What Jesus Looks Like
When I prepare a sermon, I usually begin with the lectionary's suggested passages, and when I read today's lesson, I understood why Brandon asked me to preach! What an uncomfortable text.
Jesus told of two men: one was rich, lived in splendid quarters, dressed expensively and feasted sumptuously; the other was poor and ill, a beggar named Lazarus (not the Lazarus Jesus raised from the dead). Lazarus was homeless and lived outside the rich man's gate, longing for crumbs from the rich man's table. He was covered with sores which dogs licked. When the two men died, the poor man, Lazarus, was taken to heaven and rested with Abraham. The rich man ended up in the fiery place.
This is an uncomfortable story because you and I are rich. You may not consider yourself wealthy, but raise your hands if your income is more than $2 a day. 56% of the world live on less than $2 per day. Yes, you and I are rich with Lazarus outside our doors.
Notice that the rich man ended up in hell not because he was evil or did evil acts. He did not exploit Lazarus, or cheat him, or mistreat him. No, the rich man was not judged because he was evil, but because he did nothing.
I wonder what he saw when he walked out of his house. He probably got so accustomed to Lazarus being there that he didn't even see him anymore. A Manteca family invited their son's friend to go with them on a hiking trip. When they saw someone fall down, the friend said, “If you don't look, you don't have to help him.” Isn't that the rich man's philosophy! If you don't see the poor, if you don't see Lazarus at your gate, you don't have to help.
But the rich man was judged because he ignored Lazarus. What about us? What about this church? Some churches don't see the poor. Some churches can't see beyond their walls. But a church, like the rich man, is judged by its ministry or lack of ministry to the poor. Judged not by what we keep, but by what we give away.
Let me put it this way. Do you wonder what Jesus looks like? We sang, “Open our eyes, Lord; we want to see Jesus.” Well, I'll tell you this morning what Jesus looks like. Jesus looks like Lazarus outside the rich man's gate. Jesus looks like a gaunt, bony, starving child with a swollen abdomen. Jesus looks like the homeless living on streets, under bridges, in parking lots, in their cars. Do you know the average age of a homeless person in Phoenix? Nine years-old! And in 2012, there were 5,800 homeless children in Phoenix.
How do I know what Jesus looks like? Because Jesus told us what he looks like in Matthew 25, “I was hungry and you did not feed me. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was homeless and you gave me no bed. I was shivering and you gave me no clothes. Sick and in prison and you did not help...Whenever you failed to help someone, you failed to help me.”
“Open our eyes, Lord, that we may see Jesus.”
In 1964 Methodists in Phoenix saw Jesus in the homeless, and organized the United Methodist Outreach Ministry, called UMOM, to provide shelter for homeless women and children. They purchased motels to provide housing. Now, every night secure lodging and support services are provided for over 170 families—some with both parents, most with single parents. In addition, UMOM offers 350 apartments of affordable housing plus emergency shelters for victims of abuse.
UMOM helps the adults get their GED, then provides job training and assistance to find jobs. UMOM provides after school programs and child care for preschool children so the parents can be trained and employed. A licensed medical clinic operated by Phoenix Children's Hospital provides full medical care. There is a vegetable garden. And when a family is ready, they are moved into transitional housing, and then helped to find their own place.
Recently, the CEO reported that it was quite a summer at UMOM. A “back to school block party” provided 307 children and youth with back packs filled with school supplies, new shoes and clothing; and if their school requires uniforms, UMOM provides them. The children have now all gone back to school and the parking lot is once again filled with yellow school buses each morning and evening. The GED process to help adults receive their high school diploma will be automated in 2014; no more textbooks or paper. They will be using laptops.
The results of UMOM are miraculous—parents and children moving out of their cars or parks into a motel room, and eventually into an apartment all their own. Adults are trained and assisted in finding careers such as nursing and culinary. Lives are turned around and sent out into the world with faith and hope.
