When I was starting to prepare for this sermon, I sat down with the Lectionary texts to read through each one. I do this as a way of seeing if one of the texts jumps out at me, begging to be preached.
As I was reading through today’s text, something did indeed jump out. The problem is … I didn’t like this text. It jumped at me, all right—right at my throat. Consequently, I said to myself, “Let’s find another text, one that’s not so personal.”
So, I went on to read the other texts. I had even settled on the Matthew text—light of the world, salt of the earth. That’s pretty safe territory, I thought. Then I started feeling kind of guilty. I thought about the fact that I tell people that I use the lectionary precisely because it forces me to preach texts that I would never preach on my own. That way y’all get to hear more than just me riding my own theological hobby horses. All these texts that make me feel guilty are hard to read, let alone preach on. So, even though I felt a little guilty, I thought I’d skip this one. No harm, no foul. You’d never know I’d wimped out. We’d just have a happy little sermon about light bulbs and salt shakers and nobody’d be the wiser.
Except I heard this voice. No, I don’t mean some spooky kind of voice that comes to you after binge-watching American Horror Story, just a regular old voice, from a regular old person down at the video store in the town where we used to live.
Video stores. Yeah, remember those?
A lady from the video store called at about 10:00 one night and said she had a homeless person in the store who didn’t have a place to stay and who night and needed help. She said she’d called around and that I was the only one she could get a hold of. Could I help this woman?
Well, I had this same exact phone call about this same exact homeless woman the week before from the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pineville. Her name was Lorraine. She was a tough lady to help. She cursed worse than a longshoreman with an exceptionally bad case of lumbago.
So, I told the video store lady the same thing I told the Baptist minister: we work through the local community ministry in giving housing to folks in need, and since it’s nighttime and the community ministry is closed, you’ll have to call the Police Department and they’ll put you in touch with someone who can help you.
Well Lorraine said that the local community ministry wouldn’t help her, and she was certain the police wouldn’t help her, and her family wouldn’t give her any help so she needed us to help her. The video store lady, obviously distraught, said, “Preacher, I don’t know what to do. She doesn’t want me to call the police, and I’ve got to close the store, and it’s cold and rainy out—and I don’t want to put this lady out. She needs help. What should I do?”
My response was this: “There’s nothing I can do. Either she can call her family to come get her, or she can call the police to come get her, or you can take her home and let her stay with you.”
But see, there was something I could do; it’s just that doing it was great big fat pain in my neck. I eventually got out my raincoat, and went down to the video store, picked Lorraine up, and took her to a hotel for the night. But man … I’m embarrassed to say … I was grumbling the whole way there and the whole way back. Lorraine. Ugh!
So, when I got to the office and started reading this passage as a possible text for today, I thought about Lorraine and decided almost immediately that I didn’t want to preach this one—too close, too hard. Then I heard the video store lady’s voice ask me, “What should I do?” and I couldn’t walk away from this text so easily.
What should I do?
That’s the big question, isn’t it? What should I do in the face of situations that seem so unmanageable, in the face of people who seem so unredeemable.
What should I do? I know I have a duty as someone who tries to take Jesus seriously, but what is it?
You see, the thing I didn’t tell you about Lorraine is that she’d scammed just about every church in town—that’s why she called the minister from Pineville—she hadn’t scammed that far north yet. Lorraine’s a paranoid schizophrenic who needs loads of help, but the kind of help she needs, she won’t take.
On the other hand, like the video store lady said, “It’s cold and rainy out—I don’t want to put this lady out.” She may be a big scam artist, and a major headache, but she is a human being, and it is cold and rainy out. What should I do?
We ask that question. Many of us want to do the right thing, but it’s just so hard to know what the right thing is. Of course, there are others for whom that really isn’t an issue. I don’t mean just anybody off the street, but real flesh and blood Christians who don’t much think about their responsibility to the poor, the hungry, the homeless. They’re not bad people, it’s just that they think Christianity has more to do with saving souls. And if you got yours saved, then you’ve pretty well done your job—and all the rest of the stuff you do in Jesus’ name is gravy.
And when they do think about helping folks, it’s typically in relationship to their feelings of responsibility for family and friends.
If you go to church, and sing and pray, and don’t drink, and don’t cuss, and stay away from R-rated movies, you’ve done just about all God has asked of you. You don’t have to worry about “sharing your bread with the hungry.” It’s not your responsibility to “bring the homeless poor into your house.” God wants you to spend your time fine-tuning your soul, not “covering the naked.”
That’s the situation that Isaiah faced after returning from the Babylonian exile. The people came back to a ruined Jerusalem, and started to pick up the pieces of their lives.
But part of the problem was the fact that the people who were deported to Babylon in the first place were the upper class—the professionals, the educated, the successful. While the upper crust were in Babylon, they got an even greater taste of culture.
The people who were left behind, on the other hand, were the poor, the unskilled, the diseased. So when the offspring of those first, privileged exiles returned to Jerusalem, they met up with the offspring of the outcasts who weren’t good enough to be brought along on the Babylonian deluxe tour package.
Needless to say, when they started rebuilding things, reordering the religious life of the community, the privileged who’d returned started calling all the shots—as the privileged are wont to do. And what they were interested in was personal piety. They wanted to make sure that all their religious i’s were dotted and their t’s were crossed.
