Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Least of These

“I’ll follow You into the homes of the broken,follow You into the world

Meet the needs for the poor and the needy, God, follow You into the world.”

                Many years ago a young minister had his first assignment to preach in a small, poverty-stricken mining town. Upon arriving there, he was dismayed by the relative luxury of his own living quarters as compared the conditions of his congregation. Before long, he was living among his people, giving them what little he possessed, going without food in order to serve them, and eventually becoming physically ill. When his superiors came to see how he was doing, they were disgusted and horrified and removed him from the ministry on the spot. Did he not realize, they asked, that his job was not to live as one of these pathetic souls, but to set himself above them in order that they might aspire to something better?  Thus the young Vincent van Gogh, bitter and disillusioned, abandoned “religion” altogether and never returned. One of his most famous paintings, The Potato Eaters, was created during his time in that little village. In these poor, humble, hardworking people, van Gogh saw a beauty and nobility invisible to the eye of the average person. One wonders what he could have done to change the world had he not been ousted from the ministry. His paintings are works of genius, but went unrecognized in his lifetime. As Don McClean expressed so eloquently in his song : “They did not listen, they’re not listening still, perhaps they never will.”

                Perhaps they never will, indeed. All you have to do is read the newspaper. Apparently, we don’t want homeless people marring the beauty of our parks and streets. That’s why the “No Begging” ordinance in Mobile has sent charitable organizations scrambling to find venues for feeding the homeless. Polic e patrol Bienville Square to make sure that no one is handing out food to “panhandlers” and “vagrants” , because if you start doing that, more will show up. This causes people to lose their appetites and fear for the safety of their children. I read one comment that said, “It’s bad enough that I can’t even take my kids on a picnic because of all the shiftless bums, but now they want to build a homeless shelter and invite them to come?” Well, yes. That’s kind of the point, if we are living like Jesus. Jesus invited EVERYONE to come.

                My daughter, age thirteen, went with a group from our school yesterday to work in a soup kitchen. At lunchtime, they went to Bienville Square to eat their sack lunches. While she was there, a homeless woman came up to her and asked for water. My daughter was fully aware that she wasn’t “supposed’ to do this, but she did it anyway. Her question to me was, “How come we can give bread to the birds and squirrels in the park, but not the homeless people?” I have no good answer for that, except that birds and squirrels are pleasing to look at and homeless people aren’t.  Not to most of us, anyway. Jesus saw something different. Van Gogh saw what Jesus saw.So does my daughter. As she talked about the old blind man that she served at the soup kitchen, and the down-and-out dad who brought his baby daughter in to get a meal, and the fellow in rags who had with him a small, well-worn Bible from which he read verses to all who would listen, she teared up and said, “God really blessed me today, Mom.”

                Jesus said very plainly that we were to care for the poor and the sick. He never specified WHICH poor and sick. He never said that we should question them about why they are in the situation they are in.  I know of some churches who give out boxes of food to the needy-AFTER they attend a morning or evening service. I guess sitting through a sermon proves that they are needy enough to “deserve” the food-or something. Honestly, I am confused as to why there would be any such requirement. I cannot find any basis for it in Scripture. Maybe I overlooked someplace where Jesus said, “Sit the needy down and preach them a sermon, then hand out the bread.”  At my church, sometimes people come in off the street while we are having a Wednesday night meal. We feed them, and invite them to stay for Bible study afterward. Most of them don’t. Occasionally, someone does. Either way, we have shown them Christian charity. They might be grateful, or they might feel entitled. That’s between them and God.

                A large percentage of homeless people are war veterans who were unable to cope upon returning from the horrors they experienced. Mentally ill people who either weren’t quite crazy enough to qualify for residential treatment or somehow slipped through the cracks make up another portion. Then there are the kids who aged out of the foster care system and were kicked to the curb with no skills and nowhere to go. There are the women who fought desperately to keep their children and stay off welfare and ended up on the street. There are the kids who ran away because anything was preferable to the nightmare of abuse. There are the men who were laid off and found themselves on a downward spiral from which there was no escape. In today’s economy, the face of poverty could be that of the guy next door who is now a paycheck away from losing all he has. It’s really easy to be judgmental and make the assumption that all homeless people are just lazy and don’t want to work. I don’t doubt that a handful have made that choice, but it is not a majority. Who would choose to be despised, rejected, mocked, and forced to sleep out in the rain? Oh, wait…I do think there was One who did. He did it because He wanted to understand. He came to help us remember. But we forget. We close our eyes and refuse to SEE, because it makes us uncomfortable.

                What are we uncomfortable about, exactly? I think we turn our eyes away because deep down we KNOW that could be us, and we fear it. We can be arrogant and sanctimonious because we aren’t in that situation, and can somehow convince ourselves that we never would be. We are too smart, too wise, too self-sufficient to EVER let that happen. We forget that every breath that we take is by God’s grace. No one was ever a “self-made man.”  Whatever we have is not our own, and we don’t get anywhere on our own. Sooner or later, without Him, we fall. Sometimes even with Him, we fall, but He is there to ultimately pick us up again. People get sick, lose jobs, fall on hard times. Jesus said to love them and serve them. When He was about to suffer the worst degradation, humiliation, and pain imaginable, he knelt and washed the feet of His disciples. He told them to go and do likewise. He tells us to be His hands and feet and voice in the world. It is a voice that can be heard, even over the shouts of derision and hatred. But it needs to be a collective voice. Everyone can make a difference in the world individually, so just imagine what could happen if we, as one body, followed the command in Micah to do justly and love mercy! The whisper would become a shout, and the world would be turned upside down.

                I want to live like that.


And the King will say, 'I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”

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