Paradise Valley Church, where I was interim senior pastor for eight months in 2001 and where we now participate with son, Tim, and his family is a big supporter of UMOM with contributions and volunteers. Paradise Valley Church members serve on the UMOM Board. Two church women organized a UMOM Women's Auxiliary which raises thousands of dollars every year.
In 2005 our senior high youth group was serving meals at a homeless shelter when Ernie stepped out of the line, approached the kids and asked if he could worship at their church. The next day they brought Ernie to Paradise Valley Church.
The youth saw Jesus in Ernie and realized that he needed help and encouragement to get on with his life. They brought together a group of church members who met weekly with Ernie. They encouraged Ernie by sharing their experiences, their vocations, their frustrations and victories. Today Ernie is employed and has his own apartment.
The group called themselves The Open Table and the movement quickly spread. Today there are Open Tables in Arizona, California, Florida, Iowa, New York and Texas. Perhaps an Open Table could be started here. 10-12 meet with a person who needs help and encourages him/her in any way they can. Get more information on the web at Opentable.org
Methodists in Phoenix also saw Jesus in inner city children and started Sidewalk Sunday School. A truck is outfitted with cupboards, supplies, a sound system, and a platform. The truck and its volunteers return to the same sites each week, establishing relationships and teaching children how Jesus loves them.
“Open our eyes, Lord, that we may see Jesus.”
The “angry ones” is what Eleanor Armstrong called the elementary school children in a poverty stricken area of Appalachia. She had gone there to set up an art program in the school and was given classes totaling 600 children. She knew that the children were poor, and she gradually came to learn what that word means: Poor are children who put on winter clothes in October and don't take them off until April. Poor are children who fight each other for old car seats that serve as beds in their house. Poor is the girl who told Eleanor proudly, “I get the blanket when Ma don't come home.”
Eleanor called the children “the angry ones.” They were belligerent, restless, and seething with anger. She couldn't hold their attention very long. The anger wasn't directed at her personally; it usually turned on one another with scuffles, kicks, stealing, destructiveness, and foul language.
Through her art work with them, she really got an insight into their lives. She assigned them once to draw pictures called “My Family”. About ¼ of them showed a family with two adult figures. But the rest—3/4-- either had no father figure at all, or he was a tiny figure at the bottom of the page. Often neither parent was drawn. She gradually realized what the cold statistics meant: father unknown, mother in jail, mother an alcoholic. Usually, the child artist drew him/herself standing alone, as far away from the other figures as the little piece of paper would allow. Alone, separated, alienated.
One room in particular was hostile, with an undercurrent of jeering anger. One day Eleanor prayed in earnest for God to help her reach the children, and God answered her, “Look for me in the classroom; look into the children's eyes and you will see me. And when you see me, call me by name.”
The next day Eleanor went into the classroom with trepidation, but with faith. The children were more restless than usual. She had with her a set of prints that cost her an entire week's salary. A tall boy named Johnny grabbed them and with a ruler slashed the first picture in half. She wondered if she could see Jesus in Johnny. But, she looked in his eyes and saw strength for nobody picked on Johnny. Johnny was strong like Jesus. As she looked in his eyes, he lay down his ruler and walked to his seat.
Eleanor walked the aisles, just looking at the children. She looked at one girl whose mother had taught her to steal. While mother pretended to faint, the children filled sacks with merchandise. The girl had been put into a county home where she had been whipped, lectured, and locked up; but she had never changed and she had never cried. Eleanor looked in the girl's eyes, and realized, “Why, she is like Jesus who also could not be frightened and who would not give up.”
By the time Eleanor had walked around the room, it was as quiet as a church. Then she softly said, “Jesus is here.” She walked, looked at each child and whispered “Jesus loves you.” The shoplifter who had never cried began to weep. The tall, strong Johnny began to sob. The classroom was never the same.
What does Jesus look like? Sing with me: “Open our eyes, Lord, that we may see Jesus.” Do you really want to see Jesus? If so, Jesus is in the eyes, the faces of those who need help—the poor, the homeless, the angry, the hopeless. Open our eyes, Lord.
© 2013 Douglas I. Norris