Good Servant, Bad Servant

“Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

— Matthew 24:24-30 NRSV

We have all heard the parable: A man goes off for a long journey after giving three servants five talents, two talents and one talent. The servants with five and two each doubled their talents, and having been faithful in a few things, they were entrusted with many things. The servant with one talent protected the talent, but didn’t invest it. The punishment seems harsh – casting into outer darkness – but remember, it’s a parable, and Jesus was big on hyperbole.

I grew up thinking the talents in the story were actual talents, like singing, dancing, public speaking and the like. We may differ in gifts of talent, but our job is to multiply those talents. Now, I know that in the parable, talents are money – but the story works either way!

We are all gifted with something – talents, prowess, location, nationality, family, race and the like. Regardless of what we were given at birth, or by good fortune, the point is not to hoard and protect it, but to invest it and multiply it. As Jesus says in the book of Luke, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48)

The master in this story is presumably God, entrusting us with God’s treasure, and expecting a return on investment when God comes back. The parable could represent anything – talents, money, merchandise, souls – but for my purposes, I’ll modernize it like this:

The bishop entrusted three pastors with three churches. One church was plenty big, with lots of people. The second church was a modest church, with more than a few empty pews. The third church was nearly empty, and the aging members were thinking it might be time to throw in the towel.

The bishop flew to Europe for a while, then returned unexpectedly to see how the three churches were doing. He visited the pastor of the big church. “Look what we’ve done!” the pastor said. “We have the church you assigned me to, and we’ve grown to fill two more auditoriums! We’ve raised up an army of pastors, and we’re stuffed to the brim every Sunday. They come for the music, but a lot of people have come to Christ through this church!”

“Well done,” the bishop said. “You’ve been faithful with a big church, and now you’re in charge of an even bigger church! I’ve got my eye on you.” Then, the bishop moved on to the second church

“God has been good,” said the second pastor. “Our membership has grown a little, but our missions have grown a lot! Since you assigned me to this church, we’ve started a food bank, do homeless outreach, and conduct after-school programs to keep kids off the streets. Our Vacation Bible School this year was bigger than the church! I want to thank you for assigning me to such a great bunch of people. They really love the Lord; all I had to do was to give them encouragement and support.”

“Well done,” the bishop said. “You’ve been faithful with a sleepy church, and now it’s a church doing great things for the community. What a testimony! I might have other churches that could use encouragement like that. I’ve got my eye on you.”

Lastly, the bishop went to see the third pastor. “They wanted to close,” the pastor said, “and I almost let them do it. But I kept putting it off and telling people if they just hang in there, we’ll grow a little bit.” Well, we didn’t grow, but we did take care of the building, and we managed to hold on to most of the members. I’m glad you’re back; here’s your church, just like you left it. Do you maybe have another assignment for me?”

The bishop was furious. “What, you think this is your retirement home? What did you do to shake things up? Did you even hang a sign outside? Add a service? Beef up the refreshments? Did you learn to make a decent cup of coffee? You’re a pastor! You know what it takes to grow a church, and you didn’t even try! Another assignment? Hah! I wouldn’t trust you with a dog wash! You’re out of here, you bum! Go sell shoes or something!”

Two whom much is given, much is required, but that’s okay, because it’s a lot to work with. The first two servants doubled their master’s money. The first two pastors put forth some effort, and it paid off. The last servant just buried the money. The last pastor kept things from falling in, but that’s all.

The question is, where are we in these parables? What is our own parable? What talents or gifts did you win or inherit? What gifts were you born with? If it’s one talent, invest it; you might end up with two! If it’s one testimony, talk about it; you might see another miracle before it’s over. If it’s one assignment, do it with all your might, then offer take on more assignments, as well. But if you have one gift – good looks, math skills, a good eye for deals, whatever – then you don’t need to rest on your laurels. Invest whatever the Master gave you, because the Master’s coming back, and we will be held accountable for what we did with those gifts.


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Casting Out Idols

            “Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
            Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
            But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the LORD!” 

— Joshua 24:15-21

In 1980, my wife and I saw The Idolmaker at the Royal Rocking Chair Theatre. It was a wonderful movie, based on the life of rock promoter Bob Marcucci, who discovered Frankie Avalon and Fabian. The title and movie together showed the term “Idolmaker” to be a bad thing. The agent launched talent as hollow a ceramic statue, and the movie ended with the agent abandoning his idolmaking ways and settling in to be a simple musician in his own right.

