In my preaching class in seminary, we learned a lot of different styles of preaching. You probably don’t think too much about how someone preaches, or even how they speak in public, but there’s a subtle amount of art to it. My favorite style of sermon is something called the “Puritan Plain Style.” This style is named for the way the Puritans used to preach – they would look at the text, and more or less the text only. Then expound on that. Yes, they would talk about the other words surrounding the particular passage they read, maybe talk about the context in which it was written, maybe tie it in to modern events, if appropriate. But first and foremost was talking about the thing in front of them on the page.
That tends to be how I preach each Sunday. I think about the text for the given week, and I try to do my best to explain it and deliver a message that works for people now. I doubt that I succeed as often as I should, but that’s the way I’m most comfortable preaching. Honestly, I usually try to start with a funny story or with something from outside the text – like I’m doing right now – as a kind of warm-up. It’s like stretching my preaching muscles so they’re ready for the big show, when I can talk about what we’ve read.
Well, I’m not really going to do that today. In fact, I’m going to go the opposite route. I’m not too worried about our text for today, because ultimately, it’s a text about how we serve Jesus. And this week, I don’t want to talk about service to Jesus in a vague way, but I want to talk specifically about how proud I am of the youth of our church, and how glad I am to have spent some time serving Jesus in real, honest ways that can help show us how we’re supposed to be, not just on mission trips like the one we took, but literally every day.
As you saw in the slide show our kids made, we did a lot in really just two days of service in Denver. Consider how we spent these six days we were gone. Adding up the time, we spent nearly a day-and-a-half just in the van (including all the driving in Denver), spent another nearly two days sleeping. The rest of the time was spent in sightseeing, in fellowship, and in mission. And the missions were glorious.
We had a chance to play bingo at the senior center, and anyone who has been to our 3F nights knows what bingo pros the kids from our church are. We spent time sorting clothes for a free store. And not only did we sort them, we sorted nearly three times as much as we were expected to – that’s good South Dakota work ethic those Rocky Mountain folk weren’t prepared for! We served meals, similar to The Banquet. We did all sorts of things. But perhaps most interesting was a little project called “Meet a Need.”
We have to first understand that the main theme of this week was homelessness. We learned about homelessness in Denver. We learned that the average age of a homeless person in the United States is nine years old. So almost everyone here today is “old” by the standard of homelessness. About 2/3 of homeless people are part of a family, over one-third work full-time. The causes of homelessness in America are various – high medical bills, wages incompatible with costs of living, debt, disability, mental illness, poor reintegration from prison, and many other causes. But, however people became homeless, we were asked to go out and meet them.
So, in this “Meet a Need” project, we split into two groups, and each group was given $8 by the organization to help a homeless person meet a need. As it turned out, neither group was able to spend its $8, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to go out and talk to the homeless on the streets of Denver – to hear their stories, to make eye contact with them, to laugh with them, to understand how they became who they are. And we heard varieties of different stories.
One faction of our group got sworn at by one woman because she hates the church; other times, we were greeted enthusiastically because we were from the church. We got to meet people up close and see and touch and smell them. That’s important.
In fact, perhaps the most important part of this weekend was a reminder of something we learn at the very beginning of the Bible, something that perhaps we all need reminding of every once in a while. We are all created in the image of God. Everyone, period. No exceptions. That means that the person you hate most is created in that image, as are you. Trust me, a bunch of teenagers and I just spent six days and five nights with one another in close, hot, bumpy quarters – there were things that every single person in our group did that drove the others absolutely batty, and you’d have to be a little bit unhinged not to be. And yet, at the end of the day, we had to try to remember that we were gathered in Denver to serve Jesus and his purposes, not our own.
That meant going out and finding those the world had dispossessed, and making the simple claim that Jesus’ entire earthly ministry was based on – giving humanity to everyone. When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel, he was breaking two taboos – mixing with a woman as a man, and talking to a Samaritan, an ethnic group with which the Jews were in conflict. Yet, he treated her as a person. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus gives us an imaginary story that doubles-down on that idea. When Jesus called the little children to gather around his feet even though the adults wanted them shunned, he was reminding people that children are God’s, too, and that they also carry God’s image. Every leper he touched, every blind person he healed, every dead body he rose, every Roman soldier he talked to – Jesus was reminding people that people are people, and people are God’s.
It’s probably good to remember here that Jesus himself didn’t have a home, that we know of. He traveled from place to place, a vagabond, relying on others for housing, stopping wherever his feet took him. He certainly wasn’t “respectable” as we would think of someone today, and probably had a lot more in common with the people on Colfax Ave., also known as the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” where we met people forced into the streets. Jesus’ job, as you can probably guess, didn’t pay particularly well. Yet, to dismiss Jesus because of his housing status would be to make a tremendous mistake. So when we dismiss another person for the same reason, we commit the same sin.
The Christian life is one of humility. We recognize that we don’t get to choose who deserves mercy, because, as it turns out, we probably don’t – yet God offers it to us, anyway. And every day, we should fall down on our knees and thank the Good Lord that we have something for which we’re so undeserving. How can we, so unworthy, do any less for our brothers and sisters who have, perhaps, not been treated so well? We all make mistakes. For some of us, those mistakes wash away like rain down a windshield. For others, the mistakes they’ve made are things that ruin their lives.
I’m not trying to make it sound as if every single person’s mistakes are all equal – they’re not. Murder is not the same as forgetting to send a gift to your mom for Mother’s Day. But more often than not, if we think hard enough about it, that pregnant teen we’ve seen could’ve been us or someone we love; that homeless person we look down on for not managing their money might’ve just been the unlucky “last hired, first fired,” when we were the second-to-last one and got to keep the job. Life doesn’t treat us all the same, and that’s just how things are. But Jesus taught us some really interesting things about how to treat people, and frankly, I think his teachings ought to mean a lot more to us than whatever we’ve been brought up with about dealing with “those people.” And his teachings affirm the goodness and the image of God, even in those people society doesn’t love.
When Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, he doesn’t state, “But only the ones who tried their hardest;” when Jesus tells us to give drink to the thirsty, he doesn’t say, “But only the ones who never made a bad choice;” when Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger, he doesn’t add, “But only if their immigration status is what you think it should be;” when Jesus tells us to clothe the naked, he doesn’t opine, “But only if they don’t own a cell phone;” when Jesus tells us to care for the sick, he doesn’t point out, “But only if you’re not afraid of getting a little sick yourself; when Jesus tells us to visit the prisoners, he doesn’t counter with, “But only if they’re innocent.” Feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner. These are commands simple in their grammar, simple in their ideas, and deeply, terrifyingly difficult in their execution, but that doesn’t mean we get an out. We are asked to do these things, because that’s how we serve, love, and honor Jesus.
Jesus says that how we treat the lowest rung of society is how we treat Jesus; so how we treat the people with the least is how we are treating God. It’s our job as Christians to remember that, when we see someone, whether they’ve made the choices we would’ve made or not, whether they look or dress or even smell like we think they should or not, it’s not our job to judge. It’s our job to look them in the eye, to remember that they’re human, and to celebrate our humanity together. We worship God on Sunday mornings, yes; but we also worship when we serve others. So let us continue to gather on Sunday mornings and sing songs and pray prayers. But when we walk out the door, let’s let our words to others be our songs, and let our actions be our prayers. When we meet those whom the world has denied, let us remember to see the face, not just of ourselves or our neighbors, but the very face of Jesus. Amen.