Monday, March 1, 2010

By Your Name

As a young man in college I recall a story I was reviewing by Langston Hughes. My professor in American Literature was Beverly Holmskog, what a wonderful woman. I realize how instrumental to my world view she was. This Tabor College professor made a contribution to my life, which I hope carries over to the life of others. That story inspired Langston Hughes to become my favorite author of all time. I have much of his material and found a signed book in Lawrence recently I would love to purchase if anyone would like to donate the $250 to buy it.

The story Bev had us read was about a black man in the early 1900’s who visited churches, parsonages and other locations in the deep south. He was homeless and rejected from one place to the other. Later we discover in the story, at least as I can best remember as it has been 20+ years since I read it, the man was Jesus or an angel. I think Langston Hughes captured the imagery of the church of the time, unfortunately, for many, that image still exists. I recall the imagery of his stories so well. I had so hoped, so longed that those time was past. After all, we have an African American man as President of the United States; we would think the issues of prejudice, hatred, ugliness is gone. I had that hope that things were getting better, then on Saturday I had a reminder of how wrong I was, a reminder that had me literally shedding tears as I retold the story at church this last Sunday.

In Matthew chapter 25: verses 31-46 we read a passage that is actually debated among many theologians. This is the popular sheep and goats passage that has Jesus separating those who are called sheep, from those which are called goats. The Sheep, because of what they did get to go to Heaven, the goats, because of what they didn’t do are thrown into ‘The eternal lake of fire’, (Hell). The things they are to do are things like visit the homeless, the sick, visit those in prison, help the poor and well you can read the passage to see for yourself. A surprising thing about this passage, is that the decision as to who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell isn’t based on their view on baptism, their perspective on the virgin birth, their view on the Holy Spirit or the Trinity, or any other point of theology (the study of God) that we often place such emphasis on. Whether they go to Heaven or Hell is based on what they have and haven’t done.

Unfortunately, some theologians present this passage as ‘The Great White Thrown Judgment’ and go so far as to basically say it excuses the followers of Jesus and are not applicable to us. I would simply say, this isn’t consistent with scripture as a whole, and it ignores the over 6,000 verses in the Bible which seem to show a consistency of the need to serve and show love to the poor, the orphan and widow and so forth. Now this is all I will say on this debate, I do not deny, nor will I, that salvation is just as it says in Romans, Hebrews and implied and stated in other parts of the Bible, based solely on the blood of Jesus Christ. Our faith in Christ, and I believe that alone justifies our salivation. I believe however, just as James indicated, and the theologian Barclay indicated, ‘we can’t divorce faith and works,’ As James states, ‘Faith without works is dead.’ This isn’t to imply that we are saved by our works, but our works, the things we do indicate we have a faith we are willing to put into action by doing the things we are not suggested we do, not recommended we do, but COMMANDED we do. In that capacity, the concepts in Matthew 25: 31-46 become critically important. Despite your theology, if you disagree with my perspective on that passage, look at any of those other 6,000 or so verses, including some 2,000 or so incidents in the New Testament.

Now what brings this to thought today? Remember that Langston Hughes story I was telling you about? I had an incident this last weekend in the homeless outreach I am involved in with our church that reminded me of the story, it reminded me of the passage out of Matthew. I want to tell you about the event between me and Lloyd.

I like to spend my Saturdays at the downtown library in Wichita Kansas. There are always a lot of homeless folks around and a number of friends, from both Mosaic Church where I pastor and others within the community go down to help out. The best thing we do is talk and be friends, we are blessed to help out on occasion like this last week by taking some shoes, socks and underwear down and passing them out along with coffee, mocha, and hot chocolate along with some Peanut Butter Sandwiches, chips and other things. Thankfully there are some dear friends who help provide these things.

One of the coolest and best things about this, and it may sound crazy, but folks are starting to know me by name, either Santa or Mike. I can’t explain how I feel about this, how it moves me, that folks God is so close to, know me by name. It was one of those points of realization as I was sharing yesterday at church that brought tears to my eyes.

As I was sitting on a bench talking to a few friends, yes these folks are friends, I noticed a lady from our church, Mary, and my wife, Mary Jane looking through the art and poetry book of a fellow named Lloyd. Lloyd is an older guy, not young, but older. He has white hair, a white beard and his skin is wrinkled from the years in the elements. As I was talking to a lady, who has 5 children, was abused when she was a child, and now has lost custody of her children, I call, my girlfriend, (my wife don’t mind) about how God has more for her and loves her despite the ways others have treated her, I noticed the art and coloring of the book Lloyd was showing the two Mary’s. My other friend Mike who I was with was about to leave, he is looking for HUD housing and is excited about that possibility. He actually has an 11 year work history at a single business. He like so many others has lost his job. With all of this going on, I can’t help but be drawn to the conversation with Lloyd. My girlfriend I am talking to gets ready to move on, Mike starts to walk away, and I decide to meet Lloyd for the first time. Mike strolls over with me.

I think the first thing that draws me in, like so many others, Lloyd is a passionate man, he is intelligent, he even raves about how offended he is that people often think of the homeless as nothing but a bunch of ‘drunks’, ‘drug addicts’, ‘bums’ as he calls it. “Damn, some of us have a lot more intelligence and degrees at a more advanced level than those who are critical of us.’ He is passionate, he is opinionated, but he has a history to back his passion. A history that is negative towards many in the ‘church’ and ‘Christians’.