I suspect that movie was ringing in the ears of producers when they launched “American Idol” on Fox in 2002. They may also have remembered the line from David Bowie’s “Young Americans”: “Have you been the un-American, just you and your idol singing falsetto.” But this time, it was different. On the elaborate talent show, being an “idol” was a good thing, and to win the contest was to become the “American Idol.” Not long after that, “Survivor” introduces “idols” to be won in competition that granted immunity or some other advantage. Now it’s idols, idols everywhere, and I seem a prude for cringing at the word.

But, I still do. I was raised to resist idols, to flee from them. I have always tried to draw a careful line between idols and good luck charms or works of art. I have tossed amulets and medallions when I thought they were becoming my idols.

In the book of Numbers, we read that when Moses was leading the children of Israel through the desert, God once sent poisonous snakes to punish them for grumbling. (!) Moses made a brass serpent and lifted it on a pole in the camp, as a cure for snakebite. If they were bitten, they could gaze on the brass serpent and survive. In 2 Kings, Hezekiah destroyed the serpent of Moses because people had begun to worship it as a god.

But the word has lost its evil connotation. Our society uses the word “idol” to describe some meaningless work of art, more like a trophy, or a person, elevated due to great talent or influence.

When Jesus said, “Whoever loves mother and father more than me is not worthy of me,” he was speaking as God, not as the Son of Man. If mother or father are elevated to the place of God, they become our idols. Paul and Silas were treated as gods following a miracle, so they tore their cloaks and declared themselves to be mere human, lest they become someone’s Idol.

So people can be idols. I can be an idol. If you are here to listen to me rather than to hear the word of God, then I might be an idol. Most pastors don’t want to be idols. The word of God comes from whomever preaches here on Sunday morning. I do know that some people love me so much that they stay home when I’ not preaching. That isn’t right. When we stay home, we miss the chance to hear a word from God meant specifically for our church.

When I think of idols as people, I think of the movie, “Fatal Attraction.” I didn’t see it, but I’ve heard the plot: A man has an affair, and the woman “loves” him so much that she she won’t let it go. She stalks him and makes his life miserable. He was her idol, but that wasn’t a pleasant experience. That sounds like a cautionary tale for those tempted to have an affair! But it also illustrates that being an idol is not all fun and games. Most people don’t want to be anybody’s idol.

You might think you have no idols. Don’t be so sure. “Those who love TV more than me are not worthy of me. Those who love guitars or cars more than me are not worthy of me. Those who love their guns and drugs more than me are not worthy of me.” It doesn’t matter how you fill in the blank; God won’t settle for second place in your life. God is a jealous god and will not take second place to any idol. It is not only good to worship God; it is destructive to worship anything else. Idolize no one. No one wants it. Only God can fill that God-shaped hole in all of us, and any Idol that distracts from that is therefore blasphemous, an abomination, as sure as was the Golden Calf.

We think we are too sophisticated to worship idols, but we put the name in a weekly TV series and actually watch it. Everyone knows murder, theft, false witness, adultery, and other such sins when we see them. Idolatry used to be a major sin, but it was focused on literal statues as objects of worship. Modern idolatry was hard to identify, because anything and anyone can be an idol. Now it’s right up front. American Idol. Immunity Idol. Idol is a four-letter word that should never have become so accepted in our society. More to the point, Idolatry has been granted status as a minor sin, even though it utterly destroys our loyalty to God.

We are not more sophisticated than the people in the Bible. Not at all. As a society, we still lust, murder, steal, cheat and lie with as much zeal and gusto as ever. We need God’s mercy and forgiveness, but first we need to make sure that nothing is blocking our vision of God. The Bible never really refers to the sexual sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, but it condemns them for idolatry.

Cast our your idols. Start by putting Christ first in your life, in your thoughts, in your priorities. Don’t let anyone or anything keep you from worshipping the living God above all else.


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Kite-Like People, String-Like Faith

She might take her coat off
Tell you that she’s gonna stay, yeah
Lay you down and float off
She’s a kite like girl, you gotta let her fly away, hey
Let her fly away
She’s a kite like girl, you gotta let her fly away, hey

— “Kite Like Girl” by Gavin DeGraw

I fell in love with “Kite Like Girl” by Gavin DeGraw the first time I heard it. In it, the “kite-like girl” is like a kite because she is free and unpredictable. She can’t be tied down, so “you gotta let her fly away.” You have to let her do her own thing if you want to keep her in your life.

