Two years after we moved to Ohio to start a new church we faced our first major obstacle: we had outgrown the school we were renting for Sunday church services. Eventually we located another place to meet, a large space in a shopping center, but the city zoning officials wanted us to make outrageously expensive improvements to the building that we didn’t have the money to pay for. In an effort to get the township to drop some of these requirements, I asked the township zoning officer to join me for lunch.
As I waited for my appointment, both the zoning manager and a man named Larry, a homeless man who had visited our church the previous Sunday, showed up at the same time. The zoning officer asked, “Ready to go to lunch?” to which Larry smiled and said, “Lunch?” The zoning officer asked, “Pastor, is your parishioner joining us?” No sooner had I let out the word “Uhhhh…” Larry blurted out, “I’d love to go.”
Larry wasn’t exactly the kind of guy you wanted to go with you to broker a deal. He hadn’t showered in at least a week. His hair was greasy, he was missing quite a few teeth, and he wore a dark blue hand-me-down blazer with torn blue jeans and mismatched high-top basketball shoes. Lying neatly on each side of Larry shoulders were piles of dandruff that looked like coconut shavings.
When we sat down at our table Larry took his right hand and brushed all of the dandruff off his shoulders and onto our menus. I thought, “I can’t believe this is happening.” I was dying inside the entire meal. I remember praying, “Jesus, make this guy go to the bathroom so I can tell the zoning officer he’s not a member of our church!” Periodically Larry would lean over and put his finger in my food and say, “You gonna eat that?” “No, Larry,” I would say, “You can have it.” Somehow we eventually we got down to business.
As the zoning officer and I discussed our church’s dilemma Larry sat quietly and nodded his head as he slurped his soup. After listening to my impassioned plea to eliminate some of the township’s financial constraints, Larry put his spoon down on his plate. I could see the wheels turning in his head. I silently prayed, “Dear God, don’t let him say anything.” No such luck.
Larry looked across the table, put his arm around me and said, “Jim, can I call you Jim? Do you see Pastor Brian here? Pastor Brian here is the best %$#@ Pastor I’ve ever seen! Have you heard this guy preach? Man can he preach! Well, here’s the deal Jim. You need to listen real close. Our church needs a building, so I’d suggest you make this little deal happen. You know what I’m talking about Jim?” Then Larry looked over at me, nodded his head and winked as if to say, “That should take care of it.”
I thought, “We’re dead.”
I was fuming. When we got back to the church office I pulled Jim to the side and tried to do damage control. I explained that our church members were hip young professionals and that Larry was a recent homeless visitor, but I could tell by his terse words the damage was already done. I shook his hand, said goodbye, walked right past Larry and said, “Thanks a lot.”
That afternoon as I began writing my sermon, I felt a large void inside me as if God was saying, “Are you a fool? What’s more important, a person or a building?”
I felt a mixture of emotions—guilt, embarrassment, anger, and confusion—so much so that I couldn’t concentrate any longer. I walked out of my office and called it a day. On the way home I looked at the expensive homes passing by on my right and left and I thought of Larry, who at that moment was probably riding the public bus back downtown.
Jesus said in Matthew 25:40, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Do we really believe that?
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