You might think this little series of posts is done with that last one. (By the way, I want to thank both of my readers for staying up with these!) But actually, I am saving the ironic one for last. There is one more story from Yankoski’s book to reproduce. It is one that defies the categories of the others. It is a story of sin, repentance, and redemption – not on the part of the homeless guy, but on the part of the church that cares for him.
So far, in this series, I have held a Matthew-25 plumb line up against these churches that Yankoski encounters. I do this largely because Jesus comes incognito among the poor and vulnerable just like Yankoski. I have no doubt that if these same churches that fail Jesus so miserably knew Yankoski was a college kid on a covert mission and would write a book exposing what he finds, they would be scrambling to put their best foot forward. This is just a small taste, though, of the surprise Jesus warns about – a dress rehearsal of sorts.
But also, up until now, I have introduced the extra-biblical metaphor of grading church performance like a teacher might with students. And I suppose that metaphor still holds for this one too, if you really want to think about it that hard. Sometimes students (disciples) start off the semester weak, but get serious just in time to pull up the grades to a passing level. When this happens, sometimes the teacher shows mercy and between a student’s change in attitude and discipline and a teacher’s mercy, a semester can be saved..
Today’s post is sorta like that.
Let’s join Yankoski one more time. We catch up with him in the chapter entitled “Phoenix”, under the heading “Return To Forgiveness” starting on page 164:
I awoke, rolled over, and saw beads of sweat already forming on my arms. Saturday, early morning, Phoenix.
I reached for my glasses, shoved them onto my face, and watched as the world snapped into focus. During our trip I couldn’t have afforded to spend food money on saline solution for contacts. Glasses were the only option if I wanted to see anything.
Sam and I had spent the night on an out-of-the-way piece of lawn that was part of a large church campus. Early as it was, carloads of people were already pulling up to a door on a building not far away. We saw what looked like stainless steel buffet containers being carried indoors. Vivid pictures of omelets, donuts, fruit, and coffee instantly came to mind.
“You awake?” Sam asked, also eyeing the activity.
“Yep,” I replied. “Wonder what’s going on over there. Think they have a Saturday morning service?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
Sam and I both reached into our backpacks and grabbed our Bibles and journals. Mind you, it wasn’t to make some kind of statement–these quiet times had become our normal morning habit on the streets.
About ten minutes later two men walked up. They were nicely dressed and moved with an air of authority, especially the guy in the white polo shirt.
“How’s it going, guys?” I said as they approached.
“You need to leave,” the man in the white shirt said blankly.
“Oh, really? Why?” Sam asked, obviously taken aback by the guy’s frankness. Didn’t they see we were reading our Bibles?
“You heard me. You need to leave,” he said again. “You can’t sit outside the sanctuary like this. We’ve got a lot of people coming today, and you can’t be here.” Without waiting for a response, he turned and both men continued marching into the sanctuary.
“Huh,” I said, perplexed. “Didn’t expect that.”
I guess Sam was feeling as cantankerous as I, because we both quickly decided we weren’t quite ready to leave. “Let’s hold on a while and see what happens,” I said, and we turned back to our reading and journaling.
We didn’t have to wait long. In five minutes, both men were back, and the man in the white polo shirt was fuming.
“What’s the deal, guys? I told you you need to leave and you haven’t moved!”
“Yes, sir, I realize that,” I said, trying to be as polite as possible. “But we don’t understand why.”
“I told you why!” The man’s face reddened. Slowly, struggling to control his tone and volume, he restated his reason. “We’ve got…something going on…and you’re not supposed to be on 164164…church grounds!”
I’ll admit, I gave up on polite at that point. Throwing my journal at my backpack, I said, “Sir, forgive me for being troublesome, but what are church grounds for?”
“This is nonsense!” the man yelled. By now, he looked like he was going to blow a gasket. “We could stand here all day debating what church grounds are for! The fact is, they’re not for this and you need to leave–now!”
With that he turned, and both men stormed away again.
After a moment or two of silence, Sam had a profound reaction. “Wow,” he said.
My next thought was profound too. “Del Taco burritos are only forty-nine cents,” I said. “And it’s only about a mile away.”
