[note: Sorry, I still haven't taken the time to give the treatments of the other two stories from Mark which were going to be included on this post. I got distracted by Palm Sunday and a vacation. I'll post those treatments as soon as I take the time to write them up.]
In a couple of weeks I'll be stepping behind a pulpit again. That doesn't happen as often as it did before I quit professional ministry, but it happens often enough for my taste. This afternoon I started thinking about what I might want to preach on. I keep coming back to the story of Jesus touching and healing the leper in Mark. In my previous post on that story, I asked a couple of questions:
1. Who is your leper?
2. How can you touch them?
Since then I've been wrestling with those questions, while also looking for sermon material. In the midst of that, I remembered a piece that I wrote many, many years ago, before I got into the ministry racket, and long before I left it. It is a simple devotional that I wrote during my first failed attempt at college, called He Did Not Have a Home. I wrote this as a freshman English major at the University of Kentucky, just after I got back from spending a week doing mission work at a homeless shelter, and just before I got kicked out of school for never showing up to class. Here it is:
Most of us feel a Christian duty to help the homeless, and this is good. But, I wonder sometimes about the effects, both on our souls and in the lives we are trying to help, of our execution of this Christian duty.
We tend to treat the homeless as moral objects, or a test. We have a duty to feed them, clothe them, and provide them with shelter. And this is very good. They need these things which we provide, mostly with honest motives. But, we tend to treat them the way that we feel about them, as burdens or moral obligations. Then, we feel good about ourselves, for we have done our duty.
They need more than that. They need love, and they need humanity. They need to be alive, feel alive, and feel loved. They need to feel like they belong, and that they have something of worth to offer. In fact, they need the same things that we need, because there is no "us" and "them". We are all children of the same God, and so we are all family.
There are so many things which we take for granted in everyday life, but perhaps (at least for me) the most crucial of these are conversations. Can you imagine what life would be like without the everyday give and take with our family and friends? But, among the homeless there are people who have literally gone years without anyone truly listening to them as if anything they say might have some worth.
Every man [note: I didn't have any idea about gender inclusive language back then!] has a story, and a need to be validated by having others listen to it and learn from it. So, if we really want to help a homeless man, perhaps this is what we ought to do: listen to him. Talk to him, and with him, as you would with any friend. Dirty your hands with his life, learn from his struggles and, in doing so, struggle with him.
We should remember, whenever we look into the face of someone who is homeless, that we are, in fact, looking into the face of Jesus. He too did not have a home.
Shortly after I wrote this devotional/meditation my best friend Travis and I decided to take the main point in it seriously. On UK's campus is an excellent greasy spoon, Tolly Ho. The perfect college hang out. But it is right by an area of town where many homeless people congregate. We'd often go to Tolly Ho late at night (our first real taste of freedom, after all), and have to pass the assortment of homeless people on our way there. They'd often ask us for money. Sometime's we'd given them some, sometimes we wouldn't.
Handing out money on the street was a morally troubling issue for us. On the one hand we felt called to help. On the other hand, many people find themselves homeless because their lives have been ripped apart by addictions of one sort or another. Giving cash to an addict just helps feed the addiction.
Then it hit us: these people didn't need our money, and we didn't have much of that to give them anyway. They needed us to affirm their basic humanity. But how could we do that?
We decided that every time we went to eat at Tolly Ho, we would ask a homeless person to join us. Many of them were suspicious. Two college kids asking them out for dinner. What game were they playing? If our parents had found out, they would have probably killed us. But for as long as we had enough money to spend on milkshakes and onion rings late at night, we had enough money to share those milkshakes and onion rings with people who hadn't had a humanizing experience in a long time.
Each time we took someone out to eat at the Ho, we'd ask them questions about their life, and listen to them tell stories. It could be awkward at first, but as soon as they realized we were trying to get them to join a cult or anything, they'd relax, open up, and keep us on the edge of our seats for at least an hour. Many of them simply loved to tell stories. I wonder how long it had been since they'd sat in a diner relaying the sad but often comical story of their life to such idealistic kids.
Reality inevitably set in. We couldn't keep that up forever. We didn't have much money, and most of the people who knew what we were doing thought we were crazy. I flunked out of college. Travis dropped out, got married, joined the Marines, and had a lifetime's worth of heartbreak in just a couple of years.
We're different people now. But at least for a little bit we weren't afraid to touch lepers. And, in touching our lepers, we found that they weren't really lepers at all. We didn't heal them, of course. That's not in our power. We may not have done them any real or lasting good at all. A cheeseburger and a conversation don't often change the entire course of a person's life. But at least while we were touching them, open to and affirming of their basic humanity, they stopped being social lepers, and starting looking like real people, just like you and me.
Of course, they were people even when we weren't touching them. But, until we touched them we hadn't bothered to notice that.
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