What does it really mean to be a Christian? What does it NOT mean to be a Christian? I think in many cases the Church, especially in the West, is pretty confused. We have allowed politics and social influences to shape how we believe a follower of Christ should look. This is a huge topic that certainly cannot be covered in one blog post. However, there is one aspect of being the body that was a big challenge for me, growing up in the Bible belt, and that is not showing favoritism. It wasn’t until I moved to Washington, DC and then went to Church in Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Israel and Africa that I finally got it. Ive never really been able to put my thoughts on the matter into words, then one day, my brother from another mother shared the following article with me. His story really moved me and describes how I had been feeling and growing in my understanding of “being the Church” and showing hospitality. So I asked my friend if I could post his article here on My Living Canvas and he agreed.
The Least, the Lost and Me
By Justin Phillips
My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?
Let’s be clear about one thing: I’ve never been turned away from a church. In fact, I have likely been the recipient of “the good seat” (James 2:3), mainly due to the fact of my theological education: I have a seminary degree and I am working on a doctorate in ethics. I’ve worked with youth and college students. I have taught at the undergraduate and seminary level. I have taught Sunday School and even given lectures to laypeople on church and politics. I write well and speak well. If Church were college basketball recruiting, I’d be a “blue-chip” prospect. The “good seat” is always open and waiting for people like me.
However, the church that James describes – a place that shouldn’t be impressed with the so-called impressive people – sounds similar to Jesus’ welcome to the poor in the Sermon on the Mount. After all, we should remember that Jesus did not begin his preaching career at the richest church in town but on the side of a mountain, likely where the common folk lived. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus goes to those who have nothing and offers a hopeful word. These who are considered “least” or “lost” get to hear the first words of the kingdom, and I have to remind myself of this over and over. Here is where my education began:
As you drive North on Los Robles and cross the 210 Freeway, you leave the pristine environs of Pasadena (you know, ritzy Rose Bowl Parade territory?) for the struggling neighborhood, where my church meets. Like most church plants in poor neighborhoods, our tiny church has a few homeless members. Like most people, who do not have routine, intimate contact with the homeless (i.e. I mean working with the homeless population, not giving them the occasional dollar), I wasn’t quite sure how to react to their presence in my church. Were these guys high? Were they a threat? Did they even want to talk to me?
Notice, it was all about me.
But I got over my initial discomfort, introduced myself, and tried to welcome them in my very, very flawed way. Well, a funny thing happened as “Jimmy” and “Kelvin” continued to show up…I got to know them. (Oh and by the way, I know it’s probably not necessary to come up with aliases for these guys. They don’t use the Internet, nor do they read spiritual blogs. They are, however, real people, who are, first, worthy to have their identities known and then, second, their dignity honored by anonymity). I began to sit near or next to Jimmy and Kelvin every Sunday, not because I’m a great guy, but because I knew that being in their presence would change me and frankly, I knew I needed to be changed. I learned a lot by being in their presence this past year:
I learned that Jimmy does not necessarily enjoy chit-chat, but he always takes note if his stuff is blocking your way through the aisle. Kelvin, on the other hand, loves to talk…and pray and sing, all of which he does quite well. As the weeks went by, I learned that Jimmy prefers handshakes, while Kelvin must have hugs, and from those weekly hugs, I learned how his small frame felt in my arms. I learned the hard lessons life had taught him, now captured in his slender shoulders.
All of these life-lessons collided with lessons from the lecture hall on the idea of “presence.” Ethicist James McClendon describes “presence” as “being one’s self for someone else; it is refusing the temptation to withdraw mentally and emotionally; but it is also on occasion putting our own body’s weight and shape alongside the neighbor, the friend, the lover in need” (Ethics, 106). Upon reading this for class, the names of those who were in need came to mind: Jimmy, Kelvin, and Justin (or me). The suspicious questions I had asked upon their initial visit to our church – Are they strung out? Do they want a hand out? Do they want to do harm? – occurred due to my habit of being closed off to strangers, withdrawing from them mentally, emotionally, and physically. Not so deserving of the “good seat,” huh? Needless to say, as a teacher, I tried to learn my lesson.
That summer, our pastor asked us in one of his sermons to consider how we could impact our community, and “Kelvin” spoke up to tell us how our church was already impacting him. He told us stories of how various churches in Pasadena had kicked him back out onto the streets just as he was crossing over the thresholds of these alleged holy places. His voice, while free from bitterness, was not free from pain, as he calmly strained a word of gratitude: “You all know my name. You talk to me. You treat me like a person. I leave here and don’t know where I’m going to be [for the night] but ya’ll still treat me the same. I love everyone of ya’ll.”
“How could anyone do this to Kelvin?” I asked. How could any church just boot out a fellow child of God? Of course, I instantly remembered my innermost thoughts the day Jimmy and Kelvin showed up in our space. I recalled how easy it was to see the sins of the least and the lost when they were so clearly embodied, but couldn’t recognize the log in my own eye, or more particularly, my heart and mind. You become assured of your purity in the “good seat.”
McClendon says the contradiction of presence is not “absence” but rather “avoidance or alienation,” and we need only look within our worshipping communities to take note of who has been alienated from the fellowship (Ethics, 107). Ask yourself, right now, “Who is missing in my church?”
Homeless or poor folks; racial minorities; shamed, unwed mothers; pregnant teenagers; the disabled; homosexuals? It is not that they are absent from us, but rather we are not present with them. Howard Thurman, the long-time mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. refers to this avoidance or alienation as “contact without fellowship,” or a kind of sentimentality that develops in the church, when we freely admit that any number of injustices are wrong, yet we do nothing to change things. It is the difference in knowing of someone, and truly knowing them.
To love the God I see in the image-bearer, to love my neighbor as myself, means I see Jimmy and Kelvin, as they need to be seen. I know that it is not good for Jimmy or Kelvin to be alone, not necessarily because the creation narrative in Genesis tells me so, but because they tell me so, and I know, too, it is not good for me to be alone. To know Jimmy and Kelvin, to be in relationship with him, is to be changed. It is to be in solidarity with them, in one form or another, by actually altering habits to make that relationship possible. In other words, we change the way we spend not in order to contribute to the “homeless ministry” but so that Jimmy or Kelvin, whom we know by name, will have bread or a bus pass.
I know that Jesus Christ came for us – to die for us by his cross – but I never want to overlook the fact that Jesus (or “Immanuel”) came to be with us, too. Jimmy and Kelvin came to our little church, into our presence, and church can never be the same. Not for the least. Not for the lost. Not for me.
Justin is a 2000 graduate of Union University, a 2003 graduate of Duke University Divinity School, and will complete his PHD work in Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, CA in 2011.