Lloyd finds out that I am a pastor; I think he appreciates that I’m not there forcing my religious beliefs down his throat. He becomes direct though, not confronting me, not asking me questions, but in a matter of fact way. “You know, I gotta take some things up with God when I meet him at the pearly gates. I’m gonna ask him, ‘what about them sons of bitches who call themselves Christians or are a part of the church? Whatcha gonna do to them for not doing what you told them in the Bible? You know Mike, I’m gonna have it out with God about that. I don’t get it! I don’t get where they get coming off and being on their high horses so much ignoring exactly what Jesus told them to do!’

I listen to Lloyd and tell him the story I recently heard Tony Campolo tell about Mother Theresa in Haiti responding to a man asking similar questions; she was going to ask God that very question when she got to meet him. I told Lloyd how Tony Campolo stated that it was probably one of the reasons she lived as long as she did, God figured out he was going to have to answer those questions. Lloyd kind of laughed about that, but he was serious, no jokes about it, he is going to ask God those questions.

I spoke with Lloyd more and he proceeded to tell me something that touched me, a personal story of his own experience with a church in Coffeyville Kansas. He told me about the Wal-Mart in Coffeyville. Directly across the street was a Braum’s which I had actually eaten at, and I had actually shopped at this Wal-Mart in Southeast Kansas near the Oklahoma state line. It seems as if Lloyd was on his way from Tulsa Oklahoma to Nebraska and along the way he was hitchhiking. He went to get some money out of an ATM with his bank card and the machine ate his card. He couldn’t get it and from that point on was without money. He was at Wal-Mart, on a Sunday and he decided to go to a church nearby that someone told him about. It seems as if faith is important to Lloyd, but he had had a few experiences that day which wasn’t so pleasant.

He entered the church right after it had started and took his back pack off after going in. He pushed the back pack up under his seat beneath his feet to keep people from knowing he was homeless. It didn’t help, someone noticed and prior to the start of the service, the pastor, or someone enforced the policy of ‘no vagrants’. They went to Lloyd, with everyone looking on, telling him, he wasn’t welcome and the church had a policy to prevent vagrants from visiting. Lloyd stood up as he reached down to get his back pack, telling the person in a loud enough voice as to let the entire congregation hear him.

‘I’ll leave, but I am reminded of another who didn’t have a place to lay his head. I am reminded of another who wasn’t welcome by the religious institutions of the world. I know of what he said about how you are supposed to show love, I also know about where his word tells me to do this. I know of a place which speaks of showing love because you don’t know when you entertain angels.” Lloyd then illustrated to me how he took each of his feet, knocking them against a concrete bench as he had the church pew, illustrating that he was ‘shaking the dust off of my shoes’. He stated; ‘I told them; I shake the dust off of my feet with you, letting you answer to God for your actions of how you treated those very people Jesus tells you to love.’

Lloyd told me then of how he walked over to Braum’s a local ice cream hamburger joint popular in parts of the Midwest. He got a hamburger, fries, and cherry limeade. He told me that as he sat there, a nicely dressed black man and woman entered the store. They walked over to the table he was at. Lloyd told me how she laid down one $20 bill, then another $20 bill, and then a $10 bill. The woman and gentleman was kind, they looked in his eyes and stated, “Sir I was just in the church where they asked you to leave. You know I figure I owe you a part of my tithe because I have been in that church for 20 years and I haven’t heard anyone speak truth like you just spoke it in the entire time I have attended that church.” Lloyd had a big toothless grin. It wasn’t that he just had $50 bucks handed to him; it was there were some in the church that got it.

Lloyd and I spoke for another 10 or 15 minutes. I had to go because I had another function to be at; Lloyd understood. My other friend Mike stuck around, he listened in, I think he understood as well, I noticed how he nodded his head during much of the conversation with Lloyd, especially the part about asking God a few questions.

I had to respond to Lloyd before I left. I told him that I think he should ask God those questions. I told him though; God didn’t make us robots, each of us has a choice as to if we will help, if we will love, if we will care, not just in word, but in action and deed. That doesn’t negate that some of us are going to have to answer for the questions some are asking God, questions like where are those people you said are supposed to show love. What about that first church where people went without want and everything they needed was provided.

As I close I can imagine there are people who question me on things like this. I can imagine people talking about how these ‘lazy people need to get jobs’. I can hear all kinds of things like that. I simply respond that Jesus didn’t put conditions on the folks we are commanded to help. I would challenge the people who say things like this are likely people who have never taken the time to give a person a sandwich on the streets and look in their eyes and do a simple thing like start a simple conversation of something as simple as, ‘Hi my name is Mike, how are you?’ You may be amazed at how that opens up doors of conversation where love can be nurtured and developed. Then maybe, just maybe, you can experience the joy of meeting some wonderful people who will know you by your name. I know this will sound crazy, but each time they call me by my name, I am reminded of another Biblical concept which I hold dear to, when they call me by my name, I am reminded that it is Jesus who is represented in the poor, the hard of luck, the misunderstood, who also knows my name. When Jesus knows your name, and calls you by your name, well, at that point, I don’t care how tough life it, the hardships just melt away with the joy that the creator of the universes knows me, and knows you, by name. When you hear that out of the mouths of those of which Jesus said, ‘What you have done for the least of these you have done for me,’ it is simply, almost more than you can comprehend.

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