Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, October 24, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Job 42:1-6, 10-17+Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22+(Hebrews 7:23-28)+Mark 10:46-52

His name was Robert Hemleck. If you asked, he’d tell you his name was Bobby, but he would likely not have said much more. If you’ve lived in Hoboken for any amount of time, you knew who Bobby was, although you might have just called him Jesus like most people did because of his resemblance to artistic depictions of Jesus as a long-haired, bearded white man. Bobby wandered the streets of Hoboken for 40 years, often mumbling to the chorus of voices that told him where he could and could not go; tucking himself into whatever doorway or shelter he could find; clutching one of the many cups of coffee offered to him by local shops or maybe a tall can of beer. Maybe you saw him wandering down the middle of the street, heedless of traffic or danger. Maybe you did what you could to give him a wide berth if you saw him heading your way on the sidewalk.

Bobby wasn’t always this way. A Hoboken High School classmate described him as one of the “nerds,” studious and quiet. Sometime around his 20th or 21st birthday, something snapped. He spent the next four decades in the grips of schizophrenia. Estranged from his family and with only one or two people who took the time to try to help, he could not maintain a medication regimen, could not maintain a room to call his own, could not take care of his physical needs. Had it not been for April Harris of In Jesus’ Name Charities, he likely would not have those occasional overnights in a hotel or several months at the Y with a roof over his head. That is, until he was asked to leave. Those voices that spoke to him were brutal. April made sure he had fresh clothing and, occasionally, a shower. She helped him get SSI benefits and was the only person allowed to visit him in his last days, mercifully lying clean and cared for in a hospital bed with narcotics taking the edge off the pain from the cancer that wracked his body.

In the days since Bobby died, I’ve seen dozens and dozens of condolence notes on social media, people who claimed him as a piece of Hoboken, something of importance lost. Maybe these are some of the people who gave him something to eat or a few dollars to help him out. Close to 100 people showed up for Bobby’s funeral mass held on Thursday at Our Lady of Grace. So many people mourning this man who saw so little of such attention as he drank to stay warm on sub-freezing nights.

The truth is, we failed Bobby. All of us. For so many of our homeless, affordable housing is beyond their reach. Even affordable housing would not have been enough for Bobby. He needed consistent psychiatric monitoring and medicating, and our society simply is not set up to provide that. And we tolerated Bobby well because he didn’t ask us for anything. He never panhandled. Never got loud or abusive, at least not outwardly. God only knows how abusive were the voices that drove his life.

The people of Jericho failed blind Bartimaeus, too. Can’t you just see it? Jesus and the disciples are passing through Jericho on their way to Jerusalem about 20 miles away. The fine citizens of that town may have welcomed Jesus warmly. After all, the text says that a crowd was leaving with him. They may have been feeling relief that none of the town characters had come out to embarrass them or cause a scene. Perhaps they were patting themselves on the back, excited to be on their way to what most of them probably thought would be Jesus’s triumph over the Jerusalem authorities. Maybe even the Roman occupiers were going down in defeat.

And just when they think they are home free, here comes blind Bartimaeus, wailing at the top of his lungs, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47). Mortified, they tell him to hush up. Don’t cause a scene. But Bartimaeus is not to be stifled. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” So, Jesus calls him to him and asks what may seem a silly question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (10:51).

Bartimaeus wanted his sight. Maybe he wanted friends, too. Maybe he was starved for love and attention, sitting as he was on the outskirts of town where no one had to deal with or see him or hear him. Rather than run the risk that his affliction might rub off on them by taking him into their homes, they left him to beg on the outskirts of town.

Did you notice in the restoration of Job’s fortunes at the end of his long ordeal, we read: “Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him…” (Job 42:11). Where were all these people for the past 42 chapters when calamity upon calamity befell Job? When he had nothing left but an ash heap on which to sit, scraping the oozing sores that were part of the disaster he endured. Why is it that his family abandoned him when he needed them most? They thought that bad karma might rub off on them. The people of Jericho thought that blindness was self-inflicted due to some kind of sin that Bartimaeus or his parents might have committed. Best to steer clear.

So, what’s our excuse? How can we have allowed a man to wander the streets for 40 years and not find a way to help? Are we afraid it might rub off on us? Do we not want to get involved? Maybe each of us individually could not have done much more than buy Bobby a sandwich or give him a few coins. But together, all of us as a community? I have to believe that enough of us working together might have been able to make sure Bobby got and took his medicine which would have quieted the voices which would have enabled him to be allowed to stay at the Y or in a rooming house, and we might have looked in on him and made sure he had food and clean clothes and the kindness of friends.

Instead, he wandered the streets but, mercifully, did not die there. Maybe Jesus called to Bobby just as he did to Bartimaeus, “Call him here” and “your faith has made you well.” Bobby has been commended to God where he will have peace at last.

And us? Is there really peace for us until there is peace for those like Bobby and all the other homeless ones who wander our streets and sleep on our park benches?

During this season when we consider what gifts we will offer to God in money and time, remember Bobby and ask yourself, “When is enough, enough?”

ASEPSermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, October 24, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas