The stranger who entered the church was young and new to the community, struggling with her faith, with her identity and facing serious problems. She tentatively took her place in the back of the sanctuary as the service began. There was a time where prayers were spoken aloud by anyone. Hearing their prayers, she felt a sense of peace. Overcome, she prayed so others could hear: “God, thank you for bringing me here. Let me receive your grace. Let me grow in your love and peace.” In that prayer the stranger found peace and the church reached out to comfort her.
This story represents the church at its best. Someone is troubled, seeking help, searching for God and finds what she needs within the church. The Gospel of Luke describes our task as the church through a simple story: “suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)
I wish it could always be that way but it isn’t. Another story: “Like a lost coin, I lay in the streets of the city. People pass me by, ignoring my almost invisible presence. I’m kicked out of the shelter at 6:30 am, if I am lucky enough to find a shelter. By 8 am, I am in line for breakfast. I don’t look at those putting food on my tray. I can’t stand being seen by those eyes. Afterward, I stake out my spot near the shopping center holding my cardboard sign asking for help. I feel like a dirty old penny. No eyes ever meet mine. No one sees me, but I am here.”
This story represents a different dilemma. Basic needs are being provided but something is missing. Those being served know and feel the condemnation of the servers. In another part of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” (Luke 4:18-19)
Both stories illustrate how we often respond to others in need. A simplistic answer would be to say that most of us either reach out with true compassion or we offer help but with an attitude of judgment. Reality is more complicated. We mean well but helping others can be frustrating. At times we reach out with great compassion and at times we fail those who need us most.
So, how should we respond to those in need? One reaction would be to ignore them. After all, you didn’t cause their problems. A better response would be to pray and hope their situation will improve. You could send a check or volunteer with a group involved in helping others. All appropriate but as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are challenged to “do more” through the love and grace of almighty God.
Lee Strobel provides an example of what “doing more” for those in need can mean in his book: “The Case for Grace: A Journalist Explores the Evidence of Transformed Lives.”
Cody was waiting upstairs clutching a number that secured his place in line for a shower. Several homeless men were milling around, so he didn’t feel conspicuous. Tables offered free coffee and food. That’s when, unnoticed by Cody, a volunteer named Michelle came in. Michelle surveyed the room, then walked over to him and said, “Sir?” Cody turned and found Michelle looking him straight in the eyes.
“Sir,” she said simply, “You look like you need a hug.”
Cody was aghast. A hug? He was gaunt, his hair matted, his beard scraggly, his clothes dirty and stained, his teeth rotting in his mouth. A hug? He shook his head. “Ma’am, I haven’t taken a shower in three months,” he said. “I smell horrible.”
Michelle smiled. “You don’t smell to me,” she said — and then she wrapped her arms around him. Again, she looked him in the eyes. “Do you know,” she said, “that Jesus loves you?”
Jesus can’t love me, Cody was thinking. I’m homeless. Jesus can’t love me. I’m a drug addict. “
At that moment, in an instant, something spiritual sparked inside of Cody. Years later, he can’t talk about it without his voice cracking. “Plain and simple, that was the pivotal moment of my life,” he told me. “It was like a personal encounter with Jesus. It was love — pure love. She didn’t care what I looked like or how much I smelled. It was like Jesus himself was standing in front of me and saying, ‘Cody, I love you.’ “At the time in my life when I was the least lovable, when everyone shunned me, when there was no hope of getting out of the mess I was in, when I smelled so bad that even the other homeless didn’t want to be around me — there she was, with this simple expression of the grace of God.
Any good-hearted organization can provide food and shelter. But Lee Strobel illustrated something more which allowed God to work a miracle.
The story of Cody’s transformation brought about by a simple hug represents the church at its very best. Yes, we are to provide help for the least, the last and the lost but if we truly want to be disciples of Jesus Christ we must find a way to work through our discomfort and truly love our neighbor as Jesus loves us. Is it difficult? Extremely! But Cody was transformed by love that goes beyond the ordinary, toward the miraculous. God’s church making a difference one life at a time in the community and around the world.