Once upon a time, a Methodist pastor tried something outside of the regular and normal and expected. This is Rev. Willie Lyle. Since June of 2013, he has served the Songo United Methodist Church in Clarksville, TN. Before his first sermon at Songo, he tried an experiment. He lived on the streets for 5 nights. He got a small taste of the experiences of people without permanent housing and people who can simply not make ends meet on a regular basis. And he got a taste of how folks in those situations in life are treated by those who are more fortunate. It was not pretty. It was downright uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable because the ground was hard, the food was never assured, and he was at the mercy of the weather. He was not immediately trusted by others on the street. But a few people began to share information and resources with him, showing him the good soup kitchens and the safe places to sleep. It was also uncomfortable to experience first-hand the embarrassing truth that generally, people are not kind to neighbors who are homeless or down on their luck or constantly struggling to make ends meet. The “have nots” are too often simply ignored by the “haves” in this country, with the “haves” refusing to engage the “have nots” at all–averting their eyes, crossing the street to avoid an encounter, almost pretending not to see them. Lyle says that was uncomfortable.
With a five day old beard, and the smell of someone who had not had a shower in the same amount of time, Lyle covered up with a big coat and lay under a tree outside of the church on his first Sunday with this congregation. I don’t know how many passed him by, but he reports that at least 20 people stopped to offer some kind of assistance, trying to see if they could help. To do so, they had to interrupt whatever they were doing, make eye contact and communicate an interest in him as a human being. Perhaps they were genuinely concerned about his welfare. Or maybe they were just trying to remove him from the front yard so he would not deter visitors or families with children from walking into church. Rev. Lyle doesn’t say. His sermon that day focused on his experiences during the week and challenged his new congregation to live as disciples by doing, not just talking. By being willing to be uncomfortable, to get their hands dirty, to be a part of the solution in their own community.
Lyle’s eyes were opened to a very different reality from the reality he lived on a regular basis. He was at eye level with homeless persons, or persons with mental illness, or persons with no real family support. He walked the same route looking for a safe place to sleep. He sat beside them in the soup kitchen. He was at eye level and he saw the absence of hope in some faces, he saw the crying need for healing of body and soul, for a connection with Christ.
Once upon a time, a man crippled all of his life lived on the margins. He had to depend on others to take him to the gate nearest the temple to panhandle. So if his friends were busy, he was out of luck. He had very little control over his life. All day long he was at ground level, looking at feet walking in and out of the place to worship, the place where pious people came to connect with God. Not only physically was he below him, but socially he was beneath them, not really worth a glance. He knew it and they knew it. His self image hung in the dust he sat in. His ability to make eye contact, to connect in any meaningful way with his neighbors was limited. It would have been easy for worshippers to ignore him, to step around him, to pretend he was not even there. Surely, occasionally someone would throw him a coin, but I am pretty sure that most people were not very kind. I doubt it was a very lucrative existence. Based on his life experiences, he had no reason to hope that things would change for the better. No reason to expect anything different from life.
Until he made eye contact with men who knew Jesus and Jesus’ power. Until disciples of Jesus stopped on their way into church and really looked at him, even stared intently at him. And asked him to look at them, to connect with them, eye to eye. No one ever did that! He expected a hand out, but instead he received a hand up. He was raised to his feet. The same word is used to describe God raising Jesus. Raised from death to new life. Being raised up is transformative no matter who you are. The man who could not walk goes from depending on others to carry him to his panhandling spot every day to walking and jumping and praising God for his new lease on life. He spent his days outside the temple, on the fringes of the life of the faithful and he now enters the temple with the disciples, praising God. Peter is clear that this transformation is due to the power of the name of Jesus, not to his or John’s power or piety. Jesus brings transformation. Jesus, not Peter, creates a “new once upon a time”, as Rev. Mitzi Smith from Ashland Seminary in Detroit describes it. The life-story starts over for this crippled man.
Then the crowd is staring, fixing their eyes on Peter and John, marveling at what they have just seen. They never expected to see him standing at eye level. They never expected to see him jump or walk. They never expected to see this man inside the temple. Their eyes are opened to a transforming power that is beyond this world, the power of the name of Jesus, the author of life. Transformation seems to be happening on multiple levels. And isn’t that how it works? One condition, one life, one change has a ripple effect, impacting others, touching lives, creating new once upon a times. Jesus is at work here. Peter and John use the event as a way to testify to this name, the name of Jesus, the one who suffered and died as a part of God’s plan for salvation.
What made them stop that day? What called them to make eye contact and transform a life? They carried the power of Jesus with them. They passed it on to one man who needed it bad. They believed in the name. Their faith in that name made them stop and look hard at their neighbor. Their faith in that name makes the power of Jesus visible to a crowd of people.
A disciple carries the name of Jesus with us everywhere we go. You don’t have to travel very far outside of these church doors to run into a person in need either on a street corner, sitting on a bench, or even panhandling in our parking lot. If you stop and look the person in the eyes, you chose not to ignore the need and then have to make a judgement call– is this really a person in need? Is there something crippling him, keeping him from controlling his own life in some way, making him dependent on the generosity of others to survive? Is it mental illness? Conflict in his family? Substance abuse? A criminal record? Is the story bogus or is it true?
You who carry the name of Jesus with you, what does it cost you to make eye contact? It can cost you time. Maybe you are in a hurry, and if you stop to give your attention to a neighbor, to listen to her story, you will be late. It can cost you money, if that eye contact, that human connection moves you to share what you have. When the woman looked in my eye on the corner by University of Maryland hospital and directly asked for money for something to eat, I looked back at her. Then I was caught. How could I ignore her? I did have time to walk with her to McDonald’s, to talk with her a bit in line, and to buy her some items on the dollar menu. It is the eye contact which opens us up to the situation of a neighbor crippled by the circumstances of life.
Some cultures interpret making eye contact as too bold, too flirtatious, even as an affront. I read a story about a student from Japan who had grown up being taught not to stare too long at anyone. It was thought to be rude. She was in school in the United States and could not figure out why the teacher got so irritated at her for not looking at her when she was talking to her. Seems like neither one understood the other’s perspective on eye contact.
In our country, catching someone’s eye shows you value them as a human being, it connects you with them even if just for a split second as you pass one another on the street. And you know something else? It is hard to give someone a smile without making eye contact. Without looking eye to eye, a smile means something else, and is not meant for the person.
Carry the name of Jesus. Take a good look at the people Jesus places in your path. It is not only about giving money, but about acknowledging value, dignity and a shared human experience with another person. I imagine a lot of people would agree with this guy. Looking eye to eye is worth a lot. A smile is worth a lot. In some cases, it might be the beginning of a new once upon a time for someone. Amen.