Remember the song “Hey Yah” by Outcast? It introduced the catch phrase “shake it like a Polaroid picture”. It also made the charts just before Polaroid cameras went off the market, but long after airflow and motion have anything to do with development time. Shaking a Polaroid picture accomplishes nothing – but it’s a great song!

“Kite Like Girl” has a similar logic flaw. The girl is wild and free, ready to disappear without notice, and “you gotta let her fly away“. But that is not how a kite works! A kite flies only so long as someone holds the string and pulls it against the wind. Let go of the string, and the kite falls. You cannot “let” a kite fly away; you can only let it fall to the ground, into trees, or into power lines beneath where it flies. Let go of the string, and the kite ceases to fly. In the wind without the string, it’s a tumbleweed. But hold on to the string, and it soars!

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord
shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

— Isaiah 40:28-31

We are “kite-like” too, but we know how a kite works. There is wind, which threatens to blow us away like tumbleweed, and there’s the string, which someone has to hold. We need someone unaffected by the wind, unmoved by the storms of life. We need God, the solid Rock, holding onto that string.

We need a string. We need something to keep us connected to the Rock. No matter how far we fly, we need to feel that tug against the Rock. Something light and flexible has to keep us connected. We need faith.

We need more than just an anchor and a string to soar as kites. We need the wind! We need the storms of life to challenge us, lift us up, to push against the pull of the string. We need the troubles that try to push us away from God. Because by pulling us through and against those troubles, God knows we will soar.

They shall mount up with wings like eagles. That is not the picture of an eagle running across a plain, flapping her wings. That is a picture of an eagle standing on a cliff, spreading her wings, testing the wind and, when the time is right, effortlessly riding the breeze.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

— John 15: 1-4

Here in South Florida, our soaring live oaks need windstorms to break off dead, weak and small branches. An oak that survives the windstorm is stronger and better prepared for the next storm, or even a hurricane. I understand there are conifer trees in California that need the fire to open the cones and release the seeds. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. God uses the wind, the struggles in life, to make us stronger, to prune off the deadwood and better prepare us for the next storm.

God is the Maker. God makes the kite, so God knows how kites work. He makes the eagle and teaches the eagle to ride the wind. The eagle can’t soar with out the wind. We can’t soar above the wind, above those troubles in life, unless God holds tight to the string. And the string, our faith, needs to stay strong. It needs to keep us connected to God. Otherwise, we drift like tumbleweeds, or struggle like grounded eagles on a windless day.

We’re a kite-like people with string-like faith, soaring above wind-like troubles and soaring higher because of them. We can break the faith if we wish, forget about the Anchor that holds us on the other end of the string, let go, break the string. For a short time, we are free! But we are not soaring; we are drifting to the ground. Instead of reveling in our freedom, we should be bracing for a rough landing.

Believe me, I know that it is a struggle to fly above troubles, to hold tight to that string. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. So hold on. Give God time to work. Don’t struggle against the string or fight against the wind. Let the string pull you through the wind, and let both take you higher, above trouble, just as the Kitemaker intended.


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Tending the Garden

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.

— Jeremiah 31:12

For 11 years, the church yard has been my garden. We have a yard service, and many volunteers have chipped in, but I have brought in hundreds of plants, digging up seedlings at the fence line and bringing them into the center garden, tucking orphaned orchids here and there in the trees, rooting philodendron and sending them climbing the oaks, turning bald spots into gardens and weed patches into mulch beds.

This effort has been random. Rather than looking at a spot and asking, “What kind of plant would look good there?” I find interesting plants and ask, “Gee, I wonder where this might grow?” I do like the garden, but the big hurdle to making it great is all those plants. I love each plant, individually. I love their sprouts and their seeds. A plant might not look good in that spot, but if it’s a plant that can’t be transplanted, I just leave it be.

I love each plant, even those that pop up where they don’t belong; that crowd out other plants; that don’t do well; that do too well; the ugly ones; the hard-to-please ones.

