Dec. 31, 2017 Isaiah 9: 2-7
Prayer: Dear Lord, On this last day of the year, help us to see clearly where we’ve been and where we should go. Help us to keep our eyes focused on you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
This Time, Next Year
On the last Sunday of every year, I preach a sermon with the same title: “This Time, Next Year.” The idea is that things might be bad right now.
You may be addicted to drugs or you may be homeless.
You may be estranged from family or have financial problems.
You may have just pulled into Nazareth and have the weight of the world on your shoulders.
But let’s think about what changes we can make in 2018, so that by this time next year, things could be completely different.
Let me tell you about someone we all know who made a huge change this year.
This man was born in 1957. He worked in a metal plating company. He worked at Dunean Mill. He owned and ran a café at one time.
He was married for 27 years, and raised his wife’s son and daughter from a previous marriage. His father gave him a few acres near Poe Mill which he still owns.
But he had a considerable number of medical issues. Nine years ago, he was out walking in the sleet and snow, and a car slid into him.
Two years later, he was robbed in front of his mobile home. The getaway driver ran over his arm, crushing it and his shoulder. He now has eight pins in his left shoulder.
He got on disability, and his dad helped him a lot. He and his wife separated, but it was one of those relationships, he said, where they got along much better once they were apart.
Then two years ago his dad died. Then his ex-wife died. One right after the other. And the losses sucked the life right out of him.
He began drinking heavily, using drugs. He became homeless, sleeping between sheets of plastic on his land in Poe Mill. Finally, he put a camper on the property and lived in it with no power. But when he had a heart attack and was in the hospital, he said, the county hauled it off.
While he had been coming to Triune for a long time – for meals and Bible study and worship – this year he began attending Round Table and talking to our social worker, Robin. When he wrecked his moped and sustained a serious head injury, she hooked him up with New Horizon. More importantly, she got him to see himself as a child of God.
“I had given up,” he said. “But she got me to change and to hang in there. She’s one of the best friends I ever had.”
At the beginning of December, our friend moved into a mobile home.
He now walks two miles from that home to Triune. But that’s nothing, he says. When he visits his mom on White Horse Road, he walks seven miles to get here.
Would the newly housed Kenneth “Shorty” Powell please stand up?
What was it our singers sang this morning?
I had a dream I
Stood beneath an orange sky
With my brother and my sister standing by.
All of us need brothers and sisters, whether they’re our family of origin, or people we meet later in life. All of us need a little help.
A woman came in one day in December and whispered that her adult son was in the car, too embarrassed to come in. We gave her and her daughter a meal, and sent a coat out to him.
All of us need a little help sometimes. And it can take courage to ask for it, courage to ask for – and accept -- real, lasting help.
Today’s Scripture reading is from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. We read this text in light of the coming of our help, our Messiah. We read it in the light of Christmas.
Isaiah 9: 2-7:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
We acknowledge Jesus as this Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But it doesn’t always feel as if that yoke and that bar and that rod have been broken, does it? We still live with the weight and the load and the burden.
Old Carmen’s gotta go, but the devil always sticks around.
And so we look to our brothers and sisters in Christ to help carry our load when it becomes too much for us.
I am amazed at the people who come here to offer that help. Our friends in Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Porn Addicts Anonymous and Al-Anon help recovering addicts on a daily basis.
This year, David Gay sent 132 people into drug and alcohol treatment. When they get out, those meetings are waiting for them.
This year, our social workers helped 14 people find housing.
This year Beth Messick found housing or rehab for another 17 women who were in the sex trade. Beth worked with many more, including 32 women in her trauma classes in the Greenville County Detention Center.
This year, we graduated two people from Triune Circles and we have three more ready to graduate in March. Each of them has four or five new friends for life.
One of our faithful Circles volunteers, Jenifer McDermot, died this year. And when Cheri and I went to her memorial service, there was her Circle leader Sabrina, and Sabrina’s new baby and all her family, mourning their friend.
This year, our twice-a-week Round Table continued to work with people who were slowly making changes in their lives. I saw Shorty in there every Sunday afternoon.
There’s someone else I saw in there every single week. I have told some parts of his story in the past, but never the entire thing.
This man was born in Greenville in 1950, into a broken home. And his dream was always to have a family and to provide them with a stable home.
He graduated from the old Washington High School and married at 19. The couple had a daughter and a son. But they fell under bad influences, he said, and the marriage ended after 10 years.
The courts wanted him to pay child support. But for some reason that he doesn’t understand now, he resisted.
“I got hard-hearted and hateful,” he said. “I caused my children to suffer. I know now it was the wrong decision.”
