Isaiah 53:2-5, Matthew 5:43-48, and 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
December 9, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup
There’s a story that was in the news a week or so ago about a New York policeman who offered boots to a man who was elderly, barefoot, and homeless. The policeman, officer Larry DePrimos, bought the shoes with his own money and helped to place the socks and shoes on this man’s feet. A tourist captured it in a photograph and posted it online. The picture went viral and was seen by more than 400,000 people. When questioned about it, the policeman said that he knew he had to help and so he did.
The initial response was overwhelmingly positive. People saying that this action restored their faith in the NYPD and their faith in humanity. People asking, “why don’t I do that?”
Then, a few days later, the story changed. The man, Jeffrey Hillman, was seen out on the streets without shoes once again. He said he hid them because they were “worth a lot of money.” Suddenly investigations were launched about this man and it was discovered that he was “not technically homeless but has an apartment in the Bronx secured through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that he has turned down offers to help from both social service and family. The New York Post reported that Hillman has a history of run-ins with the law for drugs, harassment, theft and more.” Some say that his erratic behavior is indicative of mental illness, but he has received no treatment.
This story has become more than a simple good deed. In many people’s eyes, this act of generosity has become sullied by the complexity of the story of the man who received it. This is not a simple story.
The question remains, “is helping someone still worth it?”
In our passage in Matthew today we heard, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.“ Hear that Jesus is not saying, “give to those who need it,” or “check someone’s credit history and criminal record before you help them.” Jesus is calling us to love, calling us to respond. He preaches a message of love independent of reaction, of faithfulness independent of result.
Arnold Cohen, President of the Partnership for the Homeless in New York City says, “We should be asking why there are so many people on the streets. And why a rich city… is so ill equipped to deal with the complexity of homelessness — because it is very complex.”
It is tempting to think that Jesus’ message doesn’t apply to us because we live in such a complex world. But to do so would be to disregard the reality of the first century world. This was the time of the Roman Empire. There was oppression, persecution, and financial disparity. Many were illiterate and disenfranchised. All except those at the very top were vulnerable socially and economically. It was indeed a time of complexity, when good deeds could be confused and charity could be seen as gullibility. This was not a simple world.
Both the photographer and the officer described the homeless man’s reaction as lighting up like it was Christmas morning. They delighted in this man’s delight. The moment was deemed worthy of capturing, worthy of doing. But when the story changes, is the feeling still the same? Is the action still reasonable? I believe in my heart of hearts, that “no act of love is ever wasted,” that God’s love is shown through our love. Since God loves with an unconditional love, we are called to love in the same way.
We affirm in scripture and in our creeds as a Church that Jesus Christ, God’s own self, came to this earth and in the most extreme act of love, lived a sinless life, yet died for our sins. We were not and are not worthy of such a gift. There is nothing we can even do to fully earn such an enormous love. But that’s the beauty of grace, it’s a free gift of love, of forgiveness, of redemption.
Our Old Testament passage today speaks of how loving us so fiercely, altered and ended Jesus’ human life here on earth:
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”
How can we even begin to respond to such a gift? We can love. Simply love.
1 John 3:16-18 says, “We know love by this, that [Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
This is not a love that comes naturally. It takes work to love when that love is not returned. It hurts to turn our cheek. Giving our coat to someone may leave us cold. Giving shoes to a man who remains barefoot is a hard thing to watch. But still, we are called to love.
Paul in 1 Thessalonians urges, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” This is the calling to which we are called. When we enact Jesus’ kind of unconditional love we are allowing God’s presence to become manifest in our midst. We are welcoming God as Emmanuel, God-with-us.
We are standing at the Advent of God’s presence in the world once again: A birth of One, fully God and fully human, inaugurated at Christmastime. We are also standing at the Advent of the possibility of God’s Kingdom lived out here on earth: God’s love through our love, God’s care through our care. God promised never to leave us or forsake us. God forever desires to be in relationship with us. God is always, God-with-us, Emmanuel. May we remember that promise this Advent season and every day. Amen.
 “No Act of Love is Ever Wasted,” is also the name of an excellent book by Richard L. Morgan on “The Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia.”