Neither of us wanted to think through how disgusted we felt. If there is any place on this earth, any group of people in which a person must sense welcome acceptance of their presence, it is the church.
“Yeah,” Sam agreed. “I need to use the bathroom, too, and brush my teeth.”
We packed and started walking.
A mile-long walk carrying packs on a hot Phoenix morning is a very long mile. We were sweating and miserable in no time. But as we walked, we prayed.
They were honest, complaining, frustrated prayers. They were prayers, too, asking for forgiveness for our attitudes. And they were prayers for the man in the white polo shirt–for his conviction, and for the church he protected so annoyingly well from people like us.
– – –
The next morning we were back at the same Del Taco, cleaning up as best we could in the bathroom. It was Sunday, and we had a church we intended to visit.
Guess which one.
After a scrub and a bite of breakfast, we retraced our steps from the day before. Again, it was a scorching mile, and by the time we walked into the church lobby, we were dripping and radiating stench of life in the open.
“Welcome to our church,” an usher said, forcing a smile.
“Good to be here!” we replied. But we meant it.
In the cool sanctuary, we found an open pew, took our packs off, and sat down, uncomfortably conscious of the murmurs and stares.
The lights dimmed and the service began–a choir, followed by a more contemporary band. Toward the end of the music service, I looked around. The church was packed–except for three rows ahead of us and three behind, as well as the full length of our pew. In that empty circle, there wasn’t another worshiper to be found.
The pastor’s sermon, which lasted precisely thirty-five minutes, was interjected with occasional enthusiastic amens from around the sanctuary. I leaned over to Sam.
“What says more about who you are in Christ–how loudly you say amen! in the service or how well you treat strangers in the foyer?” We were both still feeling testy.
Then a most surprising thing happened. After the benediction, as Sam and I prepared to leave, we heard a familiar voice.
“Guys! Guys!” It was Mr. White Polo Shirt, and he was rushing toward us.
I let my pack drop, which was a good thing, because when he reached us, he threw his arms around us both in a tight embrace. When he let go, we saw tears streaming down his face.
“Guys, I’m so sorry,” he began. “And I’m so glad you came back. Forgive me for what I said and did yesterday. Forgive me…” His voice trailed off. “I can’t believe I did that. We were having a church breakfast. I kicked you out of the church when I should have invited you in. Really, I’m sorry. By the way, I’m Terry.”
Of course, Sam and I were in shock. We had prayed for this man, but, well, never expected this.
“That’s okay, man,” I said. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Honestly it’s okay. We forgive you. See, we’ve been traveling for a while, met some church folk…and we’re almost used to it by now.”
“But that’s just it,” said Terry. “You shouldn’t be used to it. Christians should never make you accustomed to rejection. If there is anywhere you should be accepted and loved, it should be at a church.
We all began to relax. Terry explained how he’d been convicted the previous day as soon as we’d left. He had actually jumped in his car and gone looking for us, hoping he could bring us back to join in the breakfast.
And then he shared the most surprising fact of all. He said, “I’m the director of a homeless outreach program in the area. I should know better.”
He looked back and forth between us for a second, crestfallen–then all three of us burst out laughing. We all agreed we were extremely thankful that love covers a multitude of wrongs.
As we parted on the front steps of the church, we thanked Terry again for his honesty and humility. “You made our day,” I told him. “Heck, You’ve made our whole month!”
You can never tell what the Spirit is up to in a heart, whether it’s beating under a crisp, white polo shirt or a filthy, torn, brown one. You never know what God is up to inside His people everywhere, or inside the buildings they dedicate to Him.
I wonder what would have happened if Sam and I had decided not to return to that church Sunday morning. Love can’t cover wrongs if we let frustrations and failures keep us apart.
As I bring this series to a close, I hope Yankoski’s words bring fresh conviction to the heart of the church, and that we begin to imagine our world differently. His words above, “We’ve been traveling for a while, met some church folk… and we’re almost used to it by now” have a sting that should serve as a wake-up call. And Terry is right to answer that statement with, “Christians should never make you accustomed to rejection.” But I would not post this series if I had not discovered this exact problem myself, right here in Lubbock, Texas, and sadly, it seems to be wide spread.
Please read here, pray on this, and repent. It is a Judgment matter, and deadly serious for goats and sheep.