So they prayed pious prayers wanting to know God’s will for their lives. And they fasted. They gave their 10 percent after taxes. They taught Sunday School. They were the leaders, the backbone of the synagogue, the people most inclined to say yes to serving on the hospitality committee.
So, let’s not be too harsh, too quickly. They really were trying to do what they thought was right. Their only problem was, they were too concerned about doing things that would make them religious successes.
These people were successes at everything else in their lives—they had power, social prestige, they were educated, cultured. They wanted to parlay all that into a little religious success. And so they did things that looked religious, and we have no reason to believe that they did them with anything but the greatest sincerity But they shied away from the other stuff.
Whether they didn’t want to get their hands dirty, or they were just preoccupied with their in-home Bible studies, or it just never occurred to them that their faith had anything to do with feeding the hungry, or housing the homeless, or clothing the naked—these religious “giants” had other fish to fry.
And … if you just want to know the truth … they were getting a little put out that God hadn’t seen their obvious piety and given them their appropriate reward. These were successful, task-oriented people, and when they expended all this energy looking holy and didn’t get a response they wondered out loud, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves but you do not notice?”
Well, of course, as we know from the text, God calls them on their little game of “me-first” and says, “These people seek after me, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation who actually practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.”
God accuses them of wanting more to look righteous, than to be righteous. The religious elites were willing to put on sackcloth and ashes, but when it really came to getting their hands dirty, they failed.
God, however, isn’t saying that they need to work harder to get God’s attention, they work really hard already. What God is calling them to be is less impressed with their own accomplishments and more reliant upon God.
And what is the best way to break us of our intractable desire to be successful? To put ourselves in contact with the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the failures of this world. Because it is only when we see that we can’t be good enough to impress God that we will we ever be able to understand God’s grace. The Bible is replete with stories about the last, the least, the lost, and the dead.
Because those are the only people who know they need God, who know they can’t negotiate based on their own success at being pious. We take our place alongside those everyone else has given up on—not because it makes God love us any more, but because alongside the last, the least, the lost, and the dead is precisely where God, in Jesus, has chosen to pitch a tent and live.
The church, for its part, has too often advertised faith as only another offering at the altar of the self-help movement. You want a successful marriage? Come to Jesus.
Do you want to feel better about yourself? That’s what church is all about.
Money problems? Leave it to the Lord. Do you want, as Robert Tilton says, “Success in life?” Come to church.
That’s what church is all about. We’re here to meet your needs. We want you to be a success.
The only problem, of course, is that the church has never existed for the purpose of inviting people to be successes. The church has steadfastly maintained the unenviable claim that its sole purpose is to invite people to failure—at least failure in the way much of the rest of the world sees it.
We’re a people who claim to take the side of the powerless against the powerful, to worry more about securing food and housing and healthcare for the poor than securing tax breaks for the wealthy.
We’re the folks who see refugees not as terrorist threats, but as neighbors who are literally running for their lives, who see Muslims not as our religious or political competitors but as fellow seekers of God’s peace and justice for the world, who see undocumented immigrants not as sponges who suck up our resources but as families who bring vitality and worth to our lives.
In a world in which the beautiful, the influential, the successful get all the attention, we followers of Jesus opt for failure by being called to love those for whom so many others can manage only fear and hatred. But a people who follow an executed criminal can never get too caught up in what everybody else understands as success anyway.
Narayanan Krishnan, a young man in Madurai, India has devoted his life to feeding the abandoned homeless in his city. He feeds some 425 homeless people three meals a day, every day. His determination to save his people happened one day when saw a very old man eating his own human waste for food.
What is particularly remarkable about this story however is that Mr. Krishnan was an award-winning chef when he quit everything to sleep in his small kitchen, and get up every morning at four o’clock to cook for those who’ve been abandoned. He was short-listed for a prestigious job in Switzerland when he gave it up to love the unlovable.
So, every day he goes out in a donated van with nutritious meals, a pair of scissors, a razor, and some soap to minister to the people everyone else has forgotten. He gives haircuts; he shaves and bathes people who have neither strength nor dignity. Many of the people he feeds, he must feed by hand. Many of them no longer even know their own names. Many of them have lost even the ability to beg.
That he wants to help these people doesn’t sound like such a big deal until you realize that Mr. Krishnan was born in the Brahmin caste—the highest caste in Indian society. He is, by social convention prevented even from associating with these people—let alone touching them, bathing, and feeding them. But, as he says, “Everyone has 5.5 liters of blood. We’re all human.”
Despite the demands and few comforts his lifestyle affords, Krishnan says he’s enjoying his life. But by most standards in our culture that’s not much of a life, is it? Difficult to parlay feeding the hungry and shaving the homeless into a story of success for your high school reunion.
You know, Christianity is about more than fine-tuning your soul. It’s often hard work among people with whom you wouldn’t be caught dead on Saturday night. We don’t invite people to success. The way our culture sees it, what we invite people to is failure. Of course, if you get to see the face of God, it might just be worth it.
Lord knows, there’s a whole world of people out there who need to see your face. In fact, I had some folks asking about you just the other day. Another couple of telephone calls. One was from a woman named, Lorraine, and another one from a man named, Narayanan Krishnan—they were calling to see if they could interest you in a life of failure. I said I’d have to give them a call back.
What would you like me to tell them?