There was a very disheveled homeless guy sitting at the entrance to the church last Sunday. Did you see him? He was sitting on the corner of the street at the driveway that goes into the church parking lot, holding a sign that said, "Disabled Veteran. Will work for food." We passed him as we drove in, his hair was red and his eyes a remarkable blue that stood out from the darkly colored, perhaps even a bit dirty clothing he was wearing, a hole in his pants at the knee and I think an old ragged Army jacket.
I have been an advocate for the homeless. I've volunteered many times at an outreach center, more of a hospitality house in Northeast Kansas City. I've collected supplies, helped serve these folks meals, assisted in finding the appropriate sized clothing for them, have even cleaned showers and toilets so the next person can have a clean bathroom. But seeing this fellow sitting on the drive to the church just struck me as being out of place, something about it was a bit odd and it invoked cynicism in my heart. I believe I even remarked out loud to my husband, "Well that's a convenient place to set up shop on a Sunday morning."
We walked into our warm church (it was a breezy cold day) and were greeted by friends and church family even more warmly. I made a cup of tea and didn't give the homeless guy another thought as I settled into my seat and waited for the worship team to begin to lead us. Once the music started, I was swept up in all that I had to be grateful for. It was the Thanksgiving season after all. I sang with passion and praise for my Heavenly Father who has blessed me well.
But then my thoughts took another turn as I stood there clapping along. What about the man outside in the cold? The one who served out country and is now disabled. The one whose cardboard sign did not ask for a handout but for an opportunity to provide for himself and perhaps even a family. Was he any less deserving of God's goodness and provision. I bowed my head and guilt covered my face. I remembered the verse about leaving the altar before presenting your offering if you have anything you are holding against another person. Was I holding this unfortunate soul in judgment for crimes he may not even be guilty of?
When the music stopped, the children were dismissed and we were directed to greet one another. Instead of the usual good morning, happy Sunday hugs, I headed for the church doors to see if I could find this man to invite him in. But to my shame, he was no longer there. I felt awful.
I sat back down in my seat as our pastor began to speak. I can't even tell you what the message was that day because my thoughts were elsewhere. I thought about how I might have better responded to the man's plea for assistance. I could have stopped and asked him in, offered him a cup of coffee and a snack. I could have talked to him about his life and his needs and maybe shared those needs with our church who has always been quick to respond generously when a need is made known. It was communion Sunday so before I could go forward to receive my Lord, I needed to ask for forgiveness and I did. "Father forgive me for being so caught up in my own agenda and life that I overlooked this gentleman with the kind face and piercing eyes who maybe needed a touch from you today." I went forward, received and sat back in my seat, head bowed.
Then something amazing happened. I looked up and there he was. This raggedy, blessed man was standing in line to receive communion. Hallelujah! Someone else in our church had invited him in and apparently the man was a believer! I love my church family and was feeling blessed (and ashamed) to know that where I had failed, someone else had stood in the gap and invited him in. Tears filled my eyes as I determined that I would go speak to him as soon as the service was over. I was convicted that I owed this brother in Christ an apology.
I stood and turned to walk toward the area at the back where everyone gathers before and after services to visit. I spied him immediately, he was quite tall. He and another member of our congregation were engaged in quite an enjoyable conversation it seemed and their laughter struck me as odd. As I got closer to them it became more and more apparent that they knew one another. I waited for an opportunity to speak and when the time came all I could say was, "It wasn't real, was it?" It was then when he introduced himself to me as "Chris." He is the son and brother of members of our church. The story was that our Youth Minister had set the scene up as a test to the teenagers of the church to see how they would respond. It was a test and I had failed miserably. The truth is that Chris was indeed a Veteran and he indeed was disabled, so his sign conveyed no mistruths. He thankfully was not homeless but I apologized to him nonetheless.
It was a lesson learned, a lesson of humility and a lesson of grace. Humility knowing that even though I profess to be an advocate for those who are struggling, I am not perfect and my casting judgment can still get in the way of serving them and God. Grace in knowing that there will be many other opportunities in my life to get it right.
Thank you, Father, for this lesson today.