from our hearts.
So much to unpack! Related closely to forgiveness are mercy, gratitude, grace and sin, common themes in many gospel readings and always great topics to relate to Family Promise.
Family Promise’s mission is to prevent and end homelessness for families with children. They are not “homeless families”- they are experiencing homelessness. They are so much more than their current circumstances as we all are.
So where does forgiveness and the Gospel reading fit in? Forgiveness usually implies there was sin somewhere along the line to forgive. Let’s explore a few ways in which this plays out at Family Promise. Is it a sin that in the richest country in the world, children go to bed hungry and without stable housing? Why does poverty exist? Why do people experience homelessness? All homelessness organizations answer this question in some way. Think for a moment, how you would answer these questions. Was it Jack and Ieysha’s fault they lost their jobs because their son’s constant need for surgeries due to a rare medical condition and neither one of them had benefits to cover medical or personal leave? Was it Matt’s fault his house burned down? Was it Kendra’s fault that her husband, the breadwinner of the family, died suddenly?
This past year, more people came to us employed than unemployed. Families were experiencing homelessness but someone in the family was working. If you work full-time on minimum wage in Delaware, your gross annual income is $17,160. You are still below the poverty line if your household size is two. Volunteering at FP is an opportunity to meet adorable children and serve up some good, healthy dinners, but it is also a chance to come face-to-face with society’s failings. A child gets off a school bus at a motel, a parent is working full-time but cannot afford rent, a family sleeps in their car because they refuse split up in the shelter system…We must acknowledge sin is happening but we must be cautious where we place the blame.
It is a sin that a family would need to be split up to receive help. Family Promise is the only provider of shelter that keeps families together, serving kids of all ages and serving dads. On Father’s Day this year, we had more dads in the network than moms. Keeping families together remains our niche. We recently served a dad and his two daughters – one daughter was 24 and the other was 17. Anywhere else would have made the 24-year-old go into a women’s shelter alone. Family Promise kept them together. Within a week, they were in an apartment because of congregations like St. Barnabas providing radical hospitality and the staff working hard to help families set up a housing plan for success.
Families like this dad and his daughters have had stability before in their lives. The common denominator is that they all experienced some sort of bottoming out. I’m sure someone in this church has had experience with divorce, cancer, death in the family, job changes or a car breaking down. These are the same things our families have experienced. The difference is the resources we have and choices we are able to make. For you and I, maybe there is a second car we could drive, extended family to take us in, or savings to tie us over. It is a sin to forget the power of privilege and access that some families might not have.
It is a sin to not have the best outcomes available to every family who needs it. Family Promise has the best success rate in the state of Delaware move families into housing. We should be shouting this from the rooftops! If there was a doctor with a particular treatment that worked, wouldn’t we want all patients to go there or have the cure go widespread? We owe this thinking to our line of work. People will often ask me how we are so successful. Partly, it is our culture. We do not call ourselves a shelter, we operate a hospitality network. Families are guests, not clients, and they are experiencing homelessness, they are not homeless families. It is your love and hospitality that make families feel welcome and hopeful. And it is our awesome staff help them secure housing. We have high expectations and believe 100% in our families’ abilities to do great things. They matter, they are children of God and as such, are perfect in his creation. Does our society believe this about people experiencing homeless?
Besides confronting sin, I witness forgiveness and miracles every day. For example, the whole network you served the lasting hosting round with Skyline UMC are currently enjoying their weekend from the comfort of their own homes. One family moved to Elkton closer to extended family. A mom cried as she took supplies from the Day Center and is now excited to find full-time employment. Another mom found a great home and recently started work she enjoys. The 4th family moved out as well and love their nice neighborhood. These were initially heartbreaking stories: seedy motels, sleeping in cars, separated from each other, fearful of the future. Today, they are stories of hope because of the love and grace you provided and because of the forgiveness and grace the families showed. You did not judge these families, you did not see them as sinful. And now, we can all celebrate that homelessness is no more for these families and begin to support more families.
Forgiveness, grace, sin, redemption… All of this manifests through relationships. You are the hands and feet of Christ. There are plenty of ways to carry out Christ’s love through Family Promise. Our annual fundraising Breakfast is coming up Tuesday, October 3rd– you can see your coordinator here for more information about that. The theme is “Looking Toward the Future”- it is what we do with the families and it is what we are currently doing as an organization as look to start a second network to serve even more families. When you volunteer, donate items, give of your treasure, you show faith in our families and start to amend the sins of our society. Can you set up/take down bedding? Can you Cook? Talk or listen? Sleep? There is a role for you. Perhaps you are counting your blessings and want to pass on God’s love. Perhaps you realize tables could turn and the families really are no different than any of us. Whatever gets you volunteer, it will be love, faith, forgiveness and the success you witness that keeps you coming.
By the end of this year, you will have provided 1,274 Family Promise shelter nights since you joined the network. You ensured there was enough for 3,822 meals. It would be a sin if I didn’t remind you of your impressive legacy and thank you for your service that has helped to end family homelessness for three years now. This is actively living out your faith, challenging stereotypes of our society and maybe your own. Thank you for all the journeys you have been part of and think of all the children and parents you have met. Thank you for letting me share with you this morning.