God can be funny sometimes. In an inconvenient and mildly irritating way.
During a sermon writing break on Saturday, I took the dog for a walk. As I was nearing home—only about a block or two away—I saw a strange thing, at least for small town southern Alberta. A shopping cart full of miscellaneous items—bottles, clothes, a sleeping bag, etc.—covered in tarp sitting in the middle of a snowy sidewalk. As I was passing by, I looked down the lane and saw a man sitting under a blanket against a building. The weather was, well, arctic.
I’m not proud to admit this, but I walked on by. An excellent Levite, I am.
But before I even made it to my back door, the words of Jesus that I had just been writing a sermon on crashed rather inconveniently into my brain. You see, I was preaching on—of all things!—the Beatitudes.
Blessed are the poor in spirit… theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I squirmed a little.
Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.
I squirmed a little more.
I opened a book that I had been reading by Czech theologian Tomáš Halík about the love of God and read these words:
Jesus fundamentally links love of God with love for one’s neighbor. And in so doing, he “grounds” it, rooting it deeply in the everyday reality of life. Should we be too tempted to be carried away by the romantic sentimentality of “celestial love,” there is always a neighbor just outside our door….
I stopped squirming and decided that I had better get up and do something before Jesus ran out of patience with me. I made a pot of coffee and put it in a travel mug, threw some food in a bag, put my boots and gloves back on and trudged back out into the snow. He was still there. I greeted him and asked if it was ok if I joined him. He smiled and nodded.
I asked him what his name was. “Denis,” he said. His smile was broad and toothy. His beard was impressive and his hair was long and stringy. He was holding a bottle and smelled like cheap booze. I asked him if he was cold. He grinned and said, “not really” in a heavy French accent. He was from Quebec, had bounced around across the prairies to Vancouver and back. He liked the prairies the best, he said. I shivered and wondered how that was possible. I gave Denis the food and coffee and bid him farewell. I had important things to do, after all. I had a sermon to write.
I preached my sermon yesterday. I even worked Denis’ story into it. Not too difficult, obviously. A sermon about the outsiders, the looked down on, the ignored and forgotten and rejected—Denis was almost a living, breathing Beatitude, for crying out loud. At the end of the story in my sermon, I said, “Maybe Denis will cross my path again. I hope so.” Did I really hope so? Or was it the kind of thing that I figured someone in my position ought to hope. Or say, at any rate.
This morning I took my dog for another walk. I walked a block away from house and there was Denis. Of course. I could almost hear God chuckling. Be careful what you say you hope for. I sighed. Didn’t Denis (or God) realize it was my day off?! I thought back to another line from the Halík book. This one came—I’m not joking—immediately after the one that had prodded me out the door a few days prior:
Sometimes the neighbor stands or lies there in a very inconvenient way…
I walked over to where Denis was sitting on the steps of a church. “Hey Denis, how’s it going?” He smiled, “Good! It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” I noticed that Denis had gotten an early start on the day’s drinking. “Well, it’s a little cold, no?” I said. “Ah, this is no problem!” Denis looked and smelled pretty drunk. He clearly didn’t remember who I was. I asked him if he was hungry. He looked a little sheepish. “No, I’m ok.” I looked at him and raised my eyebrows. “Well, I guess I could eat.”
I walked back home and threw some food in a bag. A stack of homemade chocolate chip cookies, a couple bananas, a few pepperoni sticks. I looked at the kitchen counter. Over by the toaster sat a loaf of homemade sourdough bread that had been sitting on my office desk after church yesterday (yup, the people in my church are awesome). I threw it in the bag. Denis had, after all, said that he “could eat.” I was pretty confident that the person who had made the bread for me would have approved of its ultimate destination. I rummaged around in the closet; found a pair of winter boots and a winter coat that my teenage son had outgrown in roughly a third of a winter. I threw those in, too.
I drove back to Denis. He was still there, sitting on the church steps, grinning away. “So, I got you some lunch,” I said, “and I found these boots… You want them?” His face lit up. “Oh yeah, man. That would be great. I’m pretty warm, but these shoes… I looked down at his cheap runners and shuddered at how cold Denis’ feet must be in this weather. I offered him the coat but he declined. “I don’t need the coat… I have lots of those.” I looked in his cart and saw an enormous fur coat that looked like it had come straight out of Siberia. Denis was proud of that one. He pointed to a bunch of other ones in his shopping cart. Sometimes he used them to barter with “the natives” for cigarettes, he said. His sly grin broke out into a kind of hacking rasping laugh. Poor Denis probably wouldn’t pass many tests for using politically correct terminology. But he was keeping the Russian fur coat. Obviously.
We sat on the church steps and talked for a while. He told me about picking berries in the Okanagan, about his family in Quebec, about how he knew a bit of Spanish. He told me which beer was the cheapest and about how sometimes it’s too cold to even drink beer. We shook hands and said goodbye. I told him I hoped I would see him around. Knowing God and having experienced his sense of humour over the past few days, I didn’t say those words as lightly as I otherwise might have. A natural Levite, I might be, but God graciously, if slightly impatiently, keeps prodding me towards Samaritan-hood.
“God bless you, Denis” I said before leaving. He looked at me and grinned. I could tell he wasn’t so sure about that. I wonder what he would have said if I had told him that his was the kingdom of heaven. He probably would have just said thanks for the boots and the bread.