Note to the Reader: The following sermon includes a story with dialogue. It would be helpful to highlight the dialogue in different colors to help present the effects of the different personalities.
The streets of one suburban town in northern New Jersey ooze with history. There is a stately gothic Episcopal Church on one corner on the main street and a matching town library on the other. One can walk down the maple tree lined streets to the town green. To the south, on the hill, is where Washington's army spent one of the winters of the Revolution. Walking the streets from the church to the green there was, some years ago, an odd character dressed in a green parka with worn fake fur trim. Let's call him Robert. Robert wore the parka summer and winter. He talked to no one but muttered at everyone. Unclean. Strange. Robert was, during the 80's, as much a fixture in the town as the town hall or the Victorian building housing "The Men's Club."
Robert was the "dean," the "chairman" of the street people in that community. He certainly had his few minutes of fame. The library tried to ban him from the building because of his odor and odd habit of staring at library patrons. Robert's rights to smell and to stare were duly upheld by the courts in New Jersey. He refused to eat in the soup kitchen or sleep in the shelter. He would eat what he could scavenge and he slept in a mysterious cranny near the train station.
One cold clear morning, as the rector of the Episcopal Church made his way down the path from the rectory to the parish hall, Robert called out from the steps of the library: "Hey! Reverend, I need to talk to you! Hey, Reverend!"
It was bitter cold and the street was covered with ice and packed snow. Robert slowly maneuvered his way to the church driveway. The priest stood shivering as he watched the strange figure in the bright sun, make his way across the street. "Reverend, it's too cold at night. You'll have to keep the church open at night and turn up the heat." Always the gentleman, the rector pulled his scarf over his face to keep out the cold - and the smell.
"Robert, you know the church is open from 9 in the morning until 5 o'clock. Everyone is welcome." Ignoring the words being spoken, Robert continued, "It's too cold. Some folk won't go the shelter and there's not room for everyone. Now, you keep the church open and it'll give people a safe place to go. It's what you're supposed to do, isn't it?" Robert didn't wait for an answer. He had finished giving his orders for the day and turned to take his place at the library.
That morning at the parish staff meeting the bitter cold was discussed and the need for a safe place for the homeless to gather. Calls were made to the shelter. The soup kitchen's director was invited up to join the conversation. That night the doors were left open to the church and the heat was turned up. Volunteers served coffee. Robert was no where to be seen.
Robert took a liking to the church's curate. Hired to oversee the soup kitchen and other outreach ministries, this newly ordained priest was always around the street folk. Robert decided that the curate was all right. He cornered the curate at the bank ATM machine near the town green on a hot August day. As Robert did with the folk he liked, he got right up into the priest's face. "Hey, Reverend. Are you doing O.K. today? You know, I need to talk to you about someone." "Well, that's fine Robert." The priest moved up wind as he responded. Robert continued, "You know Shirley? Well Shirley wants to go to your church. You need to invite her." The curate thought for a moment and slowly asked, "You mean she wants to attend a service." "Yeah, she wants to go to church. She thinks you and the guys in the soup kitchen are real nice. So, you invite her to church."
Shifting in the sun, the curate decided to pull Robert's chain a little. He asked, "Well, Robert, why don't you bring her to church on Sunday. There are services at 8, 9, and 11." Robert stared at the priest indignantly and replied, "Well Reverend, I'm Jewish and I make it to Temple on High Holy Days. Shirley is one of yours and if she's good enough for you to feed, she's good enough for you to have in church, isn't she?" "Well yes," the curate said.
Robert turned and walked back down the street toward the library. The curate watched the man in the green parka turn into the doorway of the library. The money from the bank machine was still caught in the metal jaws waiting to be collected.
Shirley walked into church with Mrs. Terwilliger on Sunday morning. The colorful scarves and flowers in her short-cropped Afro highlighted Shirley's dark brown skin. A thin woman in her late forties, she had fought the demons of mental illness for years. She was educated and articulate. Except for the extra skirts and the paper bags filled with her worldly possessions, she seemed as natural part of the community as her blue-haired patrician guide. They took seats next to Mr. Terwilliger. She nodded to the clergy as they processed into the sanctuary. She had found a place. Robert was at his usual place in front of the closed library.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness - or in the desert - or on the street corner - or in the seat next to us: "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." The voice of one whom points to this kingdom. What is it like, this kingdom? This is place where there is room for everyone. Room for almost everyone - although the smug, self-confident, those with all the answers, "you brood of vipers," might find it hard to find a place. Yet even the "vipers" hear the voice of warning and of new possibilities.
For those of us who know Jesus Christ as Lord, the "kingdom of heaven" makes real the presence of the king in our lives. The voice of warning is also the promise of a New World, a new way of living life. In this New World, honor and welcome are a given. There is no room for smugness and self-righteousness. This voice is the word reminding us of what we know: God has come to dwell among us. We are therefore reminded of God in the faces and the lives around us.
Listen to the voices that remind us that "The kingdom of heaven is at hand!"