For two years, he was in and out of jail for failure to pay child support. He lost jobs because of it. He lived with his sisters when he wasn’t in jail.
And then he decided, you know, I’m a grown man. I shouldn’t be relying on my relatives. And so he moved onto the streets. He was 31.
This was around 1981, and homelessness wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. Police weren’t looking for it. So our friend slept on benches on Main Street, in McPherson Park, in Falls Park, in Cleveland Park.
When he saw a school bus parked overnight at a driver’s house, he’d force his way inside it to sleep. He’d go to used car lots and try to find an unlocked car. When he couldn’t, he could sometimes get into a sheltered portion of the dealership itself.
The Greenville Rescue Mission gave him a place to live for a long time. But he didn’t stay.
He had long smoked marijuana, but he moved on to crack cocaine. He worked for a furniture moving company, and then he began working day labor. He could do the work, but then he’d head over to west Greenville and spend his entire paycheck on crack.
“I just couldn’t seem to make a life for myself,” he said. “I guess I was depressed because I lost my opportunity to raise my family. I didn’t know how to be a good father or a good husband. My children ended up in a single-parent home, which was the last thing I’d intended.”
I met this man when I arrived at Triune. He was 54 by then, and had lived on the streets for 23 years. He was also one of the nicest people I ever met. He was at every meal, every Bible study, every worship service.
Back when we had cafeteria lines, he was always the very last one to eat. He was the first to take out trash or mop the floor. He was calm and kind in a sea of shovers and complainers and manipulators in those days.
But perhaps the most striking thing about him was that despite his situation, he tried so hard to help someone else. He had a mentally ill friend who bounced between Washington, DC, and Greenville. And while we had a great deal of difficulty dealing with his friend, he never lost patience with her. He’d accompany her to the doctor, to the Social Security office, to United Ministries, wherever she needed to go, always speaking to her in his calm, quiet way.
Our social workers, Kathy and Robin, began encouraging this man to think about housing. But, as he said, “I’d been outdoors for so long, it was hard to imagine living inside.” He smoked crack to forget about his situation. His situation didn’t change because he smoked crack.
Or as he put it, “I guess crack took away the pain for awhile. I just wanted the pain to ease up some kind of way.”
So the cycle of his life continued: Work day labor. Get paid. Buy dope.
We watched him do that for another eight years. Then he turned 62 and began receiving a Social Security check. It was $769 a month. And somehow, the steadiness of that income convinced him this was his last chance to change his life.
So he got off crack. He moved into the Salvation Army. And he saved an incredible portion of that monthly paycheck – up to $500 a month.
He paid off his reinstatement fee for a driver’s license. He passed the written test. And we took him for his driver’s test, which he passed.
Then he used his savings to buy a used Toyota Camry. He slept in it for awhile. And he slept at the Salvation Army for awhile.
And he began doing research on apartments. Most wouldn’t take him because of some old drug felonies. But last year, a landlord took a chance on him. He went into an apartment at 66. He’d been on the streets for 35 years.
At first, he told us all he needed in that apartment was a bed. He could sit on it. He could eat on it. But slowly, slowly, he began to gather furniture.
Our social workers convene a support group once a month for newly housed folks. They have cooking lessons, go on field trips and talk about bill paying and isolation, all the issues involved in living indoors.
This man never misses a meeting.
Then he came to us and said he wanted to seek a pardon for those old drug charges that would always stand in his way if he ever wanted to move into another apartment. He did eight months of paperwork, then asked if a staff member could come with him to Columbia for the hearing before the Pardon and Parole Board.
As we were leaving Triune, one of our volunteers who is a retired family court judge, said, “Don’t get your hopes up. They never give pardons.”
Except this time, they did.
So he has moved into a better apartment and kept his car and his clean record. He returns to church every Sunday.
But here’s the part that even he doesn’t know. At the first of December, I turned in the manuscript for my latest novel. And here’s what’s written on the dedication page: To Sippio, who showed me what kindness looks like on the street.
Sippio Wardlaw, would you like to stand up?
In every period of history, in every culture, people have been under “the yoke of their burden,” have felt “the bar across their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor,” as the prophet Isaiah wrote. That’s what our Savior came to confront on that first Christmas.
That’s what he has instructed his church to confront in the 21st century.
And so we will try to do exactly that as we go into 2018. We will offer people every avenue we can think of to get clean and sober, to find safe housing, to leave prostitution, to receive healthcare, to seek employment.
But as Kenneth and Sippio will tell you, we can’t do it for you. It’s up to the individual to ask for help from that brother and sister standing by.
If you are not happy with where you are at the end of 2017, I hope the new year will be the one for dramatic change.
So we can tell another story and another and another, this time next year.