January 5, 2020–In the World, but Not Known

Posted on December 31, 2019 by faithlens

Kris Litman-Koon, Isle of Palms, SC

Warm-up Question

Have you ever known someone who has experienced a loss of permanent housing, even if just temporarily?

In the World, but Not Known

December 21 is the winter solstice, the date when the northern hemisphere receives its longest night. The winter solstice has been marked in various ways by countless cultures throughout the ages, yet a more recent observance is Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. It is a day for local communities to come together to remember those in their midst who died during the previous year while experiencing homelessness. These local observances are coordinated through the National Coalition for the Homeless. The winter solstice is an apt date for these observances because brutal weather is often linked to these individuals’ deaths and because the long night symbolizes the fact that unhoused residents are often relegated to life in the shadows of society. 

By having a Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, one might assume that we know the number of annual deaths or that we know the names of those being memorialized. The truth is that we don’t know those things for certain (here are some statistics). There is no standard in this country for reporting these deaths, and in some circumstances the person’s identity is never known. Similarly nebulous are the reasons why families or individuals have lost stable housing. Too often society treats homelessness as a personal failing, even though it is commonly the result of an unexpected job loss, exorbitant medical bills, poor health (injury, illness, or disability), other factors, or a combination of these.

Discussion Questions

  • Does your local community have an observance of Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day? (A search of your local news’ websites may yield the answer.) Is this observance something you might attend or help lead?
  • On a single night in 2018, there were an estimated 552,830 individuals who were experiencing homelessness in the United States. That number is very close to the total population of Wyoming (estimated population 577,737). Had you ever thought that the number of unhoused people on a given night is equivalent to a state’s population? Considering the temporary nature of some homelessness, try to imagine how many people living today in the United States have ever experienced homelessness.

Second Sunday of Christmas

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:[1-9] 10-18

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

In verse ten of today’s gospel passage, it says, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” Without giving thought to who the “he” is, try to visualize what each phrase of that verse says. To put it lightly, this verse of scripture is a paradox. When we consider the verse’s implied birthing imagery, it would be as if the mother is located in her own child. That’s paradoxical enough, but the final phrase adds to that paradox by saying that the child did not even know the mother in her. 

The paradox takes on a different light when we consider the subject: the Word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ. Various faiths have a belief that the physical universe came into being as a result of divine action, yet Christianity clings to this paradox: the divine then entered the physical universe. To top it off, the physical universe did not fully know that it was the divine who took on physical flesh. The world overlooked this individual, who is the one through whom the world came into being. 

The Incarnation (the belief of God taking on flesh) is a paradox, yet it is also central to our Christian faith. We shouldn’t, however, leave the Incarnation as an interesting concept for us to ponder. Note that verse 10 finishes with “yet the world did not know him.” This should remind us that the incarnate Word identifies with those whom the world does not know. Namely, those whose humanity often goes overlooked, like unhoused individuals. Centuries ago, Christians saw beggars as those who were closest to God, hence the mendicant response upon receiving gifts of food or money — “God bless you” — was something that Christians actively sought to hear. Although that viewpoint has been lost in time (see Fear of Beggars by Kelly Johnson for why this happened in the church), perhaps finding the incarnate God in unhoused individuals is something inherent to our Christian faith.

Discussion Questions

  • How do you respond to the idea that the phrase “God bless you” bears more authority when it comes from the lips of someone who is poor and marginalized than when it comes from the lips of a pastor or bishop?
  • John’s gospel doesn’t present a story of Jesus’ birth, although it presents a story of the world’s birth through the Word. In the traditional Nativity story (i.e. Luke’s gospel), what are some elements that depict God’s openness to the poor and marginalized?
  • “Yet the world did not know him.” What is it like to be overlooked and not known? Do you find solace in knowing that God is present with you in that experience?

Activity Suggestions

  • If your community has an observance of Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, discuss how you might become involved with it in the future. 
  • If your community does not have an observance, what organizations or agencies might you turn to for names of those neighbors who’ve died while unhoused? How might you or your congregation honor their lives?

Closing Praye

Almighty and gracious God, help us to see the needs of the people on our street, in our community, and throughout the world. Kindle in our hearts a love that radiates sympathy, kindness, concern, and generosity to all humans. Amen.

 

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