It dawned on me this morning that God might have a similar perspective. The garden’s a mess, and the problem is the plants. But God loves each little plant! God loves the pretty ones, the ugly ones, the hard-to-please ones, the over-achievers, the under-achievers …

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be waisting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

— Luke 13:6-9

In Palm Beach Gardens, we have a love/hate relationship with trees. When the church was built, they designed an opening in the overhang to accommodate a great live oak, because that was easier than getting a permit to cut it down. When they expanded the fellowship hall, another huge oak stood in the way, so they had to transplant it. If it died, they would have to plant a couple dozen more trees. So there was a weekly prayer meeting for that tree!

More recently, we were planning park lighting around a huge, expansive live oak. Then a windstorm hit and a huge, soaring branch was blown out of the tree. Church fathers stood on the ready to come in with leather gloves and chainsaws to clear not just that massive branch, but the rest of the tree as well. I called in the city arborist, hoping that he would help me protect that beautiful tree. He noted the disease that made the limb weak, then said that it was up to us. We could cut the tree down if we wished, or we could leave it standing.

So I called in a tree surgeon buddy I know, who filled the hole in the tree with rubble and cement, and trimmed limbs off of other threatened limbs to lighten their load. That was almost 10 years ago, and the tree still stands, surviving hurricanes and sporting a beautiful healing scar that will one day encase the cement.

Jeremiah said that with God’s blessing and mercy, our lives could be like a watered garden. Jesus said that he would work on the fig tree for another year – but eventually, that tree had to bear fruit or make room for something more productive.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

— John 15:1-2

Jesus is a shepherd who loves every sheep. Jesus is a gardener who loves every plant. Sometimes, he tends to the garden. Sometimes, he tends to the plant.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).

— John 20:15-16

The Bible starts with the story of the Garden of Eden. It ends with a restoration of the Garden and the return of the Tree of Life. He is the vine, God is the vinedresser, and we are the branches. Or, God is the owner and Jesus is the gardener. Either way, when Jesus starts digging around to fertilize our lives, or when God starts pruning us to bear more fruit, let it happen. And if you don’t love this garden we’re growing in, remember that God loves each and every plant, the roses and the weeds, and that doesn’t lend itself to an orderly landscape. Lastly, know this: One day, that Garden will be perfect! No one person or plant will crowd another out. Each person or plant will be where they can grow and bear fruit. May our lives become a watered garden that bears fruit. May we all find our place in the restored Garden of Eden.

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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Know the Fruit, Know the Tree

When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was not always talking about heaven or the afterlife. The Kingdom of God is something we should strive for now. He told the people of his day that the Kingdom of God has come to you, has come near to you, has come upon you, is among you and can be taken away from you. It is like a mustard seed, like yeast, He seemed to be talking about something that starts here and now, when we make God king.

Regardless of how we see the Kingdom of God, I think we can agree that it is something we should strive for. God decides who it belongs to, and Jesus told us that God can and will take it away. In Matthew (21:42-44):

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

So there it is. Whatever the Kingdom is, it will be taken away from those who do not produce its fruits, and given to those who do. The early church certainly saw this as the Kingdom being taken away from the Judaism and given to Christianity, but does the Christian church always produce fruits of the Kingdom? If not, it will be taken away. We need to understand what the fruits of the Kingdom are.

Jesus never answers the question directly, but he does talk a lot about fruit, which is clearly a metaphor for good works generated by our faith in Christ. Earlier in Matthew (7:16-20), Jesus says of false prophets, “You will know them by their fruits. … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire.” That might not tell us what the fruits are, but Jesus does go on to tell us what they are not.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me you evildoers.’” (Matt. 7:21-23)

Fruits are not deeds of power. Preaching or prophesy in the name of Jesus is not a fruit per se. Even casting out demons is not fruit. None of this is fruit unless it is the will of God.

I think we fall into that trap. I’m told that I’m a pretty good preacher, but I know that God can make anyone a good preacher. The fruit that Jesus is looking for is not preaching skill, or Bible knowledge, or church success. I do think that these things are in the Kingdom of God on this earth, but they are not its fruits.

The book of John quotes Jesus on fruit. In John 15 Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Stop right there – we can be a branch in Jesus, and yet bear no fruit, and be removed. “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2) Again, we can be a fruitful branch and still be pruned, but only so we will bear more fruit.

Some of you will recognize this as being in Jesus’ priestly prayer for his disciples, and for all believers. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,” he says. John 15:12 says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Is that a fruit? It is a condition of abiding in Jesus’ love, as bearing fruit is a condition of being in the Kingdom of God, so I think it is a fruit. “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”(15:16b)

So, the kingdom of God will be taken away from those who do not love one another and given to a people who do love one another.

