Outside Willoughby’s Coffee House in downtown New Haven, Connecticut, you might be surprised to hear words from Shakespeare delivered in stunning elocution. A quick pop-in for a cup of joe at a local coffee house doesn’t always yield a professional-quality performance of 16th century English poetry. But in this case, it is one of the free ancillary benefits of patronizing Willoughby’s. Well, the performance might be free, but often, you will be asked for a bit of money in exchange for a private performance of verse.
Which is all rather unexpected, because there’s no stage set outside Willoughby’s Coffee House. There’s no sign announcing public performances of Shakespeare. There’s no real connection between Willoughby’s and the performance at all. There’s just an all-too-common sight in downtown New Haven of a woman, who appears to be homeless, standing on a street corner. But rather unusually, this homeless woman recites some of the most striking words in the English language with the finesse and calculated nuance of a trained orator. They call her the Shakespeare Lady, and she’s known all over town.
Meet Margaret Holloway, a 1980 graduate of the Yale Drama School. It was there that she rubbed shoulders with fellow students Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver. Like many local legends, her past is somewhat ambiguous. A native of Georgia and daughter of a minister, she eventually ended up at Yale Drama School, graduating in the early 1980s. But by that time, she was already suffering from schizophrenia. Holloway claims that she was the victim of an act of violence, which left her prey to mental illness. Whatever the case, wracked by hallucinations and addicted to drugs, she ended up on the streets of the city whose elite university awarded her a master’s degree.
Those New Haven streets even became her movie set, when her story was featured in a fifteen-minute documentary entitled God Didn’t Give Me a Week’s Notice. This gifted woman, broken by mental illness and victim of faulty social structures, embodies the town versus gown tension of a city like New Haven. This thespian who once wore the town’s coveted gown, now shows forth the troubling burdens of this complicated town. Margaret Holloway is living proof that it doesn’t take much for life’s blessings to become life’s woes. Such is the precarious nature of modern life in the United States. Such is the precarious nature of life in general. So many people are without a week’s notice of moving from fortune to misfortune.
To those like Margaret Holloway, who find the rug of life ripped out from under their feet without even a week’s notice, Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain is good news. It proclaims a great reversal of the world’s values: high becomes low, rich becomes poor, laughing becomes weeping. You get the picture. It is said that preachers often have one sermon reiterated time and time again. And if Luke the Evangelist had one sermon, it would be this great reversal. We hear it in the Magnificat. We heard it several weeks ago in Jesus’s words uttered in the synagogue in Nazareth. Luke is deeply concerned about the least of these, and Luke is deeply hopeful that in Christ himself, God is working a reversal of all the world’s inequalities.
Only a cold-hearted person could hear without elation Jesus’s promise that God intends to smooth out the world’s distorted values. And so compassion for those who are struggling leads to service and action: providing for those who don’t have money to provide for themselves, addressing food insecurity with free meals, praying for the persecuted. Many yearn to provide consolation to those who are downcast. Many want to be a part of the solution, to immerse themselves in God’s great act of blessing to all who are suffering. And what a good thing that is! If one is blessed, it is natural to want to work with God to bless others.
The problem is that Luke doesn’t stop with the blessings. The solution isn’t as simple as the blessed ones helping those experiencing woes. To reduce Luke’s gospel to a simple dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots is to miss something crucial, lumping people either into the blessing category or into the woe garbage pit. And where are we in all this? Where are those who can’t be caricatured as the inordinately fortunate or the extremely unfortunate?
Let me explain. And I want to return to the story of Margaret Holloway. To the average Yale student walking into Willoughby’s Coffee House, Margaret Holloway must be a disturbing sight, if they know anything about her background. Her vividly pronounced highbrow words must convict in an eerie kind of way, a woe to one who seems blessed: you, yes, even you, the current recipient of a world-class education in one of this country’s most revered institutions could be a stone’s throw away from poverty, homelessness, and mental suffering.
And isn’t this the case with us as well? Isn’t each of us just a tiny step away from misfortune, with blessings quickly morphing into woes, without even a week’s notice? Doesn’t the second person you of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes suggest that all of us, whether we are currently experiencing blessings or woes, share a common humanity?
Unlike some of the other evangelists, Luke doesn’t do theology from above, high in the sky with theoretical theological concepts. Luke does theology from below, down on the level place with humanity in its muck and mire. Luke’s blessings are not just about those people who are poor or hungry or weeping. They’re not just about those people who are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed for the sake of Christ. And the woes are not just about those people who worship ceaselessly at the altar of mammon or who waste food or who are always happy. They’re about us. To really understand the blessings and the woes, we must realize that Jesus looked at his disciples, as Jesus looks at us, and says you. Not some vague third person addressee. These words are addressed to you and to me.
If our blessings can quickly become woes, especially if we consider ourselves blessed, our future might look bleak. But that future is only bleak when we see a black and white contrast between the perpetually blessed and the desperate ones cursed with woes. Luke seems to be offering a different perspective, one where the woes of others are a clarion call to see that we are all in this together. And if we begin to see that, we can begin to hope for the future, just as those people in the crowd reached out to touch Jesus, desperately longing for healing. The healing of the blessings according to Luke occurs within a shared humanity, on a level plane, with Jesus at its center.
This future transformed by God’s grace lies in the “will be” of the great reversal. It’s not about punishing the wealthy or taking away food from those who have it or inflicting mourning on those who rejoice. It’s about God’s Holy Spirit moving within a community of people, enabling them to share one another’s burdens and strive together towards a reordered future. In that future, the evil discrepancies between those who live on top of the world and those who struggle in the trenches are canceled out.
In this “will be” future, there are people in the middle, between the extremes, who can relate to both blessing and woe. In this new world, well-meaning folk don’t extend their hands in service to the dispossessed as if they know best how to cure and heal those people themselves. They reach out with God at their backs, in humility. In this new world, outreach is not condescension from an exalted mountain to provide charity to those on the plain. Like Jesus, we who are aching to serve descend the mountain and stand on level ground with the rest of humanity, acknowledging that blessings and woes are shared property, a given fact of being a child of God in a fallen world.
And in that recognition, one reaches out to another human being in self-giving love, in gratitude for one’s own blessings and aware that with not even a week’s notice one’s own life could be very, very different.
I imagine that New Haven’s Shakespeare Lady has played Ophelia from Hamlet, announcing “O, woe is me!” on numerous occasions right there in front of Willoughby’s Coffee House. In the eloquent language of one of history’s greatest wordsmiths, this woman cries out, stuck in the morass of an inadequate social system and failed by many. She cries out, with a thin piece of sheepskin as the collective turf and shared humanity between her and her fellow Yalies. There it is: a vivid reminder that we are all inheritors of blessings and woes, and all can change on a dime, without even a week’s notice.
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
17 February 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia