From Presbyterian Outlook for Proper 19
In 2013, the novelist Ann Patchett toured a homeless mission in Nashville, Tennessee, with Father Charlie Stroble. Patchett’s essay, “The Worthless Servant,” describes how Stroble’s ministry to the unhoused began after he, as a young priest, answered a knock on his rectory’s door — one of a dozen men sheltering in the church’s parking lot, looking for something to eat. Stroble, recognizing that the temperature would drop below freezing that night, invited all the men inside.
Stroble knew the consequences of his decision. Once he let the men in, they’d keep coming back. “I didn’t think too long about it,” he told Patchett, “probably because I knew I would talk myself out of it.”
Forgiveness is a recurring theme in the lectionary texts for Sunday, September 17. Joseph forgives his brothers who sold him into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 50:19). Paul writes that we are not to pass judgment on our brother or sister (Romans 14:10). Jesus instructs Peter to forgive “seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). And Psalm 103 is the exuberant song of one who has been forgiven.
Reading Psalm 103 was a balm to my soul this week. I don’t know about you, but humanity, as a whole, has got me down. The overwhelming societal problems our greed has caused; the ways we have desecrated the earth; all the recent news about rolling back civil rights, banning books and white-washing history. We are a lot for God to put up with.
Yet Psalm 103 describes God’s hesed — a Hebrew word meaning “steadfast love.” Hesed describes God’s profound commitment to love us no matter what. God makes room for us, even though we might get on God’s last nerve, even though God knows our needs will be all-consuming. Psalm 103:8 recalls Exodus 34:6-7 when the Israelites created a golden calf to idolize while Moses was preoccupied on Mount Sinai. Despite our persistent turning away from God, despite our sins, God remains “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” God does not give up on us.
As Father Charlie Stroble expected, allowing the men to shelter in his church became a nightly responsibility. This nightly grace turned into the mission Room in the Inn, which encourages other parishes to open their doors at night to shelter those unhoused and has spread throughout Nashville. Reading Patchett’s essay, it’s clear that Stroble, who passed away this August, was called to this ministry — he was patient and caring, working with people whose needs are often overwhelming.
But even Stroble had his limits. He met his with a man named Doy Abbot.
“He was my terrorist,” Charlie told Patchett. “Every morning he woke me up to demand breakfast. He kicked in the screen door. He cussed out everyone in the parish. He expected everything to be done for him. Everyone in the parish was afraid of him.”
Everyone except Mary Hopwood — housekeeper, secretary and bookkeeper for the church. Mary had raised 12 children. She knew how to deal with chaos. Mary spoke to Doy quietly and treated him with respect. He responded to her grace with grace.
When Stroble read about Dorothy Day, who said she wanted to love the poor, not analyze them or rehabilitate them, he thought about Mary and Doy, and came to the realization that Doy was not his problem to solve but his brother to love.
“I decided on the spot that I was going to love him and not expect anything from him,” Stroble told Patchett. “And overnight he changed. He stopped the cussing, stopped the violence. I feel we became brothers. I was there with him when he died.”
Steadfast love, a love that accepts and does not abandon, a love that is faithful no matter what we do or who we are, is transformative. The writer of Psalm 103 sings for joy not only because he is gifted with such love, but also because he is freed by it — free to shelter during life’s storms, free to flourish and grow as a child of God. When our problems feel utterly hopeless, when we’ve lost all patience with others and ourselves, when we feel ready to give up: we can remember God’s relentless, unwavering, steadfast love. There is hope for our transformation and our world, still.
Questions for reflection:
What thoughts, ideas, images, stories come to your mind as you read this reflection or Psalm 103?
When have the limits of your love been tested?
Recall a time someone loved you despite your bad behavior? What did this love feel like? Did this love inspire change? How so?