We are more familiar with the words of Paul and the fruit of the Spirit. Remember those? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.(Galatians 5:22) Paul contrasts those with the works of the flesh: Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealously, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. “Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21) Now these are fruits, good fruit and bad fruit. So the Kingdom of God will be given to those whose fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

In Ephesians (5:5-9), Paul writes, “For once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” Again with the fruit. Again with abiding in the Lord.

Remember when Jesus said the Kingdom of God belongs to children, and we can’t enter into it unless we become like children? We worry about a lot of lofty and important things. Sometimes it feels like we are fighting for the survival of the church. But if the Kingdom of God belongs to children, and it’s given to those who produce its fruits, then we should look to children to decide what’s most important to God.

Even a child can produce the fruits we’ve found in scripture. Love one another. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If our efforts not generate that fruit, then we’re doing the wrong things. If our efforts lead to idolatry, enmities, strife, jealously, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions, then we’re doing the wrong things. Jesus said you will know the tree by its fruit.

Brothers and sisters, I say this with all sincerity: We must love one another. We must live in peace with one another. We must be patient, kind, generous, gentle and self-controlled. We should be joyous and bring joy to others. These are the fruits that we must produce. If we do not, the Kingdom will be taken away from us and given to those who can produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity and self-control.

In the name of Jesus I pray that I have shared his teachings today. Amen.


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Blowing in the Wind


The police dropped Eric on the doorstep of the church. He immediately set himself to work cleaning Hurricane Irma debris from the yard. He speaks with a slur, thinks out loud in rambling sentences, and suffers lapses in short-term memory. And, of course, he is homeless.

The police officer was matter-of-fact when he dropped Eric off. Eric weathered the storm in a Red Cross shelter and needs to be off the streets before curfew. “These are his knives,” the officer said. “You might want to keep these for him.”

As I type, Eric is using a leaf blower to clear the driveway and sidewalk. He’s a nice guy, very industrious, confused but harmless, courteous and grateful.  If he lived nearby, he’d be a great church member. But homelessness is an overwhelming burden on churches and individuals. Even if I could convince the church to house this one, they would soon be overcome by the cost of all those who follow.

Why did the police so nonchalantly drop him off? We housed 35 people during Hurricane Irma. The police dropped off one homeless person who was being released from the hospital. Of course, we took him in. Another — this one having one leg amputated, another he cannot stand on, and a battered wheelchair that he propels backward with his toeless foot — slept outside the church the next morning, knowing that somebody would eventually find him and help him get back in his wheelchair.

“You have to do something!” Go ahead, scream it. I certainly do. I scream it to hospitals, police officers, church members, homeless assistance agencies and the homeless themselves. It is the height of cruelty that our society would leave the mentally ill and physically helpless on the streets, but guess what, America: That’s what we do!
Here in South Florida, every shelter is full and all affordable housing is taken. Communities pass laws making it illegal to sleep outdoors or to feed the homeless en masse, because doing so attracts more.

I spent hours after the hurricane shuffling these two homeless gentlemen to locations where they perceived they could survive. Then the police dropped off Eric and Bob came begging for money, swearing that his death is imminent and that I am his absolute last hope. And at midnight, the police called me again. I hoped they were taking Eric off my hands, but no such luck: “Are you still housing homeless people?”

What would you do? During the hurricane, We provided housing for a couple of days — though, to be clear, most of my guests were not homeless, just storm-shelter challenged. We accepted two homeless strangers from the local police into that mix. In the past, I have maxed out personal credit cards trying to get people on their feet, only to see the investment frittered away on the complexities of homeless life. I’ve heard a dozen suggestions on what I should do, and I’ve seen a dozen well-meaning volunteers throw up their hands and surrender the assignment. I don’t want suggestions: I want an address of where to drop them off, or the number to call that gets them picked up and taken to the help they need.

I have no idea what Eric is going to do when he finally leaves. I still don’t know what to tell Bob when he comes by. I’m not taking any more suggestions, but I’m completely willing to surrender the assignment. That sounds arrogant, but the point is, I can’t spend more time pursuing another suggestion. Instead, I’m accepting volunteers who will themselves spend that time and pursue that solution.

I know how people can become homeless because I’m usually just a few paychecks away from the streets myself. Most of us are. I have seen church members evicted from substandard housing and spending a fortune on hotels or staying with relatives and friends, spending many months looking for more substandard housing to start the cycle all over again.

