1 Kings 19:4-8
Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
John 6:35, 41-51
In early July, Betsy and I drove to our condo in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. One day mid-week, we spent some time in the ocean and then went to the swimming pool. The only other people at the pool were two young men. Small talk revealed that one of them, like Betsy, was from Michigan, and we talked about his decision to move South. After a while, I went back to our unit, showered and changed, and, as Betsy and I had earlier agreed, placed a carry out order from the local Thai place. Betsy then returned to the unit. “I think they’re homeless,” she said. “You mean they aren’t renting from one of the owners?” “No,” she said, “I think they snuck in to the pool area or maybe talked someone into letting them in.”
The pool is for owners and guests only. So, it seemed, they were trespassers. I think that what I was supposed to do was ask them to leave. Now this is what I did, after clearing it with Betsy: I went to the pool and said, “Hey, I just ordered take-out Thai food. Want to join us for dinner?” Neither of them had ever had Thai food or was sure what it was, but, yes, they would be happy to join us. The younger of the two, Steven, went with me to the restaurant. He was 23. After leaving Michigan, he said he lived with a girlfriend for a while in Richmond. When that ended, he hitchhiked to North Myrtle Beach, and got part time work at the Scotchman, a convenience store attached to the Exxon station.
When we returned, we got the other young man, Jay, 31, from the pool and went to our unit to eat. Mind you, I had ordered food for two people. But four of us ate, and we still had leftovers. During dinner, Jay told of leaving Kentucky after a fire that started in one of the other units of his building destroyed most of his possessions. He took what little he had left and began driving south. HIs car broke down in Tennessee. Having no money for repairs, he abandoned it on the roadside, and hitchhiked ending up in North Myrtle Beach. He tried to get work at Rose’s, a local store like a K-mart. They were hiring but not without a social security card, which he no longer had, at least not with him. The SSA office was too far away for him to walk. “Could you drive me there tomorrow?” he asked. I said yes. Steven wrote down an address where they could be found, and they left.
The address was in a trailer park behind the Scotchman. I picked up Jay and took him to the Social Security office. Based upon his Kentucky ID, the agent agreed to have a new card mailed to him and gave him a letter on SSA letterhead that he said should suffice for employment in the meantime. Driving there, I learned that the trailer where they were staying had had a fire, and now had neither running water nor electricity. That’s why the owner was letting Steven and Jay crash there for free. On the drive back, Jay said, “To work at Rose’s, I’m going to need long pants and a collared shirt, which I don’t have. Could you give me a little money to buy them?” I did.
That evening, Jay came by to tell us that he had an interview the next day at Rose’s, and that someone Steven knew from the Scotchman was going to give them a little money if they would help him move. And the people in the trailer next door were willing to run an extension cord over to their trailer so that they could plug a few things in. But the neighbors wanted $30 to do that. “Could you give us that?” I did.
The next day I got a call from Jay around noon. Helping Steven’s acquaintance move had gone awry. Steven got in a disagreement with someone and left leaving Jay behind. The people who Jay had just helped move not only paid him nothing but would not give him a ride back. He tried walking back, but it was too far, and he ended up sleeping overnight in the lobby of the Best Western on Highway 17. He had no energy to walk the rest of the way home. “Could you pick me up at the Wendy’s across from the Walmart?” I did. “What about that interview at Rose’s?” I asked. “I missed it. It was at 11. I called to try to reschedule but they wouldn’t. I’m going to go there in person and try again.”
Another call came later that afternoon. “They wouldn’t give me another chance. And now the trailer owner is going to start his repairs and said we have to leave. I think I should just go back to Kentucky. I know this is a lot to ask, but could you buy me a bus ticket back?” I found a bus leaving from a town an hour and a half south at 12:45 the next day and agreed to take him there and buy the ticket.
Nine o’clock that evening, Jay knocked at our door. “One of my cousins came, and he’s going to drive me back to Kentucky, so I don’t need to take the bus after all! But you know that money you were going to spend on the ticket? Could I have some of that to help pay for gas?” I gave him some, and that was the last time I saw him.
I tell this story not to boast of my generosity nor to confess how much of a chump I might be. I tell it because I don’t want anyone to miss out on something wonderful.
How much of what I was told was a lie? Was I duped? I do not know, but I also do not think that’s all that important. The need was real even if parts of the story were not.
One question this story raises for me is “How do we regard our neighbors?” Not the ones we know, and about whom we may have formed opinions based upon what they have said and done. No, the anonymous strangers about whom we have very little actual information. What’s our default position? Do we see them as persons against whom we need to protect ourselves lest they take advantage of us or harm us in some way? Or do we see them by default as people in it together with us who present not so much a threat as an opportunity through or with whom we can maybe help make this world a better place?
In the reading we heard this morning from Ephesians, Paul takes a pretty clear position on that choice. “[W]e are members of one another,” he says. The posture he calls for is not defensive but mutually supportive. What comes from our mouths, he says, should be “only what is useful for building up.” Be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving, he says. We are in this together and need to help one another where help is needed. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the reason Paul says that thieves must stop stealing and work honestly with their own hands is not for the virtue of it, but instead so that “they will have something to share with the needy.” Everyone is called to do their part. We’re in this together.
Paul does not pretend that people in a community are blameless and will never do anything that will make us angry. Of course they will. “Be angry,” he says, but “do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
Above all, Paul tells us to “be imitators of God.” Many of the lectionary readings this month highlight one particular dimension of God’s nature that we can imitate, and that is to be feeding and nurturing. The readings in the lectionary this month include the story of God sending manna to the Israelites in the wilderness, the story of God providing food for Elijah to carry on as he fled Jezebel’s wrath, and a verse from Proverbs in which Wisdom, personified, says “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”
Meanwhile, in the Gospel readings we hear of the feeding of the 5,000, and how the people who remained after that feeding go to seek out Jesus hoping to get more food. Jesus instead switches the focus to the spiritual, telling them that he is the bread of life, starting a three week focus on that concept of which we are now in week two. In this cycle, we hear some verses repeated in successive weeks, including, from last week and again this week, “Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” A lesson worth repeating indeed.
If, as Paul says, we are to be imitators of God, then we are called to feed and nurture those in need around us. Although not in this week’s readings, that is what Jesus asked of Peter in John Chapter 21, telling him that if he loves Him, he will; “Feed my lambs” and “Feed my sheep.”
But this should not be seen as burden but as opportunity, for when we do this, we are fed in return. We get the bread of life. We are fed spiritual food in the Eucharist to better equip us to build up the body of Christ, not to put up walls defending ourselves against it. Christ has promised that when we come to him this way, living sacrificially as he did, we will be satisfied. As we heard, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” he says.
This way of being is not without its risks. But I prefer to take the risk that I might be taken advantage of instead of the risk that I may send away empty someone God sent my way for help. The risk that people like Steven and Jay may have duped me and may even boast to their friends about it is to me a fair price to pay for the chance that I may have modelled behaviors that they may someday be moved to imitate if they find themselves in a position to do so.
Yes, there are many unknowns about our encounter with Steven and Jay. Did Steven really even have a job at the Scotchman? Would its owners really trust someone that shiftless with their cash register? Was any of the money I gave really used for the purposes for which it was given? Did Jay’s cousin really appear, and, if so, did he get Jay back to Lexington?
I will never know the answers to those questions. Never. But this I know: Dinner with Steven and Jay was the highlight of my vacation. And, although 48 hours later I found myself with less cash than I started with, in terms of a currency that I think matters more, I count myself richer for having met them.