A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?” He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Luke 10.25-29 (CEB)
There are times when I am amazed at how God works in the world. There are ways in which the Spirit teaches you lessons in totally unexpected ways. The moments that I enjoy the most, are those when the Spirit teaches you lessons that go hand in hand with next Sunday’s sermon! Today I want to share with you one of those teaching moments from this past week. Interestingly, the story goes perfect with next Sunday’s Lectionary readings. Thus, if you are a preacher, feel free to use this story for your convenience next week.
This past Sunday, I sat down with an elderly woman from my congregation as we waited for her bus to arrive. The bus, as always, was really late and we got to talk for some time. Although my sister in faith is frail, she is witty and funny and can make you laugh for hours with her stories and her jokes. Sitting next to us was our neighbor…
For the past few months Joe* has been sleeping outside the sanctuary. A few weeks ago during Joys & Concerns one of our parishioners lifted up a prayer for him and for those who are still struggling to find a permanent place to live. Although Joe usually sleeps through our services, this past Sunday he gathered his belongings and joined us for worship. He was an active participant in the service; singing with us, praying with us, breaking bread and drinking from the cup (it was Communion Sunday) and talking with other church friends during coffee hour.
After the service, while the elder woman from my congregation and I were waiting for her bus to arrive, Joe stayed to talk with us. Our congregation shares space with another church whose services end later than ours. That other congregation was hosting a picnic on the patio that our churches share.
Knowing that we had been there for several hours, Joe realized that the elderly woman must be hungry, and here is where the miracle happened. Joe, who doesn’t have a permanent place to live, who doesn’t know where his next meal is going to come from, who doesn’t know us, stood up, went to the picnic and brought a hotdog and iced tea for this woman.
During the whole time that Joe shared with us at church, at coffee hour and waiting for the bus, he never once asked for anything. He shared his story of how he ended up without permanent housing, but not once did he ask for our help in any way. He didn’t even ask for prayers! He just shared with us like any old friend would have. He told us about his time growing up in South Seattle and playing drums in his Baptist church. He told us about his losing his job and not being able to pay those last months of rent (which left him without a home). He even talked about the sermon and about the service. But not once did he ask us for any type of help. The only thing he did was to bless us with his presence, his company, his stories and now, by feeding the hungry and caring for the least of these.
The actions of this man reminded me of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable is pretty tame nowadays, because have read it so many times and in a historical context so removed from its original that it does not mean the same anymore. However, this parable was one meant to shock the audience. The Samaritans and the Israelites did not mix. Customs, religious rituals and other socio-historical realities made it virtually impossible for Israelites and Samaritans to mix. But not only that: the parable is meant to shocks it audience (Israelites) by showing someone who is in “need of redemption” (Samaritans) as the heroes of the story. Basically, what Jesus is telling the religious teachers is: “You are wrong; the person who gets it is the one you despise.”
Of course, progressive churches like mine don’t usually despise homeless people (unfortunately, there are always exceptions to this.) However, we don’t get it all the time. We know that it is our duty to provide for the homeless but we forget that the homeless is a human being too, who is as capable of embodying God as we are!
As Joe came with that hotdog and iced tea to feed the elderly woman he had just met, he was showing me who my neighbor is. According to Jesus, my neighbor is the one who does the will of God, regardless of their circumstances, their way of life, their histories, and more importantly, the way in which we in the church have defined them.
I will forever be thankful to Joe for his mercy and for revealing to me the face of Christ as he did that Sunday. I am also grateful for helping me write my next sermon a whole week before I have to deliver it! Truly, you are a man of God! =)
*I have changed his name in order to protect his identity. I have also made the decision not to give many details about the elderly woman with the intention of protecting her identity as well.