Land of the free. Home of the brave. We ignore homeless dignity and crush homeless pride, and they’ll know we are christians by our cross, by our cross! Yes, they’ll know we are christians by our cross!

I can here people saying “Aw, that’s so sad!” “Who is this guy to guilt us like this?” “But doesn’t he know about Lewis Center? The Salvation Army? Children & Family services?” A day on the telephone does not solve the problem, no matter who you call. I dread seeing the homeless. I loathe the prospect of spending the day walking them though basic services or nagging them for being uncooperative. They have used me up — my patience, my money, my good graces with the church. The best I can do is to treat them with dignity, offer such food as I can find in the kitchen, let them use the shower and ignore them when I find them sleeping in the church yard.

What do you think? Greatest nation in the world? You bet! Land of opportunity! Grab those bootstraps, work hard, and pull yourself out of the gutter and off the streets.
Greatest religion in the world? You bet! Love your neighbor, welcome the stranger, lend to those who ask of you, defend the poor.

Is this a Christian Nation? You bet! More churches and Bibles than any nation in the world! Great health care facilities, and no one is turned away — though they are absolutely dumped to the curb when the crisis has ended.

I don’t want this ministry! I don’t want to be the only church in town who gives a tinker’s dam about people on the streets! I don’t want to spend so much on so few for so little return! Feel free to take this cup from me, to take over the homeless ministries at Tropical Sands Christian Church! You can’t use all the rooms, or spend all the money, or neglect other assignments, but if you deal with homelessness, I’ll deal with addiction and spiritual growth. Please, show me how it’s done! Because there are far too many homeless — and they do not want to be homeless! — and far too few resources addressing the problem — even in this Christian Nation.

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Blatantly Christian, Honestly Human

On Friday, the authorities found the body of a friend’s little brother who had been missing for three weeks. His death was caused by Xanax, methadone and fentanyl patches, all acquired by prescription, but for abusive purposes. He was 47 years old, a nice guy, they say.

I just got off the phone with a young mother looking for an NA meeting for her 18-year-old son, who just completed treatment. She’s looking harder for meetings than he is. We could shrug and say, “Well, when he’s ready to quit, he’ll go to meetings on his own.” Meanwhile, his risk of death by fentanyl or carfentanyl overdose is very, very high.

We already host AA and Al Anon meetings, and we address all addictions and compusive behaviors at our Tuesday Recovery service. I’m thinking we need to host more NA meetings.

I’ve recently started wearing a clergy collar. I wear it to court, and I wear it at essentially every service, including our recovery service. I confess to people with messy lives that mine has been messy, too. If I can recover and become a servant of God, so can they. I also want them to know that they are forgiven and accepted by me, by my church and by the church at large. Hopefully, they will see that God accepts them, too. Everyone needs a pastor.

Malcolm Boyd was an Episcopal priest, peace activist and social radical for more than 60 years. In the late 60’s, as I tried to reconcile my rebellious views with my Christian faith, I was held to the church and the faith by two of Boyd’s books, “Malcolm Boyd’s Book of Days” and “Are You Running With Me, Jesus? The Prayers of Malcolm Boyd.” I was shocked that anyone could be so blatantly Christian and honestly human. He did this, in my eyes, by dressing for the pulpit, speaking for the streets, and writing from the heart.

Boyd could talk poverty and addiction in one breath, as if the latter required the former. That isn’t true today. People with potentially ordinary lives of middle class success are tripping over death in their addictions and compulsive behaviors. Addiction has seeped into our ivory towers. No generation, race, class or religion is immune from the opioid epidemic.

It is time for us to become blatantly Christian and honestly human. It is time for us to open church doors and Christian hearts to the life-or-death struggle going on all around us. Peter said of Christians, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9) Christ has called us out of darkness into his wonderful light, but he also calls us to reach INTO the darkness and bring OTHERS into the light.

Has addiction touched your family? Your very life? First, save yourself and your loved ones. Get help, and a support group. Then, use the darkness of your own life to light a path for others.

If your church is looking for a ministry, you’ll find it on the front page and in the obituary section of the morning newspaper. Do you have what it takes to address the issue? That depends. If you have a circle of chairs, a quiet room, a few parking spaces and anyone who has stepped from darkness into that wonderful light, then yes, you do. Get busy. Lives are at stake.

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