October 29: The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for October 29, 2023 was preached in response to Matthew 22:34-46 based on the manuscript below.

This is the email I didn’t send this week.
It’s the one I wrote but didn’t send
to keep from adding anxiety to the system.
It’s the one that a veteran who survived a period of homelessness
by living in his car in a church parking lot
said was a sermon in a letter
in the tradition
of most of the New Testament.
Dear Neighbor,
What exactly is your concern?
As I’ve read
and re-read your email
it seems that your concern
is about being confronted with visible poverty
and maybe your safety
and/or property values.

You’re right
that this is a situation
that arises periodically.
The last time you and I spoke
was an entirely different situation.
The couple who lived in their car
were in a much more precarious situation.
The man currently living in the parking lot works
and doesn’t leave a mess.
He has been coming and going for a while
because he comes and goes to work building fences

I’m sure if you talked to the man
you’ll find out
that when he’s parked here
he’s trying to sleep and survive.
Has he made any advances to your home?
Approached you
or your other friends?
Interacted with you aggressively
or in a way different
from your housed next door neighbor?
Or are you just scared
because someone lives across the street from you
in a car and not in a house,
where they could even more surreptitiously
watch you all day and all night?

I absolutely understand the disruption
of headlights at 3 a.m.!
I will ask him to park facing the fence
so that the light
doesn’t shine into anyone’s home.
He’s at work right now,
but if you see him before I do,
you’re welcome to go meet him
and let him know your concerns
Unlike some of our housed neighbors,
he’s actually a pretty good neighbor!
He doesn’t leave his vehicle
unattended in our lot
nor does he drive laps in our parking lot,
kicking up gravel,
and creating potholes
that we will be repairing
as part of a capital campaign.
He doesn’t cut through our parking lot
to avoid the stop sign on 152nd.
He didn’t smoke under our play structure
in the hottest part of a hot, dry summer,
fail to stub his cigarette,
and burn down the play structure
that we’ll also be replacing
in the same capital campaign.

You say that this is an invasion of privacy,
but truly this is no different
than a housespouse
living across the street from you.
He’s just in a car.
I’m sorry that having to confront visible poverty
makes you feel unsafe,
but you haven’t referenced anything
that would trigger that feeling.
Again, has he made advances toward your home
or acted aggressively?
What about this makes you feel unsafe?

Could you elaborate on what’s unfair?
Is it unfair that we’re using our private property
as we understand Jesus
and the teachings of the church
to use it?
In Romans 12.13 Paul writes,
“Contribute to the needs of the saints;
extend hospitality to strangers.”
This continues a theme
prevalent in the Hebrew Scriptures as well.
A large or organized encampment
of unhoused people in tents on the property
will not develop.
Fear not.
I have been here all day on October 26
and have not seen our neighbor in the green Subaru
nor anyone else “living” beside him.
It’s very possible
that he was getting a visitor
just as you do.

Until such a time
as housing is recognized as a human right,
the housing supply increases,
and more affordable housing
becomes available,
we will continue to show hospitality
to those who need somewhere safe to park —
even with regularity;
hospitality to those who utilize
our Little Free Pantry and Sock Box;
hospitality to those who stop to eat their lunch
as they visit homebound seniors;
hospitality to mail carriers doing mail transfers;
and hospitality
to people who park here
to visit Fairbank Farm.

What do you understand
the church’s responsibility to be
as property owners?
And to whom is that responsibility?
The gospel text appointed for this Sunday,
October 29,
includes Jesus saying,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As a minister of Christ’s gospel,
I’m called to
“not be partial to the poor
or defer to the great” (Leviticus 19.15b).
As Episcopalians we have vowed to
“seek and serve Christ in all persons,
loving our neighbor as ourselves” and
“strive for justice and peace among all people
and respect the dignity
of every human being.”

You’ve asked us to do something
before this becomes a problem,
but I need you to define
what that means.
As I read your email,
one person living in a car in our parking lot –
not actually bothering anyone –
is already a problem for you.
Church leadership has discussed
temporarily hosting an organized homeless encampment –
as a part of our call and vocation –
but the logistics didn’t work out.
I live on Capitol Hill in Seattle
and encounter unhoused
and people with unstable housing
on every trip to the grocery store.
I encounter unhoused people
in my work as a vicar
They’re trying to live,
pretty much.
They may be trying to have some money
for something other than rent and utilities,
like food.

In what ways would you say
that residents of this community
support the church?
I’ve been the vicar here for four and a half years
and have never seen you
at church on a Sunday morning
despite hand-addressed and mass-mailed
correspondence about when we gather.
There is no record
of you contributing financially
in our database.
You have safety concerns
but haven’t referenced anything
that suggests concerns
beyond feeling spied on
by someone stuck in a system t
hat has them at the bottom of the heap.
The neighbor in the green Subaru
is not a safety concern
by any measurable, data-based metric.

We have four part-time employees.
With all four’s hours combined
there’s barely even one
full-time equivalent.
It is absolutely not worth the effort
to lock and unlock a chain e
very time a staff member
(or lay church volunteer)
comes and goes.
We have 12-step groups
that use our building and park.
We are happy to be a place
that people can park for a few minutes
or park to be in the neighborhood –
unless you’d like pumpkin patch visitors
blocking your driveway
on the weekends in October.

We will continue to provide hospitality
to those who seek and need it.
I will ask our neighbors to park
so that their lights
don’t shine in your bedroom.


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