I found myself last night in a bit of a tempest. It was our night for Community Meal, the night when we feed the homeless and hobos (admittedly there are not many of those here in the winter) here in Davenport. Going into the night, I had expected God to show up. Norm had passed Tuesday, and his wife Thelma had been one of the movers and shakers that got the ministry going nearly 40 years ago and kept it going when it was assaulted by politicians or others during that time. Norm had passed, but his wife’s ministry continued.
To my unpleasant surprise, another church was there when I arrived. I had been running late. Wednesdays during Lent are tough. Nathan and Amanda have play practice at school, then it is Soup Supper at the parish, followed by Eucharist and Bible Study. Community Meal was just one more activity in an otherwise full day. Unfortunately, because I was late, the church had a fifteen minute head start on me. They were telling the homeless to come to church with them rather than eat. “Your eternal souls are far more important than any meal.” “If you stay and eat, you are rejecting God and telling Him there are far more important things in your life than Him.”—such was the pronouncement from these interlopers. Some in my parish had started laughing as I arrived. They know me now. They knew how these conversations that were about to start were going to end. A few just wanted to see how far God pulled when He dished out the upcoming spiritual wedgies.
And so it began. . . With Steve, the gentleman in charge of the site for the Salvation Army, I encouraged them either to serve or to leave. When pressed, I asked them when their Lord had ever neglected the physical need of the sheep before He taught them? During our conversations, I learned that they had been whisking people off for a week or ten days. Some homeless had gone with them in the past week expecting that no church would ever take food from them without serving them something later, especially if they came for worship. But the kindness of this church knew no bounds. They brought the homeless back to the shelter when worship was over. As one homeless guy remarked, “You’d think they could at least have dropped me off at my bridge since there was no food here by then.” What had they accomplished? From my perspective, they had driven a lot of people from God. Some felt tricked, some felt abandoned, some even wondered aloud who can be trusted if God could not be. Within 10 minutes of my arrival, all the proselytizers were gone, but the damage had been done. And my ire was up. It was then that the rainbow shined forth in the storm.
A bit of a scuffle started among a couple of the homeless. It was weak, so I stepped in between. I told the men “no fighting. We are here to eat.” The men both grumbled that it was the other’s fault, but they separated. As I was pouring juice near one of them, he was still grumbling how the other had kept hitting and bumping and jostling him intentionally. I was about to speak when the homeless guy next to him spoke first. “you need to give it to God, brother.” The fighter turned to him and asked what in the world he was talking about. “You need to give the insult, the injury, the pain, the humiliation to God, brother. That’s what I do.” The fighter grumbled about what a worthless thing that would be. And in clear, sincere tones, the evangelist responded “You know, God promises us all that if we accept Jesus, we become His children by adoption. And any attack on us is an attack on Him. Any attempt to humiliate us is an attempt to humiliate Him. Any attempt to do us wrong is an attempt to do Him wrong. That’s what He thinks of us when we accept His Son.” The fighter responded “so what.” And my evangelist continued “So what? It makes all the difference in the world. You and I cannot possibly repay all the wrong done to us. Think of the store owners or cops that hastle us. The gangs that beat us up and steal from us. The guys that rape the girls. The people that look down their noses at us like we’re animals. How can we ever repay all that? But He can, and better still, He has promised that He will.” The would be fighter grumbled that he did not know whether he believed in God and all that stuff. And gently, but firmly, the evangelist responded, “Brother, you should. He came to set slaves free. He came to bring justice and strength to the weak. Brother, he came for you, for me, and for all those in here whom society has forgotten, neglected, or simply tried to drive out.”
I often tell my congregation that nothing in our lives goes to waste. God is amazing at giving us opportunities to use our past experiences to His glory. Right before this conversation began, I found myself ready to explode. I was mad at a church for its terrible witness. I was furious at the harm they had caused and the wounds which they had inflicted. I “knew” there would be a lot of work necessary to overcome the wrongs which had been wrought this night and others before it. And into the midst of that storm, the Lord tossed out a rainbow. Nothing goes to waste in His economy, not even the life-experiences of a homeless man who calls Him Lord. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done. Yes, a lot of injuries have been done in His name. But He has already righted all the wrongs. Better still, He has called people from all walks of life to share His Gospel. My words would have been empty to this would be fighter. I had showered, shaved, brushed my teeth, eaten, been well hydrated, and taken for granted so much of what he and all those others there do without. And God called forth a man who had lost everything, a man who has seen things human being were not meant to watch, a man who was powerless to right so many of the wrongs he had witnessed, and given him the words of comfort and made him part of that nation of priests, that light to the dark world, one of the workers in the field.
I found myself after the Community Meal hustling back to church for soup, Eucharist and Bible Study. The song on the radio was “I smile” by Russell Lee (I think) and I had to laugh. God had, indeed, shown up. In the visage of an unshaven, stinky, destitute, unkempt homeless man He had shown up to minister to others caught in the same trap of life. And He had given Him words that fed way better than our ham, meatballs, and other dishes. Words that comforted the afflicted, set the prisoners free, and even left a priest thunderstruck and reminded that the “best is yet to come.” Thanks be to God!